Thursday 28 April 2011

He's a Keeper!

I have to admit that I am not a keen follower of Royal Weddings, but news of a slight change to the marriage vows in the service got me interested.

Apparently, Kate is not going to promise to obey William (no surprise there) but instead she is going to promise 'keep him'.

Is this a new liturgical expression that has found its way into the Church of England's biggest wedding of the year?  And what does it mean?  Is Kate promising to 'keep him' in the style to which he has become accustomed?  I think that highly unlikely - as heir to the throne, surely it will be him 'keeping her' in the manner to which he is accustomed!

The word, of course, is not new - it appears in the 1662 Prayer Book where it is the groom who promises to "love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her".

Does that mean that they will be both be making the same promises to each other?  For goodness sake, I hope so!  The alternative, in the traditional language of the Prayer Book would have been for her to "obey him, and serve him, love, honour and keep him" which is a bit of a non-starter if you want an equal marriage.

Equal promises are the foundation of modern marriage vows, which see marriage as a partnership of equals, rather than a hierarchy of obedience.

But there are those for whom this concept is sacrilege!  Women must 'obey' their men at all costs or else the whole fabric of the universe will be torn - God will be upset - and society is doomed to marital anarchy!  (There have been more than a few such comments on the newspaper blogs already - see the comments on the Daily Mail article if you don't believe me)

At the end of the day, I am delighted that Kate is going to promise to 'keep' William, and I hope that he is going to promise to 'keep' her.  After all, that is a part of marriage which is all too often overlooked as people give up when the going gets tough, or when the temptation comes to trade your old spouse in for a newer model.

I looked for a definition for "He's a keeper" on the internet, just in case some people wouldn't get the play on words.

I could only find one for "She's a keeper!"  which went as follows...

"It means that he should keep her, and never lose her. She is a jewel."

I hope you are listening William!

Sunday 24 April 2011

Come alive!

The miracle of Easter is not just that Jesus rose from the grave - the real miracle is that his resurrection means new life for everyone.

Beyond the Easter cry "He is risen",  is God's call to us to take hold of this gift of life.

Today's song is the last in this series for Lent and Holy Week.  It is by Foo Fighters from the album "Echoes, Silence Patience and Grace".

It speaks to me of the transformation which Christ's resurrection has made, and is making, in my life.

"I lay there in the dark, and I closed my eyes
You saved me the day you came alive.
Come alive!

Nothing more to give
I can finally live
Come alive!

Your life into me
I can finally breathe
Come alive!"

God's Easter call to us this Easter is "Come alive!"

Thursday 21 April 2011

Song for Good Friday ...

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!"
This was the cry from the cross as Jesus took all the pain and injustice of human sin and failing to himself. 
Today's song is 'Iridescent' by Linkin Park, from the album 'A Thousand Suns'.
The whole album is one of repentance - not for the petty personal sins which we struggle with day to day - but for the sum of human sin which cumulate into global injustice, violence and war.
The album begins and ends with the lyric,
"God save us everyone
will we burn within the fires of a thousand suns
for this sins of our hands
the sins of our tongues
the sins of our father
the sins of our young"

When I hear 'Iridescent', I picture Christ on the cross.
When you we standing in the wake of devastation
When you were waiting on the edge of the unknown
And with the cataclysm raining down
insides crying "Save me now"
you were there impossibly alone.

And then the cry "It is finished" as the whole cosmos is transformed in an instant, with the impossible death of the Son of God.  This greatest moment of sacrificial love embraces the moment of ultimate risk as he gives up his spirit, and enters the unknown.

And in a burst of light that blinded every angel
as if the sky had blown the heavens into stars
You felt the gravity of tempered grace
falling into empty space
No one there to catch you in their arms

Christ, both human and divine, draws the whole of human failure to himself,
experiencing the desperation that it brings, and as he dies, it dies with him.
But there is more.

As the song develops, it moves beyond the desolation which Christ suffered,
and begins to demand a response from me.

Do you feel cold and lost in desperation
you build up hope but failure's all you've known
Remember all the sadness and frustration
Let it go!

The challenge is for me to take what He has done for me, and let him take my sins away - let him take my hurts and fears - let him take the pain of everything I have ever done, and let it die with him, so that I am free to live a new life.

This for me, is Good Friday, and this is my song for today.

Monday 18 April 2011

The real you ...

