Should I stay or should I go?

minsterI’m not thinking of leaving the Church of England at the moment. Periodically I do consider it of course. This is partly a sane response to the problems we face along with frustration, anger and sadness about the very significant limitations of the institution. And it is partly a kind of childish “running away from home” mentality that imagines that there is a perfect world/ Church/ life out there, if only I can find it.

I was talking to a very reflective member of one of our congregations the other day. He was saying how he frequently goes into York Minster – he feels drawn – compelled even – to go there. Yet when he gets there, he finds that it doesn’t quite speak to him spiritually the way he wants it to. Still he goes. It is a kind of calling that I can understand and respect. For those of us brought up in the ’80s, we might finding ourselves humming, like Bono, “but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

Recently, I have been reminded, through various groups and interactions, of how much of our society sees the Church of England. We are perceived, by significant numbers, to be manipulative, political, resistant to change, and more concerned with appearances than the truth. This makes me sad – very sad. Because whilst we try to be much more than this, try to be better than this (and if this was a different blog post I would tell you about Foodbanks and debt counselling and community centres) I cannot deny that there is some truth in what they say. Over my sixteen years in the Church I have often been treated with great kindness. I have been prayed for and given practical support, I have been shown great patience, I have been given more than I deserve, and I have been trusted to do my job. But I have also sometimes been hurt, ignored, undermined and dismissed, as many others have.

I believe the salvation of the Church of England will be in honesty and humility. We must stop pretending to be better than we are, for it can be our saving grace to remember that we do not have all the answers, to acknowledge our failings and to make the effort to change. I used to find it hysterical that amongst the first Canons (laws) of the Church of England, you can find the sentence, “The government of the Church of England” (and it goes on to specify the orders of Bishops, Deans, Archdeacons, Clergy and Laity) “is not repugnant to the Word of God”. It’s not exactly boastful or even confident, is it? “Not repugnant” – is that the best we can hope for? Some days even that feels like a challenge…

You may have heard Christians talking about “speaking the truth in love”. It comes from one of the letters written to the early Church. It is sometimes used as a reason for saying something difficult but important to someone else about their behaviour. But what if we applied “Speaking the truth in love” to ourselves instead? “Speaking the truth in love” as I see it, is a command to openness. It is a commitment to political idiocy – to putting honesty and integrity  and compassion at the centre of who we are. Christians sometimes seem to fear that by being brutally honest about our failings, we risk diluting the Good News of Jesus’ love and call on our lives. In fact, this kind of integrity will show the good news for what it is: the commitment of God to all people – all us failures, all us anxious, scared, vulnerable, competitive, angry, sad, hopeful, confused people – to love, forgive and work with us, helping us to move on.

I went in the Minster myself today. Not for any particular spiritual purpose – we had left a school bag there the day before during the choir concert and I had to persuade the police officers who had tidied it away that (a) it wasn’t a bomb and (b) it belonged to me. This involved me having to describe the shoes inside the bag in some detail (which was a challenge in itself – turns out I have no idea what my children are wearing). As I walked through the crossing to the exit, I noticed (bizarrely for the first time) a massive crucifix in the south aisle hanging above the many individuals, couples, and tourist groups who were meandering around taking photos. I have no idea why I have never seen this before. It is about twenty foot high – not easy to miss you would think, but I had missed it nevertheless. Perhaps I am just not used to looking upwards.

The organisation is deeply flawed, just as I am deeply flawed. We must do better, and we must remember that Jesus came not to condemn but to save. We must speak the truth and allow others to speak their truth, and trust in God’s love to overcome all. Pray for General Synod this week, and for all God’s people who are connected, however loosely, to this Church of ours. May God bless what is good, and tear down what is destructive, and lead us into life.

Reading Alice

A couple of months ago a clergyman a generation older than me asked me what my PhD was about. I explained it was about Victorian Church history, looking at some of the major controversies of the period and the relationship of children’s literature to those ideas, especially Lewis Carroll’s writings (I have been known to say to people that it’s an excuse to spend six years reading Alice in Wonderland, but on this occasion I didn’t).

