Friday, 17 February 2017

Walsingham Baby

Today, on his birthday, we interred my Father's ashes in Puddletown church yard, alongside my Mum's.

After his death last year, I posted 'Shilvia Shishishons' - a tribute to his calling to ordination.  Today, I would like to post a short joint tribute to him and my Mum, in gratitude for the way in which I came into the world.

It has taught me never to dismiss the faith of others - even when it may seem very different to my own...

"Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My dad never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with biretta on special occasions.  They were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, they moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where dad was priest in charge of the church at Downley.  He was responsible for a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as ‘vicar’s wife’ and David served the village community as priest and kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular, longed for a baby – but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did not help and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well, and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady, and asked Mary for her prayers for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply, and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in 1 Samuel 1 “in deep anguish… praying in her heart… pouring out her soul to the Lord”.  Hannah made a deal with God that if he heard her prayer and gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Dorset, and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at “The Shrubbery” in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this would be during the big annual pilgrimage in May, and we would join with other pilgrims in the great procession and open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a private joke between me and God, when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality, but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We may not always understand the faith and spirituality of others.  Sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  But if God is happy to be at work through those expressions of faith, who are we to dismiss or condemn.

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” and they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together; excuses like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  In the end, he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he also longed for them to play tennis with each other.

Too often that is what we are like as Christians – all wanting to play with God, but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We often separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches.  We choose who we will play with, work with, pray with – but in the end, we are all children of God.

So in the end, I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit my neatly worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is often much messier than our well-ordered categories, and being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Modern Parable for the CofE

So I went to my local cinema with a friend.

We got to the box office to buy our tickets, but when we said which film we wanted to see, the cinema usher suddenly looked uncomfortable.  The colour slowly drained from her cheeks.

After an agonising pause, she finally said, “I’m sorry but this film isn’t really for you.  It’s for other people… you know, people who aren’t like you.”

My friend and I stood there, caught somewhere between amazement and incredulity.  We began to argue with the usher.  “What do you mean – it’s not for us?  Why can’t we go in?  What sort of cinema is this anyway?”

The more we argued, the more uncomfortable she looked, mumbling things like, “I know, I know... it doesn’t seem fair…  If it were up to me, I would let you in… you are more than welcome to see other films, but not this one – its company policy.”

We stood our ground, continued to argue and after a while, she offered to talk to the cinema manager and see what he could do.  While this was far from ideal, we reluctantly agreed and she disappeared into his office, leaving us standing there wondering if it was really worth staying.

In the end, we decided to wait, and eventually she came back with a smile.

“I’ve talked to the manager, and he doesn’t agree with the company policy either, but his hands are tied.  We can’t sell you tickets to that film – but we can get around it!   If you want, I can sneak you in through the side door, and sit you in a corner where no one will see you.  I’m afraid you won’t be able the whole screen, but you will get the gist of the film you want to see.”

Now we were completely incredulous.

“But” she continued, “you have to agree not to tell anybody, and you mustn’t let anyone see you, and if you hear certain words – words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘blessing’ or ‘marriage’ or ‘ring’ – you must put your hands over your ears and remember that those words don’t apply to you.”

Now we didn’t know what to do.  We really wanted to see the film.  We had been looking forward to it, ever since it came out.  We had made a commitment to each other to see it together.

Yet now, faced with all these conditions… faced with the way we were being treated… faced with all the difficulty our presence was creating… we just felt a mixture of angry, deflated, and sad.  All the joy and excitement had gone.

Should we stay and take what we’ve been offered, even though it’s not what we want?  Should we walk away?  Find another cinema?  Surely they can’t all be like this? Perhaps we should just wait for the DVD? But that wouldn’t be the same either...

The cinema usher asked us again, “So… do you want me to sneak you in?”

Tell us, Church of England, what should we do?

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fractured Families and the House of Bishops

During my 25 years of ordained ministry, I have come across a good number of families who were divided over sexuality.

