Advent doodle 1: Hills of the North, rejoice

I don’t know yet if I’ll try for (let alone succeed at) a doodle a day again, but here’s day one, based on the readings from today’s Eucharist (bits of Isaiah 2 & Matthew 8) and the hymn that seemed most to resonate with them.

We are those who come
from North and South
and East and West;
We are those who come
not in our own right,
but by the grace of God;
We are those who come late,
unclean, and unprepared;
We are those who, as beloved guests,
sometimes need reminding
that we do not own this:
it is a gift that we may come as we are
to become all we were created to be.


Thoughts towards a homily on Luke 14.25-33

Luke 14.25-33 is another one of those horrible gospel readings where you read it and think, ‘Really? Jesus said this?’  And then you realise you’re supposed to be preaching on it – in other words, making sense of it not just for yourself but for other people too.   So you’re not just talking about hating your own parents, you’re talking about other people hating theirs, and that’s just another whole lot of tricky.
I realised something as I read this through: the way it’s phrased makes it sound like a genuine choice: this thing or that thing, parent or God, as if the two were in any way equivalent to one another. Perhaps our metaphorical use of ‘Father’ for God compounds this immediate (and unhelpful) sense of the possibility of being equivocal.  But what if instead we took seriously the reality that God is not equivalent to anyone or anything?  That we’re not, after all, being asked to make a choice between two equivalent external sources of authority, validation or love, but rather to take on board who God is and what that means for who we are?
God is, after all, the creator of the universe. That’s everything. Stars, planets, black holes, and all the immensity of stuff in between that we don’t even have a proper name for. All of time and space (and spacetime). Huge things and tiny things, and things that don’t even properly exist in any way that physics can explain.  Animals, vegetables, minerals. The whole lot. Me, you, my parents, your parents, life itself.
If we believe that – really believe it – then the universe only makes sense if we are aware of everything being held in God’s hands.
Two brief diversions:
1. My children used to often ask whether, if God was everywhere, ‘is God in this dirty coffee cup?’ ‘Is God in this teatowel?’ ‘Is God in the mud on the bottom of my trainers that I just trod into the nice clean carpet?’  Exasperated, I eventually answered, ‘It’s the other way round. God is not in those things, those things are in God, because the whole universe is in God. Happy now?’ And remarkably, they were. At least until the next question.
2. If you’ve not read Mother Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, you should. The most famous of her visions is of a tiny round thing the size of a hazelnut, which the holy Mother holds in the palm of her hands. She wonders what it is, the answer comes to her, ‘It is everything that is made.’ She wonders how it continues to exist, for it is so small it might just disappear. Again, an answer comes to her, ‘It exists, and will continue to exist, because God loves it.’
So, in our mental image of God as creator of the universe, holding everything that he has made in his hands, that includes us – you, me, our mothers and fathers, the people we love and the people we hate, and the people we don’t even know and will never meet. As well as the stars and planets and black holes.
God is the ultimate context for all our other relationships – with people, and with creation. And our relationships with one another and with the world can only really make sense that way round, in the bigger context of God. It simply doesn’t work if we try to make anyone other the creator of the universe our “ultimate context” – if another creature (a parent, a lover etc) is given the status of Ultimate Context, that’s way too much pressure to put on them – nobody is big enough to be someone’s whole world, no matter how romantic or loyal that may sound. Only God is big enough, flexible enough, strong enough to be our first call, the ground of our being, our all in all. And if we try to make another human being into those things, even if they could hold us in their hands, they simply cannot hold all our other relationships as well, and they definitely cannot also hold all of God in their hands.  Our relationships with others can be held in the hands of God, but it’s very hard indeed to ask someone else to hold our relationship with God in their hands. It’s just the wrong way round.
In ministry I’ve always been grateful for an image of the hands of God being huge, and careful and gentle and strong and utterly reliable – and placed just under mine, ready to catch all the things that slip through my fingers. There are people who rely on me, for whom I am their first port of call. But I am not their last port of call, because of those big generous hands of God just below mine.
For me, there is something of this in the gospel this week.  And this may be my clumsy way of putting what Rowan Williams puts much more deftly in his book, Being Disciples:

“Being with the Master is recognising that who you are is finally going to be determined by your relationship with him. If other relationships seek to define you in a way that distorts this basic relationship, you lose something vital for your own well-being and that of all around you too. You lose the possibility of a love more than you could have planned or realised for yourself. Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

To love God is to realise that you are held in the hands of God, along with everyone and everything else. That tends to put things in perspective.

Which tune?

I wrote a hymn a couple of months ago, to the tune ‘King’s Lynn’ (aka O God of earth and altar), and it turned out that quite a lot of people didn’t know the tune, and asked if it would go to anything else. The simple answer was, it can go to most 7676D* tunes.

