Tuesday, 31 December 2013

What makes a good vicar?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that good vicars grow churches.  Well bad ones can certainly turn people off so that they vote with their feet.  But there are quite a number of factors involved in church growth, not least the people there already and the history of the area.  Where there have been conflicts or fall-outs these can pollute the waters for years to come.  Having taken over churches where there has been trouble in the past, I know that for some those problems can hang around and take years to overcome.  All of that taken into account, what makes a good vicar?  Here are a few values I treasure which I think lead to good vicars (and healthy growing churches).

Welcoming and inclusive

Everyone is welcome.  This is not a members only club and you don't have to fit a predefined set of criteria to walk in.  So the single, families, those with mental illness and who struggle with themselves as much as everyone else, those with high disposable income can sit alongside those on benefits.  We have men, women, adults and children, gay and straight along with the not sure and those who could go either way, those in secure relationships alongside those fractured or irretrievably broken.  Politically left sit near to those on the right - makes the feedback on sermons on political and social issues interesting.  People struggling with the psychological effects of abuse and those who have carried this out (those with convictions will be under a contract which the vicar knows about but no one else does or at least only a small tight group for safety).  Broadsheet and tabloid readers (e.g. Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, Times, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph).  The bookish and those who get all their culture electronically.  Some will be good at social contact, some will struggle, some will be well schooled in the art of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time too.  Different nationalities and ethnic origins, permanent and temporary residents.  Those who look like they have it all sorted, those with many doubts, those not sure and those with deep questions.  You get the picture.  A healthy church is a full mix of every different group you care to think of.

Engaging Worship

Worship is the life-blood of the church.  It needs to be alive and faith-filled.  It should draw us deeper into the mystery of God and stimulate the sense of the other.  Well crafted liturgy will take the worshipper on a journey from where they are, into an encounter with the spiritual, give them a bit of a shake so that they are ready to go back out renewed and ready to reengage with the world.  It's not entertainment, but shouldn't be mind numbingly dull either (whether the songs are accompanied by a band or hymns sung to an organ, or even karaoke style to a CD).  It should include moments of praise, lament, forgiveness and restoration; it should be filled with grace and passion for God who loves us, call us and blesses us.  Worship needs to remind us that we are created from purpose and everything we do is caught up in that purpose: we are loved and live in love, hope and faith.

Thoughtful and inspiring

Preaching needs to be alive - intellectually, spiritually and relate to life as it really is.  Our aim is to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.  This is a different mindset from members or even volunteers.  The latter is about spare time.  Discipleship is a whole life commitment, touching our paid time and the time we give for free.  Preaching is a complicated art: for some it will include images, for some it will be cerebral.  To balance the different learning styles in 10 minutes is a tall order, but over a month a range is possible.  The vicar needs to demonstrate in the pulpit that faith and brains go together, to keep critical faculties turned on and firing on all cylinders.  Growing churches are places where intelligent debate is encouraged.  We need nurseries of faith, where the new shoots and old ones can grow in faith.

Socially active and in touch

An amazing thing has been taking place over the last few years.  Churches have been the backbone of the Foodbank movement.  They have seen the hunger need and responded with generosity and commitment.  In some places churches have been picking up the fallout of asylum and immigration crises, trafficked and migrant workers' rights, exploitation in many guises, set up homeless shelters, lunch clubs and drop in cafes/coffee mornings.  Church halls have been centres of community, with scouts and guides, fitness and well-being groups, drama and gardeners' groups.  People from our congregations staff many charities and provide valuable services, some are councillors and play an active role in civic life and cultural interests.  We are called to be salt and light in community and many churches do this in stunning ways.

Pastoral Care

Caring has been a foundation of faith-filled living since it began.  We care for the bereaved, we visit the sick and housebound, lifts are given and time is spent listening to things which have been said to no one else.  Pastoral means relating life to the gospel and so the caring is gospel shaped.  It's not just cosy, but may involve facing some hard realities about who we are and what we've done.  Honesty with acceptance matters, which is why it can extend into prisons and difficult schools, communities where their is tension as well as the easier places.  Important moments of life are marked: birth to death, moments of joy and sorrow.  It's an emotional roller coaster being a vicar, a day can include all the emotions under the sun.  They need to be personable and approachable.  Not necessarily a youth worker come geriatric specialist, but an ability to relate to a wide range of people is pretty much a given requirement.  It's not a job for a sociopath or someone who can't cope with people.  Vicars and their churches need to reach out into communities and draw people into the church's embrace.  It can involve imaginative thinking about how to do that.

