Friday, March 20, 2009

St Joseph - Fr Edward Dowler

The hymn referred to in this homily, preached on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph 2009, is 'O for a closer walk with God', which may be found here.

In my title parish, we had a parishioner called Edna, a former Baptist missionary. Out of ecumenical spirit, she worshipped with us and participated in many aspects of parish life such as study and prayer groups. Often Edna would disconcertingly enquire, ‘how’s your walk with the Lord?’ It was an embarrassing question for many in middle class, middle of the road, middle England Southgate, where the conversation usually focused on the uniformed organisations or forthcoming bazaars and fetes. But it’s a question that, although it could be rather narrowly individualistic and pietistic, is nonetheless very important. As the Principal has been reminding us this Lent, it’s easy to stay close to the means of grace but not be affected by them and so one’s own walk with the Lord is always important.

The hope for a close walk with the Lord echoes in various places in the Scriptures: ‘Keep my steps steady according to your promise,’ prays the Psalmist. ‘What does the Lord require of you,’ asks the prophet Micah, ‘but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’ And it is perhaps particularly in our minds during Lent, a season when we long to have minds that are calm and focused in prayer; habits that are regular, attentive and prayerful; bodies that are woken up and purified by Lenten disciplines: and the purpose of it all, to have a closer walk with God.

The Evangelical eighteenth century poet William Cowper puts the desire for a close walk with the Lord at the centre of his great hymn. One noticeable thing about it is how similar are the first and fourth verses, describing a close walk with God. Such a walk is, marked by a calmness and serenity that Cowper, himself a depressive and prone to bouts of violent insanity throughout his life, would have particularly craved. It is illuminated by a pure light, shining and leading us towards Christ. But, despite their close similarity, there is a very clear difference between these two verses. The first is a construction that my linguistic experts tell me might in Greek be expressed in classical languages by the optative mood or the rather alarming-sounding subjunctive of desire. In other words, it is aspirational ‘O for a closer walk with God’. It expresses a wish for something that the writer doesn’t yet have and indeed may never have. By contrast, the final verse is much more assured: ‘So shall my walk be close with God, Calm and serene my frame; so purer light shall mark the road that leads me to the lamb’. By the time we get to the end of the hymn, he has seen his way to achieve what he wants to achieve, so that the mood is no longer of desire, but of satisfaction, fuflilment, assurance.

What then has come between the first and the fourth verses? What are the all-important factors that cause the unfulfilled hopes and aspirations of verse one to turn into the assurance and calm certainty of verse four?

First and foremost in verse two, it is the action of the Holy Spirit: ‘Return, O holy Dove return, sweet messenger of rest; I hate the sins that made thee mourn, and drove thee from my breast’. Fundamentally, it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to walk closely with God. Our ability to have such a walk is grounded not in our own strength, but in the Holy Spirit, who must continually return to enable us to do what we cannot do unaided.

But what we can do is to aid the work of the Spirit by a conscious commitment to embrace true worship and put an end to idolatry. This generally rather calm and soothing hymn strikes a note of something more turbulent and violent in the third verse, perhaps giving us a glance into the author’s personality: ‘The dearest idol I have known, Whate’er that idol be, Help me to tear it from thy throne, And worship only thee’. What Cowper seems to imply here is that the idols that we set up may not in and of themselves be bad. A golden calf, in itself, is made with the gifts of God’s good creation and, in itself, it can be a beautiful object, a marvellous work of craftsmanship. What is wrong is not the idol in itself, but the way that we love and value it.

Staying with Cowper’s hymn, I’d like to offer some thoughts then on how it relates to St Joseph.

First of all, Joseph is the one who, in his marriage to Mary and in the responsibilities he undertakes, has almost the closest possible walk with God. Joseph takes up a God-given vocation to serve the mission of Jesus, by being his guardian and, in human opinion, his father. In the words of one theologian, ‘As a physical act, fathering a child lasts but a moment, but as a spiritual vocation it is a perpetual effort and joy’. From Jesus’s conception, through his birth in Bethlehem the flight to Egypt from Herod, the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth, the years in which Jesus grows up into adulthood, Joseph is there, closely walking with him.

And Joseph shows us what this close walk entails: radical openness to the Holy Spirit. Mary is told in Luke’s gospel that ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’, and in Matthew, we hear of the angel telling Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife ‘for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’. Joseph is called to be open to all that the Spirit is doing; to respond to the Spirit with willingness, to pray ‘Return, O holy Dove, return’, even when the work of the Spirit would have appeared to him extraordinarily disconcerting and bewildering.

