RIP Jim Cotter

In the middle of the busy days of Holy Week comes the news that Jim Cotter has died.

Jim was a poet-priest – someone for whom words were as important as breathing. He wrote prayers in which unicorns danced.

He was also I think the first out gay priest I ever met, coming to preach in St Andrews about 25 years ago. I met him too in his house in Sheffield. I know also that he spoke here in St Mary’s many years ago and must have been part of the story that has led us to be the congregation that we are.

Jim was talking about gay clergy being out and living in the open years before anyone else did. Indeed, some of the things I talk about which people still think are rather radical, Jim was talking about a generation or more before. He was a visionary and a prophet and suffered a lot in life because of it.

Many, many people will have copies of his night prayers sitting beside the bed. I used them last night and thought about how many people have so much to be grateful for because of Jim Cotter.

God be in my gut and in my feeling
God be in my bowels and in my forgiving
God be in my loins and in my swiving
God be in my lungs and in my breathing
God be in my heart and in my loving

God be in my skin and in my touching
God be in my flesh and in my yearing
God be in my blood and in my living
God be in my bones and in my dying
God be at my end and at my reviving

May he rest in peace now at last.



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Holy Week starts with joy

Many thanks to all those who made Palm Sunday so special at St Mary’s. (I’ve been ill for a fortnight, so it wasn’t down to me!)

Thanks to Stewart Macfarlane for capturing this pic. A reminder that Holy Week starts with joy.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Procession 2014

Here’s a wee video of the Palm Sunday Procession at St Mary’s this year.

I promised people something extra this year. For some reason, people thought I had booked a donkey.

Well, anyone can book a donkey.

Here’s what happened. Many thanks to the guys from the wonderful Clanadonia for making this year’s procession so memorable.

How to Keep Holy Week

People who join St Mary’s from other kinds of churches or who are facing Easter for the first time since finding faith sometimes wonder how to keep Holy Week. Here’s a quick and easy guide to some of what to expect in Holy Week in a church like St Mary’s. Most of this text I’ve posted before on the blog but this time I’ve put it all together in one long post. Don’t forget the promise which I make every year – if you keep the Triduum, that’s the time from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day with me then it will change your life and you’ll see and understand Christianity in a way you never understood it before.

Palm Sunday
palm
Palm Sunday is a great start to Holy Week for we begin with joy. What we are remembering is Jesus entering Jerusalem and being lauded by the people there as someone who represented their ideals and hopes. We will find soon enough that the crowd that cried hosanna will soon turn on him and shout something altogether different.

There are a couple of things that we do as part of the liturgy on Palm Sunday – starting with a procession. Oh yes, processing about is the order of the day and we have one huge procession of everyone who is present. First we get palm crosses in our hands which are blessed. And then off we go out of the church doors, into the glorious sunshine (hopefully) and process around the church as much as we can before coming back in by the south door and singing a hymn.

The key to the procession is that it should be joyful. British Christians sometimes don’t get this! Clergy like me tend to try to think up ruses to make it more joyful.

Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and some churches have a procession with a real live donkey. (You know the tradition that donkeys are marked with a cross on their backs because a donkey carried Jesus, don’t you). I have to admit that I’ve never worked with a real live donkey. It seems to me to be asking for trouble. The Lord wants joy in his procession, not comedy, I think.

Instead of a sermon on Palm Sunday you get a very long gospel reading. We read the Passion Narrative – that means the whole story of Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution on a cross. It is a harrowing read. At St Mary’s the congregation (who are the body of Christ today) read the words of Jesus in the story.

The tradition of reading the Passion Narrative comes from a time when clergy found it difficult to persuade people to come to the rest of the services in Holy Week. (Who can believe this was ever true?!) The truth is, the services that we keep from Maundy Thursday onwards are, in most churches, a revival, a re-invention or indeed something really fairly new. However, no greater way has ever been devised to teach what Christianity is about then the triduum in my book and my promise, that it will change your life and change your faith, has always held good with everyone who has ever kept it with me.

The music that we use at Choral Evensong in St Mary’s always makes it one of the most beautiful evening services that we have in the year.

Maundy Thursday
Every year I make the promise to people that if you keep the Triduum at St Mary’s (or any church that keeps it) then it will change your life and change your faith. Indeed, I usually say that it is like a lens through which we should see everything else that we do in church through the year. I can guarantee that Easter Day is radically different as an experience if you keep it as part of the Triuduum.

So, firstly, what’s a Triduum when its at home? Well, it just means three days and the three days we are talking about here are the Paschal Triduum which starts with the service in the evening of Maundy Thursday and ends with the Easter Day services. In some ways the services add up to a whole and are better thought of as one whole service than a series of bits that you opt in and out of. Its a rollercoaster of a journey, mind. Emotions all over the place.

