Sunday, 13 April 2014

Maude Royden and Leading Women

Reflection for the 3rd Cohort of the 'Leading Women' Course

One of the most memorable days I have spent was in the Women’s Library, handling some lever arch files which contained press cuttings, letters and documents making up the archive of Maude Royden.  Here I was handling, almost holy things, in the form of flimsy and delicate writings one of the leading women of the past.

That moment was profoundly moving for me as I read letters of encouragement Maude had received from her mother, as Maude herself would have read them.  Letters that revealed the vulnerability and humanity of a woman trying to be who God called her to be.  At that time Maude had been banned from preaching in the Church of England, and the Evening Standard had published letters giving all opinions, many not kind, on the current controversy in London as to whether she could give the 3 hour address in a church on Good Friday.   In the end she did – but not in church, rather the Church Hall and so many people came to hear her they could not get in!

Maude herself writes ‘ Learn to hold loosely to all that is not eternal.’

Despite the feelings around her and the current state of her church – in 1919 the church had confirmed the rights of women as voting members on Church Councils, but was still hotly debating the issue of speaking in churches, Maude’s dependency upon God was vital.  She realised that from an eternal perspective, like probably one of her own heroines Mother Julian, all would be well.  

However, Maude also saw the importance of her own ministry and the steps she was taking to further women’s cause. ‘Here is the great discover that awaits us’, she wrote ,’ life is all a piece we are not someday going to be, we are already’

Fast forward almost a hundred years, and who amongst us has not got stressed or hung up about issues relating to the Church in our own day.  Yet that too is set in an eternal context, as we play our particular part in the journey of salvation history, a journey of liberation and joy.

Our small step as leading women is also significant, as we take our places now within churches and cathedrals, bishop’s staff teams and boards and committees; as we freely preach of God’s love on Good Friday.   It may be challenging, or even painful but together is all a piece which is as much about us being who we are called to be now as in the future.

At the beginning of our particular journey together it is helpful to reflect upon those who have gone before, to acknowledge our place and see its value as God sees it.  I am not sure what Maude would say to each of us tonight, but God’s word says ‘ I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline’. 

There never has been a motto for this Leading Women course – but that seems to me like quite a good one as we venture together.

Fast forward another 100 years and I wonder who might be going through our archives?   those fragments of us, which reveal our own vulnerability, determination and humanity. Whoever it may be, may it be our corporate and individual hope and prayer, that the ministry of women today will continue to be seen in the light of eternity and our leadership and lives held up as very real examples to all who follow of holy things.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Annunciation Sermon

There’s something about Mary.

One of my favourite places in the Holy Land is Ein Karem, in Hebrew meaning literally ‘Springs of the vineyard’. It is an ancient village, in the hill country, where according to Christian tradition John the Baptism was born. This neighbourhood with a population of around 2000 now attracts 3 million visitors a year, yet the site on top of one of the hills is extra-ordinarily peaceful.

And in and around the churches there are some deeply moving and evocative sculptures and paintings of two women, Mary and Elizabeth – both pregnant, greeting one another and sharing with one another. I would have loved to have heard their conversations together, wouldn’t you? Where would they begin? The calling, the choices, the reality, the vocations advice, the future?

I am sure Mary was jolly relieved to have escaped to that hill country, away from the gossip at home, and to have the company of her elder cousin for advice and comfort. To talk through the message that she had been entrusted with, a message that turned her life upside down. God certainly interrupted this young girl’s life. 

Plans had been made, she was to marry Joseph and was no doubt thinking of her future with him when comes the angel Gabriel with that message. That God loves her, and has found favour with her, and when she reacts with fear, she’s told not to be afraid, but simply to listen. God is going to do something wonderful through her. She is going to have a son, he will be the promised king, the saviour, the Messiah.

Today we remember Mary’s ‘yes’ to God and I wonder if you can remember yours? Let’s take a moment to do that. Ein Karem, for me is a place where Mary’s ‘yes’ was affirmed and where I, when visiting, could affirm mine. Sometimes we need those moments, to think back to that time when we first said our ‘yes’, for it is often that first ‘yes’ to God, that carries us through all the difficult times, the struggling times, the times when God appears silent and the times when it all seems like too much.

I am sure Mary throughout her life kept coming back again and again to that first ‘yes’. Most probably, if she was like many of us, she sometimes wondered why she had said ‘yes’ in the first place, but I am sure it was that which kept her going as she watched Christ journey to the cross and experienced the power of the resurrection.

Mary would have been familiar with her history, she would have been told stories of her nations and her people’s past – and the expectation that, someday God would send someone to bring the kingdom to fruition. And now she was caught up in that story herself. Gabriel’s message brought the common response ‘How?’, But the angel persisted – the power of God will be at work.

