Thursday, 19 February 2015

House of Bishops' letter and questions arising

The Bishops of the Church of England issued a pastoral letter this week aimed primarily at members of their church congregations.  The letter set out their reflections on some of the wider issues affecting the political discourse as we approach the General Election on 7th May.  It was wide ranging and they were very careful to spell out that it was not their wish-list, that Christians of good conscience come to radically different conclusions on the specifics of political policy.  They were, however, concerned with the general moral tone and direction of travel.

Their letter falls into four broad areas:
background on how Christians view the world and therefore politics,
the importance of the corporate against individualism or isolationism,
the fundamental equality and worth of everyone,
and fairness.

It has taken me two reads of this letter to distill its message and even then I am not clear how policy makers and electors might take it forward.  It comes over to me as only being half written - what it is lacking is a series of questions that would help its messages find firm ground to settle on and also give it some bite into the current political debates.  So below is my attempt at a brief summary and a formulation of some questions that might arise.

1. View point

Everyone views the world from somewhere and they have a basic philosophical narrative through which they interpret what they see.  This goes for religious perspectives and secular ones.  The secular assumption that they offer the neutral stance in a sea of otherwise competing convictions is a fallacy - they are part of that sea.  The hostile press reports on this letter reveal the assumptions of the writers; they have assumed lefty bishops are Tory bashing and so that is what they have seen.  That assertion cannot be justified from the letter.

Far from withering on the vine of secularisation religion remains vibrant and central.  It is impossible to understand global politics today without understanding religion.   The bishops base their letter in basic notions of human beings and the world being created by God and that we belong together.   Christianity is grounded in the incarnation, God taking such an interest in human life that he comes among it, and through the resurrection suffering does not have the final word.  There is hope.  We live 'between times'; we do not assume that perfection can be achieved.  Grace and sin are in tension in everyone, so no one person or party can be assumed to have grasped ultimate truth for all times: all are bound to be wrong at times!  They include themselves in this.  Nonetheless Christianity assumes involvement in every aspect of life; it is not merely some private concern, and believes there are moral precepts which have an important insight for shaping policy, even if not offering a direct programmatic formula as such.

Many are disillusioned with politics and voter disengagement is a serious challenge to our democratic system.  There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations.  This presents a dangerous threat to stability and peace.

Questions arising for policy makers and electors:

How do you take different faith perspectives seriously, recognising that secular is not the arbiter but one view among them? 
We belong together, how can you challenge and avoid the politics of separation and division? 
Many are disillusioned with politics today, how do you express vision that connects the imagination with the common good?

2.  Corporate over individualism

There is a tendency for parties to target specific demographic groupings.  Politics thus is treated as an extension of consumerism, where it should feed the common good, how we relate to one another.  Persons are persons in community.  Both the post-War government of Clement Attlee establishing the welfare state and Margaret Thatcher's 1980s political revolution, coming from different perspectives assumed a place for duty towards one another and communal support to undergird welfare or to be released by free markets.  The effect has actually been that both have limited these: the state taking on too much and the market emphasising individualism.  Both have damaged the corporate identity.  Adam Smith, the great economics thinker, said that without a degree of shared morality, the market is not protected against its in-built tendency to generate cartels and monopolies which undermine the principles of the market itself.

The bishops discuss just what kind of society we are: a society of strangers or a community of communities.  Increased mobility, communication technologies leading to impersonal relationships, consumption defining us points to a society of strangers.  On the other hand many people are rooted in particular places and the network of relationships which they build there making life sociable, neighbourly and giving life worth.  These bonds tie us together and the political challenge is how these can be strengthened.

Questions arising for policy makers and electors:

Rather than appealing to a politics of division how do we shape a politics that honours all and recognises that we belong together? 
What is the balance between heavy state intervention in people's lives and one which sits light to regulation? 
How do we provide a safety net without creating dependency and how do we provide incentives for work while not leaving people vulnerable and unsupported? 
How can the bonds that unite diverse communities be strengthened?