So, what to expect. I’m not giving a line by line explanations here as I recognise the wisdom of someone who once said to me that once you explain liturgy it kind of disappears before your eyes. Some things just have to be experienced.

There are several distinctive features about the service on Maundy Thursday. In St Mary’s we have the joy of the Cathedral choir with us and the music on Maundy Thursday is always lush though there is darkness to be found in the music too.

Apart from the music, the first thing you might notice that’s out of the ordinary – there’s no spoken sermon. Instead you get an act – we wash feet instead of a sermon, remembering that Jesus washed the feet of his friends. Actually, I said that we wash feed instead of a sermon but that’s not quite right – the footwashing is the sermon. You don’t have to have your feet washed, but it does take you right into things in a very particular way. By the way, I have the ugliest feet in Christendom (apart from Mother Ruth’s of course, which are famous). Its not about having nice neat feet. Few of us like our feet. But that’s rather the point. If there’s a medical condition for not bearing your feet to the world, then washing hands is an option but its foot washing that really carries the symbolism of the day. (And as I’ve said before, its about intimacy and love much more than about power).

We then proceed with the Communion service as usual – bread and wine for all. (Instead of saying that we remember the night on which Jesus did these things, we say, “This, this is the night!”).

After communion, all is peaceful. All is as it should be. But not for long.

We recite Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross and whilst that is going on, the church is stripped of everything that is lovely. All the gold and tassels disappears. The whole church is stripped quite bare as we remember Jesus having everything stripped from him when he was arrested. The paschal candle which has burned for us at funerals and baptisms for the year past, connecting us with last Easter Day is broken. The font is closed – there will be no more sacraments now, Jesus is taken from us.

The last thing to leave the sanctuary is the bread from the reserved sacrament. This is taken in solemn procession to an altar of repose – a place where we remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene. All is hushed as we hear him say to his disciples, “Can you not watch with me one more hour”. A quiet watch of prayer is kept until midnight. (Its an Open Silence – anyone can come for shared silence during this time). Some people creep away early on. Others stay until later either in prayer or doing some quiet reading. Some people like to read one of the gospels through from beginning to end through this time.

All is still in church. Its part of our tradition not to speak whilst leaving this part of the triduum and people are asked not to speak in the car park or anywhere around the building to preserve the silence for those who are watching and waiting and praying.

At the end of the Vigil, the remaining sacrament is consumed. He is gone.

Good Friday – the Veneration of the Cross
At St Mary’s we have a service of Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday morning at 0930. Its a very simple service – a few prayers and an opportunity again to reflect on the Passion readings. Here we use the Passion from the gospel of the year on Palm Sunday and John’s Passion on Good Friday.

There are two distinctive things about this service. The first is that the church is bare and stripped after the Thursday night’s events. The second is that there is an opportunity to venerate the cross at the end of the service.

The bare, sparse feel of the church on Good Friday is like no other point in the year. The yawning space at the front seems to gape open. There is no sacrament reserved on the High Altar. The font will be closed. Jesus is taken from us and there will be no sacraments now until Easter Day, if such a Day should happen. It always feels unlikely to me on Good Friday that joy will ever come back. There is beauty to be found on Good Friday but it is stark beauty, harsh beauty, hard fought beauty.

The veneration of the cross is simply an opportunity to do something physical. There’s no sermon at this service (which takes just about half an hour) but rather, a chance to come close to a simple cross and say a prayer. Some people will kiss the cross, some will touch it and hold it whilst they pray, some will bow deeply before it. It is a physical act that connects us with the wood of the cross. (There’s a lot of physical touch involved in the triduum – feet, cross, even the cleaning that will come tomorrow – its far from cerebral religion).

The building always seems hushed and quiet at this time. The removal of so many things the night before somehow seems to make it feel achingly quiet. The prayers from the night before seem to linger and meld with the confusion of what it can mean for Christ to have been taken by civil authority and put to death. In some ways there is no sense to be made of today but there is no sense to be made out of most violence.

Sometime today whilst things are quiet, along with one of the servers I’ll wash down the High Altar with vinegar and bitter herbs. It is a gentle and calm act which few people see, symbolising the laying out of Jesus’s body for burial. The smell of the vingegar and the herbs lingers on through the day – a combination of strangeness, cleanliness and bitterness.

