September 3, 2013 § 3 Comments
After signing copies of Rules for Reverends at Greenbelt, I bought some volumes by Walter Breuggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor and Kenneth Bailey (respectively on grace, incarnation, and the middle eastern culture in which Jesus lived and through whose eyes his ministry takes on different meanings). Rules is meant to be light and funny. But it was still a surprise when the person at the till said: ‘But these are serious books.’ The downside of having an amusing exterior is that people can think that’s all you have and all you do.
Later someone else asked if there was a list of anything else I’ve written – so I’m posting what I think is a definitive list here. My long term interest has been in liturgy and worship. I did a 50,000 word MA thesis at Durham in 1995 on the way words work in worship. As a member of the Liturgical Commission I was well placed to write on the new services in Common Worship. Early on I wanted to reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in ‘liturgical’ worship, and was pleased to be able to do this with Chris Cocksworth, now Bishop of Coventry. I worked in a cathedral for seven years, and contributed an essay on cathedral worship to a volume about cathedral ministry. There’s other stuff on ritual, and my first proper book was as part of a team offering pastoral resources for crisis situations.
Perhaps the greatest privilege is in crafting prayers for use in public worship. Some prayers in Common Worship started life in my head. I’m not telling you which they are.
So here’s the list, for what it’s worth.
Rules for Reverends, (illustrated by Dave Walker), Bible Reading Fellowship, 2013
‘A Service of the Word’ in God’s Transforming Work, ed Papadopulos, SPCK, 2011
‘Liturgy at the Frontiers: Laboratories for the Soul’ in Dreaming Spires: Cathedrals in a New Age, ed. Platten and Lewis, SPCK, 2006
’Text, Authority and Ritual in the Church of England’ in The Rite Stuff, ed Ward, BRF, 2004.
Using Common Worship: Daily Prayer, CHP, 2002, with Burnham and Myers.
Common Worship Daily Prayer, An Introduction, Grove, 2001, with Chris Cocksworth.
Articles in Common Worship Today, ed Myers and Earey, Harper Collins, 2001.
Communion in Common Worship, Grove, 2001.
The Spirit and Liturgy, Grove, 1998, with Chris Cocksworth.
Pastoral Prayers, Mowbray, 1996, contributing editor with Stephen Oliver, et al.
July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Yesterday General Synod decided to create a new diocese. After a long process, the proposals to dissolve the dioceses of Wakefield, Ripon and Leeds, and Bradford, and to create a new Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire and the Dales) were approved overwhelmingly. Though I have never served in any of them, I’ve done lots in them, and grew up in Bradford, my sponsoring diocese.
I warmed to the obvious mission emphasis in the proposals. Structures don’t do mission for us, but they can hinder it, and this reshaping will allow deaneries, archdeaconries and episcopal areas in the new diocese to relate more easily to the demographics of the conurbations and the Dales.
I’d like to add a small voice into the debate about what happens to the three cathedrals of the former dioceses. There was understandable concern that one new diocese would need just the one cathedral, and that two of them would therefore lose their status (and the funding they received from the Church Commissioners). Not so, and the fear expressed by the three cathedrals that removing their status would ‘disable their local mission’ has been somewhat allayed. They remain free to pursue their ‘engagement with civil society and with those who are not regular churchgoers’ (both quotations from a background paper – GC 1049B).
The new Diocese of Leeds will have a Diocesan Bishop of Leeds, and Area Bishops of Bradford, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Ripon. It will have three cathedrals – seats of the Bishop’s ministry – in Ripon, Wakefield and Bradford. There is provision for Leeds Minster becoming a ‘pro-cathedral’ if desired. Four of the five areas will therefore have a cathedral or pro cathedral as expressions of episcopal ministry and mission, but Huddersfield won’t. The report talks about the difficulty of deciding on the relative importance of Dewsbury Minster, Halifax Minster and Huddersfield Parish Church, and decides that not having a central church here reveals the diversity of the diocese.
