Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday - Ian Boxall


“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. … But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret ...” (Mt 6:16-18).

So says the Lord in today’s Gospel. Yet in a few moments time, we shall be queuing up to disfigure our faces. We shall probably look solemn, if not exactly dismal, as we are reminded of our origin in the dust. And we shall be discouraged from washing our faces afterwards – still less anointing our heads with oil – so as to hide what we are doing from other people. Nor have we come to a secret place in order to do this, but to a very public place, in the company of other people. Indeed, in my experience of previous Ash Wednesday evenings, many people will head out from this Mass onto the Cowley Road, so that Tesco will be full of shoppers walking round very publicly with smudges of grey ash on their foreheads.

In short, what we are doing this evening seems to be in blatant disregard for Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel.

But let’s look carefully at those words of Jesus. They are part of a much larger warning to the disciples about the dangers inherent in three religious practices, all of which are integral to the Christian keeping of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The basic question posed by Matthew is not whether Christians should fast, or pray, or give alms. Rather it is this: what distinguishes the followers of Jesus from the followers of the Pharisees on the one hand, and the religious observances of the Gentiles on the other? How are we to distinguish authentic prayer, authentic alms-giving, or authentic fasting from their misdirected alternatives?

So let’s return to fasting, and the contrast which Jesus sets up. On the one side are the ‘hypocrites’, who look dismal, and disfigure their faces. The warning is made all the more vivid by the exaggerated terms in which it is presented. The hypocrites are frankly made to look ridiculous. They strut around in a pompous manner, blowing loud trumpets, and blocking the traffic on street corners. When it comes to fasting, they pour ashes on their heads as if they were lamenting a national disaster rather than engaged in a modest act of personal piety. Moreover, the very word ‘hypocrite’, hupokrit─ôs, suggests that they are little more than actors, wearing masks to obscure their true identity. Indeed, we might plausibly translate Matthew’s words, not as ‘they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting’, but ‘they disfigure their faces so as to appear to others that they are fasting’. They are only playing at it, and the warning to hearers of Matthew’s Gospel is that we can just as easily succumb to the same pretence.

On the other side are those who listen attentively to the words of Jesus, who put oil on their head as a sign of joy, and wash their heads, and perform their fasting ‘in secret’, in hiddenness, in their inmost selves, where their heavenly Father sees. What the hypocrites with their ridiculous masks have failed to see is that the practice of fasting is about replacing pretence with reality. It means going into the secret, hidden place which our heavenly Father sees. It involves stripping away those things, even good things, with which we normally surround ourselves and which we convince ourselves that we can’t live without. It means confronting those desires which can threaten to enslave us, rather than pretending that they don’t really exist or can’t do us harm. And as that stripping away happens and the battle-lines are drawn, fasting heightens our awareness of our utter dependence on God.

But if authentic fasting makes us aware of our total dependence upon God, then it also opens us outwards to our fellow human beings. Fasting is not a performance to be seen by others, but an act of mercy which reaches out to others. As St Peter Chrysologus puts it:

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself (Sermo 43: cited in 2009 Lenten Message of Benedict XVI).

In other words, when we fast we are acknowledging the integral connection between the inside and the outside, between the internal discipline of fasting and its outward expression in sacrificial living. It is precisely this relationship between the inside and the outside which the prophet Isaiah speaks about: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high … Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs to the yoke … Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isa. 58:3b-7).

So what we have come to do today is not to disfigure our faces like the hypocrites, so as to be seen by others. Rather, the purpose of that ash on our foreheads is to act as a warning precisely against this kind of hypocrisy. It reminds us of our human fragility, our utter dependence upon God without whom we are but dust. It reminds us of the integral connection between the inside and the outside, an external sign of an inner disposition. And it is crucial that this mark we receive is the mark of the cross: as a vivid reminder that our prayer and fasting and almsgiving are to point others, not to ourselves, but to Christ.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Healing Mass - Fr Edward Dowler


As part of a Group Mass, organized by a tutorial group of students, this homily was given by the Vice-Principal, Fr Edward Dowler.

In Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, the hero, Richard, played in the film by Leonardo di Caprio, travels to a remote part of Thailand where a group of backpackers have set up an idyllic community on a remote and spectacularly beautiful beach. Fuelled by plenty of drugs and sex, they have a wonderful time until one of their number gets badly bitten on the leg by a shark. So repulsive is his suffering to the backpackers, such an affront is it to the ideal way of life they believe themselves to have discovered that they banish him to a tent on the beach. Only Richard visits him from time to time, but otherwise the supposedly ideal hippie community has shown that it is not ideal because the only way that it can cope with sickness and suffering is by ostracizing the sick man and pitching him out of the commune.


