Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Food for All - Wednesday at One

This half term we are looking at seven signs in John’s Gospel, through which Jesus reveals who he is.  Over the last three weeks we’ve had Jesus making himself known in the changing of water into wine (John 2:1-11), the healing of the young son of the royal official (John 4:46-54) and last week the healing of the man at the Pool of Bethzatha (John 5:1-18).  Today we have Jesus feeding a crowd on a hillside, which leads to a long piece of teaching in John’s Gospel, chapter 6, about Jesus being the bread of life and how we need to feed on him.

A few years ago, when I was a vicar in a different place, some members of the choir were positively militant about the hymn we have just sung.  ‘Guide me, O thou great…’ well that is where the problem came – should it be ‘Redeemer’ or ‘Jehovah’. Most modern hymnbooks render the word ‘Redeemer’.  A number of the choir were adamant that it should be ‘Jehovah’ and would bellow it out loudly whenever the hymn was sung.  It was a good-natured dispute, one of those bits of gentle banter, but nonetheless passionately held.

I decided to go for a knock down, definitive answer to the question.  A friend of mine lives in Wales, near where the children’s series ‘Ivor the Engine’ was set, and not only learnt Welsh but teaches it.  (I take my hat off to her.)  I got in touch and asked if she could look in a Welsh hymn book in her local church and translate the hymn.  This would surely give the final and definitive answer.  The result turned out to be something of an eye opener.  In short it is neither ‘Redeemer’ nor ‘Jehovah’!  The English version is a very free translation of the original Welsh hymn because the strict translation doesn’t give the right number of syllables to fit the tune.

My friend translated the first line as ‘Lord, guide me through the desert’.  No mention of Jehovah or Redeemer!  The key word would appear to be ‘Lord’, so we’re looking for an appropriate substitute.

As I say most hymn books prefer to use the word ‘Redeemer’ today because ‘Jehovah’ is a hybrid of two words, the Hebrew name for God Yahweh, or Jahveh, and the word for Lord, Adonai.  The combination arises through a tradition which arose around 300 BC of regarding the name of God as being so holy that it shouldn’t be mentioned.  To get round this the respectful ‘Lord’ (Adonai) was used instead, and that is reflected in many English translations.  Hebrew doesn’t use vowels as letters, just annotations to indicate where they need to be placed, so we get YHWH and JHVH respectively.  Take the vowels of Adonai and mix with JHVH and we get Jahovaih, the hybrid from which Jehovah is a corruption.  So while Jehovah carries the echoes of the original word for Lord, it is a mixed up word that doesn’t really exist.  Some regard it as inappropriate for this reason.  It has to be acknowledged that the author accepted ‘Jehovah’ when his hymn was translated into English.

Redeemer, on the other hand, doesn’t mean Lord, it just has the right number of syllables to fit the tune.  It does however give a New Testament flavour and refers directly to Jesus Christ as Lord.  He is the one who sorts out the consequences of our sin and need for redemption.  In that respect use of Redeemer does give us ‘Lord’ with a purpose.  So on balance I think I would go for Redeemer rather than Jehovah.

Now Lord with a purpose is what we get in our reading about Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 with a small boy’s picnic (John 6:1-14).  It is part of a much longer sequence of teaching which ends with Jesus describing himself, in one of the great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel as the ‘bread of life’, the bread from heaven, to use the term in that hymn (v35-38).  This story has very strong Eucharistic allusions to it.   John doesn’t give an account of the Last Supper or the institution of Holy Communion. Instead he gives us this long passage in which he sets out his Eucharistic theology and because of the setting expands our horizons beyond liturgy and churchy settings.  Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and distributes it.  Those are the four actions of a Eucharistic celebration identified by the great scholar of liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix, in his seminal work ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’.  We take the bread, we give thanks, we break it and we share it out.  This is not just a service but it is how the church is to be, how we as believers are to be.  We are taken, called, gathered into a community that needs to feed on Christ.  We give thanks, we celebrate the gift that is Christ, that is one another, that is the life that he gives us, that is his saving love in his life, death and resurrection.  We are broken, fragile and vulnerable, injured and in need of our pride to be broken so that in humility we can celebrate and grow, be useful and serve.  We are sent out, shared, given a job to feed others – physically and spiritually.  It has to be said, John doesn’t say ‘break’, but it is implied otherwise how could everyone eat.

