Remembrance and Bond: Blazing with the light of Christ

IMG_0185The long-awaited final outing of Daniel Craig as James Bond came out in cinemas at the end of September, several years after it was first due. ‘No Time To Die’ is the usual mixture of high-octane adventure, romance and daring feats of bravery against a megalomaniac evil. Bond always comes out on top and somehow lives to face another mission, or does he? It’s probably safe to assume that anyone who really wants to see the film has now done so and many journalists have decided enough time has passed for them to be able to talk about the plot. We stayed in the cinema to the end of the credits to see if that familiar phrase ‘James Bond will return’ would be appear. How can he possibly get out of that one, we thought? And sure enough, right at the end just before the screen went blank, up flashed the message: ‘James Bond will return’.

If you’ve seen the film you will know that this is highly unlikely and it was announced last week that British novelist Kim Sherwood will be writing a trilogy of official sequels in which the 007 agent is missing. We’ll see how that goes down with fans. Can you have Bond with out Bond? Well, they managed it with Jason Bourne. You are getting an insight into my film watching here.

‘No Time To die’ ends with James Bond saving the world from a deadly genetically targeted nerve agent, but the only way to do it is to be blown up in the process. It certainly looks like he sacrifices himself in the cause of the higher good. Bond does this out of love and so demonstrates that no man does indeed have greater love than to lay down his life for those he loves most, Madeleine and his daughter. For many soldiers, it is the comrades.

There is a tribute used in the film, which M reads as he gathers with Moneypenny and Q to remember their friend. It was originally quoted by Ian Flemining in the novel ‘You only live twice’, as part of an obituary when they thought Bond was dead. It comes from a longer passage possibly by the American writer Jack London, but also might be by a journalist Ernest Hopkins, who wrote the piece in which it appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916. The full quote is:

“I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in a magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent plant.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.”

Counting days alone does not make a fulfilled life; it does not make one which bears fruit either. In the grand scheme of things length of days is still a blip in the scope of time. What counts more, is what we do with them and the impact that has. M’s use of this passage, which Ian Fleming used to highlight constant activity, for M it highlights love and loss, legacy and liberation.

Remembrance Sunday is a day full of so many mixed emotions and moral ambiguities. This is by no means a day without its questions. Going out in a blaze of glory can lead in rather different directions for good and ill. We gather today to remember the brave and the frightened, the evils that lead to war as well as the evils that take place within it, the moments where lives are laid down or taken and the freedoms and benefits won. It is a day when we place so much of the darker side of human struggle before the judging and healing grace of God. It is a day when the stark facing of mortality, of impending death, is foremost in the mind and for some memory, and in the face of which those who nonetheless kept going displaying the greater love is far more than sentiment.

A key question for us today is what kind of light we blaze with? The Christian call is to blaze with the light of Christ, who calls us to lay down our lives in the service of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace, truth and love. It is not the length of days that matters so much as the purpose with which we live. At the end of ‘No Time To Die’ Bond finds something worth dying for because he has found something worth living for, so much so that it matters more than he does.

A few weeks ago (5th November 2021), Bishop Richard Harries quoted the French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil in his ‘Thought for the day’ on Radio 4. He cited her observation that evil turns suffering into violence where Christ turns violence into suffering. It’s a mind-bending statement but I think it means that in the violence, which is spiritually turned into suffering, compassion is born and becomes redemptive. We find in it and through it the purpose worth dying for and therefore worth living for, worth giving all for. 

The struggle is very real and today is not one where cosy metaphors stand long. The reference at the end of the Gospel (Mark 13:1-8) to the wars and conflicts being but the beginning of the birth pangs, means that in the struggle for justice, for freedom and liberation, something is being brought into being. It comes through pain and suffering and the horrors of this being redeemed in the greater love, supremely that of Jesus Christ’s turning the horror of the cross into the glory of the resurrection. Death never has the final word.

On this Remembrance Sunday, as we stand and remember, let us reflect on how the violence of war can be redeemed into life-giving love, compassion and thereby the victory of God’s creative purpose.

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 14th November 2021

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Chartists and Kingdom

IMG_0157Over the past few days we have been commemorating the Chartists who were buried in this churchyard on 4th November in 1839. We gathered outside on Thursday evening, the anniversary of their deaths, and also hosted a convention here yesterday. The Chartists marched on the town in 1839 and their procession came past the then parish church, as it made its way down Stow Hill. Accounts are somewhat confused as to who fired the first shot, but the resulting exchange of fire with troops stationed in the Westgate Hotel resulted in several deaths, 10 of whom were buried that night in unmarked graves in this churchyard. I don’t suppose my predecessor at the time, Anthony Isaacson, would have been very sympathetic to their cause not least since the Chartists held silent protests in this church during his time and it is known there were sermons preached in churches against them. The established church does not come out on the winning side.

