Sunday, 26 April 2015

Annual Meeting Address

Last Monday I went to St Martin in the Fields in London to an event celebrating the life and writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a German pastor and theologian, who during the Second World War was a leading light in what was known as the Confessing Church.  This was a group of German Evangelical Christians who opposed the Hitler regime.  Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler and 70 years ago this month, at the age of 39, he was hanged at Flossenburg in the dying days of the Hitler regime.  The world was robbed of a brilliant mind and who knows how he might have helped shape Christian thinking had he lived.  He was asking the questions about how we integrate faith and life, how we take seriously the intellectual questions and challenges of our day.  He asked what it means to be a follower of Christ and his writings have inspired students of theology since, including me.  His works were part of my degree course 30 years ago, so I went to brush up my Bonhoeffer and was reminded just what influence the thinking forged in the crucible of stark conflict and oppression brings.  Sadly this crucible is a feature of the Christian church throughout the centuries and we are seeing it today.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but he felt he was dealing with such an extreme regime that
extreme action was called for.  If a maniac is running down the street and murdering, we have a duty to intervene.  That is how he saw Hitler.  For him we have no choice but to take seriously where we are and enter the waters of human affairs.  These are murky and compromised; there is never perfect vision at the time.  We will face a backlash from those who disagree and if they are the regime with coercive power there could be life and death consequences.  That has been the case for two millennia and it is the case in parts of the world today.  Being authentic and faithful to our convictions is impressive.  The Archbishop of Canterbury told mourners at a funeral in Africa recently, who gathered to pray and to praise Christ just days after a massacre, that their witness in the face of a great atrocity, which was costly and dangerous, was nonetheless an inspiration to those of us in much less violent places.  This is why we display ‘We are N’ outside this church – the ‘N’ standing for people of the Nazarene because it is daubed on churches and houses in Syria to mark them out for persecution.  ‘N’ is our badge of honour because we share in the name of Jesus.  We identify with our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted for their faith – ancient churches, in the case of Syria who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.  We are reminded in doing this that faith can cost because it matters so much to us.

Location is one of the ‘L’s that I gave last year at this meeting; taking where we are seriously.  We are not anywhere else.  This church sits in the city centre and our mission ground is around us.  This brings tremendous opportunities which we only scratch the surface of.  Having the personnel to do this is always our challenge.  Others will move in and do and we don’t always share the same outlook as them.  I told some Christian rappers yesterday that they were being too loud and they were surprised when I told them that we are here all the time and the businesses and people who live in the city centre are our neighbours.  We have a calling to be the public face of the church in the public square of this city and proclaim the love of God in Christ, in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer taking the intellectual challenges and the political and social issues of our day and place seriously.  We do not have exclusive rights over this, but we are here all the time and that brings responsibilities and challenges with the opportunities.  How we pick those up is always a challenging question.  But we do far more than many realise.

On Friday night we hosted a hustings for the General Election Candidates for the Peterborough Constituency.  It was a lively event and got a bit heated at times.  Everyone I have spoken to was very grateful to us for putting this event on.  A number of people said they had never been to a hustings before.  It is a way that the church can help stimulate involvement in the political process and be a place for public debate.  I also heard from a number of people that they were coming because it was the church hosting it and they believed we would be fair in how we held the ring and that was my aim in chairing it.  It was a challenge at times as passions ran high in response to various comments from the candidates, not least with microphone problems, and there were a few jaw dropping moments, particularly when the UKIP candidate said that climate change is not happening.  That is probably the only moment that the majority of the audience were united in opposition.  There are no serious scientists who would support that view.  Peterborough is not a place that can be complacent about climate change.  If sea levels rise we don’t have any high ground to take to!

We were only able to host the event because I brought in stewards from the cathedral.  Without them we would not have been able to run the event, we just didn’t have the personnel from within the church.  We needed them because they ‘sat on’ one or two of the more militant hecklers and brought some restraint, even if they were not able to silence them and I would not have wanted people to be completely silent.  Politics needs passion because the issues matter.  But it needs respect too.  The problems with stewarding events has been a recurring theme this last year.  Our administrators have had difficulty staffing some events and we have not accepted some bookings due to this.  That impacts on our income, but it also impacts on how much reach we are able to have in this place and from this place.

