Earthquake Theology: Learning from Francis and Justin.

I am told that a really good piece of civil engineering combines strength with flexibility. If a building, bridge, or other structure is to have a good chance of surviving an earthquake it must comprise these two attributes. 

Of course, as the Psalmist knew, real life is often lived in the midst of random chaos. In Psalm 46, for example, we read that faith in God means that ‘we need not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.’ 

The problem is that we are often fearful and, ironically, one of the reasons we often fear is the nature (or structure) of our faith!

When life’s earthquakes erupt around us people of faith have a tendency to resort to one of two courses of action. Let’s call them the affirmative and negative responses.

The affirmative response, at first sight, looks attractive. It involves the digging of deeper roots, strengthening, supporting and, underpinning the original structure. The trouble is that although the affirmative strategy may succeed in the short-term, in the long-term it is almost bound to crack. It is too rigid, too committed to a particular set of doctrines or worship styles. The negative response involves giving up on the whole religion game. The negative responder  admits that the doctrines they previously held dear do not in fact stand up to scrutiny, in the face of life-events. I suspect we all know people who have chosen the affirmative and negative roads.

But, there is a ‘third way’ (apologies for the horrible political term). The third way involves incorporating flexibility into the original structure, seeking new insights and new ways of responding to life’s earthquakes. It is the way chosen, and modeled for us by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin.

Both Francis and Justin have strong foundations in a particular ecclesiastical tradition. Francis was nurtured in that bastion of conservative Catholicism – the Jesuit order. Archbishop Justin, was nurtured at the other end of the spectrum, through the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton. In both cases as seismic shifts occurred in their own circumstances they grafted new forms of spirituality onto the original structure. Let’s be clear neither man has dispensed with their heritage. But, both have founded new ways of enriching their faith.

It is quite incredible that the first ‘Jesuit Pope’ chose the name Francis. This is the same man who before speaking at an evangelical rally in Argentina bowed his heading for a blessing by its Protestant leaders. Archbishop Justin, the first ‘Alpha Archbishop,’ is a Benedictine oblate and has a Roman Catholic Spiritual Director. He recently urged Anglicans to rediscover the sacrament of confession. This summer he spoke at both New Wine and Walsingham.

If we desire to belong to a united church – the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – if we wish to get through life’s storms, if we wish to reach out to others, we need to explore and adopt a broad range of spiritual practices and become comfortable with a different theologies, if we don’t we might just crack, and that would be a shame.

Recommended books:

Pope Francis Untying The Knots – Paul Vallely

Archbishop Justin Welby – Andrew Atherstone


Energy Companies. Consumer vs. shareholder; exploring the myth.

The behavior of the energy companies is currently in the news leading to an excess of posturing from politicians and commentators who know (not ought to know) better.

One line of argument, spread by the so-called ‘left’ goes like this:

They are at it again. Those greedy companies all they are interested in is serving the needs of those nasty, self-centered, institutional shareholders. Let’s change the system, through regulation, or price controls and all will be well,’ (all will be well means election success will be ours!). 

The counter argument, that of the ‘right’ takes the opposite line: ‘Look it is the shareholders who finance the company, they delegate day-to-day management decisions to the executive team, whose legal and moral duty it is to maximize returns for shareholders. Consumers can, if they don’t  like the way they are being treated switch allegiance, after all nobody should be coerced into remaining with any one supplier for this would be to limit democratic freedoms.’

These are both essentially political arguments (masquerading as ethical arguments), hence the phrase political-economy. Now I need to be honest, I have more sympathy with the second view. I don’t like state intervention and, I don’t think politicians have the expertise to run companies, participate in markets etc with any degree of success. My opinions derive from my perceptions of scope and competence and, not from an ideological predisposition to any one politico-economic system. 

I also agree with the sentiment that ‘capitalism may not be perfect, the trouble is nobody has ever thought of a better system.’ (I have talked with people who have lived under autocratic regimes. Believe me it is not pretty). Again my support is not based on ideology but on historical analysis.

