It’s all about you, Jesus

I suppose it’s natural for the Christian Church to go through fashions and cycles in what it believes and does, just like everything else. (This is what the Tao Te Ching teaches us.) It’s just distressing when you’re having to live through a particularly unattractive and heterodox phase, which may also be unhelpful and downright dangerous.

The other day I posted a bit of a rant on Facebook about some of the modern ‘worship songs’ that are typical of the current cycle. They are so relentlessly Christo-centric — this is the essential characteristic of what I’m describing — that I wanted to stand up and shout “Jesus is NOT. GOD. ! He is the incarnate Second Person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity (ever heard of it?)!”

Of course this was a bit of an exaggerated reaction, as some of the comments pointed out. But when you’re protesting about bad theology, you probably have to use somewhat intemperate terms. (cf. some of Martin Luther’s descriptions of the Pope.)

Diagram of the Trinity

Of course I believe Filius est Deus, as it teaches in the popular medieval Trinity diagram. But of Jesus I would prefer to say he is the Son of God, or the Son of the Father. (Or even, as he preferred, the Son of Man, which some of my scholar-friends would like to explain as the Human One.) The problem with many of today’s worship songs is, you could almost believe Jesus alone was God, there was no Father in sight, and the Spirit was, of course, the Spirit of Jesus only. Now, the reason I’m a Christian at all is that I love Jesus — he captivated me and won my heart when I first seriously began to read the Gospels. But, though I may sometimes pray to Jesus, when I fall down to worship, I mean to worship God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This has been orthodox Christian practice for ever.

It turns out that many of the songs I find difficult come from the same source: they are copyright Hillsong. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Hillsong Church, where they originate, you may well wonder why so many of the mainstream churches would want to use them as much as they do? It turns out they are a Pentecostal Evangelical church with some very reactionary attitudes.

An example from last Sunday is the popular Your grace is enough, which has the chorus

Lifted on high from death to life
Forever our God is glorified
Servant and King, rescued the world,
This is our God.

Sure, I want to say “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.” But it’s much too much of an over-simplification to say of Jesus, “This is our God”. And I’m not sure Hillsong Church really looked at Jesus when they drew up their list of beliefs. I can more easily imagine Jesus looking at this list and shaking his head and saying, “Hey, that’s not what I meant at all!”

Lots of their songs also have a heavy emphasis on the Second Coming:

He shall return in robes of white,
The blazing Son shall pierce the night.
And I will rise among the saints,
My gaze transfixed1 on Jesus’ face

At a time when so many world leaders and their followers seem to be intent on pursuing policies that could destroy the human race, all life on earth, the whole planet, it’s particularly unhealthy and unhelpful (and frightening!) for Christians to be promoting an end-of-the-world mentality — even hope, God help us. It just encourages the crazies who seem to think that by destroying the earth, they could precipitate the longed-for Parousia. It would be much better to have a generation-or-more moratorium on thinking about the Second Coming at all. Yes, don’t expunge it from the Creeds, but don’t preach about it or give anyone the impression we’re expecting it imminently2.

The Bishop of Oxford has just written a hymn to accompany his diocesan focus on the Beatitudes. I applaud his creativity, which is way beyond what I could do, and also that his hymn is way more literate than the Hillsong lyrics I’ve quoted. But I note, as well, that it’s a hymn to Jesus. No harm in that per se: there are lots of great hymns about Jesus. But the words suggest that the kingdom, the earth, the church, the Spirit, are all Christ’s; the Father doesn’t get a look in (except by implication that the Son of God must be Son of somebody.) And in the light of the present climate of Christolatry, it would be good for some of our best hymn-writers to be working on correctives, and good if all the hymns we sang were more about God the Trinity.

When I mentioned this to Alison she said, “Yes, but it is about the Beatitudes, and the theme is about us becoming more Christ-like.” But in fact the Sermon on the Mount has a different emphasis from encouraging Jesus’ followers to be more like Jesus (desirable, and uncommon, though that would be.) A couple of years ago I made a detailed study of the Sermon on the Mount, while I was in the process of learning it by heart in order to tell it at the Scholars’ Seminar of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. And I’m clear that the major theme of the Sermon on the Mount — you could say the major theme of Jesus’ teaching altogether — is: You have a Father in heaven – God. Live, then, as God’s children.”

That’s much more of a Jesus Agenda than modern worship songs are promoting, for all their claimed devotion to Jesus.

