Pancakes

Don’t forget, it is your Christian duty to eat up as many pancakes as you can by midnight.

The pancake recipe that you have lost can be found here:
pancake recipe

On not shaking hands – Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Law

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This morning, I heard that the President of Uganda has signed into law the anti-gay law that there has been such a huge amount of discussion about.

The law itself has become iconic. It is almost the definitive answer to what draconian anti-gay legislation looks like. The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Law brings in terrible punishments for those who are gay in Uganda. It also criminalizes those who don’t report those who are gay to the authorities. This then has an obviously detrimental effect on those who are trying to work against HIV infection – those who know of men having sex with men are supposed to report them. The bill has exacerbated hatred of gay people in that land.

Furthermore, the bill asserts that Uganda has jurisdiction on Ugandans abroad suggesting that they could seek extradition for punishment back in Uganda if they commit “homosexual offences” whilst abroad. Yes – that’s right – that could criminalize people who live in Scotland. It could criminalize people attending my congregation.

There are a number of people in the Scottish Episcopal Church who have links with Uganda – the Primus, the Most Rev David Chillingworth is one. Gill Young in my own congregation is another. They are the most obvious people who need to be given all our support and encouragement to speak out against this bill whenever they are talking about overseas relations between the churches, international aid and homosexuality generally. The Primus in particular made a visit to Uganda recently which some of us in the church believed to be unwise and attended a service which was addressed by President Museveni himself. However, it was supported by the rest of our bishops so they each share some responsibility for his actions.

The question for those who go to Uganda and meet with church leaders and politicians there which needs to be asked is whether they have met and greeted those who have blood on their hands. I know no-one involved in any aid agency, NGO, equality organisation nor in the wider gay communities who do not believe that this law will lead to further direct violence against gay people in the region.

The hand that signed the bill this morning belongs to President Musoveni. The bill has terrible consequences for gay people in Uganda and stretches its reach to people here in the city of Glasgow.

This summer, the eyes of the world will be on the city of Glasgow as we welcome sports people from around the world for the Commonwealth Games. It is very clear to me that politicians (and church people t00 – for the churches muscle in on these sports fixtures just like many organisations and businesses do) must not be seen to shake hands with any Ugandan official. In particular, it must be made clear in this city that President Musoveni and other officials of the Ugandan government are not welcome here. That must apply to local council leaders as well as Scottish and UK government ministers. It would be particularly sickening to see SNP leaders welcoming the official representatives of a foreign government which is attempting to criminalize Ugandans living in Scotland just weeks before the Independence Vote.

Ugandan athletes should be warmly welcomed in Glasgow this summer. They should be greeted with welcoming banners in all the colours of the rainbow.

Ugandan government officials should be met with a refusal on behalf of all people of goodwill to shake hands.

That’s a language that is well understood internationally and particularly well understood in Africa.

Love your church minister

No – not me. Well, you can if you like. But more an invitation to head over to Malcolm Round’s blog and read a post that he wrote a couple of weeks ago which has now been read by thousands of people, being copied and referenced all over the web.

Malcolm has really hit a nerve in writing about how congregations treat their clergy – beginning with this:

Sadly the Christian church is littered with good people who have left the ministry because of the pain, the criticism, and the lack of support they’ve got from congregations. Some Christians assume they can behave in a church setting in a way they’ve never be allowed to in a work setting. Minister abuse is much more common than is talked about.

I know exactly what he is talking about and very many clergy will know it all too well.

Malcolm raises a number of very pertinent questions that I think need a lot of talking about. The most striking questions this piece prompts for me are these:

  • What level of discipline should exist in a voluntary organisation like a congregation, particularly when the congregation has an ethos of inclusion and welcome? After all, churches tend to exist for the purpose of adding more to their numbers. How do they manage anti-social and particular anti-clerical behaviour?
  • In my own denomination, what part does the anti-clericalism that is the unfortunate and entirely unnecessary product of so many of our conversations about affirming lay ministry play in this?
  • Who cares for the pastors of the church and how?

The bad behaviour that Malcolm talks about leaves him saying:

Such treatment sadly has become normative in the ordained church life.  Which is one of the reasons I personally will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.

When a senior church leader says that then the rest of us ought to be paying attention and carrying on a serious conversation about it. This is important and significant stuff.

So, hop on over to Malcolm’s blog and take a read.

