Unlikely alliances – sermon preached as farewell to Fr Chucks

Here’s what I had to say to my Nigerian colleague Chucks who is moving away from St Mary’s to go and work down south. God be with you, Chucks – we are looking to you to sort out the Church of England.

Sermon preached by Kelvin Holdsworth on 15 February 2015 from Kelvin Holdsworth on Vimeo.

There was a lot of coming and going in the first reading that we had this morning. The story of Naaman that we read today is one of the most dramatic in the bible.

Come with me, the author of that story seems to say, come with me to a land far away. Come with me to the land of the Arameans. Come with me to the banks of the Abana and the Pharpar – the rivers of Damascus. Come with me to a place outside your comfort zone.

And of course, the naming of those rivers as the rivers of Damascus tells us that the story is placed in a part of the world that that we think about every day and pray about all the time. We are being taken for this tale to Syria.

And this story is a vignette of war. There’s a women taken in slavery, there’s conquest and there’s Middle Eastern strife and it all seems horribly familiar to us today.

The young woman taken as a captive from the land of Israel is one of the characters of the bible who always moves me, whenever we read this tale.

She, like Naaman’s wife has not been given the dignity of a name. Only the men are named in the narrative. She has been scooped up and carried off as a souvenir, a trophy of war. And in her day, who missed her? Who from her own town even knew that she had gone missing.

She was probably not that economically important at home and now here in this foreign land she is a slave in the house of her captor.

There was no social media in her day. There was no twitter campaign. There was no hashtag saying #bringbackourgirl. She was just missing – probably presumed to be dead.

And the fact that she was a slave seems almost incidental to the writer of the tale. For slavery would have been perfectly acceptable both to this story’s writer and its first readers.

We now have the firm conviction that slavery is wrong. Though all we continue to learn about people trafficking means that we must never as Christians feel smug that it was a Chrisitan, William Wilberforce which ended the slave trade. For we know now that though Wilberforce and his associates succeeded in outlawing the slave trade it went underground and continues in one rank form or another to this day. Wilberforce should continue to call on us all to bring a real end slavery by helping to end the trafficking of people from one part of the world to another.

But slave-girl she is.

And even though she has probably been forgotten back at home, she hasn’t forgotten the place she came from and so comes out with this extraordinary recommendation that her captor should venture to Samaria to speak to a holy man – a conversation which eventually leads to his healing.

I’d like to think that she gets some reward for this but it is he who is rewarded in the end, only emphasising that good things seem only to happen to men in the story.

Naaman’s indignance at having to go and wash in the River Jordan is rather magnificent. Why the Jordan and not the Abana and the Pharpar? Well, why not indeed? Yet the fact that he ends up being healed anyway after slagging off the Jordan as much as he was able is testament to God’s ability to love anyone. Indeed, the fact that the Lord blesses even the most pompous, is something that I find, well, just a little bit reassuring.

There’s grace even for the most unlovely in God’s world. And that’s news that is good and wonderful and holy.

At its heart, this story reminds us too that stories of great journeys are built into the stories of the bible.

We should perhaps pause more often and think about them in those terms.

The idea of migration being a positive thing is under such challenge politically in this country. Xenophobia, fear of foreigners, seems to be the stock-in-trade of the most disreputable politicians and some, though thanks be to God, not all, elements of the media.

And where xenophobia flourishes, the unwelcome consequences of racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, violence as we’ve seen overnight in Copenhagen and all of that stuff follows on all too easily.

It is worth saying publicly that without migration, this land and this city and especially this congregation would be very much impoverished.

On a Sunday morning here in St Mary’s we are a gathering place for the world and I hope that we always will be. Our key word here is welcome. And we try as hard as we can to mean it as fully as we are able.

But this Sunday we are not saying welcome – we are saying goodbye to someone. We are saying goodbye to Chucks. And not just Chucks but the whole family – Adanna and Christian and Mary-Isobel too.

It is a time for parting. And like all times of parting it is a time for thanksgiving.

Chucks, I don’t know exactly why you chose to come to this city.

For some years ago now you came across the world. You left the land of the Niger River and the Cross River. You decided that for at least a portion of your life you wouldn’t stay by the banks of the Otamiri River but would seek out a new land.

And, wonder of wonders, you came to Glasgow.

You came to this city, an amazing city of not one but two rivers – the River Kelvin and …. that other one.

And you’ve made a home and a life here. And we are glad you did.

The sorrow of parting is testament as it always is, to love and affection and respect.

And it is those things we feel for you today as we say goodbye. For thanksgiving is the antidote to sorrow.

The story of the slave girl and Naaman is the story of a rather unlikely alliance.

So is the story of you and I.

I never thought that I would be the person in the Scottish Episcopal Church who would end up with a Nigerian curate. But I’m glad I did.

And at a time when the Anglican world seemed full of poison and bitterness, I’ve never been more proud of St Mary’s than of the period of time when I stood at that altar regularly with a Nigerian priest on one side of me and an American on another and we celebrated God’s love together.

Let no-one ever think St Mary’s is a place of extreme theology. This is the heart of the Anglican Communion. This is a place of bridge-building and I’m proud of that.

And I’m proud of you Chucks too.

I realised when I was thinking about your being here that I understood why you might be moving on.

We’ve been working our way through the sacraments haven’t we.

I’ve been beside you through your ordination to the priesthood, your wedding to Adanna, the baptism of your children and stood next to you at countless services of communion.

There’s aren’t many sacraments left for me to share with you.

I think I’ve only got the last rites to offer, so I quite understand why you need to get out whilst the going is good.

But in all that you’ve done, you’ve been a person of God in this place. And we are pleased to have got to know you and proud to have had you here.