Good Friday – The Three Hours
St Mary’s is actually the first church that I’ve worked in which has had the tradition of three hour devotions on Good Friday, so I know well enough that its not the only thing to do on Good Friday. However, its a very particular devotion and one that I’ve grown to love. Indeed, its hard to imagine not keeping it.

The idea is that the church marks the time between 12 and 3 pm on Good Friday – the time at which Jesus was on the cross.

Here in Glasgow, the time is usually spent with readings from the Passion, preaching, music for meditation and above all silence. I’m usually amazed at how the time passes and like quite a lot of people, I’m always there for the whole thing. However, some come and go. Its always a hard thing to judge how many people come to church for this part of the triduum because of the coming and going.

The music tends to be solemn and beautiful. I often don’t know until the last minute quite what it will be. The default position is organ music for meditation but usually there are other offerings from Cathedral musicians, some of them stepping forward in Holy Week itself to volunteer something for this service.

The preaching is thoughtful, calm and measured today. Sometimes one person preaches the whole thing and sometimes it is shared. I’ve done the whole thing a couple of times and its a marathon. Those who are more disciplined than I am write an address each week during Lent so that by the time Holy Week comes around all is more or less ready.

The tradition is seven sermons during the three hours. If its one voice, its a real test of a preacher to keep people focused and involved by the end. Sometimes people base it on the seven last words from the cross – the things that Jesus actually said on the cross that are recorded in the gospels. Sometimes its simply preaching on the Passion texts. (That’s what we’re doing today). I’ve known other schemes though too. I’ve heard a whole three hours devoted to the senses – including a wonderful sermon on the smell at the cross. I’ve also heard it done by preaching in the voice of the different participants – Peter, Mary, Pilate, the Centurian and so on.

The devotion ends with the singing of the Reproaches – a strange text which captures the bewilderment of the crucified one. “O My people, My people what have I done to you, how have I offended you answer me!” These are not words that Jesus said from the cross at all but an attempt to get inside his experience and to sing something from his perspective on what has happened. They describe the various ways in which God tried to save people in the Old Testament only to be rejected and spurned and see the cross as a continuation of that experience.

Its a long devotion. Its a worthy devotion. Its a holy devotion. And it is worth keeping well.

Good Friday Evening

Generally in St Mary’s we have a Good Friday service or devotion of some kind in the evening, but it does differ in character from one year to the next.

Sometimes we have a performance of Stainer’s Crucifixion, sometimes something else, usually a service which is simply a meditation in words and music on the themes of Good Friday.

We’ll not be reading the Passion Reading again tonight – we’ve had that plenty and as we heard in the afternoon, “It is Finished”.

It’s worth noting in passing the the Deposition from the Cross is wonderfully depicted in one of the big paintings in St Anne’s Chapel. Jesus is taken down from the cross in a garden, but one that looks strangely familiar to anyone in this neck of the woods. It is all apparently taking place in Kelvingrove Park. A good reminder that the passion happens all around us all the time. It’s not just Jesus who is betrayed, captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed. The passion is all too familiar in some ways. So familiar that we block it out and don’t see the connections between the pain around us and God being in the world.

In some churches, the evening service is the main one of the day, particularly in places where people are prevented by work from attending in the morning or afternoon. Sometimes they walk the Stations of the Cross – a walking meditation looking at representations of the Passion Story. Sometimes it is Tenebrae – a musical service where lights are progressively put out until all is dark. Sometimes it’s a formal liturgy like the Veneration that we have here earlier in the day.

Tonight for us it’s music and words and then rest. All is done. Good Friday will be over.

And to end, a prayer from Compline the service of Night Prayer with which many people end their day:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son
lay at this hour in the sepulchre
in obedience to your will;
may we by your grace be so buried with him
that with him we may rise to life everlasting;
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

Holy Saturday
Well Holy Saturday is an odd day and no mistake. Jesus is gone, he’s in the tomb and all the world waits. Well, all the world gets on with its own business generally.

There are no sacraments today. The font is empty of water, there is no Eucharist, there will be no weddings.

In St Mary’s it’s a day for getting things in order in case we have a resurrection on our hands on Sunday Morning. That means that it’s all hands on deck from 9.30 until about 1 pm to try to get things straight. The sacristy looks rather like a liturgical bomb hit it when everything was stripped out of the church. There are carpets and hassocks to bash free of dirt. There’s a large impressive looking eagle that is in want of a polish. Beeswax (or Mr Pledge) for the pews. There are sly buckets of flowers secreted somewhere in the church waiting to be brought forth in glory.

