Keeping the faith in a time of challenge

Now seems a good time to take up blogging again. It has been far too long – almost three years – since I last posted here.

A good time – because everything feels different at the moment. Because of the restrictions imposed upon us because of the coronavirus Covid-19 our churches are closed, public worship is no longer possible, pastoral ministry as we have traditionally known it is restricted to a remarkable degree. But there is much more than that.

Is there an existential threat to the Christian faith because of these restrictions? (See The Spectator, Will coronavirus hasten the demise of religion – or herald its revival?) It’s probably too early to say, but there are those who have suggested that the Church of England cannot survive the closing of its churches, the suspension of its worship and the stopping of most of the ways in which it interacts with its parishes – no weddings, no baptisms, funerals strictly restricted, no pastoral visiting, no social events, no community service. Except it doesn’t really feel like that.

The response of the churches has been to go online with their worship, something that has been largely well-received by their congregations. A number of churches are live-straming their services, others like the Five Crosses Benefice have chosen to pre-record services which are then broadcast via Youtube or similar platforms. Clergy are trying to strike a balance between what is already familiar to worshippers, used to being in church on Sunday, and using the possibilities that the internet and video-editing software offers them. The services need to feel the same but cannot recreate the experience of worshipping with a congregation. Some of those live-streaming are using live chats on Facebook or Youtube and feeding these into the worship  – requests for prayer, greetings of the peace, sharing news or simply trying to replicate the social experience of attending church on a Sunday.

Some people have spoken of the way in which their attention to what is being shared in the online services is heightened. Others who have been unable to get to church due to age or infirmity appreciate being able to access worship from their church in a way that has been denied them until now. And surely, the shared act of receiving the worship thus offered is creating a sense of unity and togetherness that is denied us by the restrictions imposed upon us.

But what of those believers who have no access to the internet? A number of our, mostly (but not exclusively) elderly church members either have no access to these online services or lack the skills to access them with confidence and comfort. The same is true of many who are disadvantaged in our society. Many clergy are printing material and distributing it to those they know who are unable to access the online worship – prayers, reflections on the readings, excerpts from the Sunday worship, news from the parish. We are all asking, Is that really as much as I can do?

And although we may not be able to hold our coffee mornings, or bible study or prayer groups, or lunch clubs or children’s clubs we are still able to minister to our communities in positive ways. Shopping for our isolated neighbours, picking up the phone and chatting with them or saying a prayer. We can still contribute to our local food bank, either by donating food or with a gift of money.

None of this seems truly adequate – but that is, at least, partly because it is not what we’re used to. Comments made suggest that what the churches are doing is welcomed and positively received. It is contributing to a feeling that the churches are still very much alive and that we have not withdrawn because there is nothing we can do.

At the end of all this we should ask ourselves, What did we do that made a difference? What could we continue to do? How have we been renewed and reinvigorated by this experience?

It’s hard to see how at the moment, but the church might be very different after the coronavirus – and that difference might make us better.

My God, how wonderful thou art

This is the text of the final talk in a series of talks for Lent 2017 given in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Lufton

John Newton, born in 1725, led an unpromising early life, pressed into the Royal Navy, captured and enslaved, he became the first mate and later captain aboard slave ships. During a serious illness in West Africa  he acknowledged his need of God and was converted. In time, not immediately, he renounced his former life, married his childhood sweetheart and after a time working in Liverpool as a tax collector sought ordination. It took him seven years, because of his life as a slaver and as a virtual pirate, to persuade a Bishop that he should be accepted and was eventually made perpetual curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire in 1764. He worked there for seventeen years until he moved to St Mary, Woolnoth in London, where there is a memorial to him.

At Olney his assistant was William Cowper. Together they compiled a new hymn book, Olney Hymns, in 1779. The hymns were written not for the church services but for the prayer meeting. Continue reading “My God, how wonderful thou art”

One day at a time

We are just a few days into a new year. New years are strange things. Nothing changes between December 31st and January 1st but there is a palpable sense that there is a new beginning, an opportunity for things to be different. Hopes are expressed that the new year will be happy and prosperous (by implication unlike the old year just ended) and we often resolve to eat more sensibly, to drink less, to exercise more, to be less judgemental, to be more patient, to read more, to watch TV less, to sort out the attic, to paint the hall – but by about now we know that those things are not going to happen; life will continue exactly as before.

Changing our life always seems harder than we thought but transformed lives lie at the very heart of our Christian faith. Paul describes becoming a Christian as a completely new life and as a leaving behind of our old life. How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6.2b-4); So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5.17). Jesus too speaks of change being a requirement for discipleship, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9.23). Continue reading “One day at a time”

Sometimes reading the Bible is hard

At Morning Prayer throughout November we have been reading the Book of Revelation. To be honest I can’t say that I’ve been enjoying it.

