Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Shepherd

May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

So here we are … the first sermon in the parish … and that's the real test of the the 'new man' isn't it? It's kind of expected that someone who is in Holy Orders will be able to make a decent fist of taking a service … whether he is good at administration, well anyway, there's a enough in the parish who are good at admin to! And his abilities towards pastoral care is something that will only emerge over the months to follow … But in the short term, the first big test of what the new chap is like is his preaching … is the sermon too long or too short … does it hold your attention … does it give you something to take away and chew over … at least on the journey from the church door to your car, if not for the next few days!

For my own part, I'd like to preach a good first sermon in the parish … not least because I'd like to make a good first impression … I'm almost tempted to use the phrase 'I'd like to preach a killer sermon' … but after what my former rector said last week about my former military background and proficiency with weapons and explosives that expression might make one or two of you a bit nervous!

As it happens, our Gospel reading today (John 10. 11-18) presents a picture that might make a new rector. or any rector, a bit nervous: it shows what might be seen as three models of the shepherd or pastor (& a nod to St Augustine for this reading of the passage); models that are something of a challenge for anyone in pastoral ministry, as they force them to ask themselves the question: which one am I? Or which one will I prove myself to be over time?

The first is that of the wolf, which ties in with the idea of thieves and robbers in the verses which precede our reading … the wolf or robber has no care for the flock … no interest in their well-being … they exist solely for the benefit of the wolf … he will feed on them … he will not feed them or care for them … in terms of ministry, he will not worry about building them up in the faith or ensuring that the faith is passed on strong and true from one generation to the next …

the second image is that of the 'hireling' or hired hand … he will look after the flock … as long as it is at no real cost to himself … as long as life is easy, he will be there … but don't ask him to go the extra mile … he's in there for the comfortable life … he will preach and teach and administer the sacraments … and what he does will be good … but when the going gets tough, he will be gone …

And then there is the good Shepherd … Christ himself, who lays down his life for the sheep … the extra mile indeed! No human being can be that Good Shepherd of course … but they can try to live a Christ-like life … to do all that is humanly possible to stand in the person of Christ … as the person of Christ to their flock … they are human … weak, fallible sinners like all others … like the members of the flock that they try to care for … but they will at least try … they won't back away when things are hard … they won't run from the occasional grumpy parishioner … they will be there through thick and thin … they won't feed on the flock like a wolf … they won't run from wolves like the hired hand … they'll see their role as to be to stand between their flock and the wolf … even if it means being chewed up themselves … and even if it means that their flock, who thinks that the wolf has some very interesting things to say, thinks that they are an idiot for trying to keep the wolf away!

Which will I prove to be? I know what I would like to be … but what will I show myself to be over the years in this parish? I know what it is that you want and need me to be to you … what you have every right to expect me to be … but what will I end up being to you?

We shall see … only time will tell … actions speak louder than words … and a sermon is only, at the end of the day, words … it is the actions over the coming months and years that will show whether I am a wolf, a hireling, or a true shepherd … whether you will ultimately be able to say 'he was there for us when we needed him' or merely 'he was there.'

but there is something that we can do to ensure that we all get what we hope for out of this relationship … we are not helpless or hopeless as we wait to see what it is that the world will throw at us ... we can pray … we can pray that you will have the shepherd that you deserve … a shepherd who will feed you in word and sacrament … a shepherd who will help the young people of parish grow into mature and faithful Christians … one who will help those mature Christians hear and understand the call that God has on each and every life … and answer that call joyfully and willingly … a pastor who will be there to provide comfort and spiritual support at times of illness or bereavement … and especially help those who are coming to the end of their days to face that time with courage and dignity and hope … and we can pray that I will be that shepherd to you … and if we can prayerfully work on this becoming a reality, then this sermon will become more than words … and it will have achieved all I could ever hope for from any sermon in this parish, whether first or last … Amen.

sermon notes 29 April 2012 (4th of Easter – The Good Shepherd)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Knock and it shall be opened

Trying to find the house of a parishioner in the town I stopped a man who looked like a 'local' & gave him the name and address.
'Sorry, Father.' He wrinkled his brows. 'I don't know the name. But, there's a lot of new people after moving into the town.'
'Oh ... I think she's lived here all her life.'
'Really? I'm drawing a blank. But I think that's the street you're looking for down there.' He gestured vaguely behind me.

I walked down ... it didn't look right, but I knocked on a door that had the right number on it at least. The door opened & a man opened it and greeted me by name with a beaming smile. Not the person I was looking for, however. It was the local Catholic curate!
'Come on in,' he said.

