Friday, October 16, 2015

Praying: A sermon for the National Prayer Weekend


It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning.  I’m very grateful to Matt for the invitation to be here, and I bring you greetings from your Cathedral Church where we pray for you regularly.

We pray for you, and I’ve been invited to talk this morning on the theme of prayer.  At the Cathedral, I’ve been involved in running a “School of Prayer”. In part, that is for those who are Christians but could use some focussed input on prayer.  It is also aimed at those who are not Christians, but who want to learn to pray.  Learning to pray, of course, brings people close to God.  The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that communities of prayer are one of his key priorities, and launched a communitybased at Lambeth Palace this week.  So it is really great that you are marking National Prayer Weekend.  This is important stuff you are doing.

But let me make a confession.  I find prayer really difficult.  It’s not something that comes naturally to me.  As a young man, I had a discipline of a quiet time for Bible reading and prayer.  I found the Bible reading easy, but the prayer hard.  As I’ve grown as a Christian, I’ve made an amazing discovery.  Praying is still hard, and that’s just how it is.  If you find prayer easy, then that is fantastic.  I have friends for whom praying comes easily, and I’m happy for them.  In fact, I’m a little bit jealous.  But for me, praying is difficult.  It is not something that I find easy.  I have a strong suspicion that there will be others here today that find praying difficult.  I’d say you were in good company, but I’m not sure about that.  You’re certainly in my company anyway!

For a long while, I beat myself up about that.  How could I be a good Christian if I wasn’t good at praying?  You see the real truth is that I think prayer is pointless.  I would sit on my bed and say my prayers and it just felt like talking to myself.  It just felt pointless. 

And then, eventually, it dawned on me.  Prayer really is pointless.  What can we say in prayer that tells God something that he doesn’t know?  We can’t.  Our first reading tells of how the battle was won as long as Moses prayed.  But really, couldn’t God have just made it so that the army of Israel won regardless?  Of course God could do that.  And here’s the crucial point.  God chooses not to.  Prayer is pointless, except that God chooses to invite us to be part of his work.  There’s nothing I can tell God that he doesn’t already know.  In fact, God knows far more about whatever I’m praying about than I do.  But God wants me to pray.  And that is the most incredible thing.  God wants us to pray, God wants to involve us in what he is doing. 

Prayer is pointless, except that God wants us to pray.  Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than entering the presence of God.  When we pray, we are caught up into God’s presence.  And that’s why it is so important.  The Archbishop of Canterbury this week tweeted this: ‘Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ’ (Twitter: @JustinWelby 23.9.15).  ‘Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ’.  As we pray, we come into the presence of God and we are made more like Jesus.  That changes us and it changes our world.  That is why the National Prayer Weekend is so important.  Because ‘Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ’.

I find prayer difficult, but that is alright.  Prayer can be difficult.  Prayer is pointless, but praying is something that God invites us to do – to join in with his work of changing the  world, beginning with ourselves, as in prayer we become more like Jesus.

I want to end by offering you five things that you can do to learn to pray, or to get better at praying.  (I’m not really sure what it means to get better at praying.  There aren’t really any experts in prayer – we are all still learning to pray.)  So five things to help us all learn to pray.

The first thing is to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  The little booklet ‘Why Pray?’ may help you.  But the Lord’s prayer has everything in it.  The whole Gospel is in the Lord’s Prayer.  You could try praying it slowly and savouring every word.  But pray it, and pray it daily, make it part of your prayer every day.