One of the opportunities that we have here is to be a beacon of hope in the city centre.  It is important that we remember what this place is for: it is much more than a location for the arts and culture.  Bonhoeffer was clear that everything he said and wrote, everything the church does has to be rooted and grounded in prayer.  It is the powerhouse of the church, the place from which we draw our sustenance and if we do not do this, if we are not people of prayer, we have nothing to offer the world.  These are words easily said and I hear them in many church circles, but we know when they are real and when they are just pious padding.  Prayer changes people.  It gives focus, it brings a stilled-attentiveness and it proclaims our place in the bigger picture that comes from God.  We are not here by accident.  This church was put here because Abbot Genge of Peterborough Abbey knew the people needed a church in their market square, as a stilled centre around which the busyness of trading and living takes place, so he moved it from its former location on the site of Bishop Creighton Academy today.  We still have that vocation and it is our primary one.  So in all the activity, being here, and being here means more than just taking up space – being prayerfully here – is transformative.  There is a confidence in God’s Kingdom and God’s saving love which comes from the centuries these stones have been here and housed prayer, and we continue to keep that beacon shining.  Prayer also has a way of leading to action and setting the course of travel.  We are not left undisturbed by the Holy Spirit who calls and challenges with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ and making that known afresh to our generation.

One of the ways we will be a beacon of hope is that we are going to be the meeting point for the homeless night shelter project pilot which will run through May.  People will be referred to the project and those running it need a place to check that everything is in order first before taking them to the church hosting the shelter that night.  They needed a central location and we are able to offer that.  There are parallels between St Martin in the Fields, where I was on Monday, and here – we are both in the public square and host many events.  We also have opportunities to respond to the human need that is around us.  We continue to support the foodbank.  I fear this is being normalized, though there have been food larders and such like for many years in various places.  I remember there being one in Bournemouth when I went there in 1985 to work with ex-offenders.  So perhaps, as Jesus said, the poor will always be with us, though what brings them to our doors always needs looking at; the causes need treating along with the hunger.  We enter the murky waters again and so we should.

This has been year of changes and disruption.  We have suffered from a lack of stability in the church office.  For reasons all particular to the individuals concerned we have had three administrators during the year and our fourth started on Thursday.  Every change takes us back to the beginning as they need to find their feet and make the job their own.  Stephen George, our new administrator, is excited about working here and has a good understanding of churches and the Church of England in particular.  As before if there is anything that you think is not being done, it needs to be focused through me because I am his line manager.  With such a rapid turnover there will inevitably be things that I think I have mentioned but will actually have told one of his predecessors.  It may be it is just taking time for him to get to grips with everything that needs to be done.  The Administrator role is a key and complex one for how this church functions.  Without it we could not function in our basic administration, financial processing and recording, and in how we coordinate the events that take place here.  This is a busy church and some events come at us with little notice and without adequate planning or thinking through on the part of the organisers.  It is the administrator’s key task to sort this out and bring clarity so that the event runs well to everyone’s enjoyment.  We’ve learnt a few lessons the hard way here.

We have also welcomed Ashley as our caretaker; another key job, after Gordon Little retired last August.  The churches sparkle and he takes great care over his duties.  He is also cleaning St Luke’s and we have found things have been done without asking, which is the sign of someone who is taking the job very seriously and cares.  Judy line manages Ashley, so everything needs to be fed through her so that she can support and manage his time.  It is important that people know who they report problems to and who will give them direction on what needs to be done, otherwise messages get mixed and confusion reigns.

After ten years as our organist Stephen Barber retired in November and we welcomed Elizabeth Barter as our new Director of Music.  Elizabeth has settled in quickly and has thanked everyone for making her so welcome in her report.  We have bought new hymnbooks which we will start using fairly soon.   The new book was only published last year and is the latest in the Ancient & Modern series, incorporating the best of the traditional and the more recent ones which have proved longer lasting.  They are a better size for the pew shelves and while every hymnbook edits the words these seem to be more sympathetic.

