Onwards and Upwards!

17 May –  The Ascension   It feels slightly odd to be in a post-Election Britain – after weeks of anticipation and all the predictions and jockeying for position in a hypothetical “new-look House of Commons” a rather different reality is kicking in. And those surprise results, a little over a week ago, resulted in a series of “farewell speeches” every bit as intense as Jesus’ words to his disciples – although, in the case of one Party Leader the “second coming” seems to have happened rather quickly! And, while the new government takes its first steps, among those who failed to win power, there has been some very public squabbling over “what went wrong”. Despite surprising many in his party and others by the strength of his presentation in recent weeks, Ed milliband is now accused of misreading the mood music – of taking his party too far to the Left of British politics – and ignoring the aspiring middle classes. And Nick Clegg – the only Liberal leader to bring his party into power for decades – is accused of putting the national interest ahead of his own party. You might think that was a good thing to have done – but the price he paid for it is clearly a high one. And for the Green Party and UKIP – it’s other people who are to blame – or rather the system in which we operate. If only we had Proportional Representation, they can say, the make-up of the House of Commons would look very different. I’m not going to go any further with all of that, you may be relieved to know! It’s just that, with Ascension Day falling a week after the election, I found myself making an analogy between departing leaders and comparing the way that WE in the Church “do business” when things aren’t going so well. There are similarities with the political parties I think. Faced with declining church attendance we may well blame other people – or blame the “system” in which we operate. “If only we had stood firm in the 1980s and resisted pressure to relax Sunday trading rules: there are just too many alternatives to Church on a Sunday morning these days.” The logic of that argument – which I do hear surprisingly often – is that If only life were more boring, more people would be inclined to come to Church.  And yet, I’m not quite convinced of that. There are plenty of people who don’t shop or play sports on Sunday – but who enjoy reading the paper over a leisurely breakfast, or spending time in the garden or just time with their families. It would take more than a change in trading laws to bring them to church. We grumble about the media – the way that Christianity is portrayed, or more often ignored. But actually it’s what the churches do “on the ground” – the face to face contact with real people in our own local communities – that really has an impact on the way that the Church’s message is received. And we DO argue about “strategy” – we DO squabble -just as publicly as the disappointed politicians who’ve filled the news broadcasts this week. We blame ourselves – or perhaps more accurately other church-members – for the fact that people are not buying into our message. And there are a variety of arguments in circulation: “We should never had abandoned the Prayer Book” some say – “that was the beginning of the slippery slope..” “We’re too old fashioned” others say – “we’ve just been left behind. The Church’s teaching is now irrelevant”. And there is of a course a very strong voice – from those who are very modern in style but very conservative in social teaching – who would WANT us to set ourselves apart from everyone else… to see ourselves as “the saved” and anyone who won’t listen as lost and without hope. It’s that same internal wrangling that lies behind the story which has appeared in our local paper recently – of Christ Church, Salisbury – a congregation that calls itself Anglican, but not part of the Church of England, meeting in a local school and completely against the wishes of the local Bishop.  For those Christians, the Church of England has strayed too far from traditional teaching. A different strategy is needed in order to bring people in. To me, this all feels a very long way from the words of Jesus to his disciples as he prepares to leave them behind. Yes there ARE a few broad statements elsewhere that sound like strategy – “Go, make disciples of all nations”, for example. But the words we heard today are very much about unity of purpose and unity with God – not about tactics for effective communication or internal church politics. Jesus prays to the Father that, as he is no longer in the world, the Father will protect his disciples “that they may be one, as we are one” (as Jesus and the Father are one).  I spent much of Ascension Day, last Thursday, in the company of Revd Nadim Nassar – the only Syrian ordained in the Church of England.  And he challenged us very firmly about how we understand authority in the Church – and argued that many of our divisions are caused by too much concentration on the Bible and our differing interpretations of what the texts mean. Christians should not behave as if they are “people of the Book”, he said. That’s for Muslims: for them there is no alternative but to focus on the Koran – Mohammed is a dead prophet – buried and gone, so all they can do is preserve the words he delivered to them and try to be faithful to what they read. But we don’t believe Jesus is just another dead prophet like Mohammed, he said. At the heart of our faith is the belief that Jesus is risen, ascended, glorified – the living Lord. And HE is the ultimate source of authority for us. Yes of course Scripture is there to help us understand – to make sense of who we are and to make sense of what God is like – that’s why we parade the Gospel stories with such ceremony each Sunday! But the Scriptures are words – not God himself. Our leader, Jesus, HAS gone from our sight, but has not left us to struggle alone. At least once on a Sunday I in church and and say “The Lord is here” and the congregation respond ”His Spirit is with us”: It’s that dynamic presence – of Christ here with us –  that can nudge us in the right direction, in our thinking and in the way we live out what we believe. Of course there are dangers in leaving behind the apparent security of clear biblical teaching – how do we KNOW what Christ wants if it’s not written on the page? Faith IS a risky business – we will get it wrong sometimes – but the alternative of stagnation and irrelevance is hardly more attractive. The important thing here is that we rely on each other as well – we help to shape each other’s understanding by sharing our experiences and perhaps also our doubts and confusion. St Paul – speaking of Christian Wisdom (1 Cor. 2) – reminds us that “We have the mind of Christ”: importantly he says not “I have” but “we have” the mind of Christ. It’s when 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name – that Christ promises to be among them. For us then – community is at least as important as what we read and learn by ourselves. Our leader is not just an historical figure from another age, he is present in all of human history and beyond. Our faith is not about withdrawing from the world, to some golden age of the past, it is about transforming the world – sharing in Christ’s ongoing work of salvation. As Jesus ascends to the Father, he leaves his disciples the task of witnessing to the unity of God himself – Father Son and Holy Spirit – and to their own unity in him. Today we are called to that same task, in a world which is anything but united and where many do not know how to recognise Christ. And so, as we commemorate Christ’s ascension, let us pray for all who call themselves Christians that we may be empowered by His Spirit to rise to the challenge –  with open minds and generous hearts.

