This is a backup of some of the more recent blog entries, which were automatically deleted by the web provider when the ownership of the website was updated. The photographs and weblinks have been lost.
Reflections on Christian Unity
This is a personal reflection arising out of my experience of the Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission, and Human Sexuality (see the two previous posts).
In the chapel of the Mercers' Hall in London* lies a recumbent figure of Christ crucified, carved in stone with great sensitivity and skill. Dating from around the 15th century, it probably once formed part of an Easter sepulchre. It was targeted for destruction and apparently buried during the Reformation; it was rediscovered during rebuilding works following the Blitz.
The face of Christ is almost intact. The body, though, is broken. The right arm has been smashed off at the shoulder. The left hand and half of the forearm are missing. There are no longer any feet. Echoing the prayer of St Teresa of Avila: no feet with which to walk to do good; no hands to bless the world.
That image is a powerful one in my mind at present; a warning of what happens when we divide the Body of Christ, and an exhortation to work for unity and wholeness. We experienced some (by no means all) of the diversity of the Church in our Conversations, and at times it brought tension; there was little reflection on what it means to be different and complementary members of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12), or to bear with one another in love (Eph 4.2, Col 3.13).We are at present the broken Body of Christ of Good Friday or Holy Saturday; only the work of resurrection will re-integrate the brokenness in such a way that death becomes life and wounds become scars - hallmarks of authentic love and the grace of God. How can we become an Easter people?
* Look at the timeline here and select 1953 for further details and a photo.
I am a tongue: O for ten thousand more
In fiery Spirit-flames to praise the One
Whose glorious Word creation calls to be;
Voice echoing Voice with one united tongue.
I am a foot: O for an army great
To journey burning-hearted on the road
Of Resurrection; tramping, beauteous feet
To bear on mountain steep the Gospel-load.
I am an eye: O for a peacock's tail
Of vision, scales discarding, sight restored,
Flaming with colour vivid; angel-like
To watch wild world, to gaze on heavenly Lord.
I Am: take off your shoes, your pride, your will,
For holy ground burns bright beneath the Tree
Where all my members – tongue, foot, eye, and more -
Unite, one body, reconciled in me.
(c) Christopher Wilson 2015
Shared Conversations: some thoughts
My previous post expressed some of my thoughts on approaching the Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission, and Human Sexuality, which are currently under way in the Church of England. I attended with relief and hope: relief that the C of E is getting people around the table to listen to one another, and hope that the process will help us to find a constructive way forward (although it doesn't feed directly into decision-making). But a colleague's flippant suggestion on the way there, that we go to the seaside instead, did resonate with my own apprehensions. I was a little tempted.
The venue, Hothorpe Hall near Market Harborough, was excellent. The programme ran smoothly, under the careful oversight of experienced facilitators. There was a helpful structure of worship, and the discreet availability of a chaplain. Protocols were put in place at the start to maintain safety and confidentiality of all participants. We dressed casually, so clergy and laity mingled on equal terms. Whilst there was a range of age, experience, and so on, the ethnic diversity of the West Midlands region was not reflected, which I thought was regrettable.
Much of the tine was spent in small groups, constantly changing in membership. We therefore encountered a wide range of people. Personally I felt able to speak honestly from my own perspective and experience, and tried to listen carefully to others. It was also a good opportunity to get to know others better, including some whose theological approach is very different to my own. Very occasionally I felt challenged rather than listened to, but the overwhelming ethos as I experienced it was courteous and considerate.
Naively, perhaps, I was taken aback by the high level of fear expressed by several people that the Clergy Discipline Measure or the secular courts might be used to try to force or control issues of sexuality. That's not a good place for the Church and its clergy to be. As anticipated, stories of rejection - some of them really shameful - were painful to listen to. I felt being welcoming and inclusive in church was wholly inadequate, and resolved to do much more to reach out to minorities. As an immediate response, I spent a worthwhile couple of hours chatting to people at Warwickshire Pride, something I would not normally have found the time to do. I also encouraged people at All Saints' to do the same, and some did. One of my more conservative colleagues later remarked that Jesus would have been there too.
The elephant in the room, so far as the Conversations are concerned, is not really to do with LGBTIQ issues at all. It's about the ways in which we read and interpret the Bible. Preparatory reading (available on the C of E website) included two essays taking different hermeneutical approaches, but in my view, this was not enough. An overview of the different ways Christians have used the Bible throughout history and around the world would have helped. A broader question to address would be 'how do Christians of differing traditions frame their faith, and what is authoritative?' There was little scope to explore the interplay between Scripture, tradition, and reason, or to tease out how and why previous convictions and assumptions on topics as diverse as usury, slavery, and the role of women have come to be re-examined. A fundamental issue is whether there can be more than one authentic expression and understanding of Christianity; whether we can recognise diversity in the Church as legitimate and God-given. If we can, we need to work out together where the limits to diversity lie. There is also the question of perspective: how important should issues of sexuality be, compared with (for example) poverty and injustice?
