Teach us to pray…

Some sermony thoughts on Luke 11.1-13

I’ve always found the parable of the persistent neighbour rather troubling. Our habit is to map parables onto the real world – us and God – as an exact one to one allegory, and in this case, that would cast God as the grudging friend with his own family safely behind a locked door who only responds to nagging.

This can’t be right, and setting the parable alongside the teaching of the Lords prayer helps us unpick it a bit.

The first thing to notice is that the late night request for bread isn’t out of the blue. The two are friends – they have an ongoing relationship, and there is probably more to that relationship than asking favours of each other. If the friendship in the story is supposed to tell us something about our relationship with God: relationship with God is not purely transactional, a series of favours being asked and granted. We go to God with praise, with our deepest desires and concerns about the world, with our basic needs, with our guilt and our bitterness, and our fear of the evil that others may do do us, or that we may do ourselves. In fact, all the things that the Lord’s Prayer describes, and which we can find unfolded both in our worship (try it, you’ll see what I mean) and in our daily lives.

The second thing to notice is the key phrase towards the end of the reading: ‘How much more…?’  What God does for us is more than we can expect from a human relationship. And the imagery switches back from the friendship model to the parent-child model, indicating perhaps that this is a closer comparison.  Jesus invites us to call God ‘Abba’ – an intimate, unguarded term, reassuring us that we are not randomly demanding neighbours banging on God’s door at midnight, but rather we are (or we can be) the children tucked up safely in the bed.

The friends/neighbours vs family issue here reminds me very much of the phrase ‘children of Abraham’ that appears a few times in the gospels. At the time of Abraham, God was experienced as the family God, and Jesus’ own contemporaries placed huge significance on their heritage as part of the family that God promised to Abraham would be more numerous than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert. And yet we can also read in the gospel that, ‘God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones’.  This story too, invites us to work out where we are in relation to God, and to reflect on our identity as children of God, members of God’s household, and all that that means, and all that might get in the way of that.

One of the things that that means becomes apparent if we let go of the one-to-one mapping of the parable, and instead mix things up a bit. What if the comparison is not so much that we can extrapolate who God is not by saying ‘God is like us in this story, but better?’ What if, instead, we say, ‘Our neighbourliness and our relationships must be modeled on God our heavenly Father, and what we know of God from the testimony of scripture and the life of Christ?’  What would it mean if we looked at the story not from the point of view of the neighbour knocking on the door, waiting for our prayers to be answered? What if we approached the story as the children in the bed, who, hopefully, take after their parent, and who know that their heavenly Father is a generous God, and that there is enough bread in the house to feed many neighbours and travellers?

Would we, on behalf of our Father, climb out of the bed and open the door, and offer God’s hospitality?  Of the many wise things Pope Francis has said, one of my favourites is this: 4
“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.”


Liturgical objections

Some people may not agree with everything in this post. Normally I just post useful resources, but this actually has some questions and possibly contentious things in it. I took the post down yesterday, as it might have been contravening my rule of life.* But I’ve re-written it now, so it’s hopefully nicer, and has benefitted from the many insights that others have shared with me. 

It was a great blessing to be at the consecration of the new bishops of Dorking and Repton. It was the first time I’d been to the consecration of a woman (in this case two). That meant it was also the first time that I’d heard ‘live’ the objector, who has sought to make his views known on each occasion that a woman has been consecrated (he hasn’t always been allowed to do so, mind). You can read the press release issued by WATCH about this issue here. And I recommend that you do before reading further. You can also read Archdruid Eileen’s response here.

I echo everything that the WATCH article says. As an ordained woman, it pains me to have the vocation of my fellow female clergy publicly called into question, and the liturgical and sacramental offering of that vocation disrupted with a ‘No’ that feels like a gut punch.  It could possibly be argued that the objection is a reminder of the reality of the church’s brokenness – something often said about the fact that Anglicans and Catholics are unable to share in communion. It could be interpreted as a reminder that the church is not the kingdom of heaven – things have changed, but they are not yet fully transformed. But this isn’t enough of a reason to keep perpetuating it.

