Heresy hunting

One of the big differences between the theological training that I received from the university and the theological training I received from the church was that the former was interested in heresy and the latter wasn’t interested at all.

It may be that things are different now, I don’t know. But quite a lot of the church history that we did when I first did my BD was about defining the limits of orthodoxy. In other words, looking at the controversies of the early church and learning about the key players who determined what was and what was not legitimate for Christians to believe in. And it was useful stuff too – far too easily dismissed by those who think the church should simply have fuzzy boundaries and for whom any theology goes. Useful too for helping one to think through the modern church’s controversies to see whether or not things have changed much.

It also led to the entertaining theological dinner party game of ‘I can’t believe that’s not orthodoxy’. The participants have to come up with a new heresy and the others have to prove that it is in fact an old one.

One way of understanding the trials and tribulations of modern Anglicanism is to see it as a global version of this game. And not just Anglicanism of course, though we are particularly good at it.

Current possible heresies include the following:

Optional Doctrinalism – the idea that a church can have a doctrine which it authorises some people to disbelieve. (This one seems very attractive at the moment – see the latest from New Zealand).

Clerical Morality – The idea that clergy have different moral standards put upon them than the laity. (Yes, this one can be found very clearly in lots of documents, not least the recent pastoral statement and guidance from the House of Bishops in England). The interesting question here is whether clerical celibacy, practised, for example, in some parts of the Roman Catholic Church at some times and in some places is a moral injunction or a pastoral one.

Canonical Antiadiaphoralism – Putting a contested doctrinal statement into the canons of a church by majority vote and then claiming it has creedal authority for all Christians for all time and in all places or claiming that statements which were made in canon law for one purpose actually apply in different circumstances but for for all people. (See for example, this statement by a group claiming to represent the Faith and Order Board of the Scottish Episcopal Church).

How are we to determine whether these are indeed modern heresies or whether they fall legitimately within orthodoxy?

Sermon – Road to Emmaus

Here’s the sermon I preached on the Road to Emmaus story.

Michael Perham and Gracious Restraint

I see that at his diocesan synod, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Rev Michael Perham has made a very passionate plea for even more “gracious restraint”.

“My own view is that what is needed in the Church at present is gracious restraint. We need a cool and calm period in which to explore the issues. To those among clergy and ordinands contemplating entering a same-sex marriage I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church reflects?” Gracious restraint. To those who might make a complaint against a priest who, despite that, does enter such a marriage I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church reflects?” Gracious restraint. To those who contemplate leaving the Church of England because of its perceived position I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church reflects?” Gracious restraint. To those who condemn the Church of England from other parts of the Anglican Communion I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church of England reflects?” Gracious restraint to give us space.

Well, I’d say, fair enough. Fair enough, that is, if Michael Perham and other bishops are prepared to divorce their wives for a couple of years and promise not to have any sex with anyone until we all agree about sexuality. If that level playing field can be achieved then I’d support his call for gracious restraint.

Or is it that only gay people are expected to make such sacrifices?

A Christian Country?

I’ve been watching the various debates about whether “we” live in a Christian country with interest over the last 10 days or so. I’m inclined to agree with the notion that the UK clearly has such a great heritage from the Christian tradition that it makes sense to speak of it as having been a Christian country. I also think that we have moved beyond Christendom and that it is obvious that the UK is not a Christian country in the sense of being a country of people who are either united by Christian belief or practise.

What surprises me a little is how little comment there has been about this in Scotland. After all, in Scotland we are currently thinking very precisely about what kind of country we want to either be or belong to.

I remain unpersuaded by the case for independence for Scotland. I don’t think myself that separating from the rest of the UK would be good either for Scotland or for everyone else involved. However, I rather like the fact that in Scotland we are talking about what kind of country we hope for. There are clearer lots of people who want a fairer society. However, I’ve no real interest in building a Scotland that is fairer than England. I want a fairer society for everyone. Compassion has no borders. I care for the poor family in Carlisle as much as the poor family in Aberdeen. (Carlisle is nearer in any case).

