Massive catastrophes such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan not only remind the world of (a) the fragility of life, (b) the commonality of human lives and (c) the contingency of all life, but also render as insignificant luxuries many of the preoccupations that drive our energies. (They might also provide an attentiveness smokescreen behind which the unscrupulous will increase their violence while the world and its media are distracted – think ‘Gaddafi‘.)

Apparently, something significant is happening in the world this week as a handful of clergy and a few hundred lay people leave the Church of England and head for pseudo-Rome (otherwise known as the Ordinariate). Well, God bless them in their journey – as, presumably, he does those coming the other way. I read that 14 RC clergy have crossed the Tiber in the opposite direction, but that sounds odd – possibly because we don’t count the numbers coming our way. I can immediately think of half a dozen Anglican priests who were once Roman Catholic priests – in this one diocese – and countless other clergy who were once RC lay people. Spread that across the country and the picture looks interesting.

Interesting, maybe, but also irrelevant to most of the world. (Do the numbers really tell us anything at all? I don’t think so.) I have yet to read or hear anything about the Ordinariate that had anything to do with the big wide world; it seems that all the talk and all the preoccupation is with seeking a ‘pure’ church in which to do purely churchy things. I respect the conscience of those who have embarked on this journey (and those who are still struggling with the decision) and I pray that they will find in Rome a spiritual home. But, I also pray that they will be driven out of the churchy preoccupations and back into the world itself. It seems from the Bible that God sent his Son into the world for the sake of the world, not into the church for the sake of its purity. Isn’t that precisely the problem in the Gospels between those who got the point of it all and those who had to fit God and his ways into the systems their faith shaped for them?

In the meantime, we in the Church of England will just carry on our often flawed attempts to live out the Gospel, to be what was fulfilled in Jesus but was always the vocation of God’s people: to give and live our lives for the sake of the world and not for the sake of our own purity, power or security (however defined). As we pray for those going to Rome, I assume they will be praying for us in our faithful obedience to God’s call.

But, to go back a step, all of this is frippery in the context of the world’s needs. It is luxury. It seems to me today that these ‘conscience’ matters are a privilege for those whose lives are reasonably secure. And they don’t address the hard questions about God and human suffering in a contingent world. Which is of more concern to most people than how much lace the clergy wear in church.

Contrary to some Christian sentimentalism, the key feature of Christian doctine is that God opts INTO this contingent world and does not exempt himself from it. The earth is a living, moving, changing planet which would cease to exist if any of these characteristics stopped applying. Life depends on the movement and this movement must necessarily bring unpredictability, mutation, cataclysm and eruption. Which is why cancer and disaster and suffering are part of the deal of being human on this particular planet. It cannot be otherwise.

So, why do people assume God is absent when tragedy – either global or individual – strikes and strips away our securities? Why does ‘God’ depend on everything going right for us – as if he were a puppet bound to intervene whenever there is a threat to our happiness? And why do some Christian theologies collude with this (possibly narcissistic?) nonsense?

Without writing a book on the matter (which is probably what it requires), it seems that we need to toughen up a bit and be a little less prissy or precious about our individual comfort. I have no right to be spared cancer or hurricane.

In what has been called ‘the scandal of particularity’, God opts in to the world at a particular time and in a particular place and thereby suggests that faith can never be real if it takes us out of time and space and place. Faith cannot be a form of escapism or fantasy – as if we can invoke God to ‘make everything better’ for us. Rather, genuine Christian faith plunges us back into the world and all it can throw at us – without any hope of or desire for exemption. Christian hope is not derived from a fantasy of personal happiness or security, but rooted in the person of a God who doesn’t spare himself and drives the people who bear his name (and have been grasped by him) away from their own securities and into places of vulnerability. We are not called into the light, but to shed light in the dark places: the distinction matters.

There may be good reasons (and I use the word ‘reasons’ advisably) why communities shouldn’t live on tectonic faultlines or flood plains. But, they do and they suffer the consequences of doing so. The imperative for the rest of us is to get stuck in to helping those devastated communities to hear the faint echo of a melody that (a) puts flesh and blood onto the ‘idea’ of a common humanity (using all our human ingenuity to do so) and (b) whispers of promise that the violence does not have the last word.

I care about the fate of Liverpool Football Club, I love my music and books, I thrive on diversity of culture, I dread saying ‘farewell’ to the Croydon Episcopal Area and the Diocese of Southwark this very evening – but these all need to be kept in a broader perspective… one that recognises that Christian hope is rooted not in a desired set of circumstances, but in the person of God who has been here, seen it all and now has to see it all caricatured on a t-shirt.

Following last week’s spat about the Church of England Newspaper’s misleading front-page story about bishops working costs, I have been thinking hard about accountability issues – both for bishops and journalists. My contention that ‘the story’ is king - regardless of the facts – has been questioned, and the questions have to be faced. I was interested, therefore, to read Paul Vallely’s excellent article in today’s Independent on Sunday: ‘Sexed-up contrariness is not journalism’. He makes the point more eloquently than I can – maybe because he is a journalist.

However, this touches a wider issue: whether the stories that dominate our mental wallpaper are the right ones – or even the real ones.

For example, a great deal of noise went up a couple of weeks ago when  Folkestone parish announced it was to explore going into the Ordinariate set up by the Pope for Anglicans wanting to go to Rome without actually crossing the Tiber. The reality turned out to be a church with a congregation of between 30-40 (which equals two housegroups in some of our parishes), many of whom had not been consulted – and neither the vicar nor the PCC had any idea of how many might actually want to leave. In other words, not a great story, really.