I would be very happy indeed never to hear another objection.  The consecration service for male bishops proceeds perfectly happily without it, as do the ordination services for deacons and priests.  The objector has been heard, the church has made up its mind, and it is time simply to move on and celebrate the vocation of women and men to all expressions of ordained ministry.

But, in becoming part of the liturgy, as the WATCH article says, the objection has caused a curious thing to happen.  This is a summary of the ‘script’ at that point in the service:

The Archbisop asks for the people’s assent
The People assent
The Objector objects
[and, at the most recent service, the Resistor resists the objection]
The Archbishop responds
The Archbishop asks for the people’s assent again
The People respond, more loudly.

Without the objection there would be no response from the Archbishop, and no second affirmation.  And I think I might actually miss those.

First, the response. For a start, ++Justin’s response at Canterbury Cathedral was rooted in and framed by prayer (and I am grateful to my friend and colleague Julie for reminding me of that).  And, from memory the main thrust of it, in addition to prayerfulness, was (a) the story of how the church came to recognise the vocation of women to the episcopate, and (b) the legal provision for the consecration’s validity. These two aspects of the response are both about mandate and authority, but they function differently.  The latter is a statement of what is, factually, the case, while the former is rather more than that: it’s a narrative, a story, if you like, as to how we came to be where we are. It reminded me of those places in the Hebrew Bible in which the People of God are helped to remember how they got to be where they are.  They remember their stories. Because the stories tell them who they are – it’s not just the events themselves that were formative, but the telling and retelling of the story is also formative. Liturgy is a key custodian of the story that gives us our ecclesial identity.

So, a question: once the objector finally stops disrupting consecration services, will there still be a need to tell this story or will we have reached a stage when it is no longer needed, or when it does more harm than good? I’m looking here to my friends and colleagues who are more well versed in liberation theology to help me out here, and I’m grateful to Rosemary, another priest-friend, for reminding me that in liberation theology the story of oppression only works to liberate if it is told by those who are themselves oppressed.   A genuine objection is quite different from a scripted question placed into the liturgy as a deliberate part of the controlling narrative.  Although we may enjoy the response, the objection itself is still an act of oppression, and as such, has no place in the church.  The question remains, though: without the objection, is there still value in retelling the story of how we changed?

Then there is the second affirmation. I have to confess I was looking forward to that bit, and it was every bit as rousing, joyful and sincere as I had hoped. By the time we got to that second affirmation, it felt like something that we are bursting to shout aloud.  Without the objection, could we find a way to make the first and only ‘yes!’ (for all consecration and indeed ordination services) just as affirmative as that second ‘yes’?  Without the objection, would we need to? Many clergy do in fact repeat the congregational question at weddings if the gathered people are not enthusiastic enough with their ‘We will’ – is this something we would want to see at a consecration or ordination service? One would certainly need to find ways of doing it that increased the joy and sense of agency in the response, rather than descending into pantomime – this has been proved possible at weddings, but could it work at a consecration?

My conclusion, if I have one, is that the objection unwitttingly provoked something it never intended. It triggers the retelling of a story of transformation (while reminding us that that process of transformation, while representing the vast majority of the church, is not yet fully embraced by the whole church). And it galvanizes the gathered people into raised voices and heightened passions.  My final question is whether these responses to the objection are in themselves sufficiently powerful and valuable that they might, in some form, have a place in the liturgy even after the objector has stopped turning up (as I hope he will, and soon).

I would be happy never to hear the objection again.  An undisrupted liturgy of consecration (whether that’s because the York Minster police have escorted the objector out before he can say a word, or because he has eventually stopped turning up) is probably the most powerful testimony to a church that has truly transformed, that has grown into its decision and is at ease with its new equality and its mandate to defend that equality.