You’ve had all kinds of achievements here. But Paul told us in the letter to the Corinthians this morning to be wary of getting excited about perishable garlands.

You leave here covered in imperishable garlands – our love for you, our joy in knowing you and our pride in having shared your life with you here in Glasgow.

You’ve shared in sharing the good news that we share every week at St Mary’s – that God is good and God’s love is wonderful.

And there is no greater garland.

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


10 Tips on How to Date a Priest

Valentine’s Day being upon us and my being an expert witness in the matter, I feel it incumbent upon me to share my best wisdom in the small matter of how to date a priest.

  1. Firstly, accept that clergy are people, just like everyone else.
    I’ve met people who believed that when they were ordained, God would take away all their romantic emotions and leave them pure and holy in order to get on with saving the world. Trouble is, no-one ever told God that this was what should happen and God isn’t in the sublimation business. Indeed, a more healthy way to look at clerical life is to remember that it is supposed to be at its heart about being very much yourself and very much about living life with passion. That means all kinds of passion. Oh yes, that kind of passion too.
  2. Secondly, accept that clergy are people not like anyone else.
    Hath not a priest eyes? Hath not a priest hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a lay person is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
    Well no – if you tickle us we might laugh but we might also worry that someone might tell the bishop that tickling has occurred. (This applies even if the bishop is tickle-positive). If we go out for a Friday night boogie and a beer, we are probably going to enjoy it more if we are somewhere where everyone else in the gin-joint doesn’t normally see us in a dog-collar. Hearing a confession (from a third party) in the middle of a date can be a bit of a passion killer.
  3. Try very hard not to fall in love with anyone who claims to be celibate or who is supposed to be celibate.
    Some parts of the church insist on celibacy for clerics. Not all of those clerics manage it. However falling in love with those clergy tends to be bad news for the people falling in love with them. Indeed, this situation generally seems to me to be a lot worse for the lay person in the relationship than the cleric. Here there be dragons.
  4. Clergy feel they can ask anything they choose to ask when on a date. Deal with it.
    Oh, this one is very unfair and no mistake. The thing is, most clergy are perfectly at home in the realm of the emotions. We are used to people telling us how they feel and we are used to listening for what people are not telling us. We know the questions to ask. At best this can make us sensitive, at worst intrusive. We are used to operating the midst of the blood and fire of human relationships. There’s not much you can say to us that will shock us. This can lead to intimacy (or worse, apparent intimacy) developing quite quickly. Beware!
  5. You can’t compete with a vocation so you might as well collaborate with it.
    Know from the beginning, from the very first inkling, from the first fluttering questioning that one day might lead you to wonder whether you might perhaps, possibly, tentatively pick up the phone to ask the person for a date that if you ever issue an ultimatum demanding a choice between you and the vocation then you will lose. Either the cleric will stick with the vocation and dump you or you will end up forever tied with someone in mourning for what might have been. You might as well work with a vocation as fight it. You don’t have any choice anyway.
  6. It is almost impossible to have an good relationship if you don’t meet as equals.
    There have been relationships which have developed and worked between clergy and members of their flocks but oh, there are real issues here. It is almost impossible to have a successful relationship where you don’t meet as equals. Clergy dating members of their own congregations are in a position of influence over them. Some denominations are so cautious about this as to have rules and guidelines about it. None of these guidelines are there to encourage you. If you are in a congregation and find yourself falling for the priest, it might work better if you are able to join another congregation whilst you are a-courting. Geography and all kinds of personal issues may make this impossible but the the reality that this might be a good idea is a fact not a fancy.
  7. If you find a member of the clergy attractive in their dog-collar, don’t be surprised if the same clergy-person is not interested in you.
    This one is really quite important. If you are turned on by the idea of dating a priest then stop, step aside, have a think. If you are all excited by dating someone in holy orders then don’t waste your time with this any further for  it is doomed from day one. He or she isn’t going to be interested in you if they even get a whiff of the fact that you are interested in them because of their role rather than their personality. Not for an hour, not for a minute, not for a second. If the very idea of dating a priest yanks your chain then you don’t need a priest you need a therapist. (And don’t fall in love with your therapist either).
  8. Clergy have a whole load of expectations put upon them about sex. They may not share these expectations.
    The whole world works out its neuroses about sexuality by piling them all onto the clergy. Don’t be surprised if things are complicated. Also, don’t be surprised if the person finds themselves to be frustrated by the expectations of their denomination/congregation. No-one knows the cost of ordination when they say yes to it. No-one. The private lives of people in public life are not private and no-one knows what this will feel like when they are first ordained. This is just the ways things are. The cost is high.
  9. It is more likely to work if faith is a common factor.
    The bible has quite strong admonitions against Christians taking up with non-Christians. This is for practical rather than theological reasons though those admonitions were written when people thought the end of the world was just around the corner. Clergy in particular inhabit a religious world and it is only natural that they are more likely to have relationships which work with people who understand that. However, there are no guarantees here. Sometimes relationships work for reasons that no outsider will ever be able to fathom – love will find out a way. If you don’t have faith in common though you are going to need a lot in common besides.
  10. Don’t be deceived by their public profile and behaviour, most clergy are very shy and private.
    Hard to believe, isn’t it? They speak with such sophistication and can articulate such complex religious ideas in public with wit and wisdom. However, ask them to be honest about their own feelings and say clearly what they want from life and clergy can go to jelly just like anyone else. (See number 1 above). Remember too that like lots of people in the public gaze, they often keep a bit of themselves very private. The church rewards introverts who behave as extroverts (and vice-versa, actually, but outward-acting introverts are most common). Start dating a priest and there may well be bits of themselves that they know very well how to keep hidden from view.

Tricky, isn’t it?