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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Judging faith by how it behaves

IMG_7485Rules, restrictions and freedoms have been hot issues recently – with Covid, with oppressive regimes, with ministerial behaviours (on the pitch and off it, so to speak). At one end, blind following of rules makes us slaves and not free people. The opposite is that we decide that we can do whatever we like, because we are free. That is a recipe for abuse and oppression. My freedom becomes your restriction. Rights bring responsibilities and we all have to learn that what we do and any freedoms we have affect others – sometimes in unseen ways that we remain ignorant about. For some things we can’t just leave it all up to individuals to decide because that quickly becomes the tyranny of the strong or a recipe for chaos.

Our readings this morning play around with understanding the place of rules, laws and codified behaviour. We start with verses from Deuteronomy (4:1-2, 6-9), about the place of the Law, observing statutes and commandments. It sounds so clear. But it goes on to warn to take care lest you forget why these laws are there. They serve a higher purpose and are not the purpose themselves. They are to help the people remember all that they have seen, and to make sure that doesn’t slip from their minds, through how they live and interact with one another and others. They are to teach their children and their children’s children; to pass it on.

James, the Epistle which may have been written by one of Jesus’ brothers, is very concerned for faith to be shown in actions, to be lived. ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger’. Oh, how we need that in a world of social media, anger and frustrations over pandemics and politician double standards. This one is quite a challenge today. Decisions by governments have proved to be literally life and death for people in Afghanistan, but there are wider political forces at work, deals previously made which now can’t be easily unmade, even with the will to do so. There is room to listen even if you have a clear view of competency or incompetency. American policy is being played out and the UK is not the key player, in fact we have had a wake-up call in how much we rely on the USA in military action. President Biden has a longstanding policy to withdraw from Afghanistan and he has been doing what anyone who was listening to him would have known he would do, and some of that was set in train by his predecessor. There are complexities which make the caution to be quick to listen and slow to anger relevant, at least make sure it is targeted appropriately.

This passage from James (1:17-27) is an encouragement to live faith, to live the story of faith and not just be robots. Grace means we have to work out the difficulties. How to do that and not be sullied or stained by the world is rather a moot point. I suggest it requires deep rooting in the grace and wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. Frayed and strained tempers often spring from fear or frustration and, as we are seeing in Afghanistan, there are times when there is much to fear and be frustrated at. It has entered a very scary and dark place. It pushes spirituality beyond platitudes to face the starkness of the worst humans can do.

We come to the Gospel reading (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). Truncated and filleted verses about washing and cleanliness – all of which seem extremely good advice, not least in a pandemic when we have to sanitise at every turn. This, though, is not health advice. What is being referred to is ritual cleansing. And Jesus, as ever, goes beyond the letter of the law to look at what is at work in the background. How is grace being lived out in the following of these laws? He snaps back about evil coming from inside a person, not outside with the absence of ritual – a warning for liturgical purists. The point and purpose of an action over its performance. (Though doing is an important part of learning, particularly if you are a kinesthetic learner, someone who learns by doing.)

Reading these passages through the eyes of James, Jesus’ younger brother – how we put what we believe into practice and how it blesses, brings life – hits the touchstone of whether we have really got the point. We are known and judged by our fruits. It is by this standard that the regime now let loose in Afghanistan is seen to be repressive and tyrannical. It will bring oppression for women and girls who have grown up with 20 years of relative freedoms to work, to engage in political and communal life. It will be a dangerous place for anyone whose sexuality varies from their norm. It will be a place where dissent in so many ways – thought, belief, political philosophy, dress, music – will bring harsh punishment and treatment. Dark days lie ahead for those who remain in that country and we have seen the beginnings of this. Music has already been targeted and we have seen here how soul impeding that is over the last year. They claim religious motivation, divine laws, and so it is particularly important that we who likewise claim religious inspiration for our actions make it clear we stand for something very different. Rules alone don’t cut it.

