Let us make the best of things – let us progress (towards women in the episcopate)

Tomorrow the executive of WATCH (Women and the Church) meet to decide on what their official response will be to the amended measures regarding the legislation on women bishops. 

Last year as I journeyed through discernment and selection for training for ordination I joined WATCH, and therefore was invited to take part in their consultation prior to meeting tomorrow. This evening I have belatedly told them what I think. I am a great believer in being open enough to say publicly what I say in private, especially on an issue of public interest, so for what it’s worth this is an exact copy of what I’ve sent to WATCH:

I have probably left it almost too late, but in case it’s not, here are my simple thoughts on the issue of whether WATCH (and those elected to General Synod) should support the Measure regarding Women and the Episcopate, as amended last week by the House of Bishops.

I write remembering I am the daughter of a (now long deceased) MOW member who attended the Service of Thanksgiving at Ripon in 1994 for the original 1992 vote for the Ordination of Women. I also write as a Reader, recently recommended for training for ordination, which I look forward to starting in September.

I have read, or in some cases re-read, a whole variety of blog posts [helpfully summarised by an “opinionated vicar”] expressing different viewpoints, and your helpful information sheet. There are concerns over theology, taint, legal precedent, and other things largely too complicated to understand the nuances of. Sadly they have made no difference to my pragmatic and probably simplistic request:

Please support the measure, as it stand, amendments and all.

Women have spent thousands of years making the best of things; frequently making the best of what others (often but not always men) have decided for them and over them. I am certain that we can do it again.

We believe in a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent. He is bigger than our mortal theological debates and legislative process, thankfully. If this measure is passed, he will be able to work through the faithful and wise women that many of us see as being called to join the episcopate alongside their male counterparts. I think we will be amazed at what a difference that will make to the Church of England, to people’s view of it, and to their willingness to give the message of the Gospel it proclaims a serious hearing.

If WATCH, which is perceived (wrongly I know) as a women’s organisation, stand against this legislation with arguments that are as labyrinthine as the amendments and the measure itself, we will make ourselves, and the church to which we are called to serve, a laughing stock in a nation that is already struggling to take us seriously.

I know that all of you will have worked for years to bring this opportunity about, have spent years in study and theological debate on the issue, whilst I am a new member of WATCH, coming in mid-life towards ordination. But please, don’t turn aside now from what we believe God is calling the church to be – a place that is (more) inclusive of gender and therefore a better representation of the God who created us all, male and female. We will only make such progress, by making the best of what will only ever be a cobbled job (because male and female, we’re all human, all place our human failings into every sentence we construct).

If the measure is not supported by WATCH and therefore not passed at General Synod (and yes I believe the link is that strong), it will be a retrograde step, and damage both the future ministry of women and possibly the future chances of seeing women in the episcopate in the Church of England.

If this measure is passed at General Synod (with the support of WATCH) then that will be progress. It will mean that the Church of England will become a slightly better representation of what Christ came into the world to achieve, through the grace, love and forgiveness that we will continue to receive from the cross and proclaim to the world.

DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit – John 15:26-27 16:4-15 and Acts 2:1-13

All Saints Church, Minstead

Here is the DARE that I gave the people of All Saints, Minstead on Pentecost Sunday.

More information about the service, the liturgy and the local pub are in my previous post here. You will note that I make reference to several people by name, all of whom I know personally and some of whom contributed greatly to my spiritual journey when I was a teenager living in the village.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve always felt Minstead was a place where people are comfortable with the idea of being a bit different in the way they do things, a bit daring and willing to take a risk to make a point.

A scented flame coloured Azalea at Furzey Gardens

This week I reckon Minstead has excelled itself – or more accurately the Chelsea RHS Show Garden team from Furzey Gardens and the Minstead Training Project have excelled themselves at daring to be different! There, next to Simon’s thatched lantern house were the (currently unfashionable) flame coloured flowers of the scented azalea’s that filled my childhood as I played hide and seek with my friends among their stems – even when the garden was open to the public!

This morning as we think about some other flames, and receive some real flames later in the service, I want to suggest that we all need to DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit.