I think that we have done a great disservice to Mary in some parts of the church and Christian history. Mary has been embellished, made rather god-like and far removed from real life. That’s not the Mary I read of in the pages of the gospels, I see here a real down to earth, humble young woman with no sense of any importance other than she was chosen by God. How else can we ever try to make sense of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh and blood, real life, human ?

‘How?’, ‘Who me?’, ‘Why me?’ have been natural responses for many of us in our vocational journey, as we have sensed our own inadequacy for the task that God sets before us. It is a reaction often heard by a DDO, or those listening to candidates at a Selection Conference, however Mary, helps us see that our ‘How?’ increases a sense of faith and dependence upon God, who answers our questions and calms our fears. I worry when we begin to lose the sense of wonder that it all comes down to God in the end; when we begin to rely on our own strength, or the power of our personality or the experiences we have had to get us through.

As ministers, we should not forget that our vulnerability can often be our strength.

Gabriel’s message spoke to Mary about favour and blessing. Two words the Church of England doesn’t like to use very much, but two words I am sure we in our humanness would love to hear. I wonder how many of us have looked at what is going on all around us, the circumstances of our lives and ministry and declare ourselves to be blessed or not? I am sure, if you are like me, you see blessing most often somewhere else! 

One of my favourite stories comes from Antony de Milo, and is that of a stone cutter, who is granted a wish; of course he wishes he was someone else, and when he becomes that person, he wishes he was somewhere else, and when he moves he wishes he were more powerful, and when he becomes more powerful, he wishes he was more rich, and when he becomes rich, he wishes he had more freedom. Finally when he wishes for more freedom he finds himself once again that stone cutter, who had no cares in the world than to sing all day and enjoy his work.

How often have you envied that growing church ? that larger rectory? That great music group? Those keen lay leaders? The church that pays its share in full and generous expenses? All of us, I suspect, want to know ourselves as being favoured and blessed by God as Mary was. However, I am not sure Mary always felt special. When she walked through town with her unwed pregnant belly the subject of stares and judgment, when Joseph planned to quietly leave her to avoid the scandal, when she gave birth on the ground amongst the animals of the manger, when soon after she and Joseph took Jesus and fled for their lives to Egypt. Did she feel favoured watching her son, the one to whom she gave life and her own flesh, be arrested, beaten, and killed?

God’s favour and blessing do not necessarily mean life and ministry is easy, or that we always get our wish, or that we live happily ever after. It is not God’s reward for right behaviour or right believing. It is rather a state, a condition, a way of being. Mary understands that her favouring and blessing by God are not dependent upon or determined by the circumstances of life. Her example teaches us to look and live more deeply; to look beyond the circumstance of life and see God within us.

Mary trusted God more than her life’s situation. She felt the movement of God within her, the kick of new life, and the growth of something holy. The favouring and blessing of God wasn’t around her. It was within her. It is who she is. That means trusting that God sees far more than we often see for ourselves. It means us looking deeper than the changing circumstances of our lives and trusting that even when we do not see it or understand it God is deep within us, working secretly, creating new life where we thought there could be none. It is about saying Ok, I don’t understand what’s going on and I know that my life isn’t going to end up looking like one I would choose out of a catalogue but I trust that God is at work in all of it.

This week I would encourage you to take some time to go deeper. That is not easy in the reality of day to day ministry; It is not easy to do in the round of worship, so often that we are leading ourselves. So having left that all behind can I encourage you all to use these few days to bring things back into perspective, to trust God’s favour and blessing within you, and sense that you are in God’s right place, even if it does not always feel like it.

There was a choice, but it was Mary’s ‘yes’ that released in her a tremendous joy, as she realised in a way that she perhaps never had before, that God was real; that his promises in the past would come true. Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and gave her joy, peace, hope and love. And joy because Mary realised that not just the promises of God are being fulfilled, but that it is happening through her. A humble, young, struggling ordinary woman. Hannah’s prayer of the Old Testament suddenly made sense because God did not choose the mighty and powerful, he did not pick those in authority, with great wealth or influence. It was a joy that overflowed, and probably gave Mary courage for the rest of her life.

When I look around sometimes at the state we are in as a Church the last thing I feel is joy. Even when, as was revealed in a survey last week, clergy are in the most fulfilling job! And I suppose it is because what I most want for the church is unbridled joy, that I find things around us, or decisions taken that bring unhappiness or anxiety or fear to many, so depressing. Somehow, as a church, we have a way of making ourselves unhappy – whether it be the 20 things we are not doing before breakfast, or our own prejudice or self-centredness. In a nutshell I do not see much joy around.

But on a good day, I hold onto that dream that if we really discover our worth in God, our pleasure in diversity, our creativity in our Creator, our faith in generosity, our joy in simply living then all will still be ok. There will be enough; the church will not fall down; everyone is welcome and there will be no divine retribution.