It is hard to see the rays of hope in what is happening in Afghanistan, but there are a few. Those who say that the Taliban want international relationships, if correct, will provide a pressure point. But so often that can come with other agendas too and so our own motives need to be ones that seek life and blessing, not just opportunity and domination.  We have form here in the West. The history of colonialism is not a good one and brings a legacy that can have repercussions in our own time. The human spirit crying out for a different way will not be crushed for ever, it never is, even if the oppressors seem to have the upper hand now. So many acts of simple human kindness, some at great cost, so many we will never know about. And the acts of bravery in staying to help others, not least our own Ambassador.

The ‘strict letter of the law’ often carries other views, like a Trojan Horse. Rather than pure, they are often coloured by something else, something unacknowledged. Misogyny, racism, prejudice and assumptions which become oppressive for what they don’t take into account, can all slip in too easily if they lie in the background. That is why the purpose matters over the letter. In Christ that purpose always brings life in its fullness, blesses, lets grace loose on us, in us and through us. This is to be evident in how we behave and live it out.

Sermon for Trinity 14, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 29th August 2021

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Carrot over Stick every time in God’s household

IMG_7291Carrot or stick? Which is the first you reach for when you think something or someone needs to change or mend their ways? Which you pick first may well say quite a bit about your own upbringing and whether you had highly critical and fault finding, blaming parents or ones who encouraged and brought out the best in you through showing you a better way and drawing that out through love. Of course, all parents know that children can be frustrating and sometimes just impossible, drive you completely up the wall, and sanctions of some kind may still be needed.

One of the surprises for parents is finding that your own experience of being parented comes out. Do you smack, do you not? And whatever your high ideals your own experience of parenting will come crashing through for good or ill. Smacking, as with caning, just doesn’t work. It teaches the child nothing except fear and I am old enough that when I began my secondary education caning was still being practiced; it was abolished while I was there. It took place in the woodwork room woodstore and we would observe from our workbenches that it was the same boys who came in each time for their punishment. It didn’t change them – they needed to learn a better way and that was not the way to teach them.

And having been smacked by my father with a wooden ruler with a metal strip in its core, it was part of my upbringing, I knew I needed to draw on a different model when I became a parent. We realised very early on as parents that there is a different way to parent and one that helps children grow and develop much better. Yes, time out in their rooms, but not violence and certainly not with a metal core ruler. That is just a sign that anger issues being out of control, and it doesn’t help.

This has been in the news with whether or not offenders should wear hi-vis jackets to be identified and, well, the dog whistle of crime and retribution has raised its head. The response from John Timpson, the shoe repairing and key cutting magnate, was to point out that he has a policy of employing ex-offenders and they dress just like all his other employees. You will not be able to tell the difference. He knows that people change when they are showed a better way and given a new start.

I learnt the same in my first full-time job, working for Langley House Trust in a Half-way House for ex-offenders in Dorset. The ‘mother of the house’, Maureen, had a very simple philosophy. To her, the men in our care were all deeply damaged. And the worse their behaviour, or more difficult the person, the more damaged she saw them as being. And so, what they needed was more love not less. On one occasion one of the men broke up a snooker table and threw it through a window in a fit of rage. When the police first arrived he took a swing at them with a table leg. When they went back into the room ready for a fight, they found him sat on the floor crying like a child. The following morning, when he came back from the police cell to collect his stuff, I was rendered speechless when he opened his bag and brought out a selection of kitchen knives. “These are for you” he said – he knew we were getting married soon. And we still use them.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:1-16), knows a thing or two about how to bring out the best and appeals for grace to abound. He encourages the churches in this letter, in what may well have been one designed to be circulated widely, to live lives worthy of their calling. They are to display humility, gentleness, patience and bear with one another in love.  We all share the same hope because all of us share the same flaw in sinfulness, and therefore share the same hope of forgiveness and salvation in the love and grace of God. 

