If you go, we lose our footing – reflections on the calling to stability

Earlier this week I watched ‘Of God’s and Men,’ with a group of parishioners. It is a fantastic film. Set in Algeria, the film tells the true story of a group of Cistercian monks caught in the midst of ethnic violence during the 1990’s. The monks live alongside, and serve, an impoverished Muslim community; this is their calling. 

When violence breaks out the monks have to decide whether to flee, back to France, or to stay and accept whatever comes their way. After an enormous amount of ‘soul searching’ they stay, in the full and certain knowledge that martyrdom would be their, unanticipated, calling.

So what made them stay? Certainly not a sense of heroism – none of them became monks believing that they were called to martyrdom. Perhaps, the moment when they were able to discern their ‘revised calling’ came one one their Muslim brothers said:

‘If you go we lose our footing’

This irony is this: their Muslim friend simply reminded them of their monastic vow to stability (Cistercians follow the Rule of Benedict – the three Benedictine vows being Stability, Obedience and Conversion of Life).Stability infers long-term commitment to a people, a place and a set of practices. Stability is unlikely, for most of us to lead to martyrdom. But, if we take stability seriously it will almost certainly provide some route for taking up our cross and following (without going anywhere – another Christian paradox) Him.

I was struck by the thoughts that others need our stability:

  • in order to retain their sense of identity
  • to face, with courage, and in hope, an uncertain future
  • to know they are not alone – that others stand alongside them in authentic Christian solidarity
  • to witness, first hand, the transforming power of our, Christian, faith

So these are the challenges: what might stability mean to us, in our contexts? How committed are to our neighbours and their footing, even where their practices and beliefs are markedly different?

One final thought: it is not hard to offer stability and solidarity to those who are just like us – in fact, this might be a sure and certain route into all manner of injustice, inequality and, potentially, atrocity. 



Establishment or disestablishment that is the question

Apologies for the rather naff title, but I understand that we are celebrating 450 years of the bard this week!

So should the Church of England be disestablished? Let’s start with a quip from President Roosevelt who when asked what sort of economist he would like allegedly replied ‘a one handed one.’ When asked to explain his answer he told his inquisitor that he was fed up of economists, when asked for their opinion, replying ‘one the one hand……….but on the other hand……….’ And, I guess it is a bit like this on the (dis) establishment question. 

Before I give a few thoughts on ‘the question,’ one simple reflection: those calling for disestablishment appear to comprise the liberal secular elite; ordinary Jo’s (and Josephine’s) don’t appear to be that bothered. Having said this there are arguments on both sides.

It is interesting that the leaders of other denominations and faiths seem to like the fact that we have an established church. Having an established church means that all citizens have spiritual rights; paradoxically an established church is regarded as the protector of religious plurality. Our Supreme Governor is both the Defender of the Faith, and by proxy defender of the faiths (Prince Charles need not worry about official religious titles!) It is also right and proper that faith and religion should be represented in the legislature. We like to ham up the decline in religious attendance but, it remains a  (for some an uncomfortable) truth that religious attendance, by a considerable distance, remains the most popular voluntary activity in the U.K. Sorry, secularists but it is true!

So far so good. But, it is also true that many in the church wish that the Bishops would stop being so political and instead focus on church affairs, faith and the building up of local Christian communities. I understand this point but would also suggest that the Bishops are mandated to express political views by dint of their place in the legislature. We can’t expect our Bishops to turn up and say nothing! 

At times the established church is weakened as a consequence of its status as the established church, it is forced to take positions that are either largely counter cultural, or explicitly political and this will always upset some of its constituency. By being part of the legislature it courts controversy and risks ridicule (just as Jesus did). But, the only other alternative is marginalisation both for itself and all other denominations and faiths, and that would be a very bad thing indeed. 

So all in all, I favour establishment! 

There’s something about Mary M!

Hide and seek was one of my favourite childhood games. A good hiding place provided the opportunity to nourish the hermit within, to spend time alone. It had the added benefit of annoying my seekers – specifically my sister (not very kind I know!)