The faculty has been granted to repair the organ so we can now tell potential funders, with confidence, exactly what we intend to do.  The fund raising now needs to start with gusto and more will follow on this.  We will need to raise around £120,000 so it will not be easy.  There is expertise we can tap both from within the church community and with the fundraising department at the cathedral.  The organ is used by a number of students and it helps to be able to say that it is used for educational purposes.

Another project that is coming to fruition is the Book of Remembrance, which will be located in a new cabinet in the Lady Chapel.  The book is currently with a calligrapher and I will soon be putting out a sheet with details of how names can be entered.  I know this is something a number of people have wanted to see for many years.

The Lady Chapel curtains and the curtains screening the organ area are being replaced.  Judy has these and we can expect them to appear any moment.  A new altar frontal is also being commissioned from leading church textile artist Juliet Hemingray in Derby.  New ‘white’ vestments were dedicated last Sunday.  We also have been given Joyce Ellery’s piano and need to work out the best place for it to live.  Children have become more visible with one of the new noticeboards being dedicated to displays produced by the Sunday School – well part of it.  This visibility means that we send out a message that children are welcome and have a place here.  That is noticed and people comment on it.  The other board improves out ability to communicate and let people know what is going on; to show the vibrancy of this community and the arts and cultural events we host.  We are not standing still.

Earlier this year I took over the responsibility of Rural Dean.  I have two assistants to share the load – and there is more to this than meets the eye.  There are layers of governance and conversations taking place with neighbouring dioceses that I am being drawn into.  Some of this is a natural role for the Vicar of Peterborough because our location naturally brings us into contact with those wider questions.  Diary management is proving to be a challenge.  There are times when I just have to draw stumps.  Recognising this Rob Deans will be licensed by Bishop John as Associate Priest on a house for duty basis on 14th June. 

There are many people who do a considerable amount to sustain what we do now.  When I read recent reports on what churches should do to grow, to be vibrant, we can tick a lot of those boxes.  And there are people taking on leadership roles at this meeting who a few years ago were not in the congregation.  That is a sign of health and vibrancy.  This is not a static community.  I am grateful to those who do so much to sustain and develop our mission and ministry.

There is much to be thankful for in this house of prayer, this house of vibrant action inspired by prayer.  We make a difference to the city centre, not by just occupying space, but through so many ways: the arts and cultural activities, services and special occasions to mark city civic occasions, through being a place of quiet and sanctuary, through hospitality and stimulating the public space, through finding ways to tells the story of Christ which is what guides everything we do.  We have contact with a number of schools and colleges, with a variety of groups.  There is a lot of quiet caring goes on too.

Today is a day to celebrate the life of this church community.  And I for one rejoice in what we have.

Address to the Peterborough Parish Church Annual Meeting, 26th April 2015

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Easter character: glorifying vs horrifying

On Thursday this week I was at the city’s Cohesion and Diversity Forum, which met at the Posh ground.  This is a collection of statutory and community representatives that looks at matters of concern for how our city coheres and lives with the differences that there are among us.  It brings together the police, council, education and community groups.  The main subject for our meeting was how to respond to radicalization, the process through which young people can be attracted to extremist groups and led astray.  The use of mobile technology and social media not surprisingly featured, but so did personal contact on which these build.  For me, though, the crucial question was about how someone responds when they see a video of something violent, be it a missile blowing up a building and everyone inside or of a beheading in the desert.  Quite simply do they glorify or horrify at what they have seen.  Does the image revolt or excite?  Do they celebrate the violence or are they appalled at the death and hatred?