The great concern I'm left with is for the unity of the Church. Anglicans have always been diverse; it's a strength, however frustrating it can be. I've been reflecting on the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12) and the need for all of us to participate together, valuing one another. How we accomplish that is the challenge before us all.
Sharing, Sexuality and Scripture
(Or Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality,to give it its proper title.)
Some weeks ago, the Bishop invited me to take part in one of the Shared Conversations taking place throughout the C of E. These are to explore the issue (I would say 'issues') of sexuality and its implications for humanity and for the Church, in the light of the Bible and human experience. The Bishops have already held such Shared Conversations, and they are now taking place in regional groups.
Clearly the topic is sensitive and potentially divisive. The conversations seek to explore the key question: 'Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?' There is no pre-determined outcome, nor does the process feed directly into decision-making; rather, a safe space is created for the exploration of questions of difference and disagreement.
My first response was a sense of relief that a wide cross-section of people is being brought 'around the table' not so much to find a solution to differences within the Church, as to help us to discern Christ in those who hold sharply differing views. Listening to one another and learning from and about one another will be key to this process.
My second response was to wonder 'why me?' I don't know the answer to that question, but I do welcome the opportunity to participate prayerfully and openly. In the past I have had ordained female colleagues (I'm strongly in favour of the ordination of women as well as men) at the same time as a curate opposed to the ordination of women; there was pain and the need to work at understanding and relationships on both sides of a significant theological divide, and the key to making it work was good relationships and mutual respect. It wasn't easy for anyone but I believe we all grew and matured through the process, and somehow Christ was present in that. Perhaps I can bring that painful yet constructive experience, of living in the tension between two mutually exclusive viewpoints, as a contribution to the table.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 12, St Paul speaks of the Church as the 'body of Christ', made up of individual members which differ in form and function. For the body to be complete, every member needs to be included and to play their part. None should be excluded by others. So often, we're a broken body, torn apart by disagreement and division: the body of Christ of Good Friday or Holy Saturday, weak, injured, dying. One of the wonders of Easter is the healing of the body of Christ. His body still bears the wounds of the Passion, but they are no longer a hindrance to joy, peace, and fullness of life. Instead, they speak of his love for us - and of our humanity, drawn into the closer presence of God at the Ascension.
The vision I have for the Church is as the resurrected body of Christ: a body in which space is made for everyone; a body in which the wounds are neither denied nor excluded, but become transformed into signs of grace and hallmarks of the truth of the Resurrection.
That will be especially tough for those who feel threatened and unwanted by those of opposing views. It will only work if we can all persevere together, however painful we may find it, however unwilling we may feel to acknowledge the presence of Christ in those who would prefer the Church to be free of our presence or our views. But I am sure it can work, and it must; for it's most profoundly by our love for one another that the world will recognise our discipleship, and therefore our Lord.
I wrote this a couple of weeks ago for the 'I Believe' column in the Leamington Courier, but understand it didn't get submitted. It seems a pity to waste it! It was written to a strict word limit so it's quite brief.
'It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed...'
I'm writing this in the eerie light of the eclipse two weeks before Good Friday. It's a quarter past nine and I've just had to switch the desk lamp back on. The birdsong outside is muted. The temperature has dropped. The atmosphere is ominous and foreboding.
No wonder that in earlier ages, an eclipse was believed to presage something momentous. Something like the death of a king.
Three of the Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke – report an eclipse as Jesus was dying on the cross. Hours earlier, soldiers had placed a crown of thorns on his head and dressed him in a robe of royal purple. Pilate had placed him on the judge's seat, with the words 'Behold your King!' Now, this King was in the throes of death. The darkened skies – whether real, or vividly imagined – signalled the passing of an age. With Jesus would die the hopes and ambitions of those who saw in him the hope for the freedom and victory of their nation; those who greeted him with palm leaves and praises when he'd entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
But the darkness held greater secrets. Repeatedly, in the Old Testament, 'clouds and thick darkness' represented the mysterious dwelling-place and presence of God; God, who was at work even in this darkest of hours. Creation, too, sprang to life out of darkness: God said 'Let there be light!' and there was light. And an eclipse wasn't only about death. It might also foreshadow the birth of a new king.