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Telling Tales!

4 May – Saints and Martyrs of the English Reformation

 

If you were to take a guided tour of central Oxford, it’s likely that you would be shown the Martyrs memorial – an ornate stone structure, in mediaeval style, commemorating 3 martyrs of the English reformation – whom the Church of England commemorates tomorrow. And if you were unlucky, you would have as your guide a slightly bored student with a sense of humour.

Alongside the memorial is a set of steps leading down beneath the pavement – and there is a long tradition of trying to persuade the more gullible tourists that the martyrs memorial is in fact the spire of Oxford’s magnificent underground cathedral – and that, for a small fee, you can enter the exquisite marble halls beneath….  Anyone who actually did go down and put 50p in the turnstiles would actually find themselves in the tiled splendour of the Gents toilets!

Around the corner, in Broad Street, a black cross is marked on the ground– looking for all the world like a treasure spot on a pirate’s map. In reality it marks the place where those same three martyrs, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake – having been condemned of heresy during the short reign of Queen Mary.

An altogether more stark reminder, then, that the kind of religious intolerance we see today – in the brutal antics of ISIS and other extremists – is actually part of our own past. And that, if we are not alert to the dangers, those same powerful emotions – that self-righteous condemnation of others – can surface and take hold rather too easily.

Given the struggles of our own past – the turbulent relationship between Church and State and the changing religious affiliation of successive monarchs – and the shifting tides of fundamentalism today, we can perhaps see why some people prefer to turn their backs on religion altogether. It was perhaps those same dangers that led to Alistair Campbell’s declaration that the Blair administration didn’t “do God”. Safer, perhaps, to keep religious belief as a private matter – and to let public policy be played out in a neutral, secular arena.

