Friday, 17 December 2010

The end of optimistic modernism

My generation (the post-war baby-boomers) is probably the last to have lived in a time of optimistic scientific progress - what social commentators call the period of Modernism. In the 1950s and 60s we were fully expecting that nuclear power would soon produce free electricity for all; those who went to university were paid for by the state; retirement on a good pension was something to look forward to; the NHS would provide cradle-to-grave care regardless of ability to pay. We were all becoming better off financially, living longer, enjoying more opportunities for leisure.

But my children's generation has quite a different outlook. Energy production is pushed to the limit and has become much more expensive; the previous government's push for more young people to go to university has made the system fall apart by becoming too expensive; the retirement age is creeping up and guaranteed final salary pensions are a thing of the past; the NHS is itself in need of intensive care and we are all living longer but seem increasingly unhappy.

Has my generation been deceived by a lie that things could only get better? Has that made us greedy for more and expected it as a right? Maybe. Has there ever been a time in history when the next generation faces a future worse than the previous?

I suppose the idea of scientific progress is a relatively modern one - the idea that the appliance of science to everyday life will improve our standard of living year on year. Up until the mid-nineteenth century most people would simply have lived with the prospect of life continuing much the same generation after generation. Perhaps our quest for continual progress has reached a natural limit and can't go any further. It is very difficult, therefore, to leave behind a standard of living, or its expectation, that we have enjoyed and settle for something less.

It all seems rather gloomy, and rather than becoming easier life in general seems more of a struggle. But the human spirit does not give up easily when there is some encouragement around.

I have my grandfather's bible at home. He wrote on the inside cover: '15th March 1916', that is right in the middle of the First World War when he was in the trenches somewhere in France. He also wrote a reference to two verses: Isaiah 41:10 & 13 -

Fear not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God; I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.
For I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee.

Though life may be getting harder for many, let's not give in to despair when we can encourage one another with these words.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Heartbreak in New Zealand

After the joyful rescue of the miners in Chile it must have been all the more heartbreaking for the people of New Zealand to learn that no miners had survived the explosion in the Pike River Colliery. How can we make sense of the fact that while many people were attributing the successful Chilean rescue to the presence and power of God with those men, that same God seems to have ignored the miners in New Zealand?

It's a hard question and one that has been asked as long as there have been philosophers: why do good things and bad things happen apparently at random to both good and bad people?

In the bible Job's 'comforters' tried to explain the bad things that happened to him as a result of his unconfessed sin. But that answer didn't work. In the end Job had to simply accept that we don't know the reason why bad things sometimes happen to good people. At the same time he learned to trust that God might know more than he did.

A tragedy like the one in New Zealand is another example of what the apostle Paul talked about when he described 'creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time'. There is a sense in which these unexplained things cause us and the whole of creation to groan, in the expectation that a better day is coming - and it can't be soon enough.

Theologians use the expression 'now and not yet' to describe the coming of God's kingdom. In one sense it is here already with the coming of Jesus, but in another sense it is not here in its fulness. Now we live in an inbetween time in which we see glimpses of that kingdom: sometimes people are healed in response to prayer, or rescued, or converted. But at other times they are not. We simply have to learn to live with that tension.

In the meantime we can pray for the relatives and friends of those miners, that in some way they will know the consoling presence of God.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Groundbreaking Ceremony at Oasis Academy, Coulsdon

I've just got back from witnessing one of the best good news stories in Coulsdon: the groundbreaking ceremony for the new buildings at Oasis Academy, Coulsdon. I was asked to say a prayer at the burial of a time capsule. (It 's the second time I've been asked to do this is as many months.) It was only to be a temporary burial, as later the capsule will be placed under the floor of the new reception block. I joked by saying that most burials I officiate at stay down permanently.

Since the Academy opened just over 2 years ago the learning community there has been transformed. The first time I visited, just after the opening, I was struck by the atmosphere of quiet but energetic activity. The skill of the senior management, the care of the staff, the responsibility given to older students - this all makes for a community that is buzzing and positive. Local residents have noticed the change in behaviour at the nearby bus stops. Several of the students joined in our church 750th anniversary celebrations by helping at our Medieval Banquet, and by writing and collecting good news stories.

What particularly pleases me is to see a school that is not separate from the local community, but is wanting to be part of it. An increasing number of children from the local schools are applying for places, and I hope it will soon become the first choice for many Coulsdon parents.

The Academy has a strong Christian character, but an open admissions policy. That chimes very well with the mission that a parish church such as St John's has. It means that any children, whatever their background, can apply and then will be part of a transforming experience.

The new buildings are going to look fantastic. You can follow a virtual tour here:

I was talking to one of the design engineers after the ceremony and he was really excited about the design of the new buildings in the use of space and light, energy and natural air-conditioning. The students who use these new premises will be very luck indeed. But actually they are even more fortunate to have such a motivated teaching staff.

If you are thinking about a secondary school place for your children, do consider Oasis Academy: Coulsdon.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Candle in the Wind'

No - I'm not an Elton John fan, but I just thought of the song as I was reflecting on the Service of Thanksgiving we held last Sunday for bereaved people to remember those they have known and loved. As part of the service we invited them to light a candle in memory of those they had lost.