He smiled and was obviously amused. “So, it doesn’t actually bear any relationship to anything practical, does it?”

I felt somewhat squashed. But perhaps his point is worth answering, as we seem to live in a culture that increasingly devalues history.

Most of the people I know who are doing further study in theology have a much more obviously relatable topic to the Church or the world. They have a focus, or at least a clear link, to issues in contemporary culture: refugees, gender studies, artificial intelligence, leadership models or contemporary communication networks, for example. All these have clearly more to say to us than a few Victorians fighting over something which no-one seems to think is important anymore. It is certainly much easier, perhaps rightly, to get funding for such projects. But a world which ceases to value history as a place where wisdom can be found, fills me with a deep unease.

Today I read a very interesting letter in the Guardian that compares the stresses faced by today’s GCSE pupils to the Victorian policy of Payment by Results.

Payment by Results, introduced in 1862, was widely criticised by educationalists, academics and social reformers. Rather than making schools improve, as the policy aimed to do, critics say that it widened gaps already present, and penalised the schools that needed support. It was so controversial, and such was the concern about the damage it was doing to schools, that public pressure eventually led to the policy being dropped. And yet here we are again, with a remarkably similar system, living out the legacy of that recent Education Minister who famously said that we had “had enough of experts”. This can only happen in a country that has decided that history is largely irrelevant.

Studying the history of the Church is not irrelevant to the life of the Church today either. As I read and reflect, I cannot help but think that we have been here before. Just as in the mid nineteenth century, the Church always seems to be in the news for the wrong reasons, we are frequently shooting ourselves in the foot, picking the wrong battles, arguing amongst ourselves and obsessing over matters which, if history is any indicator, might seem to be about fundamental doctrine at the moment but which may turn out, fifty years later, to be entirely uncontroversial.

The phrase “history has to keep repeating itself because no-one listens to it” is over used – but it is over used because it expresses a fundamental truth. When we cut back on funding and time for historical subjects: philosophy, archaeology, art, music, theology, classics, we risk losing something vital. We are our history. If we decide we are not, then we are choosing to be anchorless – helpless in our determined independence from all that has gone before – doomed to repeat our mistakes and lacking in the gifts and insights of our ancestors. Learning from history is not the same as reading it uncritically – quite the reverse. History sets us in a context, it helps us to reflect not only on where we have come from, but where we are now, and what our reasonable possibilities are for the future. Our country (including its Church) has a complicated and often problematic history – greater understanding of that is necessary in order for us to repent where appropriate, turn around, and try to do better.

And that is why it is ok to spend six years reading Alice in Wonderland.


Another thing we never talk about

I have just read a somewhat distressing article on how domestic abuse is tackled (or not tackled) in some Southern Baptist Churches.

Thankfully, we are a long way away from that kind of theology on this side of the pond, and yet something of the culture feels familiar.

In March 2017, the Church of England produced an excellent document, “Responding Well to Domestic Abuse”.

It deals with a lot of the holes in the C of E’s decade-old document on the subject, and it draws on expertise from various relevant agencies. One omission which has finally been addressed, is that that for the first time, we have an acknowledgement from the Church that its ministers may be among the ones that are being abused. When I finally got this paragraph included prior to publication, it felt like one of the most important things I have ever done:


Clergy may see marital breakdown as a failure of their ordination vows and therefore be particularly vulnerable to staying in abusive relationships for many years. In such situations, Dioceses should not put fear of scandal above the safety of vulnerable people. Clergy should expect to be believed by their Bishop when disclosing abuse, and supported should they wish to separate or divorce. An assessment should also be made of the likely risk to any children. At a most basic level, the survivor and family should be offered all reasonable steps to keep safe should they separate from the perpetrator (for example changing locks on the clergy housing). Clergy who are survivors should not be threatened with losing their post or housing in the event of divorce as this could create intolerable stress for the family and lead to people staying in dangerous situations. In such cases, the Church is compounding the abuse and colluding with the perpetrator. Counselling should be made available if requested for the survivor and any children.   