It is a passage overflowing with grace. We are to grow into maturity of faith, displaying the full stature of Christ, to be Christ-like in the person we become and seek to be renewed and refreshed as. There are so many attacks on this – the echo chamber of trolling and bad temper which can be Twitter and Facebook. Angry headlines that are designed to incite base passions that don’t display our kindest or generous souls. We can be tossed to-and-fro and blown about by these strong winds, by trickery of incomplete and distorted stories, craftiness and deceitful scheming, as Paul puts it. 

His remedy is to speak truth in love, to grow and by implication help one another grow, to be shaped by Christ. This a passage that includes the different roles and gifts for ministry in the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. And it is often taken as a manifesto for different jobs and activities, displaying that all ministry takes place within the context of the whole people of God. And that is what is really meant when the church talks about discipleship, we are all aiming to grow into the stature of Christ, to be built up as his followers and body in the world today. But it is all rooted in and built on this notion of loving and growing in grace.

Whether we have a clear role description for what we do, or don’t have such a formal role, all of us can and must do this: build up one another in faith and hope and love. 

And briefly, we see this in the Old Testament passage (Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15), where the people of Israel are going through one of their periodic whinges about being hungry and tired and bored. “Are we nearly there yet” is the only bit missing. Admittedly there are passages where God sends snakes to bite them. But on this occasion they get quails and manna – whatever that is. When they ask that, ‘what is it?’ they are told it is the food God has given. Whinging met with gift, with grace.

Food appears in the Gospel (John 6:24-35). Jesus has fed them and still they ask for a sign and a repeat free lunch. He moves their gaze beyond their stomachs to the eternal. It is a Eucharistic passage and as we gather round the table of God’s grace we are fed to live the life of grace and show it, demonstrate a better way. Carrot over stick every time in God’s household. Probably worth having a carrot nearby when engaging on social media, to help us remember and reflect grace and love and hope as people shaped by Christ.

Sermon for Trinity 9, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 1st August 2021

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James the Apostle – Pilgrimage and the meaning is in the waiting

IMG_7305Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Today we remember St James and two of our readings give a snapshot of his brief role in the story of the Gospel. A fisherman with his brother John, in his father’s business, they were called by Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry, as the first of his disciples while mending their nets. They have the nickname ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘sons of thunder’, possibly a reference to their impetuous and fervent nature. It might also hint at their parents, afterall it is their mother who tries to fit them up for top jobs.

James seems to have been part of an inner core of Jesus’ disciples, present at the Transfiguration, at his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane – when ironically Jesus prays for the cup to be taken away from him. That’s the cup he drinks of that he tells James and John they will have to drink too. And James does.

He became the first leader of the Jerusalem Church. Paul is taken to James after his conversion and when Peter escapes from prison, he asks for James to be told, not knowing that he has been killed by a sword-thrust on the orders of Herod Agrippa, sometime around AD44. He got to drink from the cup and he got to hold the top job. There is something about leadership that brings difficult decisions, having to stand up and be counted, be in the firing line when things go wrong, when attacks come for speaking out. It is no different today if a Christian leader uses their position to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak out for the defence of the weak and call to account.

The great shrine for St James is Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain. It is one of the great pilgrimage sites of the medieval world – ranking next to Rome and Jerusalem. It claims to hold the relics of St James, having been transferred there from Jerusalem in the nineth century. The evidence for that is thin. But it remains a major focus of pilgrimage today and the Camino de Santiago remains popular, even the subject of some interesting TV programmes of modern pilgrims from all backgrounds and faiths walking together and talking as they go.

The big symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago is the scallop shell, possibly because it represents the setting sun’s rays fanned out, and also because they are readily available at nearby beaches. It is also a handy tool for baptism and I tend to use one whenever I baptise, because it is a reminder that life is a pilgrimage of faith, of doubt, of struggle and courage to drink what you’d rather not drink, of hope and trust in Jesus Christ.