And then, moving to verse 3, what might the idols have been for Joseph? Perhaps we catch a hint in the gospel: ‘Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to a public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly’. In taking on paternal responsibility for Jesus, Joseph gives up some rather important things: a reputation for living up to the sexual ethics enshrined in Jewish law; the chance to live a normal life according to the customs of his society; social acceptance, respectability probably the love of friends and relations. As with other idols, these things are not necessarily bad in themselves, but when they become overriding allegiances that impede the work of the Spirit, they must be torn down from their throne in order to maintain the true worship in the Spirit that enables a close walk with God.

In the aftermath of the response to God that Joseph and Mary make, the prospects of our having a close walk with God are now completely changed. The incarnation of the Word in human flesh means that now all humanity is taken up into Christ. From now on, our walk with God can be close in a way that formerly it could not be, because Christ has come to be one flesh with us. Ever since the time that Joseph played the role he did, we, like Cowper, can move from aspiration to assurance: our walk will be close with God because he has come to be one flesh with us, and whatever we do is now done by him and through him and in him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Press Release: Response to the publication of the Inspection Report

St Stephen’s House welcomes the strong endorsement given to its core strengths in the published Report of its recent Inspection. In particular the college values the attention drawn to the strong and confident character of the training provided in the Catholic tradition, the very high quality of the academic teaching in theology, the emphasis placed on developing the appropriate pastoral skills for parochial ministry, and the clear vision of its aims and objectives communicated to the Inspectors.

In a climate of some uncertainty surrounding the future of theological education, the college has used these core strengths to attract substantial benefactions, and it faces the future with a confident understanding of its role, and with buildings and facilities substantially refurbished.

Canon Robin Ward, the Principal of the college since 2006, said:

‘As the oldest theological college in the Church of England and the newest Permanent Private Hall in the University of Oxford, St Stephen’s House looks forward to serving the Church with ministerial formation of the highest standard, and to making its own contribution to the teaching and research of a world-class theological faculty.

We look forward to addressing the issues raised for attention by the Inspectors in the light of our overall mission, and express our thanks to them for their encouragement and constructive critical dialogue.’

St Stephen’s House was founded by Bishop Edward King in 1876 and has been a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford since 2003. The college trains women and men for the Anglican ministry, and enjoys important partnerships with the University Department of Education, the Christian-Muslim Study Centre and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Members of its academic staff contributed to the recent Research Assessment Exercise, in which the Oxford Theology Faculty received the highest possible grading.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lent III - Canon Robin Ward

I want to talk this morning about a forgotten fault: the sin of Acedia. What is Acedia? The word itself is one of those odd theological words like propitiation and tutiorism which are actually quite useful but which can’t decide whether they are really Latin or really English, and so end up being neither. But it is one of the seven capital or deadly sins, like pride and lust and gluttony, and under its other name of sloth it is perhaps more familiar. Why not call it sloth then, and strike a blow for plain English? The reason is that sloth now means laziness, and Acedia is more particular and more dangerous than that: we call someone slothful who sits down with a can of lager watching the rugby when he knows he ought to be cutting the lawn or doing the shopping; that is certainly lazy, but it isn’t Acedia, which really means spiritual sloth. In the Middle Ages, everyone was taught about Acedia as one of the seven deadly sins, and examined about it at their Easter Confession: we know this because Chaucer has a whole chapter about it in The Parson’s Tale. His definition is very clear and very good:

Envye and ire maken bitternesse in herte, which bitterness is mooder of Accidie… Thanne is Accidie the angwissh of troubled herte; and Seint Augustyn seith ‘it is anoy of goodnesse and Ioye of harm.’ (l.677)

Our medieval forefathers were particularly aware of this sin because of the religious communities which they had among them, as Acedia is the besetting sin of religious people living together in community. John Cassian, who founded the first monastery in western Europe on the island of Lerins in the south of France, wrote a guide for his monks which tells them about the grave danger of Acedia: when overcome by this vice, it makes the monk stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work… People who don’t know religious communities often think that monks and nuns must live very quiet, uneventful lives, free from the sort of passions and upheavals which life in the world brings. This could not be further from the truth! The dedication and high hopes of a religious vocation can easily burn out into frustration and the anguish of a troubled heart. Browning captures this well in his poem, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, where a monk speculates on murdering unsuspecting brother Lawrence because of the annoying ways he has of watering pot plants, setting out his knife and fork and cultivating melons for the abbot’s table. In the end he contents himself with sabotaging the garden: How go on your flowers? None double? Not one fruit-sort you can spy? Strange!-And I, too, at such trouble, Keep them close-nipped on the sly.