It doesn’t seem much to ask, does it? So why does the Church need these most basic things pointing out? The document itself draws attention to some of the problems. There are interpretations of the Bible that make it easier to justify abuse. The Church of England is very broad (as you know) and there are small minorities on the ends of the Catholic and Evangelical wings who believe that marriage is absolutely indissoluble under any circumstances. But more significantly, we are, as an institution, terrified of scandal, and that has led to us, completely indefensibly, to brush things under the carpet rather than face the consequences of the situations we find ourselves in. This has, as we all know, led to the appalling truth that some clergy have been able to abuse others without adequate consequences. It has also, which is less known, led the Church to minimise the abuse of its clergy by others. But now we have it in writing. “Dioceses should not put fear of scandal above the safety of vulnerable people.” And yes. Clergy are people too.

We have mandatory training on domestic violence now, which is excellent. Dioceses and Parishes are encouraged to have policies on domestic abuse in place. But there is still work to be done. When I went to my recent training, I was the only one in the room who had read the 2017 report – most were unaware of its existence – and when someone asked the question, “Is this something we have to do, or is it something we’re encouraged to do?”, the trainer acknowledged that whilst it was best practice to have such polices in place, the Church does not oblige us to do so.

Although this is a serious problem for the Church, I don’t see us as particularly atypical. If I post something about domestic abuse on my Facebook timeline, it is met with a deafening silence from the ether. My FB friends are often quite chatty. But this is something that we are too scared to properly address, because one in four of us will experience domestic abuse, and the fallout of acknowledging that is too terrifying to contemplate. One in four is not some far away theoretical person. One in four is our immediate family, our dearest friends, our closest neighbours. Domestic abuse is no respecter of class or education or confidence or ability. It happens everywhere and to everyone, and it is a hidden monster.

As far as I understand it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to be good news for the oppressed. Whilst we keep silent, we can offer no such good news. Good news begins when the truth is spoken, when the theology that all people are precious to God, is made reality by making it possible for everyone to lead lives that are free from coercion and fear. We live amongst people who have got used to feeling scared all the time. Unless we continually speak out against domestic abuse, we are not really offering a safe space for people to dare to consider whether they might live a free-er, safer, more holistic life.

I feel slightly scared even writing this. Like the rest of us, I do not want to acknowledge the reality, and I am worried that it might backfire on me somehow. But we must speak out. Each of us only has one life to live on this earth. Each of us deserves freedom from fear, and hope for the future. There are those of us who pray every day, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven”. Earth can only be like heaven if we act as well as pray. Domestic abuse, in all its forms, is never acceptable. I hope it can become one of those things that we talk about.aughton rainbow window


You are not alone and you are safe

I’d like to share a beautiful video of a girl called Rebekah.


Rebekah is a trans girl who wants other trans people to know that they are not alone and that they are safe.

And because I want people to know this too, I am sharing her story here.

But I am also preoccupied by something quite different, and all together sombre, because it is that time of year again. Next week marks the beginning of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life on earth before his crucifixion.

On Monday Jesus visits friends. They are an unusual bunch, grown up siblings living together, none of them married – it would have seemed odder then than it does now. An invalid, an exhausted carer, and a woman who may have had mental health difficulties or learning disabilities. She sits by his feet, ignores protocols, ignores what needs doing, and wastes a year’s worth of wages pouring expensive perfume out on his feet.

Later that week, Jesus will go into the temple and do the unthinkable: turn over tables, assault businessmen, shout, cause chaos. All for the sake of reclaiming a space where the people could worship God. And surely realising that this does not come without consequences.

And soon he will eat his last meal, know he has been betrayed, go into a garden and pray that somehow he won’t have to through with it.

And then he will be taken away to die.

On Easter Sunday everything will be different, but it is not Easter yet. First, we will be  Holy Week people, watching with horror while things come crashing towards disaster. And this is where God meets us.

Life is unbearably hard sometimes. We all have bad days. Sometimes we have days that are so bad they leave us with a kind of PTSD. We have days when we can’t stop worrying about the future. We have days when we are furious about the injustice of it all. We have days when the world is not good enough – we are not good enough. Where is God? Why has he forsaken us?