At the same time I long for a church (and a world, for that matter) in which all our remaining inequalities and injustices are a distant memory, and in which we have both learned to disagree well and have come closer to the diversity-in-unity of the kingdom of heaven. But we are not there yet. We have many remaining inequalities in the church.  If we need to retell the story of women and the episcopacy, it may be as a reminder of the fact that we can change.  Our current experience also provides us with a range of models for the way that we might deal with those who feel threatened by that change, and how our responses to objection may evolve over time.

If – no, let’s say when – the Church of England embraces equal marriage, we may be faced with a similar situation, in which objectors disrupt what should be a joyful and celebratory liturgy.  How will our experience of the consecration of women as bishops inform the way that we handle this pastorally, practically and liturgically?   We may conclude that, there being no legal or theological grounds for such objections, the only response that would have any integrity would be for the churchwardens to escort the objector from the building as soon as he or she spoke up (or as soon as it had been ascertained that they weren’t objecting on genuine legal grounds – the marriage service and the calling of banns allows for this, of course).  Could the service then simply carry on, as if nothing had happened, or would there be an emotional and pastoral need to respond to such objection with a narrative of transformation, with prayer, and/or with the opportunity for congregational affirmation? And would we consider slightly rearranging the order of the elements of the marriage service so that if objections arise the liturgy itself is ‘ready’ for them, and has its own answer?

As ever, I’m left with more questions than answers. I think I can now repost this without transgressing the relevant bit of my rule of life (which, in case you’re interested, is that “nothing I say can cause more hurt than healing”) but if there are things that you feel contravene this principle, please do tell me, and I will totally do something about that.  Even if you disagree, please keep comments constructive and helpful. My blog is generally a happy place! 

The Good Samaritan

Maybe I am doing him a disservice, but the lawyer reminds me of one of those people who ask a question to which they already know the answer, so that they can demonstrate their expertise. He knows the right words to say, he correct formula, but he’s clearly struggling with the implications. He’s not quite grasping the all-encompassing nature of love. To attempt a definition of ‘neighbour’ is almost certainly to try to limit the sense of obligation and accountability and generosity that the Summary of the Law implies. Love has no limits, and the lawyer hasn’t really grasped that yet. Hence the story that follows.

But the story is all wrong.

Most people, when they hear a story, will gravitate to the first or main character, and assume, subconsciously that this is ‘someone like us’. Straight away we are wrong footed, because the person with whom we have begun to identify, albeit only briefly, turns out to be the victim and not the hero. His main role is to be beaten and then lie, passively, in the gutter, at the mercy, or lack of mercy, of whoever may see him.

We’d like the victim to be someone else. Secretly, we’d probably prefer it if the victim is ‘not like us’. The foreigner, the low-class outcast, the Samaritan – that’s who ought to be the victim, so that we can be the hero. We can do our charitable bit, reach down from our uprightness and respectability, and help those less fortunate than ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s one of the things that makes societies work.

But if we’re the ones in the gutter, it’s much less comfortable, much less satisfying. Lying there, beaten, who do we want to come to our aid?  I remember once at theological college, I had just recovered from flu, and for some stupid reason I had decided to go for a run before morning prayer. It didn’t go well. Almost at the end of the service, I started feeling woozy, and tried to leave discreetly – I got half way to the back of chapel and then passed out. I remember coming to and hearing a particular person (whom I will not name) saying, loudly, ‘Don’t worry, I know first aid!’ and thinking, to my shame, ‘Oh no, anyone but you!’

Receiving help is not easy. Depending on the charity of others is not easy. It makes us vulnerable, it can chip away at our pride and self-respect, especially when have to look up from the gutter at those who are helping us from their position of benevolent power – a position that really should be ours…. Who would it be hardest to accept from, right now? We might all give a different answer, but each of our answers challenges us, through this best known of gospel stories.