In fact I’m going to use that word DARE to unpack some of the details of the Pentecost story, and give us a mnemonic with which to remember how we are to live out our faith with the flames of Pentecost visible in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is part of God; the way that God works in the world to achieve his purposes, and quite specifically how he works in the life of each of us that believes in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. That was why we remembered the Easter story in our opening acclamation as we lit our Pascal Candle at the beginning of the service.

In the Pentecost Gospel reading that H read, Jesus knew that he was soon to die, but rise again. He also knew that try as he might, the disciples at this point just didn’t have the understanding that would enable them to make sense of all that was going to happen – especially all mixed up with their very human emotions.

So Jesus explains how the Holy Spirit would be God’s means of delivering to Jesus followers, an understanding of what God was doing through the experiences they were about to encounter. The Message version of the Bible has Jesus saying it this way:

Everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I’ve said, ‘He takes from me and delivers to you.’ (John 16:15 MSG)

So the D of our DARE to hold the flame of the Holy Spirit, is all about DELIVERY. (Hang the first word up! – I had large Comic Sans words to hang on a string for those with learning difficulties to see.)

Think of it as being like the Olympic Torch Relay, which I think comes to Lyndhurst in July (14th). The flame is very cleverly, and usually without going out, being passed from one torch bearer to the next, all the way round the country, until it arrives at the Olympic Stadia in London to deliver it’s flame to the centrepiece of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

If you like, the tongues of flame at Pentecost, a visible form of the Holy Spirit, were the opening ceremony of God working in the lives of the disciples in this profoundly different way to what they had experienced when Jesus was alive. With the wind that accompanied them, the flames showed God delivering something quite special to those who believe in Jesus!

As the Olympic flame burns in London, people will have gathered to do things that might be utterly beyond our abilities, and in some cases probably seem beyond anything the competitors expect themselves to achieve. There will be personal bests, Olympic records, and world records in the weeks that follow.

The story of Pentecost that G read us, describes what happens when the flames alighted on each person gathered that day in Jersualem.

“They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4 NRSV)

And there’s the A of our DAREABILITY (Hang second word up.)

The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do things that we could never imagine possible!
“Ah but…” we have a tendency to say when we’re asked to do something we’ve never tried before, or step out of our comfort zone. “I can’t possibly….” “I don’t do things like that…”

What can’t we do?

  • Don’t we have the ability to talk about Jesus in the ordinary goings on of our lives?!
  • Don’t we have the ability God needs to make a difference here?!
  • Couldn’t we let the Holy Spirit have control of our lives and (with a little hard work on our part) give us abilities we’ve never dreamt of?

Well, if all that were true, I for one wouldn’t be standing here this morning!

The ‘tree house’ at Furzey Garden’s in Minstead (2005)

I’m pretty sure from what I’ve seen on the TV this week, that Chris Beardshaw for one, doubted that the Furzey team had the ability to pull that Chelsea Garden project together to a standard that would win an RHS Gold. The tears in his eyes were ones that showed humility, the relief of having been proved wrong, and the delight with which he knew the news would be received by the rest of the team whose abilities that Gold would celebrate!

So the Holy Spirit is the delivery system by which God works in our lives, but also gives us the ability to do things, big and small, that we might not otherwise do. But those two things might feed, strengthen and enhance who we are as Christians, but if we are to DARE to carry the flame of the Spirit, then we need to make a conscious effort to make connections that take that flame on a journey in us.

Tom Wright’s version of John’s Gospel puts Chapter 16 v4 this way:

“I have told you this, so that when the time comes… to do these things, you will remember what I told you.”

There’s the trick you see, we need to remember to make the connections between what happens in our lives and what those simple, or larger occurrences, say about God, as creator Father, risen Son, and holy Spirit.

To remember, is the R of our DAREing! (Hang third word up)

I tend to describe the Bible as a collection of stories about God in action. In both the Old Testament, the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, we know that the stories now written down were originally those remembered and told as people made connections with how they saw God acting in the world, and later what they remembered of Jesus’ teachings and actions. Writing them down was a mechanism for helping people remember and understand.