Voices like Rebekah’s bring us back to reality, to hope, to belief that things can be better. She and her parents stand up, so that other trans people know they are not alone.  As the mother of a grown up trans daughter, of whom I am extraordinarily proud, I value this solidarity. I see its importance. We are part of a rainbow world, with much beauty and far too many tears, far too much intolerance, fear, ignorance and suspicion. We cannot expect it to change if we do not stand up and speak our truth.

Holy Week, is, of course, a promise that God walks with us in even the very darkest times of our lives. But it is also, perhaps, a reminder that we can in fact find him, everywhere and with all people. As we walk with him, meet his friends once more, ask the difficult questions that he was courageous enough to ask, we will find ourselves equipped to walk in this world in the confidence that we are not alone, that we are safe, and that life can be beautiful.


There is no health in us…

This morning I woke up and saw that a Radio 4 programme has exposed a sexual harassment case within the management of the Save the Children Charity. And instead of feeling outraged, I felt uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am #MeToo. I believe sexual harassment and assault needs to be called out and challenged. I believe our culture needs to change so that it is never, ever, under any circumstances, acceptable for women to be shamed, manipulated or bullied simply because they are women.

But I think we’ve got something else happening here too.

In the past week or so, we’ve had big media stories about people high up in the charity sector whose behaviour has ranged somewhere between the questionable, and the downright shocking and probably illegal. Brendan Cox (the husband of the murdered MP) has stood down from two charities, Oxfam has been all over the news, and now we have a new exposé on Save the Children.

Is it a co-incidence that this is happening concurrently with a group with prime-ministerially ambitious politicians claiming that we should cut back on foreign aid in order to “take care of our own”? I suspect not.

I think there is deep political and psychological manipulation going on here. And whether it is happening consciously or not, these stories are giving us a get-out clause when it comes to our charitable giving. Thousands of donors have stopped their payments to Oxfam in the past week. I have no way of knowing whether they have transferred their giving to other charities or whether they have simply decided that you can’t trust anyone – not even the charitable sector – so what is the point of trying to help. This get-out clause enables us to keep our hard earned (or otherwise) cash whilst feeling morally superior at the same time. It’s terribly convenient.

Humanity has always wanted scapegoats. In fact, the ancient Jewish people had literal scapegoats. The people would confess their sins, make their sacrifice, and send a goat out from the tribe and into the wilderness. The goat carried the sins of the people far away from them. They didn’t have to think about their own failings any more.

(Human) Scapegoats continue to be part of our psychology – we are desperate for someone to blame – Muslims, Jews, immigrants, unions, Tories, kids, older people. We lump people together and we get on our high horses (which are, after all, clearly superior to goats) and that keeps all the messed up awful stuff far away from us.

I have my own particular favourite scapegoats – education ministers come to mind. But when I start to think they are responsible for all the evil in the world I have lost the plot a bit.

And I have noticed, I think, a tendency over the last decade or so, which seems to have come to a head in the last week, to scapegoat in particular those people or groups whom society has previously portrayed as rather morally good, perhaps even superior to the rest of us in some way. We are much angrier with a Save the Children director who fails morally than we are with the director of a mattress company who does something similar (I have no idea whether any mattress selling businesses have had any problems like this – I’m not trying to libel anyone!). Do we think that these charity workers think they are better than us, and are just a little bit pleased to bring them down?

It doesn’t help that our whole society now revolves around a competitive market place, where not just business but charities, religious and social organisations must big themselves up. We live in an era when even the Dioceses of the Church of England, which in many respects might seem to be still struggling to move on from the nineteenth century, are required to have strategies, clear aims and objectives, and straplines. Some of the straplines are just so embarrassing I can’t even bear to repeat them here (you know who you are), and some of them, at least, seem carry a sense of trying to prove something, looking desperately for approval from God and country, that doesn’t seem to me to bear much relation to the good news in the Gospel. Why are we pretending to be better than we are? I have often thought that the most honest (and possibly appealing) strapline of the Church would be a little more Larkin-ian: “Just like you, we’re all a bit fucked up, but God loves us, and he loves you too”. That’s a Church we can all belong to.