Perhaps, the first post resurrection encounter, between Jesus and Mary M, is a bit like hide and seek, but with one exception. The role of seeker is reversed.

Jesus asks Mary: ‘For whom are you looking,’ (John 20, 15). Mary, the seeker can’t see what is right in front of her face, not hidden but present, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because Mary can’t find Jesus, He, in his mercy, changes the rules of the game. Jesus becomes the seeker and finds Mary, and not some artificial putting on her best front Mary, but the real and highly vulnerable Mary. Jesus through this encounter shows that He really is the consummate game changer. Jesus changes, through the resurrection, everything; for all time. He brings us in from the cold; he allows us to become real once again.

But, what else can we learn? Perhaps simply this: rather than seeking we simply need to let ourselves be found. Perhaps to really experience resurrection we need to stop trying so hard and simply let Jesus find us?

So this week why don’t we pray that Jesus finds us anew and then simply sit and wait. 


How an ordinary Jo stepped up to the plate: 3 lessons in discipleship.

Reading through this morning’s Gospel reading, John 19, 38-42, I was struck by a seemingly insignificant yet tender detail which, on closer reflection, provides a lovely description of how the Church might consider how it leads people into a life of ever deepening discipleship. 

Let’s have a look at John 19, 38-39:

‘After these things, Joseph of Arimathea who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night also came, bringing with him a mixture of myrhh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds…..’

I think we can learn (at least) three things from this short passage:

Some of our church members will, like Joseph, be reticent about their faith, because they are afraid or lack confidence. Indeed so might we have been at some stage in our journey. So let’s be humble and tender, perhaps (almost certainly) at first we too ‘didn’t quite get it.’

We should expect and welcome quietists within our gatherings and act with Nicdoemian tenderness. We are, after all, called onto to nourish others. Let’s never neglect the ministry of encouragement. Just consider how, with Nicodemus’ encouragement, Joseph steps up, perhaps unexpectedly, to the plate.

There is a cost to ministry, often a material cost, in the case of Nicodemus a cost weighing about a hundred pounds. Ministry is by definition sacrificial. 

Yes, there are other lessons to be learnt – how to care for the dead, for instance, but these three struck me as relevant to how we ‘disciple others’ today.

Can we welcome and nurture the Joseph’s in our community; you never know what they might do. 



Divergent theology and the way of the cross.

Immediately before being led away to face his ‘trial,’ and subsequent crucifixion, Jesus prays for all who stand in the apostolic tradition. That is to say that all who believe as a result of the apostle’s ministry (i.e you and me and, all who have believed through the ages)

His prayer is simple and straightforward. According to John’s gospel he prayed that ‘they all may be one,’  (John 17, 21).

Last week I went to the cinema with my girls to watch a film called Divergent – it’s implicitly, and deeply, theological. The film tests the proposition that peace can only be maintained through organising people into factions with, the faction being each individual’s primary source of identity. Individuals on coming of age are tested to see which faction they suit. They then leave their biological family to join the faction. Each faction is responsible for contributing something towards the common good. The system is designed so that each group can peacefully coexist because, each individual works alongside kinsfolk who have the same interests and attributes. So far so good. The system sort of works. But,

testing identifies various individuals as being ‘divergent’ that is to say that they cut across factions. Divergents are considered dangerous.

Jesus I suggest was divergent – and so are you and I (potentially). The difference is that jesus refused point blank to be factionalised, we don’t. Jesus because he was divergent was fully human. We because we are either placed into factions, or elect to join factions to protect ourselves (artificially) from those who make us feel uncomfortable become considerably less than the sum of our parts. The result of factional behaviour may be to ensure that we become overly loyal to our factions. Our loyalty to a faction necessitates that we behave in such a way as to ensure that we are held in high regard by our peers and superiors. We forget that our primary source of identity is simply our humanity.

Christian theology has two words to describe factional behaviour: idolatry and sin. And, it is factional behaviour that put Jesus on the cross. Pilate, from the Roman faction recognised that the only way to appease the pharisaic faction  was to cede to their demands. The paradox, or miracle, is that  through the cross  the place where he draws all people to himself, Jesus obliterated once and for all the requirement to belong to, and boost our identity, through factions.

