Previous Letters from the Clergy are available on this page.
Many of you have said kind things about me, following my announcement that I will leave All Saints’ on July 9th; some have even begged me to stay. I comfort myself with the thought that no one has said “Good riddance”! At least they have not done so to my face!
As the time for my leaving approaches, I have been musing on the theme of change in the life of our parish. The list of Rectors and Vicars in our old church nave underlines the constant motif of change in the long history of All Saints’. The list takes us back to 1254, which records Hugh de Mortimer of Poitou (a region on the Atlantic Coast of France) as the Rector. The King was Henry the Third and his wife was Eleanor of Provence (in the South of France). The then problem for the French people was securing ‘Engexit’- as the English had been a dominant power in France for two centuries.
The histories of the times of the Rectors and Vicars of All Saints’, and the regular turnover of these office-holders, shows us that change has been a constant and recurring feature of our parish’s life over many centuries. I admit to being proud that my name is on the list of Vicars, but I am one among many. In addition, other priests will follow me as the Vicar of Orpington and will be on that list. They will each have their own visions for the Mission of God in the parish, which they will apply, no doubt, even a few generations further into the future, in very different contexts to our own time.
Our faith however goes on unchanged. Just consider these texts. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13: 8). “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
In a few weeks we will be celebrating Easter. Easter has been celebrated at All Saints’ for nearly a thousand years. The celebrations have taken place because of the wonderful event of the Resurrection of Our Lord on the first Easter Day. At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Lord Jesus reminded his disciples that “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
All this puts my imminent retirement as your Vicar into context. Vicars come and go, but Jesus is always with us!
This year, with the beginning of this month of March, comes the beginning of the great season of Lent, when we prepare ourselves to journey with Christ to – and through – his death.
Ash Wednesday is so called because we start this season by reminding ourselves that we are but dust and ashes. During our two services we have receive the mark of the cross on our forehead, made from the ash of last years’ palm crosses, and as the ash is placed we hear the words: “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you will return”. It is a stark reminder of our mortality and echoes words from psalm 90 often used at funerals: ‘’From everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust and say ‘turn back you mortals’.” There’s also a link to the second creation myth in Genesis, when God forms a man from the dust of the ground and breathes into its nostrils to make it come alive.
Science also says we are made of dust: of stardust, for the elements needed for life are only formed in the centre of stars. When these stars burn out, because they run out of fuel, new stars and planets are formed from the dust they leave behind – planets that now have the elements needed for us to evolve. We are stardust.
However you choose to understand it: we are made of dust and to dust we will return. It is often said that Christians are fantasists who try and avoid the reality of death. I disagree. On Ash Wednesday we basically turn to each other and say “You are going to die.”
We spend much of our time pretending it’s not going to happen – and to some extent that’s logical – after all, we have lives to get on with! But we should not forget death altogether: trying to do so can make us greedy and grasping, perhaps in an effort to avoid the loss of everything that death represents.
But something that thinking about death does for me is to make me realise my utter dependence on God. When St. Paul says that in this life we can only ‘see but in a mirror dimly’, he is right – we just do not know what will come after death. But we do know it is inevitable and only when we see God ‘face to face’ (as St Paul goes on to say) will we know the whole truth.
It is in accepting our mortality that we are set free to fully live: to appreciate this one life on Earth that we are given – and to resolve to live it fully to its end.
Of course, at the end of Lent we will come to Easter. But that’s a story for another day!
I wish you a holy and life-filled Lent,
 Genesis ch2 v.4-24; the first creation myth is Genesis Ch1 v.1 – ch2.3
 1 Corinthians ch13 v12 ‘
For the past few years, our weekly pew sheet (which gives the calendar for the forthcoming week and notices of events) has listed the peoples of particular countries for whom we pray.
For example, the pew sheet for January 1st listed the peoples of Afghanistan, Germany, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Yeman.
The list could be far longer, as there are so many countries which are experiencing war, civil war and disturbance and tyrannical and corrupt governments.
What can we do? Do we wring our hands in despair? Do we turn aside from the problems of the world and focus on what matters to us and our families and friends? Do we shrug our shoulders and say “it was always the same”?
No, that is not what our faith teaches us.
“Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father”[ Ephesians 2:17].
The peace of Christ is for all, for our families and local communities and for people in far off countries.
Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” [St Matthew 5:9].
Jesus does not bless those who, on becoming aware of the problems of our fellow humans, pass by on the other side of the road. Instead he blesses those who make peace.
A wise French Catholic priest, Father Jean Debruynne, once wrote this:
“Peace could have been one of the wild flowers in a field: the flowers that neither sow nor reap.
Peace could have been one of those meadow flowers, found one morning
by the wayside, at the foot of a tree or the bend of a creek.
You would just pick up peace, as people gather mushrooms, or as they gather heather or large daisies.
Instead peace is a job, it is a task.
We must make peace as we make wheat.
We must make peace in the same way as it takes years to make a rose
and centuries to make a vineyard.
Peace does not exist in the wild: there is only peace in the human face. ”
We have to work at peace, and not give up. As Father Jean wrote, it can take years and indeed centuries. It is our Christian calling.
But how can we make peace? For starters, this is advice from Mother Theresa.
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”
May God bless you as you make peace!
We come to a new year. Yet again, the arrival of a new year brings with it hope for a happier and better world but also a sense of dread because experience shows that those hopes are so often not fulfilled. In our country, divided as we are in our response to the referendum result, we await patiently developments in the negotiations for our withdrawal from the European Union. There is transparent anxiety about President-Elect Donald Trump and what his election means for the global economy, for the environment and for peace and justice throughout the world.
What then can Christians say? St Augustine of Hippo was a giant in the history of Christian thought. He was a philosopher, theologian, preacher, interpreter of Scripture, monk and Bishop. He wrote a famous book entitled ‘The City of God’ which was written in the context of the Sack of Rome; the greatest and darkest crisis of the Roman Empire. Yet, Augustine’s book emits rays of optimism. He said that the City of God was shaped and guided by the indwelling spirit of God, even in the midst of natural disorders and human follies. He portrays the peace and happiness of the heavenly city in the fellowship of the saints, where all enjoy the vision of God. The supreme good is contrasted with the supreme evil of separation from God in the ungodly city. All the world is on pilgrimage to the City of God. The way was barred to it until the King of the City, Jesus, made himself the way to it. ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’.
Did this mean that we can disdain government in general? Do we stop being political animals? Not so! St Augustine considered it a duty for Christians to participate in political life. We need to work to achieve the earthly peace needed by all citizens. Membership of the City of God is not an escape from responsibility for the age in which we live.
In addition, however, the City of God gives us different perspectives. The City of God is multi-cultural and multi-national. The Church is not linked to any one State nor is it confined to any one culture. I think this is profoundly important as our country proceeds towards Brexit. There has been an horrendous increase in crimes against people who are perceived to be ‘different’. Some of our fellow citizens think that they have been given permission to mouth racist and ethnic taunts. This is nothing to do with the City of God. Rather the City of God is a community which will in the end enjoy the fullness of truth and goodness. Human values are redeemed and enhanced to flourish forever in the City of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, whose citizens enter into the happiness of the perpetual enjoyment of God and one another. The joy of the Resurrection has renewed the whole world.
As we go forward into 2017, I urge you to keep the vision that St Augustine gives us about the world in which we live and to do all that you can as faithful Christians to share that vision with your families, friends, colleagues and neighbours.
If you were at our All Saints’ Day service you may recall the Vicar describing the differences between the Gospel writers. Brian pointed out that Matthew focuses on Jesus as a human being and king.
Brian also pointed out that this focus can be seen in the way the Gospel of Matthew starts with “possibly the most boring opening of all” – the genealogy of Jesus!
And it really is quite monotonous – fully 15 verses trace Jesus’ family tree from Abraham to his earthly father Joseph. But it’s an important reading as we approach Christmas because in this seemingly dull list of ancestors, Matthew wants to tell us several things about the heritage of “Jesus called the Christ” before he gets round to narrating His birth. Citing a genealogy was a standard way of ascribing importance to a person in NT times.
If we look closely we see that there’s more here than a list of (often unpronounceable) names:
Mathew puts the list into three groups and then says this: “Thus all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations”
Why point this out? One popular theory is based on the fact that the number seven was considered the perfect number in NT times: starting with the days of creation, the number appears hundreds of times in the Bible. And so, as twice seven, the number fourteen is doubly blessed. Another idea is based on the fact that fourteen is the numerical value of David in ancient Hebrew orthography and Matthew is at pains to make it clear that the messiah Jesus is ‘born of David’s line” as the hymn – and OT prophecy – has it.
But look even more closely and we notice something else: Matthew can’t count! In the last of his three sections there is actually only 13 generations (Check it out!). What is going on here? One popular idea is that the fourteenth generation is also Jesus – but after his resurrection.
But for me, the most interesting feature of this family tree is the women that are included. Apart from Mary, just four are mentioned: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and ‘the wife of Uriah’ (Bathsheba). Why these four? Why not Sarah, the elderly wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac, for example?
Let us have a look at them:
The first woman mentioned is Tamar, a widow who posed as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, Judah, and avoid being left destitute. She was a Canaanite convert to Judaism.
The second is Rahab, a prostitute who lived in Jericho and who hid Joshua’s spies from the city authorities before the attack was launched.
The third, Ruth, has a whole book in the Bible telling her story – she was a Moabite who married a Hebrew and stuck by her mother-in-law even when she was widowed and they were both left penniless. She ends up seducing her benefactor Boaz who marries her, thus rescuing them both from poverty.
And finally, the fourth – Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite – was seduced by King David after he saw her bathing on the roof. David engineered the death of Uriah so that he could marry her himself. Eventually she gave birth to King Solomon.
Two things stand out immediately: they are all from outside the Jewish community and they all have rather strange sexual histories. In other words, on at least two counts they do not bestow an ideal pedigree on their descendants.
These four women, with their all-too-human stories, show that Jesus was not to be advantaged by a lineage of flawless ancestors, nor to attract only those who were morally virtuous. The incarnation is not about God avoiding the fault lines in history or humanity, but about God immersing himself in a deficient world and among fallible people – because he knows that through impartial love all can be redeemed.
And I don’t know about you – but that sounds like the best news ever to me!
At the end of 1916, the First World War had truly hit home in Orpington. My predecessor, Mr Gilling-Lax, recorded in the magazine of that month, five more deaths to be recorded in the church’s roll of honour. They were; Lieutenant Geoffrey Smith, who died from wounds on 22 September 1916, he was a very regular worshipper at the parish church and a server at the altar; four other men were mourned by Orpington families; Major Harold Ironside, Private Reginald Gilruth, Private Bertram Pepper and Private Alfred Terry. The Vicar also recorded four men who had been wounded, one of whom was a prisoner of war.
