Friday, 25 December 2015

Homily for the Nativity of Christ, 25th December 2015, Church of the Most Precious Blood, The Borough, Southwark

It is easy to forget in London, one of the greatest cities of the Western world, as we celebrate the birth of God the Son come among us as a human being, that he was born, lived and died and rose again in the East. We find it difficult to imagine, even though the Church he founded has spread to Europe and India, the Americas, across Africa, the far stretches of Asia and across the Pacific from Australia to Alaska, that in the East, in the lands where Jesus Himself walked, there are Christians to this day. Some of them speak Aramaic, the language that He spoke. They continue to worship by the Jordan where He was baptised. They live, as they always have, in the cities where Peter, Thomas, James, Bartholomew, Mark, Andrew, Simon and Jude took the Gospel and founded the first churches. Up in the mountains are the monasteries where some of the saints that we still remember each year wrote their hymns, some of which we sing to this day across the world in English. On the plains and plateaux are the villages and towns, where bishops famous from the great Councils of the Church’s first centuries - whose faith we still proclaim - were pastors to their people then, like their successors are today, in long unbroken line.

They do not have a Mass quite like this, but it is the same Eucharist of the Lord, with music and words, colour and ceremony going back on the same spot to the earliest days of the Christian religion - that is, the religion of those who knew Jesus Christ personally and, in His footsteps on the land of the East, planted their own, as their families and descendants, father and mother to son and daughter, have been doing for twenty centuries.

You have heard in the news that these ancient communities of Eastern Christians - Catholic and Orthodox; Arab, Armenian, Assyrian; with all the rich variety that makes the Church both all-encompassing and One – are under the direst threat they have ever faced. After nearly 1500 years of living side by side with Muslims, despite the persecution of successive empires, with bonds of charity and peace as children of the same land and peoples, now a ruthless band of killers has been going from village to village, town to town, monastery to monastery, destroying the Churches, forcing the faithful from their homes, kidnapping them along with their priests and monks and nuns, sometimes executing them, burning the ancient books that tell our Christian faith in the words of our forebears from the dawning days of the Church itself, tearing down the images of the Cross on which our Lord suffered for the sake of our redemption, and desecrating the altars and the images of Our Lord and the Mother of God. In Syria alone, the north of our Holy Land, forty-five churches and monasteries have been desecrated since the present surge of ISIS began; and a hundred more churches, orphanages, residential care homes, schools, and social or medical centres, provided by the Church for the benefit of all alike, have been damaged or ruined. There are similar stories from Iraq. But the worst of it all is that every day hundreds more Christians leave the Middle East. Ancient Churches in Palestine too, within a few miles of Bethlehem, face desertion as Christians are pressured out by Israel and Palestinian Muslims alike. Christ was born and cradled in Bethlehem, but Syria and the Middle East cradled Christianity, so it is emergency that affects us, as the whole region is stripped of its Christians, as a whole way of life and culture has part of its history and identity shorn off, so that all that remains is the gap where the memory used to be. A few of our fellow Christians from the Middle East will come to northern Europe, especially Sweden where they have been welcomed; more will go to North America; still more will find new homes in South America and Australia. Far away in the future their children will forget their Arab life and culture, as they become like us who live in the West. In time the language of Christ will be spoken no more. In time, you have to wonder, will they forget the Christ their families have followed for twenty centuries, since He first stepped beside the shore of Galilee and went up to their mountains to speak of God’s eternal life, or since Paul went to Damascus and was converted? Today the Archbishop of Canterbury describes the murderers as modern Herods, seeking out all the children of God in order to attack Christ, forcing new Holy Families to flee.

St Paul told us that the Cross of Christ would be a scandal (I Corinthians 1.23) to those who cannot bear to look on it, and tear it down. Our Lord himself told us, “Blessed are you when people persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you on account of Me. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven, because they treated the same way the Prophets before you.” (Matthew 5.11) He goes on to say – “You are the salt of the earth”, “you are the light of the world,” whose trials are seasoning to bring out the flavour of the world and to preserve it for the future; whose sufferings are the illumination that shines the way to God the Father.

So the message from the leader of Syria’s Catholic Christians, head of a Church founded by St Peter years before he reached Rome, Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch, that he has written to all his people is one of joy. It is a message he shares with the whole Church, because in the midst of the crisis, when all around is sadness and destitution, not only for the Christians but many others too, the distinguishing marks of Christians are love and joy for the very fact the God has sent His Son into the world. So there is no room for despair, no bare cupboard where once we kept our hopes in storage.

