Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Prisons Week 2017

Camden Town, where I was in charge of a church before I moved here, is a famous place of protest. Many were the Saturdays you could hardly move for young and not-so-young idealists marching with red flags and placards. I remember one young man, I assumed a student, waving a banner emblazoned with the words “prison is inhumane.” And certainly, early 20th century socialist movements called for the abolition of prisons and the freeing of all inmates. But, I wonder in this national week of prayer for prisoners, would that truly be an act of liberation?
I served among many people in Camden who had been (or would be) in and out of prison, especially the homeless people who took refuge in our church and its garden. Many were ex-military, most were alcoholics and/or drug users, almost all had mental health problems of some kind. They soon told me that their basic problem as homeless people was not, as you might expect, actually the lack of a home. One - a very talented musician - told me that you could put him up in the Ritz, but he knew that because of his drug habit, by the end of the week he would have trashed it. The basic solution to homelessness for him and many was not a home, but months of very expensive therapy in rehab: and who was going to pay for that?
Talking to ex-offenders, I learnt that prison presents a similar problem. Locking someone up to put them off doing whatever it was they did again, the prison service knows well, tends not to work. Let them out, and often, they repeat the offence: unless, that is, something in them has changed. Freeing people from prison does not liberate them from themselves. True liberation needs to happen within.
All of us to some extent are imprisoned by the historic influences that have defined the boundaries of our selves, the behaviours and reactions learnt from infancy, especially from our parents. This is a psychological truth, not a religious one. And yet there are unmistakably religious responses to this truth.
One of the best known is the ancient Greek motif, ‘know yourself.’ This makes good sense from a Christian perspective, too. An honest knowledge of oneself is the vital starting point on the journey to liberation. The saints and mystics have long taught that this self-knowledge is best found in silence, stillness and contemplation.
You can see your reflection more clearly in still water than when it is being busily swilled around; and when you finally see yourself clearly, and see yourself warts and all, you see how ridiculous it is to think that you might liberate yourself. You need to turn to a higher power for that liberation.

This first step is what we in the trade call “repentance,” and it is no coincidence that it is one of the Alcoholics Anonymous key steps towards rehabilitation. Turning oneself to look into the endless well of compassion which Christians (for want of a better word) call “God” is the key in the lock of the prison of the self. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

All Things Dull and Ugly: Harvest 2017

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." These words from the Apostle St Paul came to mind as I wondered exactly how I was supposed to preach on the Harvest to a congregation ranging from Year 1 through to teenagers, young adults, their teachers, parents and who knows, maybe even all the way to grandparents?
I hope you remember Pentecost, that fiftieth day after Easter Day, when the Apostles preached amid a vision of flames dancing round their heads, and everyone who heard them could understand what they were saying in his or her own language. Now Bishop Michael is a successor of the Apostles and even has the flame-shaped hat to prove it, so if he were here, perhaps he could speak in words that would make sense to the youngest and the oldest alike: but I, as a humble priest, lack that particular charism. I suppose I’ll just have to start with the youngest and work my way up. 
So, for the little ones: I wonder whether we know the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”? It’s often sung at harvest time, though somehow we seem to have escaped it this year. It is of course a song about all the good things in this world, the plants and animals, the air we breathe and the food we eat, and how it all comes from God. And that is all quite right and true, just as it is true that we need to thank God and thank the people who bring these good things to us, like the farmers, the shopkeepers and our parents. For the young children, whose life I hope is still mostly sunshine and goodness, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is probably enough.
But as we get into our more contrary teenage years, we perhaps start to find the Monty Python version of the hymn more compelling:

All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings” - and so on.

We start to see some of the darker and less shiny aspects of existence, and quite rightly wonder how they might fit into “God’s plan:” especially when we look at the news and see the natural catastrophes affecting, for instance, Mexico of late. Do pain and hunger and misery come from God, too?
Well, the standard GCSE answer to this question is to whip out the handy “inconsistent triad,” and argue that God cannot be what he is supposed to be, namely all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good: because if he were, he would know that we are suffering, have the ability to do something about it, and be good enough to want to. But suffering still happens. So, that’s God dealt with, then.
Except - if this conundrum could be dealt with so neatly in a single period on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, it would not have exercised some of the greatest minds, throughout all philosophies and religions, throughout history. There must be a bit more to it than that.
A start would be to point out that actually, the little ones’ point of view is not as childish as you might think. There is enough in this world to feed everybody and to shelter everybody. We do have what we need to prevent and cure most of the sicknesses that scourge the world. We can predict and minimise the damage from earthquakes, tsunami and storms. We might even be able to do something to alleviate global warming. Perhaps, if we had invested more time and energy in these instead, of luxury and war, far fewer people would suffer. In simple terms, God has left us in charge of his good creation.
Ah, but! - you might be thinking - but what about the suffering we cannot stop? And why give us a world with suffering in any case?
This is where we have to move away from the GCSE textbook God, the God of the philosophers, to God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ: God revealed in a person who was a child, who grew up, and who himself suffered and died. Not a God standing back remotely from Creation and letting us get on with it; not a God sitting on a cloud saying, “ah, well, I gave them free will, so it’s up to them if they starve and maim each other. Not my problem any more”; but a God who enters into human suffering, who suffers with those who suffer, a God who descends into the utter darkness of the godlessness of hell. I cannot speak for any other ideas of God, but the Christian God is nothing other than the God we know in Christ, and in whom there is nothing that is not like Christ. And that, I think, puts a different perspective on suffering.
Perhaps this is where we have to move from our teenage to our older and more discerning years, years battered by hard experience. That’s when we see how our own suffering has made us what we are. And actually, it’s often the people who suffer most who understand God the best, rather than the people trying to dissect him in a classroom. Those who suffer realise, like the Psalmist, that for God, the darkness and the light are both alike, and that he is found not only in moments of illuminated clarity, but sometimes by groping around in the deepest dark.

