What is ‘sacred’ in Christianity?

From the ‘Forest Stations’ by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007

It may surprise some to know that this week I started ordination training by focusing on other important religions in the world today, and how Christians engage theologically with them.

From a practical point of view this is partly because I’m doing two years of study, and missing out some of the initial modules that some of my colleagues are studying because I have hopefully covered some of the material in Reader Training. “Inter-faith Theology” is a second year course on the Oxford Ministry Course, and one that because of my mixed-mode MA modules I won’t be required to submit a portfolio for.

I have never lived in a particularly multi-faith community, but as I boot up my rusty brain, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about my own faith, sparked by a recent article in the Independent that I was pointed to by a tweet from Fr Richard that said “really important stuff on the difference between Islamic and Christian views of revelation.” Except for me it wasn’t differences in our views of revelation, but differences in our views of what is sacred.

Selina O’Grady posits here that the difference in recent reactions to a scrap of papyrus and a badly made film (which I don’t feel I need to see, and to which I’m not linking), are at least in part due to the different beliefs Muslims and Christians have about their scriptures. She states that

Islam treats its sacred text as outside the pressures of history… The Bible is human as well as sacred.

I have for some years tended to describe the Bible as a collection of stories about ‘God in action’. But by stories, I do not mean, as Ms O’Grady suggests that these scriptures are ‘myth, an “as if” story.’

For me, the Biblical narrative is about real events and people, but they are related by humans at specific points in history, who have viewed those events through particular lenses of culture, ethnicity and language.

Some Old Testament scripture was written to describe events that occurred thousands or millions of years ago (depending on your views on creation), significantly after the events they try to describe or interpret. As Christian’s we inherited these from our Jewish forbears.

Even some of the ‘stories’ in New Testament scripture, including the Gospels, would have relied initially on word-of-mouth to transmit them. Others were written to specific communities or people with particular problems and needs (like the Corinthians).

So my faith based on Biblical descriptions of what others like Thomas saw for themselves, and declare with them that Jesus is ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). But none of this makes scripture ‘sacred’ as far as I understand the term.

If something is ‘sacred’, it pertains to the divine and is exclusively devoted or dedicated to that deity – according to the dictionary at least.

Obviously I would agree that the Bible is about God, and his continuing revelation of himself to humanity. But whereas both the Qur’an and the prophet Mohammed (pbuh) appear to be sacred to Muslims to the extent that they cannot be critiqued (and I’m very willing to stand corrected on that), I don’t regard the Bible as sacred to the extent that we should not engage with it using the full range of our intellectual abilities.

However, the sort of speculation to which Ms O’Grady refers, and which is also reflected on here from the viewpoint of a feminist theologian, doesn’t seem to me to have any bearing on the Biblical narrative. The scriptural record does not include details of Jesus’ marital status, as far as I am aware, because it is not pertinent to the Christian faith. I believe God created Jesus as without sin, but does a possible marriage change this? No, I don’t think it does. This I suspect is why I don’t feel threatened by a papyrus that may, or may not, change our understanding of Jesus earthly life. What is important about who Jesus was, is never-changing, not ‘ever-changing’ as Ms O’Grady suggests.

So, the celibacy or otherwise of Christ, has no influence on my faith in the Jesus revealed through the writings of the New Testament as crucified and risen. Yet, is even he, really sacred?

What I’m wondering is whether the Christian understanding of Jesus as the means of God’s grace, in fact means that nothing is sacred, except ourselves! Because as Christian’s we are the ones that should be exclusively dedicated to Jesus as our response to God’s love and forgiveness.

I was having these thoughts online earlier when Ben Martin of the Order of the Black Sheep followed them through by saying:

I suppose in a spiritual way our identity in Christ gives us a sacred nature which is sacrificial rather than untouchable and out of reach, echoing the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

So, perhaps that’s it. What is sacred in Christianity is OUR response to Christ, his death and resurrection, as testified to in the New Testament, and as the means of our relationship with God.