But God didn’t stop revealing himself in our world after Jesus ascended into heaven, or even after people decided that there would only be a certain number of books in the Bible. Through the Holy Spirit God remained living and visibly active on a far larger scale, and in a far more personal way.

When we look at our own lives, and that of the world around us, we can see God at work. Perhaps we’ve been praying for someone and they experience something that we recognise can only be explained by God’s action in their lives. We will need to remember the life and teaching of Jesus, or perhaps a passage of scripture like a psalm, to be able to recognise that; and if they are not aware of it already, we then need to make those connections known to the person concerned.

Another flaming Azalea at Furzey Gardens

If we can see the beauty of God’s creation in a flower, a collection of sticks, and a particular fragrance, or a combination of all three, then that may make us a flower arranger, a gardener, a woodsman or a designer. But unless we remember to praise God for the raw materials, and ascribe our abilities to the way he has made and developed us, inspired and strengthened us through the Holy Spirit, then we still aren’t being DAREing enough! I’m sure that’s why Revd Tim Selwood is calling the Furzey Chelsea Garden quite specifically God’s Gold Garden!

We have to explain the connections we make between our lives what we see in the world around us, or the lives of others, and the revelation of God that we remember through the Bible and the life and example of Jesus.

It’s the explaining that completes the DARE (hang fourth word up) There is no point carrying the flame of the Holy Spirit, if it’s not going to explain how important to us our connection is with Jesus.

Those disciples gathered together in Jerusalem had been hiding and waiting. They hadn’t been able to make proper sense of all that had happened. Christ had died, then in the midst of their grief he was once again among them. Then, just before he vanished for good, he had told them to wait, wait where they were until some powerful force came and worked among them to help them understand it all, just as he had said to them it would before he died.

“You will speak about me.” Jesus had said in the opening words of our Gospel reading. (John 15:27).

The force that enabled them to do that was the Holy Spirit. It delivered the ability to remember what Jesus had said and done among them, to make the connections that gave them understanding. But the real value in the Holy Spirit coming upon them was that it enabled them to explain to others all that had happened, and how that related to people’s own existence now that Jesus had gone from this world.

I spent Thursday at Alton Abbey with the Benedictine monks there, part of what has become a regular pattern in my life. One of them Dom Anselm, is an iconographer, and was teaching iconography to a group staying there for the week. He was explaining to them the techniques that create an image that tells a story related to Christ. They were down to the detail whilst I watched, how to mix a particular colour, how to make the fine brush strokes that created the detail or wrote the Biblical text.

The crucifix in the grounds at Furzey

One of the other monks, Fr Andrew, spent some time with me in their chapel, using a large icon that Dom Anselm has painted, to explain to me one way in which he prays and intercedes for the people and places that are on his heart. He explained how he uses the image to mentally lay his concerns in a specific place at Jesus’ feet as he hangs on the cross at Golgotha.

Iconography is to me a foreign language, one I don’t speak, and had never tried to apply in detail as part of my faith life. For the monks to bring aspects of their faith, and mine, to life with new understanding, there was an awful lot of explaining going on! Part of that explaining was related to what they were painting (perhaps the detail on the hand of Christ raised in blessing), or in how that icon could be used as a prompt to prayer.

The monks weren’t born knowing how to paint icons, nor how to use them in their prayer life, but through the power of the Holy Spirit they have taken delivery of the ability to do so, and by remembering it relation to the Gospel story, and relating it to how their faith works itself out in daily life, they were explaining it to me in a way which brought something new into my life.

When we declare our belief in God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (as we will in a moment) we are accepting responsibility for being part of God’s relay race. We will be accepting that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are taking delivery of the abilities God has given us, remembering as we do where they come from, and how their use in our lives is connected to the story of Jesus Christ. It’s now up to us to deliver onwards (in many different ways, according to those abilities that God is giving us) the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, by explaining to others how it works in our lives, and how God wants it to work in their lives.

This morning later in the service, we will DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that Delivers to us the Ability to Remember and Explain, the love of God shown us through the death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ.