  1. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  2. Martin Luther again had the right attitude: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.”

Seeing the way God sees us

Occasionally Facebook throws up a ‘memory’ of one of my blog posts of yesteryear. And sometimes I think, Actually, that’s worth another look. I’ll post it in my new blog.

So here is the first of those. Originally posted on 5 October 2012.

This unaccountably made me cry this morning:

If you come to a parish church in England after the service, what you will see is a (small) crowd of elderly people, middle-aged people and young families, balancing biscuits and cups of coffee in one hand as we do crowd control on the children with the other, and making slightly awkward conversation about the weather, holidays, cricket scores, the news, the progress of flowers and vegetables. We don’t necessarily have very much in common with each other, by all the usual standards. We’re embarrassed, probably. (After all, this is England.) And yet that’s not all that is going on. We’re also celebrating the love-feast. Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other. We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us. That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognise: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority.

From Francis Spufford, Unapologetic.

There is more to life than this!

So many people over the last year or more have told me I ought to read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward that I finally gave in. It is, indeed, well worth reading if you are serious about undertaking the spiritual work of later life, which is what I aspire to. At first reading (a phrase which rightly suggests this book feels like wisdom you should re-read and then re-read again) I would say it’s all very well, but it doesn’t actually tell you how to do this work. But Rohr insists it isn’t something we do. It’s something which is done unto us. The book, then, is perhaps more of an encouragement to the older spiritual seeker. It’s saying: Don’t worry, what you are experiencing is perfectly normal. You’re not going mad, or losing your faith or your marbles. This is all a natural part of that further journey we are all invited to make, provided we are open to it.

The second-half-of-life work that Rohr talks about is not literally confined to the last forty years of a fourscore year life. Some people embark on it earlier, others later or never. The crossover point is always some experience which Rohr calls necessary suffering: grief, bereavement, failure or falling, wrestling with our own shadow. “But often (it may be) just a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves’, for something more, or what I call ‘homesickness’.”

The desire for something more, the obscure sense that ‘there must be something more than this’, certainly rings true. Are there any Christians at all who come to faith at some point, and then happily stay at that point, or make steady spiritual growth without a second thought for the whole of their lives? It seems almost a ‘given’ of contemporary Christianity, that we feel something’s missing. Have we been sold short? Is it our own sin or failure that we don’t seem to enjoy God more than we are doing? This is the longing, surely, that fuels the Charismatic Movement, the tradition of renewal or revival meetings, and all the attempts long-time Christians make to find that elusive ‘something more’.

“Is there more to life than this?” has even become one of the main slogans or straplines of Alpha; and when I read this part of Rohr’s introduction, it was a kind of revelation of another part of the reason I don’t like Alpha. It’s great if it’s a slogan which attracts genuine outsiders to the church, spiritual seekers who have really had no acquaintance with the Christian faith, for whom Alpha could be a really life-changing meeting with God. But I suspect that for many – and certainly in the churches where I’ve experienced Alpha – it’s not actually like this. In many of these places, the people who come to Alpha, who loyally support it because the vicar asked them to, are the folk who’ve been faithful Christians for years. And, yes, many of them possibly come because they self-identify with the question, Is there more to life than this?

My big doubt is around whether they will actually find that ‘more’ by sitting through what is effectively another Christian basics course, like so many they may have sat through before. Or will they again go away disappointed, doubting, secretly asking why it hasn’t ‘worked’ for them the way they imagine it has for so many others?

What they need is something that will recognise and build on the knowledge and faith they already have, rather than treat them as if they have to simply make yet another decision or act of commitment to Christ. I believe that something can be found in one of the Church of England’s best kept secrets, the Anglican Cursillo Movement.

Cursillo is a Spanish word meaning a ‘little course’, for the origins of Cursillo were in post-Civil War Spain, from where it spread to Latin America, then to the United States, then to Britain. It provides a method, in some ways similar to early Methodism, by which established Christians can live a more intentional life of Christian discipleship, around the areas of Prayer, Study, and Action. The usual way of becoming a cursillista, a member of the Cursillo movement, is to attend a long weekend which is a refresher course in Christian faith, practice, and prayer. Many participants will testify that it is an immensely affirming and even life-changing experience, when their faith becomes re-awakened in an experience of God’s love for them, and theirs for God. And it doesn’t end with the weekend. The Cursillo ‘method’ involves continuing an active member of one’s own church, but also becoming part of a regular Reunion Group with other cursillistas, to support and pray with one another.