So much for monks, and nuns: what about Acedia in the lives of Christians living in the world. There are good reasons for supposing that spiritual sloth is the besetting sin of our time. It isn’t so much militant unbelief or antagonism that has emptied the churches of western Europe, it is indifference: people may well believe in God (they generally do), and nearly everyone seems to think that life continues after death in some way that we would recognise, but there is no sense of urgency or even inquisitiveness about how God might show us His holy will, or how our life here relates to Him and the life of the world to come. And Christians also fall into the same indifference when their commitment and their zeal grow cold, and they suffer the same fate as John Cassian’s monks: either they stay put, and go through their religious duties with coldness and formality, or they become restless and unsettled, convinced that if only this or that in their church life were different, all would be well again.

There are three areas in which the damage done by Acedia is particularly apparent. Firstly, in our life of prayer and our relationship with God, we need to preserve a lively sense of our divine calling, and the pressing reality of our religion. Jesus says No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). If we find the effort of prayer and Bible study too much, if our Sunday worship means little to us or is simply a source of annoyances about things which we really know to be trivial, if we find in our fellow Christians little to inspire us with zeal, then we are in danger of falling victim to Acedia. John Cassian wrote that S. Paul had noticed the beginning of this vice in his converts at Thessalonica, which is why he wrote to them to say: may the Lord make you to increase and abound in love. Acedia is fundamentally a coldness towards love, divine love, and it is Paul’s prayer that his converts, as yet untouched by the more serious and obvious sins which afflicted the Corinthians, might be kept from spiritual sloth by the gift of abounding love; we should share their prayer.

Secondly, there is marriage: not many of us are called to be monks and nuns, but many of us are called to live in fidelity to vows we have made to our spouses, and to sacrifice leisure and convenience for the good of our families and their upbringing. When we marry, as when we make any fundamental choice in life, we exclude other possibilities by our choice, such as staying single or marrying another person. For many people this now seems to be a tyrannous imposition, and as soon as difficulties come along, as they inevitably do, they feel free to indulge the classic symptoms of Acedia: either they stop trying to live their commitment and simply fall back into a sullen formalism, or they assume that somewhere and somehow there will be a new partner who can provide them with what is lacking in their present situation. All this is bolstered by lots of bad psychology about self-fulfilment and human flourishing. The consequences of this mentality are personally and socially disastrous: marriage is a vocation which God sanctifies and blesses, and to indulge in speculation about what might otherwise have been, or what other possibilities might come about in future, is not only foolish and often futile, but also a sinful violation of vocational commitment.

Thirdly, there is our choice of a state of life, our choice of work. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that work has a dignity in God’s purposes: you remember our labour and toil, brethren; we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you, while we preached to you the gospel of Christ. If we approach our work, especially work which has a strong vocational element, as a burden to be borne with absolutely the minimum of commitment necessary from ourselves, or if we undertake it in a state of constant dissatisfaction, imagining that some other choice would suit us far better, then we risk falling into Acedia, anguish of heart which blights and mars the best of our endeavours. Of course, there will be times when to change work is to change our lives for the better, but we need to know our feelings and our consciences well, if we are to discern between infidelity to our chosen path in life, and the need to adapt that path in the light of changing circumstances.

Acedia, spiritual sloth, is really the enemy of vocation, the enemy of our call from God to take up the life we have received from Him and use it in obedience to his commands to his glory and in the service of others. It kills off our vocation to prayer by making our religion dry and restless; it kills off our vocation to marriage and a fulfilled social life by undermining commitment and our ability to overcome difficulties; it kills off our vocation to work by encouraging unreasonable dissatisfaction, unreal expectations and a dispirited minimalism in our daily tasks. If we are to overcome it, then as S. Paul says, we must abound in love, so that the peculiar bitterness, blended of envy and anger, which provokes it will find no purchase in our hearts. I finish by quoting Cardinal Newman’s fine meditation on vocation, and the holiness of God’s individual call to each one of us:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission- I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He hs not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it- if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends, he may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me- still He knows what he is about.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Large concepts writ small - Fr Andrew Davison

A book review of Participation and Mediation: A practical theology for the liquid Church by Pete Ward written by Fr Andrew Davison in a recent edition of Church Times:

Pete Ward rose to prominence with the publication in 2002 of Liquid Church. That book was par­ticularly influential in the world of “emerging Church” and “Fresh Ex­pressions”. In Participation and Mediation, he develops his earlier ideas in greater theological depth. Such work is very welcome: these ecclesiastical innovations are an important part of the church land­scape, but their own explicit theo­logy remains largely journalistic.

Ward sets out “to theorize practical theology as participation and mediation”. He could hardly have chosen better reference points. Here are two words with enormous theological freight, biblical and patristic, medieval and contempor­ary. The result, however, is a disap­pointment. This is “practical theo­logy” with lukewarm, ill-integrated theology, and a practical analysis that peters out just as it becomes most interesting.