Glorifying or horrifying at what we see takes us several stages back to look at what shapes the character.  The building blocks of this are as complex as all people are, but they touch on who we see as being equal and to be honoured, and who we don’t.  They concern how we think a cause is to be advanced and whether we feel we are being listened to.  The would-be radicalisers build on feelings of alienation, of someone not feeling that they count, and that no one else is listening to them.  They are given a distorted image of what the future could be like ‘if you join us’.  But the violence builds on a view of the other as being other than us, not one of us, not a brother or sister or a cousin unknown.  The Wars of the Roses, in which King Richard III died at Bosworth, which was in the centre of our focus recently, were battles between cousins seeking power.  Being related does not necessarily make us friendly and we all know there are dysfunctional families.  This is a departure from how we want it to be; we know that belonging matters and kindred is an identity-shaping form of belonging.  When it is fractured something deep inside us is fractured too.  The power of the creation stories in Genesis is that they depict all humanity sharing the same ancestry; we are all brothers and sisters, belong to the same human family.  War fractures the bond which should unite, reveals the fissure in the family; it breaks the fundamental bond and sense of who we are.  So do radicalizing politicians and groups.

Who do you picture in this reflection on radicalizing?  We are familiar with the extremists of ISIS.  But the glorifying and the horrifying are not limited to any particular faith or cultural group.  It is something we can all find within us and so the roots of radicalization and violence are within all of us, depending on what it is that shapes our character, our approach to others.  The examples discussed at the meeting on Thursday included teenagers being attracted to travel to Syria, environmental terrorists who attack scientists working on genetic crops and animal experimentation, and so called ‘British’ political extremist groups.  They could include the Christian fanatics who attack those who take a different stance to them on abortion or sexuality.  Extremism is not limited to any one culture; it is how we mishandle the differences that we all have between us.

In these days of Eastertide, between the resurrection and the Day of Pentecost, we are brought to celebrate the key faith that defines us, that shapes who we are, our character.  It is based and grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a faith of life and hope, of welcome and gracious embrace.  It is a gospel of peace and good will, of life triumphing over death.  It is worth being reminded of this, because it is foundational.  It is also something which should boost confidence and not despair.  Even when the worst takes place, and it can and does, life will triumph, God will have the final word.

The reports of violence against the vulnerable fill our news.  Syria has an ancient Christian church, which still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus.  They are in danger of being exterminated, wiped out by violent extremists.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is today visiting the Coptic Church in Egypt, another church suffering great persecution at the moment.  We can feel more or less powerless to stop this without triggering a major war.  That is probably what those carrying out these atrocities would like to see happen.  There is a stark reality that when the violent are intent on bloodshed, there is very little that will stop them, nothing short of a change of heart.  It is too late to do the work that changes glorifying into horrifying.  The history of humanity has seen this many times over.  In the long run, the power of justice, cohesion and building the common good prevail, cut through and come to prominence.  But the steps to get there are painful and blood-soaked.  And yet, those suffering at the sharp end here refuse to give up their faith in Jesus’ triumph over death, in the hope of his resurrection.  It is inspirational for the passion and the commitment, the strength of conviction that shapes and defines them.  In their shoes, none of us know how we would respond.  The closest I’ve seen is being with the dying and it is very moving when, in those moments, faith shines through.  This is not a moment for lightly held beliefs.  This is a moment for what really matters and the light within them is what matters most of all, defining who they are. Life is embraced, released and death accepted in the hope of Jesus who suffered violence and abuse and yet rose victorious.  Christus Victor, the Christ who stands in glory but displaying the marks on his hands and feet, the marks of suffering and death, is the image of Christ that I prefer.  Not an empty cross, not a dying cross, but a Christ who has passed through, still showing the wounds – his credentials for those enduring suffering today, and who shows where the ultimate victory lies.  This is where I glorify.  This is the character to define and set the tone for images of violence and those who would seek to divide us.  This is the basis for me of a politics of hope as we approach a General Election.

We saw this in our readings.  The resurrected Christ who appeared to his disciples showed his wounds, calling them to be witnesses to proclaim repentance and forgiveness, life over death (Luke 24:36-48).  Peter addressing the crowd after healing the crippled beggar, talks of the common heritage as descendants of Abraham, which is fulfilled in God glorifying Jesus who had been rejected and killed.  He is described as the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead.  To this we are witnesses, he says (Acts 3:12-19).