Away from the battlefield, food became scarce and difficult to procure and many men, and some women, cultivated small plots of ground which were allocated to them by the local authority and by the voluntary action of the owners, for the purpose of food production. A campaign was organised to reduce the consumption of bread and to encourage the use of wheat substitutes and, in spite of the fact that the majority of local people were employed in agriculture and other occupations involving hard manual work, the consumption of bread was reduced to 4lbs of bread per head per week.
The sound of the guns in Flanders was heard in Orpington over extended periods of time. The firing was audible by day as well as by night and on some occasions continued for many weeks without intermission. Not infrequently the sound was sufficiently intense to be disturbing and to cause windows to rattle. The distance from Orpington to the Flanders’ Front was about 120 miles.
In February 1916, the Ontario Military Hospital was erected on high ground on the outskirts of the village and was formally opened by a Government Minister, Mr Bonar Law and as we all know, later in 1916, the first burials took place of soldiers who had died at the hospital in what became known as Canadian Corner.
The people of Orpington did not experience the horrors of parts of modern Syria, in particular East Aleppo but there are parallels not only soldiers on the front line but people at home were caught up in the conflict. Those at home suffered through bereavement, anxiety and privations.
At the end of the First World War, there was a cartoon in Punch Magazine, which I have not been able to trace, relying on these sentiments from Psalm 85: ‘Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other’. After all that Europe had been through in 1914 to 1918, there was hope for the future.
We can all turn round and say that the First World War was followed by the Second War and by a multitude of conflicts since then, not least in Syria today. Does this mean that the aspiration of the huge proportion of humanity for peace with justice is forlorn? No! I don’t believe that and the church of God does not believe that. The struggle for peace continues because we believe that in Christ Jesus, in the words of St Paul, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Whilst our country is withdrawing from the European Union, we cannot withdraw from the human race, that would be a dereliction of our humanity and our faith.
When I was a boy, the very first hymn that I learnt was ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’. I was five or six and a pupil at Telferscot Road School, Balham. I have never forgotten the magic that I felt in the words of the hymn. We are told that God feeds and waters the seed. God sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes, and the sunshine and soft, refreshing rain. I think it is essential that in every Harvest Festival, this great hymn is sung.
Anglicans are programmed to regard a Harvest Festival Service as an essential part of the Church’s year, yet, it is an unofficial festival. In Medieval England, Lammas Day (1st August) was a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest, when bread made with the new wheat was offered at Mass and solemnly blessed. This last custom was revived by the Reverend R S Hawker, in Cornwall in 1843. Hawker’s Harvest Festival caught on so that now it would be odd indeed for an Anglican parish not to celebrate the Harvest.
We are blessed in Orpington in being so close to the countryside. There are parts of Orpington, for example, Poverest where you can see the fields in the distance. We can feel close to the land and to all who work on the land to bring us the food which we all need. I urge as many of you as possible to travel out into Kent this October and say a prayer of thanksgiving for all who are involved in farming in our country. That will connect us more with the reality of food production, rather than a visit to the supermarket.
As we give thanks, please also pray for a fairer distribution of the resources of our good earth so that nobody shall go hungry; nobody will be in want. This year, our country has been absorbed with the Referendum and now Brexit. There is a danger that we become self-centred and indeed selfish; Harvest Festival is a time for us to look beyond our own concerns to the need of the world. Let us therefore, commit ourselves afresh to a world where everyone will be given, each day, their daily bread.
Letter from a convalescent Vicar
I am writing this letter to you, while sitting in a garden chair, with my left leg propped up on another chair, in glorious sunshine and with a pile of books on one side and a mug of tea on the other.
It is mid-week and I am not on holiday.
What is going on?
After two bouts of disabling pain in my left knee last winter and in the spring, I sought medical advice. It emerged that the “medial meniscus” (a C-shaped cartilage) was torn, with reactive change elsewhere. It is a very common knee injury and particularly with people who play sport. I have been a keen jogger since I was 20. That means that I have been putting pressure on my knees for nearly half a century! Harold Macmillan, one of our 20th century Prime Ministers, once said that the only exercise which he took was running up the stairs in hospitals to visit friends who had been hurt playing sport!
I chose to have arthroscopic treatment (key-hole surgery) of the tear. This took place on 11th August. Since then I have been “confined to barracks” – instructed to rest, to walk up and down the stairs slowly and carefully and to do physio exercises.
Hence my resting in the garden!
When I am very busy as the Vicar, I sometimes think that the ideal would be to do what I am doing now – taking it easy in the garden and reading. But after a week, I am finding my delight in doing so little is wearing off. I want to be up and about, to be with people, to have conversations, to be active. To get on my bike!
This experience has been very instructive for me. I have been thinking about the many people whom we visit in our parish, who are housebound, or in homes or in hospital. Some of them are lonely. They live alone and their human contact is very limited.
Research shows that loneliness and social isolation in our country is extensive. 17% of older people are in contact with their family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month.
Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
I have joked about my enforced stay at home as being like Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy. But I will soon be free to go, and Mr. Assange, if he wished, could go immediately. There is however a large number of people who are permanently at home and cannot walk out of their front door just like that. If those people have social contact, it depends on visitors, ‘phone calls and letters. No wonder they have the television or radio on for much of the time, for the sake of hearing human voices.
All Saints’ has a very good record in pastoral care and visiting. We have a team of visitors who visit some people regularly and others when requested. If you are interested in being a visitor, please have a word with Pam Mercer, who is one of our Lay Ministers and supervises the visiting team. You will be richly blessed. I think that one of the best things about being a parish priest is visiting people at home. The meetings are of as much benefit to the visitor as to the people being visited.
Whether we visit as part of the parish team or not, we could all make renewed efforts to make contact with lonely people we know – in our families, among our friends, in our streets. That word and that smile will go a long way to make other people feel happier!
So much has happened since last month that it’s hard to know where to start.
As a country we’ve finally had the referendum after a very ugly campaign, we’ve had a change of prime minister and a new cabinet now set up to take us out of the EU, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty and the opposition appears to be in total disarray.
As a parish we’ve got a motto ‘All Saints for All People’ and logo (shown below – congratulations to Paul Hiscock who designed the winning entry), affirming our belief that the love of God is for everyone without exception – and that, as a church, we are here to embody that.
On a personal level I’ve been to the Holy Land which was an amazing experience that I’m still trying to absorb. We went to so many places and saw so much it was overwhelming.
A side effect of this was that I away during the referendum and results and in the event I was glad this was the case: even in Israel we were hearing about so much hurt, viciousness and blame in the aftermath.
Then, as we waited at the airport to return home, news came through of the bomb at Istanbul airport. As I write now the news is full of a man deliberately driving a truck into crowds in the South of France – into people who were celebrating ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ – killing, maiming and shooting as he went.
In the words of St Paul ‘What then are we to say about these things?’
The experience of going to the Holy Land is to affirm the solid reality of much that can perhaps seem almost mythic. When we sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ at Christmas the feeling is like that of a mirage sometimes. But Bethlehem exists still and there is a church built there by the earliest Christians to honour the place of the birth of Jesus – it is the oldest church in the world. The town is still surrounded by Shepherd’s fields.
In Jerusalem we had a time of quiet in the Garden of Gethsemane before we walked down into the city and pushed our way through hot narrow streets following the ‘Via Dolorosa’ barely able to keep sight of each other because of the crowds and traders. Here, it was easy to imagine Jesus, beaten and weak, struggling to carry a great beam of wood and to appreciate anew his sacrifice for us. Tortured and killed, in a land overrun and occupied by foreign invaders, this place is where the Word of God came and plumbed the depths of our world simply that all people might know Him and his ultimate purposes of love.
As we look round the world today we may feel fear or wonder if much has changed. But thanks to Jesus, we know that in the end none of it will have the last word. Love triumphs over all. It is our job as Christians to know that and show that – to all people!
Wishing you every blessing
In May, there was a great deal of media excitement about the latest evidence regarding the Church’s decline. According to Dr Stephen Bullivant, Director of the Benedict 16th Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, ‘92.6% of Anglicans were brought up as such and 5.4% came over from other denominations, this leaves just 2% who were brought up as non-believers and a further 0.1% who converted from another faith’ [Church Times 27 May 2016) What this means is that evangelism is not working despite all the efforts being made to encourage non-believers to join the Christian faith. The traffic in the opposite direction is heavier; ‘40% of those brought up in Anglican Churches in England and Wales now state that they belong to no religion’.
What is the remedy?
A book ‘How healthy is the C of E?’  listed suggested remedies. These were:
Attention to the Bible
- Diligence in Sacraments
- A deepening holiness
- More effective social action
- A willingness to unite with non-Anglicans
- A radical slimming-down of bureaucracy
- Creativity in worship
- The pursuit of theological understanding
- Intelligent shared leadership
- Joyful friendliness
I like to think that for the past several years, at All Saints’ we have pursued many of these remedies and with some success. On a point of detail, there is a question in my mind as to whether we need all our committees but I can see the argument as to why we do.
The Church Times said about the research by Dr Bullivant, that a key factor is a willingness to change. Are we too content with the way things are? Do we fear that the bringing in of lots of new people could actually be destructive? If the Church is to go forward into the 21st Century and flourish, there will inevitably be more changes. Given the research evidence, we cannot stand still!
On the Sunday after the Ascension this year, May 8th, I preached on the theme that after the Ascension, and contrary to a superficial reading of that story, Jesus had not gone away. He remains the very centre of our life, the source of loving energy in the world and the source of our prayerful and trustful waiting on God. He asked his Father to send another comforter to be with his followers (St John 14:15). The comforter is the Holy Spirit, who, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “proceeds from the Father and the Son”.
What this means is that we do not stay waiting on the mountain top, staring up to heaven as the Apostles did initially at the Ascension, but we come down to this messy, complicated and suffering world. We are encouraged to live a life in which our faith brings hope, compassion and service to the people around us. We live, pray and act, bringing the face of Jesus to life in our faces, knowing that we are not alone.
There are many ways in which we can do this. Here are some examples of how we bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, in the mission and ministry of our parish church.
Our work with young people – our Kingfishers and Heaven groups, Tots, Youth Services, Parade Services, school assemblies (we go into four local schools). There is much that is encouraging here.
- Our deep commitment to supporting the Food Bank through weekly contributions and volunteers at the Food Bank.
- Our support for several charities at home and abroad – for example the Children’s Society, Welcare, Seeds4Tanzania, the Michael Project in Zimbabwe and our monthly charity lunch.
- Our ever-growing pastoral work to the homebound, sick, dying and bereaved. Several of us regularly visit throughout the week.
- Our extensive ministry through baptisms, weddings and funerals.
- Our many groups which provide support and a social life for a large number of people.
- Our growing civic role: for example, the recent wonderful Canadian Corner centenary service and our Civic Carol Service.
In these and in many other ways, enabled by the Holy Spirit, we are bringing hope to a world which is so often lost and confused.