I have a sort of inbuilt evangelical prejudice against candles - perhaps more than a prejudice against the practice of votive candles that are thought to continue your prayers after you have left. But I suppose the thing about lighting a candle is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean, and that is why it is so popular for today's (confused) spirituality.

Lighting a candle in memory of someone might represent the light that they brought into the world for a time, or perhaps our own sense of thanksgiving for them. Perhaps the flame represents the bond of love, or maybe the fragility of the flame speaks of our own human frailty that may be snuffed out at any moment.

The act of lighting the candle seems important, as it allows grieving people to DO something and not just be consumed passively by the paralysing sadness that so often follows death.

So, I may not be an 'up the candle' churchman, but I was touched by the numbers of people who flocked forward to light a candle for their loved ones on Sunday. After they had gone we blew the candles out - health and risks and all that - and I had a sense of all those remembered lives that mattered to people and, more importantly, mattered to God.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Good News from Chile

I've been transfixed by the live TV coverage from Chile of the miners' rescue today. It's been playing in the background on my PC. Who could not be moved by the emotions of those rescued and reunited with their families. As the men have been released from the rescue pod it's almost as if they are being reborn; in fact one said 'I have come back to life'.

It's been notable how many people have been talking about God today. The first words of the President of Chile were "We thank God..." At least one of the miners dropped to his knees in prayer as he was released into the sunlight.

The story of rescue and reunion is such a powerful one, and one that the Christian Gospel is founded on. Going back to the days of Israel's rescue from their slavery in Egypt to the message of release through faith in Christ from sin, guilt and the fear of death. The TV commentators were talking about the psychological impact of the ordeal and rescue on the men and their families, and wondering what would happen in the days to come - would they simply return to their old way of living, or would this experience really change their lives. Who can tell?

The Christian church through the ages has treasured the wonderful message of salvation and rescue. As people encounter God through faith in Jesus Christ their story has so often been of transformed lives set free to enjoy life in all its fullness.

I particularly enjoyed hearing the chaplain to the President of Chile. I didn't catch his name, but he is an Anglican minister - English, but fluent in Spanish. 24 Hour News means you can speak at great length as there is no time limit for a report, and this chaplain was really on fire with enthusiasm for what God is doing in Chile. Commenting on the miners' ordeal he said, "There were not 33 in the mine but 34, because the Lord Jesus was there with them." You don't often get that explicit on the BBC news.

Friday, 8 October 2010

All in a day's work

I didn't enjoy having to call the police this afternoon about a man called Anthony who was refusing to leave the churchyard after smashing a window in a neighbouring house and punching someone in the stomach. He was very drunk, but the sad thing was that he was visiting the grave of his daughter who had died in 1991 at the age of 2. He said that she'd been murdered. I agreed to let him stay for a couple of hours, and when i came back he was lying on the grave, asleep. But when he refused to move I had to call the police. It's so hard - you can't reason with people when they are drunk, or even comfort them. The police never turned up, but Anthony moved off eventually, wheeling himself rather uncertainly along the middle of the road, shouting at the passers by.

What can you do with someone's hurt and rage like that? I suppose it has been turned into prayer before now by the psalmists. I couldn't help Anthony, but I can hold him up in my prayers with the knowledge that Jesus knew how to get near to people who were cut off from others by illness, or by antisocial behaviour.

The difference an apostrophe makes

It's surprising the difference an apostrophe makes. When I saw this copy of Metro on the train yesterday I instinctively thought, "Oh no. Are Bob Crow and his union cronies about to step up their industrial dispute with TfL and declare jihad on London commuters?" It's the sort of headline The Sun might run. But then I saw the apostrophe and the meaning changed completely. In fact, the story is about an individual driver who left his family and planned to travel to Pakistan (via the Bakerloo Line, perhaps) and join the Taliban.

Call me a pedant? Some might; but actually grammar can be fun...Well I think so. Thinking about this amused me for the rest of the day - at least while I wasn't concentrating on the more serious matters of our diocesan clergy study day.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Faith and the Secular Society

Today I spent all day in Southwark Cathedral attending a clergy study day. The theme was 'Engaging Faith in a Secular World' and we looked at the sociology of religion: How belief affects what people do. Also, the experience of the Jews during the Babylonian exile, and what that has to say today to a church that finds itself in an increasingly secular and sometimes hostile context. After lunch I managed to stay awake for a fascinating talk on 'Public theology, apologetics and the media.' I'm sincere in using the word 'fascinating', as it helped us to understand why the media ignores so much of the positive message of the church in favour of the divisive and scandalous.

An interesting thought about the Babylonian exile: the Jews actually did quite well out of it in the end - they prospered even in a foreign land. And, more importantly, they learnt that their religion would sustain them even when it was practised outside Israel, and even when they had to accept some cultural limitations - particularly the loss of the Temple.

We also got to greet our new Bishop-elect, Christopher Chessun. He is a very popular choice in the Diocese, it seems.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Grace of Giving

We are having a Stewardship Sunday this weekend (a churchspeak way of encouraging people to give more.) As I looked at 2 Corinthians 8 once again, as preachers do when they have to preach about giving, I realised that the Macedonian church was so generous because God had given them the 'grace' - charis - of giving. In other words, their desire to give was itself a gift from God.