I like the clean and polish on Holy Saturday. It’s good community time. There really is a job for everyone. If you turn up, expect to be assigned a job. It might be dusting, it might be flower arranging (only for specialists with a PhD in Pew Ends) or it might simply be mopping the Provost’s fevered brow. And in all of this, he will keep his counsel about all that has gone before. No matter who makes him a cup of tea, he is unlikely to divulge who had the prettiest, ugliest or largest feet at the footwashing. What’s washed at the altar stays at the altar.

I like Holy Saturday. Its a great day to enjoy doing practical things today and sometimes to learn a name or have a chat with someone you’ve just not got to know yet on a Sunday. People always say how much they enjoy it and always say we should do that kind of community thing more often. It’s easy to join in with whether your a well kent face or just in town for the triduum.

All hands on deck. All hands needed!

The Easter Vigil

Some churches celebrate the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday in the evening. Some do it on Easter Day in the morning. Which is right? Well, if you think that the origins of the Easter Vigil lie in the practise of the early church then there’s some justification for either, or perhaps better, both.

The idea is that the early church used Lent to prepare people for entry into the church at Easter and the preparations for this would include an all night Vigil from Holy Saturday through until dawn on Easter Day. Liturgists will tell us that it has been the universal practise of the church to celebrate the resurrection with the lighting of a Easter fire, the renewal of baptismal vows for all the faithful and the first mass of Easter.

Liturgists, however, would be wrong. The Easter Vigil only really entered into the life of any normal congregations in modern times when these elements were added to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church in 1951. (Don’t believe me? Then show me the Easter Vigil in the Scottish Prayer Book 1929. You’ll look long and hard to find it). Much of the modern keeping of the Triduum and particularly the Vigil comes from the liturgical reforms of the late 1950s and 1960s. That doesn’t invalidate it but it does mean that we must not be too precious about keeping it in the way that it was ever so. It ever wasn’t.

If you begin on the Saturday evening the you begin when the day is done, according to Jewish timing. That means leaving it until after sundown or even better, until you can see three stars in the sky.

We do it on Sunday morning early. Well, relatively early. We start at 7.30 am. Some will start at dawn and I envy them their “vigilance”.

What I think I’d really like is an all nighter. Vigil of readings and baptisms late at night, sleepover in church and Easter Fire and Eucharist at dawn. I’ve never managed that, but that’s where I’d like to go with it.

The fire is the big excitement. We kindle it in the place of death. Here in St Mary’s that means the patch of ground formerly used as a memorial garden, where ashes were interred. From that fire, the large Paschal candle is lit and blessed by the Bishop. It will burn in church through the Easter season until the gospel of the Ascension on Ascension Day. At that point it is doused as we remember that Jesus is gone from this earth and remember instead that God is with us at all times and forever. The candle will then be lit every time there is a baptism or a funeral. The burning flame connects both events with the early light of Easter Day and the first hearing of the news that Christ is risen.

The service early on Easter Day begins in darkness. No electric light until the fire is lit and light is carried into the church and the Exsultet is sung. Each year, someone gets to sing that glorious hymn of praise. As he does so, he’ll sing the light back into existence. Dawn, even if its merely electrically induced, will come in song. In some places, you get the tradition of ringing bells or gongs at the start of the Gloria – greeting Christ’s resurrection with a great big noise.

After the service there’s breakfast. Churches which are pure and righteous will guard the sacred, holy fire and keep it unsullied. Churches however which remember the biblical stories will remember that Jesus cooked breakfast on early Easter mornings on a brazier. Do this in remembrance of me he said, often enough.

We’ll do our best.

Understanding the Justin Welby Radio Phone-In Controversy

There’s been something of a fluttering in the various Anglican doocots this week over remarks that the Archbishop of Canterbury made on a radio programme. When asked why the Church of England could not move forward on affirming marriage as an option for same-sex couples, the Archbishop spoke of standing at a mass grave in Africa and being told that this was caused by some event in America – the implication being that if we affirm LGBT people in the affluent west then Christians who are up against it in places of violence will be killed. It appeared to many that he was suggesting that we shouldn’t move on LGBT affirmation because of what would happen in Africa.

People got cross about this. People including me, accused him of appeasing people of violence.

Then he said that people hadn’t listened to him and that he hadn’t meant it. Then he repeated it several times, leading people like me to the view that we had heard him loud and clear the first time.

It was as though the Archbishop wanted to believe that those who were criticising him had simply not understood him. In fact, it seems to me that we understood him perfectly well the first time but didn’t like what he was saying – something which he now seems to find difficult to understand.

It seems to me that there are a number of important things swirling around under the surface of this story which need to be understood.