BUT we are not interested in politico-economic solutions because their rationale is to win elections. I suspect that successful electioneering, as it relates to economics, involves the employment of four ‘cardinal sins,’ the first of which is propagated by both the left and the right, the second by the left. The third sin, again owned by both the left and the right, is concerned with the direction of our worship (idolatry). The forth ‘sin’ reveals a lack of basic understanding.

  1. Pretending that all manner of ills can be sorted out through the legislative and the economic system. This is  nonsensical. If this were true there would be no fraudsters (corporate or individual), no cheating and no lying. Systems and laws do not instill virtue – this is the domain of theology and philosophy (actually I would argue theology enacted through faith). You can change the system all you want but if you leave the same rusty old tubs floating in it you will get the same results (C.S. Lewis). 
  2. Pretending that customers and shareholders are two separate groups. This is a spectacular deception and one bought hook line and sinker by many pundits. Let me explain: I am both a shareholder and customer (in all probability so are you). I am a member of  three pensions funds (a Legal and General tracker fund, the Universities Superannuation Fund and the Clergy Pension Fund) all of which ‘invest’ in the energy companies. Now as a shareholder, who as a clergyman, is paid a modest stipend (salary) I want the energy companies to produce attractive returns, after all my future income is dependent on it. But, as a customer I want lower charges in order to increase / sustain my standard of living. I therefore have two competing goals. The political class know that the majority of shareholders are ordinary folk and not the rich and famous, yet they pretend otherwise. This shows a lack of grace (i.e. it is a disgrace). The politicians, under this scenario, deliberately promote conflict and disunity rendering any truly imaginative, creative and holistic policy responses and impossibility. 
  3. An allegiance to a belief system that suggests that all manner of ills can be sorted out through ownership; such a belief encourages the love and service of money / financial returns above all else. Sort out the flow of money, and you sort out society is the hollow cry of the political classes.
  4. Investment managers are deeply interested in the companies they invest in. They are not; they are interested in the share price. The share price and the company itself are not one in the same. A share is regarded by many investment managers as a second hand trade-able good, to be bought or sold at any time according to whether the investment manager believes the share to be over or undervalued relative to comparative shares. An investment manager whose job (and bonus) is determined by his / her annual performance relative to their peer group will not waste too much time attempting to improve the underlying performance of a given company. instead he / she will simply trade in the shares. I used to be a director of an investment management business, trust me, at least on this one.

Instead we are interested in a theological or theonomic response. In our forthcoming book ‘Theonomics,’ we offer six principles as a guide for economic decision making:

  • Gift (the idea that all of life is a gift)
  • Community (not commune)
  • Solidarity (we are all in it together – your good is my good)
  • Justice (restorative and distributive)
  • Subsidiarity (the idea that decisions should be taken at the ‘local’ level), and,
  • Service (after all the Son of Man came to serve not to be served)

I also think that balance and prudence should play a big role in theonomic thinking. 

I don’t necessarily have a solution to the ‘energy crisis,’ this is not even my aim, but I do hope that Christians and other people of faith will start to think in new and creative ways. This will involve challenging the politicians on many levels but most of all through the fertile fallacies they continue to cultivate. Politicians and economists tend to offer sticking plaster solutions where radical surgery is required. In a sense they are compelled to do so because their ambition extends only as far as the next election. Christians, by contrast, are presumably motivated by nothing less that the breaking in of the ‘kingdom on earth as in heaven,’ and herein lies all the difference in the world!

The shortest homily, on the longest Psalm (maybe)

This month Celtic Daily Prayer has included short extracts from the longest f Psalm (119) as one of the daily the readings. I have ‘enjoyed,’ the discipline of focusing on a few verses each day. Repetition, I hope, will pay dividends. But, I am also finding myself getting frustrated, for two reasons: my natural impatience normally compels me to consume books, I like to get to the end in double quick time and move on. My other frustration lies in the repetition of the message itself. The spiritual need to reflect and meditate on God’s ordinances (love) in the face of a hostile world. I have come to the conclusion that the Psalm is to some extent a psycho-spiritual-autobiography.