The novel explores a fundamental feature of most, if not all societies: that those who are sick or suffering tend to be excluded from the human community but, as theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas have pointed out, the primary calling of physicians, of the Christian community and indeed of human beings when it comes to sick people is not to cure by increasingly complex technological interventions, but simply to be present to them. Thus, hospitals were originally started not to be, as is often assumed, places where sick people would necessarily get cured by increasingly complicated techological interventions. Rather, they were founded, as their name implies, to be houses of hospitality where the sick and suffering would know that others would be present to them; where a community of people would be there for them, not necessarily in order to take away their suffering, since that may well be impossible, but to help absorb that suffering by being present to the suffering person, and thus ensuring that they didn’t face their suffering alone.


That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. I’ve found that one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a priest is visiting hospitals and simply being present. All sorts of people are typically rushing around the place, looking focussed and professional, as though they’ll really make a difference, but all I can do is just be there, perhaps bring holy communion, perhaps say a prayer, but essentially just spend some time, be present. All my activism, my solution-drivenness, my desire for visible results has to drain away as I am required to do nothing, but most of all be there, be present. But, of course, for many many sick people and in particular for those who will, for whatever reason, never get better, that gift of presence is exactly what is most important.


When Jesus comes to a suffering and needy world in the incarnation and in the Eucharist, he comes primarily just to be present. Yes, he teaches and performs healings and exorcisms, but most fundamentally, he just comes to be present in the body and the blood: present in the incarnation as the word made flesh; present in the Eucharist in the body and blood under the sacramental signs of bread and wine. And his promise is not that we will never be ill or that we will never suffer, but it is that he will carry on being present: ‘lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time.’

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Third Sunday before Lent - Mrs Lucy Gardner

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

How far will you go? How far are you prepared to go for the sake of the Gospel?

You see, St Paul has set me thinking about the nature of freedom, and the lengths we are prepared to go to win it.

Freedom: it’s what the Gospel is all about: the glorious liberty of the children of God. But freedom is a rather strange concept, and perhaps an even stranger experience. Freedom can seem attractive: freedom from everything which restricts and hampers us that sounds like a wonderful promise. But freedom can also disappoint: when my new car - or my latest piece of tat - does not bring me the freedom it promised, the idea of freedom leaves me feeling cheated and frustrated.

And freedom can be alarming: true or radical freedom can leave me feeling unsure, exposed: if I am truly free, by what guidance am I to decide to exercise my freedoms?

All this belongs very much to our contemporary vocabulary. Indeed, one standpoint would suggest that the freedom of choice is what governs us in the West. It is the ideal to which we cling; it is the freedom for which we feel we have fought. This is the freedom to self-determination: to dress as “I” please, to spend “my” money as “I” want, to follow a career of “my” choosing, to pursue “my” own sense of vocation, even.

And this freedom can be useful in telling the sorry tale of human politics and the need to negotiate about conflicting freedoms: the freedom to explore the world and enjoy nature, conflicting with the freedom to ignore and abuse it; the freedom to make noise and music, conflicting with the freedom to enjoy peace and quiet; the freedom to accept things as they are, conflicting with the freedom to argue and complain.

The negotiations can become petty, small minded, or they can escalate to full blown conflict and violence. But for all we may be passionate about them or indifferent to them, these freedoms, this contemporary currency of “freedom”, are only distant relatives of the freedom promised by the Gospel.

Firstly, the glorious liberty of the children of God is a freedom which is promised to us as a group: as children, as a family, with a shared identity and shared interests, and not primarily to each one of us as separate, competitive individuals.

Secondly, however, (but by no means secondarily) the glorious liberty of the children of God is not a freedom to be what we wish to be, but rather the freedom to become what God has made us to be. That means that it is the freedom to make choices; but it is the freedom to make the choices that will enable us to become who we truly are. The freedom promised by the Gospel is freedom from a certain set of negatives: it is freedom from death, from sin, from guilt, at least.

But it is not an open-ended freedom shaped only by what it escapes; it is a particular freedom for and to a certain set of positives: it is the freedom to be who we truly are (and not just who we want to be); it is the freedom to share today in the Kingdom of God (and not just to live wanton, lawless lives); it is the freedom to follow Christ, and that means sharing in his suffering as well as sharing in his resurrection life; and ultimately, of course, it is freedom to praise God for ever (which will, ultimately, be all that pleases us).

We shall have to work hard to describe this as freedom to a society dedicated to self-determination. But, as Paul understood, and as Fr Edward reminded us last week, one of the ways in which we can demonstrate the value of a freedom is by the price we are prepared to pay for it. It is easy to see the freedoms we take for granted, or regard as useless: we make little effort to secure or exercise them.

It costs us little in England to vote, and perhaps we believe we would make little real difference by doing so. And so our turn out is far lower than in countries where the freedom to vote is itself at stake at the ballot box, under the threat of violence. And yet, here in England we will work hard to earn a holiday, or sacrifice family life to gain a promotion – or even vice versa.

