Thursday, 28 February 2013

God -made in our image?

Sitting in the kitchen on Monday morning munching my toast I was much taken with Radio Four’s Thought for the Day.  The speaker was that provocative Anglican Cleric – one time Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral during the ‘Occupy’ episode, The Revd Dr Giles Fraser.  I don’t always agree with his utterances but what he said on Monday struck a chord which has stayed with me ever since.

He was remembering an exercise done for his class during his time at Theological College training for the priesthood – called Myers Briggs.  Through a series of exercises one comes up with a classification about personality type – such a process can be helpful in understanding what makes us tick, and more importantly, why others see the world differently to us (I know of a church where the whole Diaconate has very recently gone through the process so that they could understand each other better).

Giles Fraser then told us his group did a further exercise – they defined what category of Myers Briggs Jesus might fit.  Perhaps unsurprisingly the introverts in the group defined Jesus as an introvert whilst the extroverts painted him as much more outgoing individual, someone who found his energy outside of himself.

In other words – every member of the group created God in their own image!!  Perhaps we all do.  We believe he is pre-eminently comfortable with our worship style, biblical interpretation or lifestyle choices.  I suspect we may just have got it a bit wrong and probably the wrong way round! 

These thoughts have lingered in my mind as I’ve attended the Baptist Union Retreat Group Committee and mini-retreat at Warminster this week.  Alongside like-minded people (most of us probably have a very similar Myers Briggs classification) we have been planning retreats which probably appeal most to introverts – indeed I often think of BURG as an oasis of calm in the midst of a sometimes very noisy denomination.  It would be interesting for us to organise a Quiet Day/Noisy Day specifically for extroverts.

I suspect, however, that whatever our type, all of us need to focus down on Christ more regularly – giving Him centre place in our prayers and reflections.  Lent, retreats – and even Radio Four’s Prayer for the Day – can help us to do that!

With best wishes,

Ian







Thursday, 21 February 2013

Lent - as a discipline

As we approach the second Sunday of Lent I’ve been thinking about the discipline, or lack of it, that we put into our Christian development.  We often talk about our journey with God as something that comes naturally and easily – as if the desire to pray, to serve, to study and grow is just something we switch on as easily as the TV.  Yet the truth is it isn’t.  Unless we put determination and effort into our faith chances are it will wither and peter out.

Lent is a time when many Christians take a step back and consider their spiritual walk.  Yet such a ‘conscious’ and ‘determined’ way of being Christian can never be restricted to a liturgical season.  If my faith really is to be an integral part of who I am it will need daily nurturing and commitment – it isn’t a hobby I dip in and out of but the central core of my belief and ethical system.

I read this week some comments by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks as he reflected on the difference between spirituality and religion.  Now I’m all for spirituality – I think it’s often the missing component in a society dominated by materialism.  Yet as a term, spirituality can mean just about anything and nothing – and it’s often used about ideas and practices that we can hold for just a short while, get bored of and then move on to the next ‘in’ thing.  Religion, on the other hand, is much more structured – has to be learnt, struggled with, worked through and eventually demands personal discipline.

This is what the Chief Rabbis wrote:

Spirituality good, religion bad.  That seems to be the current state of the Western soul.  But is spirituality really a substitute for religion.  There is much that is positive about our search for spirituality, but there is also something escapist, shallow and self-indulgent.  Just as street protest is the attempt to achieve the results of politics without the hard work of politics, so the current cult of spirituality is the attempt to achieve the results of religion without the disciplines, codes and commitments of religion.  This is not good news.  Religion starts with spirituality.  What it asks of us next is where the real work of God begins.

I think he has a point.  Whether it’s working through a bereavement, health issue, biblical conflict or church family challenge our Christianity is rarely easily applied or lived.  We do have to work hard at faith – I believe it’s wonderfully life enhancing and worthwhile - but I’ve long since left behind the notion that it’s a soft option.

May your journey through Lent, even if it brings questions and struggle, be truly worthwhile.

Ian

Friday, 15 February 2013

The See of St Peter – Vacant from 20:00 hours on 28th February 2013


As I was driving back to Somerset through the snow on Monday I casually turned on the radio at 11am to catch the news –and, of course, the number one headline focused on the man who is, perhaps, the most influential of all Christian leaders, Pope Benedict XVI and his surprise resignation announcement.  In a world of well leaked stories it was great to hear some real ‘breaking news’ for a change!

When I was at college one of our tutors predicted that many of us would be surprised at the close relationships Baptist ministers can often make with Roman Catholic priests.  On the surface it might appear that we come from opposite ends of an ecclesiastical spectrum yet a common love of scripture and expression of personal faith often means we find we have more in common than we would expect.

That experience has certainly proved true for me in at least two pastorates – and both times with a Catholic colleague called Andrew!  Hitchin’s Father Andrew was a man of quiet faith who always made me feel so welcome at his services.  Yeovil’s Father Andrew was an extrovert who on one occasion pulled me out of the congregation at a united service, suggested we might share the liturgy together with the words ‘let’s make it up as we go along, I’ll say a bit and then look at you and off you go’!  He preached at last year’s Good Friday service and it was a sermon with an evangelistic emphasis that Billy Graham would have been proud of.

The other area of fellowship with Roman Catholic friends which has been such an encouragement to me over the years has been through the Retreat movement.  Those Christian traditions, like Baptists, who have come ‘late’ to quiet and reflective prayer have benefitted enormously from the established disciplines of prayer handed down to us from the monasteries and convents of the Roman Catholic Church.  And when meeting ‘RC’ friends at retreats and conferences I constantly feel a sense of privilege at being in the presence of such genuinely prayerful fellow pilgrims.