Here’s the thing. I’ve worked in a cathedral, and am now in a massive Minster church, and have been reflecting on the similarities and differences of their ministries. I don’t think that the reasons cathedrals are a success story in mission terms (35% growth in recent years) is because they have complex constitutions and legal structures, Chapters, Colleges of Canons and Councils and orders of precedence. Cathedrals have grown because they have a clear mission, a recognition that their ministry is regional and their mission is to the structures of society, and because the wider church recognises this, gives them money and requires them to have at least three experienced clergy there full time.
All of this can be true of ‘greater’ churches at the heart of their area. Beverley Minster cannot help but engage with the East Riding, just as Holy Trinity Hull does in its city. The Bishops of the Diocese of York, specifically the Bishop of Hull, use us and other larger churches to express that regional mission. Most of the things I did at York in welcoming the region to worship (the Legal Service, Remembrance, civic services, military commemorations, charity services and so on) happen at Beverley. You don’t need a cathedral constitution to do that.
But you do need a vision, resources, and the staffing. A new diocese could have a new vision for those churches of its region which naturally have a ministry beyond the parochial and which can express the mission of the diocese focussed in the ministry of the bishops. It could give them titles – ‘Minster’ – which express this ministry, and ensure that the lead cleric is recognised as also embodying it. ‘Provost’ was what the lead cleric at Beverley was called until the Reformation. Crucially, it could ensure that such staffing was in place that worship, pastoral, mission, social and educational needs were met.
I have a nightmare that the joint working of the three current cathedrals in relation to each other and to their diocesan and area bishops will be so complex constitutionally that the mission of each disappears into the mire of the re-written statutes. One cathedral, with ‘greater’ Minster churches adequately staffed and with much lighter governance could be a superb and flexible mission resource, as long as the current high regard in which they are held is translated into regard for their ‘Minster’ status.
The Measure which will make the new Diocese is wisely light on what it says about how the cathedrals will work. But the background material says that cathedral ministry should be renewed at some time in the future.
An offering then from me. A church which expresses the ministry of a diocese, focussed in the Bishop’s mission, does not have to have the panoply of a cathedral’s constitution and statutes. But it does need a recognition by the diocese that it is a church of regional influence, and needs to have staffing which enables that influence to bear fruit. It needs the status that titles can bring, and it needs the support of the parishes and deaneries around it. Elements of that work here. I’m looking forward to seeing how a new diocese might find a new way of expressing its local, regional and diocesan life. Exciting times.
July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Our business today is, in one sense, inward looking. We are reviewing the composition of the Synod – who can be a member and how many come from each diocese and other constituencies. But…this relates to our mission and presence in the nation. We’re thinking about how General Synod hears the voice of younger people, minority ethnic groupings, and university teachers, and also wondering about how the voice of the Province of York can properly be heard.
We’ve just taken note of a report about this (GS 1901), and it will now go to a Revision Committee. Now we’re looking at the representation of university staff – a very complex constituency, if a small one. Those who are ordained and who teach in universities bring a special expertise to our life, but working out how they can be elected has always been a bother.
We have just agreed to encourage the Revision Committee to bring clearly researched proposals for either abolition of the Universities constituency, or reform of it. So it will come back in due course.
It you’re really keen you’ll carry on reading the next bit…we are doing the detailed legal work which will provide the mechanisms to change who can be elected to Synod. They are ‘Amending Canons’ – changing the law. What’s fun about this is that you have to vote for the setting up of the legal process, even if later you want to vote against the specific matter it has just allowed. I’m sure we’ll vote to send these instruments to the Revision Committee – and will nip out for a drink!
11.50. Back in – we did indeed send the legal instruments to a Revision Committee, with points about representation on the north, the universities, and the effect of the new Diocese of Leeds duly noted.
Now we’re on to how we define who can vote for non ordained members of Synod (the Laity), and whether we can use electronic means to vote and be nominated for election. The laity one is interesting. At the moment only members of Deanery Synods can vote for lay members, and that electorate might not be truly representative of ‘the people in the pews’. The choice would be either to allow every member of an electoral roll to have a vote, or to set up a special ‘electoral college’ where people stand specifically and simply to be the people who vote for General Synod.