And so I ask again: How far will you go? How far are you prepared to go for the sake of the Gospel? To put this another way: What prices can others see us paying to gain the glorious liberty of the children of God? How do our lives bear witness to its inestimable value?

On the face of it, the question seems all the wrong way round, no doubt. Surely the gift of the Gospel is free – freely given, freely won? Well, yes, it is that. And yet, there is more to be told here, as Paul’s circling rhetoric in his first letter to the Corinthians shows. The freedom of the Gospel is freely won and freely given, but it arrives with a definite mandate: to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Paul struggles with this, surrendering what he sees as the rights and rewards of the Gospel, for the sake of the Gospel: precisely in order to preach the Gospel, which he understands he is obliged to do, and to make it freely available to others. Although he is free with respect to all, he has made himself a slave to all, becoming all things to all people, to win more of them for Christ.

The question for the Church today is what rights, rewards and benefits are we prepared to surrender, for the sake of the Kingdom and the Gospel? What must we do to win the freedom of others? In an age when everything costs money and even the church seems to be asking for more and more of it, what must we, the church, surrender in order for people to see and understand that God’s gifts are free? In an age when religious difference has become the excuse for a range of crimes from personal abuse to state violence, what must we, the church, surrender in order for people to see and understand that God’s gifts are free?

The freedom of the Gospel is freely won and freely given, yet it arrives with a definite mandate: to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It comes with no price-tag except that it asks that we join Christ in paying the ultimate price for sin.

What prices are we prepared to pay to make the Gospel freely available to all? What prices must we, the church, pay, in order for people to see and understand that God’s freedom renders us neither lawless nor finally bound to human laws?

What prices must we, the church, pay, in order for people to see and understand that God’s freedom obliges us to live and breathe our lives in continual prayer and praise, but that slavish religious ritual, howsoever wonderfully crafted, can never win anything for us in and of itself?

The freedom of the Gospel is freely won and freely given, indeed, and yet it arrives with a definite mandate: to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. More than this, God’s gift of grace is freely given, and can be freely accepted; yet once accepted, it demands that we give, we surrender, everything to God. Your presence here shows that you have already given much, but we can never rest on our laurels in this; God always asks for more, because God always asks for everything.

And this commits us, like Paul, to transgressing a whole range of social signs. How far will you go? How far are you prepared to go for the sake of the Gospel? What accommodations and compromises does Christ ask of you - and which are temptations from the devil?

Will you live a life that is not for yourself, but wholly for others? Will you write a letter to set a prisoner free? Will you forego a luxury in order to help feed the hungry? Will you look for reconciliation in place of insisting on offence? Will you stop and pray five times a day, to show others that your life is lived Godward? Will you go green to show God’s love for creation? Will you let go of cherished vocabulary to witness to Church unity and win others for Christ? Will you live a life ordered to the sacraments in order to be part of making Christ present in the world?

My framing of the questions may well be all wrong for you – but at least I can ask you this: what is the question, the demand, which the Spirit is laying upon you today, that will enable you at once to be more truly you and to convince others of the truth of the Gospel, thereby increasing both the number who share in its blessings and your own enjoyment of them?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Presentation of the Lord - Dr Sabine Alkire


Dr Sabine Alkire from The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative preached this sermon at a Sung Mass for the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas). On this occasion we welcomed the Parish of SS Mary & John, Cowley, for their annual visit to the House - Mass was followed by a buffet supper and the opportunity for students and parishioners to meet.

Candlemas is more than the procession that closes Epiphany and signals the end of cribs and Christmas trees and a hesitant glance ahead. Tonight’s solemn procession of Christ’s entry as the Light of the World into the Temple, focuses our minds on an uncanny moment. We celebrate the moment in which God incarnate comes, for the first time, into that sacred space humanity made precisely for God – the Temple of Jerusalem.

Now for us, Candlemas is a minor festival on the Christian calendar. So we are mainly coming out this snowy night to have a meal together as neighbours or friends, as christians in east Oxford. Indeed in our parish yesterday there were many favourable comments anticipating the meal and wine and company we will enjoy. But candlemas has not always been so minor, and it is worth pausing before the meal, to savor it, that it may animate our prayer other nights of the year.

In her travels to Jerusalem over 1600 years ago, Egeria witnessed today’s procession. She wrote to her sisters, “The fortieth day … is …celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part… all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter.” [Travels. M.L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe, ed. and trans. London: SPCK, 1919. page 56.] A tradition that has not survived, you will be pleased to hear, is that in Egeria’s day all the priests, and after them the Bishop, preached on today’s gospel before the mass.