You might say, he is being brave. As Patriarch to his people, he is trying to rally people round, and encourage them to hold fast and hang on for a brighter day. You might say he is shoring up their inner faith while outside things fall to pieces. This is perhaps half the story .

But the whole truth is this. He is reminding us all that, whatever the appearances around us – and in our country it is the rough rejection of Christ and Christianity in public life and personal living – whatever it is that people do with guns and swords, with the abuse of power and money, it does not change the fact that 2,015 years ago, God caused Himself to be born a human being so that He could be God with us, not away in the distance. It does not change the fact that He taught us, when we think of heaven, not to imagine a land far off in the future, but here and now, “on earth as it is in heaven”, as we pray every day. It does not change the fact that He too was murdered on a Cross because of human wickedness and resentment of God’s goodness and beauty, yet died exhausting evil of everything it could through against Him. It does not change the fact that, thirty-three year after His birth, on the Third Day he rose again from the dead and destroyed its power and victory over us, not its victim but over it the Victor. Our pride and joy in Christ is therefore not just that He is the person who inspires us, or the One Who leads us in our hearts and imagination. It is not just that Christianity is our personal spirituality, our private belief; or that Jesus is our personal Lord, the God for me. He is Lord of all. If He is not Lord of all, if He is not the King whose power authority is above all other powers and people, if He is not the One that turned inside out the very way that life and the universe operate when He rose from the dead, then He is not Lord at all, and no Lord for me. Yet this is the Lord of all that is, this small infant we worship today. He fills the universe, this child in the farm animals’ manger. He is not only the delight of Christians today, but the enduring hope of all the world.

One of the beautiful icons you often see in an Eastern Christian church, painted up in the apse over the altar, shows the Mother of God with her hands extended, and seated on her womb is the young Lord Christ, also holding his hands out in blessing, pointing the way onwards with authority. The picture is called “The Mother of God, she who is wider than the heavens”. She is the Mother who in her own body contains the uncontainable. The sheer vastness of what we are celebrating today is this: that “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay”, is the very expression of the Word of God Who creates and rules the universe. He became flesh not only to be with us, but to die on the Cross in our flesh, to take away all the power of sin, and evil’s power over us, and then to vanquish death, using our flesh as His means, by rising from the dead. This is how we live the life on earth that is lived in heaven. Nothing can destroy it, nothing can take it away; for it is the life of the One Whom the universe cannot contained. It means that - to the eye of the Christian - Jesus Christ is the light who has come into the world, that nothing in the world can outshine. No one can put His light into a box, hide it, or extinguish it. It outshines all other lights. Not just me, all of us, whoever we are, whether we believe or not, have neither sufficient light, nor darkness, to cover it. This is the light that shines more brightly than Britain, than Syria, than the ISIS murderers, than everything the world can do to tear down the Cross and its power of liberation and rejoicing.

A number of you have brought today your little images of the Christchild for a blessing, so that you can take them home and put them in your cribs with joy and happiness that the presence of Christ shines like a light in your homes, families and loved ones near and far this Christmas. You will all be hoping that it shines through you, for we are all sinners and imperfect vessels of the light we are carrying. But try not to think of it as a little ornament, a small token of faith and love. When you look on the Christchild in the Crib here in this Church or at home, remember that here portrayed is the Lord Who fills the universe, in the embrace of her who has become wider than the heavens to contain the uncontainable. Try and imagine that you, too, in your own hands and your own heart and your own body, are containers for the uncontainable as you bring Him close to the world. Try and imagine that for a moment you, too, are wider than the heavens as you hold the hope of the whole world – not just for you personally – the very life of God Who has come into the world to bring peace, and liberty from evil, and joy.

Remember that this is the faith of the Christians of the Middle East who stand to lose everything, yet still have confidence in Christ, the Word made flesh, the Word of God from God, the Light from Light that can never be outshone, the Lord whose Kingdom prevails, on earth as it is in heaven.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Homily for the Feast of Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, December 11 2015

When we hear St John pointing to Jesus and saying He is the Lamb, what comes into our minds is vulnerability, weakness, an innocent on its way to the slaughter. Perhaps we think of springtime, and a new life at its beginning.

To be honest with you, I do not think that was uppermost in John’s mind. Nor do I think that was the imagery that caused such an impact on St Andrew that he left John’s side to be with Jesus instead, convincing his brother Peter to follow Him too.

