Monday, June 15, 2015

Willful Blindness


Earlier this week the Houses of Parliament hosted an event in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar met to discuss the contributions of their religions to peace in the world.  One MP took to Twitter to describe a conversation at the gate to the Palace of Westminster.  A man in a dog collar approached a policeman to gain entry.  ‘You here for the thing with the Archbishop of Canterbury’, said the policeman.  ‘I am the Archbishop of Canterbury’, replied the cleric.

In our first reading, Jeremiah is railing against those who look to particular practices and accomplishments as proof that they are safe from the judgement of God.  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.’” he warns his people. There is no complex theology in this warning, no difficult to read message.  It is very simple.  People are stealing, murdering, committing adultery, swearing falsely, making offerings to Baal and going after other Gods, and then going to the Temple and thinking ‘We are safe’.  In his short charge sheet, Jeremiah says that it is no good systematically breaking the Ten Commandments and then going to the Temple and expecting to receive God’s mercy.

I think that Jeremiah’s contemporaries are suffering from a peculiarly advanced state of ‘willful blindness’.  Willful Blindness is, in origin, a legal term that states that if you could have known something and should have known something, but chose not to know, then you are still responsible.  The writer Margaret Heffernan has identified a number of factors that make us more likely to succumb to willful blindness: power, self-interest, ideologies, money, obedience to authority, peer pressure, all of these can contribute to our being willfully blind.  Willful blindness is not difficult to spot in our world.  Think of Rupert Murdoch and the phone hacking scandal; chairmen of banks in the crash; the Church and the child abuse scandal.  For a variety of reasons, all were willfully blind.

But willful blindness is not something that just afflicts those on the front pages of the newspapers.  It is something that we are prone to as well.  Whether it is unhealthy eating and drinking, when we know it is not good for us; or our avoidance of the need for change to avoid environmental catastrophe; or our reluctance to pay tax, and to contribute to the common good.  As individuals we are bad at this; as groups and as a society we are worse.  We are willfully blind.

Our willful blindness is reinforced by the way that we tend to hear only from those with whom we agree.  The newspapers that we read, tend to tell us things that reinforce a particular world-view.  Social media is worse.  Research tells of how people using social media can hear the same things over and over again and mistake it for the whole truth. 

How then do we escape from willful blindness.  Margaret Heffernan tells the story of a man who refused to work with Enron, even as most of his competitors beat a path to its door.  He had spent his childhood pushing his sister to school in a wheelchair, and it gave him a perspective from which he could ask important questions.  Walking with the powerless and outsiders, hearing the voices of people who have a very different perspective on life to ourselves.  Theses are important steps in curing our willful blindness.  Jeremiah is, predictably, blunter.  “Amend your ways and your doings” he tells his people.  Tell the truth, and act in the light of the truth.  It might not be comfortable, but that is the only path to a good outcome.

As the people of God we are called to tell the truth, even when it is hard and uncomfortable; even when it implicates us in the problem; even when it means that we have to change.  Truth is not about acknowledging an intellectual matter and then acting in a different way.  It is about joining up our ‘ways and our doings’ with the truth.  As Christians, we are to speak the truth, and act in its light.  And if we are to do this, if we are to avoid a willful blindness, then we need to listen to those who have different experiences to us and spend time with those who have no power.

Jesus calls his disciples to be the ‘leaven in the lump’, to be the small agent that enables the larger whole to change.  Paul, in our second reading, calls on God’s people to be the ‘objects of mercy’.  A better translation would be the ‘vessels of mercy’.  These vessels of mercy are not there for their own sake – to collect God’s mercy in beautiful containers.  Rather we are to be vessels of mercy that pour out that mercy on others.  We are to be truth-tellers, so that the truth may set us and the whole world free.

Which leaves only with a question.  What are the truths to which we are willfully blind, and how will we stretch our understanding of the truth to learn to spot them and to speak those truths not only with our mouths but with the whole of our lives?


First given at Evensong, Derby Cathedral 14.6.15. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Discipleship - A General Synod Debate

Below is my speech to the General Synod this afternoon.

The speech was to support two amendments:
1. Add "(b) invites the laity and clergy of the Church of England:
(i) to commit themselves to learn, pray, worship and proclaim the Gospel together;
(ii) to suggest what the Church of England and its leadership could do to help them deepen their discipleship; and"

2.  Add at the end:
"(iii) to engage in a wide consultation with all people in England, of all faiths and none, to discern how the Church of England could deepen its discipleship to enable it to better work to serve the common good of this nation"

The amendments fell, but the reason for putting them was to register that a much wider variety of voices is needed in the way in which we are approaching this as a Church.

Synod, let me begin by saying that I am excited by the package that is before us today.  And that the whole thing is founded upon discipleship, upon our following of Jesus is one of the most exciting things.  Founding our work for the next period of the church's history on the costly grace of being formed by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ to the glory of the Father is indeed exciting.  This is a programme that should engage the whole people of God, in all their beauty and diversity.

