Talking about Thomas; realism, mission & evangelism.

I love the story of Doubting Thomas (John 20, 19 -end). In fact with each passing year I love it more.

Like many great stories it is multi layered and nuanced. Yes, it can be read straightforwardly but it can also be read playfully. Perhaps the facet of the story that grabs me most is, however, its sheer realism and pragmatism. John starts his account by telling us that ‘it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house of were locked for fear of the Jews.’ The apostles, it seems, were afraid; afraid of what might happen to them. Fear was a characteristic of the Apostolic Church. Fear, to my mind, remains a characteristic of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ What and who we are afraid of course varies from context to context and, sadly in many places the church continues to be persecuted but overall fear, I think, is endemic to the human and ecclesiological condition.

I am a fearful person, ministering in a fearful church.

Fear is often thought of as a negative characteristic and it can be if it leads to inaction (or wrong action). But, maybe fear can be a positive virtue if it leads to an acceptance of weakness, an openness to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the provision of peace? Perhaps the only way of overcoming fear is through the recognition of fear? Just a thought.

John’s telling of the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ has been instrumental to my understanding of mission and evangelism. It’s easy (and I think cheap) to criticize, or indeed mock, Thomas so, for me, the real challenge in the story is the invitation to cherish the ‘doubting’ Thomases amongst us. How many doubters are in our churches week, by week, by week? How good as a church are we at making and sustaining friendships with true doubters?  Does our ecclesiology, perhaps mistakenly, insist that ‘true’ faith is a prerequisite of church membership, that right belief must come first?

I would like to gently suggest that the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ challenges us to accept that hospitality, welcome and friendship are foundational to revelation, faith and belief. As church communities we mustn’t be too smug about that which has been revealed to us. We mustn’t pat ourselves on the back or set ourselves up on a pedestal because we believe. We must receive revelation as a gift and a grace; the unmerited work of God.

In John’s story it is clear that Jesus is the source of all revelation, and that the location for revelation is the community (the church, the ecclesial body). Jesus first reveals himself to the disciples, and then to Thomas. Those who had received the first revelation continued to offer Thomas friendship and a place of belonging, bearing with his atheistic ‘unless I see,’ creed, and look what happened: Jesus took the initiative and revealed Himself allowing Thomas to proclaim ‘my Lord and my God.’ 

Are our churches places of hospitality, friendship,inclusion and, in God’s own time, revelation?

Does the story of Doubting Thomas provide a realistic model for ecclesiology, mission and evangelism?













Speaking of Trump, State Visits, Question Time & the Church

I don’t normally watch Question Times these days, it’s bad for my mental health. But, this Thursday (25/4) I arrived home late from picking up my daughter and her girlfriend turned on the television, and voila there it was: Question Time.

As I watched the thing that struck me most was the level of sheer anger, both in the audience and amongst the panel. We are, it seems, an angry country, and anger is a close relative of that most pernicious of vices, hate. Where anger leads hate often follows, with hate finding its fullest, ugliest, expression in violence. Watching Question Time this week has left me feeling fearful for that which is to come.

What disturbed me most was the toxicity of the debate over whether President Trump should be afforded a state visit. The anger levels seemed to me to be highest during this part of the show. To be clear and upfront I don’t believe that President Trump should be afforded, or do I mean awarded, a state visit. In fact I believe that state visits should be infrequent occurrences with invitations being issued sparingly, but be that as it may.

I am no Trump fan and I am aware of the precise time time when it became clear to me that I couldn’t offer the then future president the benefit of the doubt.  My ‘you have crossed a boundary moment’ was the occasion when Mr. Trump (as he then was) cruelly mimicked a disabled journalist from the podium.

As the proud father of a daughter who lives with, through, and beyond epilepsy, cerebral palsy and spasticity, I knew in the savage actuality of that moment that the president to be couldn’t really care less about the poor, the injured, the marginalized and the different. All I heard was his ‘mocking voice’ calling out as the cheer leader to the  ‘scoffers.’

Watching Mr. Trump mock a disabled journalist was a very great epiphany.  I don’t want the President of the United States, or indeed any political leader, to be someone who gains their popularity through the ignoble arts of mocking and scoffing. Do you?

I do, however, wish to live in a world characterized by ‘kingdom values;’ a world where justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit are the desired for, and strived for, animating virtues.