Political and campaigning

Caring is admirable, but sometimes there are issues which need addressing at their root.  We can feed someone, but it is also important to ask why so many are hungry.  The gospel that inspires and shapes us does include clues as to what makes us healthy and collectively what contributes towards a healthy society, to the common good.  This is not seeking privilege and power for its own sake, but we have a voice and a perspective which comes from the caring and the community action, from being rooted in every community in the country.  Churches have been active in sponsoring fair-trade, in challenging injustice wherever it is found (and we challenge ourselves too where that is necessary) and work with others who can be ready partners in this.

It will be clear from this list that the weight of all of this would cause one person to collapse in a heap.  This cannot just be the job of a 'good' vicar, but the vicar leads this church community and these are the elements which need to be nurtured and encouraged.  Good Vicars do this, but above all they invite their churches to do them and churches that do grow.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Warning: Christmas has sharp edges

These days following Christmas Day have some sharp edges to them.  If we are tempted to think of Christmas as a time of saccharin sweetness and one of overindulgence then these days bring the hangover to end all hangovers; they bring us up short very quickly.  The day we call Boxing Day is also known as the Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  He brings with him the reminder that following this newborn baby lying in the manger can be costly, often is.  It brings us into conflict with vested interests, those who don’t like the boat being rocked and certainly don’t like their power being challenged.  Any preacher who ventures into the realm of political or social comment will quickly learn that some will tell us to keep politics out of the pulpit.  These days that follow tell us that it belongs firmly in the pulpit and in the pew and outside it.  Faith touches the whole of our life or it touches nothing at all.

Then on Friday we were given St John, the apostle and either the author of the Fourth Gospel or one on whom much of its information rests.  This is the Gospel that tells us the eternal Word, the Wisdom and very purpose of God, chose to be enfleshed among us, to be incarnate.  Why did he do this, well our epistle told us it was that through doing this he became subject to death so that he can destroy death (Hebrews 2:10-end).  As fans of the comedian Reginald D Hunter will know, if you want to defeat something you have to become it, so Christ takes on our humanity so that he can be subject to our mortality, die and rise; he can become death in order to destroy it.  It’s a profound piece of motivational thinking.  By entering deeply into the very thing that oppresses us we can destroy its fear and therefore its hold on us. 

This is inspirational leadership.  The leaders who inspire us most are those who are grounded in the reality of the situation they seek to manage.  Bishops who have been parish priests tick a box for me which those who haven’t just fail to master.  At a profound level they get it: the pressures, the struggles and the all comsuming commitment required.  Politicians who have done a day job, and not just been political researchers and the like, command a respect which the others fail to achieve.  One of the problems with the House of Commons at the moment is too many of those in it haven’t done what I’d call a proper job.  The same goes for clergy too.  The ones who have a former career tend to command a respect that those who haven’t don’t for its rooting and ground in the daily grind.  In the prison service trainee governors have to spend time as an officer on the wings first.  They have to have walked the landings to be able to understand what the real issues are and to gain the respect of the officers.  The same goes for Education.  How can you lead schools if you haven’t taught in a class and preferably in one of the more challenging places?

Jesus is not a remote vision of God, but one among us, sharing our joys and griefs, the trials and achievements we all have.  And in this the final trial we all face, that of death itself.  This is the God who not only understands but shows he does.  That matters when the chips are down and we are struggling with the rawest experiences and emotions we can face.

Our gospel reading today, was also the one for yesterday when we recalled the brutal murder of the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-end).  Kind Herod, worried for his grip on power and despotic control, ordered the murder of all of the baby boys in the Bethlehem area under the age of 2.  I don’t know how many children that was, but we count each child as special and to every parent each child is irreplaceable.  So this is a dark day in our calendar.  But it is a day that provides a space for parents who have lost children to find their story in the Christmas story.  It means that they are not shut out from these celebrations, even if partying is furthest from their minds.  It is also a day for everyone who has been abused as a child, and those who as adults continue to struggle with this.  As a senior police officer dealing with the Jimmy Savile cases said, there is no such thing as historic abuse.  For those who endured it the nightmare is always with them and it haunts.

