Monday, September 19, 2016

Booths and a Baldacchino

A sermon for Evensong

All that I have to say in the next few minutes is contained in a very helpful visual aid that is built into the fabric of this Cathedral.  The Baldacchino, the canopy over the altar, is a sign and reminder of all that I will say.  You could, of course, decide that means that all that follows is redundant, and you would be right to a point.  However, as a Baldacchino is rather uncommon in Anglican architecture, it may be that it would benefit from some explanation as to what it is a sign and reminder of!

It was, the Gospel tells us, the middle of the Festival of Booths when Jesus had this rather difficult exchange.  The Festival of Booths is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot.  It is a harvest festival at the end of the agricultural year.  It is also an annual reminder of the forty years that the people of Israel lived in the wilderness on their way to the promised land.  It takes its name from the way in which it was (and still is) celebrated.  The people of Israel build booths from temporary material and live in them for a week - the duration of the festival.  These booths can be built from any kind of material, but the roof must be organic.  This represents the temporary dwellings that farmers live in during the harvest.  It also represents the tents that the people of Israel lived in during their forty years in the wilderness.  The book of Leviticus commands that ‘You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’ (Lev. 23.42-43). 

During the time in the wilderness, and for a long time once the people had entered the Promised Land, the place of meeting with God continued to be a tent, a temporary dwelling.  It was not until King David that the idea of a house for God was thought of, and God forbade David to build it.  Solomon built the Temple, the house of God, for the God who does not dwell in places made by human hands and whom heaven and earth cannot contain (cf. 1 Kings 8.27-28).  During the Feast of Booths, the people of Israel dwell in booths, to remind them that they used to dwell like this and to remind them that it was in a tent that they went to meet with God.

And all of this is why we have a Baldacchino in the Cathedral over the altar.  It is a reminder of the Tent of Meeting, where God would meet with his people.  It is a reminder of the temporary dwellings in which God’s people lived.  And it is a call to us to meet with Jesus, who taught in the Temple in the middle of the Feast of Booths.  If the Baldacchino in the Cathedral is a sign and a reminder, it is a sign and a reminder of the tents in which God’s people lived in the wilderness and the Tent of Meeting in which they met with God.

As with all good signs, the Baldacchino points us to things.  It is a reminder of these Bible stories, and it is a pointer to their message to us.  So let me suggest three things that this sign might have to say to us this evening.

The first thing is ‘remember where you came from’.  The Feast of Booths and the Baldacchino remind us of the time our ancestors spend in the wilderness.  They remind us not to leave behind our origins.  They remind us of the way in which God met with his people in the Tent of Meeting, and remind us to recall the ways in which God has met with us in the past.  St John records Jesus and his contemporaries arguing fiercely about where Jesus came from.  I met with a bishop from India this week, and he was speaking about how the Church has been important in preserving the identities of tribal peoples in north India. Origins are important.  They are what have brought us to where we are today.  So this evening, let us give thanks for the places we came from, for the people who brought us on our journey thus far, and for the ways in which we have met with God.

The first message the sign of the Baldacchino has for us is ‘remember where you came from’.  The second is, ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’.  The reading from the book of Ezra tells of the people returning from exile in Babylon, accompanied by gold and silver and by royal proclamations.  The temptations of money and power were what Israel had failed after they entered the Promised Land, and that was why they went into exile.  As they return to the Land, they return to these temptations.  Money and power hold us where we are, they tempt us to hold on to them.  They make us work to retain what we have, and in doing that we are distorted from being the people that we are and that God made us to be.  Money and power tempt us to ignore those who have neither.  Those who dwell in booths today can be found in Calais, and in makeshift accommodation across Europe.  The displaced and the refugees, the desperate and the persecuted, they are the people who live in tents and temporary shelters.  For the people of Israel, living in tents for a week is part of remembering not to get fixed by the temptations of money and power, not to ignore the plight of the refugee and the desperate today.  That too is what the Baldacchino points us to.