Most heart-rending would be when visiting a family about the death of their adult son or daughter, I would suddenly realise that there was an unseen partner, not present at this key moment as we planned the funeral service.

It was an innocent question about girlfriend, boyfriend, or children which usually betrayed the guilty secret.  ‘Well, he did have a “friend”’ or something similar was the typical embarrassed reply.  This ‘friend’ in the days before Civil Partnerships was invariably of the same gender, and was excluded by the family from this vitally important part of grieving a loved one.  After a while, I learned to look for them at the funeral.  He or she would be the one whose grief was palpable, almost uncontrolled – far surpassing the grief of parents, brothers or sisters – and yet excluded from the family pew.

I would make a point of spending time with him/her after the service, but even then, their words to me were guarded as I tried to include them in a funeral which they had no part in planning.

The situation has improved over the years since then.  Civil Partnership and now marriage have secured the right of the partner in a same-gender relationship to be the next of kin, but there are still situations when a loved one of the same-sex is marginalised or excluded.

I have done funerals for a parent of a LGBT son or daughter, where their partner has been marginalised of excluded.  The person who would be the best support in a difficult time has been placed at the outer margins of family, or simply excluded completely by others in the family.

The typical line which would accompany this pastoral situation would be something like, “Mum (or dad) never really got used to – you know – the way they were.” The same gender couple were tolerated, occasionally welcomed at family events, but never really accepted into the family.  There was no blessing, no celebration, no real acceptance.  Now they were separated from each other in this most tender time by the ghost of family disapproval.

And that disapproval is the harmful and hurtful message which the House of Bishops have further enshrined in their recent statement on same-sexpartnerships, to be debated in the General Synod this week.

In recent years, LGBT Christians have put their head above the parapet, risked sanction and exclusion, by joining in the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ in the hope of recognition.  Yet now they have been deliberately put back in their place on the margins.

In suggesting ‘maximum freedom’ for Church members, priests and bishops in same-gender partnerships, but refusing to change the church’s approach one iota to same gender relationships, the House of Bishops is saying we will tolerate you, but don’t get too close, don’t expect recognition, and don’t expect us to celebrate with you or bless you in your love – because at the end of the day, you are still living in sin against the will of God and his Church.

Not much of a welcome, is it?

Under their statement, same-gender Christian couples will still be refused public thanksgivings, blessings or acts of affirmation.  They will still be pushed to the margins of church life – expected to live in the shadows.  The House of Bishops doesn’t want them to get too close for fear of aggravating other members of the family – just like my funeral stories.

Very few people expected the CofE to rewrite its doctrine of marriage to include same-gender marriages anytime soon.  What was hoped for, however, was the same recognition which people marrying after divorce received for years, before marriage in church was an option.  A service of thanksgiving or blessing which did not rewrite the church’s doctrine of marriage “One man and one woman for life” but which did recognise that real life doesn’t always work out in the way the church expects.

Allowing such a liturgy does not require a change of the doctrine of marriage – it simply requires the same pastoral heart which prompted clergy to respond to divorcees in a more positive way.

What will be debated this week however, will be more of the same line which the CofE has peddled for years.  You can’t be blessed – not in public at least – and we won’t sanction giving thanks for your love – but we will tolerate you with our new doctrine of ‘maximum freedom’ for the wretched sinner.

In the light of this report, the CofE remains a sadly fractured family, and yet again, gay and lesbian Christians are being asked to carry the burden of that division – just like the fractured families I have encountered.

Surely there must be a better way?

It is particularly ironic that the next agenda item after the sexuality debate at General Synod this week is entitled “Setting God’s People Free”.  And it is particularly sad that the Church doesn’t seem to recognise the link or the contradiction between the two.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Healed to Pray

Part 2 of the amazing things God did during my recent trip to Hong Kong for a celebration of Jackie Pullinger’s ministry.