Sure the Psalmist lives in the midst of a hostile world, but he also lives with his own internal battles, contradictions, temptations and so forth. Surely we can relate to the Psalmist in this regard? Maybe the Psalmist is frustrated (like me) with his inability to contain the battles that rage within? Is it the Psalmist who causes strife in his community? Is he a contentious ……?

Yet here are the encouragements:

Whatever happens, either internally or externally, we can always  return to God, to the prayer,meditative, place where we can abide with Him, in Him and His ways.

Conversion to the ways of God, as all good Benedictines know, is the work of a lifetime. It’s not easy, it will cause us to confront ourselves, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, ‘conversion of life’ is possible. I think the Psalmist knew this and this is why he needed to write 176 wonderful verses. 

How many verses are there in your conversion story?


Pinpointing Prayer

Last week I reflected on the Eucharist suggesting that I wasn’t so much bothered with ‘how it works,’ but with it’s trans-formative potential.

I strongly believe that the Eucharist, should form part of each Christian communities staple diet. It is a manifestation of God’s love for both each individual and the community as a whole. As a shared meal, in which everyone gets equal dibs, it represents God’s absolute impartiality. No special skill, merit, or aesthetic appreciation is required to feed on God, through the Eucharist. It is one of very few worship activities equally available to all. That is presumably why Jesus instituted it and Paul (see 1 Corinthians 11) was adamant that the tradition of the Eucharist / Mass / Communion should be handed down. It is also why the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, and mass participation (excuse the really awful pun!) in it, were central to the theology of the Protestant Reformers; Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. I suspect that all of them, despite their different formulas as to how the Eucharist works, would be horrified at how the Eucharist is regarded as an occasional option in some communities.

Luther, in particular, followed the Nike philosophy, ‘just do it.’ Calvin was quite happy for his followers to meditate on the host – he actively encouraged this as a Saturday pastime (at about the time the footie results come out) and, Zwingli felt that the Holy Spirit transformed the elements after we had consumed them; the ‘God’s work is invisible’ line of argument. 

Speak to an Orthodox priest / theologian about how the Eucharist works and he will look at you as though you have lost leave of your senses! He might suggest that the western church has become so successfully evangelized by secular philosophy that it is forever asking scientific questions of the mysteries of faith (you know those things we explicitly declare – perhaps with our fingers metaphorically crossed when we pray the Eucharistic prayer).

What has all this got to do with ‘ordinary’ prayer?

Well quite a lot because this too is often critiqued from a pseudo-science perspective. How does prayer work? Does God intervene? Will God, through prayer suspend his own laws? Do we change as a result of prayer? And, while we are at it, what exactly is prayer? Again all forensic, sciencey type questions. Very interesting up to a point and certainly a rich source of theological dispute (why do you think that there are so many Eucharistic formulas? Well, one reason is that the reformation arguments were, in some small part at least, an argument between faithful, intelligent and yet fallen men!) but perhaps not entirely useful. 

Now don’t get me wrong some formulas are useful in explaining ‘the mysteries of faith,’ I quite like ACTS for explaining prayer (Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication), even if it misses out mediation and contemplation. I enjoy praying with Scripture using Benedictine and Jesuit techniques. I like naming prayers and, on occasion, short expository prayers. I accept that prayer and mediation change us; neuro-scientists actively endorse mediation, for instance, as a means of reshaping the  plasticity in the brain. I don’t know whether God changes or not. But what I do suspect is that when our prayers our properly sourced and grounded, through the Holy Mysteries, we somehow become united with God’s plans. The proper sourcing of prayer opens up the possibility for ‘thy kingdom come on earth as well as in heaven.’ Prayer, properly sourced, allows us to accept our Gethsemane moments, those occasions when we can really say ‘not mine, but thine, be done.’

So where can go to source examples of such prayer. Scripture! Gethsemane and the Psalms, for example. 

Gethsemane and the Psalms (see Psalm 30, for example) show us that real prayer is sourced from somewhere so deep that no forensic microscope could possible locate it. St. Paul agrees, he tells us real prayer comes from that place where the Spirit groans (Romans 8, 26-27); you can’t see a groaning under a microscope! 