And so, let us stand to affirm that faith!

Service for the Celebration of Pentecost

Pentecost candle and holders

On Pentecost Sunday I had the privilege of leading and preaching at the church of All Saints, Minstead (at the invitation of the incumbent Revd Dr James Bruce). This was the church in which I was baptised, confirmed and married. It is also the church that my Dad has attended for the last 60 years, and the occasion also marked his 80th birthday.

In the next post is my sermon, which built on my long association with and knowledge of the community and it’s people and in particular with Furzey Gardens which lies at the top of the village, and last week won Gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their garden created by members of the Minstead Training Project for people with learning disabilities. (BBC South news coverage here.)

The liturgy for the service I adapted from that in Common Worship especially the Times and Seasons section for Pentecost, to create something that was simple but meaningful. I used the word DARE that appears repeatedly in the “commissioning” that forms the conclusion of that service as the mnemonic that I also hinged the sermon on, producing a over-arching theme that started from the light from the Pascal Candle and the Easter story, and hopefully took them into the future daring to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. You are welcome to see, use and comment on the form the final liturgy took by downloading this: A Pentecost Celebration

Liturgical Notes:

  • I deliberately asked for the Gospel to be read immediately before the Pentecost Reading, so that the flow of the readings was chronologically correct and drawn together into the one story;
  • I created candle holders that used four of the DAREs in the closing liturgy, and a variety of flame coloured card, so that people had something symbolic to receive and take home (see photo). The master copy for the candle holder is here: CandleHoldersForPentecostDARE
  • The ‘commissioning of people of the Spirit’ at the end of the service was adapted from the original to take account of the fact that we didn’t in fact want people to go outside the church, and I no longer live in the community. They also used the liturgical and historic spaces within the church to guide where I asked local individuals to read the individual DAREs from. These could be adapted to use in any other church and community.

Footnote: I can thoroughly recommend The Trusty Servant pub in Minstead where my family continued Dad’s celebrations at lunch!

Where Buzzards Call – God’s own Cathedral

Buzzard above the trees in Yateley

There is a field where I like to walk the dog, to breath deeply of the fresh air, to watch butterflies and look across the edge of town to the hill beyond, and to listen to the buzzards calling.

They are a new edition to the scenery. At one visit about two weeks ago, I spotted six separate buzzards – four in the air at once, but two others calling from nearby trees. Regularly since then there have been two, lifting from the nearby oaks and circling above my head calling to each other as I walk the field boundary.

Stitchwort flowering in the field bank

The sound of a buzzard, lifts my spirits. When I’m in the company of my husband, the effect is even better. There is something about sharing our appreciation of wildlife, from the tiniest flower to the raptors above, that brings a depth to the sense of joy at God’s creation that I struggle to put into words. There is also a freedom in such circumstances to praise and worship God in a way that is impossible within the walls of a building, however majestic and prayer-filled it might be. Truly I sense that this is one of the places where I stand in God’s own cathedral.

Moulting Roe Buck near Yateley, May 2012

Yesterday, I entered this same field, to be greeted by yet another treat. At the top of the field was a grazing Roe Deer, unconcerned by the presence of myself & my Honey dog. For once, she stayed quiet and allowed herself to be put on the lead as I crept closer, a few yards at the time. The Roe buck raised it’s head occasionally, moved occasionally to some new patch, and grazed on. Before it left the field, I was even able to get close enough to take a photo!

I wondered at it’s unusual mottled look, but not until I got home and looked at the photo did I realise that it was moulting heavily, the glossy gingery red coat just visible below the long guard hairs that have kept it warm through the winter.

As the Roe buck leapt over the fence, my terrier Honey, finally spotted it!

[On the phone later in the day, Dad (30 plus years a wildlife manager in the New Forest) reminded me that the Roe Deer has an unusual biological cycle, that doesn’t match that of the other deer of Britain. They caste their antlers in November (rather than May as the Fallow do), bearing new antlers in velvet during the cold of winter. They rut (mate) in late July and early August. But there’s another twist of biology, for the fertilised eggs have delayed implantation until sometime towards the shortest day, so that the young, which can be twins, are born in high summer.]