Paul talks about generosity as a gift, along with the other spiritual gifts he mentions. Perhaps we should be praying for that gift of giving as well as doing our best to communicate the need for money in as imaginative way as possible.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

London Schools' Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican

After taking their programme on tour to Turkey during the summer, the London Schools’ Symphony Orchestra were able to play some most taxing works with absolute confidence at their concert in The Barbican Centre last Tuesday. Under their dynamic conductor Peter Ash, whose infectious enjoyment of music-making gets the best out of these young players, the orchestra set the hall fizzing with their spirited performance of Glinka’s overture ‘Russlan and Ludmilla’. The acoustics of the hall tend to accentuate the brass at the expense of the strings, and this was rather evident with such an enthusiastic brass section, but the cellos had their moment of glory as their joyful second-subject melody rang out.

Continuing the Russian theme the main work of the first half was Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with the soloist Aleksander Madzar. He played with the cool aplomb of Rachmaninov himself, with absolute clarity in the fast quiet passagework, and powerful bravura when needed. The orchestral sound, particular the muted strings, was mature with some lovely woodwind and horn solos punctuating the work. Peter Ash had to work hard at times to move the orchestra along with the soloist, but the ensemble never fell apart. It is hard for the players at the back of the orchestra to hear the piano in a concerto, but they were watching intently and playing with great dedication. The final peroration of the work brought enthusiastic cheers from the audience.

Although only two years separates the Rachmaninov from the final work – Stravinky’s ‘Petrouchka’ - they inhabit completely different sound worlds. The orchestra jumped the hurdles of the ever-changing time-signatures without fear. Only the impossibly high opening in the cellos showed that this was a dangerous ‘high-wire’ act at the circus. Solos from the flute and trumpet deserve special mention for their professionalism. The young players of the LSSO obviously enjoy this music, and portrayed all the fun of the fair with energy and attention to detail, and were ready to give an encore. For those groups of school children in the concert hall, perhaps for the first time, this was an inspiring occasion that will hopefully encourage some of them to consider the joys of classical music.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Prayer and Coincidence

Someone once said, when asked if answers to prayer were merely coincidence, "Well, when I pray coincidences seem to happen." So here's an example from today. We were praying this morning at Morning Prayer for someone we know who's mother is ill. This afternoon I happened to be going over to the church and bumped into this person by the shops. We talked about his mother's situation and the difficulties she is facing. As we parted, he said, "I'm so glad I met you today." I sensed that he was really helped by our chat and the concern of others. Coincidence, or answer to prayer?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Thanking God for 750 years

Today we had 333 people in church for our Service of Thanksgiving for the 750th anniversary of the church. It wasn't just a celebration of history, but a celebration of the Good News today. During the last few months we set ourselves the target of collecting 750 good news stories; in fact we reached 801 by today. Stories of hope and new beginnings, of new family members and pets, of God's faithfulness, of the help of friends, of the support of families, and many more. We wanted the church to be seen as a focus of good news, and then, in turn, being able to share THE Good News of God's kingdom and life in all its fulness.

I was moved to hear people telling stories of how faith and prayer had helped them in difficult times, and how they had found encouragement by discovering the support of the church community. This is as it should be.

I said in my talk that the church is not here just to make people happy, but to bring hope; it's not here just to entertain, but to encourage. To use an example of wartime: it's the difference between cheering people up momentarily with a sing-song and telling them that we will win through in the end.

We have a wonderful cake-maker in our congregation, Nancy, who excelled herself today by making a cake so rich it needed 2 strong men to carry it. On top there was a meticulous model made in sugar of the church. I haven't got a photo yet, but I will display one later.

Sometimes the pressure of church leadership gets to me and the effort seems like climbing the North Face of the Eiger. But today it was all worth it as we experienced the real joy and gladness of the kingdom of God.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Always have a Blessing up your sleeve

I was at Coulsdon College last Thursday for the Topping Out Ceremony to mark the end of structural phase of the new building and the transition to the finishing stage. Representatives of the contractors, Willmott and Dixon, were there with staff members from the College and other community representatives. As I arrived the College Principal asked me if I'd say a few words and give a blessing after the explanation of the Topping Out Ceremony. It turns out the Topping Out is a very ancient practice in the building trade and is based on the invocation of tree spirits and fertility spirits in order to bring good luck. I wasn't sure to how follow that up, but I did speak about the place of the College in the life of Coulsdon, and the links that the church has been able to encourage through the celebration of our 750th anniversary.

We have been collecting Good News stories around the parish, and I was able to say that the College is a good news story for Old Coulsdon through its work in the formation of young people.

Afterwards, over a cup of tea, one of the staff asked me to come and speak to some of the students about faith issues. This is just the opportunity we have been waiting for in the church, and I thank God that when the time is right the opportunities present themselves.

It's such a privilege to make contact with groups in the community on behalf of the church, and to have the authority to bless what is good.