It is rumoured that a couple of bishops are planning to resign and enter the Ordinariate in due course. You hardly have to be a soothsayer to work out who they might be. I won’t comment on this until we have facts on the ground (as it were), but you can bet your life it will be held up as yet another story of Anglican conflict and church decline – when, in fact, it offers the first whiff of clarity for men of integrity (and those whom they have served) who will be happier in the Church they probably should have been in anyway. They have made hard decisions and, at last, have some clarity for their future. However, if the Church of England is no longer a ‘real’ church, then it hasn’t been up till now anyway; Rome has not just now decided not to recognise Anglican orders. So, this is a good story of resolution. But, I bet it won’t be represented as such.

The point of this is that the ‘news’ is inevitably dominated by those stories deemed to be the most ‘important’. But, are they? This week we have the Ordinariate and the bishops, the Anglican Covenant, the resignation of Gene Robinson… and they are just three for starters. But, they do not represent the totality of the life, concerns or normal business of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion. The Church in Zimbabwe probably won’t be discussing gay bishops or who might enter the Ordinariate: they are more preoccupied with questions of AIDS, nutrition, education, politics and the rule of law in their lovely country – and how to end persecution of the Church by the lawless Mugabe. And here in England on Sunday 7 November 2010 most Anglicans will be worshipping God, serving their local community and living out what it means to be church… regardless of all the ‘noise’ going on around them.

This morning I had a reality check. The village of Oxted has an ancient church which enjoys traditional worship. The large group of highly-motivated and committed young families have, with the support of the clergy, set up a monthly Cafe Church event in the Community Hall. It was packed with all ages, some of whom had been to the traditional Eucharist in the old church beforehand. Several (more elderly) people told me they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the form of Cafe Church, but that they wanted to support it as it was reaching people not reached by the traditional forms. Now, how mature is that? Wonderful.

The service involved a superb band, was organised and led by a group of highly-motivated and creative lay people, showed liturgical integrity and direction, and included all ages at all stages. It was simple and accessible, involved noise and quiet. I loved it. Here was the Church of England at its best: (a) creating the space in which people’s gifts and enthusiasms can be given free rein; (b) supporting a menu of liturgical cultures (vocabularies?) for different sorts of people; (c) rejecting an ‘either-or’ and going for a ‘both-and’ approach to the mission of the church in the parish. Not surprisingly, it is a source of growth.

But, it won’t get into the papers.

While other storms blow around the media cosmos, the huge number of stories such as this one do not often get heard. But, this is where the real stuff of the Church is being done – and not in the shouty arguments that dominate the headlines of media where conflict is king and (what Paul Vallely calls) ‘contrariness’ is the favoured approach to a story.

What I would now like to hear is some similar stories of growth, creativity and mission amongst parishes thinking of moving towards Rome. This is where the Church is – where the internal interests of the Church sink beneath the real evidence of the Kingdom of God among us. It is easy to miss.

While I was in Ireland last week loads of interesting things were going on elsewhere:

Liverpool finally got sold and bought. One lot of Americans went out (having done nothing that they promised when they took over the club) and another lot came in. Although we breathe a sigh of relief at the ending of one American dream, we clap the new owners with one hand while reserving the other one ‘just in case…’ If celebration is heartfelt today, there is also a great deal of suspicion. Having been fooled and humiliated once, we won’t (as The Who put it) be fooled again. Yet, it is almost embarrassing to listen to the language of the ousted Tom Hicks: he still doesn’t ‘get it’. But, at least Torres appears fit enough to play against Everton on Sunday…

Chilean miners were being released from 69 days of imprisonment a very long way underground. The world rejoiced, but this is only the end of the beginning. Mining safety has to be improved in a country where miners’ lives have thus far been cheap. And we know that the next months and years will bring huge challenges for the miners and their families: they will need massive support in the light of not only their trauma, but their new-found fame. Furthermore, the BBC overspent on its budget by covering this saga in such depth; will it now cover the stories of trapped miners in China and Ecuador similarly – or are some stories less interesting than others and some  lives cheaper than others? The Chilean saga was gripping, but it also raises questions of value and perspective for the rest of us. In brief, was it just more entertaining for us?

The Bishop of Fulham has announced he is to resign and join the Ordinariate (i.e. become a Roman Catholic). His announcement speech used extraordinary language, claiming ‘persecution’ of ‘traditionalists’. Someone should do a linguistic textual analysis of this stuff – for a start it cheapens the word and concept of ‘persecution’. But, the notions of ‘they are forcing us out’ and ‘we have no responsibility- it is all being done to us’ has reminded me of the posts I wrote about ‘future foreshortening’ and the hierarchies of victimhood.

As I have often expressed here, I understand something of the dilemma facing those who oppose the ordination of women; but they need to take responsibility for their decisions about the future and not do the unhealthy thing of simply identifying themselves as a victim of other people’s decisions. I know from personal experience something of the cost of such demanding dilemmas (twice: once in secular employment and once in the church) – and how important it is to stop blaming other people (or ‘the evil institution’ as the Bishop of Fulham puts it). The language is the give-away in all this and it will repay careful examination one day. Meanwhile we continue to pray and try to support those facing these dilemmas – everyone loses in processes such as this one.

The thing each of these stories has in common is the importance of perspective – and how difficult it is to see through the eyes of others or dare to change our point of view. I was going to write today about a German exhibition, but I guess that will have to wait.

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