Their demands had been refused by Parliament and the march clearly rattled the authorities who did not appreciate their protest. Those who hold power often don’t and like to be able to control things, which can become addictive. It takes a confident leader to submit to the will of the people. Those who do share power, know this is where true influence lies as we have to work to win hearts and minds. It’s also where lasting change is made and true flourishing is found. 

Changes for liberation often require some kind of struggle, not least when those who block it don’t listen. If we look at the Chartists’ demands, carved in the stone steps from Friars Walk down to the riverside, I think they fall into two main themes. One of these is that the voices of all are heard and honoured. The vote for all men (it took another hundred years for that to be extended to women and actually full emancipation of everyone didn’t come in until 1969 with the Representation of the People Act extending the vote to all men and women over 18). Making constituencies fairer is about equal representation – that’s a live issue now with the parliamentary boundary review currently underway. 

I came across one of those simple statements the other day about what it means to be inclusive, something we aim to be. It’s a word often banded around but not always defined or unpacked. It gave some definitions which are helpful when we try to put some flesh on the bones of the voices of all being heard and honoured, not least when thinking where we might fall short, where we might think we are more open than we actually are being. It explored four words: Accessibility, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging; words which we hear a lot but don’t always think through what they mean in practice, what their impact should be if taken seriously.

  • Accessibility is being able to get in the building.
  • Diversity is getting invited to the table.
  • Inclusion is having a voice at the table.
  • Belonging is having your voice is heard at the table.

The Chartists have more relevance for today than we might have realised: being able to get in, have a place and a voice at the table and being heard.

The second theme which I think is reflected in their demands is for decision-making to be free from corruption. This comes in ballots being free, paying members of Parliament by the state rather than them being in someone else’s pockets. This is precisely what the most recent scandal in the Westminster Parliament has been about – cash for questions, as it was once called, and paid lobbying. The same goes for procurement and those odd looking contracts for PPE and Covid testing, and a number of other things. Decision-making being free from corruption matters for democracy, not least because it means Parliament operates in the interests of all people and not just a few rich vested ones.

If we are wondering how this fits with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to look much further than our readings this morning. Jonah was sent to Ninevah to call them to account. Their crimes are not specified, but we can assume it was enough to make Jonah run in the opposite direct and even prefer to be swallowed by a big fish. Standing up and being counted is not always a pleasant experience. The cry for justice brings conflict and few of us relish that, few that is who don’t tend to go looking for a fight.

And if we think Christians should also be meek and mild, the Gospel reading gave us John the Baptist, mentioned at the beginning. He is not known for being either meek or mild (Mark 1:14-20). He told it how it was and didn’t mince his words. John the Baptist would have been in the march down Stow Hill in 1839. He would have gone up to the soldiers and told them to mend their ways, and given the politicians a piece of his mind too. And since we know how his story ends, he could probably have been one of those shot.

November, in the church year, has the tag of being Sundays of the Kingdom. It starts with All Saints, which we kept last week, and ends with the feast of Christ the King. In the middle it holds quite an array of commemorations, including Remembrance next week, for us the Chartists and the struggle for liberty and freedom, Guy Fawkes with his gunpowder and questions of political protest and the protection of law and order. All of these touch on justice and what it is that contributes to true flourishing.

We hold all of these themes under the concept of the Kingdom of God and they are viewed through  that lens. The struggle for the honouring of all people, against corruption, for voices to be heard and honoured, these things are part of how we see God’s Kingdom at work on earth as it reigns in heaven. The Kingdom of God provides a critical lens, it doesn’t just bless whatever we bring to it. All of the commemorations held under it this month have darkness and light within them, none of them are pure. All of them stand under the judgement of the Kingdom as we seek it more fully. The question for us to reflect on, is how does what we are doing contribute to the flourishing of all, to their liberty and life in all its fullness? How does what we do reflect God’s Kingdom on earth as it reigns in heaven?

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of the Kingdom, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 7th November 2021

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A Prayer Commemorating the Newport Chartists

IMG_0158I have been thinking about the Chartists and their struggle for democracy in the 19th century. Ten are buried in Newport Cathedral grounds. On 4th November 1839, a march walked down Stow Hill in Newport, past what is now Newport Cathedral and also where the Deanery now sits.

Their demands boil down to ensuring that the voice of everyone is heard and honoured, and that decision-making is free from corruption. These are as relevant today as they were then.

Over the next few days we will be hosting commemorations in Newport Cathedral, events which take place each year, remembering those who are buried in the churchyard. Below is a prayer I have written for this year’s commemorations.

God of justice and truth

we thank you for all

who have given their all

in the struggle for freedom and justice,

even paying with their lives.

May their sacrifice inspire us in our own age

to ensure that the voices of all are heard and honoured,

and decision-making is free from corruption.

Give us courage to stand and be counted;

we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ,

who gave his life for our sake. Amen.