The novelty of Ward’s work does not rest so much on ideas of his own as on the selection of influ­ences he brings together. There is something to be said for passing on the best of earlier work. Unfortu­nately, his sources are often at least one remove from the white heat of the most exciting current academic thought, and much that is most relevant is passed over. For instance, even given his basically Protestant outlook, it is surprising that he should have passed over without comment the recovery of “partici­pa­tion” as a central theme in Catholic theology over the 20th century.

The problem is that Ward is not clear about what he means by either of his central terms. From such definitions as they are given, they emerge as a shadow of the lofty theological topics they once were. Participation often means no more than “knowing how to join in”, and mediation is simply “cultural communication” through the “new media”. Once Christian theology expressed an entire metaphysics with these ideas. Now they suggest little more than using video projectors to make the Church accessible.

The “practical” part of Ward’s “practical theology” uses cultural studies to analyse contemporary Evangelical life. His worked example is the worship song “Shine, Jesus, shine”. Having laid down his method with reference to the Sony Walkman, he dissects the cultural significance of the song in a chapter of its own. Later, we find the eucharist analysed with reference to Kendrick’s song. This is a provoca­tive move, but, then again, what is to stop us from treating every feature of the Church alike, once “cultural studies”, not theology, has become the benchmark?

None of this, actually, is particularly engaging. Far more important is his suggestion that the ingrained practices of the Church might mediate the gospel, or indeed impede it. Here he is on to something; so it is frustrating that so little of what he flags up in intriguing lists (“objects, clothing, lifestyle, food” or “gravestones, church buildings, adverts”) is taken any further.

Ward’s style begins well, but takes a turn for the worse when he reaches his theology. By the end, sentences often read as a more or less random assemblage of key words: mediation, animation, production, participation, circulation, flow. Some books are obscure because of a surfeit of ideas. This one is unclear while having little decisive to say. “Fresh expressions of church” may have a strong theological justification — they certainly lack one as they stand — but this book is not it.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Edward King Day 2009 - Bp Geoffrey Rowell

This homily was given by the Bishop of Gibralter in Europe and Chairman of the House Council at the recent Edward King Day celebrations at which Archbishop Hovnan Derderian and Bishop Alan Chesters were admitted to their Honorary Fellowships and the Revd Dr Andrew Linzey and Dr John Chesworth to their Honorary Research Fellowships. Following the Pontifical Mass, the Archbishop presented St Stephen's House with an icon of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.’ (Hebrews 13.7-8)

“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5.14)

Remember your leaders – the Church of England in its managerial mode has much to say about leadership, taking its cue from organisational studies and secular models of business. Not all of this is wrong-headed, because in human organisations as in other aspects of the created order, grace perfects nature, and is not contrary to it. Sometimes God can be found in unexpected places, as I remember when I was sent, some years ago now, on ‘new bishops’ training.’ The programme announced that we were to be addressed by a Profesor of Organisation Studies – my heart did not exactly leap. She told us that in orgnaisations, the church included, we had to deal with people, and there were three things we had to remember about people. First people are not clones – I look round this congregation and that is certainly true. Every person is unique and in the deepest sens of the word a mystery. Secondly people need a model to follow – no doubt about that, the acres of space devoted to celebrities of every kind makes that quite clear. And thirdly, she said, people need to belong – membership. I put up my hand and said, Augustine got there rather a long time ago, when he spoke of our being made in the image of God who is Trinity, the mystery of the Father, the model of the Son, and the membership, the belogiong-togetherness, of the Holy Spirit. There was God in the undergrowth of a lecture by a Professor of Organisation studies.

At the heart of what is said in the Letter to the Hebrews about leaders in the Christian community, is first of all that they are those who speak to the Christian community the word of God. Edward King, the pastoral bishop whom we give thanks for today, as the chief founder of this House, is one who did just that. He preached and he lived out the word of God, Jesus Christ himself. He would have known the motto that Newman took – because it spoke so powerfully to him – when he became a cardinal, cor ad cor loquitur – heart speaks to heart. It is a phrase of St Francis de Sales, who uses it in the context of the Fathers of the Church, speaking to and nurturing the Christian community, with the gentle tenderness with which the Fathers showed pastoral care to the people of God who were their children.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on, urging us to consider the outcome of the lives of those who so spoke the word of God to us. The lives of pastors, of which Bishop Edward King was a supreme example, are, as John Keble put it, speaking lives. The word which we are called to speak has to be lived out; it has to be incarnate in our own lives if it is to have the power to speak to others. As Newman again puts it, ‘nothing anonymous will ever convert.’ What converts is the integrity, and authenticity, of Christian life. William Law, that demanding and astringent spiritual writer, whose Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, influenced both John Wesley in the eighteneeth century and Newman in the nineteenth, puts it powerfully – ‘A Christ not in us is a Christ not ours.’ The indwelling Christ is what truly transforms, and is what enables us to meet, to see, to recognise Christ in others. Only so will be and become the light of the world. For it is first Christ who is the light of the world, and then we in whom the light of Christ shines. That is what makes us saints, those by whose ‘speaking lives the world may learn.’ We are to imitate the faith of those who first spoke the word of God’s love to us. The human being is an imitating animal. Konrad Lorenz, the animal behaviourist, shows how ducklings follow their mother. We also learn by imitation, and hence the disastrous consequences when the models are destructive and distorted. It is no accident that one of the greatest books of Christian devotion is called simply, The Imitation of Christ.

