Advent calls us to lift our eyes beyond the routine

I love Christmas – the carol services, the nativity plays, Christmas trees, Christmas Markets and Christmas lights. It is with some sorry that this will be the last year we will see the unintended controversial lights in Tiverton! It is also with some sorrow that Advent and Christmas for Bishop is much quieter! People don’t want bishops at Christmas.

Pants Christmas lights

Christmas has arrived for the world but the church goes into a time of waiting. Advent tells us we must wait. Lifting us beyond the routine and the obvious–Advent invites us to watch, to expect the unexpected and to live in hope.

Last year I was given the book The White Road by Edmund de Waal. It is wonderful book in which Edmund describes his pilgrimage to walk the history of porcelain. Early on in the book the author paints a picture of how you make porcelain and his own personal journey as a potter. Then on arriving at the base of mount Kao-Ling in China there is a wonderful description of the shards of white porcelain found in the red earth including a base of a 12th century wine cup.

On his departure back to Shanghai Edmund talks about how on the plane there is so much porcelain that all the overhead lockers are filled and the loo is requisitioned. Next to him was a man who had a model of a helicopter and in speaking to him he realised that many other people getting on the plane had models of helicopters and he realised that he had missed the helicopter side of the city and his companion the porcelain side.

It struck me that looking only for what we expect see we may miss the unexpected. With the procession of advent services, nativity plays and carol services we could just expect to see what we also see at Christmas – so maybe we should find time to wait, stand back, life our eyes beyond the obvious and expect the unexpected this Christmas and know Emmanuel God with us.

 

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Making the Church Safe for All

On Saturday I spent the day with Parish Safeguarding Reps from across the Diocese of Exeter.  I spoke to them about my faith and I talked about it being the anchor of my soul.  In God I have, in the words of the psalmist, ‘found my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.  It is in God whom I take refuge’ (Psalm18:2).  As the body of Christ we are called to reflect the nature of Christ, the nature of God and I believe that as churches, part of the body of Christ we are called to be places of safety, places in which people can take refuge.  This is why I believe that safeguarding is at the heart of the gospel.

Something inside me weeps every time I hear when as a result of the abuse of power in the church someone has been hurt and accounts are coming all too often. Rosie Harper in her blog on Via Media news talks about the apparent shift in the current political climate that “people have begun to talk about their experiences of being harassed, abused or criminally attacked, with an openness that wasn’t acceptable even a few months ago”. She makes the point, fairly, that whistleblowers still lose their jobs, and women can be mercilessly interrogated in court to search out a way of framing their assault as ‘they were asking for it’. This has to change.

You may have seen BBC One’s Have I got News For You on Friday night where it took Jo Brand – the only woman on the show – to say why those relentless comments putting women down as well as sexual harassment itself are not acceptable. We have to change our underlying environment so it is clear that sexual abuse, harassment and such comments are simply not acceptable.

The former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones was asked about this issue in reference to his new Hillsborough report on how public institutions should treat the relatives of people killed in tragedies. He said that there needs to be a culture change in all our institutions and spoke of how the Hillsborough families felt ‘dehumanised’ when they challenged people in authority. He is absolutely right that we need to sit down and ask what does happen when an individual complains and what should happen? This is an urgent question for the Church.

Abuse almost always occurs as a result of the imbalance of power. When Dame Moira Gibb published earlier this year An Abuse of Power (the report into the serious sexual wrong doing of Peter Ball, a bishop of the Church of England) she spoke of the abuse of power. Dame Moira pointed to the Church having made significant progress in recent years in understanding abuse and in its safe guarding practice. Whilst recognizing we have some way to go, she highlighted the fact that trust accorded to clergy and bishops can bring an exceptional level of power.  Different kinds of power constellate around clergy: the power of ritual leadership, the power of being entrusted with intimate secrets, the power of having the strongest voice both in making the community’s critical decisions and in shaping culture and attitudes. (The Gospel of Sexual Abuse and the Church The Faith and Order Commission) Clergy don’t always acknowledge such power but we have to be accountable for how we use it – that can only be by following the pattern of Christ doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. Looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).