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Darkness never has the final word

IMG_7654For the past few weeks shops have been filled with bags of bones and skeletons, pumpkins and witches hats. Some clearly light-hearted, some with quite a scary and gory tone to them. My local paper shop even offers a plastic chainsaw, which I don’t think is for would be tree surgeons. 31st October, the eve of All Hallows, All Saints, has become associated with ghosts, evil on the loose and fear. 

On its own that is a very dark view of the world. But it comes the day before the church celebrates the light of faith and hope in human lives. The saints of the past and the living-saints of our own day as we celebrate All Saints Day, brought forward to the nearest Sunday because it is so important. Our calling is to be those living saints. We are to be people who bring light, life and love to bear on whatever situations we find ourselves in.

We’ve had more reminders of the evil human beings can and do inflict on one another than I care to dwell on. So a place to hold that evil and remember that it never has the last word, has some health to it, but only of course, if we remember that it never has the last word. In Christ, the sting of death is removed in the new life and hope of the resurrection he holds out before us. 

When we think about our calling to be people of light and life, there are some very practical things we can do. The first is to be renewed and refreshed in our faith. This tells us that life has a purpose and it is held and loved by God. We are held and loved by God. There may well be times when our on grasp on that is not as tight as we would like it to be. One of the gifts of the church is in its gathering together people who hold to this hope, and by so doing we strengthen and are strengthened in this outlook and its inner light. There is sometimes debate about whether it matters if we come to church. It does matter, because the church is what happens when those who seek to be God’s saints today come together. It doesn’t happen if they don’t. So each of us by gathering makes it come into being.

The second thing we can do is to let that faith so infuse our lives that we bring light and grace into a room. Perhaps expecting that all the time is a little ambitious and I know there are times I don’t always manage it. There are times I’m grumpy, but finding the grace and reconnecting with it is a way we can bless those we meet and in so doing find we are blessed in return. 

Our second reading ended with a great encouragement, that since we are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, the saints of the past, to run  with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). Running a race with perseverance does not imply that it is always easy, and may involve a struggle, not least in ourselves and our motivation and morale, but nonetheless it is a path worth taking. As a friend of mine is keen to say, ‘Be the light’.

Thirdly, with COP26 beginning their meeting in Glasgow today, we both make the changes we need to how we live, and keep the pressure on governments and industries to rise to the challenge we face. This is a critical moment and living with care and in a sustainable way shows we are living in line with the maker’s instructions, with gratitude rather than grasping, with grace rather than greed.

Today is also known as Reformation Day, the day that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Thesis on a church door and so sparked the Reformation in 16th century. It’s around this time of year that I realise I am very much a child of the Reformation. I pray through Christ and not through anyone else – we have no need of any mediator but Jesus Christ who gives us direct access to God. We don’t need to pray to Mary, we don’t pray to saints. In Christ our prayer is a direct call. We remember the saints and we can join our prayers with theirs in a great community of eternity, but we don’t need them to put in a good word for us – Christ has done that already and since Christ is God among us, then God has shown his door is open. All we have to do, is walk through it into his loving arms. And as we approach we find he has not only left the door open but come out to meet us, come out in search of us.

It’s for that reason that the Reformers abolished Chantries – endowments established to pray masses for the dead. They turned those into educational charities, the Edward VI school foundations. God has this, he holds us and none of our eternal destination relies on our efforts. If it did we would be well and truly sunk. That means that on Tuesday when we gather for All Souls Day, we are remembering in the sure and certain hope of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. This is not unresolved. At their funerals we entrusted the dead to God and that is where they rest. All Souls is a place for those heavy with grief to be reassured that God holds all life and never lets go.

So today is a day to be hopeful and hope-filled. To live as people who shine the light of that hope wherever they go. To make a difference in spirit and in action. We are to be the light we proclaim. The deeds of darkness do not have the final word. Have fun, if that is your plan, but remember the light shines in the darkness and the darkness is not able to overcome it. The victory is Christ’s, the pioneer and perfecter of all faith.

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 31st October 2021

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Camels and Possessions – Fear and Trust

IMG_7742Fans of the children’s stories about Kipper the dog may know that Mick Inkpen, its author and illustrator, has also worked his magic on some Bible stories for children with a friend Nick Butterworth. One of these is called ‘The Little Gate’. It tells the story about a camel, loaded high with carpets to sell at market. He comes to small gate in the city wall, called the Eye of Needle, because it is so small. Try as he might, this camel is too big with his heavy load to get through the small hole. It’s a bit like the children’s game with trying to get differently shaped and sized items through various holes. That big camel is not going through that small door.

The story, which featured in our Gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) is not really about a camel and we who’ve heard it many times before, know this so well. It’s about our attachment to goods, to riches, to money and possessions. If we lighten the load and live simply, we are not weighed down. Carved over the front door of the Deanery is a sign in Latin which translates roughly as ‘live as if you are about to move’. Not the most welcoming sign as you move in and a bit disconcerting as we moved box after box into the house. But it’s a strong challenge: how much stuff do we really need?