The ongoing tragedy is that the Church (i.e. the C of E) refuses to accept this – to welcome divergence.

Just think about how the church wants its ministers to self identify – traditional catholic, modern catholic, mid church, open evangelical, conservative evangelical. Now think about the groups, factions, set up to support churches aligning themselves in such ways. Forward in Faith, Affirming Catholicism, The Evangelical Alliance, Reform and so on. Within individual churches we find even more sub sets. 

Writing in last weeks Church Times the playwright Richard Everett reflected, ‘I sometimes think that the Church should disband fellowship groups in exchange for exploring the art of friendship.’ 

An overstatement? Perhaps.

But, I do think that if we recognised that part of the work of the cross was to draw all people to Christ we ought to consider the primary locale for our identity, and seek to befriend each other. This might mean becoming increasingly divergent, leaving our factions behind and, focusing on becoming one. Divergence honours Christ, which in turn opens up the potential for a truly Pentecostal experience. 

Are you prepared to be divergent? 

Solid theology

Okay – its a play on words.

What I want to have a quick look is the idea of solidarity.

Solidarity is characterised by identification with another person or group, not necessarily – nay, almost always outside of our immediate affinity groups – translated into practical action.

Jesus, I suggest, was big into solidarity. Just look at who this ‘good Jew’ identified with: Samaritan women, menopausal women, lepers, the physically and mentally disabled, the dreaded Romans, dead people (Lazarus) Pharisees (Nicodemus) and so on. Move into the acts of the apostles and who is the first person baptised into the Christian faith? An Ethiopian Eunuch! This is truly radical. So why are we so picky and choosy about who is in, and who is out?

There is no evidence form the gospels that Jesus did anything other than draw all people to himself. He was able to do so because he stood in perfect solidarity with all; he wanted to erase once and for all every single false distinction. He wanted to expose the lie of distinctions made between people based on false categories of pure and impure. To do so he had to humble himself, as a ‘good Jew,’ even to the point of death upon a cross. 

So it we wish to follow in the pattern of Christ, which is our calling what are the practical implications? Again Brother Roger of Taize provides thoughtful guidance, this is what he wrote in the Rule of Taize:

‘Love the disadvantaged, all those who experience human injustice and are thirsting for justice. Jesus had a particular concern for them. Do not be afraid of letting them disturb you.’

Jesus let people disturb him – the Syro Phoenician women for example – shouldn’t  we do the same?  

So if we are serious about being Church we need to let others disturb us, we need to stand alongside those who make us feel uncomfortable, we need to ‘get over ourselves’ and our preoccupations. We need to see the gay person (or couple), the disabled person, the sick person, the coloured person, the female person and the mentally ill person as equals in Christ. But, we need to go further, for we are required to fight for justice for all.

This is the Church’s real challenge: are we up for it?

‘Simple’ theology

Several years ago we received a mailshot from CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) urging us to ‘live simply.’ The more I thought about it – attracted as I am by the notion – I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that I had no idea what they were on about.

Simplicity, might be one of those notions we toss about on the sea of ideas without really understanding what on earth it really means. Furthermore my straightforward, and initial analysis, led me to suspect that the modern western world is rigged against the whole idea of simplicity; we ‘simply’ have too many choices and, our products and services are frequently characterised by complexity. It is complexity, not simplicity, that draws us in. 

Simplicity was put on the back burner, relegated to a category called ‘nice word, vague concept.’ Until last month:

Reading the Rule of Taize I stumbled across a slice of Brother Roger’s characteristic wisdom:

Simplicity is found in the free joy of a brother who gives up being obsessed by his own progress and failures, in order to keep his eyes fixed on the light of Christ.

So what can we deduce?

Simplicity is a grace given to us when we gaze at Christ. Simplicity is a joy. Simplicity has absolutely nothing at all to do with the modern preoccupation with notions of success and failure. Simplicity is a spiritual and inward grace leading to outward manifestations. 

Thank you Brother Roger, for your simple wisdom!