I want to live in a society where all may flourish and none need fear.

I want to live in a society that cares, seriously cares, about the poor, the disabled and the marginalized.

I want to live in a society that celebrates and affirms difference.

I want to live in a society that understands that exercising prudent stewardship over the created order is of paramount importance.

I want to live in, and help shape such a society, because I think that these are kingdom values. When the Church prays ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven’ I think that what we are (or should be) praying for is the dignity of human difference and the bounty of the earth. To love and esteem human difference whilst faithfully caring for the created order is, perhaps, to live by what St. Paul refers to as ‘a still more excellent way,’ (1 Corinthians 12, 31).

The Church, for the sake of the world, must speak prophetically into the civic sphere whilst incarnating the ‘still more excellent way.’ We must be a new model community offering respite from, and a prophetic challenge to, a world increasingly characterized by anger, hatred and cruelty. We must dare to truly show that ‘perfect love,’ does indeed ‘cast out all fear,’ (1 John 4, 18).

Only when we do this will be a truly, authentically, evangelical and missional church, offering to the world through ‘word’ and ‘deed’ (Colossians 3, 17) a ‘still more excellent way.’




Talking of Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is the day in the church’s calendar that really gets to me.

I think it is the day that leads me into the acceptance of that strangest and most mystical of doctrines: the (hypostatic) doctrine that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. It is the day that, above all others, makes me want to believe. Maundy Thursday is the day that compels me to seek union with Christ and to own the word Christian. Maundy Thursday is the day when presiding at the Eucharist takes on an entire new meaning.

Yes, I know that everything that Jesus has said and done up and until this point points towards his divinity, but, for me, it is the events of Maundy Thursday that reveal the fullness of the hypostatic union. Put colloquially Maundy Thursday gets to me.

On Good Friday the words of utter, mind shattering, compassion spoken from the cross, ‘Father forgive,’ and ‘women here is your son,’ follow on from, and are the supernatural consequence of, the Maundy Thursday revelation.

On Maundy Thursday Jesus gives the apostles ‘a new commandment;’ the commandment ‘to love on another as I have loved you.’ On Good Friday Jesus shows us what such love looks like, from the cross. The cross is the place of completion, the place where the meaning of the new commandment is finally, and for all time, revealed.

This notion of completeness is important. Presiding at the Good Friday Eucharist from a bare altar, stripped of all finery, with the reserved sacrament from ‘the day before he died,’ ensures that the words ‘do this in remembrance of me,’ become a lived reality.

So what is it about Maundy Thursday that bursts through all my barriers rendering my faith experiential, and known? Well, put simply, it’s the words and actions of Jesus, the Messiah.

I find it simply staggering that knowing what is to befall him Jesus takes the time to feed his apostles, to wash their feet, to give them one last tutorial in the art of divine love. It is through these simple acts that the divinity and humanity of Christ is revealed as coexisting in perfect (hypostatic) union.

I know that as a mere human being I could never face such a cruel end by continuing to give of my very self. I know that as a mere human being I could never complete the work of Maundy Thursday on Good Friday by asking for forgiveness for those who ‘know not what they are doing,’ (Luke 23, 34). It is the words and actions of Jesus on Maundy Thursday and into Good Friday above all else that convince me that Jesus truly is the ‘Son of God.’ 

Maundy Thursday is the day that penetrates my very soul.





Speaking of rugby and religion, inclusion and exclusion

Rugby and religion have been two of my constant interests. In fact they have been, variously, my consuming passions.

I started playing rugby when I was eight and carried on until I was thirty-one. I first became interested in religion at school and think that I am still am. I couldn’t say for sure whether, over the span of my life, I have spent more time in churches or rugby clubs. Both rugby and religion have delighted me and left me feeling let down.

It’s rare that rugby and religion, or faith, share the same common ground, focusing on and seeking to referee the same issues. Over the last week or so they have, for both rugby and religion have been seeking to adjudicate on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality.’ 

At the end of a bitterly contested week the response of the rugby community, the global rugby community, and its’ leaders, has been both decisive and inclusive, the response of the religious community mediated through her leaders has been decisive yet exclusive.

I am, of course, referring to and comparing the way that the Australian (and possibly English) Rugby Union have dealt with homophobic statements by a leading player, with the justification by the church for excluding same-sex spouses from attending the Lambeth Conference.