Familiarity can breed contentment

Twenty-five years ago this week, memories started to be made in this place – the seafront, Aberystwyth (photographed at a reunion of friends in 2005)

I wonder if you are familiar with the phrase ‘familiarity breeds contempt‘? Well not for me it doesn’t!

I was incredibly fortunate attending university in Aberystwyth. Although I have never directly used the studies I completed there, a BSc (Econ) in Agricultural Economics, I have so many good memories of my time there, the scenery, the people I continue friendships with (including my husband), the wonderful church (people and building) at St. Mike’s, that just remembering the place brings me a warm glow of contentment.

Before I went to ‘Aber’ I was able to visit for my interview, and visit again over the summer before I started, which included familiarising myself with the local geography (aided and abetted by my Mum, who had arranged that we holiday in nearby Tregaron where I fell in love with the then rare Red Kites!)

What friends, memories and developments in faith will I make here? Ripon College Cuddesdon from across the fields to the north-west.

It seemed perfectly natural for me to sort of repeat the exercise before I started ordination training as a mixed-mode student at Ripon College Cuddesdon. I didn’t even recognise until I started this reflection that I was repeating the format of the past!

Some of my trips to Cuddesdon in recent weeks were simply sight-seeing so that both my son and my Dad could visualise where I would be spending my time. Others, were academic, as I’ve met both my Dean of Studies and my Academic Tutor to try and settle some of the detail of my course programme. In the course of these, I have become familiar with the local roads, and alternative routes in and out of the village.

College House, Cuddesdon viewed from College Field where I will regularly park the car. I met my personal tutor there in the sun on Saturday!

I have discovered that I am the only Mixed-Mode MA student in the place, as previous participants in this specific format of MA have all left to be ordained. Trust me to different! Thankfully in two weeks time I will meet the (few) other MA Brookes candidates, who will be residential students.

I have also taken the time to walk a little in the area. With the family we pottered round the Cuddesdon Mill area, and yesterday before the final stage of the induction process for all part-time students, I was able to walk from college, to Denton and back across the fields. The plan is that I occasionally take our mad mutt to college, and I’d rather suss out the fields, stiles, bridges and types of local farm stock before I’ve got her with me. And yes, now commonly visible in Oxfordshire, Red Kites will be an even bigger feature of college life for me – there were four hanging over the college grounds as I walked south.

Having done all these things, I am left with a sense of the surroundings (as well as the wildlife) being familiar, both within college and around the village. I drove home late yesterday evening, hugely at peace and content with my lot, despite the deluge of information we’ve been given in recent days. Although I anticipate the academic work to be the toughest I’ve ever attempted, actually that’s made so much easier to bear by the lack of uncertainty and the sense of contentment.

One of my aims whilst studying at Cuddesdon is to get some better photographs of Red Kites than those currently achieved!

I suspect there are other reasons for my sense of peace, knowing as I do how many friends and family members have been holding me in prayer over recent days and months. To them my huge and grateful thanks, and a request: Please don’t stop now; the really hard work is about to begin! God’s peace is beyond all understanding, and I give thanks that at least for now, I have it in abundance.

With real work looming, some of which lies next me demanding to be read, comes the excitement of getting to know my fellow part-timers on the Oxford Ministry Course, and the residential students among whom I will be working, especially those who I have already ‘met’ via Twitter!

Here’s to both the familiarity and contentment continuing.

Memories of Mfula – Eastern Cape South Africa 2006

The road from Butterworth to Mfula crossed several washed out rivers, and much bedrock. (Eastern Cape, South Africa, August 2006)

Six years ago, when our son was nine, we travelled to Uganda and South Africa, partly to connect with Mothers’ Union members and see their work first-hand. Some while ago I was asked to share some details of a particular part of that trip which I refer to here. With apologies for the (six year) delay, here’s a few memories:

From our weekend base at the SOS Children’s Village at Mthatha in Eastern Cape (which we’ve sponsored since a friend was it’s founding director) we travelled in a rented VW Polo to the hills and the most southerly parish in the Diocese of Mthatha. We travelled with the Diocesan Mothers’ Union Worker to Mfula, which lies above the Swart-Kei and Tsomo rivers, approximately 50km from the nearest tarmac (at Nqamakwe north of Butterworth.)

