We are exploring new patterns for formation and training in the first four years of public ministry for the stipendiary ordained. The paper supporting the two pilot schemes can be found on the pages of this Blog at http://wp.me/Pg5Vx-7k
Cleethorpes Chronicle June 2010
Next week’s emergency budget is going to be a sharp reminder that we have to work together if we are to get our economy back on track. For me, however, the essential question will be how far the more vulnerable in our community can be protected from the effects of the recession. I suspect that such protection will only be possible if we are prepared to accept additional sacrifices to our own standard of living being included in the budget.
Working together and making sacrifices are at odds with the ‘culture of self’ which seems to dominate our society, with its high awareness of our own needs and focusing on the individual rather than the community. It has been a way of life where we have become observers of other people’s problems, yet have become unwilling to bear the cost of finding solutions. The immediacy of television takes us to the heart of tragic and challenging situations, but then moves us swiftly on as the next headline clamours for our attention. The ‘culture of self’ has eroded so many aspects of community and made redundant the language of working together for the common good.
I recently visited the grave of Valentine Joe Strudwick, a rifleman of the First World War. I found him in the Essex Farm Cemetery just outside of Ypres, lying amongst his comrades from the 14th (Light) Division. He had been killed in action on 14th January 1916, just one month short of his 16th birthday. He was one of 50 from his Division to be killed that January – yet it had been a “quiet month” with little action. I wonder what this 15 year old farm labourer, “of tall and well built stature”, from Dorking in Surrey would have made of our ‘culture of self’?
In the Christian faith we find love and self-sacrifice held together in the man Jesus. The baby of Christmas ends up dying nailed to a cross and becomes the ultimate expression that love without sacrifice is a very shallow, selfish and hollow emotion. Next week’s budget may well help to balance the books, but unless we learn how to work together as a community – to make the personal sacrifices needed to balance the community – then I suspect that little will be changed by the Chancellor. We hear so much about love, but so little about sacrifice – we have much to learn from that 15 year old rifleman lying in Flanders Fields and even more to learn from that young man who died on a cross 2000 years ago.
The past week has seen much of the country held in the grip of freezing weather which has brought in its wake not just inconvenience and travel disruption, but the tragic loss of life on the roads. It has also deepened the plight of those who live on the streets and for those who cannot afford to heat their homes.
“When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even” really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, yet in the spirit of Good King Wenceslas there have been countless acts of generosity and hospitality in the face of such extreme weather – not lease the reaction of the John Lewis store in High Wycombe, which gave overnight shelter to around 100 staff and customers trapped in the store by a blizzard – a wonderful example of responding to what really matters. Perhaps inevitably it is only when the ‘chips are really down’ that we ask the question “What really matters?”
Yet as we prepare to celebrate the gift of a new birth in that stable of Bethlehem we need to remind ourselves that the story of Bethlehem – the story of shepherds, wise men, of angels and of the baby Jesus – isn’t a story which gives answers, rather it’s a story which asks a question and down the ages the Christmas story repeats that question afresh in each generation – what really matters? The story of the birth of Jesus invites us to discover God in that child; to discover God in all the vulnerability of love; to discover God in all the risks and danger which that child encountered.
‘What really matters?’ is a demanding question, yet in answering it, our inner self, our values and our spirit is revealed. As we look back on the story of this past year, that same question has woven its way through the events of 2009 – what really matters? In the devastating floods in the Lake District; during the funerals of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan; as our economy has continued to flounder; as we have been disappointed by what has been revealed about some of our politicians; as we respond to the issues of climate change – we have to ask ourselves ‘what really matters?. It is a question which challenges us to make sense of life and our response to that question gives shape, purpose and value to us and to our communities.
In the coming year there will be a general election. The question from Bethlehem, the question to be found in the Christmas story – ‘What really matters?’ – needs to be addressed by those who will be seeking power. For politicians who fail to address this fundamental question will have little to offer the complexities of our world and of our society.
In that child Jesus we glimpse something of God’s answer to this question as we find value in the love and vulnerability of a baby. It is in the story of Christmas that we being to discover what really matters as we glimpse God’s commitment to life and it is in the message of the angels that we glimpse the cost and value of peace in bringing joy to this world.
As we celebrate Christmas this year may the baby of Bethlehem ask you the question “What really matters to you?” and I pray that you will find your answer in the love and vulnerability of that child whom we celebrate at this time and through whom we can come to know God.
Writing in the Church Times in May, Bishop John Bickersteth raises the question of the number of Suffragan Bishops in a Church with few clergy. He argues that their function could be carried out by archdeacons and cost saving achieved. His approach is based on the ASB service for consecrating Bishops which puts the emphasis on the main responsibility of a Bishop being the care of the clergy.