Extraordinary, I thought. Of all the wrong doors I could knock on in the town, it was one of my clergy colleagues. Clearly an invitation from the Holy Spirit to go in and have a good ecumenical chat! So I accepted the invitation of man & Spirit ... and we did have a good chat ... and who knows? Perhaps, to sort of quote Humphrey Bogart, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship ... or at least a close and fruitful working relationship!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In with the new ...

Well ... after exactly two weeks of being without the internet, I am now back 'online' ... I wonder if one can suffer withdrawal from electronic devices? It wasn't quite like being without my strong right arm ... but perhaps being minus a goodly portion of my very useful left would be an apt comparison ... luckily, most of the time I had no time to brood ... moving house, moving parish, putting the children into new schools ... plus a few other things on side! were enough to keep me distracted ... 

however, all is pretty much done and dusted ... the new house is moved into, even if much remains in boxes and chaos still has a firm grip on our living quarters ... the children are in their new schools and are settling if not exactly settled ... and I am the rector of what can only be described as a very charming parish ... rural, but with easy access to major urban settings should one occasionally long for those! 

All that was needed to make my joy complete was for the internet finally to begin cranking along ... ah the kisses and hugs I bestowed upon our local 'postie' when he arrived with the necessary new modem this morning! Ah the tears that were shed while dealing with the several hundred emails that had built up in the interim (there is nothing quite so date as fortnight old electronic mail!). And then to my beloved blog to see that it had remained in existence without me ... and that the system's ability to throw up pre-written posts according to schedule is utterly reliable ... what a pity I had only scheduled 7 or so, in the naive belief that I would surely be up and running as usual long before they were all used up!

Not being instituted 48 hours yet, it is probably too soon to say that it has 'hit me' yet ... the service was beautiful ... the sermon, by my now former rector was brilliant ... the church was packed, by parishioners old and new ... it was really touching to see how many had traveled long distances to be there for the occasion ... equally touching was the huge level of clergy & lay reader support there for the night ... many remarked on it, and one friend even did a head count ... she sent me a card saying there were at least 48 ... very humbling ...

But even less than two days in, things are coming along ... the diary is starting to fill up with meetings and appointments ... many phone calls having been made to organize same ... including my first vestry meeting tomorrow night! New people are being met & names struggled to retain! ... the first sermon in the parish is being pondered ... I spent three hours today, maps and satnav to hand scouting out the way to my 'outlying' churches ... spent over an hour finding the first, which is only ten minutes from my house! Grrr!!! the joys of satnav! Only spent 20 minutes finding the second ... I expect I'll spend many more hours in the car before I have even a reasonable 'mental map' of my patch ... I was very glad my wife and youngest boy came along for the ride ... we cracked jokes all along the way ... if you didn't laugh you'd cry, and since it was bucketing rain, it was difficult enough to see without tears ...

But enough for now ... duty calls ... I'll do my best to keep up with the blog ... and keep up with my prayers for you ... please keep up with your for my family and I ... every blessing ...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Prayer suggestions 8

One last suggestion ... Just before you switch off the lights at night ... or even after you've turned them our, but before you drift off to sleep, why not spend a little time thanking God for the day? When I was a lad, I remember spending a few moments kneeling by the side of the bed with my mother, saying a few simple prayers ... it wasn't hard to do ... and after all, Jesus did remind us of the need for child-like simplicity ... so perhaps we would all benefit from not being so 'grown up' all the time, and kneel, as children, to thank God our Father for all he does for us ...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Prayer suggestions 7

Here's a thought I picked up on another blog recently ... their idea was that every time you pass through a door you say a short prayer. But the thought is equally applied to anything you might do many times a day ... rise from a chair ... pick up the phone ... the list could go on ...

Their suggested prayer to say was:
O God make speed to save us
O Lord, make haste to help us

But of course you could use any brief prayer ... Thank you Father ... Jesus remember me ... Have mercy on me ... no doubt you could come up with ideas of your own ... such a habit would infuse your daily life with prayer ...  

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Prayer suggestions 6

The Angelus bells on Irish radio & TV have become somewhat controversial ... personally, I like them ... a little reminder, three times a day, to spend a few moments in prayer ... I'm always reminded that the early Christians, as recorded in Acts, kept up the Jewish practise of praying three times a day. You don't have to say the Angelus if that doesn't appeal to you ... but when the bells ring, why not take the hint & spend the time in prayer?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Prayer suggestions 5

What about the car? Can't read a book, of course ... or at least, I wouldn't recommend it! But I find myself, driving about the parish, that the time in the car can be put to double effect if I use the time for prayer as well. And then of course, there are books on tape/CD ... for longer journeys I find these useful ... and I have a beautiful set of the psalms sung by St Paul's Cathedral Choir, using their cathedral psalter, which is a very good way of making 'double use' of the time ... who says men can't multi-task!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Prayer suggestions 4

