Thursday, 19 October 2017

Do this in remembrance of me...

All Souls on Sunday night
On Sunday it was my privilege to attend two Communion Services.  At one I presided and at the other I joined the queue alongside about eight hundred others.

In the morning I was at Amersham Free Church, and after I preached I stood behind the table and led our communion liturgy; it’s always a very precious experience.  I love nothing better than watching our Elders take the bread and wine to the congregation.  We do it ‘our’ way at AFC – although we are a Free Church we are firmly within the liturgical tradition and our twice monthly Communion Services have a rhythm all their own.

Then came Sunday evening and a trip into central London with my eldest son as we joined the congregation of All Souls, Langham Place.  The church was full, mostly of students and I felt slightly old.  The music wasn’t really my cup of tea but the welcome and sincerity we found at the service was terrific.  To be truthful Communion was slightly chaotic as eight hundred people made their way to various ‘serving stations’ – which meant we had to clamber down from the balcony!  Yet none of this mattered.  It was an immense joy to join the queue behind my son, cup my hands and receive bread, lift the cup and drink the wine alongside so many wonderful young people in central London.

I hardly know what makes Communion so special.  It’s all about the presence of God coming alongside us and it’s certainly about remembering love at its costliest.  I suspect it’s also about doing it ‘together’ – so much so that it sort of becomes a community proclamation of a truth that both binds us together and spurs us on in service.  Whatever it is, I felt I experienced a double Eucharistic blessing on Sunday – firstly as a Pastor leading my own people and secondly as an anonymous worshipper in a crowd of hundreds at the top of Regent Street.  These moments are precious and affirming – and for me, at least, moments when faith seems to come alive, and for that I give God grateful thanks.

Best wishes Ian

ps Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Black Sheep and Prodigals

The book discussion group at AFC meets about six times a year and at our latest gathering we reflected on Dave Tomlinson’s book: Black Sheep and Prodigals.  It met with a divided response.  Some thought it may be a step too far in its departure from orthodoxy whilst others, like me, felt they had ‘come home’ as they read it.

Dave Tomlinson comes from a similar evangelical background to me.  Yet we both share a journey that, whilst still valuing that foundation, we have moved on to a different way of seeking and interpreting faith.  Unlike me our author has spent a lot of his ministry in pubs!  Pub Church has been a place where he has opened up numerous discussions and met so many people on a spiritual quest but whose footsteps have never taken them inside a church building. 

Yet none of this background means Dave Tomlinson has in any sense ‘dumbed down’ the Christian tradition.  He is obviously a widely read priest and now serves a north London parish.  However, this Pub Church background might explain the way he writes (in my view, so effectively) in colloquial rather than academic English.

You really only have to look at some of the chapter headings of Black Sheep and Prodigals to get a flavour of it:  They include:

I believe belief is overrated
I believe in original goodness
I don’t believe in an interventionist God
I believe in life before death

I don’t, for one moment, believe Dave Tomlinson destroys faith in this book, he rather asks us to look at traditional doctrines differently.  So, he ponders whether we have a workable definition of God, he re-assesses what we really mean by an ‘interventionist God’, he puts into everyday speech the most important contemporary theological issue of our day: a re-assessment of what was really happened on Good Friday, and he positively bubbles up with joy at the notion of resurrection, but once again in a non-orthodox way.

You could, I think, read this book and hate it!  That’s because it re-evaluates much of the tradition some of us have been familiar with since Sunday School.  Or you could read the book and end up shouting: Hallelujah! I’ve found someone who wants to ask the same questions as me – and even offer some provisional answers along the way.

Make no mistake though, Dave Tomlinson takes the bible very seriously, sees God everywhere and still believes that when it comes to ‘Liberal Evangelism’ Jesus is the answer!

I suspect, like Marmite, Black Sheep and Prodigals is something you’ll either love or hate.  For me – well, pass me another slice of toast as I spread on yet more for my breakfast!!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

What's in the box?

Here’s a confession.  Here at The Manse we have just finished watching four series of the rather ‘geeky’ Channel 4 comedy show The I.T.Crowd which aired on TV between 2006 to 2010. 

It’s set in the fictional London offices of Reynholm Industries and focuses on the haphazard I.T. department located in the basement. Moss and Roy are the geeks whose answer to almost any technical problem seemed to be, ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again’! (Which actually most of us find surprisingly effective!)  They are overseen by Jen who is technically illiterate but has the grand title ‘Relationship Manager’ which, in reality means she draws a salary for not doing very much at all.

We thought it was a fantastic comedy and loved every show. 