Alpha really may be the best thing since sliced bread for the unchurched person who wants to find out about the Christian faith. But for the many who have done it because they were looking for a renewal or revival of the faith they already have, they would do much better finding out about Cursillo and seeing what it can offer.

In another of Cursillo’s quaint little expressions: Ultreya!1

  1. Spanish for Onwards and upwards! The words that pilgrims say to others to encourage them on their pilgrimage.

(Tell me why) I don’t like Alpha

Well, not so much, ‘don’t like’, as ‘don’t really believe in’, ‘am not sure what use it is, or what good it does’, even ‘am afraid it may be doing more harm than good’.

It’s not that I’ve never tried Alpha. We ran several courses of it in the parish, but the results were frankly disappointing and discouraging. I’m pretty sure we weren’t doing it right. For example, we never managed to get it established as a rolling programme, which would be constantly attracting and making new members who would then become involved in running later courses. We never had enough ‘passing trade’ of new inquirers coming by, whom we could invite. The existing members of the church – well, some of them came several times, it was almost as if they were a kind of Nicky Gumbel fan club – but they didn’t seem to want, or be able, to invite friends or neighbours to take part. You’ve got to ask, Why not? You would almost think they were so lacking in confidence in the product we were trying to sell, that they didn’t think anyone they knew would be interested in buying it. Or maybe, it was the marketing that they weren’t confident about? They were confident enough about the Christian faith, but maybe found the Alpha packaging a bit naff, embarrassing, something they didn’t really want to impose on their friends and neighbours?

Clearly Alpha is very popular in many many places, and presumably has been ‘successful’ in growing some churches numerically. (I haven’t seen any statistics about how many churches it has helped to grow, and how much, and in what way, and for how long.)

But I’m still left asking the questions: What sort of growth? And what sort of churches or Christians is Alpha producing?

Somewhere near the root of my unease is a question about what kind of a thing Christianity actually is. There’s something about Alpha which makes it feel as if Christianity is a set of ideas or beliefs we are invited or encouraged to take on board. Is it?

I would much rather we talked about the way of life that is involved in being a Christian: what we do because we are followers of the Way. This was one of the earliest ways that the disciples of Jesus described themselves: followers of the Way. So what does being a Christian involve doing?

First, it means we put our trust and faith in God, rather than in anything or anyone else. Then, we meet together with other believers day by day (week by week is a bit slack, but better than nothing) to take the bread and wine as Jesus told his friends to do, in remembrance of him, and to listen to the Word of God. Then, to do all we can to live ‘good’ lives, by imitating Jesus and growing more like him. Bearing in mind, all the time, that we never will be good: we are and will remain muddled, flawed, works-in-progress, always dependent on the Grace of God. Not much else to it, really. All the superstructure of Christian dogma and morality is well, superstructure, not the heart of the matter.

And now, this autumn, our local churches are working together to run an Alpha Course in the town. I can’t in all honesty offer to help run it, with all the doubts and questions I have. Perhaps it will be a wonderful success and will really grow the churches in our town both in numbers and in confidence in what they believe. A part of me hopes that all my misgivings will be proved wrong and confounded. But I’m not really expecting that to happen. Come on, God, prove me wrong.

Leaving Alexandria

Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway, is subtitled ‘A memoir of faith and doubt’. It is a timely book for me to be reading, at this time when I’ve recently retired, and am reflecting very much on my own ordained ministry: what did it mean? What was it all about?

Richard Holloway was born in a working class family, north of Glasgow. As a young teenager, he was persuaded by the local vicar to sing in the church choir, and there the beauty of holiness, the magic and mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship, captivated him. With little prospect of getting a good education through the local schools, let alone being able to gain a university place, he was encouraged at the age of 14 to go to Kelham Hall, at that time the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, whose vision was to educate working class boys for ordination. Holloway never joined the Order, but he was drawn to its ethos of total commitment and self-sacrifice to Christ. (The founder of SSM, Herbert Kelly, used to say of the altar in Kelham’s chapel, “We sacrifice young men on this altar.”) For the whole of his life, Holloway felt both unable to give himself so totally to Christ, and at the same time guilty for being unable to do. His abiding feeling was of being “a disappointment”: to God, to his superiors, to the churches and congregations he served, to his wife and children.