Commuting ... in the modern world we all spend time travelling to and from work. When I took the bus, I always had a little New Testament in my pocket so I could use the time for some Bible reading. And of course, there are other spiritual books you can read ... again, this is not only to your good, but another way of subtly telling others of your faith in Christ ...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Prayer suggestions 3

Meal time is a great opportunity to spend some time in prayer. The tradition used to be to say Grace before and after. How many do ... do you? Why not before you eat think of not only how luck you are to have the food on the table, but also all the other blessings of that day & in your life? And, if you're not afraid to do so, when you're eating out, making it obvious that you're saying Grace is an easy and important way of witnessing your faith to the world ...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Prayer suggestions 2

Another suggestion for taking a few moments in prayer ... how about in the shower or the bath in the morning? Does rinsing yourself down really require your full attention ... does it require any? Isn't it something you can do on auto pilot? In which case, while your hands are busy with soap, shampoo, flannel, or sponge, why not let your heart & your mind use the time in prayer?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Prayer suggestions 1

So many people take on extra spiritual disciplines during Lent ... & then, once its over the momentum is lost & within a few days they are back where they started ... of course, the idea is that Lent should be special & we should do extra ... but would not most of benefit from keeping up even a little bit of what we took on during the season?

With that in mind, I'm going to have a short series suggesting opportunities for prayer during the day. The entries will be brief – very much so, as I'm in the middle of moving house & parish at the moment! But I think its worth sparing a few moments from the chaos to share a few thoughts on the topic.

I can't promise I'll get a chance to moderate comments promptly ... but please leave any you wish ... & I'll get to them when I can!

The first thought is: what about first thing when you wake up? Those few moments, when you're sitting groggily on the edge ... could not those be used to dedicate the day to the Lord? Something as simple as 'everything I do today, I do for you' or even a Gloria ... only a few seconds, but perhaps of infinite worth ...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The empty tomb

May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our liturgy began this morning with the words 'Christ is risen: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! And our Gospel reading this morning gives what is my favourite account of that fact, that the Lord is Risen … 'what?' you may say … 'but our reading from Mark this morning doesn't show the resurrection or the Risen Lord … it has the women arriving at the tomb, finding it empty, and running away in fear and trembling … but no Jesus risen!'

And that is why it is my favourite … because it leaves us with the empty tomb … I sometimes think that the symbol of our faith should be the empty tomb instead of the cross … because it is the empty tomb that speaks of the Risen Christ … but it is not an idea that is likely to catch on … if only because an empty tomb is a little more difficult to wear around one's neck on a chain!

As I stand here this morning I am conscious of two things. The first is that this is the last sermon I will preach as curate in this church … & so I'd like it to leave you with something of lasting worth … it is not the last sermon I will preach in the parish … that comes next week, in St Luke's … but as that is part of my going away service, it going to be full of touchy-feely stuff about how fond I am of you all, and how much I'll miss you, and thanks for being part of my journey … all good stuff, all important, that needs to be said … but not likely to be very theologically challenging!

The second thing I'm conscious of as I stand here on this Easter morning is that today is a day when many people who do not normally come to church are here … if you are one of those, you are more than welcome … I am delighted to see you … I can only speculate as to why you aren't here more often … but I wonder if for some if it isn't because at a deep level you are fairly unsure about all this faith stuff … for whom the message of the empty tomb has little meaning … so perhaps today, Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, perhaps today is a good day to try to reassure you that there is more to Christian faith than simply having to park your brain at the door of the church when you come in & believe any old nonsense the nice chap in the pulpit happens to feel like spouting that day …

And I'm not forgetting those here who are faithful followers of Christ, either. Very often, I think in today's world we are challenged by others about what it is we believe … those who simply smile smugly and say it is all a bunch of fairy tales … and we are all deluded … so what I have to say may equally serve to help you defend the faith when challenged … to hopefully help others understand the message of the empty tomb …

But of course, we have to begin a little earlier than the empty tomb … we have to begin at the beginning as it were … with Christ's very existence … because one of the first things that doubters will often suggest is that Jesus didn't exist, that he is not a historical figure, and there is no basis for believing there ever was such a person.

That suggestion is complete nonsense. In terms of both archaeology and documentary evidence Jesus is the most well attested historical figure of his time. True, in terms of archaeology he did not build any great buildings … but that would have been rather a surprising thing for an itinerant preacher to do … but almost immediately after his death his follower began to build churches & leave inscriptions … and in terms of documentary evidence, his life is simply the best attested of any in the ancient world … for someone like Julius Caesar, we have only a few copies of his works, and those of relatively recent vintage … for Jesus there are literally thousands of copies of ancient date … One would have a better chance of proving Julius Caesar didn't exist than Jesus …

All right, say the doubters … so he existed … which is something most will concede … but he was simply a great teacher … not in any way divine …

Well, I am afraid that simply won't fly either … you don't get to call someone a great teacher and either a liar or a madman at the same time … and if Jesus' claims about himself were not true then he was either a liar or mad … not the best basis for calling someone a great teacher … and in any case, the reason that his teaching has so much power for his followers is because of his divine claims … I think it was CS Lewis who said the choice is liar, lunatic, or Lord ...