One episode has Jen having to give a seminar upstairs on behalf of the I.T. department.  She panics about this because, of course, she knows nothing at all about I.T.  So, Roy and Moss set her up with a shiny black box, about shoebox size, and convince her that the Internet is in it.  That’s right, the World Wide Web that touches just about everyone’s life, was locked away in Jen’s box! 

She believes them and presents this box to the seminar – where, surprisingly, she in turn is believed.

Moss and Roy cannot understand how gullible people are and how their ‘joke’ has delated because it was taken seriously.

Jen’s box, ‘housing’ the Internet, crops up periodically throughout the series, until at last the penny drops and even she realises the absurdity that the World Wide Web has its HQ in a box at her office!

This week the lectionary OT reading takes us to the 10 Commandments and I’ve once again been drawn to the first one about having no other gods or carved images, idols.

Since dawn began I suspect we human beings have been trying to put God in a box.  If we carve an idol we might control God and if we write a creed we can surely define him.

But isn’t that just as ludicrous as Jen thinking the Internet lived in her box.

God is more fluid than a carved piece of wood and no creedal statement could ever define him.

Of course we use words, images and ideas to describe God.  But we fool ourselves if we consider ourselves ‘Keepers of the Truth’ because we box God up in our favourite theological paradigms.  Surely better to be an ‘Explorer of Truth’, open up the box and throw away the key!

Thursday, 28 September 2017


I’ve only recently discovered the joy of Podcasts.  I’ve downloaded about fifty of them onto my smart phone which means I can now listen to my favourite Radio 4 programmes at a time which suits me – which is normally on the train travelling in or out of Marylebone!

So this week I listened to the Podcast of Gareth Malone on Desert Island Discs, first broadcast (but missed by me) on Christmas Day last year.  I think this was a ‘special’ interview for Kirsty Young and she seemed captivated by his charm, wit and sheer humanity. Time and again I found myself smiling as I tuned in – at one point I wondered what all the other passengers on the train were making of my broad grins.

Gareth Malone has become something of a National Treasure over the last ten years.  He has brought choirs and singing back onto prime-time TV.  He is so passionate about music and singing and that seems to become ‘infectious’.  I loved this Podcast.

Perhaps, for me, the most moving part of the interview came as he described the difficulty he had singing a solo at his Grandma’s funeral.  She obviously meant the world to him and he so wanted to sing for her one last time.  Yet, this man who has coached thousands to sing, couldn’t find his voice on that occasion.  He said, it felt for the first time as if he experienced in himself the fear, panic and inability to sing which he had so often before dismissed in others.

At that moment when he opened his mouth and nothing came out his dad joined in (which made things even worse!) and then his old music teacher made it into a trio.

Eventually he regained his nerve, the other two stood down, and Gareth Malone sang, as he so dearly wanted to, for his Granny.

Well, I just thought it was a beautiful story about family and about love.

And those things are about God and the way we sense and experience him in the here and now – even through our croaky singing!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Speaking of Sin

Tomorrow I’m attending a Ministers’ Book Discussion Group in Luton. We meet up three or four times a year over a packed lunch to discuss a book of theology.  On Friday, it’s Speaking of Sin by the American Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor.

I like this book, and not just because it’s short!

As she begins her examination of words like sin and repentance, asking if they actually have any meaning outside of our Church culture, she says, rather playfully ‘I think it is safe to say Christians need never fear the commercialisation of Ash Wednesday’ – probably an understatement!

This book isn’t one that in any sense denies the reality of sin, even though it brought to my attention the fascinating revelation that our Jewish cousins actually have no doctrine of Original Sin – you learn something new every day!

Instead of denying the pain sin causes us and others, Taylor writes, ‘We really are free to make the most disastrous decisions.  Our choices really do have consequences.’

It’s the facing up to this challenge that is addressed by our book tomorrow.

Taylor is not convinced that the old Church vocabulary will do.  So, she has a stab at trying to define the essence of sin using other language. 

One of the most beautiful passages in the book, in my view, is a sort of alternative Confession:

Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life…
Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it…
Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit and pushing away loving arms…

For Taylor repentance is fundamentally about us positively and determinedly restoring broken relationships.  In that respect, she finds much overlap with the teaching of the Buddha who taught more about orthopraxis than orthodoxy.

Repentance, in Taylor’s view, is never simply a personal act of piety.  To repent is to DO something that brings about reconciliation.

For me that would be epitomised by the life of The Revd John Newton.  Yes, he wrote in Amazing Grace about the God who ‘saved a wretch like me’ and that’s because he wasn’t at all proud of his time as a Slave Ship Captain.  Yet, for Newton, repentance and salvation are not just words that describe a personal relationship with God.  No, he used all his power as an Anglican priest to support, encourage and mentor William Wilberforce as he put the Abolition Bill before Parliament.  Newton used his repentance to build a better community.