For Joseph, he knew that only when the threat had disappeared, when Herod was dead, would it be safe to return from Egypt.  Even then he found that he couldn’t go back to where they had previously been, he had to settle anew in a place some distance away.  Psychological distance can be important for those who have endured significant trauma.  If we are going to rebuild we have to feel safe to do it.  Egypt was an ironic place to go for safety because it was there that Pharaoh had tried to kill all the Hebrew boys leading to Moses being hidden by his mother in the reeds.  It shows that places do not remain dangerous for ever.  Previous places of danger can become a place of safety, of asylum.

Today is also the day we remember the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  Another king, Heny II, out to remove political opponents, saw violence as the solution to his problems.  Whether he intended it or it was overambitious barons, with their own axes to grind, who went too far, we will probably never know.  Becket has local connections here in Peterborough because the roof of our Cathedral is probably modeled on what Canterbury Cathedral would have looked like at the time.  Some of his relics where also displayed here which is why we have the Becket Chapel.

Becket is a strange one.  He brings the compromised position of church power and privilege.  He died for separate courts to deal with misbehaving clergy.  It was a view that the church needed its political independence to be able to do its job – prophetic and pastoral.  On one level I like the Royal Navy chaplaincy model of clergy taking the rank of the person they are talking to.  That enables a conversation of equals and that assists honesty because no one has to keep face.  It requires a high degree of confidentiality and while not tested by the courts, it is recognized as a good thing.  But everyone needs to be accountable and we have seen far too many cases where protection of the vulnerable has been given second place to protection of the institution, which is really a false protection because it is no protection at all when the truth comes out.  True protection lies in behaving appropriately in the first place and with a transparency of justice.

Becket though, stands for the need to speak the uncomfortable truths to power.  Hugh of Lincoln, depicted in our windows and reredos with his pet swan, who consecrated the cathedral 900 years ago, was a contemporary, and he seems to have been better at it – at least he kept his head, but may have benefited from the furore that erupted after Becket’s murder, and pushing his luck accordingly. 

So today, on this fifth day of Christmas, we are reminded that the Christ in the manger takes on our flesh completely.  He does this to save us and that brings the sharpest pains and conflicts into the heart of our faith and our celebrations.  This party has some bitter tastes to ground the sweetness and stop excess losing its way.  

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th December 2013

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Spirituality in the thick of it

What does it mean to be spiritual?  This is a question that pops up from time to time and the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was speaking about this at the Edinburgh International Book Festival the other week.  He was in conversation with Rabbi Julia Neuberger and talked about how the word spiritual tends to be misused in two ways.  Firstly it is a kind of relaxation therapy, where anything of any bite is removed and it becomes a cosy comfort blanket to make us feel better.  Well it can provide consolation, a sense of security and purpose, but it is no mere child’s comforter.  The other way it can be misused reacts to the first view, standing for something that is unworldly and useless.  Both of our readings this morning challenged a cosy detached view of what it means to be spiritual.

Isaiah begins with a cry for help and the removal of the yoke that oppresses (Isaiah 58:9-14).  Pointing fingers and speaking evil are put away, the hungry are fed and the needs of the afflicted satisfied.  It is only then that the Sabbath is mentioned, that we are entreated not to trample on it or pursue our own interests in it.  There is no place for self-indulgence, no place to retreat from life.

In the gospel reading a woman troubled with a physical ailment for 18 years is healed by Jesus (Luke 13:10-17).  The leader of the synagogue points out irritatedly that there are six days for these matters; the most positive interpretation is a reminder that he needs a break to remember the Sabbath and have space for prayer and renewal.  Well this cathedral is a busy place and people come here constantly.  It can be hard to carve out space for prayer.  Jesus needed to withdraw at times to find time to pray and a bank holiday weekend is a reminder that everyone needs time for R&R.  Rest and filling up the spiritual tank matters because it ensures we have the energy – spiritual and physical – to cope with the demands that press on us.  So I have a certain amount of sympathy with the synagogue leader’s comment.  There are times when people come with their needs at 7.30 in the morning and a voice inside me cries out: ‘give me a break, let me wake up first, can we not just say our prayers first’.  Because Jesus took himself off at times, he would understand that, and because of the manner of the synagogue leader’s words it is clear that he has something else is in his sights than ‘sometimes we need a break’.

