The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Year: 2015 (page 1 of 3)

A new vision of Christ and Christianity?

A friend of mine, Les Acklam, recently introduced me to some words by John Spong in the introduction to his most recent book “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”. I found these words compelling and have shared them with others who have also found that they speak to their experience, so I share them now with you:

“I have wrestled with the Christian faith for all of my (now 82 years) life and I find myself at this moment, to the surprise of my traditional critics, I’m sure, more deeply committed to my Christ and to my faith than ever before.
My commitment is, however, to a new understanding of both the Christ and Christianity. I am increasingly drawn to a Christianity that has no separating barriers and that does not bind me into the creeds of antiquity.
It is a Christianity that cannot be contained by or expressed through traditional liturgical forms. I have no desire to find certainty or to embrace religious security. I choose rather to live in the unbounded insecurity that is the nature of human life and by doing so to discover that I am in fact walking the Christ path.

I also have no desire to walk any other faith path. I have discovered, however, that if I walk the Christ path deeply enough and far enough, it will lead me beyond anything I now know about Christianity. I see that not as a negative statement, but as a positive one.
Jesus walked beyond the boundaries of his religion into a new vision of God. I think that this is what I have done, and that is what I want to celebrate. God is ultimate: Christianity is not.
The only way I know how to walk into the ultimacy of God, however, is to walk through Christianity. I claim not that the Christian path is the exclusive path, but that it is the only path I know and thus the only path on which I can walk.
I claim for myself without equivocation the title ‘Christian’. I define human life through the lens of the Christ experience and that satisfies me.

I can honestly say with deep conviction that I am who I am because of my relationship with one called Jesus of Nazareth, and that it is through him that the meaning of what I call God has been opened for me.’
Faith is not believing in creeds, doctrines, and dogmas; faith is trusting the divine presence to be in every moment, in every tomorrow.
Faith is having the courage to walk into the unknown, to confront whatever life brings one’s way without having our humanity destroyed in the process.

There is no such thing as “the faith”. No claim by anyone to possess the only way to God, to be the single infallible authority empowered to speak for God, or to hold the only inerrant source of God’s revelation, is ever valid.
Those things have been historically nothing more than human idols, designed to provide us with the religious security for which our hearts yearn.

Faith does not, cannot, and will not give us peace of mind, security and certainty. Faith gives us only the courage to put one foot in front of the other and walk into tomorrow with integrity and walk into tomorrow with integrity even though we know that in this world there is no peace
of mind, no security, and no safety.
Faith calls us to recognize that we are all in this quest we call life and that our human defence- barriers of tribe, race, ethnicity, and even gender and sexual identity cannot finally separate us from one another.
Faith calls us to understand that to be human is to be part of who and what God is and, in the oneness of this God presence, to find that our understanding of life is enhanced and all human barriers fall into insignificance”

Another friend, Frank Willett a Third Order Franciscan, on reading these words responded thus:
“I had not read them before, but they certainly resonate. They touch on a superb paradox, which suggests to me that the deeper one enters the Christian faith, the more one can see God in all people, whether they claim to be Christian or not.

There is another related matter, and that is the place of humility, which is supposed to be a quality that is very dear to Franciscans. Not all Franciscans would agree with me, but if I insist that my faith is the only valid one, then this seems to be the opposite of humility – it looks more like arrogance. Having said that, like Bishop Spong, for me God is most real through Jesus. But if I try to limit God to how he is revealed in Jesus then my view of him is greatly diminished. “

I reckon Frank puts it very well.

Thoughts on Paris

I’ve been thinking about the terrible events that have taken place in Paris and have found myself wondering why we are so stirred up about them. Don’t get me wrong, it has been a terrible tragedy, but why are we so shocked?

Innocent people were killed and that’s awful, but it’s not uncommon. Only two weeks ago on Remembrance Sunday we were honouring millions of innocent people who were killed in wars. Today people in horrifyingly large numbers are being killed in Syria and in other wars around the world. Others are dying of hunger. Daily, innocent people are killed in car accidents. So why does a relatively much smaller number of deaths so horrify us?

In Paris a small group of men and women carried out this killing and then died themselves, and that’s not so unusual either. Again, on Remembrance Sunday we were honouring men and women some of whom set out to kill large numbers of innocent people knowing that in all probability many of them would die in the attempt. It happens regularly in times of war. So why are we so horrified at the events in Paris?

Again, don’t get me wrong: the events in Paris were a terrible tragedy and it’s appropriate that we ask ourselves why they happened and how we should respond.
But there seems to me to be a much deeper question that is being asked of us and which we are not wanting to hear.