What interests me most this week though is that there has been so little discussion of whether Scotland should be a “Christian” nation if independence were to come upon us. I’m quite clear myself that if there is any talk of a draft constitution for Scotland it must be a secular one. I have no problem being part of a historically Christian country and working to make it more secular. I do however have a big problem with starting up a new country and writing Christianity into the constitutional definition of what that country is.

Should independence become a reality, then we have to have a real debate about what kind of country we are talking about. I certainly don’t want to be part of a new country which has a National Church written into its constitution. Members of the Church of Scotland can’t presume that the rest of the Christian communities are going to back any attempt to keep their particular position in society. Similarly, it cannot be presumed that issues like eduction funding will be unchanged in a new country. The settlement by which the Roman Catholic Church is funded by the state to run often excellent schools can’t simply be presumed to be what the people of a new country will want.

I’m very aware that some want to make a case for an established or national church on the grounds  that a broad, moderate church is a force for good in society. However, I think that the mainstream Christian churches are currently presumed to be promoting a morality that people who think they are good, decent, upstanding members of society simply abhor. I don’t think there is a long term future for churches to be established or privileged in any way by the law if they are associated in the public mind with discrimination against woman and people who happen to be gay.

In England, I suspect that disestablishment will come about by erosion. In Scotland where a new constitution is on the table,  things may be rather different.

I think that a secular Scotland is probably one in which churches like my own will thrive. We all have things to fear from anything else.

The Cure

Over the past few weeks, I’ve not been terribly well. Bronchitis was the doctor’s diagnosis and it has gone on and on.

I thought it might be helpful to share the advice that I’ve been given in order to get better. After all, it could happen to you.

  • paracetamol
  • lemsip
  • going to the doctor
  • cough medicine
  • reflexology
  • vicks vapour rub
  • steroid inhaler
  • steaming
  • aromatherapy
  • eating oranges
  • look after yourself
  • steam room at the Arlington baths
  • don’t use the steam room at the Arlington baths
  • go out in the fresh air
  • stay in
  • decongestant
  • garlic
  • orange juice
  • vitamin C tablets
  • multivitamins
  • menthol crystals
  • staying under the duvet
  • making sure you don’t get too hot
  • opening the windows
  • going to Millport for three months
  • make sure you’re getting proper food
  • look after yourself
  • watch the television
  • don’t just watch the television
  • lots of vegetables
  • the triduum
  • incense
  • tea-tree oil
  • fasting
  • antibiotics
  • more antibiotics
  • sleep
  • rest
  • jakeman’s throat sweets
  • fisherman’s friends
  • hot tea
  • honey in your tea
  • manuka honey
  • lots of hot drinks
  • let it take its course
  • steamy showers
  • a bit of sun
  • go to the doctor again
  • you must go to the doctor again
  • stay off work
  • just take another week being kind to yourself
  • hot toddies
  • whisky
  • chocolate

I presume, as I am still sneezing and coughing that I’ve missed something. No doubt someone will helpfully give me some further advice.


The rules

Here’s how we are going to get along.

  1. Black shoes in the sanctuary
  2. Play nicely
  3. Don’t copy the provost/pope/prime minister into emails that are addressed to anyone else
  4. No boring worship
  5. Obey the moratorium on unnecessary exclamation marks!
  6. No communion for dogs, not even on St Francis’s Day
  7. Communion for all humans any day
  8. Black ink. Only black ink.
  9. No rotas on noticeboards
  10. Clerical honorifics take the definite article

Scottish Episcopal Conversations about LGBT Issues

This time next week, the “Cascade Conversations” will be taking place in Pitlochry. This is an attempt to allow discussion in the Scottish Episcopal Church about issues relating to homosexuality.

I won’t be there because I’ve not been invited and I’m sorry about that as I would have liked to listen to what others were saying. Invitations were entirely at the whim of diocesan bishops and my own has chosen not to invite me.