The challenge which Jesus gives to the synagogue leader is to remember what spirituality is about.  When we find time and space to pray we pray about life and call on the living God to join up the dots between the faith that inspires us and the life we live.  Like Isaiah, we call upon the Lord, and long for him to say ‘Here I am’.  Prayer is not a cry of ‘stop the world because I want to get off’ even if that is actually your prayer, and it’s certainly mine at times.  That prayer is a shout of how much life can hurt, how difficult it can be, but the call is for God to hold us through it.

Whatever the difficulties that we face, and they can be crippling - be they emotional, physical threats or difficulties, financial pressures we can’t cope with - joining up the dots between faith and life, between God and living, reminds us that God shines light into darkness and there is no darkness that will ultimately have the final word because Christ has conquered even death.  The spiritual is the hope that shapes us and drives us.  It is the way we are held in the most difficult moments of our lives because we know that the world is God’s and this Eucharist is our frequent reminder of that.  This is the Christian faith at its most real.  As we break bread and share wine we proclaim Christ’s victory over death and renew our confidence in his ultimate hold on all things, in his salvation.

When we make space to be still before God, and we need to do this, it is in this stillness that we can enter more deeply into whatever situation is troubling us.  We can allow the noise to be stilled and thereby hear the angels singing behind.  It’s the Christmas carol, ‘Oh hush your noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing’.  It doesn’t mean forget about it, ignore it, or pretend it’s not there for a moment, it means quieten it and yourself with it.  This is spirituality in the thick of it, not escaping from it.  The wonderful places of spiritual renewal today are often places that were once at the centre of the hustle and bustle.  Lindisfarne on the North East coast, which today seems a tranquil island off-shore, is on the coast because boat was the safest way to travel.  It is close to the once royal palace of Bamburgh, so by no means away from the centre of power and struggle. It is a holy place because it was where the struggle took place and next to it.  The same goes for Old Sarum in Salisbury, the monastery next to the royal court.  The same goes today for St John’s Church in the city centre here and this cathedral.  We are in the thick of it and spirituality here has to be a faith that engages with life and the struggles and pressures of today.  We are often the place where people call out of hours because nowhere else is open, so some of those pressures come literally to our doors.  Jesus healing the woman reminds us that this struggle is always with us and when we pray we bring it with us into our prayers and should not shut it out.

The synagogue leader probably knew all of this.  He did after all say that there were six days for healing.  His reply is more of a curt response to being upstaged.  Jesus had started to disrupt things with his actions and those of us who have the control of liturgy and manage services don’t really like the spontaneous because who knows where it will lead!  We have to hold the finely tuned, precarious balances of the different tastes and interests and can do without these being disturbed thank you very much!  Jesus is always hard on those of us who lead because he knows that we can very easily lose the plot if we are not careful and remain focused on what really matters.  He calls the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite.  The Kingdom of God doesn’t respect neat boundaries of liturgy and custom.  If ever we are tempted to try to make worship a protected space, free from the pressures and the challenges of life, the Kingdom of God will batter its way through and flatten us if we get in the way.

As we struggle with fracking and environmental challenges, we should not be surprised if these enter our prayers.  The more I hear about fracking the more questionable I find it.  Without some major development in the green generation of power we are going to have to cut down our consumption or watch the fens flood as global warming raises the sea levels.  This is not a part of the country that can be unconcerned about that.  After all we don’t have any hills to head for.  The more we hear about chemical weapons in Syria and the disturbing images of the atrocious attacks on children, difficult questions about the politics of an unstable region must come before us.  We can’t pray for peace and not wonder about justice.

So Jesus, in healing the woman on the Sabbath and responding to the leader’s concern, challenges us with how we understand the spiritual.  It takes us more deeply into the thick of things.  Even when we find still spaces, to hush the noise and hear the angels sing, the unresolved breaks in with the cry for the yoke of oppression to be removed.  The spiritual is not cosy and it’s not useless either.  It is the place where we allow God’s call to meet our lives and change us so that we can embrace his kingdom of justice and peace.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 25th August 2013