3.  Fundamental equality and worth of everyone

All are equal and yet this is undermined by the way our political discourse often refers to those who are sick, disabled, terminally ill or unable to live the life that a consumer society celebrates.  The foreigner in our midst is often vilified and scapegoated.  There are questions about the impact of migration on particular communities and asking about resourcing these communities is not racist.  Some language in how they are referred to is, however.  Good international relationships require all nations to recognise their interdependence.  We share a common cultural heritage with Europe, which brings a particular bond.  How this is reflected in a union is a debatable point.  Globalisation also affects the effective independence of a sovereign nation.  A related matter is international aid and the bishops praise the government for maintaining 0.7% of GDP contribution to international aid and relief.  Reliance on nuclear weapons is predicated on an assumption of mutually assured destruction.  There is a moral debate around the legitimacy of this in itself: for some that provides an assurance of peace, for others it is a grotesque prospect no sane person could countenance.  The geo-political scene has changed and so the questions need framing to take account of different global strategic realities.

Good schools educate, they don't just train economic units.  This means that they enable the person to flourish as themselves and realise their potential.  Faith and home customs need to be honoured while introducing students to what it means to live among others who have different backgrounds and histories.

Questions arising for policy makers and electors:

How do policies ensure that everyone is treated as of equal worth and value? 
How do we respond to the challenges and opportunities of migration?  How do we ensure those who come here are not treated as figures of hate nor scapegoats for all the world's ills? 
What is Britain's place in the world as a global trader and within an international community of communities? 
How open or closed should Britain be to the world and Europe?  How independent or interdependent are we on Europe and the rest of the world?  
What is the justification for an aid budget - is this every nation for themselves or do we have an obligation to support those less fortunate than ourselves? 
How does Britain defend itself in a world with different threats to when Trident and other weaponry were first developed?  
What is education for?  How do we ensure that all achieve their full potential and are prepared for the world they will live and work in?

4.  Fairness

There are disparities between parts of the country and sections within communities.  Migration has brought immense social change in many parts of the country and rapid change has often impacted most acutely on communities least equipped to handle it.  The greatest burden of austerity has not been borne by those with the broadest shoulders.  There is a burgeoning occurrence of in-work poverty due to low wages and the bishops advocate, along with many others, the living wage and credit unions.  Access to affordable housing is also seen as a pressing need.  They repeat the three tests by which to judge austerity measures, affirmed by General Synod back in 2013:

  • Is it fair?
  • Is it generous?
  • Is it sustainable?

These questions challenge policy initiatives to ensure that reducing national debt is not disproportionately shouldered by those least able to cope.

Questions for policy makers and electors:

How is cohesion strengthened when some communities are experiencing rapid social change? 
What is an acceptable cost for bringing the public finances into balance?  Is there a level that is too harsh to be borne and how should the burden be shared across the community? 
Is there a speed at which this must take place? 
How much is fair pay?  What level should a minimum wage be set at?  Is it right for governments to pick up the cost when pay is not enough and thus subsidise employers? 
What form of housing is an acceptable minimum and how should this be provided?

Final observations

The questions above flow out of my reading of the House of Bishops letter.  Are there other questions which have not been touched on?

For instance there is nothing above about health provision, care for the elderly and vulnerable.  There is nothing about justice, policing or local council funding levels.  They were clear that their remit was to look at the underlying political discourse, but for that to be tangible it has to translate into policy decisions.

Hope in ashes

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been coming under fire recently for things he is thought to have said but actually didn’t.  His fellow bishops have also collectively been attacked for their pastoral letter in advance of the General Election issued yesterday.  Again the critics have by and large not read it very carefully.  I read their letter last night and was left thinking that it was both too long to communicate its points – it needed to be snappier and clearer about the points it wanted to make – and also that it wasn’t long enough to move beyond generalities to say something specific of use for policy makers.  David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham during the 1980s, used to say that ‘generally speaking the trouble with the church is that too often it is generally speaking’!  I may have been tired as I read it, but I came away with a feeling of ‘and what next’?  What do we do with this?