We have adopted a tagline, or catch phrase, to sum up our commitment to all this activity and much more. The tagline is “All Saints’ for All People”. This describes a commitment for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, sexuality, faith or lack of faith.
Our commitment to “All People” is worldwide. We are very proud of our links abroad: in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Germany and Canada. We belong to “one holy, catholic [meaning universal] and apostolic [the faith of the Apostles] church”. Our faith is a universal faith, transcending political boundaries. It is over and above any political authority. In the very early days of the church, St Peter and the apostles said “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (The Acts of the Apostles 5:29). The cry of the American revolutionaries in the late 18th century was “we have no King but Jesus”. I suggest that these thoughts should put into proportion, indeed put into the shade, the question about whether we remain in or leave the European Union. “We have no King but Jesus” – neither the Westminster Parliament nor the European Commission can, in the final Christian analysis, be our “King”.
That said, however, I am a keen “remainer”. I would be happy to discuss my reasons with anybody who wants to hear them. I close with the Church of England’s prayer for the Referendum:
God of truth,
give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum,
with honesty and with openness.
Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion
and discernment to those who vote,
that our nation may prosper
and that with all the peoples of Europe
we may work for peace and the common good;
for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Please pray this prayer in the coming weeks.
By the time you read this magazine, Easter Day will be sometime behind you but, on the other hand, we will still be in Eastertide. I want to share with you some of the thoughts which I included in my sermon on Easter Day.
I am sure that many of you are aware of a small voice of doubt about the resurrection of Jesus. How does our joy in the resurrection and our awareness of his living presence in our day-to-day lives and in particular in the Eucharist, relate to the horrors which were perpetuated in Holy Week in Brussels and late last year in Paris?
But I want to tell you that there is hope. The Christian faith and the way it has been lived out for nearly 2,000 years, gives us ground for hope. What is the most powerful evidence in favour of the resurrection?
I think it is the way in which a group of very ordinary and dispirited men and women were transformed by their conviction that Jesus was alive. That conviction led them to wish to spread the Good News of Jesus’ love and life to the then known world. Very ordinary people were transformed. That conviction of the resurrection life has gone on inspiring the Church ever since. It has led people to do extraordinary things for our Risen Lord. People have put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the Gospel. People have given up careers and wealth to follow Jesus. People have sacrificed themselves because of what they believe the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and the empty tomb meant for them. Frequently at All Saints’ we commemorate the saints of the Church; holy men and women; they are constant reminders of what the transforming love of Jesus can do to people.
In March, three members of All Saints’ and I spent time with our sisters and brothers at the church in Heddesdorf in Neuwied in the Rhineland. All Saints’ and the church in Heddesdorf are linked. We learnt about the work of the Churches in Neuwied with the many refugees that have arrived there in the past year.
The churches of Neuwied are running several cafés for the refugees. Many people in the churches are helping out as volunteers; some of them are widowed and the work of the volunteers helps them cope with their grief, many are retired. The churches have established sewing classes.
When the refugees began to arrive, the administration of the city of Neuwied asked the churches to help and they willingly did so. The refugees whom we met told me that the people of Neuwied are very kind; there has been a long tradition of accepting refugees in the city from centuries back and, in particular, after the Second World War.
What the Pastors and people of the churches have been doing in Neuwied is living out their faith in a very practical expression of generous hospitality.
I agree with our Bishops that our country should be willing to accept more refugees from the Middle East. It is a matter of regret for me that is not so but what we can do is to take the example of what the churches in Neuwied are doing and apply it to our own lives here in Orpington. We can be open to everyone, to all who are different from us; we can make friendships; we can think positively about how we can help people who are in need. We can decry those who seek to divide people from people; we can be positive about our increasingly diverse and multi-racial and multi-ethnic society. In these ways, we can show to others that the resurrection of Jesus is meaningful for us and has made a radical difference in our lives. So, in conclusion, let us go forward, optimistically and positively.
As you read this, Easter has come…
But as I write this, we are still in Passiontide, and waiting for the start of Holy Week when we follow Jesus on his journey to the cross. So much happens in these few days and it is hard to get our heads around it all.
This was brought home to me a couple of days ago when I visited a primary school in Dartford. It is not a church school and religious studies is not considered the most important subject – and with such a short half-term (less than 5 weeks as Easter’s so early) the year 4 classes had not had much time to study it. The subject for this half-term was Christianity, and with the Easter break starting the following week, I was asked if I would go in and do an assembly covering Easter and why it’s so important to Christians.
Once I started I realised that this is a lot to cover in 30 minutes! I eventually decided to get them to help me by performing a mini ‘passion play’ covering the whole period from Palm Sunday though to the risen Jesus commissioning Mary Magdalene to tell the other disciples the good news of the resurrection.
Afterwards they asked some very good questions such as ‘Why didn’t Jesus run away?’ ‘How do we know all this?’ and ‘What has it got to do with chocolate eggs?’!
But my favourite was: ‘Why is it Good News?’ And of course the answer is that it shows (at least) three things:
- that Jesus’ really was the Son of God
- that we should therefore listen to and follow what he said and did
- that death, violence and destruction do not have the last word!
Right now that last point is so important! We live in a world seemingly full of worry and fear We have seen pictures of children being tear-gassed at borders in Europe, of people drowning at sea; many are worried that our country will be overwhelmed by people who are very different from us and extremism seems to be on the rise wherever we look, even in the West.
But the Easter message gives us a new perspective. If we’re feeling low, that God is silent or death is winning we know it’s not the end. Evil does not triumph! Greed, violence, abuse are not right and they cannot last because they belong to death and death does not triumph.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters, in this world, right now: every act of compassion matters; every good deed counts; every fair and honest act of business, every kind word makes a difference; every work of art that celebrates the good and the true belongs to heaven. Nothing will be forgotten, nothing wasted. Because in the final analysis, in resurrection, it all has its place.
This is the Easter message. And it is Good News indeed!
I wish you a very Happy Easter celebrated in the full light of the resurrection.
I recently received a letter from a lifelong Christian who finds the theory of evolution problematic. The writer detailed a number of ‘issues’ with the theory, mostly of the ‘How do you explain this…?’ variety.
This letter came to me because I had given a talk during which I said that part of my coming to faith involved the realisation that I didn’t have to disown any of my current understanding of the role of science in explaining the world.
It caused me to think about why I still believe that evolution is the best explanation of how we came to be as we are, even though I do not have answers to many of those questions. There are three strands to my ponderings:
1. The first thing to say is that evolution, like all science theories, looks to describe the how something occurred, rather than the why. Faith, to my mind, is all about the latter. Science can only tell us about the former. So in that sense there is no disconnect.
2. However, and secondly, that still leaves the matter of what is written in the book of Genesis. Here I found that doing detailed Bible studies at college was really helpful. One thing I had never really understood before is that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis, both written by different authors, with different agendas and at different times: Chapter one (and the first 4 verses of chapter 2) tells of creation in seven ‘days’, man and woman are both created in the image of God, God rests on the seventh day; Chapter two verse 5 onwards tells of Adam looking for a companion and Eve being created from his rib, of them both living in the garden of Eden. This same author also wrote chapter 3 – the fall and expulsion from the garden.
Understanding this helped me to realise that the Bible was never written as a scientific textbook. These stories are ‘true’ in a very different sense: they tell of Creation, of temptation, of sin, of suffering. And they were written by people who believed the Earth was flat (among other things) and were looking to express the truth of God in that context.
So although, in some senses, the account of science and the account in the Old Testament differ, they are both, in different ways, true.
3. The third thing that I realised when thinking how to answer my friend’s letter was that we cannot reduce the question of the existence of God to being a question of whether or not there are gaps in the theory of evolution. For that would mean that if there is an answer to all those questions (and for all I know there is – I’m not an expert on evolution) then there is no room left for God.
So whatever you believe about evolution, God is still there! And we have only to look at the gratuitous beauty around us: a rainbow, a sunset, a view, newborn lambs and so many other wonderful and unnecessary things in this world in order to get in touch with that which is within us that knows ‘we are fearfully and wonderfully made’
With every blessing
By the time you read this letter, a special meeting of the Archbishop of Canterbury and 37 Primates (leaders of Anglican provinces around the world) to discuss the future of the Anglican Communion will have come and gone.
At the time of writing this letter, (6th January) I can only hope and pray for an amicable and positive outcome but I fear that this may not be the case.
This is because the elephant-in-the-room in the Anglican Communion is “the Gay Issue”. Can the Church recognise and accept same sex relationships? Can the Church ordain gay and lesbian people to the Sacred Ministry? A short time ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice . In that interview, Mr Gove asked the Archbishop about a hypothetical situation of one of the Archbishop’s children being in a same sex relationship and asking for his blessing. The Archbishop said ‘would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely. Would I pray with them together? If they wanted me to.’ ‘If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend? Of course I would’. However, the Archbishop stopped short of accepting a religious ceremony for his hypothetical gay child and their partner.
The Archbishop’s views reflect the official Church of England teaching.
The Church of England is a broad church in which there are many viewpoints, both in the laity and the clergy. My personal position is that if I were permitted, I would bless civil partnerships and civil same-sex marriages in church and, indeed, I would go further and preside over same sex marriages in church. This is because I believe these relationships are of equal standing to heterosexual relationships. The criteria that I apply are those applied by the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, in his famous pamphlet on Christian same sex relationships: that the relationships are ‘permanent, faithful, stable’.
Turning to the ordination of gay and lesbian people to ordained ministry in the Church of England, there are already a large number of gay and lesbian clergy; many of whom are among the most effective and committed clergy.
In the 1990s, I worked as the Solicitor to the North Wales Tribunal of Inquiry into the abuse of children in care. I was horrified by the evidence. It is very important that we keep distinct in our minds the issues which I have discussed above and those involving paedophilia.
I recognise that some of you will not agree with me. That is fine. Not only is the Church of England a broad national Church but All Saints’ is a broad parish church. I will be happy to discuss these matters with you either in group discussions or in one-to-one discussions. It is only through such discussions that we are begin to discern the truth.
By the time you read this letter, you will have celebrated Christmas and will be turning your thoughts to what a new year may bring for you and your loved ones.
Possibly still ringing in your ears is the message of the Angels over the fields of Bethlehem:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Here are some thoughts from Professor Joel Green’s commentary on St Luke’s Gospel about that message.
“On earth peace” meshes with the hope for shalom, peace with justice and universal healing, found in the Scriptures. It is related to the dominion of God and the coming of salvation as “good news” in a text like Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion ‘Your God reigns’”.
It is a hope of universal healing. This means that the expression “those whom [God] favours” is not limited to a select group only but is tied up with shalom for the whole cosmos.
But you may say, this is all very well but look at the atrocities in recent months in Tunisia, in Paris and in Beirut and the downing of the Russian plane. Where is this universal healing? When will it start?
We must not give way however to despair and negative thoughts. Rather we must hang on to the hope that is in us, to the hope which Zechariah proclaimed in his prophecy:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”.
