I’ve managed to liberate some old stock of A Journey with John, a 40-page booklet based on Holy Week addresses on John’s passion narrative, written in my Carlisle days. They are laid out so that individuals or a small group can use them for daily study and prayer during the week before Easter – sharing a sort of pilgrimage together. I’ve added some sample pages to give you the idea. They’re coming to me at cost, without royalties, so I can let St Edmundsbury and Ipswich parishes (OK Ely too!) have them at only £2.50 per 5 copies including p&p. Orders and cheques (payable to “Bishop’s Training Fund”) to my office please. Half stock gone! Offer open now to readers from other dioceses… Single copies also available at 50p from St Edmundsbury Cathedral Shop. Continue reading
No prizes for guessing where we are now; though the shot in the middle was actually taken at the CUBC boathouse on the Thames on Boat Race Day. Jean and I were guests of the club, having entertained the crew to tea in Ely (where they practice) when I was Acting Bishop before + Stephen arrived. I’ve never seen so many sandwiches and sausage rolls be eaten by so few people in so speedy a time!
Why not enter our Suffolk Show Photography Competition? http://www.stedmundsbury.anglican.org/index.cfm?page=landf.content&cmid=422
1 John 4:7-12
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Three cheers! Well done everyone who’s been working so hard to sustain the life of our churches during the vacancy. Well done everyone who’s been part of the search and appointment process. And well done Celia for saying yes: we couldn’t be here without you!
So is that it then. Are we all going to slip back into our usual ways, and carry on just as before? I don’t think so. A new priest inevitably brings new ideas with them. But it’s more than that. We are all acutely conscious both of how much the church and Christian people are being called to do in a world that is so full of need and so unsure of the basis for hope. And also acutely conscious of how easily the institutional church at least could be lost to our nation, with all that will mean for generations to come.
So there is work to do. And a service like this is a time not just welcome Celia into the ministry here but to reaffirm our shared commitment to that ministry and the mission that goes with it. To stand a bit taller and say yes to playing our part for God.
That mission and ministry reaches out far beyond the people who turn up for church services. I’ve been reading your parish profile. It offers a vision of warmth and welcome, spreading out you say from the personality of the priest (so no pressure then Celia) to the congregations and their churches and touching the whole of the local communities. “Many lives could be made happier and more fulfilled by the embracing of the faith and values which our churches represent.” “Whoever can bring energy to this post, engage with the wider community and enjoy being part of it, could markedly invigorate the presence of the churches in our benefice, and bring to the already present sense of neighbourliness the positivity that comes from the recognition of having God in our lives.”
But thank goodness for that last sentence, that reminds us that for all the expectations you have for your new priest and the obvious truth that much will depend on her, nevertheless it is the recognised presence of God in us, not we ourselves, that is at the root of the whole plant. That is what the reading Celia has chosen underlines, with a reminder that it is not so much we who have God in our lives, as God who calls us into his life. It all goes back to him.
It is that letting go of ourselves into the love of God which is both what meets us as human beings in our deepest needs and transforms us most fully, and what is one of our greatest challenges, because we are deeply implicated in building the towers of Babel of today, basing our lives and our futures on our own abilities even when we also see them to be deeply flawed. The impulse to follow Frank Sinatra and Do It My Way is almost the gospel of our times. And yet the real Gospel is utterly honest about the mess we get into when we do it our own way – all we like sheep have gone astray – and deeply committed to calling us back into His way, the way of the one who would hardly have needed to go to the cross if actually everything was just OK.
Letting ourselves go into the love of God. Some of us slip away from it through fifty shades of grey, as adolescence and adulthood strip away the enchantment of childhood. Grown up, we find ourselves lonely and exposed, anxious and cynical. We have lost our innocence and with it any sense of a deep and abiding acceptance of us. We are not so much beloved as benighted, remembering how things could be, but powerless to restore them for ourselves, Some of us choose to rebel, fearing perhaps that this offer of love is just more domination in disguise, Christian by name but not by nature. We might like real love to be true, but we cannot believe that it can be, and we choose to live in the bleak world of the atheist, without God and without hope. C’est la vie. C’est la guerre.
St John picks up this predicament and goes back beyond it, beyond both our sense of powerlessness and our fear of power. Love, he says, comes from God. God takes the initiative. He loves us long before we even consider loving him. But God also subverts our fearful narrative of domination by showing that love in costly self-sacrifice, in the life and death of Christ.
John’s further thesis is a strong one, and it comes in two halves, both of which represent challenges to a local church. First, he says that it is only by receiving God’s love that we are able to really love for ourselves. This rings true. We are increasingly aware of how in purely human terms a whole variety of mechanisms behavioural and biological mean that a lack of love in, if I can put in crudely, can lead to a lack of love out. We can overcome that to some extent, and we applaud it when we see it, but it is hard going. And how much harder then for us to love if at the very deepest root of our being the belovedness that should be there is replaced by bleakness or benightedness. And yet, because that love is completely genuine when it comes from God, the offer of it still stands, still remains. If we can use what limited resources we have to help one another accept that love, the living water of love can flow again. And when that happens not just for an individual but for a church, it can indeed transform a whole community.
