Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pass It On

Review of Pass It On: Bible Tales Like You've Never Read Them Before (Bible Society, 2015)

I picked this up for free outside a branch of the Entertainer toy shop.  It is the retelling of five Bible stories, together with illustrations.  It’s from the Bible Society, and they have brought in some great names to do this.

First up is Anthony Horowitz retelling of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-9).  It is a solid and enjoyable retelling, with all kinds of references to missiles, ancient kings and Bruegel’s painting of Babel.  Martin Coleman’s retelling of Daniel in the Lion’s Den is poetic in the way that books for young children are, and beautifully illustrated by Tim Slater.  It should really be in the larger format of a picture book for bedtime stories!  The comedy of Jonah is captured by Gavin Tyte (who wrote The Hip-Hop Gospel of Luke).  This is a bit saggy in places, but worth it for Jonah thinking ‘that God was all wrong and acting way off the mark’.  Andrew Motion contributes a triptych on the life of Jesus, which offers a very different tone.  It’s a welcome addition to the collection.

The standout piece for me, however, is the story of Samson’s Philistine Wife (Judges 14-15), presented as a comic strip by Beano artist Kev Sutherland.  This is full of humour and witty asides.  It captures the anarchy, the thuggishness of Samson, and the sheer unpleasantness of the story brilliantly.  The medium of the comic strip contributes to understanding the story, and has me thinking afresh about the whole book of Judges.

This little book does what all retellings of Bible stories should do: it offers fresh perspectives and ideas on the stories, and sends me back to the Bible with new questions.  It’s an excellent resource and highly recommended.  I do hope the Bible Society do more like this!

You can download or order the book from here. There's also a competition for young people to retell Bible stories themselves.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Shepherd and the Journey

If familiarity breeds contempt, then Psalm 23 must be the most despised Psalm that we have been given.  It is still a favourite reading at weddings and funerals.  It has been adapted into several hymns and modern worship songs.  It was even the theme tune for the Vicar of Dibley. But its popularity is, in fact, a measure of its importance.  It is also a measure of how much it has to offer us as Christians and followers of Jesus.  So for a few moments this morning, I want to explore this most famous of Psalms and offer you the chance to reconnect with the Psalm in a way that speaks of the lives lived in the service of God.

The image of a shepherd is one that is very powerful in the Bible.  Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery into freedom, was a shepherd when God called him into his service.  King David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings, was a shepherd boy, and his shepherding skill with the sling gave him victory over Goliath.  Very early on in the Bible, the shepherd became an image of leadership.  Above all, it is Jesus who we think of as the Good Shepherd of St John’s Gospel.  This is neglected as an image of his role as Messiah, king and leader of his people.  When Mark speaks of Jesus having compassion on the people ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd’, he is both criticising those entrusted with leading the people and offering Jesus as the true Messiah, the Son of David, the shepherd and king of God’s people.  We still use this image today, not least in the way that we speak of clergy and especially bishops, who are given a shepherd’s crook.  But in the Bible, the shepherd was not just an image of religious leadership, but also of political leadership.  Jeremiah’s criticism that we heard in our first reading was of the king and his court, not simply the priests.  Perhaps this is something we need to regain in our political leadership – the sense that they are there to be shepherds to those committed to their charge. 

But it is not my purpose this morning to speak to those in leadership, political or otherwise, but to offer a way through the 23rd Psalm that will speak to us all.  What I propose to do is to work my way through the Psalm, and to ask a series of five questions that may prompt each of us as we seek to deepen our Christian lives through our encounter with this Psalm. 

The Psalm begins with an assertion that ‘The Lord is my shepherd’.  The first calling of every Christian, especially those called to lead, the first calling is to follow.  The Lord is my shepherd, I am to follow where he leads.  So my first question is simply this, how am I following Jesus?  Take a moment to reflect on this question, How am I following Jesus?

The Psalm goes on.  Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He leads me to green pastures and still waters.  Food and water, which recur later in the Psalm, are the basic needs that we have.  But they are not our only needs.  As people we have needs that include food and drink, but go further in terms of our needs for companionship, for company, for fulfilment, and so on.  The poet R.S. Thomas spoke of the way to the Kingdom being to ‘present yourself with your need only and the simple offering of your faith, green as a leaf.’  ‘Present yourself with your need only.’  So the second question for us to consider this morning is this: What do I need from God today?