Speaking of Sin struck me initially as such a bleak title for a book, yet it turned out to be a very uplifting and positive read.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Just shut up and be grateful!

This week I attended a Ministers’ Breakfast.  Sixteen Baptist Ministers from all over Buckinghamshire were there, seated around a big table tucking into the granola and croissants!

There was lots of friendly banter and it was a lovely occasion.

After sipping my orange juice I was in full flow describing my holiday to a colleague I much respect when I found myself just being a touch negative about the accommodation.  ‘Oh Ian’, she said, with a smile upon her face, ‘Just shut up and be grateful!’

Now, you can only speak like that to a good friend!

She was right – absolutely right.  We had spent a super two weeks in a lovely part of Britain, in a very nice flat, with very reasonable weather.  It was 98% perfect – so why did I slip into moaning about that 2%!!

I suspect we all do it: ‘Lovely dinner, but what a shame they served instant coffee instead of filter afterwards!’

Call it ‘finding fault’ or simply ‘missing the point’ – the truth is that, by and large, most of us have far more to be thankful for than to grumble about.
Words matter.

Recently the Daily Telegraph published a blank page. It looks really odd – a page without words.  It was a protest really, a statement by the journalists saying they’d prefer to print no words than sentences of ‘fake news’.

Yesterday, at breakfast, I was gently and wisely reprimanded for using my words in complaint rather than gratitude.

Developing and sustaining a thankful, grateful heart is probably one of the keys to good, healthy living.

It’s one of the reasons the prayers after the sermon in our services begin with Thanksgiving before going on to Intercession.  It’s also why the Communion Service in some traditions is called ‘The Eucharist’, literally meaning ‘Thanksgiving’ or ‘Praise’.

This is the month of Harvest Festivals and they give us an opportunity to do many things – and one of the most important is simply to be grateful and express thanks.  Thanks to God, to farmers, to growers, scientists, fishermen and retailers.
Well this thought began its life at a Buckinghamshire Ministers’ Meeting – and way back in 1844 another Buckinghamshire Minister, The Revd Henry Alford, penned the opening line of a hymn we regularly use in our Harvest worship:  Come, ye THANKFUL people come!

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Fake News

I’ve only recently caught up with the idea of ‘fake news’ – even though, I guess, it’s been around forever. 

The idea that an event can be so misreported that it becomes obvious that the journalists or editors involved main intention was to mislead rather than inform their readers and hearers.

It’s about being manipulative and having an agenda rather than simply and straightforwardly reporting facts; and I can see why some think there’s more ‘fake news’ around now than ever before.

We all know the saying: ‘No news is good news’ and I wonder if we aren’t misreading that and then adding the follow up statement, ‘All news is bad news’.  That’s because so much of what we hear can leave us with the predominant impression that just about everything going on around us is negative, bad and inevitably getting worse.

Twenty years ago two women died.  One a princess, whose anniversary has had a great deal of coverage over the last few days, the other a nun: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  They knew each other and both had very public funerals.

We may debate the merits of both women and inevitably we would discover their feet of clay, yet surely both were so admired because of their compassion and the way they used their position and influence for the benefit of others.  Strip away all the debates about the princess’ private life or the nun’s traditional Roman Catholic position on birth control, and you are still left with two individuals who inspired thousands of people with their concern for others; it motivated them and prompted others to show similar kindness.

I was struck listening to Women’s Hour last week on the car radio as a younger person said during a discussion about Diana that she felt no one had replaced her in the last two decades as a compassionate role model.
It’s interesting that – our desire for role models, and perhaps they are no longer on the national stage.  The age of celebrity seems vacuous and our politicians are so often hijacked by short term issues rather than big ideas.
However, I’m not sure that the public stage is always the best place to look for role models anyway. And that brings me back to the News.  There is, I think, a huge gulf between the world presented to us by the media and the one we really inhabit.  The real world, I suggest, can be a much kinder and more inspirational place than the one presented to us on News at Ten.  It’s in our families, schools, hospitals, churches and local communities that we will come across the sort of people who can become role models of compassion and dedication.
Joseph Hertz was born into a Hungarian Jewish family and eventually became Chief Rabbi here in Britain some seventy years ago and he put it like this: We are never nearer the divine than in our compassionate moments.
Or how about this conclusion reached by the Lakeland Poet William Wordsworth: the best portion of a life is not our fame and success, but those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. Fake news may be here to stay, but so too will be the kindnesses we come across, sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual places – such moments won’t make it into that evening’s new bulletins or the next day’s papers but they are part of the real world in which we live.

Do this in remembrance of me...

All Souls on Sunday night On Sunday it was my privilege to attend two Communion Services.  At one I presided and at the other I joined t...