And the end of the story is wrong too. Jesus’ closing question turns the definitions around. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ at the start is a question that assumes that we are strong ones, and the neighbour is someone who, in their weakness, needs our charity. ‘Who was a neighbour to him?’ assumes that the neighbour is not the victim but the saviour, the one who gives the love.

So, when Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’ he is telling us to get up from our gutter, where we had unexpectedly and uncomfortably found ourselves, and go and be the Samaritan, go and be the outcast, the low-life, the one who stopped and helped because he knows what it’s like to be at the bottom of the heap. ‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, ‘remembering that you, too, are dust, that you, too, come from the gutter.’

Christological laptop.jpgMy son, who is nine, came up with an interesting theory about this a few months ago. He noticed that he can only see what’s on his laptop screen when he looks straight at it – if it’s tilted at the wrong angle, the image distorts and then disappears. He said to me: ‘It’s like God is the image on a laptop screen, and the screen is tilted downwards.  You can only see God if you’re really low down. Like if you’re ill. Or if you’re not very important. The people who can see God most clearly are the ones who are right at ground level, not the people who can stand upright. So, if we want to see God clearly, we need to get down on the level of the people who are ill, or poor, or not very important. Helping people where they are is how we are most close to God.’

And he’s right, of course. If we really do get down on our hands and knees, as it were, and come alongside others in their hour of need, we are likely to find Christ already there. But if we look down from above, we’ll see no clearer.

The responses to some of the recent terrorist and other attacks around the world express this sense of solidarity rather clearly. It started with “Je suis Charlie” in the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. And it has continued, more recently in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Gay Love, which you may have seen, in response to the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. This, too, expressed the sort of solidarity that St Paul hinted at in 1 Corinthians 12: ‘When one member suffers, the whole body suffers’.  This is the sort of solidarity, when words flow into loving action, that points to the fundamental truth at the heart of the Summary of the law: Love your neighbour. Be that neighbour. Be loved by that neighbour. These are all one command: mutual, reciprocal, humble, generous, joyful. The sort of love that allows help to be given and received without condescension.  The love that rejects the pursuit of power, the preservation of hierarchies, and instead basks in the belovedness that we all have in God, which underpins all our own giving and receiving  and invites us to see one another, to love one another, and indeed, to love ourselves, as God loves us.

In the nation at the moment, the question ‘who is my neighbour’ confronts us constantly. It is being asked in our local communities, in the news media, in the political arena, and implicitly in our awareness of the very many challenges that we face in our current political and social turmoil.  We need the story of the Good Samaritan, together with the Summary of the Law, now more than ever, to teach us afresh what is means to be children of the same heavenly Father, builders of his kingdom on earth – a community of people who need each other. It’s been wonderful to see the grassroots movements that have been springing up in the last few days: #loveyourneighbour and #movementoflove spring to mind, encouraging ordinary people to go the extra mile for one another, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. The challenge is great, and the story is exactly what’s required, though it may be hard to hear it, and harder still to live it out – but there is no greater command than this: that we love God with our whole being, and love our neighbour as ourselves. mollogo

A hymn – really a prayer. Because of everything that’s just too awful in the world right now.

I couldn’t sleep. Too many fears and tears for such a broken world.
So I wrote this as a prayer, to the tune Kings Lynn (aka O God of earth and altar) – though any suitable sombre 7676D tune would work..
As with all my hymns, please do just help yourself: share, sing, print, whatever’s helpful.

O God of all salvation
In this, our darkest hour,
Look down at your creation
With pity and with power.
In all the pain we’re seeing,
For parent, partner, friend,
We’ll cling with all our being
To love that cannot end.

O God, your loving passion
Is deeper than our pain,
Look down, and in compassion
Bring us to life again.
When we are found despairing,
When all seems lost to sin,
We’ll hear your voice declaring
That love alone will win.

O God, when hate grows stronger,
With fear to pave its way,
The cry, ‘Lord, how much longer?’
With broken hearts we pray.
In all that is dismaying
In humankind’s freewill,
We’ll join our voices, praying
That love will triumph still.