Living as witnesses of the victory of Christ over death, of hope over despair and love over hatred, matters enormously as we approach the challenges of the world today.  It is the character which means when we see videos or news film of missiles destroying buildings with people inside, or at the other extreme beheadings, we do not glorify these.  It is a challenge because we are drip-fed a daily diet of ‘them vs. us’, of films where the solution is violence not restorative justice or rebuilding the bonds of affinity.  We are in a year which has commemorations of World Wars and my week also included an invitation to lead prayers at the War Memorial on the 70th anniversary of VE Day on 8th May.  I will need to think of the theme to approach that through, but celebrating the rebuilding and the peace which ensued seems particularly important.  That peace includes the foundation of the NHS which means I can ignore adverts for medical insurance I can’t afford.

Making ‘Alleluia’ our song becomes an anthem to define our character.  We live as witnesses to the hope in Jesus Christ who triumphed over the sting of death and opens for us the way of life and peace.  In that we glory which means we can be horrified by all that stands against it, but confident that he has the ultimate victory and in that we can place our hope and trust.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 19th April 2015

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter is about more than bunnies and Spring

There are a lot of symbols associated with Easter: chicks, bunnies, flowers, newborn lambs, chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits.  They all point to the new life which spring brings after the cold and apparent stillness of winter.  They remind us that Easter is a word derived from the pagan goddess Eastre, the goddess of spring.  For the earliest Christian missionaries this was an obvious cult to latch onto when trying to find links to tell the story of Christ's rising at Easter, to build a bridge to the new life he brings. Spring shouts new life with a natural affinity.  But Christian Easter is not the same as a celebration of spring regeneration and awakening after winter, of the cycle of reproduction.

The symbol which speaks to me most powerfully is the Paschal Candle, the candle brought into the church as part of the Easter Liturgy and which is lit throughout the 50 days of this season.  The word paschal is derived from Pasche, the feast of Passover.  This retells the story of the rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  They are described in the Old Testament book of Exodus as being held in oppressive and squalid conditions, paid less than those on zero hours contracts, below the minimum wage let alone the living wage.  They were treated like many of those trafficked by the unscrupulous today.  There are contemporary resonances in this story.  Moses was sent to demand their release.  Crossing the Red Sea as part of their escape came to be seen as a passing through the waters of death and doom to a new life of promise and hope, to freedom and liberty.   Politicians wanting to building on the Easter message would do well to look here for their inspiration for justice, liberty, freedom from oppressive conditions and all that enables people to flourish.

Baptism picks up on this passing through the waters of death to new life and so the paschal imagery features strongly in our baptism liturgies.  Easter is a time to recall the vows made at our baptism and recommit to them.

But chicks and signs of renewed life, the proclamation of liberty and justice do not in themselves capture the heart of the Christian Easter, even if they spring from it.  The natural order of things means that Good Friday should be the end of the story of Jesus with a good man doomed to die on a cross.  A tragic end to a life that promised so much.  The big surprise is the resurrection.  The earliest disciples were not expecting to find anything other than a dead body when they made their journey to the tomb on the first Easter Day.  Exactly what they found cannot be revisited and therefore remains unknowable.  An empty tomb is easier to build the case on than one with a body clearly decaying, as with Richard III, whose bones were dug up in a car park.  To claim that someone is alive again, in any way beyond some kind of ghostly presence, would be ridiculed if the bones could be produced.  As St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, if Christ is not raised from the dead then we are deluding ourselves and our faith is bogus (my paraphrase!).

For me the transformation that took place in these broken and shattered followers to become champions of a faith that sound so utterly implausible is a powerful attestation to something having taken place and to the experiences of the risen Christ having substance behind them.  I don't begin to be able to explain this but I am convinced that those early disciples did not make it up and were not deluded.  As a metaphor of how life is and of its ultimate value and goal, this faith speaks to me in ways that nothing else does.  Easter is for me the heart of my faith with its resonances with liberation and justice, freedom from oppression and hope in place of despair.  It is also an affirmation of new life beyond our imagination and that too is a radical message for policy makers and those who would seek to shape our common life.