Well, wait a minute, says our imaginary doubter, show me in the Gospel where he made any divine claims! He never once said he was God … that's just something the church made up after … again rubbish … first, remember that we have already established that we have the best documentary sources for what he did and said during life of just about anyone … if people were just adding bits and pieces as they saw fit, that would show up in the documentary evidence …

and he absolutely did make divine claims … for example in John's Gospel he said he was the Son of God, and that he and the Father were one … and those who were listening were quite sure he was making a divine claim … they wanted to stone him for blasphemy, for making himself equal with God … and in Mark, in the passage where he heals a paralytic, he first forgives the man's sins … and the grumblers say only God can forgive sins … and so it is to prove his authority to forgive sins, something that only God can do, that he then heals the man … I'm afraid suggestions that Jesus never made any divine claims simply won't wash …

which brings us to the empty tomb … because when it comes right down to it, if you can explain that away … then it doesn't matter that we can prove Jesus existed … or that he did indeed make divine claims … if he didn't rise from the dead, all that hardly matters … just as St Paul says, without that, all our belief is in vain …

Doubters try to attack this on two fronts … first they'll say that he didn't really die … that somehow he survived crucifixion … & this is what made his followers think he had come back from the dead … I could go into a lot of detail on this … but I'll leave it at two simple points … the first is that the Roman soldiers were professionals … they knew what they were doing … if they said Jesus was dead, then he was … as I'm a former soldier myself, I can tell you that attention to detail is what soldiers do … and Roman soldiers were the best in the world …

and even if they weren't … it is simple biology … once a person stops moving, fighting against the agony of the cross … it is only a matter of minutes before the victim is dead of asphyxiation … and we know that Jesus hung there for about two hours after he breathed his last and said 'it is finished' … and if that wasn't enough … the soldiers who had been sent to finish off the prisoners gave him the coup de grace of a spear through the heart …

So Jesus was dead all right … which leaves only two explanations for the empty tomb … either he rose from the dead … or someone took the body … well, we have only two groups of people who could have done the latter … his followers or his enemies … if it was his enemies, then we have to wonder why the moment his followers started saying he had risen why they didn't simply laugh in their faces and produce the body … same argument , by the way, if as some suggest that the women simply went tot he wrong tomb … his enemies would simply have said 'wrong address ladies … here he is!' and that would have been it!

and if his followers took the body … well how? The tomb was guarded. These are the guys who ran away at the first sign of trouble when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus … these are the guys who denied him & hid themselves away when he was on trial and being tortured and executed … these are the guys who suddenly got brave enough to steal the body? And if they did steal the body, then that means that they of all people knew that the resurrection was a lie … we then must believe that they faced all the persecution, torture, and death for the sake of something the knew to be a lie … for a lie they themselves made up …

But if no one stole the body, we have only one explanation left … that Jesus rose from the dead … but that didn't happen, say the doubters … and why do they say that? Because people don't come back from the dead … but we're not saying that they do … we're saying that Jesus did … Jesus, the man who they admit was the greatest teacher there every was … Jesus who said he was the Son of God come down to earth to die for our sins … Jesus who said he would die and then rise up again in three day … We say Jesus did … because there is no other explanation left for the empty tomb … because the empty tomb proves that all he said was true … it proves that the promises he made of eternal life could be believed … it proves that we have reason to rejoice this morning and say 'Christ is risen: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
sermon notes 8 April 2012 (Easter Sunday)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

the harrowing of hell

(fresco by Giotto)

If the traditional practices were followed, which I know they are done in so few parishes now, all through Lent there was a gradual 'stripping away' in our churches and liturgies ... flowers and other decorations disapeared ... the liturgies became more spare ... music disapeared or became more & more solemn ... yesterday, in churches that were all but bare, we gathered to remember the events of Good Friday ...

And today ... nothing. Even liturgy is gone. Christ is dead and lies in his tomb ... and symbolically we are there with him ... we join in the confusion and despair of the first disciples ... separated from the Church and liturgy, like them it is almost as if we do know what to do ...

Of course it was Christ's body only that lay in the tomb. From the cross he told us 'it is finished' and gave up his spirit. And where did his spirit go?  We say in the Creed 'he descened to the dead' or as it says in the old form 'hell' ... not the place of damnation, but 'hades' ... traditionally this has been called the 'harrowing of hell' ... that Christ went to where all those who had died before his redeeming sacrifice on the Cross to set free the souls of the righteous ... even in death, as his body lies in the tomb, Jesus' love is reaching out ...