The worshipping community of St Peter’s Mfula (Eastern Cape, South Africa, August 2006)

The service at St. Peter’s Mfula was scheduled for 9am. After a 4 hour drive in our totally inappropriate hire car (because the MU 4×4 was off the road), we arrived at 11am, to be greated by two columns of banner waving, ululating Mothers’ Union members at the Rectory gate. After a fresh sandwich in the church hall, we were shown to the honoured seats at the front of the church and started the 2.5 hour service around noon.

As well as the white bloused, black skirted, Mothers’ Union members, other groups represented including the Girls Friendly Society (blue bonnet and skirt) and the Society of St Mary of Magdelene (purple cape).

The worship was sung in Xhosa. We did our best to sing along, but I can’t ‘click’ so I suspect my pronunciation was dodgy! There were no musical instruments, but incredibly good four part singing – the beat emphasised by people thumping their prayer/hymn books. However we were provided with an English Prayer Book, which helped when my husband was invited to lead prayers in English. Like Revd Bekwa’s sermon, and my later contribution to proceedings, these part of the service and celebrations were translated into Xhosa.

This gift beadwork gift from MU members at St Peter’s Mfula, I was able to bring back to the UK and give to the parish of St Barnabas in Weeke, Winchester who have a link with the Diocese of Mthatha (Eastern Cape, South Africa, August 2006)

You could see our sons eyes come out on organ-stops, and his face crease, as we were doused in incense (this was his first experience of high church worship). We were given communion first, and then after the rest of the packed congregation received we were returned to the altar and given the honour of finishing off the bread and wine – all with much joyful swinging of the censer.

As the service drew to a close we entered a second phase of the celebration, in which Mothers’ Union matters took precidence. As I had anticipated I was expected to speak and managed to link the Gospel and Epistle to a talk I had prepared explaining a bit about the work of Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Winchester, and it’s Family Life Programme in Uganda where we’d spent the previous week. I had also anticipated the exchange of gifts and was able to provide much prized Mothers’ Union badges, some sewing kits provided by MU members of St Barnabas, Weeke, and some silk scarves I had painted with MU logos before leaving the UK. All were later blessed by Revd Bekwa for distribution to those who could best use them.

The beadwork (some done with reeds or grass) we received was exquisite. The Mothers’ Union ladies make it as an income generating project, but sadly being so remote the community has little market for it. We were the first Western visitors EVER to the parish! The roads are the biggest obstruction to the regions development as people would travel to the area for the scenery and wildlife if it were more accessible.

A wonderful happy, singing band of Mothers’ Union caterers! St. Peter’s Mfula, Eastern Cape, South Africa, August 2006

As we shared the wonderful meal that followed (complete with Christmas decorations – in August) we learnt how poor the economy was, with a lot of unemployment. Many of the young girls had dropped out of school or couldn’t find work, or if they could hadn’t the transport to reach it! The soil seemed very thin and we did not see many crops. We were told that they could grow more, and some MU work encourages this, but that often people would complain that they didn’t have the energy to till the soil, which is partly a problem of malnutrition. There were many goats and sheep, and some cattle, but I suspect we provided with more food than many of them saw regularly.

Mfula from the ‘better’ road we left on! Eastern Cape, South Africa, August 2006

When we finally left, via a better route than the one by which we’d come, we were sung to yet again. Our visit had obviously brought a huge amount of joy to people who had walked miles to see us, simply because we had wanted to meet and worship with a rural community. A deeply humbling experience.

A mother’s Biblical wisdom from beyond the grave

Mum’s working NRSV Bible. As you can see she was prone to ‘make do’ and has therefore adapted a different Bible cover to protect it!