And yet, we can’t really go along with that.

The imagery of the Vine in this morning’s Gospel, [John 15] reminds us that it is futile to attempt to work things out in isolation from God. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself – neither can you unless you abide in me”, says Jesus.

If we are cut off from the life-source – we can’t continue to flourish. Like cut flowers – we might look splendid for a short while – but the end result is inevitable decay.

Perhaps that’s a good thought to have in mind as we sift through the range of promises being made to us just now – in the run up to Thursday’s General Election. Those promises are made in the hope of political success – and they have little hope of becoming reality, or of promoting the common good, unless rooted in the even greater scheme of God’s purposes.

As we ponder where to cast our vote – we need to be looking beyond particular proposals, particular promises, to the greater narrative that lies behind them.

In my own thinking at present, I seem to keep coming back to narratives – to the idea of stories.

And stories are powerful things – they help to shape our sense of identity – they help to build a sense of belonging. And those things are important both in our national life, and in our churches.

The stories we tell can bring people together – or they can further entrench divisions between us.

In the recent referendum on Scottish independence – there were two very different stories being told –  the “Braveheart” vision of Salmond and Sturgess and the neo-Churchillian, one-nation rhetoric of David Cameron. Two different version of reality –                         each trying to effect a different outcome – and those tensions are still very much alive as we head to the polls this week.

And, as we approach Friday’s 70th anniversary of V.E. day – celebrating peace in Europe – we are being offered some very different accounts of our own relationship to the rest of the European Union.

Again we need to be alert to the motives of those who make those differing claims – and weigh up which route seems to reflect our Gospel values, rather than political expediency.

The most convincing of story-tellers are not necessarily reflecting the truth – as any Oxford tourist will tell you after they’ve tried to visit the underground cathedral!

So much for politics, and back to the saints and martyrs.

The particular story that we tell of our Christian faith – can be just as enriching, or just as destructive as any other.

Oxford’s Martyrs memorial was built in the 1840s – partly in reaction to the rise of Catholic tendencies within the Church of England – especially in Oxford itself. So – the memory of the reformers was brought back to mind as an attempt to nudge things in a more Protestant direction again. The inscription there praises Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer as “bearing witness to the sacred truths they maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome”

No lack of clarity in the sentiments behind that then!

Equally, it’s unlikely that many in the Church of England will give much thought to English Catholic martyrs like Edmund Campion – a faithful Jesuit priest brutally executed at Tyburn – a quarter of a century after Cranmer.

And yet as recently as 1970, Campion was beatified – declared a saint by Pope Paul VI – and to many English Roman Catholics that tradition of catholic martyrs, is still a powerful one. And in that particular tale, WE are the baddies.

I can remember, as a teenager, belting out the hymn “Faith of our fathers in distress” – recalling the persecution of the Catholic minority and ending with the repeated lines “we will be true to thee till death, we will be true to thee till death”.

It’s all very powerful stuff – and just as tribal as any nationalist political campaign.

And while that may indeed build a strong sense of unity within a particular congregation – it also reinforces the barriers                      that separate one denomination from another. And so the church’s story becomes a negative one.

If we are going to deserve a voice in public life, and if we are going to obey Christ’s commands of loving service, then we need a common story which reflects the image of the Vine tree – with the several branches of the church securely rooted in the one stem. Otherwise, if we insist on cutting ourselves off, we can only wither and die.

Each year, on 4th May, our church’s calendar very deliberately urges us to commemorate the “saints and martyrs of the Reformation” – not Protestant martyrs or Catholic martyrs – but all whose determination and faith was tested in that turbulent period of our national life.

Their personal stories were vastly different, they opposed much of what their accusers stood for – and yet, they all died for love of the same Lord – in imitation of Christ – who himself died for all of us.

In that reality lies the prologue of a new story of true Christian unity. It’s that story which our nation and our churches need to hear.