If the scapegoats have changed over the years (and perhaps the Church, as an organisation that has been far from innocent in terms of looking for scapegoats outside itself, needs to acknowledge that there is a certain poignancy to it being our turn now), then the real victims remain the same – the poor, the vulnerable, the unheard, and victims of war as well as victims of sexual harassment. If we really care about the victims, it will not be adequate to respond with shock at supposedly morally upright people and organisations gone wrong, and withdraw our support for them.

If the world’s to get better, then we all need to do something about it. We need to give our time and our money, to take risks, and not use the mistakes of others to shore up our own sense of superiority. We need to work for justice and try to get a handle on forgiveness at the same time.

Some people think lent is about giving up chocolate and gin. I don’t. And only partially because I am very unwilling to give up either of those things unless absolutely forced. I think it is about going back to the basics of who I am. Recognising that everyone, including me, is a bit messed up and sometimes does awful things and that there is, in the words of the liturgy, “no health in us”.

I am going to try to give up scapegoating for lent this year and I will probably fail. But as my imaginary strapline says: God loves us anyway.



The Wedding Gone Wrong

I always tell brides and grooms that the Church bit of their wedding is the one part of the day when they don’t have to think about anything or anyone but each other and the promises they are making. This is the stress-free bit. They don’t even have to look at the congregation very much (which is quite a relief if you’re a bit shy). You don’t have to chat to people and make sure they’re all ok. You don’t have to worry about whether everything’s happening right or not (because that’s the Vicar’s job). You don’t even need to remember what to say or when to stand up and sit down, because I will whisper to you bossily throughout the whole thing.

That’s what I tell them. And it’s true. But I know that they’ll probably worry anyway.

We all know the principle – it’s who you marry that’s the important thing, not how the day goes – but in practice? Everyone (almost everyone) worries about the clothes and the cars and the flowers and the rings and the lunch and the holiday and who to sit next to who and whether the best man is actually going to lose the rings and whether someone will do a four weddings and a funeral bit and object when the vicar leaves the tiniest of pauses, and whether a small child will scream so no-one hears the vows, and whether everyone will enjoy themselves, and whether they should be really spending this much money. Occasionally (you know who you are), I meet a bride who doesn’t buy into this (yay!) but I have great sympathy for those who find it all consuming. There is a lot of pressure – internal and external – to make the day perfect, just as, increasingly in this complex and competitive world, we feel under pressure to be perfect people.

Last Sunday in Church we heard the reading of the Wedding at Cana. It was a wedding that Jesus and his followers and his mother were at – and the unthinkable happened – something went wrong. Quite badly wrong if you like a drink (and most people do at a wedding!) They ran out of wine.

And I have been thinking this week…what do we do when the wine runs out? I don’t mean literal wine (although that’s quite bad enough). I mean, what do we do when despite all our planning and hard work and determination and commitment, things don’t turn out the way they should? Someone lets us down. Or circumstances change. Or we realise we made one foolish and irreversible mistake. Or our health changes. Or we just run out of energy. And everything feels just bleurgh (to use the technical term).

In a world that demands perfection, especially in January, when we are all supposed to be on diets, and have shiny new (possibly unrealistic) life goals, wine-running-out doesn’t feel like an acceptable option. And yet it happens to all of us, all the time. We take on more than we can comfortably handle. We all get sick sometimes. We all disappoint ourselves (never mind other people). And that’s why I love that the water into wine at the wedding story is the first miracle recorded in the stories about Jesus. It’s not a life and death situation, but it is most definitely a “bleurgh” moment – it’s all gone wrong and everyone is stressed and it’s hard to see what can be done to make it any better.

And I can see what the story is asking me. It’s asking, “What do you do when the wine runs out?” and it’s pointing me towards Mary, who, we’re told, turns to Jesus and asks for help.