‘Remember where you came from’; ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’.  Those are the first two messages that the Baldacchino offers us.  And the third is this: ‘We cannot grasp God’.  We cannot grasp God, we cannot make God belong to us so that we can use God’s power over others.  The Tent of Meeting was not a place to fix God, confining him to the canvas.  Rather it was a sign that God could, and did, move with the people.  God moves, God goes ahead of us, God takes us in new directions, surprising directions, even to Wells.  The Eastern Orthodox associate the Feast of Booths with the story of the Transfiguration.  On the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured and appears with Moses and Elijah.  Peter’s response is to try and fix this down into three tents.  But God cannot be fixed down, we cannot grasp God and hold on to him in this way or that.  We cannot have God on our own terms.  David Jenkins, who died recently, wrote that ‘God is far too great a mystery for us to penetrate to the heart of his Being and there is always something hidden’ (Living with Questions, p. 51).  In a similar vein, Jesus tells his hearers ‘You will search for me, but you will not find me’.  To try to grasp God is to try to control God.  We cannot do that.  The Baldacchino, with its open sides, stands as a reminder to us that there is always more to God than we think or imagine; that we cannot control God; and that God moves, and may take us in new directions and on new paths. 

As we hear of the Feast of Booths, and we consider the sign that is offered by the Baldacchino in this Cathedral, we are given these messages: ‘Remember where you came from’; ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’; and ‘we cannot grasp God’.  May we hear them and follow our living God.


First given in Derby Cathedral 18.9.16.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Book Launch - Imitation and Scapegoats

You are invited to the launch of Imitation and Scapegoats a new book by Simon J Taylor, Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral, Area Dean of Derby and Director of Curate Training. 

The book uses the work of René Girard on violence and religion to ask how minsters and pastors can deal with rivalry, conflict and scapegoats in their own lives and ministry. The ideas are explained through stories from the Bible, case studies and questions for reflection and discussion. 

Please come and mark the launch of the book, with refreshments and a brief introduction to the themes of the book. Copies will be available for purchase. 

Friday, September 02, 2016

Questions from Synod

Now the Report of Proceedings from the July Synod is available online, I reproduce these two extracts from the question time when I asked two supplementary questions.  As ever, this is about transparency in relation to what happens at Synod.

The first relates to Safeguarding, and to the difference in cycles between DBS checks and training requirements.  I have been involved in working out a Diocesan training schedule for Safeguarding and we have found that it misses a trick to combine the two cycles making record keeping (and hence reminders and up to date training and checks) simpler.

35. Revd Canon Jenny Tomlinson (Chelmsford) asked the Chair of the House of Bishops:  Can it be confirmed whether or not DBS checks are in future to be required every three rather than five years; and, if they are, what is the estimated cost to the whole Church, and benefit, of such a change?

The Bishop of Durham (Rt Revd Paul Butler) replied as Chair of the Joint Safeguarding Working Group: I will start by saying that a criminal record certificate is only truly accurate on the day it is issued. However, there is no official renewal/expiration date for a certificate. It is left to organisations to set the renewal period. The current policy in the Church of England, as approved by the House of Bishops, is to renew criminal record checks every five years. Of course, this period is kept under review. Three years has been mentioned as a possibility, as many charities, local authorities and schools adopt this time frame for renewals, but currently no final decision has been taken to amend this renewal period. Obviously, before such a change is made an analysis of the relevant pros and cons would be undertaken.

Revd Canon Jenny Tomlinson: Thank you very much for this answer. If this analysis of relevant pros and cons is undertaken, can Synod be assured that it would be both quantified and published?

The Bishop of Durham: I am sure that when this analysis is done there will be a clear communication about what the conclusion is.

Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor (Derby): Would it also, as part of that consideration, be possible to bring the renewal of the DBS into line with the requirement for the renewal of safeguarding training? At the moment the two things seem to be out of kilter and three years and five years only align every 15 years, which is quite a complex system for dioceses seeking to retain records and to get this in good order.

The Bishop of Durham: That is a very helpful observation as part of the consideration. Certainly, the three-year cycle does work quite well because you have to have a DBS when you have a new appointment and so on, but that is part of the considerations that we look at.

The second question relates to schools, and the challenge that Derby Cathedral has felt in articulating and being understood that the proposed Cathedral School is not for our benefit but for the good of Derby.  It is to be a Church School serving the city of Derby, not a faith school serving Anglicans or the Cathedral.

50. Mrs Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) asked the Chair of the National Society Council: Although the Government is no longer proposing to turn all existing schools into academies, the commitment to opening 500 new ‘free’ schools by 2020 remains in place. Very few bids for new Church schools are succeeding, despite the Church of England’s record of providing excellent education. Given the high cost of each bid (£30,000), what proposals does the Church of England have for resourcing this invaluable provision to the nation?

