Sunday, 27 April 2014

Annual Meeting Address

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, triggered a debate last week about whether England is a Christian country and by implication how that is sustained.  The picture is complicated.  At the last census in 2011 59% of the population ticked that they regarded themselves and their households as being Christian.  That figure may be falling, down from 73% in 2001, and certainly among young people it is even lower than it is among older generations.  But the number who call themselves atheists is not high, still in single figures and not rising. Linda Woodhead, who is a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University has carried out research into those who tick ‘no religion’ on surveys and found that they are far from irreligious.  What ‘no religion’ seems to mean in the main is that they don’t identify with a particular religious group, creed or narrative.  That means that they are what they would call spiritual, but it’s not focused down traditional lines.  It is looking for something to make sense to them.  The ‘no religion’ group does of course also include the atheists.  But atheism offers ‘nothingness’, a belief in the ultimate futility of life because it is just biological and when it ends it is done.  Most people seem to reject that.

This week the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has argued for the Church of England to be disestablished.  I’m not that fussed really about this.  For me establishment is about having a commission and obligation to serve the whole community, not just the club, and I’m very committed to that.  It’s an attitude of outward looking love, not status.  However again the picture is complex. There are places where we are still a trusted brand and I enjoy good relations with our city council and in particular the senior officers.  Headteachers regard us as allies and value our involvement with their schools, however limited that might be: in particular Peterborough School, Thomas Deacon Academy, Kings and West Town Primary.  Recently Rob has become a governor of the troubled Bishop Creighton Academy to try to help them with their improvement.  This followed me hearing about them being desperate for help and I called in to see them.  Even though they are not in the parish, they occupy the first site of this church before it was moved here in 1407, so I felt a degree of connection.  The local vicar has given us his blessing to pursue this.  St John’s is regarded as an important place in the city centre, valued by business and civic leaders.  The partnerships through the St John’s Development Board display a high level of goodwill towards us.  People call in for coffee when the cafĂ© is open and appreciate the hospitality on offer.  Nationally we seem to have suffered a massive blow from the central church opposition to the changes to marriage.  The General Synod has said it wants to devote two years to discussing this so that we can see how we can respond more positively.  I seriously wonder whether we have two years to sort this and a boat was missed when Civil Partnerships came in, but we are where we are and we will see.

So on one level we enjoy goodwill towards us, on another a falling number of people count themselves as belonging and that number is particularly acute among younger generations.  Inherited faith cannot be relied on for much longer and Peterborough seems to me to be a place where this is more obvious than it is in some other places.  It means we have work to do to tell the Christian story.  This is the challenge this church has faced for over 600 years because each generation needs to hear it anew otherwise it dies out.  But we can’t rely on a general background culture which does this with us and for us.  The task is now urgent and if we don’t do it we will cease to exist.  There are signs of hope and the three people who were confirmed last weekend are encouraging.  All three have come to faith in adult life and found in the Christian faith we proclaim here a faith that is relevant, intelligible and credible.  That is something that we are offering here.  There are lots of people who stand in the city centre and they shout at people what I regard as utter gibberish and they give faith a bad name.  Sadly I fear we may get tarnished by their brushes, so we need to find a way of making it clear we are different.  I had an encounter with one of them in the cathedral last year and I clearly didn’t give the answers he wanted but then I think he knew that would be the case because he was aggressive in his questioning as if trying to point score.

So I want to offer a few ways that we can use to focus us on the missionary task that we face.  This is far more important than anything else in front of us.  They are location, love, live, longing and learn.  They are not particularly new, they build on what I said last year about key values, and some we are working on already.  But perhaps new packaging may help them feel a bit fresher, help us see them anew, and we need to be clear what we are aiming for.  A recent church report, ‘From anecdote to evidence’, has highlighted that churches that are conscious about their missionary challenge and direction have more chance of growing than ones that are drifting, or unfocused.