I think we each owe it to the God who loves us and calls us by name, to try to live in that joyful liberty. And I believe that is the only way many of us are going to make it to retirement and beyond, and to allow new life to blow into our churches and our church. To discover, like Mary, who we are and who’s we are and to live that life of freedom.

Mary pondered and treasured. Pondering and treasuring ask us to wait, to be quiet and listen, to be still and receptive, to be open and vulnerable to God’s life in our own. This is not passivity or giving up. It is actively participating in our own salvation. Mary opened herself up to true joy, declaring who she was and who God was. As we gather here this week the Annunciation to Mary is nothing less than God’s invitation for us to participate in God’s calling, affirmation, blessing, and freeing of our lives.

Yes, there’s something about Mary. There’s also something about us.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Diocesan Conference Poetry Workshop

This conference workshop gave us time
To ponder poetry and then write a quick rhyme.

Gathered for sharing and caring and bearing
Each other, by tearing, repairing and daring.

Still, without a smile, the speaker stood,
Ravishing our minds with Wells of God.
Shining of the seal of love in Solomonic strains
of the absent present, and the Spirit's reins.

Before, I thought I understood it
Baptism seemed so simple
Washing, drowning, rising, drying
Happy parents, baby crying
Sam wells complicated 'simple'
Made profoundly unifying mystery of it
Now I know that past is lost
and future's lost as fear of both
denies me present tense at all,
But I'm forgiven by divine cost
and riven Curtain, resurrection, both
give back my hope, my life my all.
 St Martin in the Fields gave us a
precious gift, we heard
a complex mystery unfold
in Dripping grace - simplicity

Creation cracked to let the light shine in
Beauty needs its flaw, salvation needs its sin

Don't let your thoughts go to sleep in your head
Your life's in your mind and without it - you're dead.
Let enough breeze whisper in through your ears
To blow round your brains and unleash your ideas.
Let enough moisture leak out through your eyes
To weep the compassion that falls from the skies.

My faith is so often comes and goes
and has the feel of silken hose:
It's good to know that God hangs in
Despite my waywardness and sin.

Imagination - a transformational thing
makes new transitions of the churches bling
Imagination de- construction
Guaranteed to cause a ruction.
Imagination running wild
At last to Holy Spirit reconciled.

Wet feet, trail from restless sea,
drip imprints of eternity,
all paved, and planted, like a kiss
A human breath, and God's caress.

I came here tired and thinking I was done
Tough shell but just cardboard inside, no cement
But memories reordered and reassessed condition
I go home full of re-enchantment.

 Together onwards we journey, aware of our needs
Of a God who challenges, moves,inspires and feeds.

 Many thanks to all the participants.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

What if.....Day 24

I began this Advent blog of wondering  and questioning because of reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor.  The blog has been an ante dote to the rather arrogant certainty around us today in some Christian circles. The certainty that judges against any other opinion than the one being expressed.  For me, I would rather live with the questions, because they lead me closer to an understanding of a God we cannot fathom and whose ways are as mysterious as that birth in Bethlehem.  I leave the last word to Barbara - from her book 'The Preaching Life'.

'.....chances are that the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get us out of bed on others.  Since we believe in what we cannot know for sure, our belief tends to have a certain lightness to it, an openness to ambiguity and a willingness not to be sure about everything.  Our belief is less like certainty than like trust or hope.  We are betting our lives on something we cannot prove, and it is hard to be very smug about that.  Most of the time the best we can do is to live 'as of' it were all true and when we do, it becomes truer somehow.

Our belief tends to show up in our actions more than in our words.  Sometimes even we have to look at what we do to understand what we believe.  We are not, at heart, believers in an institution or an ideology but in a relationship that changes from day to day and year to year.  Just because we believe does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us; it just means that we believe we know who will be with us when it does.  Some days we are as firm in our faith as apostles and some days we are like lost sheep, which means that we belong to the flock, not because we are certain of God but because God is certain of us, and no one is able to snatch us out of God's hands.'

May the eagerness of the shepherds
The joy of the angels
The perseverance of the wise men
And the peace of the Christchild
Be yours this Christmastime


Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, 23 December 2013

What if.....? Day 23

Pre-carols Communion yesterday morning.  Interesting congregation, the committed who would be coming three times in one day (church wardens, organist and key laity), those going away who could make the morning but were going somewhere else after lunch, those who always come in the morning and were not bothered at all about the carol services and those for whom church was their lifeline.

It is this last group which made me reflect yesterday. I wrote a few days ago about creating community, and for at least seven people attending yesterday, all living alone, the local church was their community.  It was here they met their friends, shared their problems, gained some joy in their week.