Tomorrow, on Saturday 15th September 2012, I start ordination training at Ripon College Cuddesdon (also known as the Holy Hill, or the Holy Hogwarts and recently described by Revd Richard Coles as the CofE’s Sandhurst!)

In a box of my mother’s old theology books unearthed from the roof last weekend, among a heavily scribbled on copy of ‘Faith in the Countryside’ and much feminist and liberation theology, I found her ‘working’ copy of the Bible, an NRSV with Apocrypha.

So ended my search for a lighter NRSV to carry for college, having decided I didn’t really want to carry her Annotated Oxford NRSV which weighs in at 3.25lb an may yet be used as a door stop. This one weighs just less than 2.5lbs, but that’s not the only reason I’ll be using it during training.

My mother was a strong character who dominated my childhood, had a dangerous grasp of the English language, and was lethal in her use of a walking stick, wielded from the haven of her folding chair at anyone she wished to speak to – even Bishop’s could not withstand it’s knee numbing impact!

Mum worked hard at Deanery and Diocesan Synods in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a wider use of lay ministry, for a recognition of the difficulties faced by the church in rural communities, and for the ordination of women. Sponsored by the Diocese of Winchester, she studied Pastoral Theology at La Sainte Union in Southampton, though she never completed her degree because she died of cancer in January 1996. She owned the first computer in the family, but thankfully never met the internet, Facebook or Twitter – she’d have loved the idea of harnessing social media to share her faith and viewpoints!

Although we shared our Christian faith, and she’d actually found her faith journey encouraged by my church links at college in Aberystwyth, I didn’t want to follow through on her interests. But as I have deliberately sought to make my own path in faith and ministry, I have been increasingly aware how much all I have been enabled to do results from the work of people like her. And, here I am starting ordination training, wanting to concentrate particularly on (among other things) rural ministry! She will be laughing heartily right now, full of pride and sharing the joke with God!

I’ve never been particularly prone to emotional outbursts, even (or especially) about my mother. However, inside the Bible, among the snippets of paper (for which she was infamous) and quotations written into the blank cover pages, I found her words at her mothers’ funeral, and my words at hers (which I must have placed there shortly after).

I also found and the notes I reprint below. Sixteen years after her death and in light of my own prayers and fears at this point in time, I wanted to share them through my tears and laughter. I suspect that at this particular juncture in the life of people I’m about to meet, and in the history of the Church of England, they may speak to others as well as to myself:

On a blank page at the front of the Bible:

John Chrystostom to Olympias his deacon at Constantinople after his exile in 404:

“When the gale blows, a pilot controls his ship by adjusting the sail, and so steers the vessel safely. You already know this, my dear lady, most beloved of God, so don’t give yourself up to the tyranny of sadness, but be mistress of the storm, which you can do, if you use your reason; the waves are not too powerful for your skill.”

On a thin sheet of paper, in her neatest handwriting, unattributed to anyone else Mum wrote:

I believe in God.
I believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to die for us. For all of us.
How can we as Christians deny the right of any who are called to serve Christ, to test that call, regardless of gender.

Inside the Bible cover is written a quotation by Henry van Dyke:

He who planteth a tree is a servant of God.
He provideth a kindness for many generations,
And faces which he hath not seen shall bless him.

Finally, on a scrap of paper torn from a notebook, a reminder of my Mother’s sense of humour:

Middle Age is when it takes twice as long to rest and half as long to get tired.

At last, like never before, I can thank God for my Mother, her wisdom, and all that she gave me.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T the House of Bishops

By jove, I think they’ve got it!

At least, I hope and pray they have. The House of Bishops that is. “It” being wording which will allow the mission and ministry of the Church of England to move on, and those women with the appropriate calling to be ordained bishop. It now rests with the General Synod who meet (if I understand correctly) in November (14th-16th), for the specific purpose of voting on the legislation to enable bishops to be of either sex.