‘Location’.  This church sits in a prime location.  You couldn’t ask for a better place.  It should be buzzing and a hive of activity.  It is at times, but not all the time.  We will only make contact with people and stand a chance of drawing them into the worshipping life of the church if we are open and able to meet them.  We have a presence which all other groups in the city would give their right arms to have.  However, as we have seen, many people seem to be quite content to just pass by and ignore the building, or at least don’t interact with it much.  The Good Friday hot cross buns after the Walk of Witness was an area where we got it right.  The church buzzed.  Coffee shops are good as far as they go, but why do we shut precisely when people want to buy lunch?  I think we need opening this up on our agenda and it may be that we need to subcontract so that others do it, provide us with an income which we can use to develop the missionary work.  We can think about activities which can take place at the same time, like story telling, and we may need to look at how we are able to use the different spaces in the church.  A few ideas buzzing about, but the conversation needs to start so that we can make better use of this prime location.

‘Love’.  It can sound twee, but if we are not a loving community, who on earth would want to bother with us?  If we are loving we will welcome, we will care and we will display respect for everyone.  I had to give one of the Holy Week talks in the cathedral and the text I was given included these words from Hebrews, which leapt out at me: “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (10:24).  When anyone provokes us we usually respond in kind, with a sharp put down, with anger and hatred.  The challenge is to be so filled with God’s love that we aim to bring that out of the other and incite love within them.  Is this a community which schools us in this?  If not how can we make it better?  If it is, we need to celebrate and strengthen those  areas because they are missionary in themselves in a world which thinks hatred and division is the way forward.  If it is being worn thin, this should be a place where being provoked by love renews us, and we all need that from time to time.

‘Live’.  The faith that inspires us is to be lived.  It is to be put into practice so that there are good deeds flowing.  We support the food bank, people are involved in so many areas of work from council, to other voluntary organisations, to cultural and daily working.  If England is to be a Christian Country then our faith has to be what shapes our values and our thinking.  Not in some kind of blind rule book way.  Anyone who tries to treat the bible like that has fundamentally misunderstood it and will find themselves not wearing mixed fabrics, eating shellfish or bacon.  But the faith we proclaim should be lived and we need to find a way of expressing the rationale behind that clearly, simply and intelligibly.  Nationally we do not hear many good examples of this to model.  We live in an age that doesn’t understand where our faith is coming from and so what we say needs translating and decoding.  But the words and deeds without love are nothing worth!

‘Longing’.  What do you really long for?  One of the most important desires for the biblical writers is justice.  It is for people to be treated with honour and respect, for riches to be shared so that they benefit all, for a vision of a world where we live sustainably and at peace.  As soon as we say things like that they require a close look at the policies of those we elect to bring it about and that’s the world of politics.  Christian living and mission can’t avoid that and shouldn’t.  Do we long for full churches?  Does that matter to us?  The desire for mission is itself a crucial element in being missionary.

‘Learn’.  How do we learn about our faith?  Learning is life-long and there is no point at which we stop learning new things about our faith and seeing it in a new or renewed light.  A church that doesn’t take this seriously stops thinking, stops being inspired by its faith; it stops being a church.  A learning church is one that is equipped to proclaim the gospel.  Sermons have a very limited impact here because they are brief and the liturgy moves us on quickly after them to the next focus.  We held a series of evenings during Lent, not many people came.  The church calendar helps us retell the story of Christ through the year.  Not many came on Good Friday, or Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday.  Clearly different things work better in different places, but we don’t have many places where we are learning.  This needs attention.

So five words to think about when we think over what this church is for and how it can be a vibrant house of mission: location, love, live, longing, learn.  I could say a lot more about these but that will do for an introduction.

When thinking about location, we also have a presence in West Town, which we don’t really make full use of.  It’s a challenge, but the developer of the former hospital site is interested in how they can help improve the community provision and St John’s Hall site is clearly a key contender with this.  There are some early conversations, not least establishing the ownership of the site, which is far from clear, but we are on the case.