We in the West live in a very materialistic culture: it is all about having things, now; it is about the immediate gratification of our desires. We shop for things ‘to die for’, like chocolate, not recognising the irony of our language. For what it’s not about is any serious consideration of the reality of death and dying. We avoid death like the plague [which of course is very much how we view it] or we trivialise it.

We prefer people to die out of sight; and when they do die we don’t want to attend a funeral and witness the burial or cremation of their body. We prefer a thanksgiving service which celebrates their life and makes little mention of their death. It’s not wrong to celebrate someone’s life but it is not healthy to avoid the reality of their death with all its implications for us: namely that we too will die; that life for all of us is finite; that shopping and pleasure seeking will one day end and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Death may well take us totally by surprise and quite unprepared, but it is the fact of our death which most powerfully asks the deep question of the meaning and value of our life.

Faced with the prospect of imminent death our priorities change, and we realise what is really important to us, often they are things that we have given insufficient time to before and that are not much valued in our materialistic culture. A nurse in Australia who cared for dying people wrote a book about her experience. She wrote about the five chief regrets of the dying. In her experience men and women faced with imminent death said:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

Now the events in Paris portrayed on our television screens and in our newspapers have thrust the reality of death, the precariousness of our grip on life, and the shallowness of our materialistic preoccupations, right full in our faces, in our own backyard, and we don’t like it. It challenges some of our most dearly held assumptions. It obliges us to face something we otherwise spend a lot of time avoiding: this might happen to us; there is no hiding place. No wonder we are so shocked and angry. No wonder we vent our anger on those who have made us look at these things. No wonder we want somebody to blame for having done this, and of course those who did the killing are an obvious target. They must be punished, not only for their actions, but even more because they are drawing our attention to an achilles heel that we prefer to ignore, thank you very much. It won’t be long before we are blaming God!!

But we could respond differently. We could see this as a ‘wake up’ call. We could allow God to use it as a ‘wake up’ call to us. And the upcoming season of Advent would be quite a propitious time to do that, n’est pas?

Feral

On holiday in Falmouth this summer, and wandering through the town, I was irresistibly drawn in to a bookshop, as I sometimes am. And there on the shelf I saw a book by George Monbiot who writes for ‘The Guardian’ on environmental matters. In it he makes an eloquent plea for the re-wilding of some of our moorland areas.

But what drew me was the book’s title: ‘Feral’. I wasn’t sure why I was drawn in until I read his definition of ‘feral’ as being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” And then the lights came on.

Of course I am a feral priest: called to escape the captivity of the institutional Church many years ago by God, and who has since exercised a ministry mainly in spiritual direction outside its domestication. I remember well how scary it felt to leave. A friend described me ‘as a man about to jump off a cliff’ and so it felt. And yet it also seemed that there was no real alternative. And I remember to my great surprise how no longer being a stipendiary clergyman of the Church of England felt a huge relief. I was free: scared but free! I remember how it seemed as if scales fell from my eyes and I beheld a world in glorious colour which previously had been in black and white. And I realised something of what captivity and domestication had done to me.

As a feral priest I had to learn a different set of skills. I had to learn to place my trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that I should trust the institution and its leaders. I had to trust God to provide, through the agency of Her children, enough money to survive, a roof over my head, and the means to exercise the ministry to which He was calling me.

I also had to learn to trust myself, my own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. I often talk about ‘internalised’ priesthood as the state in which I have learnt to trust that because God has called me to be a priest there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about me and that if I try to be truly myself then that priesthood will flow out through me without much conscious effort on my part. I no longer need the external props of ‘priesthood’ as once I did. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to enjoy leading worship and preaching when invited to do so, but my priesthood is not dependent on my doing those things.

Jesus, of course was ‘feral’. He exercised His ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which He had grown up, and by implication challenged it. So did Francis of Assisi. So do increasing numbers of men and women today: and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. It is one of the joys of spiritual direction to see someone escape the domestication of what they’ve been taught they should think and do, for the freedom of what they know deep down themselves. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose. George Monbiot might be encouraged. The process of ‘feralisation’ is a bigger one than he perhaps imagined.

I’m reminded of a phrase of, I think, Richard Holloway, who spoke about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. But the two phrases don’t carry the same sort of energy for me. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for me it also meant a sense of call rather than exclusion, and it points to a sense of discovered freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered. It’s a place of precarious, gracious joy.

A Church of England Ordination: part two, the good news?