The imitation of the Christ who gave his life for us, who came down to the lowest part of our need, and who entered into the darkness of our dying, as well as the joy of our living, is demanding. Consider the outcome of their lives – and part of the outcome of Christian living is Christian dying and indeed Christian martyrdom.

Within our celebration this evening we are welcoming and honouring Archbishop Hovnan, from the ancient Church of Armenia, the Church of the first nation to embrace Christianity. It is a church I have come to know and love, and it is a church that is deeply marked by suffering and martyrdom – from the earliest days of the faith, to the terrible tragedy of the Armenian genocide in the early years of the last century. There are few more haunting places than the monument to that genocide in Yerevan, and the ruined Armenian churches of what is now Eastern Turkey are a witness to the attempted destruction of Christian culture, life and worship. It is good that we are endeavouring to continue today what Archbishop Hovnan experienced in his years here at the House, as part of a growing closeness between our two churches. Our links go back a long way as when Archbishop Benson, Edward King’s contemporary, sent Athelstan Riley, the author of Ye Watchers and Ye holy Ones! As his emissary to the Caucasus, where he intendend in academical dress the celebration of the Georgian Liturgy in Tiblisi, and almost certainly did the same in Armenia when he attended the Liturgy at Holy Etchmiadzin. Our partnership in the Gospel is a sign of our being bound together in the body of Christ.

But it is also a joy to welcome Bishop Alan to be likewise honoured, as a heartfelt recognition of all that he has given to the House and its well-being in his chairing of the House Council. This Honorary Fellowship is surely a sign of the love which you, Bishop Alan, have for this House, and that this House has for you.

And we also welcome Professor Andrew Linzey and Dr John Chesworth to be admitted as Honorary Research Fellows of the House, bringing their expertise in two important areas, the theology of the animal world, and an understanding of Islam in the context of Christian-Muslim dialogue. It is good to welcome you also.

So on this feast of that most loving and gentlest of bishops, who is a leader from whom this House first heard the word of God, we find a ray of light shining into our Lenten observances, the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is that light of which Dante said, in words that stand as an epigram to Lux Mundi, that series of essays on the religion of the incarnation contemporary with the founding of this House, that it is ‘a light which once a man has seen, he can no more turn away from’, the light which is the light of Jesus Christ who is indeed the same yesterday, today and for ever.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lent II - Fr Andrew Davison

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

The coming of the Son of Man in glory with the holy angels. You might think that these words belong more to Advent than to Lent. I hope to convince you that Lent too is a season oriented towards the end of the world and that which lies beyond it. Lent is an eschatological season.

Lent has an eschatological reference in that, like life as a whole, it is a preparation for the ‘Eternal Eastertide’

One of our great Lent hymns concludes ‘Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear | Ever constant by Thy side; | That with Thee we may appear | At the eternal Eastertide’. Our brief, yearly journey to Easter is an image of the whole of our life. Our lives are a journey to the ‘Eternal Eastertide’. Seen that way, Lent becomes a lesson showing us how to live, not simply for forty days and forty nights, but right through our lives and, indeed, beyond them, as I shall point out in conclusion.

Notice than many of the images and parables that bear upon the period of Lent apply, in the first place, to life as a whole. The Easter Sermon of St John Chrysostom likens Lent to the labourers in the harvest field. Whether we have fasted all of Lent or half of Lent or a quarter of Lent, we share alike in the joy of Easter. But the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, which is where he gets that image, is a parable about the whole of life. Similarly, today’s Gospel is rightly a Lenten Gospel – you must take up your cross and follow me – but here Lent represents life as a whole, for Christ’s injunction to take up our cross is a permanent call.