Jayne Ozanne’s interview on Channel 4, disclosing the abuse she suffered, made difficult listening but she clearly identified why the culture in the church must change.  We have to encourage people to speak up and we have to say that any abuse of power is wrong – but where do people who want to speak out go to find places of safety? Progress has been made in developing professional safe guarding teams who are accessible across the church but we need to ask ourselves what more should we do?  Do we need a national helpline or access to other support services to supplement what we already have?

The Church needs to own a safe culture; we have come a long way where increasingly people understand their responsibility and I would not want to lose this, which will be the risk if we hand over safeguarding to an independent body. However I think we should search ourselves to see if there is more we can do to ensure independent monitoring. We are already committed to implementing the Elliott Review recommendations which propose that safeguarding decisions as they occur across the Church, should be subject to review by an independent body. This review was an important milestone in the Church’s Safeguarding journey.

The Church is made up of individuals and each one of us needs to commit to following the pattern of Christ, a pattern of the incarnation, the pattern of humility and look to the interests of others.  We need to ensure that the church is not only safe, but is a place where everyone can flourish.

 

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Luther and Thought4Today

Today we mark the day 500 years ago when Luther supposedly nailed provocative statements to a church door in Wittenberg. There are many who have written weightier reflections on this but I have been struck by the significance of this anniversary coinciding with a debate about the presenters of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Today Programme’ reflecting on ‘Thought For Today’

What motivated Luther 500 years ago was his personal encounter with God’s grace and the realisation that he was loved and that did not need any intermediaries to have a relationship with God.

Luther’s actions enabled others to encounter the God he had come to know. This was accelerated though the printing press and giving them access to the bible and scripture in straightforward hymns. Luther challenged the powerful of the day and whether of faith or no faith there are few who today who would not recognize his impact from mass literacy to the emergency of the modern state.

The Reformation was not a rejection of very thing that went before but rather a discussion within in it – it was about listening to the signs of the times, responding a fresh to a new generation, challenging those that through power controlled access to God and using ‘things’ of the time to help others to find the grace of God.

This week also saw the Radio 4 programme ‘Thought for Today’ coming under attack by the presenters of ‘The Today’ Programme writing in the Radio Times. They believed that it was boring and seemed inappropriate. Many come to its defense. The Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines in his blog wrote ‘It is not about presenting religious views or views about religion. It is all about looking at the world through a religious lens, opening up perspectives that subvert the unconscious (or conscious) prejudices about why the world is the way it is – shining a different light on world events’

I wonder before coming to the defense of the programme we should ask ourselves some hard questions as Christian leaders. Even if 85% of the world’s population hold an individual, social/communal religious view as suggested by Nick Baines we have no right to assume a programme like ‘Though for the day’ will exist. How should we read the signs of the times?  How should we look at faith through a world lens?

What Luther knew was that we need to proclaim a fresh in each generation the gospel – the printing press gave access to faith to a wider group of people than ever before and not just the powerful. The ‘Today Programme’ attracts a specific group of people what is the equivalent of the printing press for us? Maybe not Radio 4?

The Reformation gave us the idea of progress: the hope that the future might be better than the past, fundamentally different to it. (The Guardian view on Reformation: justification through faith).  For me that is at the heart of the Christian faith. The Reformation was for the early part violent I would hope that as we move forward it would be in a way which was more filled with the love and reconciliation I have come to know in Christ.

How should we read the signs of the times and proclaim afresh in this generation the good news?

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Talking Hope

This week it was my privilege to speak at the Interstitial Lung Disease Conference in Birmingham. Health professionals from across the country came together to listen and to share their experiences with the aim of improving the care they gave people with a chronic lung disease which often will be the reason for their death.

They had asked me because of my nursing background to talk about creating spiritual space. They did this because they knew that the care they gave to people often did not involve spiritual care.

From speaking to them it was clear that they mirrored the research undertaken by The Royal College of Nursing (2011 Spirituality Survey).  It found that nurses often found talking about matters spiritual was difficult because they were worried about offending people, they lacked training and they lacked time.

It was amazing how talking about the HOPE questions as a practical tool for spiritual assessment (Anadarajah G & Hight 2000 Pearson Education Inc) gave a language for those of faith and no faith to talk about the spirit. The questions included ‘What are your sources of hope or comfort?’ and ‘What helps you in times of difficulties’

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I believe that talking about things spiritual doesn’t always need more time, it is more often about how you say thing not what you say. However, I was struck by how the health care professionals talked about the pressure that they were under and how to find time to practice such questioning is almost impossible.