Earlier this week, I came across the poetic Kyrie confession we used at the beginning of this service. It was shared by a priest in the Bro Tudno Ministry Area in the diocese of Bangor, in North West Wales. It uses the poetry of RS Thomas and George Herbert. You may know the poems it reflects. The first is about the meaning being in the waiting, by implication found when we still ourselves from the inanities and vast myriad of pressures and commitments, of stuff we fill our time with. The stuff that stops us reflecting, thinking, going deeper into God.

The phrase ‘the meaning is in the waiting’ comes from a poem by RS Thomas – the final line in his poem ‘Kneeling’. I’ll end with it in a moment. He talks about how being stilled turns the air into a ‘staircase for silence’ and this being the gateway to perception and presence. Staircases are resonant with Jacob’s ladder and his dream of angels ascending and descending. Jacob is the Hebrew version of James. It is in the silence that God can speak, it is in the different rhythm of the pilgrim that meaning is clarified, often when we are least expecting it.

I am beginning to read Rowan Williams’ latest book – Looking East in Winter. It’s a slow read and has already had me looking up words I don’t know in a dictionary and following up a reference in one of his other books – so this is going to take me a while. It is about Eastern Christian mysticism. In one passage he refers to one writer who contrasts the ascetic, who put crudely wants to escape from wordly pressures, and the contemplative who stays with them, delves into them and in so doing finds them to be a mine of treasure or a well to revive and water us, to see beauty.

This is a particularly striking image for where we are. The call of the pilgrim is not to escape but to change the journey. It is to find in this moment the signs of beauty we otherwise walk past unnoticed, the signs of grace where gift becomes a moment of God’s touch, the rays of sunlight that shine through the darkness illuminating and making it clear that darkness never overcomes or wins. It is to see this moment as a sign that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, as Paul put it.

As we do this, we find that the meaning is in the waiting, because waiting is where we are for we are always awaiting the final fulfilment of God’s eternal kingdom. It is the goal of our journey, it is the source of our life, it is the hope which brings us to being and holds us. It is the cup offered to James and from which he drank, knowing then that status is but an ephemera, the meaning is much deeper. And so, I end with RS Thomas’ poem, ‘Kneeling’.

Sermon for the Feast of St James, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 25th July 2021

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Reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing (William Byrd)

IMG_7300I received an email this week telling me that today is National Ice-cream Day. I have no idea who decided this, though it was a chocolate manufacturer who told me, but I am not going to argue and after the service we will celebrate it. Something that will be particularly welcome on a hot Sunday afternoon. What could speak of summer more than ice-cream and struggling to eat it before it melts. 

A few years ago, on my sabbatical, when the temperatures were breaking records, I decided to conduct some research into which was the best ice-cream to eat. Squirty, whippy stuff was particularly bad; it put up no resistance to the power of the sun’s rays. It was the Cornetto style cones that seemed to fair best. Ice-cream brings a smile and it feels like a treat.

We need those treats every now and then, to experience the joys of life, the things which brighten and boost a sense of feeling good. This is especially important when we face the unknown and this pandemic seems to have a way of bringing surprises and setbacks. When it is a particular effort to find the joys, the rewards can be all the more.

I caught an interview yesterday with a woman who has stage 4 cancer. She has lots of bad days and can struggle to find an hour or so of energy. There are days she finds she has to break down the day into small goals and take what she can find – bigger goals just seem too unobtainable and large to tackle or believe are possible. It’s a mindset that she has had to develop and train herself to develop the habit.

We might not all be facing something so enormous, but still can need help and there are some tools we can draw on and use. One of them comes in this incredible service of Choral Evensong. It brings music in abundance and the act of singing changes our mood. After I preached at the RSCM online Welsh Festival last month, a friend sent me something written a very long time ago, by the Tudor composer William Byrd. It could have been written yesterday and there are scientific explanations behind what he wrote. It comes from the preface to his collection ‘Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie’, published in 1588. He sets down reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing. Whenever he says ‘man’, he means all people – men and women, boys and girls.

“First, it is a knowledge easily taught, and quickly learned, where there is a good master, and an apt scholar.

2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.