Five words, five areas, five foci for mission.  We can add another ‘L’: ‘Leadership’.  Without it we don’t travel in any direction.  It needs to be shared and there are limits to what any one person can do.  Without Chris Brown’s daily commitment we are going to struggle and I want to thank him again for all he has given and done over so many years.  The new administrator will be able to do some of the nuts and bolts stuff, but leadership and lay leadership in particularly is crucial.  When we don’t have lay leaders it is a sign that something is wrong.

You may have noticed that there have been a lot of images of pieces of art in these slides.  They are from our Artist in Residence project, which is a St John’s Development Board initiative.  This has been a project that we have learnt through as it has gone on, but it has brought some interesting insights and challenges and made us think.  The ‘Art at Advent’ calendar in the tower doors was a particular highlight for me.  I am grateful to Garth for what he has given us.  There will be an evening here on 12th July to celebrate the project.  TV auctioneer David Palmer will be here to sell of the works and there will be entertainment and a talk about buying art too.  Tickets are available.

I leave you with the five ‘L’s to hold in your minds: location, love, live, longing, learn.  They are worth thinking through as we plan and shape the future direction of making this church vibrant in its prime location her in the centre of our city.

Address at the Annual Meeting, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th April 2014

Monday, 21 April 2014

Unexpected Easter

The past few weeks have filled our TV sets with some of life’s darkest moments.  Our diocese is linked with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea and the children who died on the ferry disaster on Wednesday are from a school in Seoul.  We are straight away linked with a heart rending news story which is almost too distressing to watch or read.  Thursday brought some of the text messages sent from the children to their parents just before the ferry sank.  They are messages of love and good-bye.  A couple of weeks earlier Peaches Geldof died of what is at present an unexplained cause.  Two small children have been left without a mother, a husband is in deep grief, as is her father and are her sisters.  It may be high profile but there is a human story there that can’t help but move us deeply, whether or not you know the people involved and since I conducted her mother’s funeral I do know some of them.  I feel genuinely saddened by this. My thoughts and prayers will be for her family on Monday and for my successor as she conducts the funeral.

We can add to these stories local ones of the death of a young man in Russell Street and two men are being held on murder charges, the death of a pensioner in a house fire in Hampton, and then there is the worrying crisis in the Ukraine, with a far from certain outcome.  These are just a few samples of the dark events on international and personal scales.  Before we know where we are we are not filled with the joys of Easter and spring.

We are used to Easter.  We expect it to come.  Before we have even commemorated Good Friday, the flowers and chocolate eggs have been bought, the service papers printed, all is ready to move from tragedy to celebration.  Despite the crowd on Friday at the walk of witness, most don’t acknowledge Good Friday at all.  Easter has become so expected and natural that we don’t really feel it; we don’t feel the radical change of gear that it brings.  But that is not how Easter really comes to us or how it came to the first disciples.  Matthew’s account (28:1-10), which we have just heard, brings us an earthquake and the guards are so frightened by what is happening that they are like ‘dead men’.  They don’t know what to make of it and are scared stiff.  The women are also shaken by this because the angel tells them not to be afraid, probably with little effect.  I expect a talking angel in that situation is even more frightening.

We can’t know how much the events of that first Easter morning happened exactly as described and how much picture language has been used to try to put it over in a way we can get hold of.  A clear point is that they weren’t expecting anything other than the dead to stay dead and grief to run its course.  Far from being a comfort to them, the first Easter is frightening.  The natural order has been disrupted, disturbed, and they are left shaken and stirred by it.

The real Easter is not an easy day, despite the chocolate and flowers.  It takes some working out and thinking through to begin to understand it.  We say to the grief stricken, to those whose lives have been shattered by tragedy that the lives lost to us are not lost to God.  We say to those anxious about civil unrest and unstable security that hope is never lost however dark the clouds that are gathering at the moment.  Surprising things can happen which are beyond anything we dare expect or even hope for.