If Lent is life in miniature, then Lent helps us to understand life. But the reverse is also true – the dynamics and structure of the Christian life as a whole help us to understand Lent. This current season is not simply for the sake of the coming temporal Easter; it is also for the sake of the great and final Easter. Yes, once the celebration of the Resurrection is upon us, we will rightly cast aside fasting and abstinence. Nonetheless, the ascetic benefits that have accrued over Lent should not fade away; the disciplines of heart that have been instilled are not to be cast aside.

Lent is orientated not only to the springtide celebration of Easter, which comes once each year, but to the ‘Eternal Eastertide’. That ‘Eternal Eastertide’ stands for us as a promise, in the same spirit in which the idea of promise so animates our reading from the Letter to the Romans. Lent is a season of hope, when we follow our father Abraham who ‘hoped against hope’, believing God.

Not only do we prepare in Lent for that which lies beyond this life, we also respond to it having come among us already

The disciplines of Lent would be futile if they were not directed to an end that lies in God, to an end which is guaranteed by the promise of God. The end, the goal, is the point. We are not to loose our lives for the sake of loosing them; we are to loose our lives for the sake of saving them. Lent involves real privations, but it is for the sake of a real and redemptive good, which lies with God.

Our Lenten disciplines do, certainly, prepare us for Easter. They ought to have a cleansing quality. But they are not simply a regime of Church-sanctioned detox, of the kind that might appear in an advertisement on Channel Four but with the Archbishop of Canterbury giving the endorsement rather than Carol Vorderman.

Lent, discipline, denial, sacrifice – these are worked out in terms of hope in God. Our hope lies beyond the world. They do not have a merely temporal, merely this-wordly reference. This would be to set our mind on human things and not on divine things.

Lent, I have said looks forward to that which lies beyond. In this it is like Advent. But like Advent it also a season of encounter – for God has pre-empted our longing. Consequently, our relation in Lent to that which lies ahead is not simply one of anticipation or preparation. We do not only prepare in Lent for the cataclysmic action of God, we are also responding to it. An apocalyptic confrontation with God is coming, but has also come and is coming still. In Lent we are responding to the arrival in time of that which lies beyond time. Each of our readings makes this clear: the Lord appeared to Abram, Jesus stood in the midst of the disciples, grace arrived when there was only law and only the expectation of law.

Grace is gratuitous; it is of the nature of grace to arrive out of time; it is not according to the order of things. It is the encounter with God, ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’: life when there was no expectation of anything but death, creation when there was not even anything to expect to be created.

Our faith – which is expressed in works, for us no less than for Abraham – only makes sense in terms of our encounter with the God of grace. Faith is in God who irrupts upon the world: ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’.

I have said that Lent is an image of life and that the dynamics of the Christian life as a whole – which is one of grace – applies therefore to Lent as well.

Lent is eschatological in that it prefigures purgatory

Let me say in conclusion, that Lent is a symbol and a road map not only for this life but also for what lies beyond it. Lent is symbol of purgatory. In this way too, Lent is an end of the world-ish sort of season. Lent reminds us that purgatory begins now. And if the purgatorial process is bearable now, then perhaps Lent steels us with courage for our journey beyond this life, into the region that C S Lewis described as Lenten lands. We can also embrace, in hope, that portion of our journey into holiness which lies beyond this life.

As I say, the link between Lent and purgatory is not mine. I came across in C S Lewis – who made his confession in this church. On the death of his friend Charles Williams, another of the Inklings, he wrote a poem on this theme. He later adapted for his wife’s epitaph. Referring to her mortal remains, he wrote:

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

And to that Easter Day may Almighty God conduct us all also, through our own Lenten lands: for his grace gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Founders & Benefactors - Fr Edward Dowler

Given by the Vice-Principal, Fr Edward Dowler, during a Mass of Requiem for the founders of St Stephen's House, former Principals and the founders & Superiors of the Society of St John the Evangelist in whose original buildings the House now resides. The Mass was organized by a group of students on the eve of our commemoration of Bishop Edward King, principal founder of St Stephen's House.

When I was studying at Cambridge, the Regius Professor of Divinity, David Ford gave a very interesting inaugural lecture in which he talked about academics who say, ‘I’m so busy teaching that I never have time to get on with my own work’. It is, he argued, actually an absurd statement to make. Although it may an appear to academic as he or she sits in a library reading a book that they’re just getting on with their own work, in fact there is no such thing as one’s own work because all academic work is a community endeavour. The book that that he or she is reading, the library in which they sit, the university post that enables them to be there in the first place: all of these are dependent upon an academic community. There is literally no such thing as one’s own work, so much does our ability to do any academic work depend upon the achievements of others. Thus, Professor Ford argued, academics should not see teaching as an annoying distraction from ‘their own work’, but as an integral part of a joint community endeavour.