There are plenty of real-life stories of it happening. One that encourages me is about the Eden Project. No not the one with the big domes, but one on some rough housing estates in Manchester. The daughter of some friends of ours, members of one of my congregations in my own vicaring days, was one of a group of young adults who first visited and then relocated there with the simple aim of starting to do helpful stuff in the community to try and break the downward spiral. And little lass that she was, she did it while also working as a bouncer in the local clubs. And it worked. Crime rates plummeted according to the police. And it’s really not so different from a hundred local projects run by churches and church people here in Suffolk, just a bit more dramatic. Research by the Church Urban Fund published last month found that 76 per cent of churches run activities in local schools, 66 per cent help to run food banks, 60 per cent offer parent and toddler groups, 53 per cent organise lunch clubs or drop-ins, and 20% are also involved in helping credit unions in some way. It’s not a choice between saving souls and seeking the transformation of society as recent debate seemed to imply. One leads to the other, it’s there in your own profile, and it’s there in your own lives. You can make a difference, and for heaven’s sake, do.
That’s a bit of a challenge. The second leg of John’s thesis is even more so. If, he says, you are not seeing love flow like this, if your life as a church is no more marked by love than that of the world around you and offers it no hope, not only is that a crying shame but it asks the question, did you know God and his love in the first place? It’s a tough question. It’s one we may well resent, and in some cases it will be unfair. But beware. Our annoyance at it may also betray our inner knowledge that we all like sheep, even we, have also gone astray – what a surprise – and the Good Shepherd is wanting to call us, even us, back into the fold.
Jean and I came across an example of this recently in her family history, which she’s researching. She decided to a be a bit feminist and follow the line back of her mother, her mother’s mother and so on. And she was struck how many of women were married to clergy or missionaries in their own right, passing on the faith and putting into action. Where did that come from? Well where it came from turned out to be the Clapham Sect, the group of which William Wilberforce was part at the beginning of the Victorian era that led to the abolition of slavery and child labour and much more. The suburb of Clapham was just being built with some rather fine mansions, one of which Jean’s ancestor bought, and right by it was the church of Holy Trinity where the Claphamites worshipped. Until their move there is no evidence that the family did much about their faith. After it, things were different. And the turning point was the revival at Holy Trinity that both re-inspired faith amongst those Victorian worthies, and led them to put that faith into action for the benefit of those much less well off than themselves.
Revival then. It’s a big and bold word. But if you mean what you say in your profile, which I’m sure you do, and if we take St John at his word, which I am sure we must, then the campaign starts now: to know the love of God, and to share that love with others. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Here are the C of E’s media digest reports for this Saturday and Sunday. They make for fascinating reading, with an encouraging sense that the BIshops’ Letter has done its job in helping the debate about our values as a society to get going. To subscribe see the link at the very end – and apologies for a long post.
We were living in Carlisle at the time of the Iona/Mull sabbatical, in a wonderful old house right by the Cathedral. It’s not the most picturesque of cathedrals, but over time certain views stood out, and these were two of them.
Why not enter our Suffolk Show Photography Competition? http://www.stedmundsbury.anglican.org/index.cfm?page=landf.content&cmid=422
I’m reading up this Lent on Robert Grossesteste, Bishop-scientist of Lincoln, born in Suffolk in 1170 – and pondering Julian of Norwich again, who wrote rather later. That probably sounds a bit obscure, and this post is going to get worse in those terms before it gets better, but stay with me – I think it’s quite uptodate and interesting in the end…
Grosseteste like Julian saw all things coming from and returning to God, in a restored unity. She saw this as a work of love (and had a universalist outlook). He (who was a fierce scourge of sinners and sadly a persecutor of Jews too) saw it in more schematic terms (he loved a good diagram): the return of all (saved) creation to God in Christ completed the circle as it were.
If Julian’s approach led her to the edge of universalist heresy (as it would have been seen then), Grosseteste’s led him into speculative territory too. If the return of creation to God through Christ is good, and if it is possible for God, then it must necessarily have happened. Even if there had been no Fall to remedy. Perhaps God’s plan was always out-and-back-again. Other theologians like Hugh of St Victor would speak of God’s work of creation and God’s work of redemption, but be reticent about being hypothetical about the incarnation. Remember too that we sing about the “happy fault” (felix culpa) and necessary sin of Adam in the great Easter Eve song of the Exsultet.
So what do you think? I rather like the idea, though I find I need to tread the path to the edge of universalism with Julian. To introduce her logic of love into Grosseteste’s argument, if God has made all things in love, and desires that that all that he has made in love comes to dwell in his love (I can’t swallow predestination to damnation), then in love God will of his nature be present to us in love and working to maintain and restore that love to the extent that it is possible (we can always push him away).
Or to drop the careful theological tone, perhaps God wanted to visit the kids at Christmas as much as we do, keep the family together and spread the love.
Henri Nouwen writes:
Human relationships easily become possessive. Our hearts so much desire to be loved that we are inclined to cling to the person who offers us love, affection, friendship, care, or support. Once we have seen or felt a hint of love, we want more of it. That explains why lovers so often bicker with each other. Lovers’ quarrels are quarrels between people who want more of each other than they are able or willing to give.
It is very hard for love not to become possessive because our hearts look for perfect love and no human being is capable of that. Only God can offer perfect love. Therefore, the art of loving includes the art of giving one another space. When we invade one another’s space and do not allow the other to be his or her own free person, we cause great suffering in our relationships. But when we give another space to move and share our gifts, true intimacy becomes possible.