The Psalm goes on.  “He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.”  God provides for our needs, but the reviving of our soul prompts us to deeper longings.  Psalm 42 tells that “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42.2); and Jesus says that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5.6).  These thirsts are connected.  The evidence of progressing in prayer and contemplation (our thirst for God) is not that prayer gets easier, or somehow ‘better’ (whatever that means).  Rather it is that our compassion increases and we care more for others (our thirst for righteousness).  So the third question that Psalm 23 offers to us this morning is simply this: What do I thirst for?

The Psalm goes on.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil … you spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”  There is no false optimism in Psalm 23, that following Jesus leads only to good things.  The Psalm knows of the fears and troubles of life – the shadow of death and people who seek to do us harm.  And yet, this is not a Psalm of despair.  Rather, the Psalm offers us a picture of God preparing a banquet for us in the midst of our troubles.  Our hardships can be occasions through which God gives us gifts.  Few, if any, of us have learned to care for others without going through hard times ourselves.  God’s gifts can be felt and are given to us in difficult times.  So the fourth question is this: What gift is God giving me through my troubles?

The Psalm goes on.  Running to the end, it returns to its themes of God’s provision for us.  “You have anointed my head … my cup is running over.  Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  Psalm 23 is a Psalm that sings of the abundant and generous love of God. It is a Psalm of thankfulness, and joy.  And the final question is this: What am I thankful for?

I hope that has been a helpful tour through this Psalm, and that for all its familiarity you have been able to find something that spoke to you of God and our need for God.  Let me remind you of the questions and then I’ll read through the Psalm again to close.
·      How am I following Jesus?
·      What do I need from God today?
·      What do I thirst for?
·      What gift is God giving me through my troubles?
·      What am I thankful for?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.


Originally given at Derby Cathedral 19.7.15

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reflections on Synod

So that was it – the last General Synod of the Quinquennium.  Many will not stand again, having seen the advent of women bishops due to the work of this Synod.  Bits of the four days in York had an end of term feeling, things being finished off and loose ends tied off.  So we had the immense joy of considering the Synod’s own Standing Orders.  But all this has to be done, and done well.

The Convocations of Canterbury and York (gatherings of the clergy only) met first to approve a new set of Guidelines for the Professional Practice of the Clergy.  Duly approved, they constitute an Act of Synod, and will be published in the autumn.  Synod was then addressed by two Archbishops – York and Uppsala – before a first outing of its standing orders so that the evening session could follow new rules.

Friday evening was question time.  The rules were new, and simpler.  The atmosphere was a bit grumpy.  One Bishop struggled to give a simple answer to a straightforward question.  Another gave a rather high handed set of answers.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was cross, and frankly rude.  A basic rule of thumb is that the more defensive the Bishops are, the more tetchy Synod gets; and the more tetchy the Synod gets, the more defensive the Bishops become.  It’s a vicious circle, and to start on it on Friday evening was worrying.

Saturday morning began with adapting the rules about clergy discipline to make the rules around Safeguarding more robust.  I’ve followed this through my time on Synod and was pleased that my first vote of this groups of sessions was to support this important subject.  The remainder of the morning was devoted to legislation – dull but necessary.  New faculty rules were probably the highlight.

After lunch, we reconvened for a debate on Leadership in the Church.  This was prompted by the refusal to allow Synod to debate the ‘Green Report’ on selecting and training senior leaders in February.  Another report was up for debate, but the real target was always clear.  Tetchiness and defensiveness in spades was my fear.  In the end, it was a very good debate.  The Archbishop welcomed an amendment that meant Synod will review processes around leadership.  He also apologised for his answers the night before.  This was a welcome exercise of leadership in a debate on leadership.  The debated report (from the Faith and Order Commission) is excellent, and I was pleased to speak in the debate.

After another brief session of legislation, we moved to a debate on a report from the World Council of Churches.  This is an agreed ‘convergence text’ on the Church, only the second the WCC has ever issued.  An important piece of ecumenical work, whose potential may not be unlocked for some time.  We finished the day with reports from the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council.