Deference is dead in the West but not in the Global South
Firstly, there’s no sign that the Archbishop has understood that deference is dead in the West. People will not simply believe what someone says because of the position that they hold. They will want to question, tease out, reject, argue, discuss, be persuaded. The very fact that the Archbishop went on a radio phone-in last week is part of a remarkable culture shift whereby people simply don’t believe something because someone important says it. Now there are things to be regretted about this but there are things to be celebrated. There has never been a better time for getting people to discuss faith if you approach it in the right way. But you have to expect people to test things out for themselves. They want to know that it is true for them, not for you. What’s so wrong about that? The tone of the Archbishop’s answers seemed to be that we needed to trust him on this because he was right. He has also since said he won’t provide any evidence to back up what he was saying. This comes over as arrogant even if it is not intended to be and I don’t think he realises how it makes him look.

Unfortunately for leaders who have to work across global cultures, this is not so everywhere. In the Global South, deference is far from dead. What bishops say there largely goes. The question is not really how the Anglican Communion can hold together with different views of homosexuality in it. The real question which we never seem to discuss which is fundamental, is whether the Anglican Communion can hold together in the face of radically different views of what the episcopate is about.

The Back of the Bus Won’t Do

It looks as though the Archbishop is trying to set up a “reconciliation process” when he has already decided that the best outcome would be for the church to adopt a policy of blessing gay couples in Civil Partnerships but not affirming anything to do with same-sex couples and marriage. The trouble with this is that it won’t do for those who have come to the view that gay people and straight people should be dealt with equally because they are fundamentally equal in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God.

The suspicion is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and many others with him, is trying to address this question on the presumption that gay people are in some way disabled (or worse, dysfunctional) straight people. Does he believe that gay people just can’t help themselves and so something must be done for them? It may be to misjudge him terribly, but it feels very much like it.

The reality is that those who have campaigned long and hard for marriage to be opened up to same-sex couples have drunk deeply at the Civil Rights well of justice. They (we!) believe gay people and straight people should be treated equally because of a fundamental existential equality between gay people and straight people.

Any hope that the church could have satisfied people by blessing civil partnerships but refusing to affirm marriages contracted by gay and lesbian couples is 10 years out of date. Had the churches affirmed Civil Partnerships in the first place then they might be in a better place to affirm them now. The argument can be endlessly made that Civil Partnerships and Marriage confer the same rights. The trouble is, most people now accept that Rosa Parks was right. Even if the bus does get you to the same destination, travelling at the front of the bus and travelling at the back of the bus are not the same thing.

There is no sign at all that the Archbishop of Canterbury has understood this as a Civil Rights struggle. The absence of any discussion of rights issues from the narrative whereby these conversations takes place is part of the problem. (The Church in Wales – I’m talking about you!)

The Grinding of Gears as [some] Evangelicals change their minds

These days we are constantly hearing the grinding of gears as some of those in the Evangelical parts of the church are reassessing their views on LGBT people and their relationships within a difficult context and in a place whereby they may suffer at the hands of others for doing so. I’ve been talking about the realignment of Evangelical opinion around this for years and gradually, step by painful step, it is happening. In recent weeks we have had the debacle of World Vision firstly supporting the right of its employees in same-sex relationships to contract marriages and then going back on the decision when people rang up to remove their pledges to support poor children in the world’s most needy places. The revolting display of people removing their financial support from needy children because of LGBT affirmation, and the capitulation of World Vision to those people has made many pause for thought.

And then we have had Vicky Beeching this week talking about how her own support for same-sex couples wanting to marry could cost her her livelihood as US Evangelicals may stop singing her worship songs as a consequence.

These are ugly scenes by the wayside but need to be keenly monitored and understood.

We’ve also seen the Archbishop strongly supported this week by a small number of commentators – particularly those bearing the “Open Evangelical” brand. Now this is complicated, but I still maintain that “Open Evangelical” can in most cases be used as shorthand for those in the Evangelical wing of the church who are pro-women, pro-divorce (though you won’t find them saying so in public) but anti-gay. There may be signs that this is breaking down, but I’d say this description still broadly holds true.

The Spectre of Rowan Williams

Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s seemingly casual comments on a radio phone-in have raised the fear in many good-hearted people, that his views are no better than those of his predecessor. I make no comment on whether they are the same or not – simply that it matters that many thought – “here we go again”. I don’t think that there has been enough of an understanding thus far that many moderate Christians simply don’t feel that their leaders represent their views, values and generosity. Indeed, I’ve never known bishops to be as mistrusted as I perceive them to be now, by those who traditionally would have supported them the most.