The new college buildings are fantastic, by the way, and you can see what they will look like by clicking on this link:

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Papal Visit

I have followed with great interest the Pope's visit to the UK and have been glad to see the encouragement it has brought not only to the Roman Catholic community here, but to all Christians. I listened to the evening service from Westminster Abbey, ordered in the best of the English cathedral choral tradition, and was moved by the expressions of fraternal friendship between the Pope and the Archbishop. But I have to say I was disappointed, as I am often am, with our Archbishop's address. Both he and the Pope are academic intellectuals of note, but Dr Williams always seems to cloud his speeches with obscure intellectual language. In particular I noted the number of times he and the Pope referred to 'Christ': 3 times by the Archbishop, but 10 times by the Pope.

The Pope gave what I though that was a clear and explicit description of the gospel and its implications for Christian unity

Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. It is the reality of Christ’s person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of the apostolic kerygma and those credal formulas which, beginning in the New Testament itself, have guaranteed the integrity of its transmission. The Church’s unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ during the rite of Baptism. It is this faith which unites us to the Lord, makes us sharers in his Holy Spirit, and thus, even now, sharers in the life of the Blessed Trinity, the model of the Church’s koinonia here below.

The Archbishop seemed to major on the Benedictine way of life, and hardly mentioned Jesus Christ at all:

And in this, we are recalled also to the importance among the titles of the Bishops of Rome of St Gregory's own self-designation as 'servant of the servants of God' – surely the one title that points most directly to the example of the Lord who has called us. There is, we know, no authority in the Church that is not the authority of service: that is, of building up the people of God to full maturity. Christ's service is simply the way in which we meet his almighty power: the power to remake the world he has created, pouring out into our lives, individually and together, what we truly need in order to become fully what we are made to be – the image of the divine life. It is that image which the pastor in the Church seeks to serve, bowing down in reverence before each human person in the knowledge of the glory for which he or she was made.

And this is not the first time he seems to have been embarrassed by the name of Christ. I remember hearing him trying to persuade John Humphries of the truth of the gospel, and just seemed to end up tying himself in philosphical knots rather than appealing to the historic basis of our faith.

I am by conviction an Anglican, and would not want to change that, but I can't help feeling that the Pope, on this occasion, articulated much about our faith that the Archbishop doesn't or can't.

Friday, 3 September 2010

'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'

The mist hung low over the park opposite us this morning, and as the sun made its watery appearance it was a clear sign that autumn is here. The English autumn is something to get poetic about as it seems to encapsulate both fresh beginnings (shaped by the school year) and a sense of the year tipping towards winter. The laziness of summer gives way to a new freshness and energy, yet at the same time there is a hint of regret for another year passing away. The nostalgia for the heat of summer, with the anticipation of winter fires.

We are very blessed to have a beautiful garden, and although it has done nothing to help my back, it gives me the satisfaction of being productive. The day after getting back from our holiday in SW France we started harvesting our fruit and veg. If I wasn't being the Rector I'd have time to make us self-sufficient in vegetables, but even so we can enjoy the fruit of the land. I guess, though, I'd quickly lose the enjoyment if we really did have to rely on growing our own produce. When our potatoes run out there's always Tesco up the road.

When I was in Kenya 10 years ago one of the bishops I visited encouraged his clergy to make better use of the land around their churches and houses to supplement their income through food production. At a clergy conference I attended, and spoke at, he gave them detailed instructions about how to keep chickens, and harvest not only the eggs, but the droppings as well. He then invited me - with a day's notice - to speak about rural spirituality. Most books about gardening today assume people have small gardens, but a large income. Most of my fellow clergy have large gardens, a small income and little time. Perhaps there's a niche market here for a book for reluctant gardeners on a small budget.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Where is your joy?

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian church one of the things he was concerned about was that the Christians there appeared to be losing their joy. The reason was that they were coming under the influence of a group who taught that to be a true Christian you needed to come under the regulations of the Jewish law. As far as Paul was concerned, that was tantamount to slavery: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

To the church in Philippi Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” and to the church in Thessalonica he wrote “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Joy and thanksgiving, then, are hallmarks of the Christian life. They are an expression of the freedom we have in Christ: freedom from worthless religious regulation and law, freedom from the fear of death, freedom from the power that the world tries to get over people – the power of wealth, popularity, appearance, and power itself.

It’s clear that some people are naturally more cheerful and optimistic than others. (An optimist who fell out of the top story of a skyscraper was heard saying “Alright so far” as he passed each floor.) But Christian joy and thanksgiving go beyond how we feel at a particular moment because they are rooted not in how we feel, but in God himself. Paul wrote to the Romans: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of [rules about] eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” The Holy Spirit, then is the bringer of joy because he connects us with the heart of God, and when are connected like that God’s joy can flow through us. Jesus himself experienced this; Luke writes in his gospel, ‘At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…”’ (Luke 10:21).

September is a month when life begins to get busy again: holidays are over, it’s back to work, back to school, the seasons change, autumn comes and the days get shorter. Here at St John’s our children's groups will start again, the home groups will be meeting. The PCC will have important business to see to, decisions will have to be made about repairs to the church and how we fund them. We’ll be starting the Alpha Course again at the end of the month, and later in the autumn will be looking at the whole area of stewardship of our money. And in all this we need to hear Paul’s words: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances…” The circumstances themselves might be hard and tiring, but if we maintain and guard our close contact with God through his Holy Spirit in prayer and worship we will discover the secret that the kingdom of God is a matter of ‘righteousness, peace and joy.’