O God, whose love will never
Be silenced, stalled or stilled,
Set us to work wherever
There’re bridges to rebuild.
We’ll take our life’s vocation
To make, like heav’n above,
In this and every nation
A kingdom built on love.

(c) Ally Barrett 2016

New communion hymn

I was procrastinating, and this happened. Tune is ‘Slane’.
As ever, help yourself if you would like to use it. 

Come to God’s table! for all is prepared,
The bread we have offered is broken and shared,
Christ’s presence among us is food for the soul,
reviving, renewing, and making us whole.

Come to God’s table! and drink of the wine,
the blood of the Saviour, both real and a sign,
The cup of salvation both priceless and free,
transforming God’s people into all we can be.

Come to God’s table! we come as we are,
we bring all the burdens we’ve carried so far,
in body, in spirit, in soul, mind and heart,
to feed on the grace which God alone can impart.

Come to God’s table! then go in that grace
to hold all the earth in a heav’nly embrace,
Sent out in the Spirit to tend and to care
in thought, word and action, our life is our prayer.

Is ‘none’ really a thing?

This is my sermon for Pembroke College Chapel, 29th May 2016.
It is based on 1 Kings 8.22-23,41-43, 
Psalm 96.1-9, & Luke 7.1-10.
See also this excellent post by Stephen Cherry, and this Guardian article responding to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

If you’ve been keeping any kind of eye on the media recently, you will probably have seen something about the church – and religion generally – being in freefall, with more people now self-identifying as being of ‘no religion’ than as belonging all of the Christian denominations put together.

You can do all sorts of things with surveys – and much depends on what, exactly, is being asked, how the question is phrased, what options are given, and so on. There are certainly various narratives out there that ‘religion’ causes conflict, that ‘spirituality’ is what we share as human beings; that ‘religion’ demands adherence either to things that are impossible to believe, or to norms of behaviour that we no longer believe represent the fullness of human flourishing, while ‘spirituality’ allows each person to find within themselves the path that leads them to becoming who they want to be.

Meanwhile, however, a lot more people are, in fact, coming to church than British Social Attitudes survey would suggest. They may not be coming as part of a regular Sunday morning committed congregation, whatever that means, but they are coming: 200,000 people a year attend a Church of England christening service, and many more may brush up against ‘religion’ at a wedding or funeral. They visit cathedrals and parish churches (when the door is left unlocked).  Chapels, churches and Cathedrals have, in many cases, a several-hundred-year long track record of standing firm through the changes and chances of the life of local families, of whole communities, and indeed of the nation itself. There is something here that taps into a sense of connectedness with the past (think of the massive increase in interest in tracing family history).  When people speak of a ‘thin’ place, this is often what they mean. These are places that allow us to brush up against something bigger than any of us, and nothing in the survey suggests that this is on the wane. These places say, God is here. Not somewhere out there, but here, among his people.

There is something of this in our reading from 1 Kings. Solomon built the Temple, because he wanted a place where the Ark of the Covenant could have a permanent home, as a powerful symbol of God’s presence with his people, and his blessing upon them.

But the trouble with building temples – or churches, or chapels or cathedrals, for that matter – is that they usually have walls. And walls mean you know whether you are on the inside or the outside. If God is here, then there is a danger in inferring that God is only here. There is a danger that the particular signs of God’s presence, be they a temple, an ark, or a chapel, become so particular that they lose their identity as a sign of something universal.

My children, when they were little, helped me think this one through. They used to take great delight in asking me, at length, ‘If God is everywhere, is God in this dirty coffee cup? Is God in this sofa cushion? Is God in this mud on my trainers?’  And so on. Eventually, in desperation, I said to them, ‘No, it’s the other way round. God is not ‘in’ these things. These things are ‘in’ God, because the whole of creation is ‘in God’.  And some of the things that there are in the world are ‘in’ God in such a particular and remarkable way that they allow us to glimpse something of who God is.’ Astonishingly, the explanation worked.  But the conversation stayed with me.