I am a great supporter of the NHS but it appears to me that by missing the opportunity to talk about things spiritual is not just about hope but also about how we enable people to use all the resources they have to find life in all its fullness.

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Mutual Flourishing

Friday saw the publication of the report by the Independent Reviewer Sir Philip Mawer into the nomination to the See of Sheffield. It was a carefully written report which demands us to reflect on the issues with equal care.

When it was announced that I would be the next Bishop of Crediton New Directors ran an editorial which said that if any where it would be possible to appoint a Traditional Catholic Bishop it was to the See of Crediton and they got me. The Five Guiding Principles have been part of my ministry on a daily basis. When I arrived in the Diocese of Exeter I spent a lot of time meeting with those who would find my ministry difficult and my question as always “What can I do to enable your ministry to flourish?” In understanding this I believe that we have not only found a way of working but I have been blessed by the ministry of those who cannot accept mine.

This does not mean that life is always easy, I am aware that the way some women clergy have been treated is unacceptable, there are times when I have found opposition personally difficult and it has meant sacrifice. But as Sir Philip Mawer highlight in his report we are called to look not to our own interests but to the interests of others.

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” Philippians 2:1-5

Having read the report by Sir Philip Mawer I am more convinced that we should all ask the question of each other – what can I do to enable your ministry to flourish – not just for finding away forward in unity but for the flourishing of the Church in seeking to be more like Christ.

 

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Teachers of Tenderness

I spent this week with clergy from across Devon praying, studying and having fun. I was encouraged by the gift that we have in our clergy but I was reminded that if we are not careful we can miss the Teachers of Tenderness.

As part of my homily on Wednesday morning I spoke about Lisa. Lisa was part of a community of people with learning disabilities who worshiped in one of the churches where I was Team Rector.

Each week Lisa with her smile would delight in telling how many she scored in archery and where she had stopped for coffee and a cake. Lisa did not read so she always repeated the congregational responses – it added a wonderful pace to the service although it did catch visiting ministers out on occasions. When we started the administration of communion she would not wait to be directed she would come up to the altar when ready – often to the frustration of those who wanted to keep order. After she had received she would put her hand on my shoulder and bless me. I was aware of the muttering this caused from those concerned it was not liturgically or theologically coherent. Lisa and I could not have explained what had happened but we knew that God had happened and I carry her blessing with me today.

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In the words of Jean Vanier she was a ‘teacher of tenderness’; In rephrasing the words of St Paul ‘God has chosen the weak and the foolish to confound those caught up in their heads’. Tablet 19/26 August 2017 page 6

Lisa gave what she had in a way she understood and God Transformed it and I am sure she did not know the impact that it had.

The passage given for the morning was John 6:1-14 the miracle of the bread and fishes and many of us who preach on this passage will suggest that the most obvious theological purpose is to show us that Jesus is the new Moses repeating one of the greatest acts of Exodus (Exodus 16:9-15); the Israelites being fed in super abundance with manner from heaven. The similarities are unmistakeable, both Moses and Jesus crossing the water into the desert; like Moses he sits down in the companies, appoints helpers to distribute the food and feeds them with miraculous bread in such quantities that baskets are left over.

The primarily symbolic meaning of the bread is the Word of God, the message of salvation. But I worry that being caught up in our heads we miss that it was a boy with 5 small barley loaves and two small fish – a teacher of tenderness.

In his small act he gave what he had in the way he understood without any understanding the impact it was going to have transformed by Christ – feeding and nourishing.

One of the wonderful things about living in Tiverton is being able to walk along the canal path with my dog. However, my dog is not always well behaved and much weights on my mind and there is a risk that because of my grumbling I miss the quail and the mana and caught up in my head I miss the Kingfisher catch fire.

Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘as the kingfisher catch fire’ uses a number of images to identify congruence between what a thing is and what it does.

The kingfisher, dragon fly catching and reflecting sun brightness, a stone tumbling over the rim of a well, a plucked violin string and the clapper of a bell sounding – ‘What I do: is me for that I came’.