Universal suffrage would be complex and expensive. An electoral college would allow more people than could commit themselves to a Deanery Synod for a 3 year term. That argument seens stronger to me than one which says that ‘not all Deaneries are the same and some are not very active or capable’ (my paraphrase of the argument). But Pam Bishop from Southwell and Nottingham is arguing for the ‘community’ aspect of the engagement which Deanery Synods have.
Philip French (Rochester) presses for universal suffrage, use of technology, and more speed. Voting online would enable more people to be involved in the whole process.
Christine Hardman (Southwark) points out that electoral roll membership does not always guarantee active church membership. She argues for a ‘college’ made up of all the lay members of the PCC, including the churchwardens. Warm applause.
Adrian Greenwood invites us to get on with the electronic stuff and to think carefully about the electorate ofthe House of Laity. Electoral roll membership is way too complex, and reinvigorated Deaneries may well be an assistance here.
And… we’re going to adjourn, to bring the business back in November.
That’s it. We’ll now say farewell to Bishop James Jones, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell and Bishop Anthony Priddis (I think).
July 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
After a quick break we are back for the debate on reshaping the Dioceses of Ripon and Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford. This is controversial in that Wakefield voted against the scheme, R+L and Bradford said yes.
The Archbishop of York decided that we should have this debate despite Wakefield’s opposition. The diocese will be centred on Leeds, with a further phrase ‘West Yorkshire and the Dales’. The process was not finance driven, was not following a blue print, but was about ‘bottom up’ engagement with mission.
Bishop of Wakefield speaks first. The diocese engaged with the process, but in the end opposed it. The Diocesan Bishop will be remote, as the diocese will have tripled in size. The distances are great, and the Diocese of Wakefield is different demographically. He’s worried about the cathedrals too, and doesn’t feel that this will help grow the church. General Synod should not override the wishes of a diocese.
He also doesn’t like the process – the mechanics are difficult to change. He asks for a full debate on a theologically robust strategy for diocesan change in the future.
Bishop of Bradford takes the opposite view. Support the scheme. Actually he’s voting to lose his job, as all the Bishoprics are dissolved. But this uncertainty is right. The scheme allows for Area Bishops to be the local bishops on the ground. It helps the diocese address the needs of the region better. So, two Bishops, exactly opposed. I’m not sure how this will go.
Archbishop of York, who has 10 minutes to speak. General Synod gave the Dioceses Commission the remit to think new thoughts about dioceses. That’s what they have done. The Commission is also having an effect on York as well, with suffragan sees suspended there too. The proposals for West Yorkshire and the Dales remove some boundaries for mission. Collaboration can give economies of scale, as well.
He invites Synod to put emotion aside, and look at the facts. A church responding to the needs of the world needs flexibility, mobility and agility. The ways which served us well in the past may not serve us well now. It is good for us all to learn from a new way of reshaping our structures for mission.
On cathedrals he says the Diocesan has his cathedra, his seat, in every church in the diocese. Cathedrals are instruments of mission, not the kingdom of God. Having three cathedrals will be different, but will provide new patterns of mission too. It is not without precedent – see Ireland.
He pleads for reconciliation and harmony, whichever way the vote goes.
Ruth Hind: where is Pete Broadbent’s cunning plan? Actually, she now agrees with the scheme, though not at first. She felt that the rural area was tagged on. But this can be resolved. It’s not insurmountable. Vote yes to give greater mission in Leeds. She is also now more convinced about a rural Archdeaconry with a rural Area Bishop – recruiting, nurturing and training rural specialists.
Mary Judkins (Wakefield) speaks. This is about the central priority of the Gospel message. The vision of the Wakefield Diocese has recently said ‘and beyond’ – this is an opportunity not to keep mission to Wakefield itself, but to share it with the wider diocese. She quotes David Hope on reshaping structures to be light on our feet. Strongly for the new diocese.
Ian Fletcher (Bradford). We need the certainty of a new diocese so we can get going. Bradford Diocese was strongly in favour. Overall the dioceses votes 200 for and 98 against – more than the 2/3 we need for other things. We need to go forward, but the concerns of Wakefield and of the cathedrals need to be heard too. Strong support.