The procession of Christians with lighted candles, singing the Nunc Dimittis, is with Palm Sunday the oldest procession, and a major feast mentioned in sermons from the 4th century onwards. In the 7th century the Gelasian Sacrematary called it the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, making this the oldest festival in honour of our Lady. Around a millennium ago, Candlemas became the mass at which beeswax candles used on the altar as well as in people’s homes were blessed, and the mass affected many; the last poem written by the Little Flower of Jesus, Teresa of Lisieux speaks fondly of this occasion. [Why I love thee, Mary]

Why this prominence, which has now faded so? What were they celebrating? Churches often explain Candlemas services by referring either to the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary 40 days after birth (which was required) or to the presentation of Jesus, the firstborn son in the Temple (which was not). Yet Luke can be forgiven for a slightly blurry description of the event, because neither of these fully capture what ensued. This night we celebrate the moment in which God incarnate enters, for the first time, that sacred space humanity made precisely for God – the Temple of Jerusalem, and sees with human eyes, the space intended for his worship.

And the reason for our feast is not only the joy of Christ’s entry; it is this: in the arms of a man upon whom the holy spirit rested, and through the words of Anna, an old widow of prayer and devotion, God incarnate is received and recognised.

Such recognition is a feat – even in human terms.

Several years ago, an Indian economist became the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. As every non-EU citizen will know, when we enter the UK we must fill a form stating our address in the UK. Returning home, Amartya Sen put down as his home address, as usual, the Master’s Lodge, Trinity College Cambridge. The immigration officer was quite rather chatty and remarked upon this unusual residence. ‘Are you a good friend of the Master, then?’ he asked. There was a slight pause during which the Master considered swiftly whether he could be construed to be a good friend to himself, and deciding the affirmative uttered the awkward half-truth, ‘I suppose I am.’

This evening we have no such oversights of identity. Not here do we have, ‘he came to his own, and his own received him not’. For God the Holy Spirit had gone on ahead, and opened the eyes of Simeon and Anna. And they recognise and proclaim his identity with delight and reverence, praising God and blessing Mary & Joseph.

There is an irony. Later Jesus will visit the Temple at the height of his ministry. Later he will meet the Temple Authorities, the faithful people and beggars, the priests and Scribes and Pharisees. Later some will follow. Others condemn. Later a sword will pierce Mary’s heart too. But not now, not yet. When Simeon held Jesus, he blessed God. Whatever the initial reason for this visit, the incident that overshadows all else was their recognition and welcome of the living God within the very House built for God. This is how life should be – yet often is not.

How can this help us other nights when we pray?

Three lines of tonight’s reading, often called the Nunc Dimittis, were spoken by Simeon as he held the chid Jesus in his arms. Simeon’s qualification was not his age – for it does not say that he was old. It is not his ordination, for it does not say he was ordained. It was not his habits, for it does not say he came regularly to temple - the spirit guided him there this night. Simeon’s qualification was that he was holy, and God’s Spirit rested upon him.

An ancient Indian Jesuit [Madras Jesuit House, near the beach. 1991] once gave a strikingly simple description of a holy person. A holy person, he said, does all he knows to be true, and means every word he says. does all she knows to be true, and means every word she says. Which of us do that? Even in Church? for words of profundity roll relentlessly by, and our minds do not hold and mean each one.

Simeon’s opening words speaks of total release. If the departure this night be not to sleep but to death, even this will be welcomed in peace and trust. Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.

The Nunc Dimittus is an ancient part of the Church’s daily prayer. The brief evening prayer recorded in the 4th century Apostolic Consitutions ends with it. It was used in Compline in the Roman Rite, and in evensong since the 16th century until now, when it is still the second canticle at most services of evening prayer. When those who are ordained promise to say daily the morning and evening prayers, they promise to include in their rhythm of prayer most days, these three lines. How might we draw on tonight’s feast when we say them?

On saying the first line of the Nunc Dimittis, we all, young and old, well and failing, daily make our peace with death. Simeon’s single act of sincere release puts all else into perspective. If today I pass from life to Death, all will still be very well, for You are, Resurrection love is, beyond life or death or thought. Just as the Rosary bids Our Lady’s prayers ‘now and at the hour of our death’, so Buddhists advise the faithful to meditate daily on their death, to think of each action as if it might be their last, and some Christians keep a skull or visual reminder of life’s brevity. Touching the doors of death briefly in prayer is not morbid or depressing. It does it deny our commitments and our joy in this sensuous bodily life. Rather, it gives us a sense of perspective. We learn neither to take our lives too seriously – or not seriously enough.

During the remainder of the Nunc, we might recall the day or week in a brief examen, remembering a few blessings, offering up the work we have done, our attempts to serve our Lord in the poor and oppressed, to remember to love all we encounter, offering up even our failures – our explicative thoughts, our mockery of others, the words we have said but not meant. We offer our days, as incomplete and imperfect as they are, as inspired and grace-filled as they are, as an essential but incomplete part of God’s acting on earth. For, as the prayer by Bishop Untner but usually ascribed to Oscar Romero puts it, We are workers not master builders, ministers not messiahs…prophets of a future not our own. [Said in homily by Cardinal Deardon, who was Bishop of Detroit, but written by Bishop Untner. “Origin and mystery of the ‘Romero prayer’” by Thomas Gumbledon, retired Auxiliary Bishop in Detroit] We welcome God, to enlighten us, to work through us, yet also to do what we cannot and do not try to do.