The Bishop of Ely (Rt Revd Stephen Conway) replied as Chair of the National Society Council: I refer to my answer to Question 49. The level of resource required to submit a bid for a Free School is considerable. The National Society is funding the provision of consultancy advice to dioceses. Part of the consultant’s role is to identify areas where bids are most likely to be successful so as to avoid wasting precious resource. Co-ordinating and sharing intelligence across the network of dioceses will help this bidding process but we recognise that other providers have access to significant funds which can make comprehensive and professional bids more compelling. We do not think that the future of the educational offer in a community should be determined by the quality of marketing or the amount of money spent on a bid, but dioceses need, as a matter of priority, to consider how to use their existing assets to ensure that they continue to enhance their provision as this is a unique opportunity to develop new schools.

Mrs Mary Durlacher: Thank you for clarifying that dioceses will be expected to continue funding bids. My question is, therefore, this: for dioceses like mine, Chelmsford, with larger than average population growth, therefore a greater need for new schools, will the national Church help with the cost of funding bids because we really cannot afford to keep losing £30,000 per bid?

The Bishop of Ely: I would love to be able to say, Mary, that the answer is yes, but I think we have to recognise that resources are limited and so there is a question about being strategic where the bids are being made. There is support from the centre for helping to make bids that are effective, but we cannot promise that there would be central funding, as far as I know at the moment, to underwrite bids. This needs to be a real priority set by the diocese itself.

Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor (Derby): Derby Cathedral is currently going through the bid process. Can I ask how the National Society Council is helping to articulate a model of a Church school serving the common good of all as distinct to faith schools serving the children of the faith? And how it is helping Government and decision makers about faith school applications to understand that distinction?

The Bishop of Ely: I am grateful for the question. It obviously demands quite a complex answer which cannot be supplied in the time that the Dean of Southwark will allow me. To be absolutely clear, what we are seeking to do and putting before the DfE all the time is that in our bids to provide new schools to meet fresh demands for our children that our Church schools are Church schools for all in the name of Jesus Christ. They are not faith schools simply to serve our own purpose as part of the distilled service of the Church of England for the common good of all.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 - My winner

So I did it:  All six books on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist have been read and reviewed.  The reading was fairly constant, the reviewing was a bit rushed towards the end!

The reviews are here:
Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain
Healing Forgiveness
Children in the Bible
God's Presence
I've thoroughly enjoyed it.  They are a set of excellent books, and not necessarily ones I would have read otherwise.  It leaves me in very good heart regarding the health of theology written in English.

But on the Sunday of Greenbelt, one and only one of the books will be declared the winner.  So I thought I'd give it a go and pick the single title that I think should win.

But first, something I have noticed from previous years shortlists.  For the past two shortlists, I have found bookmarks featuring all the shortlisted titles.  On both occasions, the book in the bottom left-hand place has won.

This is 2011:

And this is 2013:

So, arranging the titles for 2016 in similar fashion, would produce this:

And John Swinton's Dementia would be the winner.

And it would be a worthy winner.  In fact there is only one book that I would be disappointed to see win.  It is a good book, the other five are outstanding books.  But it would be invidious to name it.

Instead, I want to name the book I would choose were I a judge and it is this one:

Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain by Benigno Beltran

For sheer variety and readability, for challenge and commitment, for being the book I simply enjoyed the most.  For all these reasons, I would choose this book.

The actual winner will be announced on Sunday 28th August.  I look forward to seeing who it is!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

God's Presence: The 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize Shortlist 6

Review of Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The final book on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist for 2016 is a work of systematic theology.  Frances Young is a very distinguished theologian.  Her writing on the New Testament and early Christian theology is well known and is part of a corpus of writing that dates back to the 1970s.  This book is an integration of all the different concerns of her theological life, as an academic, a theologian of both the New Testament and the early church, a Methodist, a preacher and the mother of a profoundly disabled child, Arthur.  All of these different aspects to Young’s work and writing inform and shape this book.

That theme of integration is also the way in which Young approaches the topics of her theology in this book.  In each chapter she offers a prelude of snapshots, showing the way the subject is rooted in the life of individuals and communities.  There is an account of the way in which the early Christian theologians used the Bible, and the way in which the themes they drew out relate to our understandings today.  There is an account of preaching using the theme and discussions, and a final postlude of poetry.  At some stage in each chapter, the significance of experience, and specifically Young’s own experience as the mother of Arthur, is explored.  This is a very Methodist theological approach, and a very rich one.