Second, be honest.  David Runcorn tells a story of a woman who stood up in the intercessions in a church service and berated God for allowing a famine to happen.  She really told God off and then just sat down.  Clearly, David says, no one had ever taught her how we pray in church.  He goes on to say, I hope no one ever does.  My experience of teaching children and adults to pray, is that children are far better at it because they are more honest.  We adults pray for the things that we think we should pray for.  Children pray for the things that they really want to happen.  Be honest in prayer, say what you really think to God.  He can take it.  If you want an example of how honest you can be, read the Psalms.  The Psalms are full of complaints to God, questions, violent thoughts and desires, and all kinds of things that don’t make it into our praying in church.  Read the Psalms and be honest in your prayers, remember praying is going into the presence of God and being changed.  Be honest, or it won’t really be you that goes into God’s presence.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer; be honest and third, be silent.  Silence is an underused part of our prayer.  In silence we listen to the voice of the Spirit of God.  In silence, we are able to relax and just be in God’s presence.  In silence, our masks fall away and we can be truly honest with God.  Start with just 3 minutes at a time.  See how it goes.  Be silent in the presence of God.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer, be honest, be silent and fourth, pray with other people. For me, that makes prayer much easier.  Pray with others.  It stops us feeling alone when we pray (not that we ever are, but we can feel alone).  It brings us close to other people, binding us in fellowship with one another and with God.  It gives us people to share our questions and our difficulties with.  It is also how Jesus tells us to pray – his prayer starts ‘Our Father’!  If you don’t already, why not find one or two other people and pray with them this week.  See what it does.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer, be honest, pray silently, pray with other people.  The final thing to do is to pray.  We can only really learn how to pray by praying.  In fact, the desire to pray, even if we don’t really know how to do it, is something that God will treasure and honour.  Pray.  It doesn’t matter that you’re not good at it.  No one really is.  Pray.  Pray because it is entering the presence of God.  Pray because it is what Jesus tells us to do.  Pray because it is pointless, and yet the most wonderful invitation.  Pray because in prayer God uses us to do his will.  Pray.  It is all you have to do.

Those are my five things: the Lord’s Prayer, honesty, silence, other people and praying.  Nothing there is rocket science, no deeply spiritual things that are only for deeply spiritual people.  I don’t believe in rocket science, nor in deeply spiritual things for deeply spiritual people.  But I do believe in prayer.  It changes the world.  It changes me.  It will change you.  Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray;
bring us into your presence
and make us more like you,
change us, and through us change the world;
we ask this in your name and for your sake. Amen.

First given at St Thomas, Brampton, 27.9.15.
An audio of the sermon is available here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Submission to Working Group on the Seal of the Confessional

This was my submission to the above Working Group, posted for the sake of transparency.

Submission to the Working Party on the Seal of the Confessional

1.     I am grateful for the invitation from the Bishop of Durham to members of the General Synod to contribute to the Working Group on the Seal of the Confessional.
2.     As well as being a member of the Synod, I am the Continuing Ministerial Development Officer for the Diocese of Derby and a member of the Diocesan Safeguarding Management Committee.  I also serve as Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral where I am Lead Supervisor for offenders managed by the Cathedral and sit on the Safeguarding Committee as the member of Clergy with Safeguarding responsibilities.  These contexts also inform my contribution.

The legal code

3.     I hope that the Working Group will recommend that the law surrounding the ministry of reconciliation be brought into the body of current canon law, whether it chooses to make changes to that law or not.  To be constantly referring to “the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603” is confusing to many.  The title ‘proviso’ is confusing, and the nature of the penalty of ‘irregularity’ is unclear.  That it is the only remaining part of the 1603 Code is in danger of bringing the Church of England into disrepute if it is ever forced to rely on this hangover from an ancient canonical structure in the context of a current safeguarding issue. 

4.     This might best be done by incorporating all canonical matters relating to the ministry of absolution into Canon 29.

Pastoral Conversations and Confession

5.     The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (2015) (GPCC) distinguish between ‘pastoral conversations’ and ‘a confession’ (3.5).  This is a helpful distinction, but one which is less clear in pastoral practice, especially amongst those whose church tradition is less familiar with the practice of confession. 

 6.     Clarity could be offered by defining ‘confession’ (and the attendant seal) as applying only to conversations occurring by appointment and following a written liturgy. 

 7.     There would need to be an exception for those in danger of death similar to that found in Canon B29.


8.     Training for this ministry is referred to in the GPCC (3.4).  In my capacity as a CMD Officer with responsibility for IME, I am not aware that such training is easily available, other than in informal contexts.

  9.     As a CMD Officer, I would love to arrange such training, but would not do so whilst the confusion around safeguarding and the legal context remains.  Until the situation is clarified, I would expect to spend most of the training discussing legal/safeguarding issues rather than pastoral and ministerial matters.