However you took their letter, if you’ve read it or just heard some reports about it, our first reading shoots down in flames those who say the church should stay out of politics.  The spiritual has to be lived and when it is lived it becomes political because it affects the lives of others.  In terms of Isaiah, breaking the yoke of oppression, sharing bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless (Isaiah 58:6-7).  If these aren’t political questions then I don’t know what is.  It isn’t, of course, a programme for public spending, benefits reform, NHS and care provision, housing policy or aid for developing countries.  It sets a tone and then specific policies need to be formulated to achieve the desired ends.  Michael Heseltine made this point on BBC2 Newsnight last night, when he said that bishops made good contributions in general terms, but you need politicians to formulate policies.  Well, I get his point – general tone is not itself a political system, but moral vision matters and passages like this from Isaiah remind us what we are to ground it on.  I think that is what the bishops were aiming at.

The usual attack dogs have their own agendas to pursue and so have dismissed their letter in the light of these.  Each of their criticisms is actually dealt with in the letter itself.  It’s not a programmatic wish list, they are not criticizing any party, and actually do say there is much to be hopeful about.  Let the debate commence.  I just wish they’d been a bit more accessible and clearer.

The Archbishop was criticized for appearing to say at the weekend that we should apologise for the bombing of Dresden seventy years ago.  What he said was that events in Dresden seventy years ago “left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.”  I would find it astounding if he said anything different.  War is always terrible and the consequences bring death and destruction on an enormous scale.  Regret and deep sorrow is the only way to approach any marking of anniversaries.

About ten years ago I went to see a man who had flown bombers during the Second World War.  As we sat in his garden on a late summer’s afternoon, he spoke of how much he was now being haunted by what he had done.  He knew innocent people had died in his raids and this was now playing on his mind.  It had played on his mind in the years since and his conscience was troubled.  He understood how evil the Hitler regime was and that combatting this mattered.  So he was by no means belittling the struggle involved.  But he still had many regrets and deep sorrow.

Today we begin Lent.  We begin it with ash and repentance.  We are deeply sorry for the sins we have individually committed and also the sins we are caught up in through our corporate living which goes wrong at times.  It goes wrong in that we end up in deep conflict, even violent, and there will be many regrets in this.  It goes wrong in that whatever our deepest motive for political policy, we don’t always manage to work this out in ways that benefit everyone.  Politics doesn’t always get it right and some ideologies are not healthy and some just get it wrong.  Some don’t end up achieving what we want to achieve.  Plans, schemes, hopes and dreams can come to ash.

We are dust, we came from dust and to dust we shall return.  It is special dust, created from the fabric of the universe and the spark of life is an amazing mystery.  But it is fragile, vulnerable, and fraught with limitations and incomplete wisdom.  For all our incredible abilities we will all return to dust.  So let us commit to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

The social and spiritual, the political and the pastoral belong together.  They are about how we care, how we live the faith that inspires us; how we make the vision of living in the light and life of Christ tangible and a source of flourishing for all God’s children.  But we also remember that we are dust, created and not the Creator, we are limited and not masters of our own destiny however noble our intentions or grand our schemes.  But in and through this our hope lies with and in God who brings this dust to life and will bring new life out of the ashes.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Ash Wednesday, 18th February 2015

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Meeting at the Mosque

Yesterday evening I attended a meeting at the Faizan e Madinah Mosque in Peterborough.  I was invited along with other church and community leaders with the aim to achieve a better understanding of Islam.  Their clear intention was to convey that those who commit acts of terror are acting contrary to the teachings of Islam.  They do not speak or act on behalf of the majority of Muslims.  It was timely given recent international events and threats from extremists at home.

One of the speakers drew a clear distinction between Islam and Muslims.  No Muslim is an ideal representation of Islam.  So they are upset by those who commit acts they would regard as being against the teachings of Islam being described as Islamic.  This is a mislabelling to them and is a cause of deep distress.  ISIS have to their minds kidnapped the word 'Islam' as well.

