Open question theology

If you want to get to the heart of the matter, or build relationships, it is probably best to ask a series of open questions: who, what, when, how, where and, why. 

Being ordained priest, as I was last Saturday, prompted a review of self, using the ‘open question’ method.

So ‘who am I?’ Well like you my primary identity,is as a child of God. Before all else I am a human being made in God’s image, and this is great news. The implications of this are enormous. God, as my creator and parent, deserves my love and praise. Because, I am the created and, not the creator, humility must surely be my orientation (so frequently the reverse is true and pride, the ‘cardinal sin’ wins).

‘What am I?’ Stripping all away I am first a partner (to my wife), secondly a parent and, thirdly a priest. These three describe the human relationships that allow me to fulfil my status as a child of God, in relationship with others. The first two of these ontological relationships are recognised legally – I have bits of paper to prove it! In my case all three have also been recognised liturgically and sacramentally, though Holy Matrimony, through baptism (both my own and my children’s) and ,through ordination. Liturgy and sacraments, mystically, align the ‘who’ with the ‘what.’ Liturgy and sacraments have the effect of bringing something of heaven down to earth. In this way they help fulfil the part of the Lord’s Prayer where we ask for the coming of the ‘kingdom on earth as in heaven.’ Liturgy and sacraments are God’s transformational gift to the church; I feel this very strongly!

When? Well always! I can’t stop being a child of God, even at my most prodigal. I can’t take a respite from marriage, parenthood or priesthood, simply because these three describe what I am, or how I stand (functionally and ontologically) before God. Even on days when I don’t feel much or a partner, parent or priest the bottom line is that I am. 

How refers to the way I carry myself, or allow myself to be carried as child of God, partner, parent and priest. Part of our calling, maybe the entirety of our calling, is to be transformed into the very image of God. We are asked to be the very image of God’s radical all inclusive love in and for the world; nothing more and nothing less. All that is required is openness and humility! 

Where? Wherever we are led. Sometimes the gospel stories depicting Jesus telling those who he encountered to leave all behind and follow Him, on other occasions he commanded beneficiaries of his healing grace to stay put. We need to carefully, prayerfully, discern where God is calling us to serve as His image in the world.

Why? Here I run out of answers and simply answer, as I used to my daughters when they were young, BECAUSE! (But, perhaps the answer is that He loves us and desires nothing more than to bring us fully into line with His plans for the salvation of the world?)


Alphabet theology

As I approach my ordination to the priesthood I feel ever so slightly unsettled. I suspect – hope – this is a good thing.

It’s nothing to do with becoming a reverend or sporting a dog collar; I do that already. For the vast majority of the ‘secular’ world I am already regarded as a vicar, priest, minister, padre or father, depending on whichever adjectives they are most familiar with. I am, however, aware that many members of the congregations I serve will ‘see’ me differently, for I will no longer need to wear my stole ‘diaconally,’ (or even diagonally), and I will, of course, be able to preside at the Eucharist.

But, it is the sheer awesomeness of what the Church is ordaining me to do which really unsettles me. From next Saturday onwards I will be asked to absolve and bless people and, cconsecrate the elements. In practicing for presiding at the Eucharist recently I had a ‘bit of a moment,’ when, for the first time, I uttered the words ‘absolve you of your sins.’ Blessing people will, I am sure, feel just as strange. Consecrating bread and wine, making ‘ordinary things,’ holy is just about as awe-inspiring as it gets. I hope I will be able to exercise priestly ministry with the humility it demands.

I hope I can get to get grips with the ABC of priestly ministry. I hope that I can both be, and encourage others to be, living sacraments for, I suspect that living a truly sacramental life, animated through the ministerial priesthood, should characterise the priesthood of all believers.

Can you imagine a world in which people felt absolved, blessed and where the ordinary things of life were made sacred; if you can you might just be getting a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like, here on earth.

Ferrero Rocher Theology

Do you remember the Ferrero Rocher Adverts, the ones depicting the Ambassador’s Reception where the waitresses offer guests a Ferrero chocolate, from a silver platter? If you do you might be wondering what on earth this has all got to do with theology.

Christian Theology has always struggled with how Christians should relate to the nation state. We pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven of heaven on earth. What does this mean? A transformation in government institutions so that they reflect so called kingdom values in their decision making, perhaps? For ‘secular’ governments to be populated by Christians of one sort or another, maybe? The removal of all forms of secular government in favour of the Christian state? Or, is our prayer a little more vague, would we prefer a little more love and niceness in daily life?

Of course for many of us, in the ‘Developed West,’ the issue isn’t that sharp. Life can be quite nice, we are not likely to be persecuted for our faith, the abundance of God is apparent in the form of good homes, pleasant gardens and, an idyllic countryside. Governments and political institutions may be experienced as mild, and abstract, irritants, to be complained about in polite, or not so polite, conversation, but not, I suggest, as real and manifest agents of abuse and tyranny. Go to parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Ukraine and the situation looks a little different. Our own inner cities and former industrial villages don’t equate to romantic notions of what the kingdom of heaven on earth might look and feel like.

Yet, we are all called on to answer a basic question: ‘As Christians to whom do we owe our primary allegiance?’ The answer must always, surely, be the Kingdom of God, and this means our relationship with other kingdoms must, unless those kingdoms mirror ‘the kingdom’ be somewhat provisional? As Christians we always occupy, in Augustine’s terms ‘two cities,’ and, to borrow, from Dickens we must learn faithfully tell the ‘Tale of Two Cities.’

No easy task, but perhaps there is a metaphor we can use to help and, an Old Testament Scripture?

Cardinal Donald Wuerl suggests that an appropriate metaphor is that of ambassador (hence Ferrero Rocher!). An ambassador is respectful of the customs and traditions of the country in which he or she lives and, where they enjoy diplomatic immunity. Ambassadors, are, however charged with representing the values of another kingdom, or sovereign state. Ambassadors employ the language of respect and diplomacy but, they must never become beholden to, or uncritical of, their place of temporary residence, rather they seek to further the interests of their own sovereign state and its citizens. Isn’t this our role? We are bound to support political institutions to the extent that they promote kingdom values: justice, the dignity of each individual and community, peace, reconciliation and love. We must oppose policies and institutions that fail to promote Godly virtues. Our task may make us unpopular, at times, but after all Jesus told us unfortunately at times our faith will cut us off from those who we would normally relate to (Matthew 10, 34 for instance).

Ambassadors may be sent to risky places, so might we. Ambassadors might have to speak uncomfortable truths- so might we? Ambassadors only real status is that of resident-alien. As ambassadors for The Kingdom surely this is also our status? All metaphors eventually breakdown and, unlike ‘real world’ ambassadors we don’t enjoy diplomatic immunity. Christians throughout the centuries have been sentenced to death for refusing to bow to the demands of the nation state. For Western Christians, this is unlikely to be our fate, but we should dare to risk all for ‘The Kingdom.’

Regarding ourselves as resident-aliens, or Ambassadors brings me to an Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 29, 4-14, the so called ‘Letter to the Exiles.’  The Israelites, in exile in Babylon, are mandated to act as ambassadors: They are told to (verse 5) ‘build houses, settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce,’  and (verse 7) ‘work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you, pray to Yahweh on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends.’ However, the Israelites are also told (verse 8) that they must not be deceived by the ‘false prophets’ that will inevitably emerge from within their own ranks; they must in other words embrace their status as ‘resident-aliens’ and ambassadors preserving their own ‘kingdom identity,’ whatever the cost.

We have to do likewise.

Are you a resident-alien, an ambassador, for The Kingdom? If so treat yourself to a chocolate!