The Eucharist, the Communion, the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is not just a meal or act of remembrance – as important as this is – it is where we become the church.  What is more it is a model of what it means to be followers of Jesus.  We are to be Eucharistic people: called; blessed in thanksgiving, in gift; broken, prepared for sending; shared and sent out.  The calling is for all, not just for a few.  All who are baptized are called to follow the Master, the Lord with a purpose.  All are blessed as beloved gift and we are gift to one another as well as to the world.  All are broken and so in need of treating with tenderness and care, love and honour.  All need to recognize their brokenness with honesty and humility, with trust in the redeeming love.  And all are sent with a mission to be salt and light, to make a difference wherever they go, to be themselves signs of the blessing they have received.  We not only receive ‘food’ which is ‘for all’, we are to be ‘food for all’.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down whatever exclusive barriers and boundaries we care to erect and boy are we good erecting them.  The first disciples had to learn this with the commission to go beyond the Jewish community to embrace Gentiles.  One of the first miracles of the first Christian church was that it dumped Aramaic as the language of their faith in favour of Greek, the language of trade, common around the Mediterranean, more so than Latin, thanks to Alexander the Great.  The ‘for all’ in the title for this talk is written into the language of the New Testament.

But this food, what is it?  What does it mean to refer to Jesus as ‘bread’?  Well this is John’s Gospel and it began with his wonderful prologue, the hymn to the Word among us, full of grace and truth.  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).  And it ends with the astounding affirmation that this Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth (v14).  The bread of life is Christ among us, inspiring, nourishing with his grace, with his love, with his transforming presence.  To understand this more fully, he gives a new commandment later in the Gospel, to love, he brings forgiveness and reconciliation, comes to save not condemn.  This is a radical new way; radical because it takes us back to the fundamental principles revealed in the Bible: God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them, to quote the Epistle of James.

That new commandment to love, the radical way of love and peace, challenges us to look around us and see beyond outer appearances to the inner glory within each person, to see the gift and blessing that we are to one another and are to be to one another, and the world.  If we serve Christ in those we meet, as an unknown guest, then we see his glory in them too and that should change how we behave, because they too are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and the reason for his coming; they too are called, blessed, broken and sent.  Meeting them is to stand on holy ground.  Christ came to draw us into the heart of God, that we may become divine, to quote an ancient writer.  There is within each of us the seed of glory.  Our life is special coming as it does from the desire of God’s will and purpose.

When Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, feeding on him, following him, being filled with the grace that was within him, changes how we are to behave if we are to honour the glory within him.  The feeding is also literal.  The hungry are fed, the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have good news brought to them.  This was the answer Jesus gave when John the Baptist’s disciples asked him if he was the real the deal (Luke 7:18-23).  His calling card was good news to the poor and needy.  This is no mere aesthetic.

Which takes us back to the hymn I began with.  It has one reference to ‘Bread of heaven’ and being fed ‘till I want no more’.  The passage from John’s gospel has provision of food which more than satisfies, because the leftovers fill 12 baskets.  The hymn is also about pilgrimage through a barren land and being fed, sustained for the journey.  The sustenance that we need is the bread of life, the Word among us, the Christ who is the Way the Truth and the Life, who brings a new commandment to love.  The sustenance comes through the gift, the purpose, knowing that there is a point.  This seems to be particularly important at the moment.

The assisted dying bill debates brought out some competing convictions about how we see life.  It was a hard call when we look with compassion and understand the distress on both sides, the suffering and the desire for release balanced against protecting the vulnerable.  St Francis referred to Sister Death, who comes as a welcome guest.  But there was an editorial in the Independent newspaper which said “If you believe that all life comes from God, then it may be reasonable to argue that only God can take away what he created… the vast majority of the public do not go near a church and do not see their lives as some kind of gift that needs to be returned to sender.” (Monday 7th September 2015)  Now there are assumptions there, but there is a view quite loudly proclaimed that there is no purpose or point to life.  It is contained within the parameters of what we see.  It has no source outside of random accident and so when it ends there is nothing.  It is a very empty and ultimately bleak view of existence.  When we celebrate Christ as the bread of life, the bread of heaven, feeding us for the journey, we proclaim that there is a point and that point lies with the eternal Word who was at the beginning and whom we see made flesh among us in Jesus Christ.  When we call him Lord, we affirm his redeeming purpose, redeeming from futility, from the brokenness and sinfulness of this fragile life, that everything is and comes from gift.

