Friday 17 February 2017

Walsingham Baby

Today, on his birthday, we interred my Father's ashes in Puddletown church yard, alongside my Mum's.

After his death last year, I posted 'Shilvia Shishishons' - a tribute to his calling to ordination.  Today, I would like to post a short joint tribute to him and my Mum, in gratitude for the way in which I came into the world.

It has taught me never to dismiss the faith of others - even when it may seem very different to my own...

"Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My dad never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with biretta on special occasions.  They were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, they moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where dad was priest in charge of the church at Downley.  He was responsible for a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as ‘vicar’s wife’ and David served the village community as priest and kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular, longed for a baby – but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did not help and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well, and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady, and asked Mary for her prayers for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply, and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in 1 Samuel 1 “in deep anguish… praying in her heart… pouring out her soul to the Lord”.  Hannah made a deal with God that if he heard her prayer and gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Dorset, and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at “The Shrubbery” in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this would be during the big annual pilgrimage in May, and we would join with other pilgrims in the great procession and open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a private joke between me and God, when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality, but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We may not always understand the faith and spirituality of others.  Sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  But if God is happy to be at work through those expressions of faith, who are we to dismiss or condemn.

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” and they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together; excuses like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  In the end, he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he also longed for them to play tennis with each other.

Too often that is what we are like as Christians – all wanting to play with God, but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We often separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches.  We choose who we will play with, work with, pray with – but in the end, we are all children of God.

So in the end, I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit my neatly worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is often much messier than our well-ordered categories, and being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Modern Parable for the CofE

So I went to my local cinema with a friend.

We got to the box office to buy our tickets, but when we said which film we wanted to see, the cinema usher suddenly looked uncomfortable.  The colour slowly drained from her cheeks.

After an agonising pause, she finally said, “I’m sorry but this film isn’t really for you.  It’s for other people… you know, people who aren’t like you.”

My friend and I stood there, caught somewhere between amazement and incredulity.  We began to argue with the usher.  “What do you mean – it’s not for us?  Why can’t we go in?  What sort of cinema is this anyway?”

The more we argued, the more uncomfortable she looked, mumbling things like, “I know, I know... it doesn’t seem fair…  If it were up to me, I would let you in… you are more than welcome to see other films, but not this one – its company policy.”

We stood our ground, continued to argue and after a while, she offered to talk to the cinema manager and see what he could do.  While this was far from ideal, we reluctantly agreed and she disappeared into his office, leaving us standing there wondering if it was really worth staying.

In the end, we decided to wait, and eventually she came back with a smile.

“I’ve talked to the manager, and he doesn’t agree with the company policy either, but his hands are tied.  We can’t sell you tickets to that film – but we can get around it!   If you want, I can sneak you in through the side door, and sit you in a corner where no one will see you.  I’m afraid you won’t be able the whole screen, but you will get the gist of the film you want to see.”

Now we were completely incredulous.

“But” she continued, “you have to agree not to tell anybody, and you mustn’t let anyone see you, and if you hear certain words – words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘blessing’ or ‘marriage’ or ‘ring’ – you must put your hands over your ears and remember that those words don’t apply to you.”

Now we didn’t know what to do.  We really wanted to see the film.  We had been looking forward to it, ever since it came out.  We had made a commitment to each other to see it together.

Yet now, faced with all these conditions… faced with the way we were being treated… faced with all the difficulty our presence was creating… we just felt a mixture of angry, deflated, and sad.  All the joy and excitement had gone.

Should we stay and take what we’ve been offered, even though it’s not what we want?  Should we walk away?  Find another cinema?  Surely they can’t all be like this? Perhaps we should just wait for the DVD? But that wouldn’t be the same either...

The cinema usher asked us again, “So… do you want me to sneak you in?”

Tell us, Church of England, what should we do?

Sunday 12 February 2017

Fractured Families and the House of Bishops

During my 25 years of ordained ministry, I have come across a good number of families who were divided over sexuality.

Most heart-rending would be when visiting a family about the death of their adult son or daughter, I would suddenly realise that there was an unseen partner, not present at this key moment as we planned the funeral service.

It was an innocent question about girlfriend, boyfriend, or children which usually betrayed the guilty secret.  ‘Well, he did have a “friend”’ or something similar was the typical embarrassed reply.  This ‘friend’ in the days before Civil Partnerships was invariably of the same gender, and was excluded by the family from this vitally important part of grieving a loved one.  After a while, I learned to look for them at the funeral.  He or she would be the one whose grief was palpable, almost uncontrolled – far surpassing the grief of parents, brothers or sisters – and yet excluded from the family pew.

I would make a point of spending time with him/her after the service, but even then, their words to me were guarded as I tried to include them in a funeral which they had no part in planning.

The situation has improved over the years since then.  Civil Partnership and now marriage have secured the right of the partner in a same-gender relationship to be the next of kin, but there are still situations when a loved one of the same-sex is marginalised or excluded.

I have done funerals for a parent of a LGBT son or daughter, where their partner has been marginalised of excluded.  The person who would be the best support in a difficult time has been placed at the outer margins of family, or simply excluded completely by others in the family.

The typical line which would accompany this pastoral situation would be something like, “Mum (or dad) never really got used to – you know – the way they were.” The same gender couple were tolerated, occasionally welcomed at family events, but never really accepted into the family.  There was no blessing, no celebration, no real acceptance.  Now they were separated from each other in this most tender time by the ghost of family disapproval.

And that disapproval is the harmful and hurtful message which the House of Bishops have further enshrined in their recent statement on same-sexpartnerships, to be debated in the General Synod this week.

In recent years, LGBT Christians have put their head above the parapet, risked sanction and exclusion, by joining in the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ in the hope of recognition.  Yet now they have been deliberately put back in their place on the margins.

In suggesting ‘maximum freedom’ for Church members, priests and bishops in same-gender partnerships, but refusing to change the church’s approach one iota to same gender relationships, the House of Bishops is saying we will tolerate you, but don’t get too close, don’t expect recognition, and don’t expect us to celebrate with you or bless you in your love – because at the end of the day, you are still living in sin against the will of God and his Church.

Not much of a welcome, is it?

Under their statement, same-gender Christian couples will still be refused public thanksgivings, blessings or acts of affirmation.  They will still be pushed to the margins of church life – expected to live in the shadows.  The House of Bishops doesn’t want them to get too close for fear of aggravating other members of the family – just like my funeral stories.

Very few people expected the CofE to rewrite its doctrine of marriage to include same-gender marriages anytime soon.  What was hoped for, however, was the same recognition which people marrying after divorce received for years, before marriage in church was an option.  A service of thanksgiving or blessing which did not rewrite the church’s doctrine of marriage “One man and one woman for life” but which did recognise that real life doesn’t always work out in the way the church expects.

Allowing such a liturgy does not require a change of the doctrine of marriage – it simply requires the same pastoral heart which prompted clergy to respond to divorcees in a more positive way.

What will be debated this week however, will be more of the same line which the CofE has peddled for years.  You can’t be blessed – not in public at least – and we won’t sanction giving thanks for your love – but we will tolerate you with our new doctrine of ‘maximum freedom’ for the wretched sinner.

In the light of this report, the CofE remains a sadly fractured family, and yet again, gay and lesbian Christians are being asked to carry the burden of that division – just like the fractured families I have encountered.

Surely there must be a better way?

It is particularly ironic that the next agenda item after the sexuality debate at General Synod this week is entitled “Setting God’s People Free”.  And it is particularly sad that the Church doesn’t seem to recognise the link or the contradiction between the two.