And tomorrow, in the joy of Easter, do not forget to be welcoming to those who rarely join us in church ... if you're not, you can hardly complain whey they don't come back!

(thank's to Priest's Wife for the cartoon! Click on it & it will get bigger!)

catholic encyclopdia on the 'harrowing of hell' link here
wikipedia link here
new world encyclopedia link  here

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Way of the Cross

Today is Good Friday. It is the day when we re-enter the the suffering and death that Christ endured for us on this day so many years ago. I hope that you have found time today, or will find time later, to visit your local church to join in whatever solemn services they are offering to mark this day.

If you did not - or even if you did - you might like to spend some time in a traditional Good Friday devotion, the Way of the Cross (also known as the Stations of the Cross.) If you are not already familair with the practice, it is rather simple. You are joining yourself, imaginitvely and prayerfully, to the journey Jesus made from Pilate to the Cross. At each 'station' or point in the journey you stop and meditate on what it was that Jesus endured for you.

One well known way of praying this devotion is that set out by Saint Alphonsus Liguori ... but if you prefer, your own thougths and prayers will suffice ... I've set out the traditional stations below, with some images that may aid in your meditation. Think about the title of each station; contemplate the image; & take some moments in prayer; then move on to the next station until you have completed all 14.

May you have a blessed & prayerful Good Friday. Amen.

 The Way of the Cross

1. Jesus is Condemned to Die

2. Jesus is Made to Bear His Cross

3. Jesus Falls the First Time

4. Jesus Meets His sorrowful Mother

5. Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross

6. Veronica Wipes Jesus' Face

7. Jesus Falls the Second Time

8. Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

9. Jesus Falls the Third Time

10. Jesus is Stripped of his garments

11. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross

12. Jesus Dies on the Cross

13. Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross

14. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Example of Judas

I'd like to share some thoughts on yesterday's Gospel ... I know I'm getting my days slightly out of order! However, I had a few home Communions in the morning, followed by our parish Wednesday in Holy Week Service in the evening ... so I had this particular reading floating around in my head all day ... and it was only later that the thoughts I'd like explore now came to the surface ... apologies if I'm twisting your Holy Week all out of shape!

So, in the Gospel reading Jesus gives Judas the piece of bread & the text says that at that moment Satan entered his heart. What is going on here? Earlier in the week I was reading an article online advocating going back to universal reception of Holy Communion on the tongue, kneeling. If you're not Catholic, or from a Catholic background, you may not be aware that this was the standard practice for Catholics until relatively recently ... and there are many who think that it is a means of communicating that should be returned to.  In that article, it was mentioned that there was possibly a scriptural warrant for the practice, as Jesus, when he gave Judas the bread mentioned in our reading, may have placed it directly in his mouth ... (perhaps this being, during the course of a dinner party, as a way of showing particular favour to a guest?).

Now of course there is no 'institution narrative' in John's Gospel. It differs from the other three gospels, in that each of those has a version of our Lord's institution of the Eucharist as part of the Last Supper. John does not. Some scholars have speculated that this is because John's Gospel, having Eucharist overtones woven into the very fabric of the entire Gospel, does not require a single specific institutional episode.

Be that as it may, the scene where Jesus gives Judas the bread is part of John's 'Last Supper.' So it is difficult not to get a strong idea that this is Jesus administering the Eucharist to Judas at this point. Which raises the question: why then does Satan enter Judas' heart immediately after?

There may be an answer in 1 Corinthians, where St Paul tells us that to receive the Lord's Supper unworthily is to eat and drink condemnation upon ourselves. Clearly, from the earliest days of the Church it has been seen as sound doctrine that one should receive worthily. Judas. of his own free will, has already decided to betray Jesus. By eating the bread of life from the hand of Jesus himself with such a stain upon his soul he has opened himself to Satan ... and he has condemned himself. That is, of course, only one way of reading the passage. But it should be a sobering thought for all Christians that if they present themselves for Communion while guilty of serious sin that they may be following the example of no  less a person than Judas himself.

I think this thought is of particular relevance during Holy Week. Every time we partake of the Lord's Supper we join in that Last Supper & First Eucharist ... we are truly present there with the Apostles and Christ. In a mysterious, sacramental way we each of us receive the Bread of Life from the hand of Jesus himself.

And so, as we near the end of Holy Week, I am thinking of all those people will be in Church for Communion on Easter morning who are rarely there at other times of the year. Will they receive it worthily? Indeed, will you or others who are regular attenders?