One of the things about moving house every so often is that it gives an opportunity for a massive clear out and we have done this each time. But not books. There are some things which just don’t get thrown out. And I know that one day I will have to face this quart-into-a-pint-pot moment, but I am sticking my fingers firmly in my ears for the time being and singing ‘la la la’, to pretend it won’t come, to try to make it go away. I tell myself my books are different; they don’t weigh me down, unless I want to move them, and they are really a resource I refer to. And so I justify their importance. There are probably lots of other things which have loaded up my particular camel as I approach the narrow doorway.

None of us can take any of the stuff we acquire with us on the final journey. And all of us will have to leave them outside if we are to get in, as the camel finds he has to do in the Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth story. The deeper challenge to the ‘live as if you are about to move’ or the heavily loaded camel is whether there are things, possessions, love of money which get in the way of being faithful to Christ? Digging deeper, the question is to ask what these things are covering up, helping us avoid facing because deep down we are scared. Fear often makes us reach for the blanket or cushion on the sofa to hide behind and that’s where the love of possessions and money gets us. It’s a smokescreen, something to cling to because the stark reality of being very exposed and vulnerable is too hard to face.

Later this week there will be a memorial service for a friend of ours in London. She was a Franciscan Sister; one of those holy people who opened her mouth and peace and stillness was brought into the room just by her tone and quiet manner. In the October lockdown last year she generously recorded a sermon for me to use in an online sermon around the feast of St Francis, and as soon as she spoke I could feel the empty church where Susan and I sat alone for the live-streaming both stilled and filled with a deeply spiritual presence.

Franciscans are known for their vow of poverty or simplicity. They embrace the letting go because they trust in God and for Helen Julian this moment came at the end of August when she had to let go in the ultimate sense as she died of cancer, aged just 63. We give thanks for having known her and the true gifts she gave, which were without price but more valuable than any price-tag could show.

The notion of embracing poverty is deeply problematic because no one really does it, not willingly that is. Poverty grinds people down and there are many facing stark choices between eating and heating this winter. I don’t think that is what is meant and even monks and nuns, friars and sisters, have what they need, they just set their sights so much more modestly and are prepared to leave it, to pick up what they find on the way but not hoard. 

Living as though you are about to move is a spiritual attitude of trust in God, knowing that God is where our true hope and security lies. Because, as we found with some of the carpets in the Deanery, moth really does consume. We have had to replace some and have some others repaired with a rather cool cookie cutter, which cuts out the threadbare bits and then patches are stuck-in taken from under furniture which will not be moved – not until we leave and then the next person will wonder why there are these little circles cut out in odd places. If you are here then, which is not likely to be anytime soon, you can let that person know.

Living lightly, holding on to things without too strong a grip is a spiritual exercise which also helps the planet. Our excessive consuming, throw away lifestyle and built-in obsolescence is choking the world. We have to learn to live differently and moving from petrol to electric, from fossil fuels to renewables will bring with it a changed way of living. And so it must. Since I’ve changed my phone this week, I find the spotlights shining brightly in my eyes as I say this. The more we try to grasp for ourselves, the less we have; the more we live modestly, the more we all have. Planet and people benefit in this radical economy.

What would you, do you, have you found particularly hard to hold to lightly? What fills the bags on the back of the camel that will make moving through a narrow gate a struggle? And that harder question, the one that will require the longer think, what are these things compensating for, what fear are they covering? Because one day, all fear will end and these things will not go with us as we travel through the narrowest of gates into the wonder that awaits us; as in the words of the memorial in the north aisle, we ‘exchange time for eternity’.

It is hard to cling to riches and truly enter the Kingdom of God, because they block trust, cover the gaps in our real confidence in God. That affects so much in how we live with generous and thankful hearts. True love casts out fear, but first it has to be filled with the love of God to truly trust. This is a spiritual challenge more than a financial one – money is just one of the ways it shows itself. How we approach this reveals how much we really have faith and confidence in God. Though I do want to exempt books and gadgets.

Sermon for Trinity 19, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 10th October 2021

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Electric Vehicles and Creation

IMG_7698When I can think of one, I am quite fond a good visual aid. Something that sticks in the memory and helps us connect with the deeper message of a Bible reading or theme. This evening’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 24) gave us a vivid image of sacrifice, with lots of blood being splashed about. It is ripe for a ‘Horrible Histories does the Bible’ series – if there is one and, if there isn’t, there needs to be. On reflection, though, it is perhaps better that I don’t look for a visual aid tonight.

The reading is a reminder that sacrifice was a messy business and the slaughter direct and violent. It comes from a past age which was much more hands-on with food production, with the realities of animal use and husbandry, and the fluids of life and had some very different attitudes. For all of that, we have sanitised all aspects of this to a point where we can easily forget that life is at its core flesh, bone and blood. There are parts of the world much more in touch with this than we are, probably more of the world than is not, and those who work in healthcare will know it better than most. When caring for a very ill person, there is a lot of washing. 

