Forgettable Fathers….

ricky-gervais-on-the-simpsons_432x331Father’s Day is a difficult day of the year for many people who go to church.  Not everyone wants to hear the command and admonition to honour and obey their father. It’s not because they are less spiritual, but because their relationships with their father is a painful memory, rather than a happy one.

In our increasingly fractured society we will have some people who don’t even know their dad and we may have dads who abandoned their children. We will also have those whose Father’s were abusive or who continue to make life painful for their offspring. That’s why some people find it hard to attend church on Father’s Day.

It’s a very emotional day for many. They’ll never tell you why they avoided church. They’ll never tell anyone.

Some families have secrets that have been carefully tucked away for no one to ever discover. Remember the story of David and Bathsheba, which was eventually followed by the one son’s rape of his half-sister in 2 Samuel 11-13? Brother Absalom kept it all a secret while harbouring a murderous rage at his father’s inability to protect Tamar or bring to justice her rapist. Eventually he lashed out. Tamar remained a devastated woman for the rest of her days.

There’s every chance that there are Absaloms and Tamars who will turn up to worship on Father’s day – some who try to hide sin and some who try to hide sadness.

Father’s Day is a great and important opportunity to honour fathers. However, it is also an obstacle that some face as they endeavour to live the Christian life today. Many can be grateful for their dads. Others remember only humiliation or intimidation.  In order to Worship properly as a real family we need to remember those whose memories of their fathers are joyful and those with memories they’d rather forget.

Honouring a father who has done dishonourable things can feel impossible. Some people find their emotions getting all stirred up on Father’s Day, and they don’t even know why.

And yet, Father’s Day is the best time to remind us that we can have a relationship with a new Father, even though we might have had a rocky road with our earthly father. It’s a time of hope and healing and fresh starts. On Father’s Day we get to offer some people a relationship with a perfect heavenly Father who does no wrong, whatsoever.  That’s the message we have for people who hurt on Father’s Day.

 

A new bishop…?

John-praying.jpg.721x561_q100What is a Bishop?

In the Oxford Diocese we are waiting for the appointment of our new Bishop.  Over the last few months several people have asked me who I think should be our next Bishop and so I thought this was the ideal opportunity to reflect on what a Bishop is, in the Church of England.

If you visit another Church, particularly one in another denomination, you could easily be confused about who does what.  Variously, in different churches, the person in leadership is called the minister, priest (not to mention rector and vicar), pastor, elder (and deacon), presbyter or even bishop.  So, what do we mean when we call someone a Bishop?

Bishops in the New Testament

The New Testament has a very simple model of ministry.  If you look at how those in leadership are described in the New Testament there are two main words that are used: presbuteroi and episkopos.

The word presbuteroi (cf. Matthew 15:2, 27:1; 28:12; Luke 9:22; Acts 4:5,8, 14:23,15:2,4,6,22, 16:4; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5, and Hebrews 11:2) is usually translated as “elder” or “elders” (now, Presbuteroi has sometimes been translated using the Old Testament title of “priest,” however, in the New Testament these are often explicitly distinguished cf. Mark 14:43; Acts 23:14).

The word episkapos (cf. Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7) is variously translated as “episcopal,” “elder,” “overseer,” or “pastor.”

The relationship between these two words is not always certain, but what is clear, is that presbuteroi and episkopos refer to the same office and are therefore synonyms.

The point of this is simply to note that whilst the New Testament does have a hierarchy of ministry between elders and deacons (cf. Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3:1-13) there is no distinction made between those who hold the office of elder – they are all in oversight of the church, whatever we call them.

Bishops in Church History

The earliest writings of the church fathers also seem to confirm this role of “elders” (bishops) as the teaching leaders who served alongside deacons to oversee the church. Both Clement of Rome (c. 95) and the Didache referred to elders and deacons from the late early first century to the early second century as the church’s leaders.

Over time, additional layers of leadership were added to the church and eventually, the term bishop came to be applied to a regional church leader who administered many churches. At the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the church leader of each city or area represented his region’s churches and these leaders were referred to as “bishops.”

Bishops Today

The ordinal is clear in its description of the role of the “bishop”.  It says, “it is their duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church.”

Here, both the New Testament foundation and Christian heritage are preserved.  They are, first and foremost, “fellow presbyters” who share “the oversight of the Church”.

What should a bishop be like?