And so, I urge you & everyone to prepare yourself for that morning. If it is part of the tradition of your church, go to sacramental confession. If it is not, engage in a serious examination of conscience prior to going to Holy Communion and during the confession and absolution, that is part of the service which precedes the Eucharist itself, humbly ask for forgiveness, with a sincere desire to amend your life where you know you have failed. If, during your examination of conscience, you realise that you are in a particularly grievous state of sin, seek out a priest. For Anglicans, the old Book of Common Prayer contains an Exhortation to that effect. That exhortation is still part of the prayer book and still holds true.

Remember, that there is no sin so great that God can not forgive it ... and will forgive it if you are truly sorry and repent of it. Easter is the day of Christ's Resurrection, and the traditional time of Baptism in the Early Church, the sacrament by which we are reborn in Christ and all past sins washed away. What better time than to resolve to live your life as Christ calls you to and to ask forgiveness for all that is past? And thus prepared, approach His Table as one who is resolved to live their lives truly as a brother or sister of Christ.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

'When I survery the Wondrous Cross'

During one of the Holy Week services in our parish, we tried a little experiment. Instead of a sermon, the three members of the parish clergy team with give a reflection on a hymn ... the hymn was, of course, to be appropriate to the season ... and the idea was to say a little about the hymn & why we chose it ... & Holy Week also. offering was on the old favourite 'When I survey the Wondrous Cross'. I divided my thoughts on it under seven headings ... of quite unequal length!

1. It is written by Isaac Watts, a famously earnest man ... & I think earnestness is an important thing to keep in mind during Holy Week, a very solemn season. And Watts' earnestness was legend - he also wrote  'Against Idleness and Mischief' which begins 
How doth the little busy be
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

This is the poem that was parodied by Lewis Carol in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as the poem How Doth the Little Crocodile which goes

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Sadly for Isaac Watts, the parody is now more famous than the original!

2. it is old: written around 1700 ... at over 300 years old, it has certainly stood the test of time; & I think during Holy Week it is good to have tried and tested favourite hymns to help set the tone for Holy Week

3. despite parodies of his other works being more famous than the original, the hymn itself works very well as poetry ... i won't read the whole hymn here, but even to read through one verse, shows what I mean:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

John Wesley said he would have rather written the words to this hymn than all the many that he did ... high praise indeed!

4. The hymn is based on two passages of scripture: Galatians 6.14 & Philippians 3.7-8; this means the hymn has a good scriptural basis ... & I think it is good during the season of Holy Week to have a firm focus on scripture, which is God's revelation to us.

5. This scriptural basis means it also has an important legacy ... Watts was among the first hymn-writers to begin using fairly free adaptations of scripture in his works ... the popularity of this hymn encouraged others & began a tradition in hymn writing that continues to this day ... though often, it must be said, not nearly as well done!

6. We cannot forget the the music ... for a hymn to work, it has to be combination of great words with great music ... the music enhancing the message of the lyrics ... in this case, the music is, to my mind, slow and stately ... it was added around 1790 by the composer Edward Millar ... long after Watt's death ... the tune is called 'Rockingham' & it only adds to the wonder of the piece to consider that two men who never met nonetheless co-operated to create one of the best loved hymns of this season ...

7. finally, to interject a personal note: for me, the hymn brings out the suffering of Christ on the Cross without wallowing in it. Often it seems to me there can be a tendency to sanitise what happened to Christ during his passion ... making it seem almost unreal ... others go to the opposite extreme ... going into extremely vivid & perhaps off-putting flights of imaginative fancy ... if you've seen Mel Gibson's 'Passion of the Christ' you'll know what I mean ... but for me this hymn strikes just the right balance ... helping us to visualise the reality of our Lord's Passion ... without sweeping away the reverence in a river of gore ... this is why I have chosen this hymn ...  When I survey the wondrous cross ...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

my hair shirt

So I have a friend who is in Opus Dei ... so I was in the library the other day and saw a book about Opus Dei ... so I read a bit and saw they practiced some modifications of the flesh, such as wearing the cilice ... so I googled cilice to see what one looked like ... so I found a site selling them which sold hairshirts also ...

So, no! I didn't buy one!

But ... I did think the ones on the site looked a little 'luxurious' to my mind. Very smooth looking, with fancy buckles ... and a cost of around $60 ... doesn't that kind of price make it a luxury item? But maybe maybe that's only in my little world? But come on, $60 for a t-shirt made out of an old potato sack?

But the potato sack thing got me thinking ... so I got out one of my t-shirts and and measured it's dimensions ... then I got onto Amazon UK and checked out their gardening supplies ... sure enough, there were nice, clean, new sacks around the right size for about £3 each ... so I ordered a few ... yesterday morning I got busy with a scissors ... I laid a t-shirt over the sack as a pattern & clipped around ... & then I wriggled into the result.