I was struck during the Palm Sunday readings this year at how the crowds in Jerusalem greeted Jesus with ecstatic praise on that day, and yet cried 'Crucify' only 5 day later.  What a turnaround, in such a short space of time.
My mind went back 25 years to when I was working with heroin addicts in Hong Kong.  I was helping in a Christian ministry founded by a remarkable lady called Jackie Pullinger, who arrived in Hong Kong armed with nothing more than a sense of God's calling.
Several years later she had a thriving ministry among Hong Kong's numerous drug addicts and Triad members, who came to her because they had heard that there was a God called 'Jesus' who helped heroin addicts.
The part of the ministry where I lived and worked was a First Stage House, where the addicts came to live, straight from the streets - to come off heroin, and begin their new life in Christ.
Every evening, we would spend a good hour in prayer and worship, and I was struck, right from the beginning by the exuberance and intensity with which they worshipped.  Their hands raised, they would sing at the top of their voices, and would pray enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving to Jesus for saving them. The atmosphere it created was often so intense that it felt just like Palm Sunday - that if they were silent, the very stones would sing!
But life wasn't like that all the time.  Like  drug addicts the world over, they were skilled manipulators, determined to get their own way - often challenging, occasionally intimidating or threatening, and almost always lazy when it came to doing any meaningful work!
After a while, I began to be less enthralled by their worship and praise in the evening.  Other thoughts started to creep into my mind like "How can you be so wrapped up in praise after the way you behaved earlier" or "You can't fool God - I know what you were like this afternoon!"  
After one particularly challenging day, I began to tell God not to be fooled, because I had seen what they were really like.  I guess this was the last straw for God, so he spoke to me.
"You see the real them when they worship me," He said.  "This is who they really are - not what you see during the day!"
I was more than a little taken aback.  How could this be them being real?  What about the rest of the time?
Then it occurred to me.  God, of course, was right.  When they came to him, called out to him, put their faith in him, God had done exactly what he promised.  God had given them a new life, they had been 'born again' - born of the Spirit.  Their true identity was now in Christ, not in the old habits and old ways that were passing away.  I had got things completely upside-down.
And we fall into the same trap too.  One minute we can be praising God, and the next, doing or thinking something far less godly.   When are we being real?  Is the real me the one who responds to God in praise and thanksgiving?  Or is the real me the one who falls into sin again and again.
Sometimes we get too hung up on our failings, thinking that they show what we are really like, but in fact the reverse is true.  The real me is not the one who falls into sin again, but the one who reaches out to God - not because I have done something special, but because of what God has done in me.
I don't know if the people who sang 'Hosanna!' on Palm Sunday, were the same crowd who shouted 'Crucify' on Good Friday, but I do know this.  Even if it was, the betrayal of Good Friday could not undo the reality of Palm Sunday, and the resurrection proves it.  In God's kingdom, life is victorious over death, and forgiveness triumphs over sin.
So the next time we feel burdened by the ways in which we have let God down, or we feel that  we are hypocrites in church, remember this.  The real you is the one who comes to God in praise and thanksgiving.  The real you comes out when you open your heart to God in spite of the ways you have let God down.   God wants to see the real you more and more - and the old you will slip away.
Praise and Worship in the Walled City, Hong Kong

Friday 15 April 2011

This week's song is... 'Your love is a song' by Switchfoot

Keeping with the theme of God's love, from my last musical blog "My song is..."-  this song is a womderful expression of how God's dynamic love surrounds us and enfolds us.

Sometimes it is only after times of brokeness or disappointment that we become open to God is a new way - hence the lyric "I've got my mind/eyes wide open" which echoes through the verses.

In many ways it remids me of the beauty of Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
For those who haven't heard of Switchfoot before, they are a Chirstian band from the US and this is definately one of their quieter songs...
The first blog in the series was  My song is ...

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Gays, Damned Gays, and Pro-Gays!