We affirm this because Jesus rose from the dead.  The disciples didn’t understand it at first and it took several weeks for them to catch on.  Our Church year gives us 50 days to allow this to sink in until Pentecost for a reason.  It takes time for it to dawn on us, to replace the grief, for the shoots to sprout that build liberation and a new dignity.   The sign that it did dawn is that those who were shattered, broken, frightened and confused became champions of the faith, ready to even die for this seemingly crazy belief in Jesus risen from the dead.  From brokenness to bravery, despair to hope, Easter when it does dawn changes us completely.

The faith it brings is that there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by God’s life and love.  Even death itself does not have the final word and it looks like it should with the natural order of decay and recycling of the elements which we see before our eyes.  The power and purpose behind creation, meaning that there is anything rather than nothing – whatever the science of its progress, lies at the foundation of who we are and this shapes our ultimate destiny.  Life, which is truly mysterious and wonderful is not futile and pointless.  It is fashionable to belittle faith and sneer at religious practices and convictions.  But what is offered by these sneerers instead is utterly pointless, futile and doomed; it is nothingness.  Most people it would seem don’t agree with this picture, despite the high profile exponents of it and the frequency with which the view is repeated.  Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion, has carried out research into those who respond to census questions as ‘no religion’.  What she has found is that far from being irreligious they are not; they just don’t sign up to a particular narrative or institution. 

There is work to do in telling the story of Christ and that is what the church is for.  The question we need to ask is how we are doing that in ways that can be heard and which make sense.  One of the ways we do this is through the cycle of our worship which helps us tell the story, or at least reminds us what it is.  When congregations are low at major festivals and days, when key moments of that story are told, as on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we are going to have some large gaps in how we live this.  But we need other ways of telling the story too, because clearly most people aren’t present.

It has to be said though, that Easter doesn’t make sense.  It is outside of normal experience.  The dead stay dead and it is only when Easter’s power captures our imagination that we can believe it.  This comes when we see situations that seemed hopeless being transformed; lives that were lived like the soldiers guarding the tomb as if ‘dead men’ come alive with joy and purpose;, when grieving hearts find peace in knowing their loved ones are held by God and so are they.  There aren’t fancy arguments here, but there are lives set ablaze with joy and which seem to have ‘alleluia’ written deep within them.  The best proclamation of Easter faith is lives that exude it.

So today is the most important day in the year.  It is the day we say that life is not futile and pointless, but filled with purpose and treasured.  This may take time to work out and doesn’t come easily to us but it does come and when it does changes lives.  Christ rose from the dead and that is the faith we proclaim in lives that sing Alleluia.

Easter Day sermon at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th April 2014

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Cross of Christ

Christ from the Cross: Garth Bayley
On the front of the service paper for this service is the painting which our Artist in Residence, Garth Bayley, has produced for today.  We are used to looking at the cross from the front, or even if we walk round it from behind, but Garth has painting the scene as if it is the cross itself looking at Jesus.  Rather than us being the spectator of the events, looking from a distance away, even if that is just a few feet, this picture makes us a participant.  There is nothing between us and the Jesus who hangs in front of us.  In fact, we have become what he hangs on.  This is a remarkable shift in perspective and it has set me thinking since I first saw it.  What does it mean to be the cross of Christ as opposed to merely looking at it?

We see his back, tortured and raw from the whipping, the scourging.  We see his head bowed away.  We see his muscles taut and strained.  This Jesus has endured extreme physical suffering.  It is not clear if he has just died or is exhausted; quiet before uttering his last words.  He wears the crown of thorns upon his head; the mocking symbol of the true king from temporary passing rulers whose power is a mere pale imitation of his.  There is a solidarity in viewing this from behind because he is in front of us and we are following.  There are many moments when we can feel we are being crucified and sharing in the wounds of Christ.

We are the cross on which he hangs.  It is our humanity that he is embracing in being there and which holds him there.  It is the fallenness of the human condition that is the reason for his needing to be there.  In taking on the death he is able to bring the life.  Easter when it comes does not come without Good Friday.  The pain is given a place in this scene and it is our pain that is borne there because we are the cross.  This is not to blame us rather it is a solidarity and a taking away.  Christ died for us, not for some other arbitrary, incidental reason.