There are some general principles we can draw on to help us to answer this, and, of course, there are two parts of the New Testament that seek to define those called to be elders in the church, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-7.  From these we can deduce that a bishop should be:

  • Mature in the Faith. This is implicit in their work of oversight, and explicit in the sense that it is the goal of every Christian to be “mature” in Christ, and elders are called to set an example in this.
  • A Person of Integrity. This is the central thrust of Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 where the character of the elder is emphasised (they are to be above reproach, clear thinking, self-controlled, well respected, friendly, sober, peace-loving, not greedy, and have a good reputation outside the church).
  • Able to Teach. This is the key difference in the New Testament between those who serve as deacons and those called to be elders.  Elders (whether you call them priests, pastors or bishops) are to be the teachers of the faith.
  • Guardians of the Faith. Paul could not be any clearer about this.  He writes, an elder “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9).  The church is called to be the pillar of God’s truth in the world and the role of the overseer is to keep that pillar standing true and upright.

The Ordinal preserves these characteristics by reminding bishops that they share oversight of the church by “speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation.”

And that, “Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.”

An Opportunity to Pray

We are expecting the announcement of our new Diocesan Bishop over the summer.  Between now and then there is an opportunity to pray for the person appointed: that they would share in the oversight of the church; that they would be mature in the faith, a person of integrity, able to teach and a guardian of the faith.

For my part I have also been using the prayer that Cranmer wrote as his Collect for St Peter’s Day.  Perhaps you might want to join me in praying this prayer for our new bishop and for all those called to share in the oversight of the church?

“O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thy Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts, and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock: Make, we beseech thee, all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same, that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

We are more like Judas than we’d like to think.

thirty-pieces-of-silverHave you ever been asked which Bible character you most identify with?  It is a common ‘ice-breaker’ kind of question in Christian gatherings and it often produces interesting answers.  The most popular answers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken from the disciples, with Peter and Thomas leading the way.  Old Testament figures often appear, with David, Daniel and Joshua particular favourites.  Then, of course, there are the women: Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Salome and Mary, all being regularly chosen.  But no-one ever says Judas.  It’s probably not a surprise – after all, who really thinks they are like the one who betrayed a close friend?  But, actually, I want to say, we are more like Judas than we’d like to think.

Over the centuries, Christians have characterized Judas in any number of ways from a heartless miser to a power-hungry thief, but the truth is more complicated than this.

In many ways Judas was a true believer, it’s just that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that he believed in.  He was certainly one of the more perceptive of the disciples, as it is clear that he recognised Jesus’ intentions for his Messiahship whilst the rest of the disciples were still largely clueless.  Perhaps it would be better to try and see Judas as a man who initially latched onto the magnetic personality of Jesus but eventually became disillusioned as he realised Jesus wasn’t what he wanted him to be.

You see Judas was very definitely a man with a plan, and he was looking for a Messiah who would fulfil his plans.  I am not sure we’re that different.  When Judas said the Lord’s Prayer, especially the bit, “Your will be done,” I wonder if he said it with the tacit assumption that God’s will agreed with his?   But what happens when God’s will differs from my own? What happens when the fulfilment of the prayer, that is, the part when God’s will is accomplished, is the very opposite of what I want?  It was at this point that Judas chose to do things his way.

During that last week in Jerusalem, Jesus’ teaching and the purpose of his Messiahship, became much clearer.  At the same time, Jesus openly defied—in fact, condemned—the religious establishment to such an extent that he made his death inevitable, and Judas, as astute as he was, knew it.  So, Jesus’ plans and Judas’ plans came into conflict, and Judas had a choice to make.  I don’t think we will ever truly understand what Judas wanted, or hoped for, in betraying Jesus, but what is clear is that he chose his way, rather than Jesus’.

If Peter embodies the ideal childlike faith that completely trusts Jesus with his future, then Judas trusted in himself and his own plans.  In this, we are more like Judas than we’d like to think.   You see, I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time just saying, “Wherever I end up is quite alright as long as I’m with Jesus!”  That’s the ideal we should be striving for, but how many times do we attach conditions?  “I’ll follow you, but…”   And then what do we do when Jesus doesn’t meet our conditions, or when his way differs from our own?

19th-Century PrintWe are more like Judas than we’d like to think.  Of course, his murderous plot isn’t something we can imagine doing, but I think we can all identify with why he struggled to follow Jesus.   And, of course, we face the same choice…will it be your will be done, or my will be done?

