Friday, 28 December 2012

Please be seated...


In our 'posh' seats at The Royal Albert Hall!
I often use this phrase, ‘please be seated’, in services, especially ones at which we have visitors (as over Christmas) who are a little unfamiliar with our liturgy.  I prefer it to the alternative, ‘please take your seats’, because I instinctively want to shout out in response ‘where’?!

A week ago, on the Friday before Christmas, we attended a thrilling carol concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Concert Orchestra, London Chorus and Trinity Boys’ Choir.  It was a wonderful evening made even better because of the seats!  You see we had booked some fairly cheap ones high on the upper tier but when we arrived the usher presented us with complimentary tickets for upgraded, twice the price, seats (they even swivelled!) down in the stalls – an early and much appreciated Christmas present.

Being ‘given a seat’ is a way of making someone feel welcomed and included.  Those who want to be part of a decision making process sometimes say they long for a ‘seat at the table’, and when we entertain family and friends for lunch one way of making them feel at home is to walk into the dining room and say, ‘here’s your seat’.

As the carols begin to fade I’ve been reflecting again this Christmas week on the honoured place those shepherds hold in the nativity story – they were the first to kneel at the manger. 

The story of Bethlehem is so familiar yet I hope I never cease to be thrilled with the idea that when God visited our world ‘veiled in flesh’ he gave those hillside keepers of sheep ring-side seats at the Incarnation.

With best wishes,

 Ian

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Contrasts: Beautiful Creativity and Pointless Destruction


I’m writing this blog in the typical early dusk of a December evening – becoming earlier and earlier as we approach the winter solstice.  Today has been somewhat gloomy; yesterday it was a sparkling winter blue sky sort of day.  The theme of ‘contrast’ has come home to me over the recent week.

On the one hand whenever we meet creativity life is enhanced.  We currently have Sue Symonds’ beautiful Nativity Panels (care of Bible Society) on display at the Free Church here in Amersham.  Yesterday after LunchBreak folk gathered around them and enjoyed looking at the intricate artwork which has been used to put together a visual feast celebrating the Incarnation. 

Since arriving here in Buckinghamshire I’ve been so impressed in meetings dozens of folk who work hard at creating a real sense of community in the church and neighbourhood.  I think such dedication and creativity is a real mark of ‘The Kingdom of God’ among us. 

And then...amid the light and hope of Advent we heard of the modern day ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ in Connecticut and no words can express the sadness we feel at this utterly pointless destruction.  The contrast to building community couldn’t be greater – this barbaric act has cut into the community of Newtown with a hurt that will never go away.

On Monday I tuned in to the webcast of the previous day’s service at Washington’s National Cathedral.  We really enjoyed visited the cathedral there a couple of years ago and I love watching their services week by week.  Dean Hall, the spiritual leader of this cosmopolitan congregation, has only been in place a few months so I guess this was the first time he’s had to speak at the National Cathedral about a national event – it must be tough to know what to say. I guess he tore up his prepared sermon on Friday and wrote a new one whilst the news of Sandy Hook Elementary was still unfolding.  Dean Hall was brave on Sunday – from the pulpit he called for American gun laws to be re-defined and pledged the support of the Cathedral to tighter gun control.  Now I’ve been listening to sermons from that pulpit for over a year now and what happened next was new to me – spontaneously the congregation gave their Dean a round of applause – and when he finished and took his seat behind the altar they rose to their feet and applauded him a second time.  I confess to being deeply moved by their wonderful and heart-felt reaction and affirmation – it seemed to me like a moment to treasure – a moment when pastor and people knew they must speak out prophetically – speak out with love and courage – in the name of The Kingdom.

Such speaking out is tough. Wilberforce did it in his campaign for the abolition of slavery, Elizabeth Fry did it in her fight for prison reform, Martin Luther King did it in his dream speech longing for civil rights – and on Sunday morning Dean Hall did it in Washington’s National Cathedral in calling for greater gun control.

For such prophets and for the gentle creativity of those beautiful Advent panels in our church – ‘Thanks be to God’.

For ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ - ‘Lord have mercy’.

Best wishes,
 

Ian

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Shaking hands...


St Martin in The Fields, Trafalgar Square this morning
Well here’s a blog for the 12.12.12. (the century's last sequential date – apparently) - and a warning: I’m going to begin it with a shameful example of name dropping!  That’s because I shook hands with the Archbishop of Canterbury this morning.  I did it as I left St Martin in The Fields after attending a service there, at which he was the preacher, to celebrate 80 years of the BBC World Service.

I was pleased to be given a ticket to this celebration and I enjoyed it very much.  St Martin’s is always a joy to visit and this morning it was filled with tremendous music and fine words.  Perhaps some of the most moving were spoken by BBC World Service presenters.  Some came from countries such as Iraq and Iran and remembered growing up in war-torn days listening to the World Service and relying on it as a channel of truth.  Today they present programmes on BBC Persian.