The idea is that this conversation will cascade into dioceses but how that will happen is far from clear.

In many ways this process has been a model example of how not to do things. There was no-one who was gay on the initial scoping group. There have been several people who have represented anti-gay organisations on the design group but none who have been prominent members of LGBT advocacy groups in the church.

My more fundamental concern though is the idea of having a closed conference at which many people who would like to be there are excluded. It is, as someone with a lot of experience of living in Africa pointed out to me the other day, the very opposite of indaba – the idea that you get everyone together and talk until you find a solution.

The last time we had a process like this in the church where bishops chose people to go to a conference it was all about patterns of ministry and mission. It was a hugely successful conference for those who were invited by the bishops but a disaster for the church as the resentments which built up amongst those who were not invited were significant. Were a psychological study to be made of the troubles of the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church then that conference would be a significant point to remember as a time when some felt they had a mandate for a certain trajectory which was not shared by the rest of the church.

One of the things which I observe in many Anglican Churches is the odd reality that decisions about homosexuality seem to be made in private by bishops (and their chosen advisers). It is very odd behaviour in churches with synodical government. After all, when we decided big things about the ordination of women as priests and bishops it was the General Synod which made the decisions.

General Synod has at least some transparency about it. There is defined process and you know who will be there to represent you. Despite asking my bishop a month or so ago, I still don’t know who is representing this diocese at the Pitlochry talks. Bishop Gregor simply refused point-blank to tell me.

At our diocesan synod, questions were asked by a couple of us about whether this was a safe process for anyone who is gay. One of the things that many people don’t understand is that straight people and gay people don’t meet as equals within church processes. To put it bluntly, revealing things about your life, your relationships and your hopes at these events if you are straight makes no difference to how you will be treated in the future by people who have power within decision-making processes about jobs, housing, pensions etc. For gay people that just isn’t true. Revealing personal material about yourself could cost you a job, could bring trouble for your partner, could lead to you losing your home.

Now, when asked about this at our synod, Bishop Gregor gave a good answer for himself but a terrible answer for the current process. He said that if someone who happens to be gay or lesbian revealed anything about themselves then he would admire their honesty and integrity and was very clear that they would not be treated in a detrimental way in this diocese. That was absolutely the right thing to say. However, he then went on to say that of course, he could not give the same guarantee on behalf of anyone else in the church and particularly could not guarantee that bishops in other dioceses would take the same view.

That crucial admission marks this out as a very unsafe process for gay people in the church. My recommendation to any gay or lesbian ordinand, lay-reader, deacon, priest or bishop or anyone in any of the new less clearly defined lay ministries who is involved in these talks would be that they should be very cautious about talking about their own lives. This isn’t a safe process and one might suffer in the future for being honest.

That is, if there is anyone gay who has been invited.

Easter Sermon 2014

What a joy to be in this place today celebrating the resurrection. We began on a high last Sunday and have made our way though this Holy Week. People sometimes call that a journey, a waymarked path, a pilgrimage.

But for me, that doesn’t begin to describe it. For me it is more like being on a rollercoaster of emotions.

  • The glory of processing on Palm Sunday. Local pipes and drums somehow taking us right into the holy city of Jerusalem here in the West End itself.
  • The intimacy of washing feet on Thursday Night – an exercise that somehow always confirms for me a deep theological truth which is that I have the ugliest feet in all of Christendom.
  • The brutal reality of the stripping of the altar – somehow as all the beautiful things are violently removed from the church we find ourselves taking part in the arrest and trial of Jesus.
  • The stark reality of a bare church on Good Friday –the one day when the Scottish Episcopal Church somehow turns Free Presbyterian and likes it.
  • And the spruce and polish yesterday when we try to make sense of the awful things we have seen and get ready.

And through it all – people and stories from the passion of Christ 2000 years ago interweaving with the people and stories of right here and right now.