In the early months of the Second World War, Archbishop William Temple, one of the great Archbishops of our church in the 20th century, wrote this about the war with Germany.
“We are involved in an entanglement due to the sin of mankind (sic), including our own, in which the best thing we can do is still a bad thing. None the less it is right to do it, because it is the best possible. And so we have got to do it and be penitent while we do it. That is the only hope I see of both resisting injustice and securing that justice comes out of it … God be merciful to us sinners!”
In November I came to the view that my response to the horrors which ISIS has unleashed on the Middle East and Europe was our country’s participation in the coalition of forces, which seeks to destroy ISIS. I applied Archbishop Temple’s thinking in 1939 to the Syrian situation.
I know that not everyone feels the same way. What we can all agree with, however, is the hope for shalom, for universal peace, and for the fulfilment of the message of the angels!
Let us pray for a happier and more peaceful world in 2016.
Advent is upon us once again!
I do look forward to this season; sometimes I think prefer it to Christmas itself! Christmas can be so commercialised and full – but Advent is an almost forgotten season: an oasis in a time of madness.
Advent is associated with stillness and waiting so I try (try!) to make an effort to find more space in my life for stillness in this season. So much of the time, Advent is almost crowded out by the extra demands made in the build up to Christmas… but somehow Advent holds its own and keeps its dignity in the midst of everything we can throw at it, and it calls to us: “Be still, be silent, and wait expectantly for the Lord.”
As we wait once again we look back to the birth of Christ some 2000 years ago; we look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises and prepare ourselves to experience once again the birth of Christ in the here and now.
Waiting is sometimes hard and it is so easy for our anticipation of Christmas to get the better of us – so that by the time it gets here we are often fed up with hearing about it! I find it sad that one of the great festivals of our faith is usually drowned out by all the commercial baggage that comes with it. There’s nothing wrong with shopping or Christmas parties or present buying etc… But if it gets to the point that we arrive at Christmas spiritually unprepared for it something is lost.
Advent invites us to stop and be still. It invites us to resist getting caught up in the wave of manic activity and to create the space within ourselves for Christ’s presence to be born. Throughout Advent there will be various opportunities to stop, wait, reflect and prepare for this wonderful feast. It begins with our Advent Carol service and continues each week with the ‘Stations of the Coming of Christ’ on Wednesday evenings . And as Christmas begins to draw near so our anticipation of it rises: Evening prayer with the ‘O’ antiphons each day from the 18th; Nine lesson and Carols on the 20th; the Christingle on Christmas Eve, all leading in to the great feasts of Midnight Mass and the Christmas Day Eucharist.
Let’s not let Advent pass us by this year; let’s try not to arrive at Christmas exhausted and spiritually unprepared; but let us allow this lovely season of Advent to open our hearts ready to receive God’s amazing gift.
December is a month of extremes: the exciting busyness of the Christmas build up, and the beautiful calmness and stillness of Advent. May we be able to hold this balance in our lives – and keep focused on what is truly important.
Wishing you every blessing for this Holy Season,
The Orpington Parish Magazine 100 years ago makes for sad reading. I quote from the Vicar’s notes in the Spring of 1915:
‘Much sympathy is felt for Mr and Mrs Morris of Crofton in the loss of their son, Lieut. Clive Morris, who was killed in action at Aubers on May 9th while leading a charge. Among other casualties which are notified in this month’s list are Pte. Harry Dunmall, wounded in the Dardanelles, Pte. Edward Sears, wounded in France (in both legs), and Pte. Richard Fitten, of our 2nd Orpington Scouts, also wounded in France.’
Later in the year, the Vicar’s notes recorded:
‘There have been many casualties among Orpington men during the last few weeks Privates Harry Wallace and Harry White have been killed in action. Lieut. A N Harris, Privates H Bicknell and J Tickner are all reported as missing. Private L Macheter has been very seriously wounded. Private L Ware, being invalided home, was in the unfortunate hospital ship which was mined in the Channel, and had a wonderful escape from drowning. He is now in hospital in Epsom. Private William Bristow is seriously ill in hospital at Rouen.’
A 100 years later, there is a real danger of our forgetting the human and personal impact on so many people of the impact of the 1st World War. We think in terms of big figures, the number who died and the number who served but each of the names recorded in War Memorials and, for example, in our Parish Magazine were individuals, made in the image of God and who were loved and cherished by their friends and families.
Sadly despite, all the hopes for peace at the end of the 1st and the 2nd World Wars, war and civil war continue apace. The past few years, there has been war in our continent in the Ukraine and in the Middle East; there is now the chaos of Syria which threatens, not only the whole region but also the peace of the world.
What can we do as Christians?
The most important thing is to pray. To pray for peace in the world as we will pray on Remembrance Sunday, when we will enter into an act of commitment pledging ourselves to serve God and all humanity, that we may promote a culture of peace and non-violence, and so shape a world based on justice, liberty, dignity and harmony for all.
Our prayers will inform our actions. Our faith does not condone a small-minded and frightened nationalism but rather it exhorts us to a global vision, the vision of the Kingdom of God. I believe that our political responses to the serious state of the world must be moulded by our Christianity. This has implications, for example, in our support of international organisations, such as the United Nations, Commonwealth and the European Union; all these bodies, however flawed, seek to work for a world of peace and non-violence.
So, returning to my predecessor’s melancholy notes of 1915, those losses of young men at war, should haunt us; just imagine what it must have been like to have been Mr and Mrs Morris of Crofton.
As I write this letter in early September, the refugee crisis is centre-stage and by the time you are reading this magazine, it is sadly improbable that the crisis will be on the way to any form of resolution. In this letter, I want to offer you some thoughts about a Christian response to the crisis.
English Christians, and, in particular, Anglicans, must be very careful about over-identifying our faith, for example, with the monarchy, the Established Church and the long story of what Winston Churchill called “our island race”. People can too easily make their religion fall into line with a particular, culturally determined, idea of God. What then happens, God is honoured, but only with the lips and not with the heart (St Mark 7:6).
Yet the true God is very far from the stories and tradition of the individual countries and cultures in the world. God cannot be fitted into any one country or culture. Remember what Saint Peter said at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea (Acts 10 verses 34 to 36):
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all’.
I believe that this means that Christians cannot use the kind of language, which politicians have been using recently about the refugee crisis, such as the Prime Minister’s remark about a swarm of migrants attempting to cross the Channel. Such remarks dehumanise people made, like us, in the image of God.
Paul Evdokimov was a 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian. He once said that hell is not part of God’s creation but is the invention of so-called “good people”. The so-called “good” people want to find a place to put all the people who are not like them – such as the poor, undocumented refugees, the unsuccessful, single parents, gays and people of other faiths such as Muslims. The possibility of judging and condemning others makes the so-called ‘good’ people feel more self-sufficient and confident in their own salvation.” Jesus, however, taught his disciples that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (St Mark 6:21). I believe that the dehumanisation and marginalisation of “the other” is the product of evil intentions.
Do not forget that at the end of Jesus’ human life, Jesus was dehumanised and marginalised. He was crucified outside the city walls and left out of the picture. God was abandoned.
Thinking of recent events, I do not believe our faith can justify the huge barricades surmounted by lethal barbed wire at Calais, which seek to stop so many people in dire need from getting sanctuary.
Psalm 15 teaches us that those who shall dwell in God’s tabernacle and rest on His holy hill are those who lead an uncorrupt life, doing the thing that is right and speaking truth from their hearts, those who do no evil to their neighbour, who keep their word, and who protect the innocent. They are the people who dwell on God’s holy hill. They do not dwell behind tall barricades surmounted by barbed wire.
As I write this it is less than two months until I will (by the grace of God) become a priest! By the time it’s published, there will be just a week or two before I am spirited away for a few days in retreat along with the ten other curates in a similar position. I will only see my family and friends again as we walk up the centre aisle in Rochester cathedral heading inexorably towards the moment of ordination.
It is both daunting and a privilege to be in this position. It is the final stage on a journey to priesthood that started six years ago and at the time looked totally impossible: too old, too new to Christianity, a woman (yes, that was initially a problem for me) and divorced to boot – I thought there was no way the church would be able to validate this apparent calling. But I felt compelled to at least try…and God certainly works in mysterious ways, for here I am.
There have been many ups and downs on the road: early on, when as a relatively new Christian I popped into the empty church for some peace and I found myself contemplating how long I had left on this Earth – then somehow I said ‘Well whatever I have left it’s all Yours’ … and then sat there in shock thinking ‘What did you just say?!’.
I remember wading my way though a foot of snow and nearly breaking my neck on the ice to get to my very first meeting with the DDO.
I remember the evening when I got back from a discernment interview which had contrived to bring to the surface all my ignorance of Christianity, convinced it was all over: shedding many tears, downing a rapid glass of red wine and staying up half the night building a Lego spaceship because I was unable to sleep!
Then the gradual resurgence of hope again as I continued to learn and eventually the round of form-filling before being sent to selection conference. I will never forget the agony of thinking that I had blown it completely and (a week later) the joy of being selected.
I remember the time at college when my carefully crafted worship was cut-off mid-flow because I had gone on too long (mortifying); but also the time when I did something that many other students and staff appreciated and they told me so.
Most importantly I recall getting a profile of a parish called ‘All Saints Orpington’. It sounded very interesting. The first words the Vicar said when I called him: ‘I don’t want to put you off, but this is a very busy parish!!’ Meeting Brian for the first time…we had lunch at Pizza Express then talked all afternoon and all evening with Liz too. Coming to the 9.30 at All Saints the next day and finding out how welcoming everyone was. I sat in a pew on the left and thought how high the pulpit was. At coffee you were all lovely to me – I was sold!
And of course you know the rest. Obviously there have been some ups and down since I’ve been here too – but mostly it has been a time of ‘getting to know you’, of learning the many (many!) different aspects of actually being a minister for real – and of feeling increasingly comfortable. I am very happy to be here and am grateful for your help, support and especially for times of prayer, laughter and chat. I am really delighted that so many of you will be at Rochester cathedral to support me on the 26th September and/or on the 27th at my first Eucharist. Thank you.
I go forward with the words of Dag Hammarskjöld in my heart: “For all that has been – Thanks; for all that shall be – Yes!”
God bless you all,
I am writing this letter shortly after the appalling attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait on the 26th June. I want to share with you what Archbishop Justin Welby said on that day.
“All of us must be full of grief at the attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. They are intended not only to destroy but to divide, not only to terrify but to take from us our own commitment to each other in our societies. Let us together mourn for the victims, weep with the bereaved, support the injured and pray for them all to the God who in Jesus Christ went to the Cross and died rather than bearing a sword.
“Facing such a global and long term menace we are called to reaffirm our solidarity with each other and affirm the great treasures of freedom, in religion and so many other ways. Our strength is in the God who conquered evil when Jesus rose from the dead, and on His death and victory we find the basis for our future.”