And that seemed to be the central message of the service – that in a world of propaganda when governments are economical with the truth they tell their citizens – the BBC World Service has sought, through eight decades, to be an independent guardian of factual reporting that can be trusted. 


Lord Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, spoke at this morning’s service and acknowledged that ‘trust’ in other parts of the BBC may have been dented this autumn – nevertheless, he believed, the World Service has been an exemplary channel of integrity and truth.

Well there was a lot to celebrate. In the nave I sat next to a man who, I think, was a member of the press for he scribbled in his notebook throughout. When it came to singing my neighbour certainly celebrated with a loud voice – just a shame he sang so lustily a semi-tone down from the rest of us.  (I know - as Hagred says in Harry Potter - 'I shouldn't have said that'!)

In some versions of the Parable of The Sower we are told the farmer ‘broadcast’ the seed.  That is he scattered it with broad strokes up and down the field. 

It got me thinking about the sort of message we will be ‘broadcasting’ this Christmas – what ‘seeds’ of hope and goodwill will we be planting.  At Amersham Free Church last Saturday the well attended Christingle Service we shared was surely an example of sowing a seed of loving witness to Jesus - The Light of The World.  The same is true of the Christmas window in the church hall.  As folk pass by it on Woodside Road they see a beautiful representation of the nativity shining out in the December night.  And then there are the marvellous local broadcasts in Amersham at the moment by Radio Christmas – staffed by many folk from the churches of our town. In various ways our hope and prayer is that we are ‘broadcasting’ to our community something of the spirit of Immanuel – God with us.

With best wishes,

Ian
p.s. -by the way, as I shook his hand I said ‘thank-you for all you’ve done’ to Dr Williams – and I meant it – Archbishops surely need our prayers!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

In This Is The Word Of The Lord...

I’ve just come home from the Amersham Town Council Carol Service, held this year at St Michael’s just opposite the Free Church.  It was an eclectic mix of the religious and civic – a real coming together of our life here in this part of Bucks and I’m glad I was there.

As I sat listening to a highly talented ladies’ A Cappella group I realised just how many gifted women took part in this evening’s service.  The church’s vicar, The Revd Diana Glover led the service with exemplary warmth that made us feel really welcomed.  One of the lessons was read by Her Honour Judge Johannah Cutts, QC and another by our mayor, Councillor Mimi Harker OBE. 

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the Anglican General Synod failed to get a strong enough majority to pass the Women Bishops Measure.  In my eyes – looking on as a respectful ‘neighbour’ – that was a deeply significant missed opportunity.

I hope there is no hubris in these observations because I’m acutely aware that even if there is still a glass ceiling preventing Anglican women clergy from serving in their episcopate the fact is the Church of England has a far greater proportion of women priests than, say, The Baptist Union has women ministers.

The argument against women bishops – often presented on TV a fortnight ago by lay women from Anglican parishes – rests, it seems to me, on some passages by Paul in which he talks of ‘headship’ within the family and Church as being the exclusive prerogative of men.  Normally these observations come after the preamble that ‘of course we are all equal’ – echoes of George Orwell’s ‘some are more equal than others’ spring to mind.

I’m  rather baffled by the notion that in our equal partnership of marriage I might have the ultimate ‘say’!  Let me tell you it’s never worked like that in our house – and I think its slightly dishonest to talk of equality in one breath and then claim ‘headship’ in another – I simply don’t think that is how mutually respectful relationships are formed.

That’s why I was helped enormously by a letter in last Friday’s Times written by Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham and now a professor at St Andrew’s University.  He made the point that passages like 1 Timothy 2.11-12 that talk of a woman being silent in worship are tremendously difficult to translate – both in the Greek used and the idiom and culture expressed.  Wright put it like this; ‘there are multiple interpretative options’.  Women being ‘silent’, for example, might be a way of saying they should study at home – and when Paul says: I do not permit; Wright argues it was probably just a temporary ‘ban’ whilst they became better trained and equipped.

When you look at scripture this way – that some utterances are ‘work in progress’ rather than a final and ‘for all time’ injunction – it makes quoting such verses a dodgy foundation when making big decisions. 

That’s why I like the response we use at The Free Church after the bible readings – we say: In this is the Word of The Lord.  In other words we have to use the minds that God has given us to tease out what he is saying to us in scripture.  Some verses are obviously culture specific and can never be viewed as commandments for all time – if that were the case slaves would still be obeying their masters, women would never wear pearls – and neither would they teach or speak in church.

We must be more intelligent in our reading of scripture – that, I believe, is the only way to honour the God who has given us minds, intelligence and discernment. 

I thank God for my women colleagues – and although my part of the Body of Christ doesn’t have bishops – I hope I live to see women play a full part in the episcopate of my neighbour’s church.

With best wishes,

Ian

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