I find it strange how hard it is to ask for help – even from God! And yet I don’t believe we were meant for independence really. We’re meant for community and relationship. Of course, asking for help does mean acknowledging our vulnerability – but (provided we are vulnerable to the right people) I think that is good for our mental health. This drive that we see and experience all around us for constant improvement – even perfection – is unattainable and ultimately damaging.

When the wine runs out, I think we need to ask for help – from God and for one another. Perhaps prayer need not be the last resort when all other options have fallen by the wayside, but an intrinsic part of our life and relationships.

Bottom line is, I still believe in hope. There are some things that speak deeper than the lack of wine for today’s party – things that are more fundamental than disappointment, frustration, wounded pride, sickness or even, perhaps, grief. The Bible often talks of heaven as being like a wedding banquet – not the sort where we get bored and drunk, or stressed and inadequate, or full of existential angst about the meaning and the fleeting nature of our lives – but one where the celebrations will never end – one where we will finally understand who we are and who we were meant for.

When the wine runs out, what will I do? I will do my best to hold on to that eternal hope, and in this unpredictable world I will try to celebrate when I may, and grieve when I must, and avoid the temptation to think that life could be perfect if only I could work out how. When the wine runs out, I will turn to him.bridesmaid


Walking away


After the most stupidly busy December on record, when I am sure I radiated more panic than “Good News for all humankind”, I feel obliged to think about how I might do things differently next year. Advent and Christmas deserves better than me just trying to work out how many more things I can cram in.

Thankfully January is looking saner. “An empty diary is a happy diary” a clergy friend once said to me. Well it’s definitely not empty but, at the moment, it looks as if there is enough time to prioritise the things that need prioritising, do some of the things I’ve been putting off, and even cope with an emergency or two that wasn’t foreseen. This is a happy diary.

On Wednesday I’m going to see my Bishop for my biennial MDR (Ministerial Development Review). Yes – it’s as scary as it sounds! We will look back at the last two years in some detail, and reflect on what the priorities and hopes are for the future might be. I’m hoping it will be useful – and I have a whole load of ideas of things I’d like to do for Church and community as well as family and piano pupils for this year.

And I think, even if I only do one or two of them, that will probably mean walking away from something else.

During our all age service at Skipwith on Sunday, we acted out the story of Jesus and Peter’s first meeting. Jesus was talking to the crowds on the sea edge. It was so busy it was getting dangerous, so he asked a local fisherman (Peter) if he’d take him in his boat so that he could teach people whilst standing in the boat and shouting back to the shore. When it was all over, Jesus suggested to Peter that he did a bit of fishing before taking him back to land. Peter said there was no point – he’d been out all night and hadn’t caught a thing. Jesus insisted. Peter rowed into deeper waters and let down his nets, and what do you know? Mountains of fish – so many fish it broke the nets.
This, we think, when we read the story, is the “Ta-da!” moment. It’s a miracle! Look at all those fish! But I think something much more extraordinary happens in this story. Because when they get back to land, Jesus asks Peter to change his life and follow him, and the really weird thing is – he does.
He walks away from the best catch of his life. He walks away from goodness knows how much market value fish. He walks away from success and financial security, and follows something – someone – that his gut tells him is worth more.
We are all full of New Year’s resolutions. We expect such a lot of ourselves. We expect that we can take on more and more, try harder and harder. But the reality is, we can’t follow a dream, without walking away from something else. We need to know when to say “no”, and “not yet” and “not anymore” if we want to live good, balanced lives where we are able to say “yes” to our genuine callings.
This year I might do some walking away so I can do some following on. What about you?