What I said in last month’s magazine seems to me to be very pertinent when such appalling events occur. Jesus said that he came so that his people could have life and have it abundantly. If we give way to despair, we begin to undermine the hope that is in us and the hope of the Good News. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, we hear the advice to take the ‘shield of faith’ with which we will be able to ‘quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one’. (Ephesians 6:16). So let us not lose heart!
I want to turn, briefly, to another subject. In June, Pope Francis published the first Papal encyclical ever to concentrate on environmental issues. Some people have asked what did this have to do with the Church. The answer in the document is clear. The Pope has re-stated the truths of the faith, to make them relevant to a modern world, faced with an impending ecological catastrophe. He wants a revised spirituality that centres on respect and love for the totality of God’s creation; and he wants the Church to be a major player in global environmental politics. (I am quoting from an editorial in ‘The Tablet’ magazine of the 20th June 2015.)
What can we do at All Saints’ and in our personal lives? In our lives, I suggest we need to look at our life-styles: for example, how we use energy and what we spend and what we enjoy. At All Saints’ might we, for example, set aside part of our churchyard as a natural wilderness? This would enable wild flowers to flourish and would maximise the opportunities for ‘biodiversity’. There are many churchyards which now have such areas.
I gave a sermon on Trinity Sunday recently. I would like to share with you some of my thoughts in that sermon.
The Trinity is all about a vibrant relationship – the eternal dance of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The early church leaders described the Trinity by using the term perichoresis (Greek – rotation). The Trinity is an eternal dance of the Father, Son and Spirit, sharing mutual love, honour, happiness, joy and respect. God’s act of creation means that God is inviting more and more beings into the eternal dance of Joy.
Sin however means that people are stepping out of the dance. They are stomping on feet, instead of moving with grace, rhythm and reverence.
So in Jesus, God enters creation to restore the rhythm and beauty again. The Holy Spirit keeps us in that rhythm and beauty.
But I want to ask is the church truly in the rhythm of the Trinity? Or are there people in the churches who are in the rhythm of our society, which dances to another beat?
There are many of our fellow citizens who find the idea of a relaxed, pluralistic society difficult or worse to take. In their heart of hearts, they would like the country to go back a few generations, to a largely all-white society, to one which at least was nominally Christian. They want to close the barriers against a world which makes them fearful. They would like put controls on Muslims’ expression of their faith. They mock what they call the equal rights industry. They want to cut back on the human rights which are derived from our ancient common law.
If you are at all attracted by any of these thoughts, I ask you to think about what our faith can instead teach us.
Our faith yearns for good relationships in society: for people to be set free, for people to live easily with each other.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (St John 3:16).
Eternal life in St John’s Gospel is the opposite of walking in darkness and death. Eternal life is compared to a spring of running water, a harvest of grain and imperishable food. It is available to those living in awareness of God and of his Son Jesus.
Once, however, we allow ourselves to give way to the kind of thoughts which I have described above, I think we start to walk away from the light into darkness and negativity.
In another place in St John’s Gospel (10:10), Jesus says of his flock, in other words his people, that he came so that they could have life, and have it abundantly. I do not think that that abundant life is one which can permit stereotyping and hostile behaviour to people in God’s world who are different to us.
Rather, I believe that the church, through its faith in the Trinity, should support all those things which increase human happiness and flourishing. We pray that God the Trinity will give us strength, confidence and hope that more and more people will join our dance. We will put behind negativity and division between peoples and instead live that abundant life that Jesus promised us.
I know from many conversations how many of you, like me, have been enjoying the wonderful blossoming of the trees and flowers over the last few weeks. One of the great joys of the Easter season was coming into the church and seeing the beautiful flowers that just cry out to us: He is risen! The vibrancy and scent of the lilies just hit me sometimes and I found myself standing there being lifted by their beauty and fragrance. Not having flowers in church during lent deepens the impact of them, and you realise how much you miss them.
Flowers play an important role in our lives; they express many feelings and emotions for us: they express our gratitude; our sadness; our joy; our grief. There is virtually no occasion where flowers are not appropriate and our lives would be diminished without them.
Jesus recognised this quality. He told us to look at the lilies of the field – and how Solomon in all his splendour was not arrayed like one of these.
The Buddha is said to have given a silent sermon for an hour just holding a flower before his followers and leaving them to work it out for themselves.
Even St Francis of Assisi, despite his famous austerity, allowed himself one luxury – to have flowers growing outside the chapel he tended. He said that their ‘mysterious and gentle language speaks to the very depths of the heart’.
Flowers are a very powerful and appropriate image of Easter. The season of resurrection brings the fragrance of God’s presence into our Earthly realm. Our God is alive, paradise is wide open, and nothing now can separate us from that sacred presence.
We live in a world that holds much pain and sorrow – a world that is anxious and fearful – a world where greed and the lust for power threaten to dominate. But resurrection tells us that they never can – the doors of the Kingdom are thrown open. God’s loving presence springs up into the midst of it all, like the first flowers of spring – bringing beauty into barrenness, light into darkness and new life into the most difficult of circumstances.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that first Easter morning thinking everything was finished – but she met the Risen Lord in that first Easter garden and knew then that it had just begun! And like her we know that life can never be the same again. We carry within us the seeds that come from knowing the Risen Christ – seeds of love to share with our world. May they flower and blossom like the flowers of the field and may the Easter garden grow and spread in our world.
By the time you are reading this magazine, the General Election on May 7th will be almost upon us.
There is a besetting heresy, which argues that the Church has no role in politics. When such heretics speak, I wonder what Gospel they have read. They have clearly overlooked the massive challenge which Jesus presented to the powers of his day, in the Roman Empire and in the religious establishment. He presented a challenge to the Kingdoms of this world when he spoke of the coming Kingdom of God.
A few months ago, the Church of England intervened directly in the General Election campaign, urging people to consider carefully why they vote. In a pastoral letter to Anglican parishes, the House of Bishops avoided taking sides in the campaign – indeed, it roundly condemned the present state of British politics – but it did urge people to vote in May, saying: ‘Unless we exercise the democratic rights that our ancestors struggled for, we will share responsibility for the failures of the political classes’.
The Bishops asked people to forget self-interest and to vote for the common good. The letter continued: ‘In Britain we have become so used to believing that self-interest drives every decision, that it takes a leap of imagination to argue that there should be stronger institutions for those we disagree with as well as for those ‘on our side’.
‘Breaking free of self-interest and welcoming our opponents as well as our supporters into a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities is, perhaps, the only way we will enrich, our almost-moribund political culture.’
People should ask themselves: how can we ‘build the kind of society which many people say they want, but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties?’ and the politicians should forsake ‘sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best.’
The letter defended the Church’s right to get involved in politics, saying it was disingenuous to think a person’s place in the created order can be separated from their beliefs, and added: ‘Most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the Churches to speak on political issues so long as the Church agrees with their particular line’.
I urge you all to think seriously about this advice from our Fathers and Mothers in God. There is no doubt that there is much that is wrong in our society. All of us can surely agree with the need to extirpate poverty, ill health and idleness. Which group of politicians and which set of policies can best deliver this is a matter for each of us to decide, but all Christians should be making their way to the polling station on May 7th!
I am writing this letter in the middle of Lent. By the time you read it, Holy Week and Easter will be upon us. My reflections, however, are somewhat Lenten as I am still in that mode!
You will see some thoughts from our Mirfield pilgrims in this magazine, describing their reactions to our successful pilgrimage to the Community of the Resurrection in Yorkshire in early February. I want to endorse their comments and add some of my own.
I am sure that many of you know what kind of person I am by now. I like being with people, and engaging with them; I like change and I like to be active. What then can someone like me receive from a place like Mirfield where there are long periods of silence, where our inner life with God is to the fore and where there is continuity rather than change? That is what religious communities are very much about. You spend a lot of your time in silence, in prayer, in study and in your thoughts.
The answer for me is this. It is precisely because I am the kind of person that I am that I benefit from this radical change for a few days in the tempo of my life. Initially, the silence can be disconcerting, even frightening. What God begins to say to you in the silence can throw you, but as a retreat or a pilgrimage, such as the one we had at Mirfield, continues, you are enabled to move into a different way of being and thinking and praying. Life in the community, the regular prayers, the liturgies and the shared meals (sometimes in silence), gives you freedom to relate to God in a way in which is very different to that of what we call ordinary day life.
It is my hope that we will return to Mirfield in the future. Meanwhile, at All Saints’ we will continue to offer our version of the monastic life insofar as we can through our Quiet Days, the Eucharists and the Daily Office (Morning Prayer). We can all create in our lives space for God to speak to us, if only we would let God be God.
The life of a parish church, from my point of view, can sometimes feel like running a small to medium-sized enterprise (in commercial terms). We employ people, we have bills to pay, we have buildings to maintain and let, we provide a wide range of services to the community, we seek to address our ‘customers’ concerns as best we can. But we must never let these concerns dominate. If we do, we deny God His rightful space in our lives.
With these Lenten thoughts firmly in our minds, let us go forward joyfully to celebrate the Easter Feast!
Letter from the Curate
How lovely to be able to say that! As I write this I’m aware I’ve been a part of All Saints for just a little more than four months and yet I do feel that I can call you friends. So many people have been so welcoming and helpful that despite initially not having a clue what I’m doing or how things work here, I have come to feel at home very quickly.
Of course I’m still learning and will go on doing so for all of the time I’m here, although I am hopeful that the learning curve will not always be quite as steep as during this initial phase. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that as well as a day off each week I also get an allocated study day. This is because the learning I’m doing is not simply experiential, but also involves completing a degree in ministerial theology over the course of the next three years. This means attending training run by the diocese, writing academic essays, and undertaking specific ‘ministerial development tasks’ and reflecting on them. Brian also has to attend training sometimes (so that he knows what I’m supposed to be doing!) and in addition we meet for an hour each week for ‘theological reflection’. However, the most important learning for me, now, is on-the-job and that makes you my principal teachers. Thank you!
Personal learning should always be an element of the Christian journey. It is a blessing of being a Curate that I have time carved out of my week in order to be able to study and I think it is also a part of the diocesan strategy to try and get their new clergy into good habits.
Socrates said ‘Education is the kindling of a flame not the filling of a pail’ and this is particularly relevant for Christians as we seek to know better the One whose glory, love and self-giving we can never fully comprehend. The pail will never be full, but the flame can always be kindled and it is with this in mind that churches put on Lent courses (and indeed other courses). This year at All Saints we are trying one of the new ‘Pilgrim’ course offerings for our Lent courses: these informal sessions last about an hour and everyone is welcome. They take place weekly on Monday afternoons and repeated on Thursday evenings: full details can be found in the calendar and it’s never too late to join.