The story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector(Luke 18,9-14) and 1 Paul’s Anthem to Agape (1 Corinthians 13), provide us with the key qualities required in trans formative prayer; humility and love. 

So having had a pop at formulaic approaches here is mine!:

Transformation prayer is sourced from somewhere deep within, animated by the Holy Spirit and offered in humility and love. All other forms of prayer are, to paraphrase St. Paul, simply noise, possibly very articulate, eloquent and dramatically choreographed, but still simply noise.

So let us pray………..Amen

Culinary Theology.

Food, at least among the Middle Classes, is something of national obsession. Celebrity chefs have come a long way since Fanny Craddock!

Master Chef, The Great British Bake Off, River Cottage et are for many ‘foodies’ compulsive viewing. Chefs are in many ways our ‘secular saints.’ The latest of chef to be ‘beatified’ is, perhaps, St. Mary Berry; she of Aga fame.

Perhaps as we leave ordinary time and approach Advent we ought to transfer our attention to St. Mary the Mother of Jesus. But, what has the Blessed Virgin got to do with food, how can she be regarded as a ‘culinary theologian,’ I hear you ask. Well quite easily I think, although I suspect her role is more of the commis or sous chef, than celebratory or master chef. Her humility would automatically bar her from the more prestigious role. She isn’t angry enough to mimic St. Gordon!

Food and theology are inextricably linked. Think of all the feast parables. Think of the metaphor of the heavenly banquet. But we need to regard Jesus as the Master Chef, it is He who prepares the banquet. Our responsibility is to provide the hors d’oeuvres, the foretaste which excites the tasted buds, for what is to come. Mary knew this, so did John the Baptist and the early disciples – the ones who met in each others houses to share bread and wine and sing songs of praise (see Acts 2, 46).

 What happened next is intriguing’: ‘Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved,’ (Acts 2, 47). Meeting together to share the hors d’oeuvres resulted in the growth of Christianity! Oh, how we like to complicate things! We frequently seem to  want to ‘create’ the heavenly entree, bake the most exquisite of deserts, provide the finest wines and top it all off with coffee and cigars (alright no cigars!). But, this is not our calling, we need to start off from a far humbler base. Our focus should be on providing the foretaste and not the banquet itself.

So how can this be achieved? Well, one way is through the transformative power of the Eucharist; the earthly feast where we join in praise with ‘the angles, archangels and all the company of heaven.’ The one meal where we all get the same amount of ‘bread’ and where we all drink from a common cup. The Eucharist represents many things to many people but for me its sacramental power lies not so much in what it is but, in what it is designed to do. The Eucharist is the great act of sharing, designed by our Lord to show his equal love for all, to provide a liturgical act which requires no special skills or merits in order to fully participate. All we need to do is to extend our hand and receive the foretaste praying that it will in some way transform us into living sacraments; commis chefs pointing the way to the greatest banquet of all; the eternal banquet. 

Now I am not arguing in favor of imposing a High Mass on every believer and all newcomers. But what I am arguing for is a Eucharistic Theology which testifies to God’s equal love for each and every person, a culinary theology which points the way to the banquet. This will require us to adopt the humility of Mary and to regard ourselves as Jesus’ commis chefs, both in our worship and through the way we live our lives. The two are inextricably linked. Worship should be a dress rehearsal for life?

My hero of the week? No contest!

On Thursday (10th October) the Church remembers Paulinus.

Now I think that it is very important we remember the saints – and I am not just talking about my beloved Northampton (you need to be a rugby fan at this point!) – because they keep us in touch with our heritage, our tradition, our journey and most importantly of all our mission. This is particularly true for good old Paulinus.

Paulinus  was ‘sent’ to England by Pope Gregory as a missionary. After spending sometime in Northumbria he went to York and started to build a church; now York Minster. In 627 he became Bishop of York. York served very much as his base, a spiritual home or place of stability, for Paulinus continued to spend much of his life on the road. His mission was predominantly to the north of the Humber where he was famous for his evangelism and the baptism of new Christians. He was also a renowned church planter and builder. He wasn’t universally popular, however.  Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, was not all enamored by a travelling bishop preaching love of God and neighbor as our highest callings; (still at least we don’t have to confront this issue now – I’m being ironic, possibly sarcastic – I prefer ironic, it makes me sound far nicer). Paulinus was forced to flee the North and eventually was ordained Bishop of Rochester. He died in 644.