Easter is about so much more than just bunnies and spring.  It is the hope that the life we have touches the eternal and is held in a way that goes beyond bones in a car park or passing on genes through reproduction and spring reawakening.  Spring is expected, the paschal Easter is a disruption to that order of death and reproduced life.  It is the hope beyond all expectations and imagining and so we talk of salvation.  The light of the paschal candle shines as a beacon to this hope in the otherwise darkness of futility and purposeless passing existence.  Christ is risen, alleluia!

Friday, 3 April 2015

The rainbow behind the cross

What is it with Noah?  Just recently there have been a number of films recreating the story, the latest on Monday this week on BBC1.  There was a film last year shown in cinemas with a star-studded cast including Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone.  This included some bizarre extraterrestrial creatures, called Watchers, who beefed up the annihilation of the people with fire consuming them and large clubs to beat and bash them.  It’s as if drowning was not enough, there had to be high action annihilation, so that the anger would be expressed so much more dramatically.  When I saw this at the Showcase in Fengate it was preceded by quite a number of trailers for other films and the common thread running through most of them was that they were all apocalyptic in their tone and subject matter.  Monday’s trailed itself as being a hybrid of the Bible and Qur’an, as if they carry a similar theological thread and tell the same story.  It seems that filmmakers like the story of Noah because it brings judgment and doom, it offers the prospect of starting all over again, a resetting of the factory settings because the world is clearly broken.  Just yesterday we saw more evidence of this brokenness with the murder of 147 students in Kenya.

The point of the story of Noah is not the flood but the rainbow.  God is depicted as trying to reset what we think the factory settings should look like and it doesn’t work because within a few pages of the story the people are back to their old tricks.  We’ve misunderstood the factory settings that would seem to include sin and frailty, mortality and the ability to make a mess of things.  But the factory settings also include God’s undying patience and love, enduring forgiveness and commitment to the project of creation as he set it in motion.  This is a story repeated through the Old Testament.  God gets annoyed, even exercises some parental discipline with punishment to teach them and draw them back, but God never gives up on his creation.  The rainbow always wins through and the rainbow, in the story of Noah, was given as a sign that God would never again destroy the earth.  It was given as a sign of a covenant that God loves his creation and desires it to be, for life to be cherished and honoured.

This theme runs through into the New Testament where we are told that God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus.  It is out of God’s love, not hatred, that we find ourselves today standing at the foot of the cross.  It is this that means we call today ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Doom Friday’.  God’s response is not to send a legion of angels to swoop down out of the sky, blasting all in their path with death rays and destruction, like the Watchers in last year’s film of Noah.  Christ is nailed to the cross and dies.  It is only through this that death can be defeated and life win through.  Because we all die, to transform death, to defeat its ultimate hold and grasp on life, requires it to be embraced, absorbed and the power of the resurrection to shine through.

This is a powerful notion to hold before us.  There is nothing that can defeat it.  Popularity alone is not the barometer by which we are to judge.  For the cross to bring hope it has to stand both inside the pain and suffering but also outside and beyond it, in the realm of the eternal.  That of course is what we see when we return in two days time, on the third day, for Easter Sunday.  The rainbow shines more brightly against the backdrop of the stormy skies, of black clouds and darkened earth.
Noah is indeed a good story to read and think about but not for an apocalyptic adrenaline rush. It is because it shows the grace and love of the rainbow is the only place that we can see hope.  All the apocalyptic passages that speak of final judgment point to rainbow grace too, which transcends the transitory passing of this age to reveal and open the gate of an eternal kingdom.  Grace always wins through and trumps even the biggest explosions.  That is the wisdom of God’s foolishness, the folly that turns out to be profound truth and our hope.  The cross shows just how serious God is about the rainbow, and the two are part of the same story and faith.  “God so love the world.”

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Good Friday 3rd April 2015