This insights that Young draws out from the fairly traditional topics of a systematic theology are deep and often profound.  There is a humility about her approach, not least because she is properly insistent upon the creatureliness of herself, other human beings and theology.  I was struck profoundly by insights into ecumenism, and the necessity of the body of Christ to be broken; the need for Mary to be taken more seriously by Protestant theology; the need for Christian theology to re-shape intellect; and the need for accounts of atonement to embrace metaphor deeply.  But above all, the whole book is pervaded by a deep humility, an understanding of the brokenness of human lives through which God is seen, and a rootedness in praise of the creator.

This is a very British systematic theology.  It is not a programmatic work beginning a theological career.  Rather it is a reflective work, drawing together the threads and the wisdom hard won through life and theological work.  It is a privilege to read this book, and I can’t help feeling I have only scratched its surface.  I will return to this book again and again.  It is a very worthy entry on a very high calibre shortlist.

General Synod Reflections - July 2016

This was the Synod when we had the ‘Shared Conversations’ about sexuality. All the build-up was about this.  As well as the normal bundle of papers, Synod members were sent three books – all about sexuality, from different perspectives.  I did read them all!  This Synod also stood in the shadow of the vote to leave the EU.  The Archbishops called an emergency debate, and the shadow of Brexit was long.

The actual business of Synod, however, had to happen first.  We were addressed by a German Bishop, who reflected on the implications of Brexit and reminded us that the continent of Europe could not be voted away.  The Archbishop of York spoke about his Pilgrimage around his diocese, praying and speaking about the Gospel. 

Duly fortified by this, we held the emergency debate on the EU.  The Archbishops proposed a motion that called ‘for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward looking country’.  We heard a moving speech from the Bishop of Europe, on the effect of the vote on Anglican churches across the continent.  Many people living in Europe felt hurt and betrayed by the outcome.  The speech of the synod was made by a vicar from Darlington, speaking of how this was a vote in which people who had felt ignored had made themselves heard.  There were concerns expressed about racism, about those who felt excluded from the political process and more.  The motion was passed easily.  The harder work of being the church in a very different political climate remains.

Saturday morning was given over to legislation.  This is one of the real jobs of the Synod, if not the part that folk usually get excited about.  We debated a mission and pastoral measure that simplifies how changes are made to church structures; a legislative reform measure, which provides for the tidying up of the laws affecting the church; and a measure about the inspection of churches.  All progress along the path to becoming part of the church’s rules.  Rather unfortunately, two revisions to the canons had been put together.  One concerned the wearing of vestments, the other the funerals of those who have committed suicide.  Of course, we spent the most time debating what clergy wear in church, a subject that probably heard the most debate in the formal proceedings of Synod this time. 

Legislation done, we moved to debates on Renewal and Reform, which is the wider programme the Church of England is following to change and grow for the future.  A debate on a Vision for Education was significant, if not without controversy.  Derby Cathedral’s experience of trying to establish a church school, as distinct from a faith school, resonates with much in the new vision.  After an evening meal, we then heard from the Archbishops’ Council and passed their budget for 2017.  Then the Archbishop of York prorogued the Synod – business was over.

But the work of the Synod was not over.  The regular Sunday morning service in York Minster was followed by a three-line whip not to linger over lunch in York.  We were back in the chamber for 48 hours of shared conversations.  These are governed by protocols drawn up by St Michael’s House at Coventry Cathedral.  This limits what I can say about the conversations (and rightly so).  The conversations were a mixture of plenary sessions, where panels of people with different opinions on the issues at hand spoke about the Bible, their personal journeys, the changes of culture, the Anglican Communion, and walking forward together.  Together with these were small group sessions in which we shared our own journeys, read the Bible together, and talked about how we might walk together. At the heart of it all was prayer.  A very few members of Synod refused to take part in the conversations, which is deeply disappointing.  Experiences of the conversations very varied.  I can honestly say that I found them a deeply moving and important part of the life of the Synod.

So where now?  I am simultaneously hopeful and pessimistic.  I am hopeful that we have begun to talk honestly and openly in a way that few Synod conversations have been.  If we can carry that on, then whatever happens will be better than it might have been.  I am pessimistic, because the challenge remains to bridge a gap that for some seems unbridgeable.  After the conversations, the bar on debating issues of sexuality is now lifted.  Please pray for the Synod as it moves into the dangerous area of these debates.