Tonight, and throughout the year when we say the Nunc Dimittis, we celebrate that moment in which God incarnate entered a religious house on earth for the first time, and was recognised and received. In becoming aware of the light of Christ, which spreads out from this day, our passion and vocation in this world might be tempered – that is both balanced and made stronger – by the perspective of our own death, tempered by our utter dependence on Christ, tempered by our joyful recognition of the Light of God, going always ahead.

Meanwhile, in the Christian year, we move from Candlemas to that brief time of peace when the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. Amen.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Church of England should nurture Theology - Fr Andrew Davison


Fr Andrew Davison writes in today's Church Times. Further information about the Returning to the Church course run at St Stephen's House can be found here.

When did the Church of England start being embar­rassed by theology? There was a time when our theo­logical learning was met with wonder: our erudition was the stupor mundi. Today, the official theology of the Church of England is more often just stupefying, or it is absent alto­gether.

Two examples from the world of diocesan theological education will set the scene. An academic I know, a leader in his field and a hard-working parish priest, offered to help with his cathedral’s pro­gramme of education. It came to nothing. His sugges­tions were rebuffed for being “too Christian”. Staff at the cathedral said that they prided themselves on out­reach to non-Christians, and any­thing too religious “might put them off”.

Another friend, also a parish priest, attended a course on “leader­ship devel­op­ment” organised by her diocese. It could have been training for Marks & Spencer or NatWest: it was secular management theory from beginning to end.

This approach was so entrenched that, when she voiced her concern and asked for a little more theology, she was met with scorn. The diocese, she was told, left it to individuals to “baptise” the learning of society at large. Yet this would suggest that ideas are more or less neutral, whereas they can be variously good and bad, and we need theology to judge them.

The mentality this episode illustrates does not envisage that theology should perform an incisive critique on the ideas of our time. But then this brand of accommodating liberalism has given up making the effort to judge. We can leave it to people to work things through theo­logically in their own time only if we are also committed to the ongoing task of putting that theology in place.

If you need further confirmation of a deficit of theology in the life of the Church, consider Church of England reports. The theological introduc­tion or concluding reflec­tion is usually bland. It will often set out a tapestry of quotations, and from slightly marginal figures, rather than delivering a sustained argu­ment, ex­pounding heavyweight theo­­logians. There is considerable con­fusion over what counts as an authority.

Theologically speaking, Mission-shaped Church (CHP, 2004) is the worst example by some margin. Look through the list of references at the back of this gospel for the 21st-century Church. Swaths of it read like the inventory of second-hand paper­backs in an Evangelical book­shop. The proportion of citations from definitive thinkers from the Christian tradition is minute.

This is a real problem. We are mov­ing into new, uncertain territory with a scratched-together guide. The former director of the Fresh Expres­sions movement commented per­ceptively on its website that ecclesiology — which is exactly what we need — is a “word which stops conversations more than it starts them”. He rightly pointed out that much work remains to be done before the Church will be literate in this area.

The literature of Fresh Expres­sions exemplifies something partic­ularly perplexing — a disengage­ment by Evangelicals from theology more generally. In the zealous Evan­gelical world of my undergraduate years in the early ’90s, doctrine was the staple of our conversations. But, since then, Anglican Evangelicalism has bifurcated. As the conservative and open wings grow apart, it seems that an awkward silence is being kept over diverging theological convic­tions.

Instead, there is a new emphasis on the outward life of discipleship and getting people into church, and theology is ignored or even dis­paraged. Previous generations would not have seen a tension between these options.

I single out Evangelical Anglicans not in scorn, but rather out of a sense of disappointment. They are highly significant in the current balance of the Church, and their tradition promises more.

Anglo-Catholics fare little better. For a decade, we have allowed internal, thoroughly ecclesiastical concerns to limit the range of ques­tions we address. When the current prominent generation was training at Catholic theological colleges in the 1970s, doctrine was at its lowest ebb. This was the period when the Church of England was agonising over whether it believed the Creeds. As a result, although those who are now leaders believed the faith, systematic theology figures sur­prisingly little among their interests: even for traditionalists, its place is taken by church history or spir­ituality.

This trend is replicated in the Anglican Communion as a whole. Gone is our fabled open-mindedness and confidence in the quest for truth. The issue at the heart of our current troubles — the legitimacy of homosexual relationships — has been studiously ignored as a matter for theological investigation at a global level.

Instead, we concern ourselves with procedure, with the Covenant and Instruments of Unity. The pro­cedural card also trumps theo­logy nearer to home. At one point, when the debate over the conse­cration of women bishops in the General Synod had become intractable, the bishops turned the question over to the canon lawyers. It was not a good moment for those who see bishops as teachers and exponents of the faith.