 10.  I hope the Working Group will encourage training to be offered for this ministry.  This could be through external groups, e.g. Praxis or Affirming Catholicism; or through Theological Education Institutes; by diocesan officers; or in other ways.  Guidance as to the content of this training would be welcome.  It would also be good not to leave training to any one tradition within the Church of England.


11.  The GPCC also speak of ‘guidelines published by the House of Bishops’ (3.4).  I am not aware of any such guidance being available.  I hope that the working group will suggest that the House of Bishops produce some guidelines for all priests involved in this ministry. 

 12.  These guidelines should cover how to offer clarity in distinguishing ‘pastoral conversations’ and confession; how to use the time of discussion with the penitent to encourage them to speak to the police; when to withhold or delay absolution; when it is not appropriate for a priest to hear a particular confession; and other matters that will support good practice in the ministry of reconciliation.


13.  Supervision for those practicing the ministry of absolution in this way should be required, in the same manner that a counsellor must receive supervision.  This should not undermine the confidentiality of the confession.  This should be part of the House of Bishop’s Guidelines and any future revision of the GPCC.

 The Seal of the Confessional

14.  The seal of the confessional, according to the 1603 Proviso, is not absolute.  This lack of an absolute seal indicates that stating conditions relating to safeguarding are not a complete innovation in the Church of England’s approach to this matter.

 15.  An absolute seal of the confessional undermines the commitments that the Church of England has made in relation to safeguarding.

 16.  If, as suggested in GSMisc 1085 (paragraph 7), Parliament legislates to make it an offence not to report evidence of child abuse then the church by law established should be able to comply with this legislation.  Indeed, the Working Group should recommend to the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council that they support and advocate such legislation.

 17.  With or without such legislation, the Working Group should recommend that the canonical basis of the ministry of absolution state that evidence of child abuse cannot be hidden by the seal of the confessional.

 18.  This should be clearly written on service books, and be part of the conversation between priest and penitent before a confession is heard.


19.  In summary, I am asking the Working Group to:

·       bring the canonical framework for the ministry of absolution within the current canons of the Church of England;

·       offer a clear distinction between a ‘pastoral conversation’ and confession;

·       encourage training for this ministry and provide guidelines for the content of this training;

·       ask the House of Bishops to provide guidance to clergy exercising this ministry;

·       require any clergy exercising this ministry to receive regular supervision; and to

·       revise the canonical basis of this ministry so that evidence of child abuse cannot be concealed behind the seal of the confessional.

 20.  My thanks again for the opportunity to contribute in this way.

 Simon Taylor

Monday, September 14, 2015

Being Sustained - A sermon for minstry

So there I was, in a cafe on a Saturday afternoon nursing a beer.  I was there with two old friends, to whom I was very close.  One had written a reference for me for whatever they called BAPs in those days, but neither were Christians.  And then the husband of one of my wife's colleagues came across.  He was, shall we say, less than sober and a bit aggressive with it.  'So why do you waste your time working for the church?' was his opening gambit.  A perfect opportunity for witness, you might have thought.  So, of course, I blew it.  I was absolutely speechless, I could think of nothing to say that would answer him, and that would say something to my friends.  And then Andrew, who I'd lived with for two years as a student, piped up with a most eloquent account of how my faith and my values were intertwined; and how my compassion and my care for others were deeply rooted in my faith.  Cue more speechlessness and, fortunately, a drunken ambling away.

"The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word" says the prophet Isaiah.  I guess that most of us in ministry aspire to this, to teach, to sustain, to speak the right word at the right time.  There is plenty of weariness abroad among the people of God, plenty of need for teachers who can speak the right word and offer sustenance.  Yet, there I am, squandering my opportunities for witness, for speaking the right word.  I say this, not so that you can learn how bad I can be at the role of teacher (although those of you who have to deal with me in IME had best learn that fairly quickly).  I say it because I want to reflect for a few minutes this morning on how we can be those teachers; how we get the right word to speak to sustain God's people.

Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and they are speechless.  They've gone through the half-truths that others have said.  'People are saying' (a phrase that you may find familiar), 'People are saying this about you Jesus': you're John, Elijah, a prophet.  It gives them something polite enough to say, as if they have to feed Jesus' ego.  But it preserves them from having to confront what they think, what they hope and long for and dare not speak.  It takes Peter and his size 12 feet to say what no one else will admit to - Jesus is the Messiah.  I think you can imagine Peter getting kicked under the table, or elbowed in the ribs for that.  But Peter gives us the first hint of what we need to be the teachers that God has called us to be.  We need the courage to be truth-tellers; to admit to what we hope for; to speak of what we long for.  Whether you love or loathe Jeremy Corbyn, one of the features of the Labour leadership campaign has been his ability to connect by speaking of what he really believes in.  Similar traits, only much more so can be seen in Pope Francis and in someone like Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad.  We need to have the courage to speak of what we truly hope and long for, however shallow, unpopular, or selfish it might seem.  Because in this story, Peter has mixed motives.  He, and the other disciples do want the Kingdom of God to come in power.  But they are also rather pleased that they are the ones who have spotted the Messiah, and hope to share in some of the spoils of that.  Our hopes and longings will be a similar mixture of desire to serve God, and selfish position or gain.  That is why we need to be honest enough to speak them to God, to confess our mixed up nature, to speak the truth.

Courage to be truth-tellers.  Courage to speak of our hope, even when it seems mad.  That's the first thing that we need.  And the next, Isaiah tells us, is to listen.  "Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught".  We need to keep learning.  We need to keep listening to what God has to teach us, that is then the resource that we have to teach others, to sustain them with our words.  I hope that you are learning a lot at the moment.  I hope too that you are learning that you need to keep learning.  If we are to speak of God, then we need to listen to God.  Learning and praying are essential parts of our lives.  We need silence and listening to be a vital part of our prayer lives, we need God to speak the word to sustain us if we are to sustain others.

Courage to be truth-tellers.  Listening and learning.  And we need resilience.  "I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame".  Resilience is one of the Learning Outcomes or Formation Criteria that curates have to meet.  But let us be clear, resilience is not the ability to endure anything and everything, to never feel the strain or buckle under pressure.  Resilience is not that at all. It is about getting knocked down and then getting up again.  It is about failing, and then trying again - something else that we have Peter to thank for his example.  Think of a plant bent by the wind, but which rises again when the wind drops.  That is resilience.

Courage to be truth-tellers.  Listening and learning.  Resilience.  All these are asked of us.  But none of them is enough without the transforming power of God.  Jesus in the Gospel reading takes the hope of the disciples, and reshapes it into the Gospel of death and resurrection.  The transforming power of God is to take our hopes and longings, to take our truth-telling, our learning and our resilience, and completely reshape it and surprise us with it.  This is costly, and neither Jesus nor Isaiah promise a cost-free way.  Peter's rejection of the reshaping of his hope is entirely understandable.  But when we see that this is the transforming power of God at work, so is the vehemence of Jesus' response. 

"The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word".  We are all invited to play a role in sharing the transforming power of God.  But first, we too need to be transformed.  And we need to be continually coming back to the source of our transformation if we are to continue to share in God's work of transformation.  To transform, we must be transformed; to sustain, we must be sustained; to speak, we must listen.  We gather this morning to receive.  Whatever our eucharistic theology, we come to the table with our hands open and stretched out to receive.  Whatever other hand gestures we may use in leading worship, the most fundamental is this one - hands open to receive what the Lord has to give us.


First given at Launde Abbey, Diocese of Derby IME Weekend, 13.9.15.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Learning and following: A Sermon for Trinity 14

Right at the beginning of the summer, before the schools had even broken up for the holidays, there were signs in the shops saying ‘Back to School’.  A little cruel, perhaps for those whose summer holidays had not even started yet.  Now however, the time is upon us, it is back to school. 

For Christians, however, there is no gap.  It is always back to school.  There is always something to learn.  The church is, or at least it should be, a school for Christians, a place where we learn.