Ok , it doesn't have the same ring as 'Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics'  which came to mind as I thought about a title for this blog, but it does exhibit the same progression that is found in parts of  the Christian church.  In fact, it is fascinating to see how more conservative church attitudes to homosexuality are developing the same kind of hierarchy in levels of distrust.
On the first layer are gay people themselves (I use the word gay - by the way - as shorthand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered - which I always find a bit of a mouthful).
This is the layer of openly gay people who are not currently in a same-sex relationship.  On the whole they are tolerated by the Church.  They are conditionally welcomed into most churches - conditional that they don't get into a relationship, of course.  They are permitted to contribute to most areas of church life - join a home-group, read the Bible and lead intercessions.   They are sometimes supported pastorally - mostly to keep  them from getting into a relationship. 
They are a slight cause of anxiety or concern,  but are often used as an example in saying "We have gay people in our church", so our church is not homophobic.   Dig down a little, however, and they are often viewed as a ticking  time-bomb, which one day might explode with damaging consequences.
The next layer up are 'Damned Gays' who are the ones who are 'practising' homosexuals - whatever that means! 
They are the ones who have  the audacity to turn up to church with their partner.  They are made to feel much less comfortable.  They are often welcomed with that tense, surprised and nervous look by clergy and church officers who live in fear of what their presence might mean for their well-ordered church and congregation.  They  are often not allowed to join home-groups, not allowed to stand up and speak at the front of church, not allowed to be involved in lay ministry, but nevertheless are told that their presence is welcome as long as they don't rock the boat too much or talk to anybody.  They are reminded from time to time however, that according to 1 Corinthians 6:9 they will not be inheriting the Kingdom of God - hence the title, "Damned Gays".
But there is another layer of mistrust which is gaining ascendency among conservative churches.  And this layer is causing much more concern for those from a more conservative theology of sexuality.  The name of this last category...  Pro-gays!
They are being feared more and more, because of the damage they are doing to the Gospel.  On the one hand there is less to attack.  They are straight, often happily married, with families.  They are amongst us as clergy, church wardens, deacons, or even Bishops.  They are respectable people, not like those gays!  They might be evangelicals, anglo-catholics, or just good old broad church CofE. England'.
But beneath this layer of respectability, they are more dangerous than Gays or Damned Gays because they have the audacity to be Pro-Gay.  They are the real threat because they have no vested interest in seeing the church become more inclusive,  and their presence is increasingly finding its way into the cross-hairs of conservative focus.
The appointment this week of Rev Nicholas Holtam as the new Bishop of Salisbury is just such a case.  He is straight,  married with children, and the vicar of a hugely successful church in central London.  Surely such an appointment could not upset anyone?
But there is a darker side to Nicholas Holtam - he is Pro-Gay!  And worse still - he has said so publically, is a member of Inclusive Church, and has welcomed such people as Bishop Gene Robinson to speak at the church!  He has had the audacity to challenge the homophobic statements of the global south, and to genuinely welcome gay people in ministry and worship.  Worst of all he has had the nerve to suggest that the biblical scriptures against homosexual practise simply do not apply to "baptised people in loving and faithful same-sex relationships".
And indeed the reaction from those who react to these things has been predictable.
"The appointment of the Revd Nicholas Holtam as the next Bishop of Salisbury is a regrettable and retrograde step.  In his public ministry Mr Holtam has actively promoted erroneous teaching on the issue of human sexuality, which puts him at odds with the declared mind of the House of Bishops, the General Synod of the Church of England and the 1998 Lambeth Conference, makes him unfit for ministry in the Church of England let alone as a Bishop.
While Rev John Richardson, writing in the Telegraph says that,
"If I were a minister in the Diocese of Salisbury today, therefore, I would be faced with a real crisis of conscience."
You do not need to be a church dignitary of course to attract such questioning.  In a comment to one of my recent blogs on same-sex marriage, the same Rev John Richardson wrote:
"When it comes to an issue as contentious as changing our entire theology of marriage and sexuality, the tradition should be our starting point, from which departure should only be made after careful, serious and collective deliberation. Importantly, this is one of those cases where private judgement must not be allowed free rein.

And that brings me to my question. You acknowledge standing outside the tradition (laid out in the BCP). But you are required to take the Declaration of Assent and stand under Canon A5, and I just want to know how you can do this. If you have changed your mind, fair enough, but should you not therefore change your allegiance?"
These are the kind of views which make many of us deeply suspicious of the Anglican Covenant - not for its intentions, but for the way in which it might be applied.  Under the Covenant, Anglican Provinces which  are perceived by some to have stepped out of line in their theology, practice, or indeed appointments could be similarly asked to consider 'changing their allegiance' but in a much more official way.
Such reactions do not, of course reflect the views of the majority of Anglicans in the UK who, despite wide diversity in their views on sexuality, treat each other with the acceptance and respect that Christ encouraged.  They know that to have 'serious and collective deliberation' in the way John Richardson describes, requires people to be there to deliberate - not ejected or asked to change their allegiance.
As a member of the Clergy in Salisbury Diocese, I am happy to say that I am facing no crisis of conscience following the nomination of our new Bishop - just a sense of rejoicing that the Church of England has listened to the diocese and God in this appointment, despite what others might try to say.