I scribbled the following reply to the Church Times:
“The Rt Revd John Bickersteth raises an interesting issue when he asks “Why not cut some Bishops”? Yet his argument focuses on cost and function, rather than leadership and mission.
In the introduction to the Ordination of Bishops we are reminded that “Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.”
A reduction in the number of suffragan bishops would inevitably result in the remaining bishops becoming increasingly inaccessible both to the Church and also to the wider community. In an age of connectivity, networks and subsiduarity we need to ask how encouraging such rarity would assist in leading people in mission.
The fundamental question raised by Bishop John Bickersteth, but not addressed, concerns the nature of leadership needed for a Church committed to mission in the twenty-first century. Resolving this question applies as much to incumbents, as it does to bishops Models of oversight and leadership from the past may not always be helpful in determining what is right for the present. Yet the relationship between leadership and mission is well established.
Quoting clergy numbers and ratios of bishops to clergy is to ignore the changing nature of the church. In my area we have over 350 laity who have undergone training to equip them to unfold various aspects of ministry and to become part of the public face of the church’s ministry. Relating to them, maintaining a mission mindset and ensuring that their gifts of ministry are well used, requires a different approach both from their priests and also from their bishops.
In the same way, parish priests are taking on significant complexity as their ‘cure’ encompasses increasingly diverse communities. Supporting, encouraging and pastoring the clergy requires a far more informed understanding and involvement than may have been needed in the past.
Cost and function are pertinent, but the nature of leadership and appropriate shapes for that leadership are perhaps prior questions.”
Recently whilst visiting a school I was in a class which had been given the task of imagining and designing an island. In pairs they had been given a blank sheet of paper and asked to put in the features needed to shape the future of the people living on their imaginary island. I was fascinated by the way in which all the islands ended up with similar features – mountains, rivers, fields, villages and towns. All had roads and most had railways, some had an airport and most had docks, some had reservoirs and one had a rubbish dump – but none had wind farms, none had hydroelectric power stations and none had solar panels. What was common to them all was that they imagined the future in terms of what they had already experienced – their future was a reflection of the past and I suspect that many of us, given the same exercise, would have done the same – imagining the future as a reflection of the past.
To Christians, the Easter story is an invitation – an invitation to become involved in shaping the future – our own and for our society. An invitation to glimpse what is possible when we allow our imagination to be fed by the possibilities of God and his transforming love; an invitation to re-imagine our future, not as a reflection of the past, but as a new landscape of life and love.
We celebrate Easter this year when the world is experiencing remarkable changes and uncertainties. The global economy is undergoing a fundamental readjustment, the recession is teasing out the viability of businesses leaving in its wake the unemployment which makes the future so uncertain for millions of people.
We celebrate Easter with the growing spectre of climate change and the continued threat of terrorism contributing to a general texture of uncertainty and, as ever, we celebrate Easter against the backdrop of all the ongoing joys and sorrows of life, from the joys of new birth to the heart rending plight of the Italian earthquake victims.
It is a troubling picture and it is far too simplistic just to say that Easter and its message of hope is ‘the’ answer to all the problems of our times. The key to understanding Easter is the image of Jesus dying on the cross. The pain and suffering of Jesus tortured to death on the cross is transformed not avoided. The hope which Christians celebrate today is not about making everything all right again, but how we can re-imagine the future.
As we wrestle with the future, it is understandably tempting and attractive for politicians to offer a future which is a recovery of the past good times, but what’s the sense in that? More of the same will bring us to exactly where we are now – I think that it is called boom and bust.
It is too easy to jump on a bandwagon of blaming the bankers for all the economic problems we are facing. We need to remember that they were operating in a system of values which we endorsed as we enjoyed the benefits of a buoyant economy, but those values had no substance, for they were not about shaping the future but exploiting the present. A target driven world can be a world that sacrifices wisdom for the short term gains and approval of meeting the targets.
So do we really want to go back to that? Or, if given a blank sheet of paper and asked to re-imagine the world, what features, what values would we draw in to shape the future for our world. The message of Easter invites us to draw in life and love, peace and justice, hope and goodness as foundational features for shaping the future. These features are not exclusive to Christians – life and love, peace and justice, hope and goodness are universal and a commitment to them would be future shaping. The Easter story enables us to glimpse that when these things are lived out to the full, then there is a flourishing of life which even death cannot destroy.
“I have walked from my village for 15 days to be here and as soon as the birth of Jesus is announced, then I must begin my walk back home…” a fellow pilgrim in Ethiopia informed me, with his pride evident. We were sitting on the ground pressed together amidst the 70,000 other pilgrims who had come intent on celebrating Christmas at the chapel of Bethlehem, which is one of the rock hewn churches in Lalibela.