3. It doth strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes.

4. It is a singularly good remedy for stuttering and stammering in the speech.

5. It is the best means to procure perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.

6. It is the only way to know where Nature has bestowed the benefit of a good voice:

which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that has it: and, in many, that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to express Nature.

7. There is not any Music of instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voices of Men, where the voices are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

8. The better the voice is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith:

and the voice of man is chiefly to be employed to that end.

Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum.

[“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6)]

Since singing is so good a thing,

I wish all men would learn to sing.”

When the bible writers were looking for a way to express worship, praise, marvels and salvation, they naturally turned to song. Our first reading (1 Chronicles 16:23-34) began with the exhortation to ‘sing to the Lord all the earth’ and through that to tell of marvels and salvation.

The second reading, moved from compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to expressing gratitude through singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, so that in whatever we do we may be thankful (Colossians 3:12-17). Singing is a balm for the soul, especially in tough times, but also when we just want to let out a burst of praise and thanksgiving. In turn it lifts us and we need that lift. We have been given voices to lift up the praises, it is in our nature to do so, and something deep about what it means to be human is missing when we don’t or are not allowed to do so. The human souls needs it and when times are tough a song in the heart and in the voice changes how we see it and how we are.

So I give thanks for “quires and places where they sing”. In the final words of our Psalm this evening, quoted by William Byrd at the end of his reasons to sing:

“Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum”

Let everything that hath breath, 

praise the Lord . (Psalm 150:6).

Sermon for the final Evensong of the Choir year, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 18th July 2021

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Climate Crisis and Chartists Reworked

IMG_7256If you spotted our social media feeds this week, you may have seen a video from me on how to make an origami boat. If you did, I wonder how you got on and did anyone bring their boat with them this morning? Here’s mine – one I made earlier in true Blue Peter fashion. I made this because it stands for two themes that have been with us this week.

On Thursday and Friday, we hosted various events for the Young Christian Climate Network relay. This is a walk from the G7 conference in Cornwall, held last month, to the COP26 summit of world leaders in Glasgow in November. That is an incredible 1,000 mile walk. There is a Welsh leg of this, so that all three nations are able to take part. The Welsh branch set off in Swansea last weekend and arrived here on Thursday. The aim is to highlight the urgency of tackling the climate crisis and ecological emergency that the world faces. If you wonder why a boat is a good symbol for this, if you look at the climate change maps for 2050, if nothing is done, if we don’t change our ways, then a lot of the low lying coastal areas in Great Britain are under water, including the lower lying levels of our city.  So this boat becomes an Ark. Tackling climate change with the ensuing rising sea levels is urgent and for our younger members of this congregation and our community it is clearly their generation that will be hit hardest.

So they are raising their voices to tell the current world leaders to get this sorted now before it is too late. You may have heard our choristers singing the Gee Seven song on our YouTube channel. They sang this on Thursday to the walkers as part of Thursday’s events. If you didn’t, then there will be a chance to hear it shortly because they re going to sing it at the end of this sermon.

The boat is a dramatic and stark reminder that our stewardship of the earth, our care of the earth and all God’s creatures, which is the fifth mark of mission in the Anglican Communion, is our Christian duty. God made the world and we depend on it for our very life. Poorer areas of the world are already suffering as a result of climate change, so this is not some future scenario, but a present reality.

As part of the events we invited our members of  the Westminster Parliament and the Senedd to meet with the walkers which included students from St Teilo’s School. On Friday the walkers were sent off with a special service led by children from Malpas Primary School. Both were full of youthful spark and imagination. The  song which the choristers’ sang has a sharp message to the world leaders: don’t let us down or we’ll run you out of town. It’s a radical song of prophetic protest because this counts. And, of course, standing here radical songs of prophetic protest have form with the Chartists and their demands for political equality and justice.