(*If you’ve never known what those numbers and letter mean, they’re a shorthand description for the metre, in this case, it means that the first line is 7 syllables long, the next one is 6 syllables, etc, and the D stands for ‘double’, meaning that it’s an 8 line hymn in which the metre is the same in the second half as in the first half. Clear as mud. What it doesn’t tell you is that my particular words have an upbeat (technically known as an anacrusis) which means that the accent falls on the second syllable rather than the first – in the trade, this is known as ‘iambic’. So the full description would be 7676D iambic. )

Another complication is that you can sometimes ‘fudge’ it so that a metre that technically has the wrong number of syllables can be used, by the judicious use of slurs and by splitting longer notes into two.  Consider the last line of Londonderry air (O Danny Boy), which has 12 notes, of which three are usually slurred together – there is nothing to stop a hymnwriter removing that slur, and having a 12 syllable line instead of the usual 10. Consider also the very popular tune ‘slane’ (Lord of all hopefulness), of which the second line has a two-note upbeat, which is generally slurred – there is nothing to stop two very short syllables being used instead, as long as a congregation will be able to intuit that this is what’s going on at a first read-through.

But even if you find a tune for which the metre fits perfectly, will it have the right mood / vibe?  Take ‘O Jesus I have promised’ as an example. It’s also 7676D iambic, and there are at least three tunes that are commonly used, each with their own personality. Two of those tunes would be fine for the hymn I wrote, and one would definitely not be, because it’s way to ‘bouncy’ and would jar horribly with the mood of the words.

My hymn was used in a broadcast act of worship a couple of weeks after it was written, and the producer used my nominated tune, King’s Lynn.  But it’s about to be used in another broadcast, and this time the producer has gone with a different tune: Corvedale. As it happens it’s actually originally written for 8686D words, with a two-syllable up-beat – the addition of a slur at the start of each line means it fits my words really well in terms of metre. Corvedale is a triple time tune, so is instantly less foursquare, and as a major key tune (though with some lovely harmonies) it immediately feels more positive. What does this do to the words, and how we hear them?  Under what circumstances might one prefer King’s Lynn? And when might Corvedale fit the bill?

A final factor to consider is whether the tune itself has cultural resonances that add something to the way we experience the words.  Consider Richard Bewes’ metrical setting of God is our strength and refuge, which he set to the tune ‘Dambusters’ from the popular war film.  This, I think, leads those who know the hymn to see that psalm in a particular light, casting the ‘refuge’ and ‘strength’ as a strongly defended castle, possibly surrounded by an army, rather than as something more peaceful and even homely.  The tune can hugely affect how we hear the words. Consider also what it means to write a set of words to, say, ‘Thaxted’ (usually sung to the words, I vow to thee my country’) – that may well also affect how we experience the lyrics, and may also limit what sort of words are deemed appropriate for that particular tune. What feelings are evoked by tunes usually used in Christmas carols? Or for hymns often used at funerals?  Are those resonances helpful, or do they conflict with what the new lyrics are trying to do?  I found G K Chesterton’s words, O God of earth and altar, very powerful, and the tune King’s Lynn will always have GKC’s words somewhere in it for me – I was glad to borrow that frame of reference for my own words.

As it happens, there’s a third tune now being used for my own hymn, and it’s in a completely different idiom – mostly I write to well known traditional hymn tunes, and this new tune is a specially written one, by @mrwiblog in the style of a more modern worship song. And I really love it – it has energy, and the right balance of hope and emotion. You can listen to it here.

The lovely @artsyhonker also wrote another tune for some of my words – as a lyrics-writer there’s no greater honour than to have a composer write a tune specially, so a huge thank you to Kathryn, and to Chris.

It’s the 5th time this gospel reading has come up in the lectionary since I was ordained and I still don’t know what to say about it…

This isn’t a sermon, it’s some thoughts that might lead to one.

Luke 12.49-56 is a really hard gospel. I like to find good news in the gospel, and I also like to inhabit the grey areas, but today’s reading leaves me very little scope for either; it seems full of judgement and harsh dividing lines, and destruction. And although I like complex, I like my complexity to be, well, happier.

One of the things I encourage my ordinands to do when they’re preparing to preach is to identify the ‘gospel in the gospel’ –  a process which involves letting the scripture reading converse with the time of year, the occasion, the church context and local/national events, and the preacher’s own perspective, experience and insights. Sometimes (=often) this process results not in a neat and tidy conclusion, but in more of a ‘way in’ – a starting point for what is likely to be a longer journey of reflecting and mulling-over, and responding.