When we are in the place that Jesus is – Psalm 51:10-17 and John 11:32-7

This week we started a short sermon series at St. Peter’s Yateley on the values of ‘being church’, the first of which focused on being ‘Broken Hearted’. It came at what is a time of hugely mixed emotions among our congregations, with news of an amazing healing and of difficult bereavements among our fellowship this week. 

When a broken soldier reached the place where Jesus was, he found Jesus in the guise of a Mothers’ Union Family Holiday team, some of whom are here this morning. One of the most successful snipers in the British Army, Neil looks back at the summer of 2005 and recognises himself (and I use his own words here) as “a murderous, lying, thieving, cheating scum, on the verge of alcohol dependency” and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It was the weight of a stone placed in Neil’s hands, space to think about the words of Matthew 11 “Come ye who are heavily laden and I will give you rest”, and the prayers of at least one person here, that enabled Jesus to break through into the life of that soldier’s hardened heart and emotions. He became ashamed of what he had become, both in action and in attitude, and as he started to believe in Jesus and in God, Neil says he started to change from the inside to the outside. (His full testimony is here – something I’ve also been working on publicising this week, which is probably why it sprang to mind!)

There is a close relationship between repentance and compassion. For Neil to recognise and repent of those things that were wrong with the person he had become, he had to experience of the compassion of Jesus through those that offered his family that holiday experience, the chaplain who gave him that stone, and the prayers of those who though shocked by what he told them, talked and prayed for him and his family.

Neil and his wife Tina at the renewal of their marriage vows on the MU AFIA Family Holiday in 2011

For Neil to become the person he is now, himself a member of the Family Holiday Team, and training to be a Reader whilst still serving in the Army, the only sacrifice he had to make was that of a broken and contrite heart before God, as we heard in the words of Psalm 51. His joy, and that of his family, has been restored through an awareness of his own faults. His heart-shattered life has been re-made, ready to reach out with Christ’s love for others.

Neil received the love of Christ, enabling him to find repentance, and so turn the wheel of Christ’s compassion for a broken world onwards toward other’s who come broken-hearted to the place where Jesus is.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was in our Gospel reading this morning, she too was broken-hearted. But hers was not the burden of those things that she had done wrong, but the ultimate reality of bereavement that we are all confronted by when a loved one dies. The miracles of healing and life, like that of the blind man whose eyes were opened by Jesus, and those experienced this week by others in our congregation this week, are often overshadowed by the length of suffering we see in the lives of our friends, and the pain of parting that some we of know have also experienced this week.

Like many people since, as Mary fell questioning and crying at Christ’s feet, she was in darkness; wishing not that he would take away the grief she felt, but that he had made it so the pain had never happened at all.

It’s tough to say it, and tougher still to live through it, but Christ is not fully come into his Kingdom, and so death is still a fact of life. Mary’s sister Martha has in the earlier part of this story (that we haven’t read), come to some understanding that Jesus is the Son of God, and the resurrection of the dead is part of the sequence of events that will reveal his coming in glory. Yet neither of the sisters are aware that Jesus’ actions in the next hour and in the coming days in Jerusalem, will inaugurate that time though not bring it to completion.

Yet Mary kneels in the street, covered in her tears and the dirt of daily life, having turned to the one person she feels can make a difference in her grief. Like her sister, she is not content to sit at home, as tradition would have dictated, and wait for the Jesus to come to make his mourning visit.

Christ on the verge of entering into his coming Kingdom, is the only hope that Mary feels able to reach out to, seeking some sort of compassion that will really make a difference to the emotions which fill her to overflowing. That unwitting action on her part, helps to set the stage for hope and healing to be revealed to the broken-hearted of her time, and of our own.

The Jews who followed Mary to the place where Jesus was, had been startled into curiosity by her sudden departure from the house after Martha had spoken quietly of Jesus’ approach.

Their’s was a time and place where emotions and compassion for the broken hearted had perhaps become ritualised. They would have expected the sisters to remain seated at home, receiving visitors who would then wait upon their needs, bringing them food and keeping the house in order during seven days of mourning.