However you decide to keep Lent and however you choose to learn, my prayer is that we may all come to know Jesus Christ more clearly; love Him more dearly; and follow Him more nearly, day by day* throughout this Holy season
Wishing you every blessing in your learning,
*from the prayer of Richard of Chichester
Neither Roman Catholics nor members of other churches have been familiar with a Pope who has rattled so many doors and windows in the house of faith since the beloved John XXIII (who convened the great Vatican 2 Council in the 1960s). Pope Francis has however being doing so relentlessly, since his election two years ago and he shows no sign of calling to a halt to his programme of renewal.
In the Pope’s pre-Christmas address to the senior staff of the Vatican (the Curia), Francis listed the various ailments with which he said that they could be afflicted. There were those who were guilty of “Marthaism” that is “the sickness of those who immerse themselves in work, neglecting the better part of sitting at Jesus’ feet”. Others suffered from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, living in a state of absolute dependence on their often imaginary views, and losing sight of the transforming love of God. The list went on. It included “chatter, grumbling and gossip”, “indifference to others”, “the ailment of closed circles”, and “the sickness of the mournful face”, saying that being grumpy ran counter to the Christian value of joy. The Pope said that among the foibles of our time and culture was an exaggerated sense of our importance. The cure for that, he suggested, was to visit a cemetery and ponder the gravestones of others who once thought that the world could not manage without them.
No wonder the speech was greeted with muted applause! I am glad that I am not a senior official in the Curia …
The speech however had a far wider target than the Vatican. Francis said that the spiritual illnesses which he diagnosed were a danger to every Christian and every community, congregation, parish and movement in the Church.
I want us to take seriously the warnings which the Pope has given to the church.
The Feast of Candlemas at the beginning of February reminds us of our priorities as Christians. At the Feast we give praise to Christ our light. During the Eucharist we pray that we may be filled with the light of his love and that we may shine with that light in the world.
So let us in the words of St John “love one another, because love is of God” (1 John 4:7). If we truly love one another, with the love of God in our hearts, then we will avoid the spiritual illnesses which the Pope has diagnosed – God willing!
Kate McIlhagga was a minister and a member of the Iona Community in Scotland until her death in 2002. She wrote intimate and insightful poems.
This is one of them:
The new year
sweeps across the world
Glory to you
God of history
And new beginnings.
Glory to you
Lord of eternity.
May we use your gift
from now on
and for ever.
Kate McIlhagga’s poem is a reminder to us, as a New Year opens, not to waste God’s precious gift of time. God does not want us to be frenetic doers, although I am aware that Vicars fall into that trap, or certainly this one does! But God does want us, in the words of the great philosopher, Martin Buber, to use responsibly “that realm of life allotted and entrusted to us”. Buber said that this fragile life between birth and death can be a fulfilment.
Christians believe that with the grace of God, we can be fulfilled. Jesus said of himself that he came that we may have life and have it abundantly (St John 10:10).
May your life in this year of Our Lord 2015 be an abundant life!
It was to Mary that the angel came to announce the coming of the Saviour of the World. It was Mary’s response that enabled Christmas to happen. Now in 2014 we will again celebrate Christmas. Mary in the Gospel of Luke is the prime example of the poor ones. What God accomplished in her was far beyond her worthiness and power. And so after the angel had said it and Elizabeth had said it, Mary too proclaimed how blessed she is. “He has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant”. It was all a gift. She did nothing to earn the role she played. She simply accepted it and then lived it.
Celebrating Christmas reminds us of the gift it contains. We can do nothing to earn God’s love and yet it is freely given. In the midst of whatever we experience in our lives, there is the gift of God, because he comes disguised in our life. We are chosen, as Mary was, and our challenge is to accept and realise that.
Christmas reminds us of the extraordinary abundance of God’s love, which is way beyond our wildest dreams. God becomes one of us. What a gift!
As we become aware of this extraordinary gift, we are led to transformation and to new life.
If we truly believe that Jesus coming to us is God on our side, standing with us, walking with us, through all the issues we face, then we can join with each other in making this a better world. Christmas is not really about a baby. In the very coming of Jesus is salvation. So Jesus’ birth is God among us, leading us into a new life, the reign of God.
Let us recommit ourselves to that new life this Christmas, so that with the grace of God, we may shine as rays of God’s hope in the world.
May God Bless You All this Christmastide!
Our magazine this month is full of fascinating stories about those who served in our Armed Forces during the First World War of 1914 to 1918. At this length of time, we can only be amazed at both the great effort that was put in to the mobilisation of so many men and women to serve in that War; and also at the dedication and courage of our forebears. Their world view does seem very different to that of many of our contemporaries. Notions of duty and sacrifice are a long way from the preoccupations of the ‘Me’ generation. The world view of those who served in the first war was very much conditioned by a culture which was drenched in that of the Bible and our faith. Perhaps that is the explanation why things sometime seem very different now.
My predecessor as Vicar, Mr Gilling-Lax wrote in our magazine towards the end of 1914 that ‘the stern and grim facts of war are already coming home to us in this parish as elsewhere; two of those whose names appear on our list of men on service for their country have already fallen and five at least have been wounded’. A list in the magazine recorded about 150 men serving in the Navy, Army and in the Territorial Force. The Orpington Territorials in particular in November 1914 were sailing to India to serve there.
We can only imagine now the impact of the war on the community of Orpington. Most regrettably, the hopes that so many people had when the first war came to an end that it would be the war to end all wars, were never achieved. When I write, we are contemplating the horrors being wrought on the people of Syria and Iraq by the body calling itself Islamic State. We must pray fervently for a just world where people learn to respect one another in all their variety of ethnicity, religion and culture. We must also pray for our serving men and women who are again committed to warfare in the Middle East.
I do not want to finish this letter on a melancholy note. In the middle of the horrors of war, humanity breaks through. I like the story of May Lammas’ father who became a tailor as a result of the war and my granddad’s story of playing football at Leith on a dock, alongside their wrecked ship after the Battle of Jutland. So please enjoy this edition of the magazine, giving thanks for all those who served in the Great War.
This is my first letter to you since the summer holidays. I do hope that those of you who were able to get away had a good and refreshing time! It is helpful to know that there is Biblical authority in our faith for times of rest. God rested on the seventh day!
Holidays are a time for reflection, as well as refreshment, and I have come back from my holiday with the thought that we should all try harder to keep a prayerful silence before and after the Eucharist, and during the administration of Holy Communion. Someone said to me recently that the rule was to talk to God before the service and to others afterwards! We live in a world which is saturated with sound; ceaseless conversation; relentless entertainment and compulsive communication. I think of the silence that I enjoyed when swimming in a river in the early morning in France or the silence when cycling along empty roads there. I believe that our relationship with Jesus is a delicate plant and it needs daily watering. In silence we are able to hear Jesus and we are drawn into the silence of God.
I know that it is very important for many of you who live on your own to enjoy the company of your friends on Sunday morning. But would you also remember that God is your friend and the only way to communicate with Him is to allow Him some space in your lives?
Can I also point out that the organ voluntary is part of the service and is designed to contribute to the worship, not as the background to our conversations?
Questions and Concerns about All Saints’
We are blessed with a very diverse congregation; diversity of ages, backgrounds and experience but also diversity of church tradition. Among us there are Roman Catholics, former members of Free Churches and independent Evangelical Churches; people who have been inspired by the Evangelical tradition in the Church of England and people who have been inspired by the Anglo Catholic tradition. There are also people who have happily been inspired by what All Saints’ has had to offer them over the years.
It is inevitable that what we can offer in an hour and a quarter on a Sunday morning in the Parish Eucharist will not suit everybody. What I try to do, within the context of the All Saints’ tradition and Canon Law, is to offer some variety from time to time. For example, our Parade Services are different to our ordinary Parish Eucharists. It is not possible to provide what everybody wants but the word Liturgy means ‘the work of the people’; in one sense, all our worship is work in progress. We do not always get it right! There is always room for improvement. So if you have points or issues or concerns, please speak to me, Jenny (the Associate Vicar) or the Church Wardens and I promise that I will respond with as helpful a reply as I can give. Raising issues does not always mean that it will be possible for me to act upon your thoughts but I will certainly take your points seriously.
I don’t ‘Tweet’, I don’t use ‘Twitter’ if I’m honest I’m not entirely sure I know what Twittering or Tweeting involves! I do have a facebook account – the reason for signing up to this (like many other mum’s of teenage children) was to keep tabs on what my children were doing! I never viewed it as spying – just showing a maternal interest in my children’s activities!
There are pros and cons to social networking sites – one good thing that can come from sites such as Facebook or MySpace is the opportunity to catch up with friends that you have lost touch with; many of those who have requested me as a ‘friend’ on Facebook are people that I went to school with some 30 years ago and it’s great to see what they are doing and to hear about their lives, their jobs and their families. There is of course a huge downside to these social networking sites.
You may remember that only a few days into the Olympic Games a sour taste was left in the mouth when someone ‘tweeted’ Tom Daly saying that by failing to get a gold medal he was ‘letting his dad down’; Tom adored his dad who had died the previous year. What makes someone send a message like that? What is the motivation? What is hoped to be achieved? This is just one example of the ever increasing trend of ‘cyber bullying’.
I was recently mulling this thought over as I walked through my local park – the park being a notorious gathering place for large groups of school children during the long summer holidays. As I walked I noticed that one particular large group were taunting 3 girls of about the same age who were sitting under a tree and obviously not part of this ‘group’. The group appeared quite menacing and the 3 girls picked up their belongings and fled. Was it a chance encounter or an overspill of playground bullying? I have no idea but it did occur to me that technological advances make bullying so much easier.
When I was at school, short, overweight and with national health glasses I was always a good target for taunting and the school holidays provided sanctuary and respite from the taunts and cruel comments even though you knew the bullies would pick up where they had left off in the next school year.
Social networking removes that sanctuary as victims of bullies get no reprieve when the bullying can, and does, continue via the computer screen or the mobile phone. It’s not just confined to the playground or school children though, cyber bullying is on the increase in the work place as well a recent report has shown.
The anonymity of cyber bullying, threats and intimidation makes it much easier for the cowards who derive pleasure from bullying to hide behind the mask of technology – this is a long way from the bully in the school playground. When my children started school my biggest fear was that they wouldn’t make friends (though they always did!) How much more do todays parents have to worry about for their children!
So as the children start or return to school after the summer holidays our prayer must surely be that schools, parents and pupils work together to eradicate this new social ‘disease’; that the simplicity of Jesus commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves (or treat others as you would want to be treated) once again becomes a familiar mantra.
Rev. Jenny Driver
On the 3rd August 1914, the British Government issued a statement that, as a result of the German invasion of Belgium, a State of War would exist between Great Britain and Germany from 11.00 pm on 4th August. Thus began the First World War for Britain which was to last for over four years and entail horrendous suffering and the end of many ways of life which had existed in Europe for centuries.