I chatted to a group of three old ladies  about their Christmas - the first told me that her daughter had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had only a limited time to live.  With the in-laws staying at Christmas they had no room for her.  She had visited a couple of days ago - a journey of around 30 miles but without a car - 3 buses and a train each way - 3 hours travel.  Christmas Day would be spent at home.  The second lady told me that her son had recently had to downsize to live in a flat - again no room for anyone else at Christmas, she too was going to stay home alone.  The third was going to her neice's this year - she did not do anything last year, for Christmas was a sad time.  Her husband, son and brother had all died the year before one after another just before Christmas.

Loss, loneliness and the struggles of family life were all present in that short conversation.  It made me think, not only how for those three people (or those around them) Christmas would not be how our media and culture would like to portray it, but also if this was 3 out of 20 adults, how many others are there up and down our country.   It made me realise how how important for these three the message of God's love was, which I had feebily preached only half an hour earlier.

The Christian message of Hope, in the baby born in Bethlehem and who is Emmanuel - God with us, is ever more important today, for in a way all the wrapping, the glamorous present orgie, the bright coloured Christmas jumpers and the flashing fairy lights,  just masks much of the darkness around.   Yesterday I was not in prosperous Buckinghamshire - with its glazed ham, mulled wine and canap├ęs.  This was a place where the effects of hardship, struggle and isolation were felt on a daily basis.    Much forgotten in some places. It is encouraging that some of our larger churches are getting involved with food banks and credit unions, for it brings the gospel into focus.

I would like to say there is a welcome in every church for those seeking God's love and fellowship.  That is God's way, and for those who do not venture there - prayers nonetheless.  Let's all look outwards these next three days and see how, even in a small, way, we can bring some light into the darkness around.

What if..... we each gave away something to day ?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

What if....? Day 22

With all the preparations which propel us forward towards Christmas Day - both hospitality related (decorations, food, presents) and work related (sermons and visual aids and carol services) - and thenbeing caught up in the celebrations after, it is interesting to read reviews in some of the magazines and papers which look back at the year.

2013 has been an interesting year - with news happening every moment of every day it is hard to analyse things.   There has been much to regret, the squeeze on welfare payments has left many caught between a rock and a hard place; where employment is not even providing enough, where many businesses have not been able to succeed, where dependence on help - be it cheap supermarket prices, food banks or payday loans - has become the norm for many.   This is a challenge for all of us in work to see whether we can do more, whether it is to give, support or protest.

We appear to live in an increasingly violent culture - on the global stage wars continue to rage, on the local, murder by someone know to the victim seems to happen frequently, and then there are the legal battles that get played out in court or on our newscreens.   How do we counter such trends?

But on the positive side - and it is easy to see the glass half empty - we have had the warmest summer for years, people were a bit more chilled as they enjoyed the sunshine, we have enjoyed the royal birth, and ratings appear to be up for both the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Some of these recollections have happened already as annual Cheistmas letters appear through the letterbox.

As Advent draws us into Christmas, these last few days may give us a time to reflect, albeit briefly on the year we have had - and taking the advent themes, to voice regret over our own shortcomings, as well as give thanks for all the good that there has been.      That will set us in good stead to really enjoy 25th as we celebrate God coming amongst us and God continuing to be with us, whatever our circumstances.

What if..... we had the opportunity to rerun our year?

Saturday, 21 December 2013

What if....? Day 21

The thing I most miss from parish ministry is the sense of being part of a community.  It is particularly a loss during the seasons of Lent and Advent, when there is a feeling, as a parish priest, of walking alongside a community during a season of preparation - and then at Easter and Christmas celebrating with that same group of people the joy of arrival.

We all need community, however the more we move to different parts of the country, or into a different sphere of leadership, that community gets more and more dispersed.  It then becomes more of an effort to gather people, to keep in touch and to have any meaningful relationship with them.  Hence the use of Facebook for people to stay in contact and share the journey.

I often ask the question - where and who is my community, and it am often asked it.   The different congregation each Sunday is something, especially now I know people,; the sisters at Burnham Abbey are part of my extended community, as are the people I work with more regularly or live among.

Last nights attempt at building community gathered a number of people for mulled wine and mince pies at The Rectory.  In someway it was a disparate group of people, their only apparent connection was that they knew me.  However as they got chatting and shared stories and experiences there were numerous connections happening.  Clergy who did not know one another, those who lived in close proximity, those who only met occasionally and formally, those recently retired or had never met their spouses colleagues before.   It was a chance for busy clergy to attend something, rather than make it happen, for locals to meet people a bit further afield and for those who worked alone to meet others.

Whether we have a ready made one or not, all community building takes time and effort.  Investment in people and in bringing them together, for true community is not a self-serving thing, it is connecting others, creating the bigger picture and broadening the vision.  It is not being part of the sum that counts, but the sum of all the parts, whoever and wherever those parts may be.

What if...we all spent some time community building this Christmas?