This disconnect from the fluids of life also separates us from some of the balances that need to be kept in check, the cycles of nature and the interdependencies that are crucial for life. It makes us think we are immune to climate and weather, to storm and drought. We can even think we are immune to disease, something shaken very deeply by the pandemic. During September our worship has an additional theme of creation. So, while it might seem unlikely, these readings this evening are linked with it – using the imagery of sacrifice, mountains, clouds and healing (Matthew 9:1-8).

Over the summer, Susan and I have been exploring buying an electric car. Due to the shortage of semiconductors, small electrical components that make it work, there will be a delay in it arriving, but we’ve begun the switch. Some have asked us why we have gone straight for electric and not hybrid. There were four reasons for doing this.

Firstly, the more we’ve looked into it, hybrid doesn’t actually save the emissions that we thought it did. That sowed the seed for making the jump.

It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time but wondered if the cars have the reach we need and if there are enough places to charge a car on a journey. There have been great developments in this over the past few years and the technology has come on. One of the responses to the Prime Minister’s press spokeswoman’s comments in August that she wouldn’t have an electric car because they didn’t have the reach she needed came from the electric vehicle trade. They pointed out the improvements and that you should stop after so many miles or hours driving anyway, so use that time to charge up – lots of service stations, supermarkets and town centres have charging points now. There are even some in the car park down Stow Hill.  The infrastructure is expanding, it has become more realistic to make the switch.

Some of this will require a different way of thinking and living, though. And that’s part of the point. We have to learn to live differently, even at a different pace. Living in tune with nature also means that we live at the rhythm of body and blood flow. The constantly on-the-go lifestyle is not good for ourselves or the planet. Pausing to breathe puts us more in-tune with creation.

Thirdly, we know that the change from fossil fuels is one we all have to make. In August a report was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with frightening conclusions. Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying; the world is in trouble environmentally. We have to make changes now. So we will do our bit. We know the science, we know the trajectory, we know how scary it can be. But we also have agency in this and can make changes; we just have to do it. We do have a choice and can make a difference.

The fourth element is economic and perhaps the trickiest. While there are grants to help with purchase and installation of charging points at home, electric vehicles are more expensive. It is worked out that over time the cheaper running costs will work out better, but there’s an upfront cost. So, the challenge with all purchases is to find the cash to do it and if more are going to be able to do so, the price has to come down to make it more achievable.

Reach and the availability of charging points, changes to how we live and the pace of living, the overwhelming environmental challenge and the economic factors: these four elements have come together in our minds to make the switch. They stem from knowing that we have to live in harmony with the earth because we are made of the same elements and rely on the earth for our existence. Stories, as in our readings, of bone, flesh, blood and fluids on the altar or on a stretcher, connect us with God’s creation, with our stewardship of it and the choices to make a difference.

Sermon at Evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th September 2021

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Salt and Fire

IMG_7694Our Gospel reading this morning (Mark 9:38-50) gives us a chemistry lesson. Sodium Chloride, the chemical name of salt, cannot lose its saltiness without changing its properties and thereby ceasing to be salt. The only way salt can lose its taste is if it has additives or impurities. This is Jesus’ point. It’s impurities within us which impede us in living holy and just lives.

This is also a MasterChef moment. The quality of the dish will be determined by the quality of the raw ingredients and how much is used. Fish and chips are not the same without some salt (and vinegar and ketchup of course). It brings out the flavours, which is what seasoning does. 

The thread of Jesus’ teaching is to ask what affect we have? Are we someone who behaves as salt, brings out flavours and makes a difference for good? And do we get the balance right, because too much salt tastes unpleasant and is harmful. So how we do things makes a difference too.

That came through with the first reading, from the book of Numbers (11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). From chemistry to cooking, we now turn to management training. Moses is trying to do it all. He is taking too much responsibility onto his own shoulders and gets a lesson in delegating and training up others. Bearing the burdens of what is described at the beginning of that passage as a rabble, is too heavy for him to carry. The response of his mentoring session with God is to get him to identify and train up others. Make others into salt to change the flavour of the community, send them out and start to make a difference.

And if we wonder how much of a difference we have to make, never underestimate the power of small actions. That is St David’s mantra, with his final words to his community of ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do’. Joy, faith and small acts (which are actually the steps of giants). Flavour the world with joy, with faith that gives purpose and hope, and small acts that make a big difference.

Both our Old Testament and Gospel readings have people concerned that others are doing what the main character is doing – the people worried about a couple of prophets and Moses wishing there were more of them; Jesus’ disciples concerned others are emulating them even though not part of the group and Jesus reminding them that others joining in is rather the point. 