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Good News in Old Coulsdon

This has been our 'Fun Weekend', marking the church's 750th anniversary in Old Coulsdon. Yesterday the church was transformed with interactive prayer stations, displays of art and history, and becoming a busy tea shop. Outside on the green were sideshows, performances by children from local schools, a visit from a fire engine and many other fun and games. In the Congregational Church next door we displayed the 400 or so Good News stories that have been collected so far - stories about recovery of health, the support of families and friends, success at school and work, spiritual blessing, gratitude for the beauty of nature, and so on.

Today we worshipped in the open air in the rectory garden, joined with friends from the Congregational Church and St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, then enjoyed a picnic and a treasure hunt round the neighbourhood.

And all this is to celebrate the good news that the present church has been here for three-quarters of a millenium sharing the Good News of God's love and grace through his Son Jesus Christ. We hope that the rumours about the church will be that it is a place of good news, and that many people in the neighbourhood will want to discover more as we take time to talk with them about their good news.

A lot of hard work has gone into this weekend, for which I'm so grateful to colleagues and other church members.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Churches WORKING Together in Coulsdon

When churches of different denominations and traditions come together in an ecumenical group it can result, very often, in a self-congratulatory smugness or just endless talk,talk, talk. Here in Coulsdon, though, it's different (said he, trying not to sound smug!). This year we have been thinking about how we can do mission that is possible and practical - mission that one church alone couldn't do, but churches together could. And so we are going to be involved with the Croydon Churches Floating Shelter next winter, and run a series of events to mark The Year of the Bible.

The Floating Shelter is run by a number of churches round Croydon, to provide shelter for homeless people during the winter. Each night a different church in the Borough is open, and teams of volunteers help set up, provide food, talk to the guests, clear up and wash bedding. It's usually more than one church alone can do, so Churches Together is an ideal group to run this. For us in Coulsdon, it's a way that the churches can practically show the care and compassion of God.

In addition, we have been planning how to mark next year as The Year of the Bible - the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version (The King James Version) of the bible. Working together, we have planned a series of events that will be educational and fun. Lectures, interactive learning for adults and children in churches and schools, a quiz night and a 'Travelling Bible Readathon' during which we will read the entire bible in 5 days. One of our local ministers will be writing a short play about the Hampton Court Conference that oversaw the publication of the AV bible.

I get most excited when I see the church doing what it's here for: co-operating with God in mission by being and telling the Good News.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The discourteous Dean of Southwark

The Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Colin Slee, has been described as 'provocative and discourteous to the Archbishop of Canterbury' by The Church of England Evangelical Council. This is because of his latest attempt to use his position as Dean to undermine the Anglican Communion's finely balanced position on human sexuality, and, in particular, the ordination of gay bishops. The Dean has invited the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA, Catherine Jefferts Schori, to preach and preside at a eucharist in the cathedral on Sunday. Dr Jefferts Schori ordained a practising lesbian as a bishop in the ECUSA last month, an action which has put that church effectively outside the Anglican Communion. The rest of the Anglican Communion has agreed a moratorium on such ordinations, but ECUSA seems to think itself above the rest.

Colin Slee is no stranger to controversy. When the proposed appointment of the former Canon, Jeffrey John, as Bishop of Reading was reversed Colin Slee accused those who opposed the appointment - a large number of the clergy of Oxford Diocese, of which I was one - of being 'the evangelical Taliban'. He was forced by the Bishop of Southwark to apologise.

What annoys me is not that another priest in the diocese takes a different view to that which I take, but that the Dean can use our diocesan cathedral to promote whatever hobby-horse he may like. What a shame that the church which should be a focus of unity for the diocese is being highjacked for this deliberately provocative invitation. No doubt it will attract the media, and any who disagree will be portrayed in similarly negative terms to the Taliban.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Spare a prayer for those not interested

My thanks must go to the Bishop of Croydon for including the small percentage of those of us who will be quite relieved to see England go out in the first round of the World Cup. I have never shared the national obsession with football, even though I can see that it can bring a very temporary sense of unity to the country. Perhaps our performance in the Eurovision Song Contest will prepare us for a similar fate in South Africa.

Call me a sad 'cultureholic' but I am with Stephen Fry whose recent wonderful and personal documentary about Wagner on BBC 4 revealed his extasies about being in Bayreuth - the home of the Wagner Festival - and his visible excitement at even touching the door handle into the Festspielhaus. (Echoes of Psalm 84: 'I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of the wicked.') Thank the Lord that BBC 4 offers football-phobes a place of sanctuary over the next few weeks.

Does anyone else share my view?

A prayer for those simply not interested

Lord, as all around are gripped with World Cup fever,
bless us with understanding,
strengthen us with patience
and grant us the gift of sympathy if needed.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Never was so much owed...