Every year I learn something new about the story.

I remember one year I was working in a church which had just appointed a new sacristan before Easter – that’s the person who looks after all the kit in a church.

This person was a great support. And like so many people at this time of year, very keen to help.

At this particular place the stripping of the church was particularly effective. Just like here, everything that could be moved was hauled out of the church. Here we drag out the choir pews, steal the cross from the altar and remove everything that shines and glitters.

Doing it in any church results in two things – firstly a church just right for Good Friday. Stark and plain. The bitter, stark reality of the cross represented by a plain undecorated building. Shocking. Moving. Bewildering. You want the whole church on Good Friday to feel empty. To be still.

Secondly, the stripping of the altar results in a sacristy absolutely full of the rubble of the night before. Carpets and pews and silverware and statues and goodness knows what all upended in a hurry into a small room. And there it stays to keep the church plain and pure for the devotions.

On this particular year, I remember getting a phone call from the new sacristan at 9 am on Good Friday when we had a service at 10 am.

She came on the phone and told me that she’d been in church since 7.30 am. I have to admit that I was pleased and awed by her devotion. Sitting praying in a plain church all that time is surely commendable.

Until she said the words that no priest wants to hear on Good Friday – “Don’t worry Rector, I’ve been into the sacristy and the church and managed to get all the stuff back. The church is looking lovely.”

That year the church was stripped twice and I pulled muscles I never knew could be pulled.

There is a truth there though – Jesus won’t stay dead.

By the time I get to the end of Good Friday – one service after another where we go through the agony of the crucifixion I find myself at the last service of the day hoping that if we crucify him properly then maybe this time he’ll stay dead.

But of course…

But of course, he won’t stay dead. And our message today is very much that nothing will keep him in the grave.

Death has been vanquished. The grave has lost its sting.

Christ the Lord is risen from the dead not simply long, long ago but here and now and in our lives and in our world.

What we celebrate today is that the seed of hope grows in the human heart.

What we celebrate today is that the grave – the place of destruction, violence, decay, boredom and pain is ultimately empty.

What we celebrate today is that life is stronger, yes stronger than death.

Our God has conquered. For love, true love will always win.

I stand here because I believe goodness is always stronger than evil. Because love is stronger than hate. Because the joy of resurrection power is the new life that belongs to us to share with all people of goodwill.

You don’t have to go far to find Good Friday.

But love wins out in the end.

I remain in Good Friday though if I accept that violence is the best way to solve differences.

I remain in Good Friday if I do not challenge prejudice when it comes from any man, woman or archbishop in the street.

I remain in Good Friday if I do not share my belief that a better world than this is not only possible but essential.

This week there has been yet more sickening violence and terrorism in Nigeria and in other places around the world.

Well we as God’s people believe in a better way and are committed to a better world. We stand against the tyrant, the bomber and the bully.

And, this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury has once again tried to link in the public mind the action of terrorists in Africa with the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the West.

Such careless disregard for gay lives has the stench of Good Friday all over it.

Love wins in the end. And love will win an end to discrimination in the church just as we’ve been winning it in the life of the state.

And this week, the Prime Minister has been courting Christian opinion by speaking about his own faith.

I’m pleased that Mr Cameron can speak of his own connections with church life.

But, Mr Cameron – if you want to court Christian opinion and make Christian people think better of you then help this country build a society far, far away, a resurrection world away, from the food-bank Britain we currently seem to find ourselves living in.

I believe in love. I believe in compassion. I believe in resurrection. And I believe we can build a better world than this.

Jesus won’t stay in the grave. Beauty won’t stay locked away in a sacristy for long.

Jesus won’t stay buried in the tomb. Justice won’t be subdued by violence but will leap up and dance and cry to the heavens for change.

Jesus won’t stay buried in the tomb.

For love wins. New life wins. Joy wins out.

And Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

For if Christ were not risen, we would not be gathered here.

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

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 yearning
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