So, when someone next asks you, who you identify with as a Christian, do remember Judas.  We may want to think of ourselves as having a deep, strong faith, but the reality is far more complicated than we like to admit.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Judas isn’t someone we should want to be.  He is there as a warning to us not to confuse our plans with God’s plans but we should remember his struggle and his fall, knowing that really, we are more like Judas than we’d like to think.

For better or for worse

I wrote this article in May 2012 in response to a letter published by the Bishop of Buckingham in a national newspaper on marriage and homosexuality.  I have reposted it here in response to continuing requests from people inside and outside the church.  The views are mine and mine alone.

marriage_2074156b

It was with great dismay that I read of the Bishop of Buckingham’s support for what has been called gay marriage.  It is a very sensitive issue and probably not one that ought to be enjoined through open letters.  That said, I felt it important to respond to explain why so many of us, both inside and outside the church, were disappointed by Bishop Alan’s headline making comments.

It is un-helpful

The challenges of human sexuality; the fundamentally differing natures of marriage and civil partnerships; and the often conflicting roles of the church and state cannot be squeezed into a newspaper headline.  To do so is to invite knee-jerk responses from all sides that only serve to polarise the debate and give offense.  There may be some reasoned thinking on these issues that underlie the headlines, but an open letter like this does not encourage debate on that level.

It is un-equal

I cannot speak for those retired Bishops who signed the letter, but those few in current ministry have spoken of the issue of civil marriage as one of equality.  However, the proposed legislation, that the letter refers to, is far from equal.

What the legislation seeks to do is to privilege same-sex relationships over and against all other relationships.  Two things make this clear.  First, the civil marriage being proposed is only open to same-sex couples.  Under the proposed legislation, same-sex couples will be able to choose between civil partnerships and civil marriage where-as heterosexual couples will only be able to choose marriage.  This is hardly equal.

Second, the proposed legislation idealises same-sex relationships over and above all other loving and committed relationships.  If marriage is not the public union of one man and one woman then why is it not open to the loving and committed relationships often shown in siblings?  Or why limit it to two people?  How can something that benefits only one form of loving and committed relationship be done in the name of equality and justice?

It is un-Anglican

The question of human sexuality has been a live one in the church for many decades.  We are committed to sensitively listening to other voices and there is much for the church to reflect on and to improve on.  However, the Anglican position on marriage has not changed.

Bishop Alan’s letter refers to The Book of Common Prayer preface to marriage which affirms that the nature of marriage is the public union of one man and one woman for life, and that its purpose is for procreation; to avoid fornication; and for the good of both marriage partners.  Whilst we talk less today about avoiding sin, this is still the theological position of the Anglican Church on marriage.   The declarative document for the Church of England on this is Issues in Human Sexuality, which concluded that, “Holy Matrimony is, by intention and Divine purpose, to be a lifelong, monogamous and unconditional commitment between a man and a woman.”

Subsequently, the 1998 Lambeth Conference produced a report that approved Issues in Human Sexuality and stated the theological position of the Anglican Church which “upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”

This is the understanding of marriage that is accepted and practiced by the overwhelming majority of the world-wide Anglican Communion.  It is the definition of marriage that occurs over three thousand times in English law and it is the bedrock of our society and the institution into which more than a quarter of a million people enter every year.

It is un-Biblical

It used to be the case that this goes without saying, but now, perhaps more than ever, is the time to remind ourselves just how consistent and unequivocal the Bible is about Marriage.

There is no evidence anywhere in the Bible in favour of same-sex relationships.  Jesus never said a word in favour of anything other than celibacy or the marriage of one man and one woman.  For example, In Matthew 19, when Jesus was asked about marriage and divorce he said, “Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”  Jesus was also equally clear that the context for sex is marriage.  Sexual acts between men and women before marriage and outside marriage are condemned as wrong, as are all instances of same-sex sexual contact.

It is un-Christian

Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that Bishop Alan, or any others who might share his views, are not Christians.  What I am saying is that this is not how Christians are supposed to be in society.  Let me explain what I mean by this.