So we have the first coalition government since the Second World War. Maybe politics has caught up with the ecumenical movement in the church and people are as little concerned about political parties as they are about denominations. I wonder if David Cameron, as a coalition prime minister, will be to the national deficit what Churchill was to the Nazis: "Never was so much owed by so many..."

Friday, 23 April 2010

Who's the boss?

Last night I heard 2, or possibly all 3, would-be prime ministers say, "You are the boss," as their answer to the question of how to clean up politics. What a superficial and favour-currying thing to say. Where does it leave leadership and vision? To say to the general public - some of whom still don't even know who Nick Clegg is - that they are the boss sends shivers down my spine. If you take this mantra to its logical conclusion you end up with the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the uneducated, and an abdication of responsible government.

It's same argument about parent-power in schools. It sounds good as a vote-catching phrase, but actually parent-power can result in pushy parents who are only concerned for their own offspring interfering in the professional running of schools by competent teachers.

Democracy is not about governments just doing what the public want. If that were the case then governments would bring back hanging, and would evict law-abiding people of non-white ethnic backgrounds. Democracy is about choosing a government that has a vision to govern.

I shall be listening carefully to Messrs Clegg, Cameron and Brown in order to get a sense of their vision for government, not how they will simply please the public in order to gain their votes. I'm still undecided about how I shall vote, though I think I have decided how I shall NOT vote. There is still time to decide, and I think it will make a big difference to the political landscape this time round.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Paradise Garden

Last night we enjoyed a top-class concert given by the young orchestra 'Sinfonia d'Amici' under their conductor Harry Ogg, an undergraduate at Cambridge. Our daughter was playing the cor anglais in the beautifully evocative and sensual 'The Walk to the Paradise Garden' by Delius. The orchestra is made up entirely of students, at school, university or music college and would stand comparison with any good professional group. The playing in the Delius brought out every nuance and layer of sound colour, and was followed by a wonderfully taut performance of Rachmaninov's 'Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.' Not so much a rhapsody as an inventive set of variations. The concert finished with a rich, full-blooded performance of Tchaikovky's 5th symphony, played with a mixture of delicacy and swagger.

What was so inspiring about this concert, apart from the music itself, was the initiative that Harry Ogg has taken in founding the orchestra. It started with friends from the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, but as they leave left the LSSO it has begun to take on a life of its own. Harry is both a musician and an entrepreneur and I wish him and the orchestra well.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The God Delusion Debate

I was lent a DVD recently of a debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, both of Oxford University. The subject was Dawkin's book, 'The God Delusion'. To hear two such intelligent men going head to head in the finest example of polite intellectual debate is truly refreshing. John Lennox argues from a convinced Christian worldview that Dawkins' arguments are self-destructive and inconsistent.

Fixed Point Foundation, based in Birmingham, Alabama, has organised other debates of a similar high standard. If you want to know how to answer the agenda of the 'new atheists', then here is a place to start.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

'The hand that made us is divine.'

Two series on the BBC deserve special praise at the moment: 'Wonders of the Solar System' and 'Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds'. Both have left me in awe of the natural created order of the earth and the solar system. For example, the way two of Saturn's moons, through a process called gravitational resonance, have caused a gap in the rings around the planet; or the way the gravitational pull of Saturn on one of its moons causes the moon to flex which in turn creates enough heat to make frozen water vapourise and spurt out in columns hundreds of kilometres high.

Or, in Richard Hammond's series, how a type of fungus which develops on horse manure launches it spores with such velocity that they can escape what is called 'the zone of repugnance' - a lovely scientific term that describes the area round the manure that a horse doesn't want to eat. The velocity that these spores are launched with results in a force of 2,000G. (Apparently 5G force on the human body is enough to cause a person to black out.)

None of this proves the existence of God, but with the intricacy and design of the natural order I can't help thinking of Joseph Addisons hymn:

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator's power display,
and publishes to every land
the works of an almighty hand.

It's programmes like this that make me want to fight to keep the BBC as it is. "Hands off, Rupert Murdoch and your sons!"

Monday, 22 February 2010

Music of the Resurrection

At the weekend we were in Shropshire where, on Saturday, we took part in a 'Come and Sing' performance of Messiah conducted by my father-in-law, who has just turned 90. However many times I have performed the work - I've sung it, played the organ for it, and conducted it myself - it never fails to stir me as it reaches its grand climax: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain...Blessing and honour, glory and power...Amen." Musically it can be explained by the succession of choruses building towards the magnificent final fugue, and, with orchestral accompaniment, the trumpets bringing the crowning splendour at the end. But, uniquely for a musical work, the work has great theological power as it tells the salvation story of Christ's birth, death, resurrection and ascension. First performed in 1742 the work seems to have universal appeal for people of faith or no faith. Maybe it is because although the text is selected entirely from the bible, the name of Jesus is hardly mentioned. For Christians the work obviously portrays the great hope of resurrection 'through our Lord Jesus Christ', but for those who are not Christians the music still evokes tremendously inspiring feelings of 'something better'. If salvation could come through music, I'm sure this is where it would be found.

Whether performed by amateurs or profesionals, accompanied by full orchestra or organ, in the concert hall or the church, Messiah is surely the greatest and most popular of English oratorios.