So on the mountainside, Jesus fed the crowd, physically and spiritually.  There was food for all, because he came their redeemer, and that redemption calls us, blesses us and prepares us to be sent out to feed others in their hunger for dinner as well as knowing there is a purpose to hold us through our pilgrimage to the goal of promise.

Wednesday at One Talk for Peterborough Cathedral, 30th September 2015

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

National Anthem - like/dislike

On Tuesday Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party, caused scandal for many when he didn't join in with the singing of the National Anthem at a service to commemorate the Battle of Britain in St Paul's Cathedral.  He was criticised by Admiral Lord West, former Labour Minister, on Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday.  But the Admiral didn't defend the anthem line by line, but by saying rather vaguely that it was a symbol of loyalty to the UK and the British people. The words, he said, do not mean today what they once meant.  Hmm that sounds like most of us have our fingers crossed behind our backs at some point during singing it.

In other news Facebook have announced that they plan to introduce a 'dislike' button to join the 'like button'.  Time then to join the two up and play National Anthem Facebook like or dislike over each line of the National Anthem - to find out where we might have our fingers crossed behind our backs.

God save our gracious Queen

God - I believe in God, so I have no problem there; an atheist would have and so probably has difficulty getting beyond the first word!

save - I believe in salvation - from sin, from all that separates us from God and neighbour, from the futility which comes from not believing life has a purpose which comes from God. I believe that in Jesus Christ we see everything we need to know about what it means to follow God and grow to be all that God would have us be.

our gracious Queen - graciousness means displaying gift and thankfulness for the gift; someone who is giving, generous and hospitable. There is much in this for a nation to celebrate in its openness.

Long live our noble Queen

long live - I don't wish her a short life, so a life in which to flourish is to be desired. Length of days, though, are not the only criteria to judge a life by - is it one of blessing and faithfulness?  How that life is spent matters.

our noble Queen - see above for gracious...

God save the Queen - as above

Send her victorious

Send her victorious - over whom, over what? ISIS are an evil in the world and so I don't wish them to dominate and become the rulers of the world. There are oppressive regimes and evils of organised crime, people trafficking and violence. But Britain has a mixed record over the centuries; we've not always been the noble power we like to think we are, and there are questions about some of the things we get up to now behind the scenes. So victorious cannot be given unequivocal assent.

Happy and glorious

Happy and glorious - I don't wish her to be miserable, and someone who carries the dignity of office to command respect is to be desired.

Long to reign over us

over us - I don't believe in reigning 'over'. I believe in democracy where we elect our political representatives who act on our behalf. We can remove them! We have, it has to be said, removed a few monarchs too over the centuries, so reigning is not as clear as it might seem. I don't believe in the 'divine right of kings'. So this is a dislike for me. That said, when I think of some of the likely alternatives - President Thatcher, President Blair, President Cameron or Corbyn... Long may she reign! There is a value in having the head of state separate from the executive, so that there is someone above them in precedence, but birth is no basis for choosing this person.

God save the Queen - see above.

Verse 2?

There have been a number of different verses over the years, one praying that God will confound the Scotts politics and navish tricks! That would be a definite 'dislike'. The second verse often used today is more positive.

Thy choicest gifts in store
on her be pleased to pour

God's choicest gifts are presumably the gifts or fruits of the Spirit. These are listed by St Paul as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-26). Can't argue with those. We may add wisdom and an understanding of justice which make good rulers.

Long may she reign - see above.

May she defend our laws

Absolutely! The purpose of government is to pursue justice. Laws need to be set for the flourishing of all people. So the laws to be defended must be just, honourable, true.

And ever give us cause
to sing with heart and voice

If she defends laws that are just, honourable, true, enabling all to flourish, defending the weak and protecting the vulnerable, then we will sing with heart and voice.

God save the Queen.

Nor on this land alone

Some hymn books give a third verse which expands our horizons to embrace all nations and peoples as brothers and sisters in humanity. This is the basis of peace, fairness in trading and cohesion. It's a good aim and makes our national song outward looking and loving. This is the politics of hope rather than hatred or fear.

On balance I seem to be more thumbs up than down, though some of the caveats are significant ones. With all of this in mind, I shall continue singing it - though it's not the most inspiring song we could have as our national anthem and the tune is remarkably dull. It also has no official status, beyond customary use, according the the British monarchy website!