As we look into the distance, beyond Christ, we see nothing.  Is this the vastness of eternity, all time and nothingness?   Is this the mystery of everything which can only be gazed through Christ and without him we have no hope of gazing or entering or encountering?  It is as though all time with the clouds of the day and night in fast forward sequence passing over or before him as he hangs there.  Salvation becomes a moment in time and the critical moment of time.  This event judges and redeems in one moment.  Are there any figures there on the edges?  Can we make out Mary or John or the soldiers?  Have they all shrunk away out of sight?  Is this a lonely figure in the utter loneliness of death and so we gaze on our own ultimate utter loneliness before God with no pretence, no barriers, no hiding.  We are who we are as we enter into the full mystery that is God.

Because this image looks at the cross through the cross itself it reminded me of the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ (see below).  This is a long poem and so I abridged it for this service.  It is a dream and in the dream there is a vision of the cross and the cross talks.  It tells its story from being felled as a tree and crafted into an instrument of torture.  There is the glory of God in gold mingled with the red of Christ’s blood running down its side.  Think of the cross in our cathedral with the gilded Christ figure and the red of the cross, it is reminiscent for me of this poem and the Saxon origins of the abbey.  Because of the saving effect of Christ’s death and resurrection, the cross becomes honoured as a symbol.  When we become the cross, we share in that honouring, honouring which comes from the Christ who hung on it.  Through this hope is renewed with dignity and with joy.  We can call today Good Friday and not Bad Friday or Black, dark, evil Friday which might seem more natural.

A different angle from which to view the cross of Christ as if we are that cross.  We view his pain, our humanity is intimately joined with the saving act and we are drawn into a glimpse of eternity.  May this life giving cross become for us the source of joy and peace.  Amen.

Address for Good Friday evening at Peterborough Parish Church, 18th April 2014

The Dream of the Rood

Anglo-Saxon, Abridged by Ian Black

1            Listen, I will tell the best of dreams,      
that came to me in the middle of the night,
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest.     
It seemed to me that I saw a more wonderful tree 
5            lifted in the air, wound round with light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely 
cased in gold;
All those fair through creation       
10          gazed on the angel of the Lord there.
              Nevertheless, I was able to perceive through that gold
the ancient hostility of wretches, so that it first began    
20          to bleed on the right side. I was all drenched with sorrows.
I was frightened by the beautiful vision;
Yet as I lay there a long while        
25          I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,     
until I heard it utter a sound; 
it began to speak words, the best of wood:  
"That was very long ago, I remember it still,  
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,     
30          ripped up by my roots. They seized me there, strong enemies, made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to raise up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders,
until they set me on a hill,              
enemies enough fastened me there.
I saw then the Saviour of mankind        
hasten with great zeal,
as if he wanted to climb up on me.       
He stripped himself then, young hero
- that was God almighty -     
40          strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to redeem
I trembled when the warrior embraced me;
even then I did not dare to bow to earth,       
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,      
45          the Lord of heaven;
They mocked us both together.
I was all drenched with blood        
poured out from that man's side
after he had sent forth his spirit.   
50          I have experienced on that hillside many
51          cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts
violently stretched out. Darkness had   
covered with clouds the Ruler's corpse,        
the gleaming light. Shadows went forth,        
55          dark under the clouds. All creation wept,      
lamented the King's death. Christ was on the cross.     
80          Now the time has come       
that I will be honoured far and wide       
by people over the earth and all this glorious creation;
they will pray to this beacon. On me the Son of God     
suffered for a while; because of that I am glorious now,
85          towering under the heavens, and I am able to heal        
each one of those who is in awe of me.        
May the Lord be a friend to me,            
145        he who here on earth suffered previously               
on the gallows-tree for the sins of man.         
He redeemed us, and gave us life,                
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed          
with dignity and with joy for those who endured burning there.