Jackie’s Jubilee celebrations were a joy and a delight.  It was almost 30 years since I was a helper at St Stephen’s Society and yet as I walked into the worship marquee on the site of the old Walled City, the sense of praise and worship was just as strong, just a vibrant as all those years ago.

God did some amazing things in me during the weekend.  I have already written about one strand, but there was more.  Another special thing God did, was to heal me of a deep scar which had been inhibiting my Christian life and ministry for over a decade.

Thirteen years ago, when I was a vicar in Brixton, London, my wife Mel suffered a horrific road accident.  She was dragged under the wheels of an 18-ton truck while riding her bicycle and when the truck came to a stop, her pelvis was shattered, half of one thigh was missing and she had huge wounds.

Mel was blessed to survive for which we thank God, but the accident led to months and months in hospital, scores of operations, and immense pain.  Even with all the medical technology available, it took 3 years for her wounds to finally close, with painful daily dressings, procedures, and infections all adding to her agony.

For me it was almost unbearable, to watch her going through such pain. Even when maxed out on morphine and other pain relief, the pain was more than she could bear.  So I sat with her, holding her hand and praying for God to take away (or just reduce) the pain.  I did this day after day, week after week, month after month.  Around the UK, hundreds of people were also praying for the same thing. I don’t know why, but our prayers were not answered.  Her agony continued unabated.

The effect of this on my faith is hard to express.  In Hong Kong thirty year ago, I had prayed every day for new brothers coming off heroin and I had seen God do wonderful things.  After a while I had to remind myself that we were seeing miracles almost every day as God took away their pain and suffering.  Yet now, for the person who I loved more than anyone else in the world, those prayers went unanswered.

As the weeks and months rolled on, a kind of fatigue set in.  It became harder and harder to pray for healing, until one day I realised that I couldn’t minister to people in prayer anymore. I could say prayers for them – but I couldn’t minister to others in prayer like I did before.

As a vicar, this was really difficult.  People often ask vicars for prayer for all kinds of different things.  Before Mel’s accident I would instinctively say “Right – lets pray then!” and spend time with them, seeking God and ministering in the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes I saw God act directly, sometimes not, but now I found myself unable to do that anymore.  I was even frightened of people asking me for prayer.  If they did, I would often promise to remember them in my prayers, and even say a short prayer, but there was no expectation – it had all been drained away.  I knew this wasn’t right.  It was like a dark cold wall cutting a part of me off from God and the ministry he had called me to.

Walled City before its demolition

So as I came back to Hong Kong for Jackie’s Jubilee, I came with both hope and fear. 

Hopeful that God would do something in me but fearful that he wouldn’t, that the dark cold wall would remain.

Over the weekend a wonderful thing happened.  In the praise and worship, in the prayer ministry I received and in the profound sense of God’s presence there, God melted that cold dark wall.  I didn’t even realise it was happening at first, but by the second day, I remembered the principle we were always encouraged to embrace at St Stephen's Society.  If you aren’t receiving ministry, go look for someone else who needs ministry and pray with them.

After so many years of not being able to pray for others, I suddenly realised that I was ministering to others again.  I was laying my hands on them, and expecting God to speak and act.  I had my eyes open again, looking for what God was doing.  I was listening for God’s prompting again.  I couldn’t believe it and tears of gratitude came to my eyes.

Walled City Park today

God melted my cold dark wall of pain on the site of the old Walled City.

I still don’t know why my prayers for Mel went unanswered.  I am not sure that I ever will.  But I know that God’s love has set me free from needing to know and from the paralysing scar which had become a part of me.

On the last day of the Jubilee, I sensed God wanted to speak to me, and I wrote down these words.

You thought that you had lost, but in fact, you have won.
You have come through the fire
and you have stood fast in the days of darkness.
Now my refining fire comes to cleanse and heal you;
not to burn you, but to bring out your inner beauty
and enable you to shine with my glory.
You are my child, and I am your Father.

To God be the glory.