Nigel Greenwood (R and L). Also supports. Good examples already of joint working between R and L and Bradford. We only do separately what we cannot do together.
Maggie McLean (Wakefield). Says that Mary J made good points, but there are still concerns. Worried that 2 episcopal voices will be lost in the national debate. Doesn’t want one area of the diocese to be a no go area for women, which could happen. I think that was measured support.
Bishop of Burnley – his diocese of Blackburn will receive some parishes from Bradford. No boundaries actually work – the whole area works well together. Develop mission for the north. He supports the scheme.
Clive Scowen likes the idea, but opposes it. It’s wrong in principle to abolish a diocese against its will. Its wrong in practice if one of the dioceses doesn’t embrace the vision. It’s wrong because we has a church have not agreed a national strategy which will guide the Dioceses Commission.
David Ison (London – formerly Dean of Bradford). Reorganisation which made the three dioceses was itself very unpopular. There needs to be more theology of cathedrals. The cathedral brand has borne fruit. Losing support for cathedrals would be destructive of mission. Suggests a period of experiment. Allow cathedrals time to work on a creative theology and practice of mission – say 20 years. Then shape a national strategy which includes greater churches too.
That’s the speech I was going to make – nearly!!
David Brindley (Portsmouth) thinks there is too much which is untested, and urges us to vote against.
Joyce Jones (Wakefield) is in favour. The scheme would serve the area well. But because the diocese has voted against she will abstain.
John Sinclair (Newcastle), is hearing people being forced into a shotgun wedding. The reorganisation could be a diversion. Doesn’t understand how the cathedrals will work.
John Beal (R and L) says this is vital for Leeds.
Jonathan Alderton Ford (Dioceses Commision) We did have a national debate about dioceses – 2005 – 7. No need to have it again. We can easily reimagine dioceses with the information we have now. We can do this. We can have fun with this.
Paul Ayers (Bradford) If we vote this down we will be wasting all sorts of work and prayer. But the C19th and 20th organisation of the church needs to be changed for the 21st century. He holds out a hand to Wakefield. Jump in!
James Allison (Wakefield). This is an emotional issue. He has a priest father and and an ordinand son, and they are in each diocese! He would love it to happen. His problem is that his Bishops have said no. He’ll abstain.
Bishop of Ripon of Leeds. These proposals offer real mission opportunities. He doesn’t like the ‘pro cathedral’ thing, but it’s a possibility. And there is no way in which this reduces the place of the C of E in Bradford or Ripon. VOte for this.
Chairman of the Dioceses Commission now summing up. Applauds Mary Judkins saying ‘and beyond’ and ‘travelling light’. Let’s get the structures right to relate properly to these communities. He thanks everyone involved. Have the courage to vote for change.
We have voted overwhelmingly in favour.
July 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
Afternoon all. New blog for the afternoon, but it’s as if we have not had lunch and are just carrying on from 1.05.
Clive Mansell has moved his amendment about ‘preventing legal challenge’ under equalities legislation. Bishop Nigel is not sure that there is an easy answer to the problem, and puts himself in Synod’s hands. Clive Scowen agrees that you can’t prevent legal challenge, but you can provide good safeguards. We should at least ask to try. Mark Steadman is happy to trust the current working of the law under the Equalities act. Tony Baldry (MP) is not happy to go back for fresh laws, amending equalities legislation. Parliament would not wear it.
He also says that he can hold the line in Parliament for a couple more years, but no more. We vote on it electronically…For 200, against 210, 15 abstentions. Amendment lost.
Now to Keith Malcouronne, whose amendment is about using the ‘facilitated conversations’ process thoughout what comes. Bishop Nigel is happy to accept it. Chris Sugden very happy to support it too. ‘We’ve set our hands to the plough. Let’s not look back’. Dagmar Winter cautions about expecting too much – it does have limitations. ‘I agree with Pete, kind of’. (Pete Broadbent has invited the steering committee which will take this forward to engage in the process using the ‘facilitated conversations process). We agree to do this.
We now debate the motion as a whole, as amended by Dover and Malcouronne (Option 1, with a monitoring process and using ‘facilitated discussion’).