The last image Hopkins uses being Christ who loves and acts in us in such a way that our lives express the congruence inside and outside, this congruence of ends and means –‘What I do: is me for that I came’

Eugene Peterson in his book ‘as the Kingfisher catch fire’ writes ‘Christ as both the means and the end playing through our limbs and eyes to the father through the features of our faces so that we find ourselves living almost in spite of ourselves, the Christ life and the Christ way. (Eugene Peters page xix As the King fisher catch fire)

In giving what we have to Christ he transforms it to life over following.

So let us not miss the bread and the quail by grumbling or miss the teachers of tenderness by being caught up in our heads.

Let us give what we have and trust the Christ life and the Christ way.

As the kingfisher catch
Gerard Manley Hopkins

 As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

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Learning from the15th August 1965 – Lynmouth

On 15 and 16 August 1952, a storm of tropical intensity broke over south-west England, depositing 9.0 inches of rain within 24 hours on the already saturated soil of Exmoor.

A guest at the Lyndale Hotel described the night to the Sunday Express:

From seven o’clock last night the waters rose rapidly and at nine o’clock it was just like an avalanche coming through our hotel, bringing down boulders from the hills and breaking down walls, doors and windows. Within half an hour the guests had evacuated the ground floor. In another ten minutes the second floor was covered, and then we made for the top floor where we spent the night.

Overnight, more than 100 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged along with 28 of the 31 bridges and 38 cars were washed out to sea. In total, 34 people died, with a further 420 made homeless. The seawall and lighthouse survived the main flood, but were seriously undermined. The lighthouse collapsed into the river the next day.

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At the same time, the River Bray at Filleigh also flooded, costing the lives of three Scouts from Manchester who had been camping long side the river. It remains the worst flood in the UK.

There are stories of those who acted with great bravery for example Derek Harper who had just completed his police training clambered over the hills towards Porlock to the only phone which worked to call for help. He was later awarded the George medal for his bravery. The generosity of others was seen in the setting up a fund for the victims of the disaster and raised more than £300,000 by the end of the first month.

Remembering and retelling the story is part of any culture, remembering occurs as parents tell and retell to their children and grandchildren what is most prized in their community.

In Hebrew Scripture or the Old Testament we see the telling and retelling of the stories which belong to a community of faith.  As God’s people journeyed through the Wilderness, into slavery and exile in Egypt then on into freedom in the Promised Land they would remember.  They would tell and retell their stories in exile to remember who they were in order to remember who God was for them, and his generosity and grace. Their continuation as a community was often due to this retelling.

Today I joined the community of Lynmouth to remember and retell the story of the flood 65 years ago of those who fought to save life and of those who died. Some there remember loved ones lost all those years ago and others will remember those affected but who have since died but who are still loved and missed.

We remember and retell their stories, not just out of a mark of respect, not just to give thanks for their lives and for the bravery of others but because in retelling their stories we remember God’s faithfulness and hope for a future where this could not happen again.

Bishop Robert Mortimer preaching at the memorial service said that when it was all over a cross should be erected where the water broke though he said: ‘A cross is a sign, not simply of death, but of death followed by resurrection’. The cross was made from English oak from the Watersmeet Estate felled on All Souls Day 2001.

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The cross speaks of the love of God which is in Christ. The author of Romans reminds us that neither death nor life, neither angles nor demons; neither the present nor the future nor any power, neither height nor depth nor anything else can separate us from that love.

The cross speaks about what God did in the past in the death and resurrection of Christ that points to a future where there will no longer be death, tragedy or suffering but until that day is holds us in our present firm and secure – it speaks of hope and it is hope which is the anchor of the soul.  To have hope doesn’t mean that we won’t face suffering or times of disaster but the cross reminds us that in the midst of the chaos Jesus is our anchor.

But hope should also motivate us to be part of that future. In retelling the story of what happened 65 years ago we should learn lessons – lessons about flood management, the construction of bridges and tree planting, the impact of new developments and climate change so that we reduce the risk of such a tragedy happening again. We need to be part of the change that we long to see and learn from the past.

The new exhibition retells the story of that night and of the resilience of those who lived through those days. It speaks of a community who has continued to flourish but I hope it also encourages those who come to that come to question what should be learnt and we can prevent floods like the one in Lynmouth 65 years ago and the mud slide of today which we have seen in Sierra Leone.

 

 

 

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