First, Christians are called to stand against injustice – to defend the poor and the marginalised – but this does not mean that we are to be apologists for sin.  Perhaps the woman caught in adultery in John 8 is a model for us in this.  Jesus was not afraid to defy unbiblical social norms when it came to women: he welcomed men and women equally, and argued that gender was no barrier to salvation.  When the woman was brought before Jesus he refused to condemn her, and he would not allow others to condemn her either – he treated her with dignity, acceptance, even forgiveness – yet he still said to her “go now and leave your life of sin.”

In following Jesus we too have this difficult task of defying unbiblical social norms and welcoming others with acceptance and forgiveness, yet at the same time calling everyone to grow in Christ-like holiness.  Condoning same-sex marriage does not do this.

Second, Christians are meant to be out of touch with the world on some things.  In Psalm 1 the psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.  But his delight is in the law of the Lord.”  This is a theme in the Bible.  As Paul writes in Romans 12, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Christians are not to be tossed about by “every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:4).  Nor are we to preach and teach what society’s itching ears long to hear.  Rather, we are called to faithful obedience to the Word of God.

Writing letters to the press in support of same-sex relationships might get you headlines and favourable news coverage, you might even be seen as being in touch with the spirit of the age, but you are unlikely to be in step with the Spirit of Christ who calls all Christians to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

I believe that this is not how a Christian is called to live, and it is certainly not how a Bishop should behave.  At their consecration all Bishops declare that they are ready “with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same.”

Can I end, then, as I began by expressing my dismay at the actions of our area Bishop, and also by apologising for any offence my long and yet superficial response may have caused.  Open letters are not a healthy way of provoking debate, but hopefully I have put a little more theological meat on the bone.

The institution of marriage is a very special one – as the supplementary text of the current marriage service says, “The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh.”  That is what we celebrate as marriage, what we proclaim as God’s will and purpose for society, and what we defend as a church.

Alistair

Real motherhood is messy…

Mother's DayCan I begin with a confession?  I’ve never really ‘got’ Mothering Sunday (or Father’s Day for that matter).  Don’t get me wrong, I love my mum and I am really proud of the great job my wife is doing in mothering our children, but I’ve never really understood how what we do on Mother’s Day celebrates that?

Let me say right from that start that I think the church is getting better at understanding that Mother’s Day is a painful day for women who long for children.  And we know that it’s hard for a child or adult of any age whose mother has died.  We also recognise that there will always be people present whose mothers are not exactly easy-to-honour.  But what about the rest?

The problem with how the church celebrates Mother’s Day is that it is all too generic: we seem to have become focused on the institution of motherhood itself rather than on those who actually do the hard work of mothering.  Maybe it’s my fault, after all I am the one who buys the flowers; who picks the hymns and preaches the sermons – but, then it can’t be as this is not just a Stokenchurch problem.

The heart of the problem lies in the cultural patterns that we see in the world around us that makes Mother’s Day a celebration of the ideal mum – that entirely non-existent perfect mum who always smiles; always has time for the little things; always makes every appointment; always cook perfect meals and always bakes cakes on Sundays!

This is the ‘perfect mum’ that we honour in society and in church.  We give flowers; we say prayers; we sometimes even invite children to declare with absolute sincerity how wonderful their mums are; and then we take them out for lunch “so that mum doesn’t have to cook”.  Is it just me that wonders if this isn’t actually dishonouring to real mums?

If we really want to honour mums on Mother’s Day, then we need to start by getting real.  Let’s reject the tyranny of the ‘perfect mum’ and encourage mums to be individuals.  Let’s help them to shed their facades, to step out of cultural assumptions and to live and take on duties and demands in accordance with who God made them to be.

How do we do this?  Well let’s start by remembering that honouring mums needs to happen on more than just one Sunday a year. We need to encourage mums to share their stories about being ordinary mums – which is in itself incredible enough – and to give true recognition to those who are living out a calling that looks very different from the stereotypes that we see in our society.

Real motherhood is messy, but that makes it all the more worth celebrating.  So this Mother’s Day, as we sing the traditional hymns; give out flowers; and treat those who are mothers to us, let’s also remember that each mum is unique.  Each mum walks her own road: with her own purpose and mission, and the best thing a church can do is walk along that road with her, encouraging her at every step.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

DSC_0009Alistair writes…

“Je ne suis pas Charlie”

As an expression of unity it is both admirable and remarkable to see so many people from such diverse backgrounds all uniting around a simple slogan “Je suis Charlie.”  Of course, the events that led to it were awful and traumatic for the whole of France.  The deaths of 17 people at the hands of Muslim terrorists were a real shock to the National, even global psyche.  But are we really all Charlie?