But there are warnings in the paper before us today.  GS 1977 notes that "the biggest obstacle in lay development is the clericalised culture of church and ministry" and warns that without a breadth of vision for discipleship we will restrict our understanding of service to the church, create a lopsided view of ministry and impoverish the mission and ministry of the whole church.

Given the exciting nature of this programme and the breadth of its application, it was then a little disappointing to come to the motion before us which gives one action to dioceses and two to bishops.  These actions are important and valuable.

However my first amendment seeks to involve the whole church, lay and ordained, in committing ourselves to learning, praying, worshipping and proclaiming together.  And it asks all the disciples of the Church of England to take responsibility for our own lives in Christ and to communicate what would be the greatest support to discipleship.

My second amendment seeks to broaden the conversation further and to involve the people that we seek to serve and to work with in the service of the common good of this nation.  There are people of good will who long to partner with us, we need to listen to them.  It is not, as one colleague has already suggested to me, to turn following Jesus into doing what the world tells us.  I hope the wording of the amendment is clear that it is a contribution to our discernment of what our discipleship could be, where the Lord is calling us, as we seek to serve the common good.  But if it is the common good that we serve, then we have to listen to those with whom we will work and who we seek to serve.

It is really important that we hear as many voices as we can as we seek to reform and renew the church.  Yesterday we had two apologies for the lack of diversity in the task groups.  This is not a matter of quotas for different groups of people.  It is because the lack of diversity means that we have a lack of ideas, a lack of godly insight, a lack of the fullness of what God is saying to us at this point in our life together.  We are impoverished by the limited range of voices that contribute to our discussions.

After Synod's mood yesterday, I hesitate to invoke a piece of leadership theory. But I think there is a very relevant piece of thinking.  The challenges that face us, that were so eloquently set out by Canon Spence yesterday evening, are not business as usual.  They are not tame problems that can be addressed through the application of good process.  Rather, they are to use the jargon "wicked" problems that need adaptive leadership.  One of the features of addressing wicked problems well is encouraging experimentation and listening to everyone, as addressing the problems need to involve everyone and indeed the solutions could be found anywhere.  Addressing wicked problems well involves listening to the voices of everyone, because anyone has the potential to offer insight and wisdom that could transform how we approach the challenges that face us.

However, if leadership theory is not something that should be discussed on the floor of Synod today, then let me also offer you an image from the Rule of St Benedict.  Benedict teaches that all should be called to the council, because "the Lord often revealeth to the younger what is best".  It is the Lord who renews his church.  We need to listen for where he is revealing to us what is best for the Church of England.

Synod, we face "wicked" problems that need everyone to contribute to their solution.  We need to listen for the voice of God, whomever God is speaking through.  We need to broaden the range of voices that are contributing to our discussions so that they involve the whole church and beyond.  I ask you to support the amendments that stand in my name.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Talking 'bout a Resolution

January 1st. A day for making resolutions. This morning I got up, had a shower, shaved, brushed & flossed my teeth, and clipped my nails. It seems like the day to start things clean and well.

And, of course, I have some New Years resolutions. In no particular order, mine are:
To lose weight
To get fitter
To be more disciplined at my prayers
To write more.
And they've been the same for about the last 5 years (and probably longer). They remain my intentions no matter how hard I try each January.

The start of the new year seems like a day that offers the chance of a new start. That's why we make those dreaded resolutions.  But it is not a particularly significant day in the Christian calendar. The start of the Christian year is Advent Sunday. The major winter festival is Christmas, a week ago now. Today in the church's calendar is the Circumcision of Christ. Not a major feast, and one which I can't help feeling was invented to support a rather dubious relic in the Middle Ages.

But looking back at my resolutions, I notice they are all about who I am and who I would like to be. That makes them rich material for considering how they help me become who God made and calls me to be. That is to say that they are about vocation. My resolutions, once I cut through the vanity that is their surface, are all about who I am. Can I hear the call of God through them?  Can they point me towards who I am called to be? That would be a good piece of work for 2015.

And here the feast of the circumcision fits in well. There is a cost to vocation. Jesus' circumcision points to the cost he will pay later in his life. There is a cost to my resolutions (largely in chocolate, time, and energy), but this points to the deeper cost of my vocation. Heading into the new year thinking on that seems a good way to continue something begun long ago, but which is also fresh each day.

Happy New Year!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Justice and Remembrance

A sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Some words from our first reading this morning: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. 

The prophet Amos has harsh words for those who gather for religious ceremony, but who do not allow their celebrations and rememberings to affect their daily lives.  God, says Amos, hates gatherings of people, especially religious gatherings, that neglect those who are in need.  God looks for justice and righteousness, in all our doings, so that they might form mighty waters, an ever-flowing stream.