A similar individualism can pervade the Church at times when we talk about my vocation, my ministry, even dare one say, my faith journey. Officially I hope that we are all agreed that the primary vocation is that of the entire Church to be God’s priestly people and it is only within that priesthood that I can talk about being a priest at all. But all too often individualistic language creeps into our mindset, sometimes to the potentially very damaging extent of suggesting that my vocation is basically a private arrangement between myself and God in which others are not really involved. And again, as with academics, we should note that this is not only theologically wrong, but also just plain inaccurate. Anything that I in my ministry as a priest ever have achieved or ever could achieve is a result of the work of countless others within the royal priesthood of the Church who have brought both me and my brothers and sisters in Christ to where we are today.

Today and tomorrow as we commemorate and give thanks for our founders and benefactors here at St Stephen's House, I think this is an important thing for us to remember. Schooled as we are in highly individualistic ways of thinking, we can so easily forget that all our efforts, however great and heroic they may be are only ones that we can make because we stand on the shoulders of others. We give thanks to God for them, and commend them to his merciful keeping.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Understanding Islam 2009

St Stephen's House will again this year run an introductory course for Christians entitled Understanding Islam. The course will be led by the Revd Dr David Marshall and provides members of the student body and guests with a special opportunity to discover more about Islamic faith and practice and its impact on Christianity throughout the world. This is a proven, successful course that has enriched and nourished guests and students in the past.

The Archbishop of Canterbury commends the course, writing:

Many Christians today are conscious of the need to grow in their understanding both of Islam and of the issues raised in Christian-Muslim dialogue. David Marshall has worked extensively in this field, both as a scholar and in a number of significant practical initiatives within the Church of England and across the Anglican Communion. The course that he will be leading at St Stephen's House offers a valuable opportunity which I hope many will take up. I commend it warmly.
The course will run from 8th - 11th June 2009 and further details are available here.

Edward King Day 2009

Last evening the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe and Chairman of the House Council, the Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell, celebrated a Pontifical Mass to commemorate the life of the House's principal founder, Bishop Edward King. In the course of the liturgy he also admitted His Eminence Hovnan Derderian, Archbishop and Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, who studied at the House from 1981-3, and the Rt Revd Alan Chesters, sometime Bishop of Blackburn and a former Chairman of the House Council, who trained at the House from 1959-62.

The Bishop also admitted the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey DD, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and Dr John Chesworth, Lecturer at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies which is based at St Stephen's House, as Honorary Research Fellows.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lent I - Mrs Lucy Gardner

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God in you I trust; [. . .] Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths, Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation, for you I wait all the day long.

Call me odd, but today I find myself breathing a sigh of relief: Lent is finally upon us!

The “Sundays before Lent” have marched us by, Palm Crosses have been burnt; congregations have been ashed; anticipatory tensions have dissolved. We pass now beyond that “ordinary” time which hovers between Epiphany and this most Holy Season of Fasting, into a strangely familiar and yet always extraordinary time of prayer and self-examination.

Now, at last, longed-for peace, quiet stillness and stark austerity are granted their own time and space; the stripping away of adornment and ornament lays bare the starkly simple, undoubtedly beautiful, yet also demanding contours of the ways in which God is moving things from the way they are to the way they should be.

This wilderness respite has arrived unexpectedly welcome for me this year, no doubt underscored by the marked lengthening of days, an increase in temperature, and the first signs of spring emerging from a wintry world.

But herein I am troubled by a worrying thought – might not my relief betray some misguided comfort, some self-indulgence even, in enjoying pious works for their own sake, thus confounding their deepest purpose and intentions?

The danger is always present, that even and precisely in our attempts to repent and believe the gospel, as the Christ who was baptised in the Jordan exhorts us to do; even and precisely as we try to repent and believe, we might exacerbate our sin by drowning out God’s words and actions with our own, making a strange sort of pride out of a false humility.

Or, conversely, there is the coterminous danger that even and precisely in our attempts to offer ourselves for conversion, we might exacerbate our sin by holding something back from God’s eyes, from God’s love, and from God’s redeeming work, out of a kind of shame, which is just another false humility and strange sort of pride.

The season of Lent calls us to full and true humility; it should re-awaken and re-double in us our sense of repentance and our desire for conversion. It calls us to a series of practices crafted in and by the Church as a means of teaching and reminding us that faith is a gift, that the work of redemption in our lives is God’s work, that the work of conversion in our lives is God’s work, that the work of purification in our lives is God’s work, and that the work of sanctification in our lives is God’s work.