Today is one of those days. There was a particular phrase that I found myself drawn to, and I’ll treat this, if I may, as the rabbit hole through which to explore this gospel, and see where the journey takes us.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

This isn’t the first time that Jesus has talked about baptism the context of his coming time of suffering, and his approaching death.  Remember Mark 10.38-39?  You do not know what you are asking, Jesus replied. “Can you drink the cup I will drink, or be baptized with the baptism I will undergo?” “We can,” they answered. “You will drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus said, “and you will be baptized with the baptism I undergo…  In this rebuke to James and John, who are seeking the highest place by Jesus’ side in heaven, Jesus connects both baptism and the drinking of a cup with suffering. It sounds awfully like Baptism and Holy Communion are deeply and inextricably intertwined with suffering, both in the life of Christ and in the life of his followers, since they are key markers of our belonging to him.

In the early church, when many of those new to the faith, who had just begun their journey towards full membership of the church, were martyred before they could be baptised, the church began to teach that their martyrdom was a ‘baptism of blood’ – the blood shed at their death stood in for the water of baptism and united them fully with Christ. It’s possible that Jesus’ references to a baptism of suffering were the early church reading their own experience of martyrdom back into Jesus’ own teaching. It’s a powerful image, and a powerfully hopeful one for a persecuted church.

In today’s gospel there is no cup of suffering, but there is something else: ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’  The phrase that sprang immediately to my mind, hearing these two images side by side in the reading, is the ‘baptism of fire’ that John refers to in Matthew 3.  It may refer to a purging fire, or perhaps more likely to the fire of the Spirit at Pentecost.  But the way we use the phrase now is as a way of talking about a difficult start, a challenge for which we may not be prepared, but which may test us and allow us to rise to it, proving us capable of facing whatever may come next.  Oddly, given the reference to baptism, it is near-equivalent in meaning to ‘in at the deep end’ – an first challenge that reveals whether we will sink or swim.

If a baptism by fire is  difficult (or at least challenging) start, then it is the start of something new, something that is (hopefully) going to be ongoing, something which we will (hopefully) survive, and through which we will ultimately thrive and grow. Think of the fire that Moses encountered on the mountain – the bush that burned but was not consumed. Think of how his new vocation emerged from this fire, overwhelming him but not destroying him, ‘burning’ him into being the person God was calling him to be.  Think of the fire of Pentecost, both the birth and the baptism of the church, terrifying, yet full of joyful power, enabling the few to grow to thousands.

Fire, in the gospel, is at once destructive and regenerative. It demands our absolute attention right here and now, in the present moment, when it may inspire terror, awe, wonder, fear… and yet it’s orientation is towards the future, towards what it will give birth to, what it will enable. The wound that is cauterized is for the sake of life and health; the forest is managed by controlled fire in order that new growth may replace old; the ore is refined in the flames to bring out the gold.  The references to fire (and even to the weather at the end of the reading) are about the relationship between what is happening now, or about to happen, and the ultimate, more hopeful, trajectory in the future. Suffering, purpose, vocation, life and death, hope and judgement – all of these are bound together, woven together, in this complex and richly allusive (and elusive) gospel.

But what of us?  The two central rites of our membership in Christ – baptism and Eucharist – are both connected by Jesus to his passion. When we are baptised, when we welcome others in baptism, when we share the bread and the cup, we participate in Christ, we are his body on earth, sharing in his death and resurrection, his suffering and his glory. This is our baptismal and eucharistic vocation. And it’s our life’s work to work out what that looks like in real life, and to do it. The hard fact of today’s gospel, much as it pains me to admit it, is that being good does not make for a quiet life free from suffering or from argument. It is in the nature of sin to battle with the good, both between us and within each of us.   Dante, in his Divine Comedy, reserved a special place just on the outskirts of hell for those who ‘lived without praise or blame’ and had therefore ‘never really lived’ at all. These, in Dante’s mind, were presumably those who had lived out their lives in denial of the reality that living in the world and truly engaging with it in a meaningful way will involve making decisions, working out what to believe and then standing up for it, and being willing, once standing, to be counted. Even (or especially) if you stand up and are counted for the sake of truth, justice and righteousness, you will make some enemies and piss a lot of people off (sorry about that). The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and Jesus himself, are testament to that.

When we read the ‘signs of the times’ (ie what’s happening now, in the church, in our own local community, in the nation, in the world), we are confronted with a question: what sort of Christians, what sort of church, is required? Who do we need to be in response?  What does it look like when we (individually, communally, ecclesially) fulfill our fiery baptismal vocation to be Christ’s presence in the world?

I don’t have an answer for you, but if it is any consolation, I shall take away the same questions for myself.

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!