If we were to take the Chartists’ demands and give them a reworking for tackling climate change, they might look something like this:

  • Vote for all, becomes global politics working in the interests of all people around the world, not just the richest.
  • Free ballots, becomes no industry’s interests stopping or impeding the imperative to reduce carbon emissions.
  • No property qualification to vote, becomes  living more simply, reducing the excessive  demands that feeds unsustainable consuming.
  • Paying members of parliament so they don’t need a private income, becomes developing new technologies and renewable energy generation so we are not dependent on plastics and fossil fuels.
  • Making constituencies fairer, becomes recognising that we stand or fall together on this, either all flourish or we all sink
  • Annual Parliaments, becomes having a vision for the future where there is hope for all.

It might need some more work, but it’s a start:  global politics working for all, no industry blocking the change, living simply and reducing excesses,  new technologies and renewable energy to reduce fossil fuel use, recognising we are all in this together as a world, and there is hope. Perhaps you can have a go at writing your own.

Today is also Sea Sunday, so the boat works for this too. This is a day when we are asked to think about those who sail the seas, bringing goods to our ports and export products made here around the world. It is dangerous work and can be isolating and can leave crew members stranded. They risk pirates, the reality of which is far from romantic and fun. We have a mission to seafarers chaplaincy in the port in this city. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that climate change and rising sea levels is not good news for those who sail. It will make their task more hazardous.

How does all of this fit with our readings this morning, which as I have noted on the notice sheet, do not look like they fit the seaside much – with John the Baptist being murdered on a whim and a rash promise (Mark 6:14-29), Amos saying he’s not a prophet but a dresser of sycamore trees (Amos 7:7-15) and Paul referring to adoption as a child of God (Ephesians 1:3-14).

John the Baptist brings the whims and actions of those who wield power under the spotlight. The G7 conference has been criticised by climate campaigners and those working in international aid as failing to make any real meaningful commitments. Headline grabbing promises of a few million doses of vaccine around the world won’t stretch far. There needs to be a commitment to sustained and determined policies to make the changes needed. There are major investors who realise that business needs to champion ecological concerns otherwise the companies will be shortlived. This is where John the Baptist’s murder fits in. He was executed for short-term political face saving. He was thrown under the bus because of a rash promise made in a drunken moment of lechery. The gospel reading is an unsavoury one from every angle.  

Those who lead, those who have political power have a primary duty to ensure justice and peace, and the greatest threat we face – in terms of the very land we occupy, social unrest and the mass  disruption of peoples comes from climate triggered events. Tackling this is actually enlightened self-interest.

Amos took us from the macro level to the individual and personal. He may describe himself as being a gardener, tending sycamore trees, but everyone can make a difference. We can change our ways, change our energy use, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle. We can raise our voice, like our choristers and the students from the schools did this week. The challenges are enormous, but each small step taken is a step closer.

Paul reminds us that God does not abandon us and regards us not as disposable but beloved children of grace. Human beings have so much potential and goodness built into them, because they are brought, we are brought into being through love and grace. The call is to live this blessing and love. As children of God, to live the household rules and not trash the pad we have been given.

Paul ends us on a note of hope, as I tried with my climate charter with a vision of hope for all. All are beloved children of God and we trust that there is a future worth championing. With hope we can make the changes on which all our futures depend.

I will give the last word to our choristers, who are going to sing Gee Seven, written for Truro Cathedral for use around the G7 conference and a song of prophetic protest and challenge from a younger generation to us all.

Sermon for Trinity 6 – Climate Change – Newport Cathedral, Sunday 11th July 2021

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Unexpected conversations at the bagging area

IMG_7149Strange things happen to clergy when they go into supermarkets wearing their clerical collars. On Wednesday I was scanning my shopping at the self-checkout when someone came up to me and asked if I was a vicar and then asked me what I thought about all that is happening at the moment. Did I think it was all down to the activity of the beast. Taking this to mean the pandemic and not international trade deals and how they affect supermarket stock availability, I said that there is evidence that the pandemic may have its origins in a virus leaking from a lab. In short it was humans meddling in what they would be best not to meddle in. He was delighted with my answer. “A switched on vicar”, he said, and off he went. It was an improvement on the man who came up to me some years ago, touched me with his lottery ticket and said “that’ll bring me luck that will”. The following week I buried his father – I thought it not the time to ask.