As we gather on this Remembrance Sunday, we gather to recall with gratitude and sorrow those who have died in war.  We remember those who have served in the armed forces, and those who continue to do so, with gratitude for the spirit of service that they demonstrate.  We remember those who have died, and those who continue to die, in war, with sorrow that their deaths leave a hole that cannot be filled. 

This year we look back especially on the centenary of start of the First World War, and our sense of gratitude and sorrow is particularly focused by the suffering and the carnage of the trenches.  But we cannot, and should not, fail to remember those who have died in more recent conflicts, and those who are affected by war today in Iraq, in Syria, in Ukraine, and in many less well known conflicts around the world.  The flames of war continue to burn.

But there can be thanksgiving in our remembering as well.  On this day 25 years ago, the 9th November 1989, the Berlin wall came down and the scar across the face of Europe could begin to heal.  At the stroke of midnight on 9th November 1989, crowds gathering on both sides of the wall cheered and started to climb it, to go through check points unimpeded, where previously people had been shot for approaching the wall.  Some had brought hammers and chisels, and began to dismantle the barrier.  I remember the television pictures clearly, it was one of the most momentous moments of history during my life time.

In between these remembrances, of the First World War and the end of Berlin Wall, comes another anniversary on 9th November.  On the 9th November 1938, Synagogues across the Third Reich burned, Jewish publications and groups were banned and many Jews were beaten and worse.  Kristallnacht, as it became known, was the worst outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in Germany to that point, and the beginnings of an even more murderous phase in the persecution of Jews.

These three events: the first world war, Kristallnacht, and the fall of the Berlin wall give us a crash course in 20th Century European history.  The bloody conflict of the trenches, the horrors of the second world war and the Nazi tyranny, and the division of a continent between east and west.  All of this has a place in our remembering today.

And as we remember all of this, the history, the service of those men and women which inspires gratitude, and the many, many deaths which provokes our sorrow, as we remember this, we hear again the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.  Much of our history has failed to hear these words.  Having won the war in 1918, the peace treaty of Versailles in 1919 lost the peace and laid the foundations for the Nazi terror and the division of the continent that followed.  The wars that continue to blight our world are themselves part of the collective failure of human beings to act justly and to seek righteousness.

In all that we do, our acts both great and small, we need to hear the voice of the prophet urging us to act justly, and to live righteously.  As we stand in a few minutes in silence, we will remember with gratitude those who have served and we will remember with sorrow all who have died.  Let us also commit ourselves to work for justice and to seek the paths of righteousness.  In all our acts, great and small, let us do justice.  In all our decisions, complex and simple alike, let us look for the path of righteousness.  That is how we honour those who we remember today.  That is how we honour one another and those who will come after us.  That is how we honour the God who created us, who loves all his creatures, and who mourns every death of his beloved creatures.  This is the way that is set before us, let us choose to walk in it.  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.  Amen.

Given at St Oswald’s, Ashbourne 9.11.14.

Images are photographs of Derby Cathedral illuminated for Remembrance-tide 9-11.11.14

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Prayers for Evensong

On Wednesday, Radio 3's Choral Evensong came from Derby Cathedral.

You can find the service on iPlayer, or it will be repeated today at 3pm.

Here are the prayers I wrote for the service.  

The readings were Zechariah 7 and Mark 10.17-31

In peace, let us pray:

In the evening of the day,
we come to you, O God,
bringing those we have met, for your blessing,
our hurts for your healing,
our sins for your forgiveness,
our labours as our offering
and our lives as our worship;
we come to you through our Lord
and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who became like us,
that we might become like him. Amen.

We pray for the church throughout the world, for Justin our Archbishop, for Alastair, Bishop of Derby, for the church here in this place and wherever this service is heard.

Lord Jesus, you give us the gift of eternal life;
keep us from the love of riches
and all that diverts us from your service;
strengthen those who are persecuted
for their faith;
and bring us all into your kingdom,
where the first shall be last
and the last shall be first;
for it is in your name we pray. Amen.

We pray for the world in which we live, for those living amidst conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine; for all who live in poverty, without the basic necessities of life; and we pray for the leaders of the world, and especially for our Queen, Prime Minister and government.

God of the nations,
We thank you for the world that you created;
give true judgements to our leaders,
and enlarge our hearts;
that we may comfort the widowed,
care for the orphaned,
shelter the aliens,
and feed those who are poor;
we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion knows no boundaries.

We pray for those we know who are in need or trouble, for those who are sick and in hospital, and for all whose loved ones have died.

God of life,
with you all things are possible;
we bring before you all who have lost homes,
all who are parted from mothers, fathers,
brothers, sisters or children,
all who are sick, and all who grieve;
bring comfort to those
for whom it seems impossible,
bring healing to those who need your touch,
and bring all your servants
to the life of your eternal kingdom,
we ask this in the name of
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.