The comparison for me is with those who spout hate in the name of Christianity.  They do not speak for me and I would not regard them as speaking for Christianity, but they may claim to be Christian, though I don't recognise the faith they display.  Individuals can be religious and sin, commit evil.  The same goes for Muslims or anyone of any creed or affiliation.

We didn't get on to discuss how systems or structures within a faith can contribute and how much these are inherent or socially constructed distortions.  There are deeper philosophical questions of what is inherent in a faith and what is how a particular people at a particular time understand it.  This is the debate that lies behind what it means to draw a distinction between Islam and Muslim, or for Christians what Karl Barth drew as a distinction between Religion (with a  capital R) and religion (lower case).

There is a long history of positive contact between Muslims and Christians.  First there needs to be meeting and yesterday evening contacts were made which I hope will develop into a renewal of interfaith dialogue in this city.  The soil of these kinds of meeting can be fertile and feed faith not threaten it.  I came away, as I often do with encounters with Muslims, challenged and reminded of what matters deeply to me.

On a different level, being in a  gathering barefoot has an affect on how we are.  Shoes give a sense of protection which barefoot makes vulnerable.  Barefoot brings a level of humility and 'at homeness' which was novel to me in a place of meeting.  Shoes affect our character in a way that can connect quite deeply and barefoot removes this identity.

I was also struck by the women present who far from being subservient seemed freed to be in a way I wasn't expecting.  They had a confidence which was not what I was expecting.

The warmth of the welcome was what I have come to expect.  They speak of their faith with confidence, clarity and devotion.  They do not apologise for what they believe and I have much to learn from them here.  That confidence meant there was no aggression towards any who do not share their faith.  One of the speakers spoke of other faiths as honoured and that they should not be harmed.  The marking of Christian Churches with 'N' by ISIS for followers of Jesus the Nazarene, was again  against the teachings of Islam.

My hope for this meeting is that it will lead to a renewal of our relating and that this will be for our mutual benefit.

Making sense of life and faith in face of suffering

Stephen Fry, the TV personality and presenter of the long running quiz show QI, has gone viral this week on YouTube.  He gave an interview for an Irish TV show during which he was asked what he would say to God if he had the chance.  His tirade against God has been seen over 5 million times and sparked debates.  He stands in a long and noble tradition of people who have railed against God for the evil and suffering in the world and no doubt most of us, if all not all of us, have joined in at some point.   The Old Testament prophets, like Jeremiah, asks with raw passion what God is doing in making the righteous suffer while the wicked go unpunished (e.g. Jeremiah 12).  And the Psalms ask how long, how long O Lord, will you let this go on? (cf Psalm 94:3)

Thirty years ago the then religious affairs correspondent for the BBC, Gerald Priestland, wrote a book based on a radio series he produced called ‘The Case Against God’.  In this he told the story of a group Jews in a concentration camp who put God on trial for the suffering they saw.  They found the case overwhelming.  God was guilty of willful recklessness in creating a world where evil and great suffering were possible.  It was irresponsible and he was guilty.  At the end a rabbi reminded them that it was time for evening prayers.

The case against God is met by our readings this morning which present a counter blast (Proverbs 8:1, 22-31; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-14).  They talk of the world and the universe, of all that there is being intelligible.  This intelligibility is that we can make sense of it and it displays characteristics of order and purpose.  The ancient writers of the Old Testament saw wisdom, rational purpose, lying at the root of all that there is.  The book of Proverbs is itself a collection of wise sayings which see themselves as being based on the fundamental intelligibility of the universe, of the created order.  It draws this from the wisdom of God.

When people don’t believe in God, and indeed when they do, a key question is what kind of God do they, or don’t they, believe in.  Because the word ’God’ can mean different things and there are pictures, notions of God that I don’t believe in.  So as Rowan Williams said when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, the trouble with the call to teach atheism in schools is that it takes so many different forms depending on who is defining and what idea of God is being rejected.  So atheism is no more a distinct body of teaching or thought than different faiths or traditions in those faiths are. 