The darkness of Good Friday switches off the light on the old, tired creation, and ushers in a new one full of hope. It signals the death of earthly striving for tyrannical, violent power by any who wish to live according to God's ways, and announces the King of eternity. It's time to look forward to Easter – and to welcome the risen Christ as our King.
Epiphany isn't a word we use very often outside the calendar of the Church year. It means a revelation, and it's the name of the season after Christmas, starting on January 6. The season begins with the story of the wise men ('Magi') visiting Jesus. Jesus is revealed to strangers - outsiders - representatives of the wider world, who have come to worship him.And they present him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
If we've ever stopped to wonder (and the familiarity of the story may mean we never have), there are some obvious answers. Gold is a gift fit for a king: 'Gold I bring to crown him again', as the carol puts it. Gold reflects the paying of a tribute, or tax, to the Emperor - although in this case, it's voluntary, not forced. It speaks of the giving of worth and of value.
But this offering of gold holds particular meaning in our own age. It announces that gold is less important than the Christ child. Gold is something which should come under his authority, not the other way around. They operate in the same sphere of life and cannot be compartmentalised; spirituality is deeply this-worldly because it's about the choices we make with the life, opportunities and wealth we have. Money is deeply spiritual because it's a means by which we express our priorities and make real our faith. As Jesus said in his adult life, 'You cannot serve God and money.' There's a choice to be made, priorities to be established, and the Magi have discovered the truth.
It's a truth we need to hear afresh. Putting wealth first - in blunt terms, the pursuit of greed - was what led to the banking crisis of 2008. The repercussions have largely impacted on the poorer sections of society, even as, this last week, record levels of bonus were paid out by one of the banks. Putting wealth first through the levying of extortionate rates of interest has, again, been hugely detrimental to the well-being of the poor at times when they are least able to cope financially. And the wealth gap is growing between the rich, with six- and seven-figure incomes, and those on the minimum wage or zero-hours contracts. Yet research around the world correlates happiness and contentment with societies in which the gap between rich and poor is much narrower. It's bad for us all to live in a society divided by wealth and poverty.
Proclaiming that gold - our wealth - is subservient to Jesus encourages us to use it in a different way: for justice, righteousness, and the relief of need. That has implications for the way we gain wealth, as well as what we use it for. It requires a change of heart, a change of values, from the culture which currently prevails. Jesus spoke a great deal about money and possessions, and we do well to heed what he taught.
And perhaps the sharpest challenge of all is for us to have a change of perspective; asking, not 'How much of what is mine shall I give away', but 'How much of what is God's shall I keep for myself?'
Poppies at the Tower
On Tuesday evening, I took the opportunity to visit the Tower of London to see the installation of poppies there. Walking the entire circumference of the site means I saw all 888,246 - one for every British and Commonwealth person killed during World War 1.
Two things struck me.
One is the vast number of people concerned. This great red carpet, like a river of blood, stretches on and on; the poppies, individually, seem countless. Somehow, depicting the dead like this brings the statistics of war to life, giving some notion of the overwhelming scale of the fatalities. It's more real than a mere number.
Secondly, this is not just the dead of Britain, but the dead of the Commonwealth. It's timely to be reminded of that when so much of our current public discourse is on the subject of immigration, frequently tinged by racism or at least nationalism. The poppies remind us that people of different races, cultures and faiths shared the struggles, dangers and discomforts of war together; people of different races, cultures and faiths shared the same risk and reality of death. There is no monopoly of respect and honour on the part of British forces; equal respect and honour are due to those from other parts of the world too. That's just as true today, in our very different circumstances, as it was in the war of a century ago. Let's not forget it.
I'm glad I went. It was sobering and thought-provoking, and the image is one I shall always remember.
The latest 'Landscape Photographer of the Year' book was published today. Like the previous books in the series, it contains spectacular photos highlighting the incredible beauty of the world around us. We can see with each photographer's eyes their composition, their delight in a particular view, their interpretation of beauty through the lens of a camera. Hidden from us is the technical skill, the patience waiting for just the right level and angle of light, and perhaps the speed of their reaction when a chance opportunity for a picture presents itself.
Landscape photography begins with an appreciation of the world around us and an acute observation of its beauty. Many of us are able to exercise a similar level of attentiveness as we meditate on the wonders of creation - creation, which, we believe, reflects the wisdom of God. As the Psalmist wrote, 'O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all!' (Psalm 104)
I spent last week in the urban landscape of inner-city Sheffield, staying at the Wilson Carlile Centre. At first sight, it's an unlikely place to experience natural beauty. But my room looked out onto a tiny park, and at sunrise one morning, I lingered there - paying particular attention to the sycamore leaves heaped up on the ground, their veins picked out by frost.