Rectorial Election – Glasgow University

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been a candidate in the elections to choose a Rector for the University of Glasgow. The position of Rector in the older universities in Scotland is a venerable tradition. The students get to elect the person who chairs the University Court and acts as their representative at the highest level of the University when decisions are being made that affect the future planning of the life of the University.

It is a great idea – the primary users of the University getting a strong say in what happens to it.

I was asked to run by a student, Alan McManus who became my campaign manager for the whole experience. I’m hugely grateful to Alan for all this. His relentless encouragement and good humour were what got me into this and they have never wavered. It has been a joy to be on the university campus (which is close to St Mary’s) and spend some time getting to know it and meeting people up there. I think that in the last few weeks I will have met about 1250 people – some of them wanting to engage me pretty deeply with their concerns and some of them just so that I could give a cheery reminder to them to vote.

In the end, I was placed second and was very pleased at the number of votes that were cast for me. It was the highest turn-out in a student election in many years.

The winner of the election was Edward Snowdon, the former NSA contractor and whistle-blower who is currently on the run from the American authorities.

In many ways the election was decided by the nomination of Mr Snowdon, who won’t be able to take up the post and won’t be able to represent students at all. Once his nomination was in, it was all that the media were interested in.

One of the things I’ve learned is that we must guard the rules which attempt to prevent biased reporting at elections in the UK. Standing in an election and seeing, whenever it is reported, that it is reported as being only about one candidate is dispiriting and makes you realise how hard it must be to campaign in places where the media can do what they like.

I’ve also been reminded of how much I enjoy campaigning and how much life it gives me. It is no coincidence that the sermon that I preached on Sunday, right at the height of the campaign, was one that people have told me will stay in their minds for some time. I come alive in the heat of battle and that rubs off onto other areas of my life.

With regards to the actual result, I’m very pleased that the issues that I raised during the campaign, which were all student issues really, did have a resonance with those who voted. There were three of us who were campaigning to become Rector on a “working Rector” ticket and I was pleased to be placed at the top of the list of those of us who would have turned up to do the job. In the end there was a reasonable vote for all of us. Graeme Obree, the cyclist is obviously a hero to many and was strongly supported by campaigners from the Sports Association. I was surprised in a way that the Yes campaign was not able to muster more votes for Alan Bissett who came fourth – he was a good candidate who was strongly engaged with the students when I met him. The Yes campaign doesn’t seem to me to be doing as well with young people as I’m sure some people think it is, which will make the independence vote later this year all the more interesting.

Any of the three of us who stood on the working Rector ticket would have been willing to turn up and work for the students of the University of Glasgow. Both Graeme Obree and Alan Bissett have been good-hearted candidates and there has been a spirit of very friendly rivalry between us. In that sense it has been a very happy election campaign. I think we were all disappointed though that now the job won’t get done and students won’t be represented in the way they could have been.

Finally, I’ve been interested in the students’ reaction to a priest running in an election on campus. I was expecting a certain amount of negativity about that. In the end only one person ever raised that issue with me in all the campaign – a mature student who is a member of the diocese who told me she didn’t think people would vote for me because I was a member of the clergy. In fact, I think I’ve learned that students are willing to vote for someone who articulates clearly values that they respect and which they think to be good. Gender politics and LGBT issues played strongly in this election. It is clear to me that if churches want to appeal to the vast majority of younger people then they need to articulate and argue very strongly for progressive values and equal rights in both those areas. There will always be a niche for those articulating that women should be less than equal to men and working against gay rights but, thank God, that niche is shrinking quickly as the years go by.

So, I’d like to thank all those who supported me. It has been a lot of fun to run for this post. I hope that the University of Glasgow flourishes and prospers.

I’ve just heard that Edward Snowden has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Guess that one isn’t going my way this year either.

Sermon – 16 February 2014

Here’s the sermon that I preached this week. I always like a difficult gospel to try to do something with. This week the gospel was Matthew 5: 21-37

This is one of those gospel passages that just makes some people groan and turn off. It seems at face value as though we serve a moralising Saviour who has values that none of us will be able to live up to.