Sunday always begins with worship in York Minster.  Once back in the chamber we approved some additional texts for baptism in simpler language.  These have been moderately controversial, but only if you regard the Daily Mail as a source for liturgical understanding! 

Having approved the Synod’s Stranding Orders, they were put to use in a rambling debate on the structure of the Church of England.  This was a diocesan motion, from the Diocese of Wakefield (now subsumed into the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales).  A great number of shopping lists were being read as speeches, until someone put us out of our misery and we voted to move to next business.

That next business was a presentation from the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns.  This is important, not so that we can tick boxes about inclusion, but because we are missing the voices of many people from our leadership and from Synod.  Much food for thought for all involved in vocations, elections and appointments.  Sunday ended with the budget for 2016, duly approved.

The last day of the Synod was given over to consideration of the environment and climate change.  It began in small groups with worship and a Bible study.  This was a good way into the subject, and it was good to remember that the Bible has been (and still is in some places) used to justify environmental degradation.  A major motion ahead of the Paris summit in December, when world leaders will meet to agree how to limit global temperature rises to two degrees Celsius.  This was passed overwhelmingly (only six votes against) and made the United Nations website by lunchtime.  In the afternoon, we voted (again overwhelmingly) to support the new investment policy regarding climate change generated by the Ethical Investment Advisory Group.  This is a Church of England body that is now regarded as leading the field in terms of ethical investment.  It advocates disinvestment in some circumstances, but far more importantly it speaks of robust engagement with companies.  This is a much more effective way of getting change.  This was my last vote on the Synod, and was as important in its own way as my first.  So, after farewells (only to Bishops) and a service of Communion, Synod was prorogued and dissolved. It meets again in November, after elections have been held. 

Reflecting on the weekend, which was as enjoyable and as exhausting as ever, I can see that it has inspired me to do two things.  The first is to fast and pray on the first day of each month, for climate justice and the Paris summit.  The second is to join the Mothers’ Union – they held a really excellent fringe meting about their Bye Buy Childhood campaign, which reminded me of all the good things they do in the UK and around the world.  Synod has achieved much this weekend, and through its past five years.  There have been ups and downs, and it has been a privilege to represent the clergy of the Diocese of Derby for the last two and a half years.   

Now, where might the MU membership form be?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Surprising Leadership

Thank you for calling me Chair.

Thanks also to the Faith and Order Commission for this excellent piece of work, and to Simon Killwick for his PMM.  There is a great deal to welcome in the report.

The readings for Morning Prayer over the past few days have been taken from the book of Esther. A young Jewish girl, thrust into a leadership position based on criteria that amount to nothing more than that the King fancies her, with no mention of God anywhere in the book.  Yet Esther saves the whole of the people of God.

The Bible is full of surprising leaders, who do not seem to meet any criteria, who have no position from which to lead.  If there is an element missing from this superb report is the notion of surprise.  Paragraph 99 speaks of biblical leaders greeting their call with surprise.  Undoubtedly this is true. But the Biblical leaders are themselves surprising – Esther being but one example.

As we move forward in our consideration of leadership in the church, we need to look to be surprised by leadership that comes from surprising people.  Now, of course, it is not possible to create surprising leaders in the church.  God calls who God calls.  What we can do is to be more alert for them when they surprise us.  How might that be reflected in our discernment, our listening and our training?  More, how might that be reflected in Synod?

One answer might be to drop the defensiveness of our synodical, indeed our church culture.  To work to drop the barriers that we put up between ourselves.  The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Truro have graciously demonstrated this, and we have rightly applauded that. Paragraph 186 of the report calls for a “culture that allows failure, that attends to it carefully and learns from it seriously, but that does not condemn it”.  Surprising leadership needs such a culture.  The first steps in this less defensive culture needs to come from all of us who have leadership roles in the church at present, and that includes all of us in this synod.  While we are being defensive, we cannot and will not be surprised.

Thank you, and I hope that Synod will strongly commend this report.

Speech to General Synod 11th July, 2015

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.