Lent is not about replacing the busy-ness of everyday life with a kind of religious busy-ness and self-importance; it is about replacing our busy-ness with God’s busy-ness; it is about replacing self-importance with due recognition of God’s glory: it is about learning to allow God to get on with God’s work in our lives.

These practices of self-denial and of heightened attention to God are also crafted to remind us that this, God’s work of transforming our lives, is an on-going work throughout our earthly lives and perhaps beyond them. And so we are not called so much to be patient with God’s busy-ness, as to be patient with God’s eternal patience.

The annual return of Lent, and its echoes in Friday devotions throughout the year, remind us that God is never finished with us, just as our lives are not finished until we draw our last breath. But just as we must pay attention to the dynamics of the interaction of God’s action, attention and patience with our own patience, attention and action (or perhaps lack of them) in the processes of conversion, so, too, as we pay attention to God, to God’s will and to God’s work, we must in fact also pay attention to ourselves.

But herein lies another danger. The ascetic disciplines of the Church have often been vainly misunderstood. Too easily, Christian contemplation has been confused with other forms of meditation and human attempts at transcendence. In these the spirit is seen as struggling to be free of a body which weighs it down and threatens to drown it in floods of sin and materiality. Too often, if you like, the body has been made a scapegoat for sins of the spirit.

But this misunderstanding is wildly wide of the mark: for whilst perhaps it is true that a spirit cannot sin apart from its connection to its body, it is more so true that a body cannot sin apart from its connection to its spirit. Just so, in this life at least, a soul cannot sin apart from its connection to its body and spirit.

Too often, our contradictory desires, our ability to long for God at the same time as hankering after evil, our internal, spiritual tensions, the divisions between our true, God-made selves and the selves we conjure for ourselves, too often these differences have been mistakenly identified as tensions between body and spirit and soul, rather than as divisions which run right across and through all of them.

But God does not seek to rescue our spirits from our bodies, nor our souls from our bodies and our spirits; God does not seek to rescue some supposed good parts of us, whatever they may be, from our supposedly less noble parts.

God seeks nothing less than our full conversion – a fullness which is a complete change of direction, from following sin to facing God, but a fullness which is also about the turning of the whole person. It is my soul, which encompasses my body and my spirit, just as it holds them together, which God wishes to convert and transform. All of me is what God asks of me.

Those parts of my life, those parts of my thoughts, those parts of my soul, which are not fit to enter into God’s presence, cannot simply be left behind by me, nor can I hide them from God - for all that I might try to hide them from myself. I am to be transformed by God by allowing God’s gaze to rest on all of me, which means I, too, strengthened by grace, must see and offer all of me to God. It will be for God to decide what shall be burned away and what shall be covered up; if I keep something back, if I hold something in reserve, whether through shame or pride, then that sin, that lack of offering all to God, will hold all of me back.

Christian contemplation, then, is a turning to God, a listening and attending to God, a searching for God, a waiting for God, a hearing of God’s judgement, as pronounced in the Coming, the Dying and the Raising of the Word Incarnate; it is always a building up of our knowledge and our love of God, just as it is always also a stripping away, an “unknowing”, of what we thought we knew of God.

But since it is a turning of the whole person to God, since it is listening to God’s judgement, it is also always a learning to see the world and ourselves as we truly are, as God sees things. And precisely as a turning of the whole person to God, it is also always a making of the whole person available to God for the continuation of God’s work in the world.

Christian prayer is not just about moments of physical rest and spiritual reflection, poised resourcefully between moments of action. Christian prayer is about a physical-cum-spiritual training in obedience; it is about learning to do with the whole person - body, spirit and soul - just this: what God wants.

How fortunate for us that God has not merely told or shown us what this is! In the life of Christ, God has already lived a life of obedience for us; and in the life of the Church, God has provided the means for us to become part of the Christ who was baptised for us in Jordan’s river who offered himself, body and spirit, for us on the cross and who offers us union with him, body and spirit, in baptism and in sharing the meal in which he offers us that same self, body and spirit, again and again and again.

In this Holy Season of Lent, in this wilderness respite, as we tread both well-worn and novel paths of the Church’s discipline, let us learn with the Psalmist (whose words have become the Morning Prayer responsory for Lent) to offer our souls, our spirits and our bodies to God; let us learn to allow our whole selves to be brought fully into God’s saving presence:

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God in you I trust; [. . .] Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths, Lead me in your truth, and teach me for you are the God of my salvation, for you I wait all the day long.

Let us pray that we may learn more fully what it is God wants us to be and do, and let us concentrate on allowing God’s grace to train our whole selves - our minds, our wills, our hearts, AND our hands, our feet, our voices, in short, our souls - to be obedient to that will and to show it forth in the world.