If God is not in the chapel or the Temple, but the chapel and the Temple are both in God, then it is hardly surprising that what the Social Attitude Survey reveals by its silence is the massive extent to which God is at work in all the other things that are, by virtue of their createdness, also ‘in God’, even though they don’t have the label ‘religion’ on them.  For God is, I believe, not only present but active in the whole of creation, and most certainly in the minds and hearts and souls of those who ticked ‘none’ on the survey.  At the simplest level, people pray. My experience has been that there is a heck of a lot of prayer going on outside the church walls – and no survey can ever measure how that works and why it still happens if we’re all supposed to be turning secular.  People pray, and God hears.

This is what Solomon almost understands when he prays in our reading, that the prayers of the foreigner will be heard just as the prayers of the chosen people are heard. This is a moment – an early moment – in a gradual shift in theology, from ‘my family’s God’ through ‘my tribe’s God’ to ‘my nation’s God’ (who is undoubtedly better and bigger than your nation’s God, by the way) all the way through to The God – the end result of this shift is technically known as monotheism.

Once we are aware of God as The God we lose our proprietary claims. It is no accident that the ‘growth’ of God, for want of a better way of putting it, from one tribal God among many to out and out monotheism went hand in hand with a renewed growth in appreciation for the natural world. If God is The Lord, rather than just A Lord then this must be the one who created everything, really everything, the whole universe. So the Bible starts to present to us world of sea monsters and stars and planets and leviathans and distant peoples, all of which become crucial for understanding our own place in God’s affections and purposes.

Universalism, as Solomon almost states it, demands, then, a level of humility that the People of God have often struggled with, it is fair to say, over the last few thousand years. It is a level of humility that says, along with the Centurion in our gospel reading, ‘I am not worthy’ while at the same time declaring with all its might that ‘I am worthy’, but only because we are all worthy. Even the outsider, even the sick slave, even the foreigner who might come and pray in our holy place.

What is going on here is the acknowledgement that if the whole of creation is in God, then there can be no outside. So there can be no outsiders. Because none are uniquely worthy, all are worthy. Equally so. Universalism becomes then not a cop out, but a demanding, difficult process of working towards that unity and equality that is at the heart of our acknowledgement of who God is. What we need most at the moment is a global community that transcends self-interest and tribalism, and seeks instead the restoration of humanity, and indeed of the whole of creation, the very creation that the psalmist hears praising the God of everything.

So, when we talk of ‘spirituality’ (with or without religion) we must be sure that we do not dismiss it lightly; that we are talking about something that goes deeper than subjective feelings, deeper than self-fulfilment or self-expression.  It has to hear and respond to the charge that, in Mandela’s words, to be free, we must not merely cast off our own chains, but also live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. It must draw deeply from the rich traditions that we have inherited, learn from that history’s mistakes, and renew its accountability now and in the future to the creation in which we have a particular role and vocation.  This is a fully engaged*, ethical, demanding, accountable spirituality that the world – and the church – needs more than anything. Call it spirituality, call it religion, call it ‘none’, but know that the world needs it. Now more than ever.


*Thank you to Stephen Cherry for this insight.

Hymn about giving / money etc

That reading about paying tax to the Emperor sort of felt like it needed a new hymn (at least, someone suggested it did). So here is one, to the tune Bunessan (Morning has broken). 

Here we are giving,
out of our plenty
fruit of thanksgiving,
tribute of love.
Hearts overflowing
cannot stand empty,
constantly growing
grace from above.

Gathered as one, and
thankfully bringing
all that we are, and
all that we do.
Serving and caring,
praying and singing,
building and sharing,
offered to you.

Love beyond measure,
total compassion,
We are your treasure:
wondrously giv’n.
Made in your likeness,
imaged and fashioned,
life that is priceless,
valued in heaven.