Archbishop of Canterbury speaking. Too much detail invites complicated litigation. If his speech gets blogged then read it – demolishes a legislative solution in two sentences. He supports Pete Broadbent’s proposed process. Please set a clear general direction, while leaving space for development. Discuss the 5 principles the Bishops established, agree them and make them a kind of ring fence. The resolution, the principles and Peter Broadbent’s scheme are the best way forward.
Tim Allen recognises that getting the amended Option One through, especially through the laity, will not be easy. If we couldn’t do that in November, with legislation, how can we do it now? Peter Broadbent’s process might just do it. If we don’t do it by July 2015 it will have a significant effect on elections to the new Synod. Best to do this now. We will guarantee a broadly based new Synod in 2015 if we do our work quickly and well now.
The Bishop in Europe raises the ecumenical dimension, and asks from, eg WATCH, a statement of its ecclesiology in relation to the other denominations (I reflect that it would be good to have one of those from Rome about us…)
Jane Charman hopes that we will unite around Option 1. But ‘what if we can’t?’ If we fail we will have to recognise that we have gone as far as we can. Best to be dissolved as a Synod. She is confident that people trust the House of Bishops – though some of the people around me find that amusing.
Rebecca Swire (a deacon – the one woman minister who voted against last November) doesn’t find that any of the options or amendments are quite right. But we have the vision to find an outcome, and this is possible.
Paula Gooder speaks – she was pictured in the press in tears after the November debate. ‘We must never dothat to each other again’. This way of doing things is a new way forward. What we are doing is puting boxes in place, with nothing official yet to put in them. Let’s be good to each other.
BIshop of Rochester says we will be able to set up the Broadbent process by voting for Option one as amended. Let’s vote with conviction.
And we’re about to vote…oops – no we’re not. Bishop Nigel to reply. He reminds us that Option One is not a single clause measure. It requires provision…just places that provision in a different form to the law. He has listened to all the amendments, especially the one about legal protection, which he will look at again. People also want to talk further about the five principles the Bishops established.
He was sorry to read predictions that we would fight even more. Let’s offer hope of reconciliation among ourselves and beyond ourselves. We vote…after some points of order. We’ll vote as a whole Synod – not in houses.
In favour: 319
So – passed strongly. Over to the establishment of a steering committee to shape the next bit of the process.
We’ve been given 15 mins off. I’ll do the Dioceses stuff on a separate blog. Thanks for listening!
June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
I typed the wrong number in our lectionary for today. Instead of the end of 1 Kings 19, about Elisha being Elijah’s disciple, we got the whole of 1 Kings 19 – Elijah on Horeb, ‘only I am left’ and so on. I was preaching, and found myself comparing Elijah’s ‘deflation’ and Jesus’s purposeful journey though Luke.
I said to our congregation that I might well have made the mistake for a purpose. A good number of people thanked me afterwards for the bits about being depressed and ‘deflated’. So I thought I’d offer it more widely. Hope it helps.
Political dramas on the television are very fond of the ‘walk and talk’ sequence, where the Prime Minster or President is on the move, barking out orders and giving instant answers to questions from aides who come and go, usually with a clipboard or a mobile phone. The central figure is completely in control, directing the action, never pauses for breath and never has to reflect on the right answer. They are, to use some overused phrases, ‘in the moment’, ‘in the zone’. So popular is this device that it is frequently spoofed in comedy shows.
A slightly irreverent part of me imagines the Jesus of Luke chapters 5 to 19 as being like this. He hardly draws breath. His words pour out like a torrent. People come and are healed, miracles happen, and he uses each event to say further profound and challenging things. There’s story after story, parable after parable. Just look at Chapter 9. He sends the 12 to preach. They return, full of it. He feeds the 5000. Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus predicts his death. He goes up a mountain and is transfigured. He heals a boy with a demon. The disciples arg
ue about who is top dog. And at the end, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus prevents his disciples from nuking a village, and people who try to combine their old life with following Christ are sent away with a flea in their ear. It carries on for another 9 chapters like this. It’s like one of those compilations of highlights with all the boring bits taken out. It’s exhausting.