Even in the most unlikely places, we can find our minds and souls stretched by created beauty. Attentiveness to what is around us is one of the routes by which God enlarges our hearts. And perhaps even more important is to be attentive to the people around us - people created, as we all are, in the image of God; people in whom we are to seek and serve Jesus Christ.
Wisdom: a Meditation
Sunrise on leaves frost-bitter, white veins thread;
Ice-carpet, green where reverent footsteps tread;
Knife-wound within of chill breath's deathly dread:
With winter's glory, bright where night has fled.
Paschal-fresh rays of primrose-morning throng;
Blossom of apple; blackbird-anthem strong;
Fragile exuberance of growth and tongue:
By life-affirming joy, bright nature's song.
Noonday with ceremonial blooms impressed;
Sentinel-stately trees, soft-shade-caressed;
Dapples on limpid water, peace-possessed:
In vivid contours, with bright-burning blessed.
Sunk sun on mellow harvest-field; night clear;
Perigree moon brings star-flecked cosmos near;
Ecstatic, touch; bright heaven, bright earth hold dear:
Piercing desire with wisdom-wounds sincere.
(c) Christopher Wilson 2014
Souls & Stars
Souls & Stars is the title of our next Late Worship, on Friday 7 November at 10.30pm in church.
We'll pick up on the November theme of remembrance, focusing on the remembrance of our loved ones who have died, and on God's love for all that he has created.
You can get some idea of the 'feel' of the worship here; calm, meditative, atmospheric, providing a safe space in which to encounter God's love and grace.
Sandblasting the Bishop's car
I reached out to the nearest buttress, grasped a handful of stone, and showed it to Bishop John.
Then I closed my fingers and squeezed it gently.
It dissolved into sand. The grains trickled through my fingers. Some of them sprinkled onto the bonnet of the Bishop's shiny almost-new car, sounding disproportionately noisy in the quiet of the evening. (OK, it wasn't quite sandblasting, but you get the idea.)
'That's what this building is made of.'
The foolish man built his house upon the sand. My Victorian predecessor, the Revd John Craig, would have been familiar with those Gospel words. He'd have known that the wise man built his house upon the rock. Nevertheless, he chose to build the house of God out of sand. All Saints is an ecclesiastical sandcastle - albeit a very impressive one.
Later, I reflected. The entire Church is made of sand. Not just our magnificent building, with its lamentably soft Warwick sandstone construction, but the Church as the People of God. The Church is made up of human beings, all of us flawed, all of us carrying a weak and sinful nature, We're called to be like 'living stones', built by God into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2.5); but the stones of our lives are so often crumbly and unreliable - or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, so hard as to be unworkable. We do things wrong. We get into pointless arguments. We collapse under pressure. We fail to persevere when times are hard - or when they're easy - or when they're merely indifferent.
Yet that isn't the end of the story. Just as scientists recently developed a chocolate teapot which really can be used to make tea, so the Church can live and work and grow despite the poverty of the materials used. Moreover, it has two thousand years' experience of doing so. The whole is far greater, holier, and more effective than the sum of the parts. Together, we can surpass ourselves, and become nothing less than the Body of Christ in the world - broken, certainly, but even (and perhaps only) in our brokenness, able to share the good news of his redeeming love.
There is a caveat, of course. The foundations have to be in place. The Church is built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner-stone (Ephesians 2.20). But when that's secure, even the mediocre building materials of our lives can be shaped into something miraculous: the earthly temple of the eternal God.
The Imaginary Strawberry
When my two children were very young - about 18 months and 3 years - they developed a new game. One of them would share out imaginary strawberries - 'One for me, one for you...'. Each imaginary strawberry received was eaten with imagined enjoyment. But eventually, one of the children would complain that the other had been given a larger imaginary strawberry than their own. An argument would ensue, becomingly increasingly heated and un-imaginary, and it would often end in tears which were all too real.
What we imagine affects us profoundly: our actions and reactions, our relationships, our ambitions, our priorities. It's no exaggeration to say that we live in a world shaped by imagination. Out of imagination arise vision, schemes, plans, strategies, which change the way things are for good or ill. Out of imagination emerge great works of poetry, literature, art, architecture, music. Far from being an escapist activity of children, it's fundamental to the working of human lives. 'Imagination is more important than knowledge', wrote Einstein. 'Everything you can imagine is real', said Picasso.
That's why Jesus called on his hearers to exercise their imagination. He spoke frequently of the (imaginary) Kingdom of God; a kingdom which was still to come into being, which as yet was largely in his imagination. He called others to share the vision and, most importantly, to make it real by living out what they could imagine. And he fed the imagination of others through the telling of stories, parables, often leaving them unexplained in order that his listeners would reflect imaginatively upon them and draw their own conclusions.