You know that dreich gloom that pervades Scottish theological thinking – well it is based on passages like this. We’re all sinners. None of us deserve to be loved. We’re all at risk of getting it in the end. Don’t be angry for that is tantamount to murder. Don’t look fondly at someone you shouldn’t because that’s already adultery. Rip out your eyes and pull off your hands. We’re all miserable sinners anyway so we might as well be blind miserable sinners and if we are going to be blind miserable sinners we might as well be blind miserable sinners with no hands either. Maybe if we take such extreme measures we won’t commit adultery. No-one will have us if we’re ripping bits off ourselves anyway, but that’s alright because we don’t deserve much anyway.

There’s a sense of gloom in the local psyche. A maudlin way of understanding religion that is at its happiest being gloomy and knows that we’ll never live up to who we should be anyway.

Maybe it comes from the weather.

But it exhausts me.

Is that what religion is all about? Is that who we really, truly are?

The only thing that ever perks me up about preaching on this text is that it is another excuse to trot out the best theological one-liner in all of the Christian tradition – which is: never trust a two-eyed fundamentalist.

But let’s have a look at this gospel and try to reframe it a bit and see whether there’s some good news tucked away in there.

First of all, let’s list what we’ve got.

Jesus talked about murder, debt, hatred, adultery and telling lies.

What we’ve got here is the first five minutes of every episode of Eastenders. (Or Downton Abbey for those of you who live in Hyndland).

It’s funny, isn’t it. When we read it on a Sunday in church it seems terribly harsh stuff. Put it on the television and it becomes entertainment.

We mustn’t forget that going from preacher to preacher in those days was part of the entertainment of the day. And we mustn’t forget that soap operas with all their unlikely plots reflect human reality.

Now, they might be a bit far fetched. They might be a bit over the top. They might tend towards hyperbole in the way they help us make moral judgements about their characters. But then that’s Jesus’s way of teaching too. He and the other preachers of his day. Over the top illustrations. Hyperbole. Laying it on thick. These were the ways that preachers used to make an impact and get people to remember their teaching.

And with Jesus it worked. For we are still reading it now.

Part of what Jesus is doing is telling his hearers that motives matter as much as actions.

Now, we have to beware here. The black and white way that Matthew tells stories can tempt us down paths where we might be unwise to go. The Pharisees are wrong – Jesus is right! The letter of the law is bad – the spirit of the law is good! – Jewish Law bad! Christian freedom good!

And before we know where we are we’ve constructed a mindset that sees Christianity as better than Judaism. That sees Us as primarily better than Them. And it is on such ground that the weeds of anti-Semitism and discrimination and prejudice flourish and grow.

We need to tiptoe our way through this territory with more caution.

The truth is, Jesus was Jewish and both a keeper and an interpreter of the law. And to state the perfectly obvious, Jewish people were and Jewish people now are living lives that are full of freedom, grace, humour and joy.

What Jesus is doing in his teaching, and this is part of the sermon on the mount, don’t forget, is stepping right into the thick of the debates of his day and taking a stance.

I happen not to agree with all he says here about marriage and divorce and adultery. And I can say that freely from the pulpit because our church doesn’t agree with him. Years ago now we changed our marriage discipline because the church didn’t agree with Jesus in this passage. But he wouldn’t expect all his hearers to agree anyway. He is getting stuck into debates about the law that were an essential part of Judaism. He is engaging in contemporary controversies about marriage and divorce and arguing it all out in public. He is stating a view and taking a stand.

The big mistake is to read off these pages a hard-hearted morality for ourselves and try to live by it. If we do we’ll not just be sinners we’ll be particularly miserable ones.

Remember the big themes and apply them to the world around you and you won’t go wrong. He says it is about our motives after all.

Always remember when reading the Sermon on the Mount that it starts with a demand that we see life from the margins.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are we if we realise that we don’t have the power within us to live up to the narrowest of demands of any moral code.

Blessed are we if we grasp the bigger picture seeing life from the point of view of the marginalised and weak and try to live up to the task of building the common wealth of God’s kingdom rather than getting too muddled up in making morality into a religion.

It never was, you know. Not one that ever satisfied anyone anyway.

I don’t think it is correct to listen to this teaching about marriage and adultery and divorce and think it is merely a harsh set of rules for people to live by today that seems to be all judgement and no compassion.

I think it is correct to see Jesus getting stuck into the controversies of his day and remembering his example get stuck right into the controversies of our own.

Jesus argued about marriage in public. So must we.