His drivenness to become the best priest he could, led to some extraordinary works of ministry, in serving the homeless, the poor, the alcoholics and drunk addicts, AIDS sufferers, in parish after parish. Yet in spite of these ‘successes’ and heroic achievements, which led to his eventual call to be Bishop of Edinburgh, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Holloway continued to feel he was a disappointment. He wrestled, too, to believe in God in the way his Anglo-Catholic background seemed to require. His belief in the place of human reason and experience led him to embrace the liberal theology of the 1960s, and the supposedly liberal agenda of women’s ordination and the full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church. This made him feel increasingly at odds with large sections of the Church, which regarded him as a dangerous liberal and heretic.

The last straw was the Lambeth Conference of 1998, the one that was hijacked by the more conservative, reactionary bishops of Africa and elsewhere, who forced through the infamous motions condemning homosexual practice and gay and lesbian people. Holloway knew that he could not continue to serve a Church which he believed had departed so far from the message of the Gospel. He had written a book called Godless Morality, which advocated conducting discussions on morality, without recourse to religious imperatives which could so easily be used without realism, reason or compassion. Many critics (including plenty who had not bothered to read beyond the title) condemned the book as heretical, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Since he was a guest of the Scottish Church at the time, Holloway was not the only person present who felt this was not only wrong, but also bad manners. The ABC had no business to be issuing what was effectively a fatwa against a fellow primate who was also his host.

Soon after this incident, Richard Holloway resigned from his position and retired, after famously throwing his bishop’s mitre into the River Thames.

This book is a fascinating memoir of one man’s experience of a lifetime’s ordained ministry in the latter half of the 20th century. It is honest, challenging, often laugh-out-loud funny. I think that anyone who has been involved in ordained ministry in the Church will recognise many of the questionings and wrestlings the author describes. It is also, at times, almost unbearably sad, as here when he describes his final sermon.

In the spring of 2000 I announced my resignation. At the end of October I preached my last sermon as Bishop of Edinburgh in Old St Paul’s, and I used it to look back. I told them that when I arrived as their Rector thirty-two years before I had just emerged from a period of radical doubt and had fallen into a very common trap. I reacted against my own uncertainty by attacking doubt and uncertainty in others. A closet sceptic, I condemned in others what I had been afraid to look at in myself. My first book, written in the attic at Lauder House thirty years ago, was an attack on the kind of theology I myself now wrote and was condemned for. It was the deepest irony of my life that I had ended up the kind of bishop in my sixties I had despised when I was a priest in my thirties. Now I had come back to where I started from and knew the place for the first time. I could no longer talk about God.

My heart goes out to a man who has made this decision. I am currently still presuming, or daring, to talk about God. But really, it’s with a growing fear and doubt: how can we speak about the Unspeakable, the Mystery beyond and behind all things? So much of human speaking about God amounts to little more than a blasphemous exaltation of the idols we set up and name as ‘God’. Usually with the principle motive of massaging our own egos, or shoring up our own power over others. Richard Holloway’s memoir challenges us and invites us to a more honest caution and modesty about what we take upon ourselves to say about God. Lest

“The Word made flesh is here made word again.”1Edwin Muir. I think. If you know the exact source, please let me know.

The Naked God

I know Vincent Strudwick and have met him socially on numerous occasions and enjoyed his company. I have the greatest respect for him, and admiration for his learning and opinions, even though I haven’t had the opportunity to learn from him as much as I might wish. So reading this book has been a real treat.

The premise of The Naked God is that every age and generation clothes God in their own particular way, in doctrine, dogma, liturgy, religious institutions, and ethics. They do this in order to make the Mystery that is ‘God’ somehow comprehensible and accessible to themselves and their contemporaries. But of course, the clothes are not God, and when that generation passes (possibly even before that) these ‘clothes’ actually obscure the Mystery, rather than make it known. The underlying reality of God is still there, present and underneath the ‘clothes’ that have been laid upon it. Each new generation has the task of discovering that reality for itself. Ideally, I suppose, we might continue to know the naked reality. In fact, that is impossible for us, so we will always find our own way of clothing it, if we go about the business of God seriously.

In this book, the fruit of Vincent’s life of wrestling with God and seeking to understand how God should be known in the world of today, there are too many ideas to take in all at once. Although clearly stated, they are sketched in in broad outline. This is, after all, a book for the general reader, though it includes a useful bibliography and notes for further reading.