Perhaps the key phrase in today’s reading comes in explaining the Samaritan villagers’ rejection of Jesus. His ‘face is set’ towards Jerusalem. All of this busy-ness, all of these words, all of these events have a purpose. Luke shows a whirl of activity around Jesus, with some reflective moments too. But it all leads towards a goal. Jesus isn’t hanging around to see what will happen. He is making it happen. And, as with any Rabbi worth following, his disciples had to do the same. If you’re going to follow me, he says, be prepared to have no house or home. Forget about the past, don’t look back. Complete focus, complete dedication.
What’s interesting to me is that this doesn’t make Jesus like some megastar on a walkabout, not really engaging with the people they meet. In fact Jesus seems to be ready to stop, ready to listen, to hear the next word from God, to speak the next word of God, to receive or offer service at any moment. I can imagine him not looking over people’s shoulders, trying to see if anyone more important is coming. He would look straight at people and give them all the attention the situation demanded. He responds to unexpected events and challenges with balance and insight, precisely because he is focussed on his goal, his reason for being there. He’s focussed, and purposeful, but not blinkered or blind to the needs around him.
Today’s readings offer us a superb contrast with another great leader who is full of the works and power and mission of God. Elijah the Prophet, in 1 Kings 19, is fresh from a whole series of miraculous events. He has predicted drought, he has multiplied food, he has raised a boy from death, he has challenged a king, he has wiped out the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He is the epitome of success, completely led by God and with a clear goal of standing for the true worship of God in a land where they have become distracted and unjust. He can even outrun a chariot.
But you wouldn’t think that if you started Elijah’s story only at chapter 19 of 1 Kings. Far from being the ‘super-prophet’ of chapter 18, he is completely miserable, and wants to die. One setback – a threat from the King he challenged – and all his power and purpose and focus just melt away. I’ll confess to being deflated on occasions in much the same way. It’s as if you’ve been floored. One minute all is powering on, the next you’ve been unplugged – and you deflate like a bouncy castle. Some of you may recognise the symptoms of a reactive depression in Elijah: he turns everything inward and it’s all about himself. There is no hope, no reason to do anything, exhaustion, gloom, despair.
It takes a retreat, physical care and activity, good food and a change of perspective to get Elijah back on track. He has mistaken a unique call from God for a requirement to do everything by himself, and has taken a temporary setback for a clear proof that he’s made a mess of it and that all is going to fail. God helps him put all this in perspective. His purpose remains, but he’s in good company, not on his own. It’s not all about him: there are 7000 with him, and Elisha is given to him as a close companion. His blinkers come off, and he’s able to put his life and his ministry and mission into context, ready for whatever comes next. Again I’ll confess to the way this works: admitting your deflation to someone else and being open to the encouragement of others leads to restoration, and the recognition that it’s not that bad, that it’s not up to you, it’s up to God.
When a potential disciple says to Jesus that he must put his affairs in order first, Jesus seems harsh: ‘let the dead bury their dead’. But this is for a positive purpose: ‘as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’. Jesus calls us to live with our ultimate end in view, with the declared purpose of everything we do being for the kingdom.
Distractions to our Christian life can come in many forms: the voices from the past telling us this is not for us, that we’re not good enough; the demands of family, work and friendship; the need for security. Jesus’s focus is on what is to come, not what’s behind us. Other distractions can come from within: Elijah’s self accusation, exhaustion, over concentration on himself. We can be too focussed on the task and forget to look after ourselves and see the bigger picture.
What Jesus shows us is that we can ‘set’ ourselves towards God, and look out for what’s happening around us – we can gaze well ahead and look closely at what God is doing here and now. I’m trying to learn how not to be deflated. When you commit to something it’s hard when it doesn’t go right the first time. Jesus invites us to follow him without distraction, but also to take the long view, and in all things to proclaim the kingdom of God. If we follow him in doing this, we too will be fit for the kingdom.
December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
I don’t normally blog sermons. But tomorrow I preach at a Carol Service for the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. What to say to a congregation for whom Christmas brings the memory of the lives of their little ones cut short? And what to say as the world watches a small town in America grieve its little ones? Here’s what I’ll say. It’s based on Isaiah 65. 17 – 25 (which I chose ages ago).