Penguins: The true meaning of Christmas

I’m a bit anxious about the Christmas Eve crib service. It seems to have got a bit complicated. Last year was busy, but simple, with a different child reading each part of the story and all the kids ending up at the front to create a kind of tableau. This year we have lights and visuals and a proper (sort of) cast plus the usual thousands of children who will be getting up out of their seats and going on a journey to find Jesus. It has the potential to be fabulous. It also has more potential to go wrong!
My Churchwarden said to me, “As long as all the children get to go up to the front and be part of it – that’s the most important thing”.
And then she reminded me about the penguin.
Most children come dressed as nativity characters to our crib service. They know that at some point in the service, their group of characters will be called up to be part of the scene at the front. But last year we had a penguin too. He was quite a small penguin, of the sort of age that doesn’t really like to sit doing nothing for 40 minutes, so he was quite a focal point as he occasionally wandered up and down the aisle. In the last carol, any children who wanted to join the group, who hadn’t already become part of the tableau, were invited to do so. So many of our photos of that service have a penguin right at the front.
And do you know, more people commented on how nice it was that the penguin was allowed to be part of it than almost anything else about that service.
Because people do not expect the Church to be inclusive.
That was the good news that year – that someone unexpected was invited to be part of the celebrations. And it’s ironic that that was a surprise to people – because that’s a concept that is of major significance in the nativity story. The people invited are not the usual suspects – not the established religious, but the shepherds living on the bread line and the foreigners who practice a different religion from the other side of the world.
My churchwarden is right. Christmas is not just for the Marys and Josephs and Angels. It is for the penguins and the Spidermen and the Wonder Women and the Disney Princesses. It is for the people who forgot to dress up and for the people who wouldn’t agree to dress up in a million years.
All are invited. All are welcome. All are called to gaze in wonder at the miracle of life itself, and the promise that God is with us.

penguin nativity 2

All play and no work makes Jack intrinsically unsatisfied…

I’ve been thinking about ancient heresies (as you do), and especially Pelagianism. This is the idea, posited by some Christians back in the fifth century, that human beings could earn their own salvation by working hard and choosing to do the right thing (rather than salvation being a free gift from God). Pelagianism has sometimes been called “the British heresy” because of our national tendency to believe that there’s nothing we can’t sort out, if only we work hard enough. It’s a tempting idea, because it gives us the illusion that we are in control – but in reality there are all kinds of reasons why we might not be able to work as well or as hard as we think we ought to, and in the end a philosophy like this creates a kind of hierarchy of human beings, where those who for whatever reason are less “successful” are seen to have brought their misfortunes upon themselves.


I think Pelagianism is dying in Britain though – and whilst in some ways that’s a good thing, I have started to notice that although on the one hand our nation seems as hell bent on killing itself with overwork as it ever did, on the other hand we seem to have lost a sense of the value and potential satisfaction of work. We have thrown out, with the Pelagian bathwater, a respect for work for its own sake.


For example, my eldest son, recently out of university, has spent some time working in a call centre. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but – hey, it’s a job. It is pretty basic pay, but he tells me that if you turn up on time, you get a bonus!!!!
That thing we were paying you for, well we know that’s not enough incentive, so we’ll give you a present if you do what you are actually contracted to do.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. For several years, secondary schools have been offering cinema tickets or cash prizes for those with good attendance records – I heard about one the other day that enters its high attendance pupils into a raffle at the end of each year to win a bike!!! If my 5 year old gets ten house points, the school gives her a treat – I suppose the “we’ll give you a bike if you turn up” idea is just a logical extension of this.
Well, what sort of mean mother would object to their children getting sweets when they’ve done well? And I’m not even consistent.  I, along with most of the parents in the country, have used sticker charts, with the promise of significant reward, as a desperate measure to try to get my kids to do what’s right, even if I have to bribe them to do it, so I’m not exactly whiter than white here.


And yet… I desperately want my children to be proud that they have earned house points without needing a treat to make the point. I would like them to want to read because reading is satisfying, rather than read because of some other reward, and when they are older I want them turn up on time for work, not because they get a cash bonus but because it is satisfying to feel as if you are doing your job as well as you can and important to keep your promises.
Call me an idealist if you want, but the truth is, we all know that consumerism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The more we get, the more we want and the more dissatisfied we get. C. S. Lewis talked about “artificial rewards” and “natural rewards”. If we stuff our kids full of the junk food of artificial rewards, might we be actually depriving them of feeling the more fulfilling joy that comes from doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do?

grandad milking
I don’t believe that working yourself into the ground earns you your salvation. But I do believe that the right amount of work, done in the right spirit, feeds the soul and enriches society. I wonder if we can help the next generation to believe that too?