As we were driving back through the increasingly heavy traffic of the M40 and M25 we listened on Radio 3 (always my station of choice in the car) to my favourite Beethoven symphony, No. 3 'Eroica'. The performance was preceded by a fascinating talk in which the speaker drew out the themes of death and resurrection - this time the death of the archetypal hero. When Beethoven started writing the symphony he was inspired by the heroic liberating acts of Napoleon Bonaparte, and dedicated the symphony to the great leader. Famously, though, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven scratched out the dedication as he felt the revolutionary hero had turned tyrant. The symphony can be interpreted as 1) the portrayal of the hero (Napoleon), 2) a funeral march: the death of the hero, or the heroic ideal, 3) a new birth - the music of the scherzo brings life and joy, and finally 4) the hero remade in which reason and enlightenment triumph over tyranny. This is shown through the use of fugal writing - so often used by composers from Haydn onwards to bring reason and order to the climax of great symphonic works. I found it a compelling interpretation, but of course the very nature of music means that the story it tells can be interpreted in many different ways.

Messiah is powerful not just for the music, but for its story of God's saving acts through Jesus Christ. Beethoven's 'Eroica' symphony is powerful both for its music - amazingly radical at the time of its first performance in, I think, 1803 - and for its portrayal through a universal medium of a universal message of hope and the rebirth of heroic ideals.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Music of the North

No, not Scotland, but the snowy expanses of Finland. I've just got back from hearing the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing the 6th and 7th symphonies of Sibelius. Like Mahler who told the conductor Bruno Walter not to look at the mountains around him because it was all in his music, so Sibelius seems to capture the essence of the northern European wastes of Finland. There is something about his music that paints pictures of bright snow, ice crystals, cold water, gloomy pine forests in the mist, and dark mountain peaks. But at the same time it is playful and full of positive energy.

Like many great artists Sibelius was wracked by self-doubt, to such an extent that the last 30 years of his life were virtually silent musically. But he had become a hero of Finnish independence from Russia, giving his countrymen that stirring orchestral piece Finlandia, and in 1940 he was voted by the audience of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra their 'favourite living composer.'

I've only lately come to appreciate the music of Sibelius. Maybe because it takes some time to unfold, and you're never quite sure where it is going. Tonight's performance was all the better for the fantastic playing of the LPO. In their encoure - 'Valse Triste ' - I've never heard such quiet playing from orchestral strings before: absolute pianissimo. It even stopped the audience coughing - you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The debate about assisted suicide

Here is a link to a thoughtful blog by my erstwhile friend at theological college, Doug Chaplin:

I believe that if we are to be heard on the floor of the debate it's vitally important to continue to argue in the language that most people speak, that is the language of secular human rights and pragmatism, even though as Christians our motivation may come from somewhere higher.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Right to Live

Three things strike me about the current debate about assisted suicide, or 'the right to die' as supporters put it. The first is the way that celebrities, such as Sir Terry Pratchett, pronounce on the issue in such a way as to give apparent weight to the argument. Thank goodness that it is not up to them but to parliament to decide on changes to the law and so far parliament has voted twice against making assisted suicide legal.

The second thing that strikes me, as the Archbishop of York pointed out today on BBC's 'The World at One' is that for the majority of people in the two-thirds world, the question is not about the right to die but the right to live and the struggle to keep alive. It seems to me that the debate about the right to die is essentially a wealthy middle-class preoccupation - one that is only an option to those who can afford to choose it. In the face of the poverty of some Central American countries such as Guatemala where it is not unknown for the police to get rid of the problem of street children by killing them, it seems rather obscene to be talking about the 'right to die'.

My third reflection is about the so-called 'quality of life'. Although it is incredibly hard to see someone close to you suffering, or to suffer yourself, that doesn't deny that in suffering there can be a good quality of life. What makes us human is not just what we can do for ourselves, but the fact that others can do things for us. Most of the time we prefer to be active, but sometimes we have to be passive and to receive from others, and receive what life deals out to us. William Vanstone, in his book 'The Stature of Waiting' draws on the example of Jesus as one who was handed over to others to become the passive victim of their hate, and in that experience was able to give dignity to passive suffering.

I'm sure this is going to be a debate that gathers momentum. I suspect that the majority that support assisted suicide do so because they haven't really thought through the issues of where lines are drawn and what the dignity of life is all about. My fear is that if legalised killing is allowed it opens a slippery path to the possibility of getting rid of those who are a burden to their families or to the state. It's not very far from there to the 'final solution' in which the state rids itself of those who are a drain on resources or are seen as being unnecesary or unwanted.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Christians, do your duty

Is Britain a conservative or liberal nation? According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey published last week the answer is ‘both’. We have become financially more conservative, with fewer people favouring a tax-based redistribution of wealth:
Only two in five of those questioned said they now support higher taxes, a significant shift from 1997 when 62 per cent of voters were prepared to dig into their pockets to fund an increase public spending.

On the moral scale we have become more liberal:
Only 36 per cent of people now believe that homosexual sex is wrong, compared with 62 per cent who thought the same in 1983. Similarly, the number of people who strongly believe that couples with children should get married has dropped from 25 per cent in 1989 to just 14 per cent now (The Independent 26th January).