Here's a hint: buy roomy ... sackcloth doesn't have the same stretch and give that ordinary t-shirt material does. However, I'm slim & still reasonably flexible so I managed to get it on ... once on, it fitted very well ... I put an ordinary t-shirt over it and got on with things in the office for about an hour or so ...

And the verdict? Well, not terribly comfortable, but not unbearable either ... every time you move, you know you're wearing it, but it's not like it's agony either ... when I took it off I had a look at my skin ... no noticeable chaffing or redness ... so, by no means a frightful torment ... it doesn't draw blood, it doesn't make you want to scream ... it is mildly uncomfortable and you're aware of it most of the time ... which is the point, isn't it, if you're looking to mortify the flesh? So if that is your aim (ie mortification), I can recommend it ... but only if you don't go the 'luxury' route of buying a deluxe one on line ... make your own, and give the money to charity!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Can we deny access to Holy Communion? 4

As I'm not a canonist, most of what I've posted over the last few days on this topic naturally falls under the heading of amateur speculation. At best I've been amusing myself. Perhaps there are those who would accuse me of being somewhat mischievous. Ah well ... it is my blog after all ... and blogs are all but the last bastion of the absolute monarchy (at least moderated ones are!).

Before wrapping this topic up (for now anyway) I would like to point out that the purpose of these posts was not to comment one way or another about same-sex relationships. The purpose, if you need reminding, was for me to have a bit of a mulling over of the CofI's canonical provisions for excluding people from receiving Holy Communion - prompted by controversies in the US about application of Canon 915 of the Catholic Church.

Neither was it the purpose to suggest that the Church can not and should not deny Holy Communion to anyone for any reason. What I am arguing is that if such a thing is to be done, it is to be done according to the manner in which the Church has laid down  - with decency and in due order. It is not for a rector, a parish, or indeed, with all due respect, a bishop, to act solely as they see fit, using only their personal views on a particular matter as the criteria for acting. We have laws - the same laws that grant those in positions of authority their authority - those laws must be adhered to or else those seeking to deny some one communion are acting outside the bounds of their authority ... I believe the legal term is ultra vires: out side their power. The US priest (Father Marcel Guarnizo, whose actions led me to consider this series) faced severe penalties from his diocese for acting as he did - are CofI rectors prepared to face equally severe sanctions if it is shown that they acted outside their authority?

And given the musings of my previous three posts (which are here: part 1; part 2; & part 3) ... which, by the way I think are far from exhaustive ... it seems to me that it would be very difficult to exclude someone from Holy Communion short of the person putting their hands up and saying 'fair cop, gov.' Curiously, that is what a lot of Catholic canonists observe in relation to their Canon 915. One remarked that he was not sure that this was a canon that was ever intended to be applied.

That might be the practical view to take of our own Canon 16. I say this because if the canonists of the Catholic Church - of whom they are a great many - think it is difficult to apply their canon effectively (except in fairly limited circumstances - as I noted in the comm box of the first post, those who divorce and remarry are quite vulnerable to it, should a priest chose to act) - then how much harder it must be to apply our own canon, which quite frankly sets the bar much higher, IMHO, than Canon 915.  Canon 915 consists of a single line - ours is far longer ... and as any lawyer will tell you, the more one writes, the greater chance there is of getting it wrong (having an unintended effect ... that's how one ends up with loopholes in the law).

We also have the added difficulty of having very few qualified canonists in the CofI. That to my mind would present great problems as to achieving certainty that the canon was being applied in a licit fashion. And if one can not be certain of that, then one should not apply it.

Certainly, if we were to attempt to apply it, all the quite complex procedures required under the relevant canon would have to be followed first. Not begin a canonist I have no access to the case law here & therefore have no idea if it has ever been applied (in the sense of it being fully applied, all criteria fully met, & appeals against it made & defended in diocesan courts & perhaps even further appeals made under canon 42, if that last is appropriate ... as opposed to the idea of the canon being waved at someone and telling them it allows their rector to ban them if s/he so wishes) or under what circumstances. But given that neither I nor anyone I have spoken to is aware of this canon being used, it is safe to assume its usage is rare and probably any use is not recent.

However, as a note of caution ... currently, if a rector or parish make it clear to someone that they are not welcome to receive without going down the proper legal route, it remains an option for that individual to simply remove themselves to another parish that might be more sympathetic to their situation. That may be a rather painful way to go. But perhaps less painful than what is bound to develop into a rather ugly public confrontation with the rector and bishop if they insist on their legal rights. With the added danger that if the diocese should succeed in fulfilling the requirements of the canon then all priests of the CofI are obliged to refuse them Communion if they should present themselves in another parish (provided the priest knows & it would be difficult to see how they might not know if there had been an ugly public scandal over this matter). Going down the legal route is never without its dangers for all parties involved.