The more I have thought and read about the reaction to those terrorist attacks in northern Paris the less comfortable I have become, to the extent that I am now convinced that I am not, nor could I ever be, Charlie.

There is no subtlety in polarisation

This started, for me, with the realisation that we are not all Charlie.  Not only are we not those killed or affected by this terrorist outrage, but we also do not share most of their views.  The problem is there is no subtlety, or even room for nuance, when views become polarised.

The understandable desire for solidarity can quickly turn to demands for group think that make it hard to maintain important differences.  Polarisation reduces our understanding of the issue to black and white – you are either with us or you are against us – instead of allowing people to mourn and be angry while also being sympathetic to complexities that are being overlooked.

Murder is not an acceptable response for anything, yet it is also an exercise of freedom of expression to say that you are offended at the way satire like Charlie Hebdo’s characterises something you hold dear – like your faith, your identity, your race or ethnicity.

There is no virtue in giving offence

History is full of very brave journalists who have lived and died defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression.  Real change has been brought about by people challenging accepted worldviews.  Many of these are Christian journalists who are fighting with every stroke of the pen and click of the key to express their culture challenging, world changing faith in societies that are closed to the gospel.  This is something to be cherished and celebrated, and it is a value in our society that is worth dying for.  However, there is no virtue in giving offence.  Insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is little more than childish.

We have freedom of expression, but it is regulated by laws preventing inciting hatred and spreading discrimination.  Freedom of expression is also, largely, self limited by matters of taste and decency.  Some have criticised the BBC recently because it has stood by an editorial decision not to publish any images of Mohammed.  I think there probably is sufficient public interest to warrant publishing them – as many other news organisations have done – but I respect and appreciate the BBC’s decision not to.

Challenging extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well.  In my opinion, what Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech but an abuse of free speech.

There is no tolerance in secular liberalism

Much is written about the evils of ‘radical Islam’ – our government even has a development plan for schools to prevent such radicalisation – and rightly so.  On the same day as the attack at Charlie Hebdo al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed 37 people in the Yemen.  A few days later Muslim terrorists from Boko Haram massacred some 2,000 people in Baga and children as young as 10 were used to carry suicide bombs in Abuja, killing a further 19 people.

However, fundamentally, this is not a fight between good and evil but the clash of two aggressive, intolerant world views.  The secular liberalism expressed by Charlie Hebdo, in its own way, is as radical and extreme as the Islamists that attacked them.

The problem is that each society has its own ‘untouchables’.  In Islamic countries Mohammed or the Koran is ‘untouchable’.   However, in Western ‘liberal’ countries we are not so tolerant when it comes to our ‘untouchables’.   In fact, anyone who challenges the ‘untouchables’ of secular liberalism is condemned as extremist, right wing, homophobic, intolerant and bigoted.  There is no tolerance in secular liberalism.

We have seen this in some of the press reaction to the events in Paris.  The Sydney Herald ran an editorial calling for all religious schooling to be banned, because apparently there is a direct link between Islamic fundamentalists in Paris killing cartoonists and Anglicans teaching children in Sydney.  The Scottish Herald ran a similar comment piece that made a link between Charlie Hebdo, the execution of an atheist 500 years ago in Scotland, and those who are opposed to euthanasia today. Apparently our politicians are “brave” because they resist the Churches’ stance on same sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia. And those of us who are ‘religious’ are all to be lumped together as a danger to society.

Some views are even more extreme.  It is beyond parody that our political leaders will march in order to allow cartoonists to draw cartoons of Mohammed that portray him as a gay porn star, but that those who want to bring up their children with the view that being a gay porn star is not an ambition to be cherished, should be considered as child abusers.

So, I am not Charlie.  I am Alistair.

I believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental right in our society and it is one that Christians need to strive to uphold before we no longer have the right to express our faith in a secular liberal world – but we need to enjoy our freedom in a way that promotes tolerance.   We do not have the right to seek to offend simply to promote our own world view.

I believe that we have the right to be offended by the views and writings of others, and we should be able to express that offence – and I will stand with my Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends in condemning this secular liberal satire.

And I believe that to murder someone in the name of faith is utterly abhorrent – whether in Paris, Nigeria or anywhere in the world – and I will stand with anyone to denounce this.