The thinking behind my answer of a lab leak came from a piece in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago (29/30th May 2021) about something called ‘gain of function’ research. This involves manipulating viruses to make them more lethal. The rationale is that doing this aids understanding and therefore the discovery of treatments. The counter argument is it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette to see if you can work out how the bullet comes out. The risk of one of these supercharged viruses escaping and causing a global pandemic is too great. You don’t say. In 2014 President Barak Obama stopped federal funding for gain of function research. The ban was lifted in 2017 and money has been poured into a research facility in Wuhan. The jury is out on this one, so it remains one of the possible causes. But all of the likely causes involve humans behaving in ways that are highly risky and just plain wrong.

Our readings this morning touch on this. Job is a book about suffering. It is long and at times miserable but it has flashes of wisdom and insight. The question of where does suffering come from has taxed philosophers and thinkers for all of time. So Job is a kind of thought experiment story to reflect on this. The cause of Job’s suffering is said to be that God is using him as a test pilot, to see how he shapes up with his faith when things don’t go well. Can he hold to it? Or is he really just a fair-weather believer, one who is faithful and devout in good times, but abandons it when things go bad. Ultimately the answer to Job, when he’s having a highly understandable moan, is ‘where were you when the heavens were made and if you weren’t around don’t expect to understand all the mysteries’ (Job 38:1-11). A bit of a paraphrase, but that’s the gist.

We can’t change the way the world is; the reality of being mortal, vulnerable, fragile and susceptible when things go ‘wrong’. Indeed the whole language of ‘things going wrong’ implies that it could be otherwise. We can do something about some of the causes which lead to these consequences, but not the reality that there is suffering, pain and mortality. Thinking about the problem of evil and suffering can lead us to ask, what did human beings do to make this happen? In the case of this pandemic, this is not mysterious as in it sprung from nowhere, but human activity is looking to be the likely culprit. Behave like this and you and others who are not responsible may well get their fingers burned. Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, former bishop of this diocese, Rowan Williams, said that it was blindingly obvious in this pandemic that we are all connected. The Aberfan Disaster, 55 years ago on 21st October in 1966, was man-made due to the siting and instability of the spoil heap. The Grenfell Tower fire in London was due to dangerous cladding, used despite warnings and shockingly still being used. An enquiry will be held in due course into how many deaths in this pandemic are due to failures of government making a bad situation worse.

On the sea, Jesus’ wave-tossed boat would now lead us to ask what led to the extreme weather conditions. And we are used to the answer that it is human activity leading to climate change. The accumulated pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere causes conditions that rock one small boat on a lake in Israel. So, ‘don’t you care that we are perishing’ (Mark 4:35-41), is an understandable cry, but the way the world is means that the affects of one group can bring disaster to another, who feel they are unrelated to it.

The problem of suffering and evil has no easy answer to it. It shakes faith and causes the most devout to wobble at times. And if our faith is to have deep roots it has to be able to cope with such challenges. It is ministering to people at the time of their deaths that I have found quiet members of congregations to show just how deep their faith is. Not necessarily people who talked about Jesus all the time, or who made the greatest outward show of faith, we might say they didn’t need such outward repetitions to cover for spiritual insecurities. But it was a faith that knew they trusted in God, even and especially in the face of the ultimate challenge for them, their own mortality and their response was one of praise and thanksgiving. The depth of their faith shone through and it is always deeply moving and inspiring.

I am fond of a story told by the broadcaster Gerald Priestland in his book on pain and suffering, ‘The case against God’ (1984, pages 13-14). He tells the story of a group of Jews in the full horror of a concentration camp during the Second World War. They decided to put God on trial and found God guilty of the worst crime going, that of permission, making a world where these things happen. When they were done, one of their number said, ‘let us not forget, it is time for our evening prayers’. The response in the face of such horror and suffering was to find God in their praises and placing their confidence in God. When in the words of St Anselm, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, God is ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’, the ultimate who is beyond all trials, then God is our source and goal and will not let go of the one he creates.