The Gospel reading for Paulinus is Matthew 28, 16 -end; ‘The Great Commission.’ In this passage the eleven apostles are told to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,’ (verse 19). The timeless teaching and sacramental mission of the Church are laid out before us.

Reaching back into our heritage, reflecting on Paulinus on all that he brought to our land may challenge us to:

Thank God for the people who introduced us to, and nurtured us in, the faith.

Accept that the commission we have been given will not necessarily lead to universal acceptance. Like Paulinus we are called on to stand head to toe with the ‘powers and dominions,’ the unjust structures in society.

Look outwards to those who need to hear the message of Love and receive the seal of God’s love through Word and Sacrament. 

I do worry (I am a worrier!) that the Church is in danger of throwing away it’s tradition in order to appear relevant, accessible, and user friendly. Understanding the role of folk like Paulinus, I think is hugely important, ‘do you agree?’

So what’s your story? The narratives of true belief and disbelief.

So what’s your story? 

Is it the story of belief or the story of unbelief: theism or atheism? For these are really the only two scripts you can live by.

And, the script you live by will not ultimately be judged according to the doctrine and dogma you explicitly declare.

There may be a disconnect between espoused belief and way of life. It is the authenticity with which we live our guiding stories that renders open to judgement by our ‘peers’ and, if you explicitly believe in God, by God. The parable of the Sheep and Goats – a salvation parable – makes clear the possible disconnect; it is of huge significance that those who were welcomed into the heavenly realms were unaware that they were serving the Divine. Believers shouldn’t forget that many who claim to have carried out various acts of power in the name of the Lord open themselves up to summary dismissal; frightening stuff.

But what about the earthly, temporal realm? Well your choice is simply this: are you going to be the narrator and chief actor of your own story. This is the atheistic perspective. It is of course entirely possible to be the narrator, creator and principal actor in your own script even whilst declaring an explicit belief in God. The disconnect again! Let’s consider the possible consequences of this script:

Well you are going to get tired, very tired, because your script will need to be constantly revised as events outside your control inevitably take their toll. It could be that your script never reaches a sensible, credible, conclusion. In your role as narrator-director and lead actor you may well treat other actors as pawns, whose primary purpose is to serve the needs of the narrative. The world, in other words, will become increasingly small, revolving round you, the ‘micro creator.’ The good news is that you probably will shape your own destiny, certainly temporal, and very possibly eternal. The bad news is that it you might unwittingly create a story with an unhappy ending. You may start off seeking to write an epic romantic novel but end up creating a tragic farce; try not to be bitter.

So what about the other choice? Well at first sight it’s far less glamorous for you will forego the opportunity to narrate your own story; you will be able to do so because you recognize their is a power beyond your control. This leads to two further choices, hopeless theism or hopeful theism. Hopeless theism (stoicism) shrugs its shoulders and says ‘what will be will be,’ hopeful theism, living faith, goes beyond stoicism, replacing ‘what will be will be, ‘with ‘not my will but thine be done.’ This approach relocates the purposefully passivity of Gethsemane. The living mantra of those  who live by faith is ‘into thy hands I commend my spirit, for thou has redeemed me Oh God of truth.’ The person of faith, the true theist, doesn’t need to revise their script because any story they write is subsidiary to the grand meta narrative (oh how contemporary society hates meta narratives!) 

As true theists begin to mature, they tend to forego the opportunity to play the part of the lead actor. They are happy to consistently become smaller and smaller in relation to both their peers (no need for inverted commas here) and the cosmos. It is only through the story of living faith that this orientation becomes possible, credible. Why because this story is a true love story, and don’t we all enjoy these far more in the end. Don’t we all really want our stories to end ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’

So what’s your guiding  story?