So I join with many others in praying God’s blessing on my Roman Catholic friends as they say ‘farewell’ and ‘thank you’ to a spiritual leader  for whom they obviously feel such great warmth and affection. Those prayers also go out to the conclave of Cardinals who will elect his successor.    A good Pope, able to communicate the love of Christ, will be a blessing for the whole church.

Perhaps the one thing I will remember most about the ministry of Benedict was his visit to Britain in 2010.  On what other occasion did the BBC broadcast three communion services on three consecutive evenings?!  ‘Miraculous’ – some would say! But perhaps that would open up another discussion best postponed for another day!

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 7 February 2013

'With this ring...'?


I really didn’t want to write this blog on the theme of ‘Gay Marriage’ because I suspect we in the church can’t win either way.  Yet to ignore the issue in the week that parliament passed a Bill in favour of same sex marriage, would surely be to ignore ‘the elephant in the room’ - and if my attempt to write a blog is about anything it’s to do with trying to make that ongoing, and at times difficult, connection between contemporary living and faith.

So here goes.  I’m on a ‘journey’ with this one and to be honest I have not yet arrived at a ‘settled’ position.  I can see both sides and have good friends whose views I greatly respect yet who advocate very different positions.

So these are some of my two-sided observations.  I write them not as a theological or ethics essay but the musings of a ‘jobbing pastor’.

To begin with we might want to underline that marriage has been, until now, by definition a partnership between a man and woman.  Isn’t that the most simple and straightforward reading of scripture and surely that’s been a widely held and traditional understanding in the majority of cultures? Yet...others might argue that the ‘essence’ of marriage can readily be transferred to a loving and committed relationship of a same sex union.  Some might also say that the Bible was written at a very different time when the ‘world-view’ on sexuality was, in today’s terms, restrictive.

Let’s take the bible bit a little further – as someone who owes his early faith development almost exclusively to the evangelical wing of the church I readily understand it when people place a high view on scripture as they make ethical decisions – I think I still do that myself.  Yet...we are all familiar with the way we ‘refine’ some of the biblical injunctions we hear (especially from Paul!) – so we don’t, for example, expect slaves to always obey their masters, lots of women I know in church have their hair braided and wear pearls (even though it’s explicitly forbidden in scripture) and most people in my circle accepted the ministry of women years ago.  In other words on a number of issues we have got used to reading the bible in the context of its day making certain cultural allowances that are not seen as necessary to our own age.  To read the bible like that (rather than just quote/shout texts at each other) takes a lot of hard work – we have to discover what are ‘first order’ principles which stand the test of time and are appropriate to all cultures and ages and what are the ‘second order’ ones that are culture specific.  And can evangelicals change their mind on the issue of gay marriage? Well yes – the most obvious example is Steve Chalk speaking in favour of it just last month.

Another tack – don’t we sing in church about ‘all are welcome’ and didn’t I preach last Sunday about the ‘inclusivity’ of the gospel (yes I did!) Yet...’mea culpa’ on this one because sometimes as a church community we can often use these phrases, in my view, a little too glibly.  That’s because a church does have certain – usually commonly held – boundaries, especially in terms of ethical behaviour. 

Let’s think about what’s gone in parliament this week.  You could argue that the government has been courageous on gay marriage and certainly many people (especially in my children’s generation) genuinely wonder what all the fuss is about.  Some might say – and I can understand this – that the Bill is a natural progression from the Civil Partnership one a few years ago – and that, of course, it will not bring down traditional marriage as we know it. Yet...other commentators have questioned whether any government has the right to redefine a commonly accepted and understood word like ‘marriage’ – and some of us would fully endorse the natural justice of Civil Partnerships whilst being reluctant to go the next step and re-define marriage.

However, shouldn’t the government also be praised for the provisions it has made for the churches with the commitment that no church will be prosecuted under equal opportunities legislation because it refuses to bless/officiate same sex weddings?  Yet...it’s only the Anglican Church which is actually prohibited from hosting same sex weddings. The rest of us can use our discretion – for example - the URC Church will allow same sex marriage if the local congregation is in favour.  Baptist Union ministers (me!) are currently not allowed to officiate at such weddings – but already there are calls for this to be changed and become the decision, as with the URC’s , of the local congregation.


And lastly (if you’ve made it to this point) – shouldn’t you (meaning me – a minister) be clearer than this – shouldn’t you have made up your mind a long time ago on this issue so that you can give clear moral guidance to your local community? Yet... – well actually just ‘No’ to that.  I believe that to be made in the ‘image of God’ is to have the gift of asking questions and living with blurred edges and uncomfortable nuance.  Generally I suspect most churches (there are exceptions that I know of and deeply respect) have not reached the point of accepting gay marriage – and probably that’s for a host of different, even contradictory, reasons.  But this isn’t the end point of our journey – and perhaps there will never be one.  Unfortunately it is sadly a great probability that both local and national churches will split on this issue.

So is there any hope or clarity out there?  Yes, I think there is – because the way we debate this and continue to deal with issues of sexuality will say a lot about our core values.  We need to engage with those who take a different position to us with respect – open to the possibility that God can use both ‘their’ and ‘my’ views to speak to the other.  That was a process heard at its best three weeks ago when Steve Chalke and Steve Holmes debated this issue on BBC Radio Four’s Sunday programme.  The courtesy they showed each other as they took this issue from opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum gave us a clue as to how this debate needs to be carried further.

Well – after all that, Sunday’s sermon on The Transfiguration seems like child’s play!

With best wishes,
 
Ian

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