The Orpington Parish Magazine in the early part of 1914 said nothing whatsoever about the emerging crisis in the European continent. What seemed to matter was the price of tickets for the church excursion to Margate and the cost of licences for Entertainments in the proposed new church hall! There was also anxiety about the Liberal Government’s plan to dis-establish the Anglican Church in Wales – but nothing about the Balkans; where the European crisis began.
Then, seemingly out of the blue the crisis broke. This is reflected in the August 1914 magazine, in which my predecessor, Mr Gilling-Lax wrote about the help which parishioners could give at ‘times such as this’. Supplements to weekly allowances for wives and children of men called up for Active Service; help for the sick and wounded through the Red Cross; the making of garments for Soldiers and help for those suffering from ‘ordinary distress and need’ arising out of the War. Meanwhile, Mr Gilling-Lax reminded his readers that the work of the Church continued and still needed to be funded!!
Throughout August 1914, Express trains, every night at 10 minute intervals thundered through Orpington Station carrying to the Coast the Expeditionary Force. Traffic in our High Street became noticeably less. Young men of military age left the village in large numbers for the Army, or the Navy or to engage in munition work. On the 14th October, the village hall was converted into a hospital and in the early Autumn of 1914 a considerable number of wounded Belgians and Belgians refugees arrived and the village High Street heard the unfamiliar sound of French and Flemish conversation.
On the 3rd August this year, we will mark the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War with a special-themed Eucharist. The music, the readings and the sermon will focus our minds on events which are seared into the collective consciousness of our country and our continent. Our prayer must be that after two horrendous World Wars, the Cold War and the War in the Balkans in 1990s that the people of our continent will finally learn to live with each other. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers because they will be called children of God’. Whatever our views about the future of the European institutions which were established in the wake of the Second World War, let us pledge ourselves to be peacemakers and to live in harmony with our neighbours.
On the Sunday after Ascension Day, a month ago, I preached about the Apostles, who, on the mountain top, had to face up to the fact they were going to have to get used to living in a world without the Jesus that they had known. What was going to happen now?
As we know, the good news is that Jesus did not go away. He promised that he would fill his friends with his Holy Spirit. Jesus is the very centre of our life and the source of loving energy in the world and of our prayerful, trustful waiting on God.
What does this mean for us?
It means that we do not stay waiting on the mountain top, staring up to heaven as the Apostles did initially, but we come down. We are encouraged to live a life in which our faith brings hope, compassion and service to the world around us. We live, pray and act, bringing the face of Jesus to life in our faces, knowing that we are not alone.
In my sermon, I gave some examples of how All Saints’ seeks to bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, through our ministry and mission.
– Our expanding work with young people – our Kingfishers and Heaven groups, Tots and Messy Church, Youth Services;
– Our deep commitment to supporting the Food Bank through weekly contributions and volunteers at the Food Bank;
– Our support for several charities at home and abroad – for example, the Children’s Society, Welcare, Seeds4Tanzania, the Michael Project in Zimbabwe, and our monthly charity lunch;
– Our growing pastoral work to the homebound, sick, dying and bereaved;
– Our extensive ministry through baptisms, weddings and funerals.
One comment on my sermon was that churches in our country are increasingly the ‘back up’ Social Service picking up the pieces not covered by the authorities, central and local.
I leave it to you to think through what your personal political response to this emerging situation may be.
What I do know is that in these, and in many other ways, with God with us, we are bringing hope to a world, which is so often lost and confused.
This month’s Letter comes from the rev. Jenny Driver, Associate vicar at All Saints’.
When you read this at the beginning of June I will be on a cruise liner in the central Mediterranean and basking in the predicted ‘heat wave’ in Europe! Well possibly! Equally I could be sheltering inside the ship whilst winds and rain lash through grey, stormy skies quite literally ‘rocking the boat’. The truth is that our weather has become totally unpredictable and changes have often surprised meteorological experts.
Many recent conversations have contained reference to the weather and the unpredictability of when we can expect spring, summer, autumn and winter as the seasons and their climatic ‘certainties’ become merged and interchangeable. Whether we like it or not the world is changing; climate change is not a myth it’s a very real and present danger which, if left unchallenged, will ultimately lead to the extinction of life on our planet. Life on earth is complex and interconnected; it is a creation that belongs to God – not us. We are merely caretakers of that creation during our allotted time here, looking after the planet as best we can for future generations of God’s created humanity.
How are we doing? Current statistics reveal that a quarter of animal and plant species will face extinction in coming decades due to global warming. Unless the nations of the world can reduce the global average temperature rise to 2C the world will be in deep trouble – a rise to 6.4C would lead to total extinction of life. We have all seen and heard the arguments surrounding the green issues, the existence of global warming and the claims of scare mongering but have also been presented with facts, figures and evidence that changes are happening and will continue to happen.
Psalm 24 states ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ – as Christians we are bound to proclaim the gospel message of truth and challenge injustice. The injustice of climate change is that it’s the already poor and impoverished that will suffer the worse effects with floods, droughts, prevalent sickness and disease, loss of homes and livelihoods when it is the rich nations who have brought the world to the brink of danger. Whilst we raise funds for our Tanzania projects, Water Aid, Christian Aid and numerous other aid agencies that help poverty stricken areas of the world the irony is that unless we in the West seriously address the issues of climate change and our use of resources we are the ones actually committing the injustice and condemning them to further poverty and suffering.
The problem is on such a large scale what difference can we make? If the Earth summits haven’t resolved the issues what chance have we got? Well, firstly we have faith and as we know faith can move mountains; small, individual acts of faith in the face of apparently impossible odds are not insignificant. If everyone who read this article made their home, workplace or lifestyle a little more eco-friendly that would be a step in the right direction; looking at how green our church is, would be another step. Our individual and collective efforts, awareness and prayers can make a real practical difference and provide an essential spiritual part of the solution to this seemingly impossible situation.
If you’re still not convinced then look at the story of Noah – they all laughed at him for building an ark in the desert when there was no drop of rain in sight nor any sign of the encroaching waters of environmental destruction!
April to May 2014
We are well into the season of Lent.
From the early days in the history of the Church, Christians have celebrated the Fast of Lent. Saint Augustine once wrote that the 40 day fast of Lent drew its authority from the fast of Moses and Elijah and from that of the fast of Jesus. The Saint asked ‘in what part of the year would the observance of Lent be more appropriately instituted than that adjoining, so to speak, and touching on the Lord’s Passion?’
We all keep the season of Lent in different ways. Some through abstaining from alcohol, cakes and biscuits; some through a greater observance of worship and attendance at Lent Study Groups; others through reading books designed to make us focus more on the essentials of our faith.
It is also a time for penitence and throughout Lent, the opening Canticle (hymn) at Morning Prayer is Psalm 51 ‘Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness, according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my offences.’
When I was a Curate in Deptford, my training Incumbent used to say to us that we could never have enough of the sentiment of Psalm 51. I agree with him!
Penitence can be about our personal sins, but it can also be about the sins of a society or a country or a continent.
We are now only a few months away from the Centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in August. I was in Germany at the beginning of March. This was with a view to developing a link between All Saints and the Friedenskirchengemeinde (Peace Parish) in the district of Heddesdorfer in the town of Neuwied. The War Memorials and an album of photographs of young men in their uniforms killed in the Second World War, in the Heddesdorfer Church, moved me greatly. Whenever I go to Germany, I feel as though I am in a parallel universe where people have loved and suffered, in a very similar society to our own.
The Church of England is in an active relationship with the German Church; a relationship which seeks to achieve closer fellowship and greater unity. At a recent conference of English and German theologians, the delegates issued a communique which said that in the context of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, they recognised that no-one can change the past but we all are responsible for how we remember it. Accordingly, our memories should drive us towards reconciliation between peoples.
I urge us all in what remains of Lent and in the coming months, to be penitent about the past horrors of the World Wars and to pray ever more deeply for reconciliation and understanding between all God’s people.
On a cold and wet Wednesday morning in late January, three of us were in the old church chancel praying Morning Prayer. We read Psalm 46 and these verses struck us as so applicable to that day’s news of serious floods:
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult (verses 2 and 3).
We went on to read verse 6 and as we did so, we thought of Syria, the Ukraine, the Central African Republic and Egypt:
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
God utters his voice, the earth melts.
On most days of the week, I am in church to read Morning Prayer (at 9am Tuesday to Friday and at 930am on Saturday). Some church members join me for some of those days. I am grateful for their company. I am sure that God is!
I find that very often the Psalms, written thousands of years ago, speak to us of what is happening in the world, in the wider church, in our church or in Orpington. The reading of the Psalms is not an irrelevant and archaic exercise. We pray to God, through our reading of them.
I urge you either to join us at Morning Prayer or to pick up your Bible and use the Psalms, to help you in your prayers. The Psalms may not always work for you but I am sure that there will be times when you will think “this is relevant”.
Here are two examples. The first is from Psalm 71:
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
My mouth is filled with your praise,
and with your glory all day long.
Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
do not forsake me when my strength is spent (verses 5, 8-9).
For those of us who are older, who may worry about a sharp disjunction between past blessings and an ominous present, Psalm 71 may be of help.
Psalm 73 describes a world where the wicked do very well indeed and get away with it, so it asks ‘what is the point of being pure in heart?’
The psalmist argues it out and concludes that, despite unhappiness and questioning, God is still close:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you
my flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever (verses 25-26).
This Lent, instead of giving up things, why not take up reading the Psalms? You may conclude by saying:
Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD;
praise the name of the LORD. (Psalm 113:1).
God Bless, Brian
It is the time for New Year resolutions. We always like to think we will keep them!
I think that church communities can make New Year resolutions as well. Perhaps if a group of people make resolutions, it becomes more difficult to break them. Those who might drop away will get fresh encouragement from others in the group.
So here are some suggestions for resolutions for us at All Saints’ at the beginning of 2014. If some of us start to falter, let the others remind us gently of our January commitments!
Pope Francis has excited Christians of all churches and people of other faiths and none since his election several months ago. Recently he issued an appeal called Evangelii Gaudiam – the Joy of Evangelisation. I take our parish New Year resolutions from the Pope’s powerful appeal.
1. The church should rethink almost everything it does in pursuit of its one key aim, evangelisation. This is not a “churchifying” process but is almost the opposite. Francis says that we should not be judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation. Rather “we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel”. So our first resolution is to be positive in our expressions of our faith, rather than negative.
2. We should embrace “those members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways but seldom taking part in worship.” The Pope hails anyone who takes “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations” which can be more pleasing to God “than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. So our second resolution is to be open to the faith expressed by people who only occasionally or rarely come to church. We have large numbers of people who come only to our Parade, Memorial and Remembrance services for instance. They are part of our congregation as much as those who faithfully attend week by week. (I am glad that the second group come, though!).
3. The Pope’s model of the church is one which is more fluid, more willing to take risks, less bothered about doctrinal conformity, less clergy-dominated. But above all a church which is Christ-centred. So our third resolution is to be evangelical in the emphasis we place on a personal relationship with Christ.