It marked a high point on a remarkable pilgrimage through Ethiopia at the start of 2009, timed to join in the Ethiopian Christmas festivities at Lalibela which they celebrate on 7th January.
Like all pilgrims, we travelled open to discovering new things about this world and the people who inhabit it – open to being changed by what we discovered. Ethiopia is a fascinating country about the size of France and Spain put together. We encountered stunning African scenery, warm hospitable people, a rich history, the deep mysterious faith of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the poverty which comes from being part of the third world.
Ethiopia was home to the largely unknown Axumite Empire which dates back to the 2nd century BC. An African empire which, by the 3rd century AD, was a trading on equal terms with the Egyptians, Greeks, Byzantines and Persians. In the city of Axum itself we marvelled at the sheer beauty of the intricately carved 23 metre granite obelisks marking the burial grounds of this ancient kingdom.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is woven into the culture of this land. It broke from the western church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD over the nature of Christ. It is a church full of symbolism and ritual. Representations of the Holy Trinity, St George slaying the dragon and St. Mary (as they call her) holding the baby Jesus are painted on the walls of the Holy of Holies which stand at the centre of every church housing a replica of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ethiopian Church is a mysterious branch in the evolution of Christianity. It has been unaffected by the reformations and enlightenment which have sharpened the faith and practice of the western church. The Jewish roots to our faith are much more prevalent for them with circumcision, keeping both the Sabbath and Sunday as holy days and the centrality of the Ark of the Covenant being part of their tradition.
The Ethiopian Church claims to be the custodian of the original Ark of the Covenant which is kept in the northern town of Axum. Our pilgrimage ended with us joining in the candlelit procession of the Ark (or a replica!) around the town at 4.00am. We started in the ‘men only’ church of St. Mary of Zion, but when we reached the street we were joined by the women to form a procession numbering several hundred with the Ark leading us. Such was their pleasure at our party joining them that candles were thrust into our hands and I was moved to a position just in front of the Ark. I turned off my post-enlightenment mindset, to absorb the faith of those around me as we walked chanting the Jesus prayer in Amharic.
Central to our pilgrimage was Lalibela. The dozen churches, representing the Holy Land, were carved out of the rock during the reign of King Lalibela between 1167 and 1207. What makes these churches different from other rock hewn buildings (like Petra) is that they are intricately carved not just on the outside but also inside. They remain living places of pilgrimage and worship. Health and safety are yet to reach these ancient sites, yet amongst the throngs of pilgrims we were guided, helped and supported by everyone we encountered, with a warmth and generosity most often absent in crowds.
As with all pilgrimages there was space for fun, discovery and reflection. We celebrated the Eucharist on the steps of a monastery on an island in Lake Tana. The monks welcomed us but kept their distance, until we went and shared the peace with them – then the gap of culture, distance and theology fell away, as we greeted each other in the name of Christ. Was I changed by what we experienced? Yes, not least because I realised that with all our sophistication, economic success and modernity we seem to have forgotten how to walk for 15 days to greet the child of Bethlehem.
PS I have just agreed to lead another pilgrimage to Ethiopia leaving 1st January 2011. Please let me know if you are interested.
One of the things I love about Christmas day is that for just a few hours there is a different pace to life. The shops shut, commerce is suspended, lorries are off the road and there is a pause in the rush and bustle of life. Christmas continues to hold the attention not just of our own country, but of many, many countries across the world.
During a school visit, I was recently asked what does Christmas mean to me. I found that the answer came quite easily as, for me, Christmas is about possibility – it is about the possibility of God. There is no proof about God because of the Christmas story. Angels, shepherds, wise men, gifts and a manger are much enjoyed details about a far bigger question. A question which is there each and every time we hold a newborn baby – what are the possibilities for this child? Few of us who are parents or grandparents cannot but have been thrilled at encountering all the possibilities contained within the fragility and vulnerability of a new member to our family.
The birth of Jesus offers the same experience, but he is also wrapped in a belief that through this child we encounter the possibilities of God – possibilities which embraced love, peace, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness and hope. I think that this is why so many people continue to be attracted to this baby of Bethlehem, for these possibilities are the very ones we hope to find in our own lives. During this Christmas time, congregations in churches will swell and I suspect that many of those unfamiliar with church will come to sing carols and mouth unfamiliar prayers because they are drawn to the services by the reality that we all want these sorts of possibilities to be part of our lives as well.
Christmas is an invitation for us to renew ourselves in the possibilities of love, of peace, of gentleness, of kindness, or forgiveness and of hope that they may become the stuff of our lives as well. I hope and pray that the qualities of life celebrated in this baby of Bethlehem will become ours, not just for a few hours each year, but for each and every day.
Originally published in the Cleethorpes Chronicle