The particular fear that has been raised by this radio phone-in is that Justin Welby harbours the same fantasy that the Anglican Communion is a church which a leader can control (as Rowan Williams appeared to many to believe) rather than a communion of autonomous churches which are able to make decisions appropriate to their situation. Talking about homosexuality is a displacement activity from talking about autocephaly.

The Rowan Williams factor is a significant one and this is the first time that I’ve really seen people dismissing Justin Welby as just another version of the same thing. It matters to understand this and to try to work out whether or not it is true.

You condemn it, Archbishop

It is often noted that the Scottish Episcopal Church is very much in favour of the Anglican Communion. What is noted in public slightly less often but which is no less important to remember, is that it is not in favour of the Anglican Communion at any cost. Our dismissal of the Anglican Covenant showed that very clearly.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s statements yesterday in a radio phone-in, which seemed to imply that opening marriage to same-sex couples would lead to murder in Africa, take us into a very murky ethical place. I have to admit that my heart sank when I heard it. We have had more than enough of this kind of thing from inhabitants of Lambeth Palace. It seems very clear to me that in this case, Justin Welby is wrong.

Generally speaking, I thought it was a poor radio performance. Personally I never do radio phone-ins. It is a format that is hard to do well with. The Archbishop seemed nervous (perhaps rightly) and ill-prepared.

The particularly offensive thing which he has said is to suggest that there should be no movement on opening marriage to same-sex couples in the church because that could lead to Anglicans being murdered in Africa. He told a story of standing beside a mass grave and being told that the people had been killed by local opposition forces.

I’ve stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people – because of that a lot of them had been killed.

Inevitably, I’ve seen US friends posting a great deal online asking whether the Archbishop was trying to lay the blame for dead Africans at the doors of The [US-based] Episcopal Church. It is a repugnant suggestion and comes just before Justin Welby is due to visit that church next week. The Archbishop needs to justify his claim or withdraw it. It is a vile suggestion for a cleric to make of another part of the church.

I find the ethics of this very straightforward. It seems to me that the ethics of the Anglican Communion, of the churches in the UK, of the churches in North America, of the governments of the nations in which we live – these cannot be determined by those who bear the bullet and the bomb. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have been suggesting that our policies should be dictated by murderers.

In some ways this isn’t new. Justin Welby’s view is probably not that different to that of Rowan Williams and we’ve heard the same stuff coming from the Mothers’ Union for years. More than once I’ve heard it said that Rowan Williams was desperate for Jeffrey John to withdraw from being a bishop because he feared the consequences of violence in other countries. It can seem plausible put like that, can’t it? Who wouldn’t want to stop violence?

The trouble is, it is an attempt to deal with the reality and horror of violence by appeasing the violent. It is giving those who murder, a moral authority that they can never be allowed to hold.

Let us presume for a moment, for the sake of argument that the story told to Justin Welby is essentially true – that there is a mass grave in Africa caused solely by positive attitudes to gay people (a gay person?) in the US. If that is true then the only Christian response is to condemn the violence and do so publicly, loudly and endlessly. You don’t keep your mouth shut and try to turn the clock back on progressive attitudes on the other side of the world as a response to it.

The claim is that these people were killed because their opponents believed that if they left Christians alive then they would be “made gay”. If this is true then those people were killed as a result of homophobia.  It is homophobia of the worst, most violent sort that killed the people in the Archbishop’s story.

You condemn it, Archbishop. That’s what you are called to do.

This feels very personal for me. In my work at St Mary’s I encounter very frequently people who come from Africa including some of the countries that are being discussed around the world because of this current conversation. I also encounter  those who are gay and lesbian and particularly, I help those amongst them who want to get married, to get hitched. Am I supposed to prejudice the rights, livelihoods and wellbeing of one group over another because someone threatens one particular group with violence?

We are our own Anglican Communion at St Mary’s and I couldn’t possible care only for the rights of one group. We all have a right to life, to security, to live our lives to the full.

When you encounter violence, you condemn it, Archbishop. When you encounter murder, you condemn it, Archbishop. When you encounter homophobia, you condemn it, Archbishop.

You don’t appease it, Justin Welby. You condemn it.

Why should any of us in any land expect anything less of you?

Blowing up the Red Road Flats – a poor image of the city

It has been announced that some of the Red Road Flats will be blown up during the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games.

I think it is in pretty poor taste. Notwithstanding the fact that people like to watch the spectacle of tower blocks being brought down there is something about making this the focus of a big entertainment production that makes me feel uneasy.

Maybe I just have a sense of humour deficit today but it seems to me that blowing up people’s former homes is always going to be an act that has somewhat mixed feelings attached to it. As well as that, there is the news that one block will be left standing because it is still used for housing for asylum seekers who will have to evacuate that block on the day. They won’t be invited to Opening Ceremony itself but invited to watch from “safe” locations.