I wanted to give myself an easy reference point of the final wording of Clause 5(1)(c) and the comments that have followed today, as a means of thinking through my own reactions.  For what it’s worth, they’re shared here:

Press Release from the new CofE Media Centre – short, clear and positive in how it reads. I get the impression the House of Bishops really want this matter voted through and the world to move on. May that prayer be answered, and may we who are members of the Church of England show them the respect they deserve for listening to the simple words of a woman, and deciding that they give us the best chance of earning us the belated respect of the nation.

Lay Anglicana hailing the wisdom of the Revd Janet Appleby (General Synod member) whose suggested rewording of the much debated clause received the “overwhelming” support of the Bishops. The dubbing of the Clause as the ‘Appleby Amendment’ should stick – in all senses. The post also leads to the thought that the onus for the move towards a general acceptance of ‘bishops’ as being either male or female, will rest firmly in the hands of local lay people, if the Appleby Amendment is accepted.

The Opinionated Vicar has highlighted today’s notable silences.  WATCH have in fact written to members last night noting their “disappointment that the House of Bishops today decided not to withdraw Clause 5(1)c” and saying they will “consult with our members and others” before deciding their public position. As a member, I publicly ask here and now that WATCH support the Appleby Amendment.

From their different point of view, Reform‘s silence thus far may well be for the same reason, and should thus be commended.

Peter Ould points out that “to respect a position means one has to not just recognise it but also take it into account when responding to it”. For some that may be hard work, but there are few things that are fruitful, that do not require tender loving care and hard graft, so if the General Synod votes the whole legislation through, let us be prepared to make respect a reality.

Thinking Anglicans as usual were the first to offer space for people to comment on the text of the House of Bishop’s statement and the Archbishop’s podcast which followed it. The comments on the post are of particular interest as they offer a range of viewpoints. I guess that my reaction to some of these is that now is the time for the game of semantics to end, and let’s hope we don’t need the lawyers to get too involved.

There may well be other comments made in places I haven’t noticed and in the days to come, especially since the Appleby Amendment came too late for the Church Times paper edition. Their website gets the ball rolling with Paul Handley’s item, which I presume is free to view until next week.

But by that time, I shall be concentrating on other things, but still praying.


Prayer for a passionate life

As I enter life as an ordinand, what am I seeking in prayer?

I am seeking to be filled with more passion.

  • A passion for Jesus – an understanding of his saving grace that animates me and engages my emotions in a way that exceeds all that has gone before in my life;

Early in the selection process I was told I was “strong of creation, strong on incarnation, and weak on salvation” which has bothered me ever since – especially given the last 25 years in churches on the evangelical wing of the church. Since I don’t ‘feel’ it and obviously couldn’t articulate something my Examining Chaplain wanted to see, am I missing something? I was encouraged though by Monday’s Canticle which was from Isaiah 12:

‘For the Lord God is my strength and my song and has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

  • A passion for God’s people – a well of love and grace that will fill me with the desire and strength to reach out in simple acts of humanity to those who I may, or may not, want to make space in my life for each day;
  • A passion to read, hear and use words wisely – in writing and in the spoken word, in real life, in academia and in cyberspace, in such that a way that walls of mistrust are broken down, not built; I’m aware of the pitfalls Muriel Sowden highlights in this Big Bible post, and don’t want to fall into them.
  • A passion for the presence of God that drives me to fight the hustle of the world, for the rhythms and space that enable me to hear his voice; I reckon I’m pretty passionate about this already, but don’t want that passion to be lost in academic books and word counts, or later on in parish life!
  • A passion to leave and give enough space in my life to love myself and my family, such that we might be able to strengthen each other’s love and faith, with enough left over to offer simple acts of kindness to others; how does one fit everything God asks of us into one life?

That’s rather a lot of passion! And it’s not like I’m not already really passionate about my faith, else I wouldn’t be embarking on this adventure, but I just think the ‘well’ needs to be deeper!

A fortnight ago, at the same parish service in which my future studies and ministry were prayed for, I was vaguely prepared to try and articulate these thoughts.