Monday 11 April 2011

Church, Tradition and the Bride of Christ

As the debate continues in the Church of England Newspaper about same-sex marriage, I am grateful to Rev John Richardson for responding to my article - 'Towards a Theology of Gay- Marriage?'  
In his article 'Changing views of marriage' in last week's CEN, he has clearly sought to engage with some of the issues and questions I raised, and he makes a number of points which merit a response.
He begins by noting that same-sex marriage would mean breaking with church tradition and the theology of marriage as outlined in the BCP (Book of Common Prayer). He then makes the argument that rather than looking at Genesis 2 as our paradigm for marriage, we should look to the marriage between Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5 as the ultimate paradigm.  This, he argues, places a clear limit on our theology of marriage within the context of men and women with the ideal of procreation.  (You can read the full article by following this link)
First of all, it is interesting to see a fellow evangelical beginning with an appeal to tradition.  He rightly points out that the theology I am suggesting departs from the BCP emphasis on procreation and a 'traditional understanding of marriage'.  This is indeed the case, and I readily accept it, but in the course of human history there have been many issues where we have changed our minds in spite of clear arguments made from both Scripture and tradition for maintaining the status quo - the abolition of slavery, and the church's insistence that the sun revolves around the earth are just two such issues that immediately spring to mind.
More importantly however, is the alternative (and indeed superior) paradigm he offers for marriage in the Bible - that of Christ and His Church.
While I am not convinced that Ephesians 5 supersedes Jesus use of Genesis 2 as the ultimate paradigm for marriage, the framework he puts forward does more to suggest a 'genderless notion of marriage' than to deny it.  Why?  Because the Church as the 'Bride of Christ' contains both women and men.
As the inspirational evangelical preacher FB Meyer puts it, in his devotional commentary on Ephesians - 'Redeemed men compose that bride'.  Here is the context to that quote:
Here is a mystery indeed. That scene in Eden is also a parable. It was not good for Christ to be alone. He needed one to love and to give love. But there was none among unfallen angels that could answer to Him.  And therefore God the Father sought a bride for his Son from among the children of men; yea, He took the Second Eve from the wounded side of the Second Man, as He lay asleep in the garden-grave.

Redeemed men compose that bride...  Then the Church shall cleave to Him forever, and He shall cleave to her. And they twain shall be one spirit.

The fact that the Church comprises both men and women and that this (according to John Richardson) is the ultimate paradigm for marriage, suggests that marriage is indeed 'genderless' - it has just taken the church a long time to realise it (like the abolition of slavery and the movement of the sun).
No-one, of course would suggest that there is a literal 'sexual' component to the marriage of Christ and his Church, but that further calls into question relying on this paradigm for our full understanding of marriage.  Indeed Paul says in Ephesians 5 that "this is a profound mystery".  It is a mystery which we are still unravelling, and perhaps we haven't quite got there yet.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Play the ball - not the man

It has been good to see the debate which my article "Towards a theology of Gay Marriage?" has prompted in recent weeks - both in favour and against the approach I put forward.  The Church of England Newspaper has had a flood of responses, and over the last few weeks has been printing many of them.
On the first week, they were all negative. 
On the second week, almost all were positive. 
But then on week three, I noticed a change.  There were two letters published which were less than gracious in their treatment of the issue.  In fact they were not so much reacting to the ideas being discussed, as resorting to personal attack.  And the attacks were not against me,  but against some of those who had written in to support a more accepting approach toward gay relationships.
The letters they were reacting to, were both 'in favour' of examining a new approach to same-sex relationships, one from a gay Christian in a long term partnership, the other from an ordinand in training. Whilst these positive letters were measured and did not seek to attack anyone, the same cannot be said for the response.
The openness and honesty of the gay Christian was met by a one sentence dismissal of her faith, sexuality and partnership. Her courage to declare publically  her sexuality and faith were simply put-down as being too ridiculous to listen to.
The ordinand was also dismissed in a rather disparaging way as someone who "no longer believes what the Bible says" - something which he did not say - while his evangelical theological college was blamed for "the sorry state of our church and nation."
Sadly, the reasons for this reaction are all too clear.  This is an issue where feelings run so high that those who do not agree can so easily dehumanize those who think differently.
 As another letter writer put it, "Unnatural relationships are constantly being discussed in your paper and horrible pictures of two men on a wedding cake give many people real revulsion." She had stopped seeing people - just visceral anger.
In such a climate, it is all too easy to (in the words of the footballing metaphor) play the man, not the ball.
For those not from the UK, this is saying which comes from soccer.  It the temptation which a player faces when someone with the ball is about to get past him.  Should he continue (probably in vain) to go for the ball?  Or should he abandon the rules and hack down the player?
It is sad that all too often the debate over sexuality descends into this kind of dismissive and damaging exchange.  It is not Christ-like.  It does not reflect the Gospel of grace.  It does not help us to fulfil Jesus command to love one another as he has loved us.
If Jesus had been talking to footballers, I am sure where he would have come down -  "Play the ball, not the man!"

(With apologies to all female footballers for this terribly non-inclusive language)