Making asylum seekers shelter leave their homes to shelter from explosions is not an image of Glasgow that I think is particularly entertaining and not one that should be beamed around the world.

I’m a supporter of urban regeneration. I’m also one of those who thinks that that Glasgow has gone from being a city which has a fabulous architectural heritage to one whose current architectural aspirations are dull and commonplace. Many of the high towers in Glasgow failed and should be pulled down. I’m far from sure they should be pulled down as entertainment at the Commonwealth Games and sure that there should be an architectural vision for the city which is just as ambitious as that which saw those towers being raised in the first place.

Blowing up people’s former homes and making asylum seekers shelter from explosions is not entertainment. This proposal is in poor taste.

Nine things I learned on sabbatical about church growth

I was prompted by someone yesterday on facebook to outline some of the things that I learned about churches and particular something about church growth that I learned whilst on sabbatical in North America. I came up with a quick list and thought that I would share it here too in a slightly expanded form.

The actual question that I was asked was regarding why people are giving up Mission Action Planning and looking for something else. It is indeed the case that I heard of people giving up doing Mission Action Planning. It is also the case though that lots of people in the States and Canada are still using that as a tool. The people who were giving up on it would say that they were giving up on it because it doesn’t work. The other reasons they might give would be these:

  • It can make people feel guilty
  • The risk is that it involves asking those who quite demonstrably don’t know what to do, what should be done.
  • It can often lull people into thinking that if they just do what they’ve done with a bit more effort then all shall be well when perhaps it won’t.

In trying to think about patterns of church life amongst those who seemed to be doing well at helping congregations to grow, I would identify the following themes, which I’ve been thinking about since I came back:

  1. The need to stop talking about mission – no-one joins a church that is so needy as to advertise that they are interested in “doing mission”. (Advertise in this context means any website, poster, church sign or magazine)
  2. The need for strong high quality lay education – I was impressed by EFM http://www.sewanee.edu/EFM/
  3. The need to train people in good quality congregational development – I was impressed by this: http://www.cdcollege.org/
  4. The urgent need to think about quality in every aspect of church life. Especially worship. But not just worship.
  5. Quality costs money and that means deliberate stewardship work to raise the money needed. Note that the giving at St Mary’s is currently 14% higher year on year than it was and that these are the austerity years. This is partly down to a lot of very hard work done by a small number of people and partly because of ways of talking about money that I learned on sabbatical. The moral of the tale is that sending clergy away on fabulous trips can pay off financially.
  6. The need for leaders (mostly, but not exclusively bishops) taking a lead on hard issues like guns, drugs, gangs, marriage. This may mean talking to gangsters, taking a surprising opinion about drugs in public and joining the Pride parade.
  7. The need for conscious work on teaching people a religious identity. Teaching people how to be an Anglican – what you do as an Anglican – how to keep Holy Week and Easter as an Anglican – how to say Compline etc
  8. The need not to waste institutional and personal time trying to be ecumenical in a lowest common denominator way
  9. The need to start things up as often as you close things down and do both deliberately and intentionally

The sacrament lottery

One of the consequences of decisions being made in different jurisdictions which don’t align with other geographical entities is that you end up with what we tend to call in the UK a postcode lottery. The most frequent use of the term is in describing a situation whereby someone can get treatment for a medical condition paid for if they live in one place but not in another. Or access to a particular school. Or a particular council service.

There’s something of the same thing happens within the life of the church and right now we are seeing new anomalies open up before our very eyes.

This weekend, for the first time, marriage in some parts of the UK (England and Wales) will be open to same-sex couples as well as straight couples. (And no, we are not getting same-sex marriage or gay marriage – those terms become history tonight – it is simply that marriage is open to more couples than once it was).

So, if a gay couple in Scotland want to get married they either have to wait until some date yet to be determined, probably within the next year, and get married in Scotland. Or alternatively they can go down to England and get married there where their marriage will be recognised by the state as a marriage in English law but as a Civil Partnership in Scots law. Within the life of the church, if a same-sex couple get married tomorrow in Carlisle say, and approach their local Anglican priest for a blessing, a service or some form of recognition then they are not supposed to be offered much. They are supposed to be asked why they have departed from the teaching of the church and then, maybe, offered some private prayers of thanksgiving.

However, if that couple from Carlisle should get on a train over the border and approach a sympathetic Anglican priest in Scotland then they can have a lot more. They might, if they so wished have a nuptial mass at St Mary’s. They can have their rings blessed. They can make lifelong vows. They can process in and/or out with splendid music. They can book the bells to be rung.  And they can do all this in public without so much as a hair being batted. Indeed, if one of the Scottish bishops happens to be a pal then they can, if they are invited, choose whether to turn up themselves or not.