Sunday, 13 September 2015


I don’t know if you caught any of the Assisted Dying Bill debate on Friday, but I thought it showed Parliament at its best.  Most of the speeches I heard were compassionate, well reasoned and thoughtful.  Many spoke from personal experience, either as a medical practitioner or as someone who had cared for a loved on in their dying moments.  The pain of what was at stake, for both those in favour and those against the Bill, came out thoroughly, and I could see merit in both arguments, though for my mind I think Parliament made the right choice on this Bill.  There were one or two moments when a particular MP was less sensitive and more combative in their approach, but in the main they knew that this was a moment when it was possible to disagree well and recognize the integrity and good motives of those who took a different view.  We regularly pray for those we elect to Parliament and this was an occasion when those prayers for wisdom and justice were particularly important.

The words we choose matter enormously.  They can persuade, they can incite strong reactions, they can sooth and they can injure.  They can, in the words of our Epistle reading from James (3:5-6), ‘set a forest ablaze’.  This week I attended a training workshop in London on ‘Email, Social Media and Conflict in the Church’.  It was in part about how to deal with those emails and social media comments that get the hackles up.  There is a mantra for Twitter, ‘Don’t feed the Trolls’.  We have to exercise caution when on the receiving end of comments that can be placed on a spectrum from the badly or roughly worded to an outright assault.  Sometimes the best course is to leave it a bit and whenever we don’t we usually regret it later, certainly if it gets the better of us and we bite back.  Some clergy present, notably a young woman, had had to deal with some pretty offensive stuff.  There is a resilience which we have to develop and some of those who speak on behalf of the church with a higher profile are on the receiving end of some pretty vile abuse.  When we pray for our bishops, when we pray for Justin our Archbishop, they can be at the sharp end of some unsavoury comments, as indeed can their colleagues and office staff.

Disagreeing well is a theme which Justin Welby is encouraging the church to take seriously.  He is also sharing this as an approach over the forthcoming European debates.  There is a blog called ‘Reimagining Europe’, which isn’t arguing for a particular outcome, but is calling for a respectful debate, one that honours the view of the other.  How we disagree says a lot about how we are as a community.  One of the problems with social media is that it is not always very sociable.  The political columnist for the Guardian Rafael Behr has described it as a place where our prejudices and pre-existing views are reinforced and massaged by those who agree with us, or see it our way.  This means that we edit out the challenging and contradictory voices.  Society becomes a place where we see the likeminded.  The more this happens, the less we become able to deal with dissent, disagreement and the ensuing conflict which difference of opinion brings.  So learning to disagree well is prophetic and goes against so much of the prevailing mood.  It also opens us up to new ideas, to challenge and to growth in our understanding.

One of the hot topics at the moment is the migrating peoples seeking to enter Europe.  Some of these have come from the most violent places in the world: Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.  They are traumatised as well as in desperate need of shelter and a place of safety – the true meaning of Asylum; they will present multiple needs.  We have a duty to be hospitable.  It is a biblical standard and we have a noble history of it.  Some others are in search of a better life and their applications will be assessed.  Some are trafficked for others’ gain and are abused.  All of them have stories to tell and these stories move us beyond labels to the people concerned.  My disappointment with the BBC Songs of Praise broadcast from the Calais camp during the summer was that it didn’t give as many stories as I’d expected, probably due to the new magazine-like format of the programme.  The debates around these are very quickly polarized, and some comments are outrageous and encourage hatred.  It is possible to raise questions about what provision will be needed and capacity without dehumanizing and it is possible to encourage a generous response to take the human need seriously.  There is a humanitarian crisis and I’ve put out the milk churn at the back of the church for donations towards the UNHCR appeal.

The words we choose for any debate or discussion make a tremendous difference to how that goes.  So often the writings in the Bible encourage us to use our words as a source of blessing rather than cursing.  Our aim should be to build up, to encourage, to seek the Kingdom of God and for us all to be formed into the likeness of Christ.   The words we choose reveal or expose us for who we are, whether we are really people who seek this or are consumed with something else.  The hitting back is a sign of fear and anxiety.  And other people do have a way of finding where our weaknesses and vulnerabilities are.  When people are incited to riot or react with anger at words, when they take offence, it is because they feel attacked and this shakes their sense of security and worth.  If I am feeling sensitive, vulnerable and insecure, I will react very differently to when I’m not.  The power dynamic can change how we are in this.  The resilience that we need to develop comes from the trust that we have in God and the confidence we have in his truth and victory.  A faith in one who dies on a cross and rises in glory is not one to place too much store by feeling offended or the transitory insults.  A faith that calls on us to take up our cross in order to follow, is not one that looks for getting the upper hand all the time (Mark 8:27-38).  This is God’s world, we are his and there is nothing that can separate us from his love and purpose.  Under attack, the challenge is to find words that heal, that call to a new way of looking and loving, that call us back to what blesses and restores dignity, honour and hope.