‘I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight’ says the prophet Isaiah, some two thousand five hundred years ago. ‘I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people’ he goes on. No more will there be the sound of weeping. No longer will children live but a few days, no longer will there be adults who die young. What thrills me about this poetic look into the future is its connection with reality. Some visions of the future are so fantastical that they are no earthly use. This one takes us from where we are, and offers us hope now. Where there has been pain there will be healing. Where there has been violence there will be peace. Where there has been death there will be life.
I was privileged to spend the month of June in Jerusalem, and ate my breakfast each morning looking from its southern suburbs into Bethlehem. A few times I walked into Manger Square in Bethlehem. It took me 20 minutes. But to do so meant crossing from Israeli controlled Jerusalem to Palestinian governed Bethlehem, through a checkpoint in the 25 foot high Wall – the Separation Barrier. The checkpoint was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, and each time we crossed we witnessed Palestinian families being thoroughly checked, their children thoroughly frightened.
This part of Jerusalem is no joy. Today’s Holy Land, the focus of Issaiah’s promise, is no joy. In November a Palestinian rocket landed a mile or so from where I had stayed in June. In the current conflict innocents have died, including many children. We could be forgiven for regarding Isaiah’s vision as an irrelevance, a piece of wishful thinking, with no connection to what life is really like. Widening our horizon only confirms this view. The people of Newtown Connecticut can only cry out in agony at the massacre of children and adults there. ‘Our hearts are broken’ said President Obama. Their losses join the losses of people all round the world, and in all ages, and they join ours today. This congregation needs no reminding of what it is for a heart to be broken at the loss of a little one.
‘I am about to create joy, delight, length of days, fruitfulness, security, peace, blessing’ says God through Isaiah. And how will this come about? In the vision of this season generated by our popular culture it will be through pleasing aromas of Christmas food, through giving and receiving an iPad, through a celebrity autobiography, through the quality of our Christmas decorations, through sitting together in family harmony to watch other people’s misery on Emmerdale, Corrie or Eastenders on Christmas Day (7, 7.30 and 8.30 if you’re interested), through wearing ‘Christmas’ jumpers. Nice as some of those things are…I think not.
Not when the abiding emotions and thoughts for many of you will be of what might have been, of who is not there, whether old or young – for me my mother who died seventeen years ago, my Grandmother who died this year, and my brother who died at six months when I was two, and whom I cannot remember yet miss as I watch my two sons interact and wonder what might have been for me and him these last fifty years. Such crying out is not settled and healed and solved by a soft focus warm glow jingle belled paper crowned high street Christmas. But, perhaps, even in the depths of despair felt by so many across the world at the needless death of their little ones, perhaps it may come to pass through what did happen in Bethlehem and which Isaiah looked forward to.
It may come to pass because a fragile child was born in desperate circumstances in a tense country with occupying armies not afraid to massacre and kill little ones to enforce their rule. The vision of peace and hope may come to pass because a young woman grasped hold of words from God that the child she was carrying would change things. It may come to pass because her future husband – fathers feel this too – her future husband risked scandal and disgrace by holding on to that promise too, and welcomed the child as his own. It may come to pass because baby did become toddler and teenager and man, and lived what we live. It may come to pass because his mother lost him, watched him die, and cradled him then as she had cradled him just a few miles away and three decades before.
It may come to pass because the Christian hope is that Jesus’s life and death is rooted in the painful reality of human life as it actually is, and that his new life reveals him to be the God who embraces our human life and sweeps us up into the new life of God. The vision of hope here is that you and I and everyone else who is broken up and hurting can glimpse the joy and hope which we have also experienced – in the love and care we have received from friend and relative and stranger, in the life we are determined to live with creativity and imagination precisely because we have loved so much. There is hope for ever because we have glimpsed it now. From this, even in the depths, there will be hope.
I pray then, for you, for me, and for all who cry out in the pain of loss and in the warmth of remembering…I pray that we will know that real and possible vision, a graspable hope, through the birth of a tiny child, whose life and death and new life are our future, and whose arms are wide and whose love is everything.