That’s what has been going on in public for the last few years. And we have a new settlement. Our parliamentarians have decided that marriage is to be open to more couples than once it was.

I’ve been at the heart of that debate. And I have huge respect for all those who have made it happen. I’ve respect too for those who have taken different positions to mine in public. I respect those with whom I’ve been in public and feisty disagreement.

I have less respect for so many of our religious leaders who have sat on the fence over the questions facing us about marriage and who continue to try to do so. Sitting on the fence and hiding in the pack mentality of Episcopal collegiality.

Those who sit so firmly on the fence are at greatest risk of getting splinters where they least want splinters to be.

The bigger picture in all that debate is that fidelity, love, passion and delight are still what people hope marriage is all about.

And the bigger picture of the sermon on the mount is that God sees things from unexpected points of view.

Today, partly because of my advocacy of same-sex marriage I’m named in Scotland on Sunday as one of the people on a new Pink List of influential gay people in this land.

And I’m excited and thrilled to be recognised that way. And excited and thrilled to be listed with people who are so powerful.

But today I read from the sermon on the mount which always reminds me that it isn’t all about power at all. And it isn’t about Us and Them either. Life, true life starts when there is no such idea as a Them.

The message I take from this morning’s gospel is that Jesus engaged in his world and that gives us a mandate for engaging in our own.

And the bigger picture I take from the sermon on the mount is that justice, equality, liberty and love are the tools Jesus used to fashion his engagement with that world and they are all on offer still.

Justice, equality, liberty and love.

Try living life by those mandates this week. If you do, you’ll find yourself closer to that joyous kingdom of God than you’ll ever discover by any amount of gloomy religion at all.

In the name of the God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Liberator. Amen

A Form of Benediction for Married Persons

Well, the change in the law last week makes quite a difference for clergy in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Oh, I know that you don’t think it makes any difference unless the Scottish Episcopal Church opts into the legislation to allow same-sex couples to get married but that’s where you are wrong.

You see, for quite some time, there have been couples entering into civil partnerships who have turned to sympathetic clergy in sympathetic congregations for services to mark their joy in getting hitched.

Now, in Scotland there has been no great demand for a new liturgy for blessing same-sex couples because we had a brilliant new marriage liturgy in 2007. One of the things that this service emphasised was the mutuality and equality of the couple – There was no giving away of brides, for example. In this service, the gender of the couple was not emphasised hugely and indeed one could perform the service without mentioning the gender of the couple even though until last week that was quite illegal under Scots law. (Oh yes, really!)

Now at the time that this service was introduced we were encouraged by the liturgy committee to see it as a resource for a number of different situations – for example, bits and bobs could be lifted out and used to make a splendid service for blessing a couple having a golden wedding ceremony. We were encouraged to experiment with it.

We were also encouraged when one of my colleagues helpfully pointed out that if one chose option A at every point then the service made no mention of the gender of the parties to the marriage whatsoever and that it was tantamount to being an ideal service for marrying a same-sex couple. (This version of the service has been known locally around here as the McCarthy version of the service ever since, in homage to my neighbour at St Silas who was the person who pointed it out).

Last year the bishops of the church formally acknowledged that these informal blessings were taking place. (Got that? I know it is difficult to make much sense of that but there you go). They effectively said that they didn’t want such services happening without their knowledge and that clergy were to let them know and work collaboratively with their bishops. They also said that bishops themselves were free to attend such informal services formally. Or was it that the bishops were informally able to attend these formally recognised services? I can’t for the life of me work it out any more. Anyway, the point is, the bishops knew that the services were taking place, wanted to know that they were taking place and said that they might or might not turn up to them but that this was a matter for each bishop.

Now the thing is, people were getting civil partnerships and we were using the marriage liturgy to put together an appropriate service which looked very much like a wedding. All you needed to do was substitute “Loving and lifelong partnership” instead of “lifelong marriage” for example and Bob’s your aunt – you had an appropriate service.

However, the wordings we have been using are not going to be appropriate for couples who are going to be getting married. You can’t have a couple getting married in the morning and then declaring they are entering into partnership in the afternoon in church. They are not entering into a partnership when they are already married. Neither can you simply recite the marriage liturgy over a couple who have been married earlier in the day because that would be naughty. Again, I have to admit that the reasons why this would be naughty escape me but I know naughty when it comes to liturgy and that would be it.