So words not only matter, they also reveal the hope that is inside us.  If we are to bless we have to know that we are blessed.  If we are to be gracious, we need to have grace, the joy of the gift of love within us.  Above all our trust is in the Kingdom of God which matters more than our own purposes and that may require admitting that we are wrong at times because truth matters more.  Disagreeing well means that we know the truth is bigger than us and it needs to possess us, not us it.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th September 2015

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Paying for the church's mission

The Peterborough Diocesan Synod this morning debated a new way of paying for the church's mission in this area.  For 2016 that will be around £12m.  Although the church nationally has massive assets, these are either buildings which are being used, land which is providing an income, or are committed for pensions and other purposes.  The day-to-day running costs of the local church have to be found by the local people.  Collectively these are organised into dioceses (an area focused round a bishop) and the total budget to fund what that area wants to do, mainly made up of salaries, has to be found.

Each diocese asks the parishes for a contribution known as 'parish share'.  Some places have more money than others, because some churches have more people filling their pews (or chairs) than others and those people have different incomes.  In reality some parishes pay what is asked and some don't.  The collection rate for this 'share' has hovered around 93.5%.

Traditionally parishes have been organised into what is known as 'benefices'.  A benefice is a unit intended to provide the income necessary to support a priest (Vicar).  Some places are recognised to have such a level of deprivation that they need help.  Most places are assumed to be able to find the money needed.  In the main they do.  If they don't the diocese has to decide if they are going to fund it any way - from the money other parishes pay - or reorganise them with others so that they form a unit (a benefice) that can.

Over recent years the amount asked from each benefice has been allocated on a complicated system that has also taken account of the relative wealth of the parish and the size of the congregation.  This has been seen as penalising those who are growing and not providing incentive to do so.  The diocese has a policy of growing and 'employing' more clergy.  To pay for these, the share system needs to take account of the cost where it is deployed.  That is difficult to achieve if that place is paying for ministry in other places.  So a rethink has taken place.

From 2016 Peterborough is going to start moving to a system based solely on the cost of the diocese's mission.  This will be allocated between the benefices according to how many paid clergy they have (excluding training posts).  If the benefices are able to match this, then the system will work.  If they don't, then there is no one else to pick up the bill so the vision and planned mission will have to be rethought.

If everyone pays 100% of what is asked, the full cost to be shared out works out at around £57,500 per paid cleric.  So places with additional clergy will pay multiples of that figure.  Because we know that it is unlikely that 100% will be collected, the actual amount will be nearer £63,000.  There will be some transitional arrangements as we move from one system to the new one.

In the end whatever shape the mission of the diocese takes it needs to be funded.  The test of the new system will be in how it works.  If it proves unrealistic then it will be rethought - it will have to be.  If it works it will produce the money needed.  Many know this will be a challenge.

Levels of giving in church congregations vary enormously.  Some are very generous and commit their giving at a realistic level with thankful hearts.  Some are less realistic.  When people commit to the vision of the church's mission they literally buy into it.  What is needed is provided.  When they don't, it isn't.  There are costs and they need to be met.  The theory is that growing churches should be able to find the resources that are needed.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Gluten Free Altar Breads

This is an appeal to church suppliers, especially of communion breads. Gluten free wafers are vile. They have a consistency of plastic and dissolve in the mouth with as much ease. I feel for those who need them and my heart sinks when I find I have to consume any left over at the end of the Eucharist. We need a palatable alternative.

I was pointed towards one available online from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the USA, but the cost of import and practicality of that makes this not very viable. The ingredients listed on the pack are 'wheat starch and water', less than 0.01% gluten content. They dissolve in the mouth and are palatable.

My appeal is to church suppliers to come up with something like this, not the plastic squares we endure at the moment. More people are asking for gluten free now so there is a gap in the market and clearly it can be done.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Arts Festival - projections

This weekend Peterborough will be holding an Arts Festival. Part of this will involve painting St John's Church in the city centre with light and images.  Below are some photographs taken during the technical preparations this evening (Thursday 3rd September 2015).