Running out of the house to fall at the feet of this man who was not even family, may fit our stereotyped image of the wailing of mourning in some Eastern cultures, but would not have sat well with Jewish tradition.

Today in what we call the post-Christian western world, it seems we are beginning to leave an era when mourning had become over-ritualised. Though there are certain appropriate formalities, things are becoming a little more relaxed as people take more time to celebrate the reality of the life of a loved one, however short that life is cut. But still, many people have a tendency to suffer the “stiff-upper-lip” approach, trying not to allow grief and their emotions to be visible to others, and seeking to do everything, that they think others expect of them.

Perhaps the Jews are not so far wrong, by giving others the strength and companionship of not having to focus on the basic chores of life, releasing people to focus on their grief and love for someone.

The same is perhaps true for those of us who at times come alongside our friends and neighbours at times of grief, or other times of distress and trouble, some of them quite long-term. I have at times wished I was more prone to the visible emotion of tears, thinking that by showing compassion for anothers’ grief in such a way, they would feel permitted to release the stopper they are keeping on their own emotions, and thus find some measure of healing and peace.

I say this because when Mary reaches him, Jesus has come to a place where the burdens he is carrying for his friends Mary and Martha and for his future, well to the surface. Jesus weeps.

Painting of the Crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) “Draw me out of the net they have spread for me, for you are my refuge; to your own hands I commit my spirit, by you have I been redeemed.” (Psalm 31:4-5)

Jesus showed his humanity. The Word made flesh, the creator of the world, wept for his friends, the living and the dead. There is no triumphalism of one who knows that he will shortly raise Lazarus from the dead, in an act that will contribute to his own crucifixion and resurrection. Instead he bears the griefs and carries the sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) of all that he shares and is about to do, to the point of tears.

Yet, Jesus’ tears are also those of a deep anger – at least that is what the language of the original gospel of John suggests. The Word of God, our creator, is exhibiting his utter frustration that the world he brought into being, is so broken that death, and the sin of the world exhibited in our lack of understanding of his love for us and our need to love each other, still has the power to cause suffering, or at the very least ignore our ability to alleviate it. That is what is propelling him to Jerusalem and to the cross. That is the strength of love that was shed in the tears of Christ.

We are called to be a people who have come to the place where Jesus is. We are an Easter people, those who believe in the resurrection of not just Lazarus, but of our Christ, the Word made flesh. If we understand that Christ died to inaugurate the coming of God’s Kingdom, we must know too that we have the responsibility of not simply knowing God’s compassion for a broken world, visible in Christ’s crucifixion, but working to bring about a greater understanding of what he did through exhibiting that compassion ourselves.

We rightly think that many people in St Peter’s have a willing spirit, and often spend their time coming alongside those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. We need to celebrate, and encourage those that dare to enter and come alongside the empty people of the world, people who come to us as a place where Jesus is, the living Word. We are called to be a people who weep with Christ in the broken places of people’s lives.

Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Isaiah 52:7

As we come as those broken by life, or by death, to the place where Jesus is, we need to trust that it is a place where we can be honest about the state of our own lives, our emotions, and our ability (or lack of ability) to carry on as we are. We should not feel constrained by tradition or culture to kneel before our crucified Christ in any other way than that which has integrity with our anger at our own or another’s suffering.

Our compassion should include our frustration at the state of God’s broken world, and if necessary our broken lives. That is where it truly follows the example of the tears that Jesus wept.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, as Christ’s Easter people, everyone can

“Turn to Christ for comfort, hope and healing. In receiving it, we are marked by the cross, which requires us to expend our own lives sacrificially in offering and gift. [In this way] the Church is, in a real sense, a communion; the Body of Christ.”

The place where Jesus is.

[The final quote I used is by Revd Canon Prof Martin Percy, Principle of Ripon College Cuddesdon in Reflections for Daily Prayer 2011-2 on Fri 4 May Exodus 35:20-36:7. The images of paintings by Brother Benedict are used with permission of the Abbot of Alton Abbey.]