So, what to do?

One might hope for guidance from the church in this situation yet where is that to come from? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had a note from their bishop illuminating them as to what service to use for such couples. Yes that’s right – those services which the bishops have formally acknowledged happen informally (or informally acknowledged happen formally, I don’t know) and to which they might turn up. After all, one doesn’t want a bishop turning up to a service and getting sniffy about the liturgy. That would never do.

Fortunately, we have several sources of authority in the church. These include the liturgy and the Code of Canons.

The Code of Canons says this in Section 5 of Canon 31

A cleric may use the form of Benediction provided in the Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1929) to meet the case of those who ask for the benediction of the Church after an irregular marriage has been contracted or after a civil marriage has been legally entered into, provided only that the cleric be satisfied that the marriage is not contrary to Sections 3 and 4 of this Canon.

The point of this is that you can’t use the service of Benediction for a couple who are related to one another too closely and can’t do it if the marriage itself has been forbidden in church because if one party has been married before and a bishop has refused permission for a second marriage. (Refusal is possible but rare).

Thus – the canons seem to suggest that a form of Benediction is the right thing to be offering.

I don’t think that the letter of the law is very helpful suggesting that it be the service of Benediction from the Scottish Prayer Book 1929 but that service does have a very lovely prayer which I’ve rendered here in modern English:

God the Father,
God the Son,
God the Holy Spirit,
bless, preserve and keep you;
the Lord look upon you with favour and mercy
and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace,
that you may so live together in this life
that in the world to come you may have life everlasting.
Amen

This, it seems to me, is a wonderfully helpful resource in determining what to do with couples approaching the church for Benediction after a civil marriage ceremony. And all the more useful as the number of straight couples wanting this is surely destined to rise if the church forbids same-sex couples to wed in church. I expect that thoughtful straight couples will say, “Well, what’s good for the gander is good for the gander as the old gay proverb goes. If our gay friends get offered Benediction after getting married in a civil service then that’s what we want too.”

So, it seems apposite to look again at the modern marriage rite to see whether it has any useful resources that could flesh out a service of Benediction for Persons who are Married that would serve whatever the gender of the couple.

I’ve put this together for that purpose and hope that it is the beginnings of something useful for everyone.

I’d be interested in hearing feedback both on the content presented here and any use of this service by anyone in the future. Remember, this one is for straight people too.

You can download it here:
Service of Benediction

If you think I’ve made any mistakes and allowed the M word to remain in places where it would be naughty for the M word to be, do please let me know.

And if, in the future, we get to a situation whereby straight people can enter a civil partnership and then want that partnership blessed in church, you can be sure I will have just the thing right up my sleeve.

Are all these distinctions not becoming rather silly?

When you see a rainbow

Here’s the Moment of Reflection that I gave on Radio 2 yesterday.

There it was in the sky – clear and bright. Arching right over the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday just as gay marriage was being agreed by parliamentarians.

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – a perfect rainbow stretching across the sky.

It made me smile as rainbows always do because when I see them, I remember singing in Sunday school – “When you see a rainbow, remember God is love”.

Of course, God doesn’t control the weather – the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous and rainbows appear to everyone. But when I see rainbows, I remember several things. Firstly they make me remember that the world is inherently beautiful. Then the many colours remind me of the glorious diversity that is what creation seems to be all about. And then they remind me of love because of that song I used to sing when I was little.

After this week of storm and flooding, many are suffering. As I’m praying later today in church, I’ll be praying for compassion, comfort, hope and help. Oh yes, and for love. For all who need love most.

You can hear it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01s0xjn

(At time of writing, whoever is updating the BBC website seems not to be able to spell “reverend”).

Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill Passes by 105 to 18!

The Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill has just passed in the Scottish Parliament by 105 votes to 18.

I’ve watched the debate all through this afternoon.

It is difficult to put into words what it feels like.

As I was growing up, I never knew what I never heard. You don’t know what you are missing sometimes. It is only as gay rights have been argued for, fought for and achieved that I’ve realised what it meant to grow up feeling, knowing, that society was inevitably going to treat me as someone who had less value and less opportunity than others. In short, I became an adult in a world which was silent about people like me. That’s why it is so shocking and emotional and staggering for that silence to be broken in public life, most notably by parliamentarians speaking up for LGBT people and gradually, progressively, legislating the old legal discriminations away.