Finally, just when it would have been useful, the Doctrine Commis­sion is in abeyance. It might have offered a swift but penetrating theo­logical response to the current finan­cial crisis. Into our national debate, it could have injected a long, wise view on community, restraint, and true gain. Instead, we rely on individual bishops, or groups of bishops, mak­ing statements to newspapers.

Offering the sort of wise counsel in view here, especially in times of difficulty, is precisely what the con­stitutional position expects of the Church of England: counsel drawn from the deep wells of the tradition entrusted to us as its custodians.

The best and worst of the current situation is that these custodians abound. The good news is that there are many fine Anglican theologians who have international reputations. But then it is all the worse that we hardly use them. We have thinkers of distinction, but far too often they only indirectly influence and aid the Church. Again, we see a woeful gap between academic theology and theology in the life of the Church.

Of course, on the ground many parishes are active in theological learning and discussion. And, of course, the academic theologians I am thinking of are themselves de­vout members of these commun­ities. For all that, their sense is often one of being cut off and under­deployed. This is particularly true of lay theologians.

The Church is marginal to con­temporary intellectual life at a na­tional level, but it offers little that is more than marginally inter­est­ing.

Nothing less than a sea change will do: a return to confidence in our tradition and the sense that our theo­logy is one of our proudest boasts. It is encouraging that this sort of shift is visible among younger priests and people. Moreover, resur­gent confidence in Christian orthodoxy does not inevit­ably go hand in hand with cultural conservatism.

In the current Archbishop of Canterbury, we have a theologian at the helm, and that is making some differ­ence to the output of church committees and reports. The Liturgical Commission’s Trans­form­ing Worship (2007) has gravity. Even here, how­ever, the cold hand of bullet points and numbered para­graphs remains. We know how to present theology as if it were dull.

In training clergy and lay leaders, we need to make more of our aca­demics. In my time as a curate, the most successful days of continuing ministerial edu­cation were the ones where academics were invited in.

We should not suppose that the only ones to gain from better links with university theologians would be priests and people. The reverse is also true. At the first “Returning to the Church” conference at St Stephen’s House last month, it was the dialogue between theologians and people from the parishes that struck me as most significant.

Re­searchers returned to their univer­sities with new questions to consider, and the needs of the contemporary Church more firmly in mind.

The Church of England has put money into new forms of mission. Many of them I find insubstantial, but I will celebrate them if they produce new, well-grounded Chris­tians. There has also been a revival of interest in liturgy. This is only to the good. The neglected sibling is theo­logy: doctrine, Christian thought, apologetics, catechesis — confid­ently presented and accessible without dilution.

This, in particular, is what young people want. I find this constantly, first in a parish and now in a uni­versity. In a parish in south-east London, it was classes to teach the faith that drew, and retained, chil­dren and teenagers. Now, in Oxford, I have seen students seize on groups to present without triviality the basics of theology.

In its own way, the success of the Alpha course suggests a similar desire to understand the Christian faith, for all that many of us might wish that it went further and adopted a different balance in its subject-matter.

A few decades ago, there was a liberal turn that led us to suppose that we could do without theology, often replacing it with social sciences. This trend is everywhere to be seen. In fact, to reconnect with the young, we should return to the tradi­tion at its most vibrant: we should go orthodox and thoughtful.

2009 Jellicoe Lecture - Canon Robin Ward


The Principal, last evening, gave the 2009 Jellicoe Lecture at St Mary's, Cable Street, in the East End of London. In collaboration with St Mary's, the Contextual Theology Centre offers an annual lecture in honour of the life and work of Fr Basil Jellicoe, who was born on 5th February 1899.

The lecture was entitled The future of Anglo-Catholic Social Action and was preceded by a Sung Mass in St Mary's, Cable Street.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Presentation of the Lord - Daniel Sandham


This homily was given by Daniel Sandham, a final year seminarian and the Senior Student, at St Michael & All Angels, Brighton, on Sunday 1st February 2009.

‘A light to enlighten the nations.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Morning Prayer at St Stephen’s House is said at half-past-seven. Consequently, over the past few years, I’ve noticed more than ever before the way in which, at this time of year, the days lengthen rapidly. Soon getting up in the dark (for which I have a particular loathing) will once again be a thing of the past. The beginning of February marks the end of what’s called the ‘solar winter’, the three months of the year with the least light.

It’s a bitter-sweet paradox then that February is traditionally the coldest month of the year. And, if the weather forecast is to be believed, this February will be no exception. ‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger’ – so the saying goes. This is due to the oceans that surround our island country. The sea, like a massive radiator, stores energy from the summer sun, which is then slowly released back into the atmosphere over the winter months. But by February the sea has been emptied of its heat, and is at its coldest temperature.