All sorts of people have been accused of atheism over the centuries.  Nick Spencer in his book ‘Atheists: the origin of the species’ points out that in the first century Christians were regarded as atheists by the Roman world because they didn’t have any idols.  The God I don’t believe in is the one who treats creation like a puppeteer, pulling strings and reducing humanity to mere playthings.  This is sadly what we would have if the freedom which allows evil and suffering, mortality and fragility, was eliminated.  We’d be left as robots in the manner of sci-fi films like Bladerunner and Terminator, where bi-orgs act like free humans but are in fact just robots utilizing advanced artificial intelligence.  Everything would be delusional and religion then a mere opiate.  Sometimes I think prayer is used as a cross between magic and an appeal to a puppeteer god I don’t believe in.

When we want to see this intelligibility behind everything we find it in Jesus.  Our readings described him as the image of the invisible God, the fullness of God dwelling and bridging the otherwise chasm between Creator and created.  Present but not controlling, holding but not micromanaging, restoring but allowing decay, God in Christ reveals a much more complicated God than we often allow for.  It presents a much more complicated universe and accommodates science much more easily than is often assumed.

On Saturday last week (31stJanuary), Michael Saward, the author of our final hymn ‘Christ Triumphant’ died at the age of 82.  Hewrote the hymn in 1964 for a young people’s fellowship in his church.  He wanted to produce a credal type of hymn which ascribed glory to Christ by using a series of titles for him which described something of his nature and therefore the nature of God.  So the Lord of heaven sustains our life; the eternal wisdom, the Word, reveals truth, intelligibility; the suffering servant, who is ill-treated, defeats the ultimate ill-treatment in death by identifying with it on the cross; as priestly king, he is enthroned for ever and ultimate purpose is revealed in his resurrection and ascension.  It ends with a song of praise, glory and honour.  However much we may waver and have difficulty, God in Christ reveals the glory and purpose of God.

The deep distress and questions are not easily brushed aside.   As we gaze on the cross of Christ there is great puzzlement and sometimes the pain of what we see makes us question why what is is as it is.  It would clearly be different without it but that doesn’t help when the tears of grief and cries of anguish rise to heaven.  What we see in Jesus is that whatever we may say about God in Christ he does not stand aloof from the pain and suffering.  He takes the responsibility and shares in the pain.  In the suffering servant - scorned, ill-treated - the pain of the all who suffer is found to be caught and held by the eternal.  It is not detached from the intelligibility, from the wisdom and therefore from the purpose of the creation.  Christianity is no mere intellectualizing of life.  There is passion, there is grit, and there is beauty.

We have also struggled this week with intelligibility and with our ability to intervene when nature goes wrong.  Mitochondrial DNA therapy stretches my scientific knowledge.  I had to read up on this to understand what Parliament was being asked to do on Tuesday.  Medical advances have come such a long way that we are faced with ethical challenges past generations had no comprehension of.  What was rather misleadingly called ‘three’ parent babies is actually more akin to a software fix when the operating system is doing something that is corrupting the system.  The exact function of mitochondria is only partially understood, and there is an argument for more research being needed, but it is not thought it does any more than make sure cells reproduce properly.  The content of the DNA of a person that makes them who they are is not affected by this process.  If that is the case, and I quickly get out of my depth here, then the ethics are less problematic.  The struggle with this kind of debate is part of the intelligibility of the universe and part of our calling to share in stewardship of the earth, to use the skills we have to heal and honour.  However much we may rail and rant against God I find this kind of intelligibility reminds me that there are things we don’t understand because of our frailty, but I find accidental, random, purposeless existence just does not add up for me.