Jesus takes this further to not only want others to join in, to copy, but goes on to give a warning that we can become the stumbling block, be off-putting, be too salty, even or perhaps not salty enough. Metaphors always need so much explaining, but our chemical make-up, the chemistry of the bake, will always be a mix of what is helpful and what is unhelpful. All of us are works in progress in God’s kingdom. And that is why we begin services like this with confession and reflection on how we are shaping up. The Seasonal Kyrie confessions, which have become popular can help us focus on particular areas, though some of them don’t have enough fire to purify the salt, they strike me as being too bland to really get you thinking. I want to feel like I’ve confessed, not just made a credal statement.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably find that the things which are getting in the way are on a repeat, we confess them, call them to mind time and time again. The difficulty, and it may take skilled help, is to reveal if they are poison from within or from without. Are we excessively guilty because someone has instilled in us that something is a sin when it is not. That then becomes the impurity that needs driving out to leave purer salt, to set us free. It might be that something is so ingrained as a way of behaving, of being, that it will take careful loving to overcome it. You get the point. Feeling guilty is not a sign of sin any more than not feeling guilty is a sign of virtue! All we can do is measure up against how we read and re-read the Bible and reassess this over time, and adjust accordingly. Lots of people carry heavy burdens imposed by other’s prejudices and twisted vision and those responsible have become the barrier Jesus warned about. I come across this so frequently. Some who bear the name of Christ really do more harm than good.

I was struck by a prayer which Bishop Cherry used on Friday during the early morning Eucharist. She prayed for those for whom each day brings a struggle, and that the simple things can be the result of overcoming great obstacles, can require great courage. None of us know what it takes for another to even get up in the morning and one person’s achievement can look modest but be the result of tremendous grace, far more than the so called high achievers. The salting in the fire, which Jesus mentioned, is a powerful image of the struggle and pain involved.

For all of the self-examination and testing in our readings, all of them imply that we are not written off. There is a chance to change, to grow in God’s grace and be more of the person God has made us to be – nothing short of a child made in God’s image. The impurities can be driven out.

The Gospel passage ends with the simple phrase: ‘have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’. May the grace of God dwell within us richly that others may see this and give glory to God. May we be salt that makes a difference for God’s Kingdom and the flourishing  of those we meet.

Sermon for Trinity 17, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th September 2021

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Same-sex blessings and the bible

IMG_7367On Monday, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales made history. It voted by a very secure two thirds majority to authorise an Order of Service for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships. For technical reasons this is an experimental rite, so it can be tweaked in the light of using it, but I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the concept is experimental. This is a major change in policy and practice. I spoke in favour of the proposal during Monday’s debate and I want to spend a moment this morning exploring some of my thinking and why I believe this is not binning the Bible but it is the result of going into it far more deeply than mere surface reading. 

There are some very loud voices that would have everyone believe that you either follow the Bible as they read it or you are not a real Christian. To be a Bible Christian is seen by them to go with condemning same-sex relationships. To affirm them is to ignore the Bible and sell out to the spirit of the age. I reject that false split very strongly.

I have been ordained for nearly 30 years and in each place I have ministered there have been faithful members of the congregations in long-term committed same-sex relationships. Some kept it secret out of fear, borne out of painful experience. For some the world has moved on and they can now risk being open in a way they previously dared not. Some have taken leadership roles in churches, and all have been much loved members of the communities.

It is observing these relationships and many before them, the quality of their commitment and love, that convinced me that we needed to look more deeply at the Biblical texts. I think of two men in a former parish and the naturalness and tenderness of their love. I think of two women, one of whom told me about how they met and she knew in that moment that no man would ever make her feel as the other did. This was who she was and not some random lifestyle choice. Many have spoken about attempts to ‘heal’ them, ‘convert’ them; of being shunned and driven out, rejected and told that they were an ‘evil influence’. There may well be people here or viewing online who can relate directly to these experiences.

The pastoral, how life really is, should always make us ask deeper questions about the Bible, not thinner ones. And this debate was a case study in different approaches to the Bible. The more we look at the key texts often used to condemn same-sex relationships the less they say what they seem at first to say, mainly because we view them through layers of interpretation. The Biblical case to affirm same-sex relationships is a cumulative one. It is not one based on one text. We are looking for a path through the scriptures which leads us to a different place; which transforms us and how we view one another.

There are parallels with the changes in how we see slavery, apartheid, buying things on credit, divorce and remarriage, the death penalty – we don’t stone people, birth control, the place of women in society and the church. Take slavery, at no point in the Bible does it say that slavery is wrong. In fact, it is an assumed part of life. We have to look at a wider sweep and see compassion, equality from all being children of God, and justice. This case had to made against strong voices opposed to it. 

There are seven key texts often pulled out of the Bible to prove that same-sex relationships are not compatible with a Christian way of living. If we look at them deeply, we find they don’t actually say what they are assumed or made to say. Passages in Genesis (19:1-29) and Judges (19:1-30) actually condemn gang rape. Two texts in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) are more about abuse and are not about consensual activity. Passages in 1 Corinthians (6:9-10) and 1 Timothy (1:9-10) again touch on exploitation. Romans (1:26-27) is concerned with idolatry and pagan cultic erotic practices. This is not the place to take these in great detail, but the point is that they are not the proof texts they are taken to be. When we go into these they are not condemning same-sex, stable committed relationships at all.