At Morning Prayer throughout November we have been reading the Book of Revelation. To be honest I can’t say that I’ve been enjoying it. Its world view, its philosophical assumptions, its literary style, its imagery are all so far removed from my own experience and understanding that I find it difficult to access and even to make sense of.

I’m not alone. Throughout Christian history the place and authority of the Book of Revelation has been disputed. To this day some Eastern Churches do not include it in the canon of New Testament books. It is not read in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Churches, although it is read in Catholic and Protestant liturgies. Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation called it neither apostolic nor prophetic, John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament – except Revelation. Continue reading “Sometimes reading the Bible is hard”

Reading the signs of the times

The news always seems to be full of talk about events around the world that gives us pause for thought. Last week it was the havoc wreaked in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew (why do we name them? Is it to make them seem friendlier, less scary?) and this week it’s news again of the truly awful situation in Aleppo and the constant bombing of the east of the city and the villages around it. The loss of life and the images from both events are truly distressing and alarming.

The situation in Syria can, and probably should, make us angry for a whole host of reasons. How can Russia give not only succour, but military assistance to the murderous regime of President Assad? Why has the west stood by and allowed the slaughter of innocent people to carry on for so long while apparently taking so little action? Why do we tolerate the political position that makes a friend of the enemy of my enemy regardless of the morality or lack of humanity of that “friend”? Why do our leaders so often engage in rhetoric that tars a whole group of people with the same brush so that now any action the West might take in the region feels like waging war on Islam? Why do we stand by while political leaders create fear by blaming racial groups, or religious groups, or political groups for the problems faced by our nations and our world? Why do we sell arms to nations with dreadful human rights records? Why do we train their armies? Why can our leaders not see how wrong that might be? Why will the nations of the West refuse to take responsibility for their past actions creating a refugee situation that is now out of control – and for good reasons? I could go on for there are many more questions that we can ask of our leaders, our multinational businesses and ourselves. And I confess that I have no idea how to answer these questions – or at least not in a way that could even come close to bringing about lasting change in the our world. Continue reading “Reading the signs of the times”

Magnificat

The 15th August (the day that I’m writing this blog) is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Catholic Church it’s the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, in the Orthodox Churches it’s the Dormition (or Falling asleep) of Mary, but in the Church of England it is just the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

There can be no doubt that the place of Mary in the piety of the church has been a bone of contention, especially between Catholics and Protestants, for centuries. Today, in the C of E some churches will call today the Assumption, others the Falling Asleep, others will probably ignore it altogether. Continue reading “Magnificat”

I bind unto myself today

I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity. (att. St Patrick)

What sense can we make of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? I suppose most of us would say, ‘Not much!’ And yet, everywhere we look the Trinity pops up as if to mock us for our lack of understanding. There it is in our prayers – through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. There it is in our hymns – praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There it is as we begin

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The Holy Trinity – Peter Paul Rubens

our worship – In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And there it is, of course, when we baptize new Christians – I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Everywhere we look, it’s there. There’s no escaping it. Continue reading “I bind unto myself today”

Welcome to Lent

We often describe Lent as a season of Fasting. But, in truth, fasting has fallen out of favour. Now, rather than fasting, we are likely to give up something for Lent – biscuits, cakes, wine, sweets. Increasingly we are encouraged to take on something for Lent – more prayer, more bible reading, more charitable work. All of this is good but I want to suggest that there is still some benefit to be had by fasting.Lent

The dictionary definition of fast is: Abstain from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance.

So what are the benefits to us of abstaining from food or drink? Continue reading “Welcome to Lent”

I love Christmas, but …

I love Christmas. But I often feel that the Christmas I love and the Christmas I celebrate do not always seem to be the same thing … and I don’t think that I’m alone in this.

The Christmas I celebrate has two main features – Church and family. That’s good. That’s a big part of what I love.

Nativity_CD_Reredos
Detail from the Reredos in St Mary’s Church, Chilthorne Domer

I love exchanging presents. I love Christmas dinner – with all the trimmings. I love the tree, the crib, the cards (well, most of them, anyway). I love the traditions. Continue reading “I love Christmas, but …”

What shall we do with all these Churches?

St_Gargoyles1On Friday in the Guardian Giles Fraser wrote in his Loose Canon column that the Church of England needed many fewer Churches. He suggested that if the Church of England were in a position to spend less time, energy and money on maintaining its many thousands of ancient beautiful and loved parish churches it would be able to give more time and attention to its most important work – proclaiming the gospel. He said that we need someone to do the same job for the Church of England as Lord Beeching had done for the railways in the 1960s.

By coincidence, in the Church Times on the same day, there was a report of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching at the consecration of a new chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary in the United States, their old chapel having burnt down in 2010. Here the Archbishop posed the question, “Why is it that we are so addicted to buildings?” He said that sometimes the buildings are the servants of the Church and at others they are the Church’s “tyrants.” Continue reading “What shall we do with all these Churches?”