Indeed it surely does not need to be like this. Surely something more creative and real could be devised? Let me dream a little.

[1] The 24 tasks in the ordination liturgy together make up a fine statement of what the aims of the Christian Church should be. Why not reframe the language to make it clear that these are the tasks of the whole Church ?

[2] Why not make it plain that this is so by setting the ordination of priests and deacons alongside the licensing of other Church workers, and the confirming and baptism of lay members, in one service? Maybe each Anglican Deanery should have an annual service at which all new clergy, lay workers, and confirmation candidates to be authorised to serve in that Deanery are welcomed and have hands laid upon them. Make sure there is at least one baptism too to complete the cycle.

[3] Why not have a section of the liturgy in which Bishops, Archdeacons and other diocesan officers commit themselves to the resourcing God’s people for these tasks, and accept responsibility for so doing.

[4] Why not have a penitential section in which the Church recognises that while its record over the centuries has been quite good with respect to some of these tasks, in others it has failed miserably, and needs to confess its failings and seek God’s forgiveness?

[5] Why not name that the Church is not the only instrument that God has called to address these tasks, and those being authorised to act in the Church’s name will find themselves working alongside people of other faiths and none who are equally agents of God’s grace and should be treated respectfully and in a spirit of mutual co-operation.

A service along these lines feels to me to be much more in touch with current realities. It links the authorising of the whole of God’s people with a vision of the task to which they are collectively called, and the bigger picture of God’s work in the world of which the Church is but a part. It would not surprise me if people attending such a service with no great Christian commitment might feel called by God to join in this visionary activity; and others already caught by the vision might feel affirmed and encouraged.

A Church of England Ordination: part one, the bad news.

I have recently attended Ordination services in two Anglican Cathedrals and I have to admit that it was a mixed experience! I went to support women friends who were being ordained as priests: they are lovely women, who will be excellent priests and the Church is richly blessed that God has called them to serve in it. It was a joy and privilege to be present. The Church of England tends to do these services rather well, and these occasions were no exception.
You can sense that there is a ‘but’ coming and indeed there is, because for me there was also a sense of hopeless unreality, verging on madness, about both occasions which left me feeling thoroughly depressed.

Let me quote what the liturgy required these newly ordained men and women to agree to do as priests: it’s a long list!

They are:
1] to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation.
2] to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord;
3] to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family,
4] to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever.
5] to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
6] to tell the story of God’s love.
7] to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith.
8] to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God.
9] to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
10] to bless the people in God’s name.
11] to resist evil,
12] support the weak,
13] defend the poor,
14] and intercede for all in need.
15] to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death.
16] to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.
17] to be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen their faith and fit them to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
18] to lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
19]] to faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to their charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
20] to strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?
21] to endeavour to fashion their own life and that of their household according to the way of Christ, that they may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
22] to work with their fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God?
23] to accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it?
24] to, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in them, to make Christ known among all whom they serve?

I have a number of problems with this list.

Firstly, it contains 24 things that they agreed to do with God’s help. You could focus exclusively on just one of these 24 and be fully and usefully employed all week and yet be painfully aware that much had not been done. But to imply that priesthood requires you to try and do all of them is hopelessly unrealistic and damaging to the health and welfare of clergy. Such a list sets the clergy apart as a race of elite super Christians equipped to do everything, it can’t but lead to a sense of guilt and failure, and is likely to encourage a culture of workaholism. It also inevitably devalues the laity.

Secondly, it’s inconsistent. Anybody attempting to honour just a few of these commitments
is likely to become a largely absent partner and parent, and thus to be in breach of number 21: ‘to endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people.’

Thirdly, it makes no mention at all of what in practise takes up the bulk of most parish priests time today: namely church administration, concern about attendance figures, paying the Diocesan share, and keeping the buildings serviceable.

So this language describing the priestly calling is totally out of touch with the reality with which they will find themselves having to contend. It reminds me of those First World War campaigns to recruit young men for the army with idealistic slogans, when in reality they were going to be sacrificed as cannon fodder in the trenches.

Just to make things worse both services were presided over by smiley Bishops who acted for the most part more like TV quiz show hosts with their cheerful repartee and enthusiasm for how wonderful all this is. They appeared to be either in complete denial of the realities of parish life, which I doubt, or acting what they must surely know is a lie. The strain upon them to behave like this must be awful.

And yet……I’m sure that my two friends will be fine priests: they will serve faithfully and well as do most parochial clergy. But why burden them with this dishonesty? It need not be so.

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