Diverse world, diverse Church

I found out last week that there are 900 different types of cheese in the world. I mean – really? Do we need 900 different types of cheese? Clearly we think we do. Cheese doesn’t just arrive by accident – it takes effort and planning and experiments and risk taking. Human beings are clearly a bit odd and rather impressive. However many types of cheese there are, we know there could always be one more…

There are 15,000 species of butterflies. We didn’t make them. They just are. And of the 7 billion people on this planet there are no two exactly the same – not even identical twins are actually identical. It seems that God likes diversity just like people do. Creation did not have to be so colourful, so surprising, so lavishly extravagant. People did not have to be so different from one another.

So why do Christians sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we should all be the same? One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to somehow get the feeling that diversity is a product of the fall. Surely, we think, if there wasn’t sin and wrongdoing and tragedy in the world, our lives and our relationships wouldn’t be so complicated. People would agree with one another more easily because we would all think the same. But that is not the gospel of Jesus’ good news.

Here’s one of the readings that we had this week at Church. It’s one of the many letters the Paul wrote to the new Churches that were springing up everywhere in the century after Jesus’ death.

Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own mind. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God…
…Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Paul is celebrating difference. He’s saying “you know those people over there who are vegetarians? Well they’re doing it to praise God, just like you give thanks to God when you eat meat, so don’t argue about it. You know those people who are always going on about how Sunday is special and needs to be treated differently? Well if you think all days are equally holy you don’t need to beat them over the head with it. Hold on to your opinions, but don’t let them divide you.”

Unity is not uniformity. Unity is valuable only when it is diverse. In another letter of Paul’s, he writes about the Church as a body. Yes, people are functioning together for one purpose, but they are nothing like one another. Some, Paul says, are like the feet of the body, some are like the hands. Some are the head, some are the heart. None can do without the other. When we fail to recognise one another’s gifts, appreciate the differences that there are among us, we are quite literally dis-abled by our narrow vision. We are not following God’s path, if we’re not prepared to see something of God – something that we haven’t got – in those we travel with.

St Paul is talking about things that don’t seem that controversial to us now. It’s unlikely that arguments over meat eating or how we spend our Sundays would to lead to ostracisation in a Church, one way or another. But there are plenty of things that Christians do feel differently and strongly about, that if we’re not careful tear us apart, and Paul says to all these groups of people, whatever their sincere belief as people of God “Hold to your beliefs. But however strongly you feel, it is not your job to make everyone just like you.”

It is so easy for us to become obsessed by trying to make everyone think like us – but there are many ways of following Christ – and that is how it is meant to be. Do you think we will all look the same as one another in heaven? I don’t. Creation teaches us that God loves difference. What is important, Paul says, is the spirit in which we hold our beliefs. Is our priority to worship and give thanks to God?  Or is our priority to put our neighbours right?

We come across people every day who think differently to us. When they think very differently but they are also part of our faith community, that can be a huge challenge. But we do need each other in order to bear faithful witness to the one who calls us.

Unity in diversity is to some extent a paradox, but we claim a faith that is paradoxical, and we live in a world that is paradoxical. The world is beautiful and terrible – occasionally both at the same time. Those of us who are Christians believe in a God who is one, but also three, a God who is essentially about relationship. We believe in a God who suffers and serves in order to win the battle. We believe that you can only find your life by giving it away, and, even though we see power misused every day, we believe that love conquers power in every way.

And we are called to live together in this paradox. To allow one another to hold our strong opinions and refuse to let those opinions divide us. To understand that our way of being a Christian is not the only way of being a Christian. We must resist seeing ourselves as victims, only being careful to never victimize others. It is not, as Jesus makes abundantly clear throughout the Gospels, our job to judge one another – it is our job to forgive one another, allow ourselves to be forgiven, and celebrate the God who has called us to a diverse unity.

God give us the grace to live with, and give thanks for, diversity in all its many forms.