Whenever we read the Bible we have to ask a series of questions: what does it actually say, remember we read a translation and don’t always have the best one in front of us; who was it first written for and what situation is it seeking to address and why, that takes a lot of scholarship; how would the original audience have understood it and only then can we ask what its relevance for today might be. Every text has a context in which it was written and in which it is read, so we have to dig deeper not shallower.

The Bible is actually silent on committed, faithful and stable same-sex relationships. It is not an option or something the writers address. It was Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Wales and of course Canterbury and Bishop of this diocese (Monmouth), who wrote over 30 years ago in his 1989 lecture ‘The Body’s Grace’ about the Biblical traditions and concepts of love, of grace, of commitment and how we live in that grace, and how these open up a deeper window onto same-sex partnerships for Christians. There have been forests of printed works by medics and psychologists expounding on developments in understanding. I have felt for a long time that what we need is a way of recognising and promoting stability and fidelity.

The liturgy authorised on Monday is a pastoral provision. Pastoral is always about how we care in the Gospel. Some have said that we should really have gone the whole way and approved marriages. I think that is a wider discussion, not least because marriage is not the clear concept that we like to think it is. But that’s another story. The decision made on Monday was to bless relationships, to enable people to live consecrated lives in God’s grace, where unions formed to be faithful and stable can be affirmed for their reflection of God’s love. That is what I believe them to be and that is why I voted for pastoral liturgical provision.

The Bible always has the ability to shock and surprise us, for its grace and challenge. The letter of James (3:1-12) spoke about blessing emanating from a spring and that calls on us to not take short cuts. We need to be so infused in the Spirit that lives and breathes in the Bible that it shapes and colours our outlook. If we need a shorthand, the word love is probably a good one to start with. Not soppy love, but love that has the passion of the cross (Mark 8:27-38) and brings life in all its fullness. May we flourish in that life and love and longing for God’s grace to dwell in us abundantly, so much that it overflows to transform the world. Blessing same-sex relationships does not mean binning the Bible, rather it flows from a deep reading of its grace and love, that wherever these are found God is present at work in their lives and that the so called condemning passages actually have something else entirely in their sights. In the words of 1 John, used at the beginning of the marriage service: 

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16b)

Sermon preached at Newport Cathedral on Sunday 12th September 2021

*If you would like to follow up any of these references in more detail the following recent publications may be of interest:

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Blessing Same Sex Relationships

IMG_7589I wish to speak for a moment in favour of the pastoral provision that we have in front of us. And I speak as someone who has been ordained for nearly 30 years.

In each place that I have ministered there have been faithful members of the congregations in long-term committed same-sex relationships. Some kept it secret out of fear, borne out of painful experience. For some the world has moved on and they can now risk being open in a way they previously dared not. Some have taken leadership roles in churches, and all been much loved members of the communities.

It is observing these relationships, the quality of their commitment and love, that has convinced me that we need to look more deeply at the Biblical texts. I think of two men in a former parish and the naturalness and tenderness of their love. I think of two women, one of whom told me about how they met and she knew in that moment that no man would ever make her feel as the other did. This was who she was and not some random lifestyle choice. Many have spoken about attempts to ‘heal’ them, ‘convert’ them; of being shunned and driven out, rejected and told that they were an ‘evil influence’.

The pastoral, how life really is, always makes us ask deeper questions about the Bible, not thinner ones. This debate is not about binning the Bible, it is about going into it far more deeply than mere surface appearance; and looking at what it does say and what it does not. It will not do to perpetuate the narrative that some are faithful Bible-believing Christians and other are ignoring its difficult bits. I am a Bible believing Christian too. The Bible is complex and we need to look at its deeper narrative than just take phrases and texts in isolation. It is a rich tapestry of writings and developing thought and it can surprise us deeply with its grace, with what it can say to a different social context. Many of the so called ‘clobber texts’, those used to condemn, are much more complex than they are often said to be.

I do not expect there is anyone here who has not long-since thought deeply about these matters. Former Archbishop and Bishop of Monmouth, Rowan Williams’, wrote over 30 years ago in his 1989 lecture ‘The Body’s Grace’ about the Biblical traditions and concepts of love, of grace, of commitment and how we live in that grace, and how these open up a deeper window onto same-sex partnerships for Christians. There have been forests of printed works by medics and psychologists expounding on developments in understanding. What was not on offer in years past was a faithful, committed union of same-sex persons. I have felt for a long time that what we need is a way of recognising and promoting stability and fidelity.

This liturgy is a pastoral provision. Pastoral is always about how we care in the Gospel. If we vote against this provision we will say quite unequivocally that same-sex relationships have no place in the church. They are not blessed, they are not compatible with a Christian way of life, with being disciples of Christ. We will be saying that they are a perversion, something shameful, a distortion of what it means to be created in the image of God and to be someone who seeks to grow in the likeness of Christ. I do not believe this position is right and came to this conclusion a very long time ago. There are hate-filled voices who use religious language to justify their abuse and even violence against same-sex attracted people. Read some of the abuse received by the broadcaster and priest Revd Richard Coles and you will see it displayed for all its ugliness.