So at the end of this service let us sing to the power and majesty concealed in the humble Christ who came among us, suffering and sharing in our grief, who rose from the dead and showed that there is purpose and intelligibility behind our life.  Let us sing to Christ triumphant, thankful for Michael Saward who gave us that hymn and in his poetry reflects the intelligibility and purpose of God which is our life, our hope and our faith.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th February 2015

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy

Parliament voted on Tuesday overwhelmingly for legislation to allow mitochondrial replacement therapy.  This is a process which aims to solve a genetic condition that leads to the early death of children caused by mitochondria which does not function as it should.  The process involves the removal of genetic material from a woman's egg cell that carries the faulty mitochondria and transferring them into a donor egg which carries healthy mitochondria.  Fertilisation takes place through IVF.  The resultant embryo carries DNA from three people and this has given rise to the media referring to 'three parent babies', though the hosting egg only carries around 0.1% of its original DNA.  This is the most controversial side of the technique and the level of ethical concern revolves around what the affect of that 0.1% genetic material is.

According to a Church of England submission to the HFEA in 2012 if mitochondria's role is only to act as a 'cell factory', then it does not affect the hereditary characteristics of the resulting child, and so is not significant for the shape of that child's identity.  The Church of England paper says that further research into this is needed.

Because the process involves IVF more embryos will be made than will be used.  The unused ones will be destroyed.  As research takes place all of them are destroyed.  For some this is itself immoral because they see human life as beginning at conception.  Most do not take that view, seeing life as emerging as the embryo implants and potential is actualised so there is not the same ethical prohibition.  However, this does involve material which contains the potential for life and so its use has to be carried out with respect and care.  This is not, as some have argued, just the same as blood transfusions or organ transplants.  The stuff of life is sacred and any use of it is a taken very seriously and there is appropriate caution around it.  How we treat the potential for life is linked to how we regard life itself, so there is an ethical framework to consider.  This is another ethical pressure point in the process.

The resulting child's identity is formed in part by its genetic coding and the addition of a fraction from a third party is either significant here or irrelevant, depending on the role played by mitochondria.  Those advocating the procedure believe this is irrelevant.  Identity is also socially shaped and parenting is about much more than just genetics as the child grows and develops.  The child is shaped and nurtured in relationship with a myriad of people and in response to experience.  That said people do need to know where they come from and the mother's mitochondria is used in some aspects of family tracing, so it may be necessary to record the change so that there is a point of reference.  The DNA is changed by this process, however fractional, and that will be passed down to subsequent generations.  Concern has been expressed that the approval given by parliament was for the donor to remain anonymous.

Undoubtedly the quality of life for the children born through mitochondrial replacement therapy will be improved.  It will remove this cause of heartbreak for their parents.  Parliament have opened a door to this.  The HFEA have yet to draw up the ethical framework for any licenses they issue in the future so it is unclear what the timescale here will be.  It is a significant development and a line has been crossed.

This process touches core ethical issues.  Who we are is more than our genetic code but that coding is significant.  People have a deep need to know where they come from and where they belong.  Hereditary traits are drawn from the code passed down the generations.  We are persons in relationship, not just a random collection of coding.  Mitochondria replacement doesn't seem to affect that, though there are limits on what is known in this area and the Church of England response in 2012 said more research was needed.

When life begins is an underlying ethical consideration.  Potential for life is not the same as actual and so while we want to treat embryos with care and respect that does not preclude their use.  Many fertilised embryos do not implant naturally and are flushed out of the body.  For those who take a different view, this will be a deal breaker.

Alterations to DNA involve a redesigning of the ensuing child.  This is about more than 'designer babies' because the motive is to save life and preserve life not just adapt it for some lesser desire.  Any alterations to the genetic code has to be assessed for the underlying purpose behind it.  This is an important consideration for why an exception should be made in this case.  There is a parallel discussion about how we regard those with disabilities and when those are life threatening and when they are not.  What are the restrictions on how far we would consider it appropriate to change the DNA that makes us who we are?  What value do we place on the lives of those who don't measure up to whatever standard we choose to measure them against so that it is appropriate to change their coding, and how do we decide on that criteria to measure them against?  We have restrictions at the moment on what we will allow and what we won't, because the language of consumer choice is not appropriate when we are talking about life and its rich diversity, which includes disabilities.  Some disabilities we would like to remove and some bring a blessing that challenges the able bodied in ways that surprise them.  Each development moves the starting point for future debates and small steps need to be assessed in the light of how we regard life, value those who are different and the warnings from the past of eugenics.