It is a remarkably different state of affairs. And this is a year for people in the UK to think about how odd borders are – sometimes feeling very real and sometimes feeling very artificial.

I suppose that it is already the case that some of the sacramental acts of the church are available to different people in different places. For some time now we have had just about every different discipline regarding admitting children to communion happening in our church. Indeed, we have had just about every different discipline happening within individual congregations. However the deal has always been that if someone has been admitted to communion in one then they must be offered the bread and wine everywhere else, even if it is not the local custom to offer communion to children.

I asked my own bishop recently whether it was the case that gay people in the Scottish Episcopal Church could expect to be treated in the same way in all of our dioceses. He didn’t seem to know.

That strikes me as one of the fundamental questions that need to keep on being asked.

I know that not everyone thinks of marriage as a sacrament. However, I know that most people I know in the church think that the love between a man and a woman can be sacramental – can show forth in its essence something of the love of God. One of the questions I often ask those who are hestitant about treating gay people like other people is whether they think that the love that a same-sex couple might share has the same potential to show forth the love of God.

Now, some people just don’t think this is so. They tend to disagree with me on these issues and I have some respect for that. The people I find most puzzling are those who want to say that a same-sex couple do have the potential to show forth by their relationship something of a love that is holy, precious and even divine in its nature but who stumble over the question of whether marriage should or should not have been opened to same-sex couples. (Note the past tense in that last sentence).

We have a sacramental postcode lottery at the moment. People have different access to the sacramental acts of the body of Christ dependent on where they are geographically in the UK and in Scotland. This is an unstable situation that seems to me to be hard to defend as having any integrity.

It is my view that the best hope for peace in the church though and the best hope that we can get on with other business and not become fixated on this topic for a further 10 years of decline is to accept a situation whereby those who want to marry same-sex couples can do so and those who don’t want to do so don’t have to. At the moment we are all forced to behave the same way regardless of what we believe.

In the past we have adopted similar compromises for the sake of the gospel – that which allows clergy to marry people who have been married before but who don’t have to do so seems to be a reasonable situation to look to for inspiration.

I’m thrilled beyond measure for those who will be marrying in England this Saturday who could not have married on Friday. It is as though the legal clocks have been put forward to the present day despite the mainstream churches mostly wanting to exist in their own timezone.

Congratulations to all those getting married this weekend. Good luck. Good wishes. God’s blessings.

Here’s to the future and here’s to removing or at least undermining the postcode lottery by which God’s people get offered half-baked blessings rather than the whole blessing shebang, according to where they happen to live or worship at the time.

Was Jesus nice to women?

I’ve been thinking about that gospel reading that we had on Sunday all week.

Here at St Mary’s I read the central part of the reading, the dialogue with the woman at the well as a dialogue between my voice and that of a female member of the congregation. You learn new things by the way you perform scripture. I found myself feeling more uncomfortable reading the words of Jesus to a woman who was standing there responding than I would had I just read the whole of the gospel out in my own voice.

‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
‘I have no husband.’
‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’

How did it feel to be on the receiving end of that?

It made me wonder whether again whether Jesus was nice to women and how I can know.

There is a view that is fairly common that Jesus was better than most men at the time because he spoke to women and the culture he lived in was not one in which women and men could normally converse. This is a relatively common reading of Jesus’s dealings with women, particularly by liberals.

I would parrot that view were it not for a conference I went on a few years ago when a feminist orthodox Jewish scholar made the case that this is an antisemitic reading of scripture and that Jewish culture then as now was one in which men and women could converse, do business and make friends. Imagining a world which is particularly negative for women and placing an imagined Jesus in the middle of it who seems to have more liberal values is a way of denegrating the culture and sociological surroundings that he had.

That gospel reading does provide some fuel for this negative reading of Jewish culture of the time with the line:

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’

However, one can counter that by saying – well, John’s gospel is the most uneasy of the gospels when it comes to affirming the Jewish tradition that Jesus came out of. Perhaps this is an early Christian slur against Jewish life alongside a lot of other negative language about “the Jews” in that gospel.

It often strikes me that we want to believe in a Jesus who was nice and who by implication will like us and like our own mores, presumptions and even peccadillos.

Scripture doesn’t always help us to maintain that view.

Was Jesus nice to women? Can you answer this in the affirmative without denegrating the culture he came from?

And for a side discussion – what are the issues around giving this picture to children to illustrate the tale?

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