God used a better spokesperson though, as we were treated to a great sermon on John 2:13-24 by Mano Emmanuel the Dean of Colombo Theological Seminary (who happens to be the sister of a member of our congregation).

Mano focused our attention on Jesus as a passionate person, one ‘consumed by zeal for God’s house’ (John 2:17). She reminded us that we are called us to imitate him, in our passion to be always engaged with the world, and our willingness to give up our small ambitions so that we can seek to change the world in his name.

I’m not sure therefore if my prayers for passion really go far enough, but for the moment they help me to overcome the nerves on this journey with God, trusting in this call he has on my life. Because I know these are among my areas of personal weakness, or easily endangered by ministry, and I will need this passion to be effective through my future ministry.

In the meantime, do you feel you have a passionate spiritual life that sustains you in whatever you do? If you don’t think you’re passionate enough, feel free to add your prayers to mine 🙂

Father God,
faithful to what is your call on my life,
and in all I am about to embark upon,
make me a passionate disciple of Jesus Christ.
Create within me the will to serve you unstintingly,
a better understanding of your salvation,
a deep well of love and grace for those who I encounter,
the wisdom to listen, hear and use words wisely,
a rhythm of life that enables me to hear your word,
and enough space to love those who you gave me to cherish.
Through the power of your Holy Spirit,
and for the glory of your kingdom.

Resurrect and recycle – can a wedding dress be reborn?

There’s a lot of material in my old wedding dress!

Yesterday we finally attacked a task of such monstrous domestic terror that it has been put off for at least three years. We sorted through our roof space. (Well most of it!)

Among the old lecture notes, text books, guitar magazines, rolled up carpet off-cuts and cast off clothes, was one of the things which had precipitated this unusual behaviour. My wedding dress.

Twenty years ago, and as our son pointed out in a rather slimmer period of my life, I was married in more yards of natural silk (and five net petticoats) than was probably sensible on a warm day in July. Since then, carefully folded into an old florist’s box, my wedding dress has lain hidden away.

Beadwork on the bodice of my wedding dress

Interestingly although it sparked many reminiscences for both of us, my husband has almost more emotional attachment to it than I have. I guess I wasn’t looking at it from the outside, and it wasn’t me that played with pearls on the bodice during the Best Man’s speech when no-one was looking!

It looks in pretty good nick, though it seems a slightly darker shade of ivory than I remember it, and has some minor mould damage near its hem. I don’t have a daughter to hand it on to, and it will only deteriorate more if it returns to the loft, so now, it’s hanging, a little like the ghost of a Tudor lady, from the curtain rail of our spare room, awaiting its fate.

Husband dearest wants to have the bodice panel removed and framed for posterity, whilst I was thinking this would be rather easier with the bow at the back. We may need to compromise and achieve both in one frame, if we had the foggiest who might be able to do such a thing.

For the last few months, in fact since before being recommended for ordination training, I have harboured the idea, inspired by snatches of conversation with others over the last couple of years, of using all that silk for making clerical stoles, or at least a ‘white’ one. White stoles are after all used by priests when taking weddings, and I can’t think of anything more appropriate than using my own wedding dress for that!

The bow at the back – in fact the ‘tails’ are sewn into the waistline, and the ‘bow’ is hooked over to hide the zip that ran below the buttons.

I know I’ve got two years before I get as far as ordination, and there’s no certainty I’ll get there at all, but at least that’s time to work out if the idea is a runner. Could it be cut up to the right shape, or shapes? Is it suitable to be dyed? Is the material of the right sort? Could it be silk painted? What could be used to line and strengthen it? I’m not sure where to start, or even if the silk is pale enough for this to be appropriate, or anything really.

Then there’s all that netting that makes up the five petticoats. If we’re cannibalising the silk itself for various forms of posterity, could someone make use of all that netting?

A lot of net!

If anyone has any experience, wisdom, bright ideas or alternatively wants to give me a sanity check, now would be a great time to share it with me. Please.