As human beings we have the capacity to understand the building blocks of the universe and adapt them.  This can be for good, for healing and wholeness and the relief of great suffering.  It can be for ill, for evil intent and for misguided ideologies, of which 'designer babies' and eugenics are two examples.  The moral framework we employ in deciding what it is appropriate to do and what is it not is shaped by the purpose we think life has and what we think it means to be human.

So, put very simply, we are moving towards adjusting the 'software' coding of our DNA to remove 'a bug' in the system which causes great suffering and death.  The aim is compassionate.  As with all of these developments the ethical questions need to be scrutinised so that we properly assess what we are doing.  The decision has been made.  It is now for the HFEA to regulate this and impose the ethical boundaries on how it operates.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Living Christ's grace and hope

Today we are celebrating the Feast of Candlemas, also known as ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ and ‘The Purification of Mary’.  Each one of these names places the emphasis on a different aspect of it, but they all draw on the same occasion described in Luke’s Gospel (2:22-40), which we just heard read, though Luke seems to have conflated two events: the purifying of his mother and the presenting the first born (Exodus 13:2, 13; Numbers 18:15-18).  Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple for a ceremony set out in the Law.  We have jumped back to an infant Jesus, having been looking at bible stories of Jesus as an adult over the last few weeks – though last week we took a brief excursion to celebrate the Conversion of St Paul.

The events described are strange to our ears. They are rooted in the Old Testament Hebrew faith and practice set out in the book of Leviticus (12:1-8).  And note it’s just the mother who is purified, not the child and not Joseph.  The use of ‘their’ in the Greek is odd here and may reflect the conflation of the two events. The Law in Leviticus prescribes that for a male child the period of uncleanness for the mother was to be 40 days whereas for a girl it was doubled.  If it wasn’t bad enough that this is about women being seen as unclean after childbirth, the clear message is that a girl child makes you more unclean than giving birth to a boy does.  The Book of Common Prayer has a service for the Churching of Women, or their purification after childbirth.  In over 20 years I’ve never been asked to conduct such a service, though I was once asked by a man to say some prayers with his daughter when he was bringing her home from the maternity hospital.  There was an echo of all of this, for he had a deep sense that the first house the mother and her child should go into was God’s house.  Giving birth is precarious and makes mother and baby vulnerable, even with all the medical care we have available today.  More so 2,000 years ago.  Even 60 years ago infant mortality was much higher than it is today and we see this in the TV drama ‘Call the Midwife’.  These kinds of rituals have their roots in recognizing this and wanting to acknowledge it.

There is though a shadow side to this commemoration, which we cannot escape.  While cleanliness laws probably have a root in some practical considerations, with some misunderstood biology thrown in, regarding women as unclean, and the birth of girls as making you more unclean than a boy, has a sexist ring to it; it is abusive and it affects how people regard themselves, their self-esteem.  It also feeds into how people are treated and valued, and we know that has a very dark side.  Purification after childbirth is a concept we have abandoned as we have rejected the notion and the misunderstood biology behind it, though we know not everyone rejects it.  The origin of regarding a nursing mother as being unclean might again be rooted in facing the reality of childbirth and in this case telling men to respect the mother’s need to recover, what some years ago one woman rather delicately referred to as ‘not bothering her’.  We still see quite a lot of domestic abuse and ironically such rituals, even though they carry derogatory undertones, may actually protect where being more egalitarian might not, at least when nothing else is put in its place.  To our ears it is a shame that it was couched in terms of uncleanness, though it was a culture that saw all sorts of things as making people unclean, probably for some practical reasons.