Don’t worry. I haven’t spent the last two and a half years studying meteorology rather than theology. But it’s no mere coincidence that this feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, more commonly known as Candlemas, takes place at the beginning of February. Candlemas, like February, welcomes the light. This light is the light that is spoken of in the great prologue of John’s gospel, that ‘shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it’. This is the light that Simeon speaks of in today’s gospel reading, as he takes the child into his arms: ‘the light to enlighten the nations.’ This is the light that we commemorate in this ancient ceremony of the blessing and carrying of candles.

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.’ The charm of the Candlemas procession, and the seemingly idyllic scene of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the temple, form only part of the picture. For Candlemas, like the lengthening days of February, is bitter-sweet. Bitter-sweet because this scene in the temple would have been far from idyllic. Surrounded by other parents presenting their first born sons, and countless others making their blood offerings, the temple would have been a crowded abattoir, in which the sound of shrieking animals and the stench of blood would have been overwhelming. This ritual observance would have been grossly unpleasant.

More potently, Candlemas is bitter-sweet because of the remarkable words Simeon utters to Mary: ‘this child… is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’ I imagine Simeon to be rather like Dumbledore, the venerable headmaster of Hogwarts; ancient, long-bearded, and blessed with a mystical wisdom. The words he utters are confusing, impenetrable; but the quiet assurance and gravitas with which he delivers them guarantee the truth they contain. Mary and Joseph learn that this child will be a source of division. They learn that this child will be rejected. And Mary learns that she will suffer too; a sword will pierce her own soul, as she stands at the foot of the cross.

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.’ So, despite the great light that is brought into the temple, there is a great coldness that lies ahead of the child Simeon takes into his arms. Candlemas is juxtaposed between the incarnation and the crucifixion. Today we find ourselves with one eye cast back at Christmas and Epiphany, and the other looking forward to Lent , Holy Week and Easter. Today we realize that the child in the manger will be the crucified of Calvary. We turn from the crib to the cross.

I think that the bitter-sweetness of Candlemas is emblematic of the Christian life. To be a Christian is to be filled with light – the light of the world. But it is also to feel the coldness that is a constituent part of bearing of that light. At baptisms, the newly-baptised is presented with a candle, accompanied by the words, ‘You have received the light of Christ.’ This comes with it the vocation to ‘shine as a light to the world’. This vocation must be open to the possibility of coldness: the coldness of persecution, the coldness of rejection, the coldness of ignorance. In a progressively more secularized society Christians are increasingly confronted with these coldnesses. As we witness the watering down of our Christian heritage and the ignorance and hostility with which the church is viewed by many, we feel the bitter-sweetness of being a Christian in twenty-first century Britain.

There is undeniably a bitter-sweetness about being a member of the Church of England at the moment. There is the sweetness of our unique Anglican heritage, the sweetness of the broadness of our church, the sweetness of the potential for and signs of growth. But that sweetness is made bitter, the light is made cold, by our divisions over issues of sexuality and gender, issues which are far from resolution.

In the face of the bitter-sweetness of being a Christian and being an Anglican we must not be downhearted. ‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger’ is certainly true of the month of February, but we know that come the spring the light will triumph over the coldness and the temperatures will rise. We know, also, that as we observe Lent, Holy Week and Easter, Jesus, the Light of the World, will triumph over the powers of darkness. We know that, despite a sword piercing her soul, Mary will rejoice in her son’s resurrection.

So, if we believe in Christ’s power over darkness, there is hope for Christians in twenty-first century, secularized Britain. Despite the present darkness, the Light will triumph. But it won’t triumph unless we let it. We are to shine ever more brightly as lights to the world, faithful to our calling as baptized members of Christ’s body. Only by our courage and boldness will we turn the tide of indifference and negativity towards the gospel. We, like Simeon, are to proclaim Christ as ‘a light to enlighten the nations’.

There is hope too for the Church of England. In the darkness of division we are to pray earnestly for the light of charity to prevail in the church’s discussions and decisions. Furthermore, we are to remember that these issues, important though they are, must not absorb the church. Rather the church’s mission is to shine like a light in the darkness of the world: by strengthening the weak, by feeding the hungry, by clothing the naked, by letting the oppressed go free.

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.’ So, in these cold days of February may we set our hope on the Light of the World, and be active in proclaiming him as the ‘light to enlighten the nations’.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany - Fr Edward Dowler


They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as one of their scribes.

Today’s gospel twice strongly emphasises the way in which, by St Mark’s account, Jesus’s hearers very early in his public ministry, recognise him as someone who has authority. I’d like us to reflect on how this authority might have particularly communicated itself to those who were around him as he began his ministry of teaching and healing? And what might this have to say to us, in particular those to whom the Church has entrusted or will entrust an authority to teach. I’d like to single out four particular incidents near to the start of Jesus’s ministry that might have especially conveyed authority.