Now, today, a huge thing has happened. I can now get married, should someone want to have me. Inevitably, my view of marriage and relationships has been coloured by being formed in a world where I was excluded from the possibility. I never got to think or dream about what I’d wear, where it would be or who I would be standing next to. I never got to imagine being with someone through thick and thin, for good and for bad, ’til death us do part. And I still can’t imagine what it would be like to hear and feel the full acceptance and love of the world around me should I ever be able to stand at an altar and declare that I want to be with someone forever.

For some of the silences still remain. For the last three years I’ve been named on the Pink List as one of the most influential gay people in the UK. Were I to achieve national recognition in any other area, I could probably expect my bishop and other leaders in the church to contact me privately, congratulate me publicly and the institution that I work for to be proud of me. Instead of that, at the moments when friends have been cheering me on as a national newspaper recognised some of what I’ve done, I’ve heard from the institution I work for that same silence that I know all too well.

However, I’m hopeful. I’ve seen the military change. I’ve seen the police change. I’ve seen newspapers change. I’m seeing schools change. And as it has happened, I’ve changed. I’ve become more of the person I really am. Like others who identify as gay or lesbian, I’ve become more whole.

Today is a great day. It is a day when things have changed forever.

I used to campaign quite actively for gay rights in the church. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was to throw my efforts into changing the law. I was right to do so. Though many who love me greatly were sympathetic, many of them told me I was mad and that it would never happen in my lifetime. It hasn’t just happened in my lifetime. The possibility that I could marry has come in in time for there to be the possiblity that I might one day benefit from it. That great legal change is now accomplished.

Today is a joyful day for gay and lesbian couples in Scotland and for their supporters. The Scottish Parliament has now made it possible for same-sex couples to get married and no words can express how much I welcome that. It is a significant step towards Equal Marriage and will make it possible for many couples to celebrate the best day of their lives.

The campaign for marriage equality now moves into the churches in Scotland and those churches have a golden opportunity to show that they support equality, support gay and lesbian Christians and support the settled will of lawmakers. Increasingly, support for marriage equality is becoming the touchstone of moral behaviour for decent people.

I hope that it is not long before I can marry same-sex couples in St Mary’s Cathedral but we must remember that today the Scottish Parliament passed laws which make it difficult for many religious bodies to opt into the legislation. It will be the case that many same-sex couples will need to have a legal marriage at the local Registrar’s Office and then come to church for a religious ceremony. I look forward to celebrating many joyful nuptial masses for same-sex couples and in due course to conducting legal marriages.

In the Scottish Episcopal Church marriage service we ask a simple question not to the couple but to everyone present:
“Will all of you support and encourage N. and N. in their marriage?”

Let the word go out from Scotland: “WE WILL!”

It’s Time and It’s Today!

Huge excitement today as the Equal Marriage bill comes to the Scottish Parliament for a final vote.

I’ve been involved in this campaign pretty much from the beginning, speaking at Pride, marching, organising, listening, distributing materials, writing, cajoling, chatting on TV and Radio, preaching and generally getting people to think about it.

A hugely proud day for Scotland and a campaign and a movement that I’ll never forget.

One of the things that a lot of people won’t know is that many of the original signatures on the petition that kicked all this off came from students on campus at the University of Glasgow and many of them were gathered by members of the LGBT group at St Mary’s.

Well, the campaign is just about over. It’s time and it’s today!

Sermon for Candlemas

When I was a theology student in St Andrews, many years ago now, I found myself in the company of people with all kinds of religious views. There were extreme protestants and extreme catholics and everything inbetween and beyond. There were feminists and atheists and agnostics amidst and apart from the Christians and a fair number of the bewildered who were still trying to work it all out.

I suppose that I was in the latter category when I started but by the time I’d got my degree I knew who I was and had a fair idea of where I hoped to be heading.

One advantage of that ecclesiastical melting-pot was that you got to rub up against all kinds of different kinds of church and all kinds of different style of religious expression. You got to know your friends and by extension you got to know the religious path that your friends were on. In that rare world, it was almost certain that they believed and practised differently to the way you did.

And when seeing other people’s religion you got to see the things you liked and the things you didn’t. You got to see the bits you would take back to your own expression of faith and pinch and you got to see things which horrified you and confirmed all you ever thought about how wrong headed other people could be.