For those following Jesus, as he wandered around Israel and Palestine, this would have been familiar.  Jewish Rabbis had disciples who followed them everywhere.  The disciples were learning how to live faithfully as God’s people.  They did this first of all by learning the scriptures by heart.  When they had done this, the more difficult task began – to learn how to live in the light of the scriptures.  Following a Rabbi was not a matter of listening to endless sermons.  There would have been some teaching in this way.  But for the most part, the disciples would follow the rabbi around, watching every move that he made and imitating it.  This was how they learned to be people of God – they followed a rabbi and did everything that he did.  There were even some rabbis whose students followed them to the toilet in case they missed something vital!

But what we have in the Gospel reading this morning is something rather surprising – here the teacher becomes a learner.  Jesus, the rabbi who has disciples following him is surprised by, of all people, a Gentile woman.  At first he is rude to her, describing her in the dismissive way that stereotypes her as a gentile ‘dog’.  But her response, twisting the insult into an insight, surprises Jesus, and he heals her daughter because of it. ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter’.  If we are followers of Jesus, learning how to be God’s people by imitating him, then we have too have to be surprised and to learn.

Learning to be like Jesus, learning to be God’s people, is not so much learning from books (although there are some very good books published and about to be published!).  It is learning from the people and the encounters that cross our path.  One theologian speaks of ‘Found Theology’ – it is the people that the Holy Spirit places in our path that have the most to teach us.  These people may surprise us.  They will certainly be the wrong people, just as the Syro-Phoenician woman was the wrong person.  She was a Gentile, a non-Jew, and as such beyond the scope of Jesus’ mission.  He is surprised by her, by her faith and by her wit, and so he learns that his mission, his compassion, needs to be larger than he thought.  Who are the people that we consider to be the wrong people?  Who do we encounter in surprising ways?  How can we be open to learning from these people and these encounters?

The first characteristic of Christian learners, then, is that we learn from the often surprising people and encounters that cross our paths. The second characteristic is this – we learn together.  Learning to follow Jesus, learning to be the people of God, is not something we do on our own.  We need others to learn with.  These people will be teachers, surprising people, and fellow disciples.  Often it will not be clear which one we have met today.  About ten years ago, the BBC produced a series called the Monastery, in which a group of men spent forty days in a Benedictine monastery, living, working and praying with the community and with one another.  The moment that I remember most vividly, is that of one of the men speaking to his spiritual director about how difficult it was to live with one of his colleagues.  He got very cross as he related the trials of living with this impossible man.  Those of us who had watched the programme could only agree, he really was an awful person to live with.  The spiritual director, however, was wise and let the man rant.  At then end he asked one question, which was this: ‘Who do you think has the most to teach you over this time?’  Suddenly, the wind fell from the sails of the one who had been ranting.  He had much to learn from this difficult man.  We all have things to learn from one another, however difficult we may be to live with.

So, we learn from surprising people who cross our path; we learn with and from one another; and third, we often have to learn the same lessons over and over again.  That for me is the story of my spiritual life – I am constantly learning the same lessons again and again.  Sometimes I flatter myself that I am learning them in new ways, but mostly I need to learn the same things.  And the good news is that the Gospel of Mark is structured precisely for people like me who need to learn the same thing over and over again.  The Gospel starts in Galilee, with the baptism of Jesus and the call of the disciples.  It ends with the women at Jesus’ tomb being sent back to Galilee.  The Gospel recognises our need to learn the same things over and over again.

To follow Jesus is to be a learner.  It is to find surprising people in our way that teach us; it is to learn with and from one another; and it is to learn and re-learn the same things over and over again.  The surprising teaching in the Gospel this morning is a Syro-Phoenecian woman.  Syro-Phoenicians continue to teach us today.  Now they are refugees from a conflict of awful violence, in which more than one side appalls us by their capacity for violence and lack of respect for human life.  Whether in the port of Calais, the shores of the Mediterranean or the forests of Europe, they have crossed our path.  The pictures in the newspapers and on the television have reminded us that they are part of the same human race as we are.  And they make us learn once again that we must open our hearts, our purses and our lives to make room for those who have been forced out.  There has been learning in the past week, and that learning will, we pray, continue in the coming weeks and months.  Just as Jesus learned that his compassion needed to extend further than he thought, so we too need to learn once again about enlarging our compassion.  May that learning continue as we daily seek to follow Jesus.  Amen.

First given at Derby Cathedral 6.9.15.