Christian faith is about imagining a better way of life - and then working to make it real. It's about imagining how we ourselves can become more Christ-like, and then working towards that aim (however inadequately most of us manage it). And in the case of parents and godparents, a Christening is about imagining for the child how they can be nurtured and nourished in the faith - and then, over the days and years which follow, turning that imagination into reality.
The desert shall rejoice!
During our Eucharist this morning, each person was given a free gift - a narcissus bulb. (A crocus would have been better, but crocus bulbs are out of season.) The instruction was given to plant it in the garden, or in a pot of compost, and to wait patiently for its growth.
The idea was inspired by the opening of our Old Testament reading, one of the great poems of hope from the Book of Isaiah:
'The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing...'
But the emphasis of the sermon was on the darkness of waiting patiently. As we'd heard a few minutes earlier in our New Testament reading,
'Be patient...The farmer waits for the precious crop...You also must be patient.'
The bulb isn't terribly interesting or attractive at present. Neither does it show any sign of life within its dry, flaking skin. Its flowering can't be hurried along; nature must take its course. It needs to be buried in the earth, buried in darkness, whilst the hidden work goes on inside it. It needs the right conditions for its nurture.
Eventually, it should sprout. Eventually, it should break through the crust of the ground. Eventually, it should develop leaves, a bud, a flower. But it takes time, and for much of that time it's hidden in darkness.
Nelson Mandela had to wait patiently in the darkness of imprisonment. He had to wait a whole generation, 27 years, before the time was right, before circumstances changed. But then he became one of the fortunate, one of those whose dreams were fulfilled during their own lifetime.
John the Baptist was less fortunate. In the darkness and uncertainty of his dungeon, he wondered whether his watching and waiting had been in vain. Was Jesus the One who was to come - or would the wait be longer still? Jesus sent back the message: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor receive good news. The dawn was breaking; the signs of God's kingdom were all around. And yet it would take centuries more before all was fulfilled; still today, we watch and wait.
The spring flowers seem far off. We have the winter to get through first: the long, dark days, with the memory and the possibility of bad weather like that of other recent years. We wait patiently for the warmth and life which still lie months ahead. Perhaps we can do so curious to know how today's narcissus bulb will turn out.
The coming of Jesus can seem far off too. And yet, as we wait patiently, as the hidden work of God unfolds within our lives, we see shoots breaking out in the wilderness. We recognise Jesus coming to us in prayer and sacrament, in the fellowship and worship of the Church, in the poor and needy and in those who support them. We realise that we don't have to wait until the end of the ages to know his presence in our midst. And we can be strengthened and inspired to continue our journey of faith, seeking to love God whole-heartedly, and our neighbour as ourself.
The Treasures of Darkness3/12/2013
Advent is surely the most atmospheric of all the seasons: austere yet paradoxically rich, and bursting with vivid imagery. We don't always take the time to ponder and plunder its wealth, but when we do meditate on its themes, new depths are opened up within us.
Those who came to the beautiful and moving Advent Carol Service on Sunday with attentive hearts may have taken away some particular treasure to reflect on. The phrase which struck me came from one of the Bible readings, 'I will give you the treasures of darkness' (Isaiah 45.3). I've been turning it over in my mind, wondering how it might be interpreted in poetic terms. You can read my initial ideas below.
But our response to the presence and word of God doesn't have to be in words. It can take many other forms too. Our creativity might be released through art or sculpture or music - expressing the inexpressible through what is abstract, and doing so perhaps for the benefit of others as well as for ourselves. Or it might be that we've been wrestling with one of life's complex and perplexing issues, and suddenly things fall into place and disclose meaning as we still ourselves and listen for God's voice. Perhaps best of all, we may find the inspiration to walk more steadfastly along the road of faith, strengthened in our inner being.
The Treasures of Darkness
And Mary sang, 'Dark hill, snow-still, ice-chill: fulfil
Creation's call; stump, shoot; new life instil;
Your buried grain in vain contain, constrain;
Let life resurge, and hundredfold remain.'
And Mary sang, 'Dark night, sin-plight; angelic flight;
Word, once unheard, occurred; not bird
Of Spirit-wing, beak'd leaf, dove-feather:
'This is my Son', God and Man together.'
And Mary sang, 'Dark womb, dark-room, where foetal loom
Weaves fragile filigree of mortal bloom:
Cherish the Pearl of priceless worth, whose birth
Unflawed, the Lord, announces 'Peace on earth.''
(c) Christopher Wilson 2013