The sacrificial offering set down in the book of Leviticus to restore her to cleanliness was either a lamb, in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or turtledove, for a sin offering or if the mother couldn’t afford a sheep she may bring either 2 turtledoves or 2 pigeons, one each for a burnt offering and a sin offering.  Uncleanness now has sin added to the charge sheet.  The offering in Luke’s gospel made for Mary is the poor person’s offering: 2 turtledoves or 2 pigeons.  (And those of us who have to deal with the consequences of pigeon infestation in the city centre can appreciate them being on the list.  They make a mess and are a nuisance!)  The child who had a borrowed crib at his birth, and will be laid in a borrowed tomb at his death, has the poor person’s offering for the purification of his mother.  Jesus of Nazareth identifies with the poor not just in spirit but in how he lives.  The poor are blessed and included where so often they are excluded and ignored.  Those pigeons mean the poor are brought centre stage.

A book has just been published called ‘On Rock or Sand?’.  This is a collection of essays edited by the Archbishop of York on the moral shape of our national life.  It asks questions about social justice and the tone to shape our economic and political life as we approach the general election.  Writing in this the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talks about two Christian principles, those of ‘gratuitousness’ and ‘solidarity’.  Gratuitiousness is a phrase borrowed from Roman Catholic social teaching and refers to the gracious love of God, which feely confers being and life on everything without obligations.  Everything is gift, and gift shared at that.  So being in solidarity with someone doesn’t just mean standing alongside them it means that we share a fundamental dignity and worth, inherent in each human being however rich or poor they may be.  The poor are easily and often overlooked, even ignored, and so the poor person’s offering shifts the balance of our perspective, of our concern, of how we value those we might otherwise ignore.  If that is us, then we find that we have an advocate who raises our heads.  This is not merely a call for charity but for solidarity, for recognizing that we are equal and intimately connected, that our life shares in the gift, the grace of God; it has its origin in it.  This comes out of respect for the inherent dignity we all share.  People are not economic units of production but loved by God equally.  The affect of the poor person’s sacrifice is exactly the same as the rich person’s.  One is not better than the other for both bring purity; the difference is merely about means.  We are called to gracious living, respecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of everyone.

Justin Welby goes on to spell out four areas where he feels solidarity and gratuitousness (gracious living) will be expressed for the common good.  He talks about the living wage, the need for good housing, education and training, and greater financial access.  These are themes he has spoken about quite a bit previously, not least on credit unions and how finance so often does not work in people’s favour, so it is not surprising he should bring them together in this collection.  We might have others that we’d like to add such as care for the elderly and the infirm, both of which have been at the forefront of the news this week.  They are about respecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of everyone.

Briefly, then, the rest of the story.  Two elderly people come into the Temple and give thanks for this child.  Simeon speaks of him as a light for all peoples.  He is the fulfillment of the promise and the long hoped for salvation.  Jesus shines a light on the darkest places, principally the darkness of death, which our first reading touched on (Hebrews 2:14-end).  The inherent dignity of all people is held by God so dearly that not even death can end it.  Grace loving us without limit.  This is why today is also called Candlemas.  It is a festival of light in darkness, of hope wherever there is despair, of inclusion where there may be exclusion, of life and love over death.  There was also a warning of what was ahead.  He will be a sign rejected, inner thoughts will be exposed and for his mother a sword will pierce her inner being to its core.  Hers will be the deepest tears, the rawest and the most desolate as she receives his lifeless body from the cross.  Solidarity with the poor and lowly brings those who have been touched by the deepest grief to this festival of light and hope.  Anna sums this up praising God for redemption.

Candlemas brings the vulnerability and dignity of human life to the fore.  It brings protection for the vulnerable and includes all who would otherwise be shut out.  It is at its heart about the gratuitous, gracious love of God for creation.  As we approach an election the Christ presented in the Temple displays a bias for the poor, requiring us to redress the balance so that we shape our policies for the good of all, living his grace and hope.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 1st February 2015