Let us review in six months’ time how we have done with these resolutions!
P.S., I took some of the ideas above from a leader in The Tablet magazine 30th November 2013. Thank you leader writer!
Christmas – the Mass of Christ – the festival of the birth of Christ – is when we celebrate the “incarnation” of God as a human being. “Incarnation” is one of those theological words, which can be off-putting, particularly for people who are on the fringes of the Christian faith, as many are these days. It is however a very earthy word, because it means “made flesh”. The origin is Latin – caro – which means flesh. We talk of “carnivores”: flesh-eating animals. The word “carnival” comes from the week of revelry and amusement in Italy and other countries, which included the eating of meat, before the disciplines of Lent.
So at Christmas we celebrate the enfleshing of God in Jesus.
Saint Athanasius was an important person in Christian history because his writings (in the 4th century) helped to clarify the essential doctrine of the incarnation, how God became human in the form of Jesus.
Athanasius wrote a long time ago but he writes with great simplicity. This is from his writings (adapted):
When God made humankind, He realised that they, owing to their limitations, could not of themselves have any knowledge of their Creator, for He Himself had no body and was not a creature himself. So He took pity on humanity. The All-holy Son of God came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew humankind and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost’. Desiring our good, God took to Himself a body like the rest of us. And through His actions done in that body, He teaches those who would not learn by other means to know Himself, the Word of God, and through Him the Father’.
So it is right that the last verse of ‘O Come all ye faithful’ reads –
Yea Lord we greet thee
Born this happy morning
Jesus to thee be glory given
Word of the Father
Now in flesh appearing
As we move into the “carnival” season of Christmas, please remember why we are celebrating – we are celebrating the enfleshment of God!
The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is less than twelve months away.
On August 22-23, 1914, the first major engagement of the British Expeditionary Force occurred at the Battle of Mons. After fierce fighting the British forces were forced into rapid retreat. Despite the censorship going on in Britain at the time, this battle was the first indication which the public had that the defeat of Germany would not be as easy as some had thought.
On 29 September 1914 Arthur Machen published a story entitled “The Bowmen” in a London newspaper inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons. Machen set his story at the time of the retreat from Mons. The story described how a soldier called on St George for help. St George leads phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt in the destruction of German troops at the battle.
The story snowballed and in a relatively short time people began to believe that angels had appeared at the battle, indeed some soldiers claimed this. When I was a teenager I met a veteran from the First World War who believed the story of the angels. The story was of great comfort to many people in the dark years of the First World War.
What does the Church believe about angels? We say in our worship that we proclaim God’s glory, in company with the angels and archangels and the whole heavenly host.
As in the First World War, people today draw comfort from the thought of angels. But angels are much more than the comforting face of a huge unknown universe. We, the angels and the whole of the created universe are caught up in God’s action to bring us back into relationship with Him. We and the angels are part of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The Bible does not see evil as a power which is comparable to good. Instead it offers assurance that good will ultimately win, because God is good. God however will not force our choices, but will only offer and encourage. This means that we may not always, in our day to day life, feel the strength of God’s goodness. We may often feel that evil is actually more powerful.
That is why the knowledge that the angels are there is so helpful. We could live in our own small world, where we only serve ourselves, or we can live in a world of angels, people, principalities and powers which will commit us to action in shaping the world for the better, in particular for one in which there is no more war. May the angels be with us as we seek to shape that better world!
At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, we read that the Risen Jesus commissioned his disciples, thus:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The Church has traditionally named this instruction from Our Lord as “the Great Commission” and has usually interpreted it as an instruction, not just to Jesus’ disciples, but to Christians of all times and in all places, to spread the Good News.
At All Saint’s we take the Great Commission very seriously. So seriously that the Parochial Church Council (PCC) has established a new committee, the Mission Action Committee, to:
– To bring forward mission and church growth proposals to the PCC in respect of worship, work with young people, raising vocations to the ordained and lay ministries, the provision of courses and outreach;
– To work with the Vicar and the PCC on implementing specific agreed mission and church growth proposals;
– To evaluate periodically the effectiveness of the parish’s mission and church growth programme.
The members of the Committee initially will be Sheila Anderson, Pam Mercer, Jean Reeve, Duncan Hellicar, Lesley Birse, Mandy Turner, Mary Hart, Abi Hiscock and Silvia Miotti. I will chair the Committee, which will meet for the first time later this year.
I am hopeful that the group will help us all assess our current work in the parish, asking if it is making disciples, otherwise shall we discontinue that work and focus on more encouraging areas of work.
I am particularly hopeful that the Committee will give thought to initiatives in respect of:
– Young people;
– Older people;
– Ministry to men;
– Our publicity, and;
– Quiet and Away Days (how we deepen our faith).
I am not envisaging changes to our worship on Sunday and Wednesday mornings, including our Parade Services. Rather we have plenty of other “slots” on Sundays and other days, when we could launch new events and services, as indeed we have been doing these past few years.
Please pray for the members of the Mission Action Committee as they begin their work!
Praise the Lord for the church in Africa! The group from All Saints were richly blessed during our time in Africa, in June.
Liz (“Mrs Vicar”) and I first visited Greystone Park, an independent church in Harare in Zimbabwe. It has a substantial outreach to the community through the Michael Project, which runs a children’s home, three pre-schools, including one in a women’s prison, and a learning centre. Through its Good Friends’ project, it also supports needy elderly people.
Helen Hobbs, and her husband David, are leading lights in the Michael Project. About 20 are employed to do the amazing work of the Project. I was moved by the faithfulness and prayerfulness of everyone that we met. Their love of Jesus; their easy way of talking about God; and their joy shone through everything they did. They put the English church to shame!
We left Zimbabwe powerfully convinced that God was giving us wonderful opportunities through learning from our friends there.
We flew to Tanzania, to meet Canon Yolande, Tim and Lesley Birse from our congregation. Together we travelled on to the diocese of Mpwapwa, a poor area in central Tanzania, where the charity Seeds4Tanzania is building two preschools. In Mpwapwa, there are constant struggles with lack of money; months go by when the Pastors are not paid; there are few vehicles to travel the vast distances on dirt roads; and repairing equipment is often impossible. Most churches do not have glass in their windows: one was made of mud bricks and there was minimal seating. Yet joy shone out wherever we went. People were singing and rejoicing at what God could do for them, they were generous with their hospitality; the churches were full, the Sunday Schools were overflowing and the Mothers’ Union branches were very active.
The churches in Africa are massively committed to needy children, both in Harare in an urban situation, and also in deep rural Tanzania. Through the work of the church, people are responding to the needs of their neighbours, even though they themselves have so little.
We in the West ought to be ashamed; many of us lead such comfortable lives. Most of the people we met in Africa will never travel far and were they to see our lives they would be as uncomprehending as people would be if they were to be transported from Medieval Orpington to now. There is something very wrong in the distribution of resources in our world.
In conclusion, I want us to ask God for His help that we will learn from the African church about prayer, faithfulness and ‘making do’.
I am very grateful to Brian Boxwell for his series in our Parish magazine looking back on his life at All Saints. He has taken us back to the 1940s and we look forward to his further accounts of his several decades as a loyal member of our church.
It is important that we know about the past of any institution in particular parish churches, so that we can make sense of some of the things that go on and some of the reactions that we have to particular situations.
Yet, our God is not only a God of the past but is a God of the present and of the future. We must always be looking forward to what God will do for us as a faith community. God often takes us in amazing directions.
One theologian has said: “If the 1950s came back, many churches are ready. Or the 1600s or the boomer 1980s depending on one’s denomination”. This theologian has said that there is nothing wrong with the 1950s except that we don’t live there anymore. “We must love those who live here now, not yearn for the way things used to be. The cultural sensibilities of the 50s are long past.”
He goes on to say that the values and norms of our current context are drastically different to past generations and continue to change. We have to understand and speak to those around us in a meaningful way. He quotes the Apostle Paul who spoke to the people in Athens (Acts Chapter 17 verses 16-34) and sought to explain what God had done in language which the sophisticated Athenians hopefully would understand. The theologian’s conclusion is that the Church which is engaged in mission, in its time and place, will engage with the people around it and not wring its hands that things which once worked for it no longer work.
I would like us to make a resolution as a parish church, a half-year’s resolution if you like, that we will seek to develop our mission in the grain of the world in which we now live. This is a world where adults, men and women go out to work (if they are fortunate to have jobs); where families are very busy and often under stress, where weekends are very crowded. It’s a world also where a significant number of people are atheists and regard the Christian faith as a fable and a fantasy. So no wonder we struggle at times to fill churches on Sunday mornings and we struggle with our ministries, including those to young people. We also struggle to find volunteers for roles within the Church. But we do not give up. We press on in hope for our God is a God of hope.
Have you ever noticed that the church’s year is front-ended? From December to May we journey with Jesus through the remarkable events of his life. During Advent, we await his coming, at Christmas we witness his birth as a tiny, new born infant and worship him with the shepherds. At the Epiphany, we worship Jesus with the wise men, and at Candlemas we hear Simeon predict the events that are to come. We begin Lent by following Jesus into the wilderness. Forty days later, we enter Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey, symbolised by our dear friend Solomon (a real donkey for those who were not there!). Then begins that most holy week of all – the week which culminates in the resounding cry that we hear on Easter morning: Alleluia, Christ is risen, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! With those words, the Season of Easter begins – a season during which we celebrate the remarkable news of the resurrection – the news that Jesus did not die, but rather the good news that he lives. We then rejoice in the Ascension of Jesus and shortly afterwards, with great joy, acclaim the sending of the Holy Spirit to be present with us.
These six months are a journey – a journey which records the landmark events in the life of Jesus – the man who is God, yet also human. It is also the story of the central mystery of Christianity – the story of the incarnation which means that God became human, though still remained God.
You may possibly think of the events which I have listed as events which happened so long ago that you link them in your mind with fables and stories which you have read or seen in film or on television.
What about long ago? I wonder if some of you share with me this feeling. As I get older, the past gets closer to me. I can recall meeting a great grandfather when I was a boy. George Powell was born in 1867. I met him once in the early 1960s in his cottage in Luton. A kind old man who had a great collection of pipes under his bed! George fought in the Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century; I am now writing about him in the next but one century. Likewise when I was young one of our neighbours in Streatham Hill was Mrs McElwee. Her grandfather was a drummer boy at the battle of Waterloo, nearly 200 years ago.
My point is this. The events of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit are not so far away. At every Eucharist, in the creed, we proclaim our belief in historical events. Please always think about what you are saying in the creed.
So do not dismiss the stories in the New Testament as charming fables. Ours is a faith based on the most important events ever in the history of humanity.
Now, as we proceed through the second half of the year- all those Sundays after Trinity – we are reinforced in our faith by our celebrations in the first half of the year, and we rejoice in that faith! Sooner than you may think, we will start the joyous round of the church’s year again!