Last week one of Australia’s leading players, Israel Folau, tweeted that  for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” Sadly, it seems as though one of England’s leading players Billy Vunipola, who acknowledges that he likes ‘a few beers,’ has rushed to support Folau.

Folau, in particular, is pure box office. He has played for his country at both Rugby Union (on 74 occasions)  and Rugby League. He has also been a professional Aussie Rules player. Australia, don’t forget, is one of those nations where football (association football) is a minority sport. Vunipola is a star of the English game, a key man for both club and country. England play well when Vunipola plays well.

The Australian Rugby Union have acted decisively by sacking Folau, whilst the Rugby Football Union have arranged to meet with Billy Vunipola. Both governing bodies are proud of the part that rugby has played in promoting LGBT equality.

Thirty years ago when I was a rugby playing church goer LGBT people would probably have felt ill at ease in both the rugby club and the church. Nowadays rugby prides itself on its inclusivity. Gareth Thomas, who captained both Wales and the British Lions, came out as gay whilst playing. He was fully supported by his friends, his union, and the rugby community at large. Nigel Owens, the openly gay referee, was the man with the whistle in the 2016 Word Cup Final. Nick Heath is a leading commentator. All of these, alongside many others, are welcomed as equals in rugby clubs up and down the land.

Are LGBT Christians welcomed in churches up and down the land? Are LGBT Christians (and non Christians for that matter) more likely to receive an unconditional welcome in a rugby club than a church?

Also last week the Archbishop of Canterbury talked of his pain at the ‘necessary’ decision that he, as the man in the middle with the whistle, had to take to exclude same-sex spouses from the Lambeth Conference. The justification for the decision was the requirement to secure the highest possible turnout. The quality of the conference, it seems, is to be determined by the quantity at the conference.

Apparent (pretend) unity and the appeasement of the conservative voice appear to be the driving impulses. In order to maximize numbers exclusion is deemed to be a painful necessity. Can this be right? What sources (because I can’t find any) would justify such a model of Christian Ethical Reasoning? But more importantly what further harm could the Archbishop’s decision inflict on countless others? Does the Archbishop not realize that he is legitimizing exclusion and discrimination at every level solely in order to achieve a high turn out at the Lambeth Conference?

The former Scotland international Scott Hastings, who has described himself as ‘a fellow rugby commentator and proud father of Corey Hastings and his husband Daniel Hastings’  last week wrote to endorse the views of Nick Heath who warned that Folau’s views could ’cause harm to hundreds of thousands of people.’ 

If Heath and Hastings are correct in their analysis of Folau’s views, then the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to be troubled by his decision to override his prior commitment to ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the Church.’ If a well attended Lambeth Conference is our highest and most noble aspiration then the Church should be deeply concerned at the decision made by our man with the whistle.

Legitimizing homophobia should always run contrary to the values of the church (of England), especially since the Archbishops have called for a ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church.’ There is nothing radical or inclusive about the decision to exclude. There is also nothing necessary about the decision to exclude. But, there may well be something harmful and dangerous about the decision to exclude. If Heath and Hastings are correct then Archbishop Justin should for the greater good, the good that exists beyond the Lambeth Conference, revisit his decision.

Stuart Barnes, another rugby pundit, stated in his Sunday Times article that ‘the problem isn’t either man, it is the message.’  He doesn’t regard Folau or Vunipola as bad people but rather as people who have been badly schooled in and through the church. I can’t help but believe that Barnes, a self-confessed unbeliever, is correct, for the place where these two box office rugby stars learnt to discriminate was not the rugby club bar but the church pulpit. How tragic and sad is that?

For the long-term good of all the Archbishop should change the message rather than focusing on the numbers, for when all is said and done, so what if the Lambeth Conference is poorly attended? It’s the quality of the thing that counts not the numbers.

Rugby and religion have been my two consuming passions. Over the last week or so rugby’s global leaders seem to have shown far greater theological leadership than their churchy equivalents. How ironic that the rugby club can now be regarded as a place of radical new inclusion, whereas the church remains an exclusive club.

Please Archbishop Justin focus on the message and not the numbers.

‘Hundreds of thousands of people’ are depending on you, don’t let them down.