It might be easy to wonder if there are really two forces in eternal combat – a good source and an evil disrupter – the beast as my checkout enquirer put it. But that only goes so far. If there is to be any hope, then the good source has to come out on top. In Jesus Christ we affirm that God does indeed come out on top and is not defeated even by death. As the ultimate source and the one whose purposes include a world where things don’t always feel comfortable or smooth, to put it mildly, it is only through praises that there can be any sunlight in the darkness of suffering and pain. The book of Job ends with not so much a song of praise as a declaration of trust in God and the Christian Gospel is only remembered and proclaimed because of the joy of Easter morning. Alleluia remains our song.

Sermon for Trinity 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th June 2021

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Imagine a world without any music

IMG_7129Imagine a world without any music. No songs, no bird song, no playing of the merry organ or sweet singing in the choir. Back in February 2020 this would have been unimaginable, at least it was to me, and then this nightmare has been our reality on or off, more on than off, for the past 16 months. I haven’t sung for all that time. And it has impoverished us more than many may have realised it would do.

I can’t track it down now, but I remember a children’s story about an evil king who banned singing and music making. He was portrayed as being a tyrant. A young girl just could not comply because her heart was filled with music and she just had to sing. The beauty of her singing filled the air and it brought colour and life back into a dull world without music. It became a song of protest and others delighted in her song. The king relented, his heart changed by the beauty of her singing. I may not have all the details right, but you get the point.

Music is a different language, one that expresses what even the most eloquent poet struggles with. It is the language of praise and lament, of celebration and sorrow, of reflection and shouts of protest. Think of the South African anthem and how this became a song of protest during Apartheid, or how Michael Tippet uses African American Spirituals to such good effect in ‘A child of our time’. Music can plunge into the deepest mysteries and its intricacy can bring us to marvel at the sheer engineering of the sound. It can move the spirit to action, calm the troubled mind, excite with possibilities.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it is a beautiful harp that quells Fluffy, the three headed angry dog with big teeth guarding the entrance to the secret chamber. With it becalmed Harry, Ron and Hermione are able to get through, until it wakes of course. No music and its vicious side explodes. In the Old Testament David played the harp to quell the psychotic mind of King Saul, who on one occasion tried to pin him to a door with a spear.

A  couple of years ago, before Covid shut us down, while I was taking communion to a nursing home, a woman would tell me she would have nothing to do with it. I played the hymn the Old Rugged Cross through a speaker linked to my phone and this woman sang her heart out at the bottom of the stairs through the door. It unlocked something inside her and she was released and set free to praise, where words and environment closed the door for her.

It was St Augustine who said to sing is like praying twice. When the music matches the words perfectly, painting them, they take on an extra potency that enhances, deepens and strengthens their force.

I have long found choirs to be a place where the mystery and presence of God can be felt in a unique and profound way. Those who direct them are missionaries in the service of the gospel and those they train and nurture offer a ministry of great importance. Of course it is possible to put the ego in the foreground, but all musicians know that the music must lead and the performer must be its servant – not a bad schooling for humility and service. It trains us to be humble, proud and liberated to flourish – to almost quote Gareth Southgate, the England football manager.

That makes music something profoundly radical because it cuts through to get to the heart of who we are and what we are called to be, to the better selves we have it in us to be so that we are tamed Fluffys and not the angry ones. We are more than mere functionaries or a collection of randomly occurring cells. Music is the sound track of creation’s purpose, of the Creator’s purpose and it helps us flourish in wonder, praise and adoration.

So be radical in your music making, with songs of praise and protest, lament and celebration, and in your living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May the hymns, psalms and spiritual songs train you as beloved children of God and heirs of Christ’s grace, filled with the Spirit’s vibrancy and song.

Sermon for RSCM Wales Region Online Festival Service, Saturday 19th June 2021

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