So where does that leave the teaching of the bible? Is it simply a record of an outdated culture, or a spiritual self-help manual, or does it still speak with the life-changing authority of God’s word to a world that he made and loves? What are we to make of the frequent exhortations to follow justice and mercy in our dealings with others, and the importance of a holy lifestyle that reflects our Maker?

In a year that will see a general election we have already seen our political leaders jumping on the marriage and family life bandwagon: which party will protect family life more effectively; which party will heal a ‘broken Britain’ more deeply? I hope our political leaders will actually give a lead and won’t just follow the trends reported in the social survey in order to win popular votes. It is important for Christians to support the political life of this country, and to take an interest in democracy. As Edmund Burke the English philosopher famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine people couldn’t vote for their government; all they could do was to pay their taxes, so Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” That is about as far as an ordinary person could be engaged with government then, but it shows that Jesus was concerned that people take their civic duties seriously. Democratic government won’t bring heaven on earth by any means, but it is probably the best thing we have got in the meantime. It is worth supporting by our carefully considered votes when the time comes.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cadbury and the limitations of government

A good supply of Cadbury's 'Dairy Milk' would keep me happy if I were cast away on a desert island. The news that Cadbury is to be bought by Kraft has caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth as we see yet another British company bought by one overseas. Kraft makes me think: 'processed cheese', and I shudder to imagine what Cadbury might become in the hands of that American giant. Not only that, but American chocolate is, by and large, terrible: tastless and gritty. I hope the recipe for Cadbury's chocolate stays unchanged.

There is a bigger issue here, though. People say, "Can't the government do something?" But what can the government do? This is, for better or worse, a perfect example of world capitalism at work, and it shows that in the face of multinational big business governments have very little power if they continue to accept a free trade economy.

Political parties that advocate nationalism or independence are kidding themselves if they think they will change anything. The real power, it seems to me rather worryingly, is with boards of directors elected by shareholders. The only way to change that is to adopt a totalitarian communist form of government which has been tried and has failed. Personally, I would rather live in a liberal free trade economy and put up with the regret of Cadbury owned by Kraft.

Governments' power is limited, as we have experienced, in the face of adverse weather and earthquakes. Much as I may regret an American company buying Cadbury, I hope American forces quickly establish order in Haiti and open the way for aid to reach those who need it. Thank God that there are still enough US troops at home to be sent to Haiti to help. They, and others, will be needed for a long time to come.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Follow the Star

I was reflecting on the readings for Epiphany yesterday as I prepared for our midweek communion service, to which only one hardy person came (usually it's between 15 and 20).

It was a star, or more likely a conjunction of planets, that led the wise men to find Jesus after he had been born. (NB: the wise men arrived in Bethlehem some time after Jesus was born - they would not have been seen with the shepherds as most school nativity plays suggest). The purpose of that star was simply to direct the Magi to Jesus.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus St Paul says that God's intent was that 'through the church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms...' In a culture that is increasingly negative about the church it's good to remember that the church has an amazing and significant purpose: revealing God not just on earth, but, in some way that I don't fully understand, in the heavens as well.

It seems to me, then, that the church is called to be a 'star' today, helping people to find Jesus, just as that astronomical phenonemom did for the wise men. That's why our motto at St John's is 'Helping people to meet Jesus.' The wise men didn't worship the star, as many pagan people might have done, but they used it to find Jesus. I hope and pray that people will use our church to find Jesus.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The End of the Tenth Doctor

With the passing on of the 10th Doctor we have lost probably the best actor - David Tennant - who has played the role so far, and the best script writer - Russell T Davies. I think it has been Davies's plots and scripts that have made the recent series so majestic. The number of interweaving story lines that leave their motifs dotted through the series is comparable to Wagner's 'Ring' cycle of operas. They have brought a unity to the individual episodes that is quite biblical in proportion.

I watched the last episode with my children and was moved by the Doctor's last words before his regeneration: "I don't want to go." That phrase tore at the heart strings because it contains the thought that we all probably have as we face our mortality and have to come to terms with leaving behind the people we love and the experiences we have enjoyed.

I believe that Russell T Davies is an atheist, but he has brought many fundamental values that Christians hold into his stories, particularly that of self-sacrifice. When The Doctor confronted the Master in the previous encounter, he was willing to give his life so that The Master could be redeemed. Even in this last episode he was willing to give his life to save The Master, and when The Master refused, then The Doctor was prepared to die to safe Wilf, the old soldier he had met on earth - a 'nobody' in one sense, but 'everyman' in another sense and worth saving.

You don't have to look very far to see echoes of Jesus' great sacrifice here. Even The Doctor's appearances to his previous companions seemed to owe something to the accounts in John's Gospel of Jesus' resurrection appearances to his disciples. Although The Doctor had not yet regenerated before these appearances I suppose you could say that he had been through a death experience in the radiation chamber when he was saving Wilf.

Russell T Davies and David Tennant both leave very large shoes to fill. I hope those that come after them will do just as well. I'm sure in years to come people will ask, "Where were you when the Tenth Doctor died?"