The first of these is the account in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. As is often noted, his ministry starts with a period of isolation and quiet prayer in the desert, and it is silent prayer and contemplation to which he returns when he takes his disciples apart from the crowd to rest in prayerful withdrawal after their days of active ministry. It is in contemplation also that Jesus spends the night before his crucifixion in Gethsemane. One source of Jesus’s teaching and activity, then, and one reason why it comes across as authoritative is the fact that his teaching is rooted in silent prayer and contemplation. And that’s a lesson for all who teach in whatever context: in a culture of non-stop noise and hyper-active communication. Baron Von Hugel commented that ‘Man is what he does with his silence’. And surely it is evident that the most authoritative voices are those of people who know what it is to be silent, who have integrated within themselves a sense of contemplative space, which somehow manages to show through in everything they do and say. And therefore that what they speak and teach comes deeply out of it.

A second sign of Jesus’s authority comes at the Synagogue in Nazareth when Jesus in St Luke’s gospel reads to the congregation from the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor...’ Jesus’s authority is shown here in his faithfulness to the ancient sources of the faith: he speaks in radical continuity with the prophets and the ancient deposit of the faith. And yet, Jesus’s authority does not come across simply as a re-hashing of what has already been said. This is, the people comment, a new teaching, and its newness appears to be what makes it so striking; but it is a type of novelty that comes not from fads and gimmicks, but from faithful, deep and careful engagement with the scriptures: from loving them and living them, and being excited about their contemporary application, and how their insights and the lifestyle they generate might be lived out in the community of faith for the good of the world today. Jesus has authority because, like the householder in Matthew’s gospel, he can bring both new and old out of his store; because he can present to his hearers a wisdom that has a beauty that is both ever ancient and ever new.

A third sign of Jesus’s authority at an early stage of his ministry comes in the call of the first disciples. Soon after the account of Jesus’s temptations in Matthew, we hear of him calling Simon, Andrew, James and John by the Sea of Galilee. People have often remarked how striking it is that both of these sets of brothers immediately follow after he has called to them. This encounter, writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus’. There is no explanation of why they follow, and what made them do it, even without any words from Jesus apart from ‘follow me’. It seems that Jesus’s personality alone is, in advance of any verbal communication, enough to convey an authority that the disciples find it impossible to ignore. Authoritative teaching is not then just a matter of clever words well said, but also crucially of lives well lived. ‘For us to be listened to with obedient compliance’, comments one preacher of the early Church, ‘whatever the grandeur of the speaker’s utterances, his manner of life carries more weight’. The authority of any teacher is thus not only in the words they say, but what, in all sorts of ways, can be apprehended more deeply about their character, sometimes before they have even opened their mouth.

Fourthly, and finally, the Healing in Capernaum in today’s gospel shows us that authority comes from power well-used. As Fr Andrew reminded us last week, Jesus’s miracles, far from being arbitrary and freakish magic tricks, actually restore the creation to the fullness of what it was intended to be as well as, of course, doing the related task of pointing to the coming Kingdom of God. And so it is in today’s gospel, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority (they remark) He commands even the unclean spirits’. Jesus’s teaching is seen to be authoritative because of his ability to command evil spirits. One often hears that the people with whom Jesus was most at odds were the religious professionals of his day. But, although there clearly were tensions with them, that emphasis surely misses the force of gospels like today’s. The real battle of Jesus’s ministry, Tom Wright comments, ‘was not a round of fierce debates with the keepers of orthodoxy, but head-on war with Satan’. The most serious battle is against the forces of evil, the forces that overcome people, destroy them and make them mad. It is Jesus’s success in combating these forces, in the use of his power to raise up, to restore and to heal those who have been wounded by them, that gives him authority and compels his hearers listen to his words.

Jesus’s authority is, of course, different to that of a merely human teacher. Jesus teaches with authority because he is rooted in contemplation, but his contemplation, unlike ours, is the face to face vision of the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart. Jesus’s words carry both engaging freshness, and also appeal to the scriptural tradition, but of course they are authoritative, because the one who utters them is himself the Father’s eternal Word. Jesus’s teaching demands attention, because, as with the call of the disciples, before he even opens his mouth, his presence and persona command attention, but then you could say, he would, because he is the Christ, the son of the living God. Jesus’s authoritative teaching is recognised because of his wise use of power to raise up, restore and heal; but he can do those things precisely because he is the one through whom all things came to be. Is it possible that even if we tried to follow the blueprint, we could be anything like so successful? Well, yes it is because Christians are not just friends of Jesus, or imitators of him, but members of his body the Church. And this means that if we stay close to him, our own efforts, poor though they always are; fraught with enormous amounts of difficulty and ambiguity though they always will be; will be caught up into him, so that we too will teach with an authority that will come not from ourselves alone, but from ourselves rooted and grounded in him.