It has been a lifetime in which the institutional Church has pretty much lost the plot (cf. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead’s book, That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English People – though it is a global, not just an English, phenomenon). This isn’t just the Church’s fault, because the last several decades have been a time of rapid and turbulent social, political, technological and cultural change. In times like this – there have been several during church history – the Church has usually at first resisted the changes, then floundered as it is widely seen as irrelevant, then succeeds in adapting to the new understandings and idioms, leading to a time of renewed growth in influence in society.

It is a hopeful, though urgent book, addressed to desperate times. But it also makes me think that much, if not most, of what I was doing during my ministry was contributing to that inward-looking irrelevance of the Church, rather than the new directions that Vincent calls for. The only times I was kind of on the right lines, with the good guys rather than the villains of the story, were being in support of women priests and bishops, and (alas, somewhat more slowly) of same-sex relationships and the full acceptance of LGBT people by the Church. I may have tried to keep up with some of the social trends, but a great deal of what I did in the church was keeping the show on the road, rather than making the church truly the embodiment of Christ serving the world.

I commend this book to lovely friends and colleagues who are still working – including the brilliant young clergy and ordinands I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Read it; and don’t weep, as I’ve felt like doing, but carry on the wrestling to find the ways of doing it.

Retirement Joy

And on the other hand…

Retirement is also fantastic, joy day after day like being on holiday for ever. Lots of times since ending those ’37 years of parish ministry’ I keep banging on about, I’ve found myself thinking, “This, at last, is the life I was born for!”

After you’ve stopped being a vicar, you no longer have to go to all those meetings: Parochial Church Councils, deanery synods, chapter meetings, diocesan synods if you’re unfortunate enough that it’s ‘your turn’, parish sub-committees on finance, buildings, stewardship, tiny charity meetings… and on and on. I was singularly blessed that most of those meetings were with lovely gifted faithful altruistic people, many of whom I counted as dear friends. But there were all kinds of things I would rather have been spending my time doing: like drinking in the pub with those friends, instead of sitting round a table in a draughty church hall, looking at balance sheets and wondering what to do. Some vicars must like meetings (else why would they make so many of them?), and I’ve even wondered if they prefer the ones that turn into bitter interpersonal wars, on the grounds that this makes them more interesting. But if this is the case, they must be a funny kind of vicar.

After you’ve stopped being a vicar, you no longer get all the stuff from the diocese that sometimes feels like people making work for parish clergy in order to justify their own salary… Gosh, that sounds appalling, doesn’t it? And it’s quite wrong. The lovely people who work in Church Houses up and down the land are lovely servants of the Church, without whom we would not be able to function. It’s just that sometimes you wonder: Why does that lovely person’s job of faithful service to the Church involve making more work for me in the parish? Counting beans and filing reports, when I might be visiting or pastoring or studying or even just passing an hour in quiet contemplation, spending time with God? When you’re in the thick of it, you feel guilty even asking the question. But someone ought to be asking it.

And after you’ve stopped being a vicar, you don’t have to be there every week. You can actually go away for something called A Weekend, like normal people do. You can go to a different church for a change: something that as a vicar you don’t like to encourage people to do, but actually you find it mightn’t be all bad. (It might even make them appreciate what they have in their home church, though normal clergy paranoia always makes you fear this is unlikely…)

And, after you’ve stopped being a vicar, much as I loved sharing people’s lives at the life-turning-point moments of births, marriages and deaths, you can take a break from doing that too. Taking these ‘occasional offices’ is a wonderful privilege that makes the job worth doing more than almost anything else, but sometimes I found myself thinking, Do I have to start another year’s round of publishing banns of marriage, marriage preparation, rehearsals and managing the day itself? Like lots of clergy, I often found funerals more ‘enjoyable’ (or fulfilling? or worthwhile?) than weddings.

And, of course, retirement joy is more than just all the things you no longer have to do. Much more, much better, are all the things you can now do that you didn’t have time to do before. Visit children and grandchildren. Take holidays. Read the books you’ve never got around to reading, or have long wanted to reread. Study and learn new things. Walk. Life being what it is, you don’t get around to doing half as much as you could do or would like to do. There are still constraints like whether you have the time or the money. And then, we’ve not yet been doing this Retirement Thing for a whole year. We’re still learning, still a bit stunned by it.

But one of the things that came to me when I was out for a walk one day, not particularly praying or being holy, was a new watchword, mantra, daily prayer, whatever you like to call it.


Of course it is. But when you’re working full-time, you don’t always have the time or the space or the energy to remember it. Being retired means you don’t have that excuse. So, day by day, day by day: It’s great to be alive.