Inevitably, it being a place where Presbyterian candidates for ministry were being trained I got to know lots of Church of Scotland candidates. They saw me discover the Episcopal Church and with the zeal of a new convert, try to take them along to every feast and festival going.

They would never come to church with me and not think the Episcopal church to be something that was permanently enshrouded in holy smoke that you could only see through by the light of a thousand and one candles shining around the altar.

And it confirmed in most of them the suspicion they had that Episcopacy was something full of superstition and only one stop away from witchcraft.

However, some of them liked what they saw. And remembered it when they were ordained and moved into ministry.

Particularly so one friend of mine. She had been moved by some of the worship I’d dragged her along to and pined a little for it when she started work in a parish.

Now, those of you who have arrived in Scotland since the arrival of IKEA might be unaware of the suspicion which candles in churches one aroused.

Even Episcopalians and other Anglicans were once suspicious. There were riots in some churches about putting candles on altars. They were mostly riots backed by hideous sectarianism but they were riots all the same.

Twenty years ago it was a very rare Church of Scotland which would have candles in church.

Anyway, this friend of mine went to a fairly stark church and happened to say that when she celebrated communion it would be nice to have some candles on the communion table.

I dare say that there were some intakes of breath. I dare say that teeth were sucked. I dare say that not everyone was happy.

But the locals decided to give her what she wanted.

And so, processing in for her first communion service, she was somewhat startled to see two candles brightly burning on the communion table.

Two dinner table candles.

In fact, two very bright pink dinner table candles.

And a grinning congregation who knew that they had made the new minister happy.

I like that story for it reminds me how far removed from the dinner table my own experience of the altar is. And yet, dinner table it is if you think about it. And why should’t candles that we usually use for a candlelit meal not be just right for what we do when we place bread and wine here?

Religion is a funny thing. (I often have cause to notice).

For it is a way of thinking about the world but more than that. It is a way of putting the world to rights, but more than that. It is a way of ordering life about one that makes sense (hopefully) but more than that too.

The very act of lighting a candle is typical of what religious expression is so often about.

For setting light to beeswax or tallow and letting it burn slowly means nothing.

And yet, it so often means so much.

We actually need candlelight less than humanity has ever done.

Yet we need to mark moments in our lives, moments of significance, more than we have ever done too.

In a busy rushing digital, electrically powered world, something about the simple act of lighting a candle matters. It connects us with everyone who has ever kindled light in any darkness. It connects us with those who have given physical expression to hope going back way beyond memory.

And so, we find ourselves lighting candles when children are baptised. We kindle light around coffins when the final journey comes.

And in between we light candles at birthdays and other significant times.

Symbols of light in the darkness, of hope amidst fear, of prayers when words won’t work.

The story we get of the presentation in the temple at this Festival is a lovely one but one where there is so much going on.

One can imagine rather easily I think, the bringing of the child into the temple – a young couple wanting to do what was right for the child. Luke conjures up pictures that we feel we can see.

I wish that those who wrote baptism liturgies today would stop trying to make them pre-ordination rights that turn babies into proto-ministers. We need to get back to more human desires to mark moments with symbols of significance.

Here in a church like this, most of the symbols that the Christian religion has ever explored are available to you but no-one will force them upon you.

Yet they really are worth exploring anew.

When I was in the USA on sabbatical I was struck by how, influenced perhaps by Buddhist practise, Christians were asking – how do you practise?

How do you make faith, put down markers of significance, mark moments that matter?

Do you light a candle. Some of you probably do. But what else?

How else do you practise your religion? How else do you build patterns with physical things in your life that connect with ways of being human that come to us from the depths of human experience?

Do you light a candle for a friend in trouble? Do you make the sign of the cross before falling asleep? Do you give yourself the gift of … silence? Do you read the scriptures? Do you remember anniversaries? Do you pray with words or without them? Do you aim to worship with others weekly? Do you recognise Christ in friend or stranger or see something holy in both of them?

These are all questions about how we practise a life of faith. For we can learn to consecrate time and circumstance. We can find the holy in the ordinary and make sacred space from beeswax and a match.

Once upon a time, a young couple brought a child to do for him what was required by the religious practise of their day. They had two pigeons to sacrifice. And the child changed the world.

What do you bring to the altar? What do you take from it?

How do you practise? And how will you change the world?