So, on our journey from innocence to experience, what are we to make of the harvest? First, that like little children, we need to ask God to open our eyes to the goodness and light of this world. Second, that like teenagers, we need to retain our shock at injustice, and take the responsibility of doing something about it, rather than lazily blaming an abstract God. And last, with the benefit of experience, to make the best of whatever afflicts us, and willingly share in the suffering of others. Then we might start seeing Creation from something more like God’s point of view - and feel ready to thank him for it. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Homily on Luke 10.13-16

‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
'No, you will be brought down to Hades.
'Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48): these words, later in Luke’s Gospel, are essentially the gist of Jesus’ tirade against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. The very Son of God had walked around these towns on the edge of Lake Galilee, given them his miracles and teachings, and yet they did not believe. No prophet is welcome in his homeland, to paraphrase another saying of Our Lord, and to paraphrase another, there is little point in throwing pearls before swine. Hard words, but Jesus uses harder ones still: they shall, he says, be thrown down to hell. Proof, which Anglicans sometimes need to remember, that being holy does not always equal being nice.

Tyre and Sidon, in contrast, had been entrusted with little. Ancient mediterranean cities in what is now Lebanon, their downfall was prophesied in the Old Testament, and had come to pass under Alexander the Great in the fourth century before Christ. By Jesus’ day they were prosperous ports of the Roman empire, not unlike St Paul’s native Tarsus. They were and always had been unabashedly pagan, first with their own native gods, and now the Greco-Roman pantheon. And yet, in Old Testament days, they had struck up alliances with the Israelites from time to time. Freemasons are particularly familiar with King Hiram of Tyre and his contributions to Solomon’s temple. Those who are not against us are for us. And so it goes easier on these pagan cities, says Our Lord, who have never had the benefit of knowing God the Father, than it does on those who have seen him revealed in his own Son and rejected him. From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

These are sobering words us in England, a nation to which so much has been entrusted and which has lost so much over the last few decades, if not centuries. The Church has enjoyed the allegiance of the monarch, chaplaincy in state institutions, our own schools, the foundations of universities and colleges, all the privileges of Establishment - and we seem set to lose them all. Only 15% of the population even now identify as Anglican. It is not all the Church’s fault: there are powerful rival ideologies and institutions at work. And yet, for all that, it may go easier on the Tyres and Sidons of nations never evangelised, places where Body of Christ has never entered, than it does on us at the end. We were given so much.

But do not lose hope or heart. Do not think that God has abandoned us or condemned us. We are still here, and through us, the Body of Christ, Our Lord is still here. We are his hands, his feet, his heart in the world, salt to flavour the dough: and he is faithful. We must take Christ’s warning today seriously, as a call to battle for the soul of our nation - but nourished by him at this altar, however badly our battle may seem to be going, we are assured that we will be on the winning side of the overall war. For our weapon is self-giving love, the love of the Cross, and its victory is irresistible in the end.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The true hierarchy

An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” - Luke 9:46-50



“Hierarchy” in this age of supposed equality has become a dirty word. It should not be. It was coined in the 6th century from noble dies: hieros is Greek for “holy,” archẽ for “origin” and “order.” Hierarchy in its true sense, then, is the holy order, the heavenly pattern of existence to which God wills Creation to conform.

The problem with the disciples’ argument in Luke 9 about who was the greatest was not that they were seeking a place in the hierarchy. They may well have thought that they were arguing about a place in the hierarchy, had the word existed then - but actually, they were arguing for a place in the far more obvious and persistent order of sin and death. I mean to say, that they were looking for a place in the order of power: the order where the strongest are greatest, where the loudest voices are heard most clearly. where the fittest survive to lord it over the weak.