To vote this down will be pastorally damaging and missionally destructive. There is an alternative way, we can turn rejection into welcome, transform the encounter as Sandra Millar spoke about earlier this morning. I have people awaiting the outcome of this vote.

Be under no illusions we stand in a place where the world we aim to speak to is ahead of us, not least among the younger generations. To vote it down also gives amunition, however unintentionally, to the hatred, continuing to justify it even if only in the background.

The discussion about marriage, while it is related, is a different one and not the one in front of us. This is about relationship and how people can be enabled to live consecrated lives in God’s grace, where unions formed to be faithful and stable can be affirmed for their reflection of God’s love. That is what I believe them to be and that is why we need this pastoral liturgical provision.

Members of this Governing Body, I urge you to vote in favour of this Bill.

Text in favour of proposal to permit in the Church in Wales a Service of Blessing following a Civil Partnership or Marriage between two people of the same sex for speech at Governing Body of the Church in Wales, Monday 6th September 2021

The vote was passed by two thirds majority. Laity 49 for, 10 against, 1 abstention; clergy 28 for, 12 against, 2 abstentions; bishops 4 for.

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Syropheonician woman: Generosity learnt at home, lived

IMG_7346The gospel reading gives us one of those game-changer moments, where an outsider is brought to sit at the table (Mark 7:24-37). A Gentile, a Syropheonician woman, an outsider and not a high status one either. In terms of that terrible phrase ‘deserving poor’, in the pecking order, this woman is not even at the table it would seem. She is with the dogs in the corner and has to argue that even they get the scraps that fall onto the floor. It’s easy, knowing as we do how this story ends, to think we surely know better, but I’ve heard some comments in the news and various forms of media which are not that dissimilar.

On a news broadcast the other day people were being asked what they thought about helping the Afghan refugees, those who have fled the Taliban. One or two were quite clear, it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs; it’s not right to give the resources already under pressure to those who have come from another country; they are needed for ‘our’ people. Let’s ignore any obligations we may have from how these refugees have worked with our troops and served the interests advanced by our democratically elected government in Westminster. And given that 170 pets were rescued leaving humans behind, the dogs imagery has bite.

The cry often goes up, ‘charity begins at home’, as if this is an unquestionable truth. We have to learn charity somewhere and caring for those we live with and grow up with is part of becoming who are. But as is so often the case, this is so that we know how to live and this caring becomes the training ground for how we approach the world, not a restriction on it. In the economy of God’s grace the scraps left over provide an abundance greater than when we started. Jesus has already fed the 5,000 (6:30-44) with the 12 baskets of left-overs, and he will shortly feed 4,000 more with a similar result (8:1-9), this time filling 7 baskets with surplus provisions.

The ending of our time in Afghanistan has left an unsavoury taste in many people’s mouths. Proper care for those who have been given shelter requires some careful thinking: where they will go and how they are to be provided for, leaving as they will have done with nothing but what they could carry. These people will be traumatised on top of being in need of clothing, toiletries and shelter.

The Letter of James is clear. Blessings without love in action are no blessings at all (James 2:1-10, 14-17). Clearly not everyone can do everything for everyone. But we can be part of a movement that assumes from the charity we have learnt in our Heavenly Father’s home that this will be how we will care. And so, we have an appeal for clothing and toiletries to be sent to those arriving here from Afghanistan. They are not the only ones in need, and we have regular calls for donations to the foodbank, but they are in desperate need.

And this is not meant to be an either/or game. We either feed and clothe our home grown destitute or foreigners who have recently arrived in our midst. It is where there is need that we aim to meet it. We are quite a rich nation even with our challenges, and even if that wasn’t the case, the generous are generous before they look at their bank balances. Poorer communities know their interdependency and so can have learnt and practiced these skills more.

With generous hearts, September has in recent years been taken as a time to focus on creation. This time of year is when the harvest is being gathered in and traditionally we celebrate the fruits of the earth. It’s a natural moment to think of God’s bounty and our dependency on it. It is not a giant leap from there to reflect on climate change and the environmental emergency facing us. We can live grasping and hording, protecting for ourselves with little thought of the consequences for others, but let’s be honest, we are seeing where that has got us. We are seeing that we really are in this shared earth together and the interdependency runs through everything. As we learn at home to be generous and thereby shape how we live and approach others, the challenge of climate change requires not just small changes but for these to colour how we approach everything else, to be part of a groundswell of challenge and change.

What seems like a strange encounter with a foreign woman, being treated worse the worse than the family pets, brings us a radical shift in how we live for justice, equity and in the generous love of God in Jesus Christ.

Sermon for Trinity 14 (Creationtide), Newport Cathedral, Sunday 5th September 2021

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