However, enough is enough. Time to wrap this up. So I'll end with this last thought. This series began with Father Marcel Guarnizo's attempt to deny a woman he knew to be a lesbian Holy Communion. If a CofI cleric were to attempt to invoke this canon for the  purpose of denying Communion to an LGBT person, I think a further issue would arise. As the canon does not seem to be generally used, would attempting to use it for the purpose of excluding LGBT persons only not amount to a form of discrimination?  There are, after all, other instances of 'grave sin' within our church that seem to be openly tolerated. Would these not merit similar action? But if  we were to move solely in cases regarding sexuality, then surely we lay ourselves open to charges of discrimination?

And ... you will pardon me, I am sure, if I chose to amuse myself a little on my own blog ... but is not discrimination to be considered a grave sin also? How ironic it would be if someone, hoping to exclude one group from the Lord's Table, were hoist by their own petard and by virtue of their actions were excluded themselves!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Can we deny access to Holy Communion? 3

I promised yesterday to offer some of my thoughts as to what the 'hoops' might be that a priest might have to go through if they were to licitedly deny Holy Communion to an individual (part 1 of this post is here). To reiterate that part of Canon 16 which I was looking at:

 If the incumbent is convinced that any member of the congregation ought not to be admitted to Holy Communion by reason of grave and open sin without repentance, the said incumbent shall warn such a person of the grave spiritual danger of communicating in such a state and shall offer pastoral advice, and report the case to the bishop of the diocese in which such congregation is situated. Should such a person refuse repentance and neglect pastoral advice, the incumbent shall not admit the person to Holy Communion, and shall immediately report to the bishop with all details of the case. 

1. It must be the incumbent who acts in this matter; it can not be a curate, or any other clergy; nor indeed any lay person of the parish, however distinguished they may be. It is not for the select vestry or any other sub-group with the parish. In fact, as this is a legal process, the incumbent, I think, must be very sure they are not being in any way influenced by outside agents or bowing to public pressure to act.

2. The incumbent must be 'convinced.' The canon does not state how the incumbent is to be convinced. But natural justice suggests that there must be fairly substantial and incontestable evidence available. Gossip, surmise, or rumour are not evidence.

3. The sin must be 'grave.' Do we have definitions of what constitute grave sin? Have we indicated anywhere in our church law what sins are grave enough that one might be excluded from Holy Communion? We may all feel we know what a grave sin is, but where, for the purposes of applying this canon, is it defined? The Roman Catholic Church for example has, inter alia, its very weighty Catechism to look to in relation to deciding whether a sin is grave or not. I do not think we have a comparable handy reference guide. Is this not something that natural justice would entitle someone to before so severe a penalty might be invoked? And in the absence of one, are we entitled to invoke the canon?

4. The sin must be 'open.' Presumably this means the sin must be public in some way, known to all or at least a sizable proportion of the congregation. This would suggest if the purported grave sin was known only to the incumbent, or only to a small group in the parish, then the canon may not be invoked. And if it becomes 'open' only by virtue of an attempt to invoke this canon, the party would be seriously wronged against. It is presumably not open to the incumbent to make this canon operable by virtue of his/her own actions.

5. The individual must be 'without repentance.' How is it to be determined that the purported grave and open sinner is without repentance? We have confession and absolution prior to the administration of Holy Communion ... does that not suffice? What degree of repentance is required? The canon says 'without repentance.' The term is not elsewhere defined, so anyone accused under it is entitled to rely on a plain English interpretation of the phrase. To be 'without repentence' is to have not even the smallest degree of repentance in relation to the purported offense. Is it possible to demonstrate that this is the situation?

6. In relation to the warnings and the pastoral advice required, given that this is a part of a legal process, is documentation needed? In fact, as this may potentially develop into an adversarial process, is it advisable to have witnesses present? And how many are needed and how is their independence to be verified?

7. Also, what of the ability of the incumbent to compel the 'accussed' to meet with him/her? The canon states that if 'Should such a person refuse repentance and neglect pastoral advice, the incumbent shall not admit the person to Holy Communion.' One can not refuse to repent that which has been warned of; one can not neglect advice which one has not been given. An incumbent may invite the person to meet with them in the rectory or some other venue; they may request permission to visit them in their own home; but there is no power to compel & no provision in the canon evident to me should the individual exercise their right to refuse to talk to the incumbent. Later in the canon it does suggest that when things have gotten to the point where the bishop must be involved if matters are to progress, a refusal to meet with the bishop can result in Communion being denied. But before that phase is licitly reached, the rector and the individual must have met ... and I see no lawful way for the individual to be sanctioned should they refuse that meeting.

I could go on but I won't. I may have 'dragged' this particular topic out a bit. But I promise (sort of, fingers crossed!) to draw things to some sort of a close tomorrow!