Now this order can be very tempting. You can see Peter yearning for it from time to time, for instance in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he yearns to take up arms in his Lord’s defence. You see it in Judas, too, impatient for a military messiah who will overthrow the violent order of Roman rule with purer, greater Jewish violence in its stead. And we may often feel that the end justifies the means: that we must use secular power to achieve spiritual ends, an indomitable Pax Christiana.

But there is nothing holy about this order, or any order which ultimately relies on the threat of violence to coerce conformity. That is not hierarchy in its true sense at all: it is order not divine, but diabolical.

Several times, Jesus shows us what true hierarchy is by the example of a child. We must become as children, he says, to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now what children like is not the same as what adults like. There are plenty of adults who really do quite like war, violence, coercion, the exercise of hard or soft power, the thrill of anger and revenge.

Children by and large do not like these things.

To receive a child - perhaps, at the risk of conflating theology with therapy, being truly receptive to our own inner child - is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive the Father. To receive and reflect the open and innocent love of a child is to see sacred order, hierarchy, for what it is: the great pattern, almost a mandala, of love which overflows from the blessed Trinity into Creation and enfolds us in its embrace to draw us back to itself, our divine and eternal origin, our ‘archē;’ and anyone who conforms their life to that holy order of love will send the devils and their order of control running for fear.

In the bread and wine of the Eucharist today we receive a vision and a foretaste of that heavenly order penetrating our own, conforming all creation to the Body of the cosmic Christ.

An Historic Homecoming: the Relic of St Chad


It is not often that you find that an international celebrity has been quietly sneaked into the back of Evensong, but that is what happened on Saturday 23 September in the Cathedral. Admittedly, for all his fame he was once a local boy, but he had not been to these parts for quite some years. For almost 500 years, in fact.
Fear not, the church has got prematurely into the Hallowe’en spirit: but we did truly receive a visitor from the dead. For the first time since the Reformation, a relic of St Chad, some part of his body, was returned to the site where he served as Bishop of Mercia some 1400 years ago.
Until the Reformation, St Chad’s relics had been permanently enshrined where now only an icon of him stands. Pilgrims came from all over the land and beyond to venerate the old saint’s bones. The truly fortunate were blessed with a glimpse of his head, held aloft from a balcony for them to see as they approached.
In 1538, by decree of King Henry VIII, the shrine was dismantled and most of Chad’s body burnt or buried; but one priest by the name of Arthur Dudley managed to rescue a small box of bones secreted in the Chad’s Head chapel. A series of Catholic faithful kept them safe until the consecration of St Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham, where they have remained safely enshrined to this day.
On Saturday, Roman Catholics and Anglicans walked together from St Chad’s Cathedral to our own on an ecumenical pilgrimage marking the 500th anniversary of the cataclysmic division of the Western Church. With them, in a pyx around Monsignor Timothy Menezes’ neck, came the unexpected guest.
“So what?”, you might ask. These days, the movement of a bit of bone from one church to another is probably a matter of indifference to most English people. But it was not always so, and even now, many may be moved to concur with the 32nd of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which denounces relics as superstition, ‘a fond thing vainly invented.’ Had the weekend’s visit taken place only thirty years ago, one might have expected visible and vocal opposition.
As much as such opposition would at least have signified a greater popular interest in religious matters than nowadays, today’s ecumenical scene is at least more eirenic. Christians are largely more willing to listen to and understand one another than ever before. And so we should listen to the joint testimony of both the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church to the spiritual value of relics.
First, relics are an ancient part of Christian piety. Modern research shows that the veneration of deceased saints is not, as the Reformers believed, a mediaeval innovation, but predates even the formation of the Bible in the fourth century. The earliest Christians were until recently thought to have met predominantly in ‘house churches,’ but archaeological evidence suggests that the majority of weekly Eucharists were in fact held at the graves of local martyrs - so much so that even as late as the third century, some bishops struggled to exhort worshippers to have their services in churches!
Second, relics make an important point of doctrine. As we profess in the creeds at every service in the Book of Common Prayer, Christians believe ‘in the resurrection of the body.’ When all time is ended, at the final judgment, the Church teaches that our physical bodies will be reconstituted (even if cremated or destroyed) and conformed to the “glorious body” of Christ. Saints are by definition those who are undoubtedly destined for resurrection. This makes relics powerful signs of physical matter destined for glory: pointers to heaven, if you like.
Third, but no less important, relics have been foci for prayer for generations. They are like those places which you can feel are saturated with prayer. I felt their power when, some years ago, I had the honour of celebrating mass in a chapel of the catacombs of St Callistus in Rome: it was strangely comforting to be surrounded by the remains of the very martyrs whose names were invoked in the eucharistic prayer. There are more mundane places with that sense, too. The homes of elderly and housebound parishioners often have a similar sense of being well prayed in.
St Chad only came back to visit for a short while; but even if he had stayed with us in Lichfield, his odyssey would not be complete. His final home will not be here, or in Birmingham, but in the eternal glory to which he points the way in death as he did in life. May he pray for us.

Fr Thomas Plant