John the Baptist was a hard, brave, bold and uncompromising man. He came from a priestly family in Jerusalem, but he would have nothing to do with the discredited kingdom of Herod, or the cult in the Temple Herod had built. Instead he went into the desert as an exile, waiting for a true King to enter the Land of Promise, to restore true worship, and to recover for the people a guaranteed means to life in union with God. Thus might heaven’s glory once again be seen on earth, and the Lord beheld dwelling among His people. He went into the desert; he lived on the edge. Those who came to seek him out were other bold men, who shared his longing for the People and the Land to change their ways. Their very existence was a standing rebuke to all: from the foreign King serving the supposedly divine Roman emperor and the spiritually and financially corrupt Temple, to the sinful ways of the people, from the top down. They lived on a knife-edge of being arrested and executed because of their call for everything to change, because of their effrontery in accusing the whole world of sin. In the Temple, sin could be dealt with by a donation, a sacrifice and an action performed. If your sacrifice came from love and desire to return and be near to God, it counted for everything: we remember the stories of the widow’s mite and the tax-collector praying for mercy so well. But if you thought your sacrifice was some kind of transaction with God, a deal, then to these people John shouted, “Stop going through these motions. Stop trying to strike a bargain. You need to change your minds, not just your money. Alter your thinking. Repent. Turn round. Face the way that the Lord is coming to you. He is coming in fire and glory as once before. Turn round and face His Kingdom, because He is bringing the Holy Spirit.”

This talk cost John his life with the authorities; but it was stirring stuff to honest people who, whatever else was going on in the country and throughout the known world, pored over the Scriptures, loved God, believed His promises and hoped for a new day. So Andrew starts to follow John. He sees John take all the people that follow him out across the hills to the Jordan river. He hears him tell everyone that the change they are looking for will involve coming into the Land of Promise all over again. Only then can there be a fresh start, and only then can the change of heart and thinking be permanent. He sees as, one by one, John’s followers step out of the Holy Land into the river through which their forebears once entered it. He sees them immersed in its flow, and he sees them all coming back on a new footing, new as people. He sees that one of the people John has baptised is singled out. John declares Him to be the Lamb of God, come to ”take away the sins of the world.”

To Andrew, this Lamb is not looking vulnerable or sounding uncertain. He does not speak out like John; but here, like John, is a figure of purpose and inner strength, imperturbable on His way. Soon John calls Jesus not only the Lamb of God, but the Son of God. Immediately, Andrew understands. He recalls the story of Abraham, so devoted to the Lord that he is prepared to give up and offer his own Son, to demonstrate his devotion and obedience. But the Lord desires not the death in a sacrifice, but the life and love in its offering. He Himself provides a lamb to stand for this complete oblation of living adoration. Andrew grasps that the Lord, Who once sent a lamb to fulfil an earthly father’s vow to God, now sends His Son to fulfil the heavenly Father’s promise to God’s People. In an instant, Andrew sees that for the sacrifices for sin, the Temple worship, the prayers of repentance, the heartfelt desires for everything to change in the world, the pouring out of hearts in faith, to have any effect, the one to bring them about is not a passive victim, but someone actively in control of all around Him, and of His own destiny.

Yes, He will be wounded. Yes, He will be brought down and weakened. Yes, He is innocent, and the shedding of His blood will take all human life and strength from Him. Yes, it is our sin that will destroy Him. But it is by His strength that He makes Himself vulnerable to us. It is by His innocence that He exhausts and outlasts our offences. It is by His courting and grasping defeat as a victim, that He dares to proceed as victor. It may be that as a Lamb He is led to the slaughter to bring the Kingdom of God about; but He will be none other than the Son of God, the King coming into His reign. No wonder people who lived on the edge, with little to lose and full of hopes that seemed never to be realised, left everything to follow Him.

In the last week, a self-appointed Commission on Religion and Belief has issued a report recommending that Church schools in the United Kingdom be stopped from admitting children on the basis of their families’ religious faith, and that at our civic ceremonies and in all areas of public life, Christianity should give way to other faiths. One of the Commissioners is a retired Anglican bishop who has called for the Koran to be read in Church at the traditional services each year when the judges pray for Divine Wisdom in their momentous task. The other Commissioners have called for religious education in our country to include teaching about secularism and atheism.

Secularist atheists are trying to have it both ways. First, they claim that there is a basic, neutral moral consensus that does not need God; therefore no religion making an exclusive claim to the Truth should claim any privilege in education, or public affairs. Then they say their beliefs should be recognised in education as a religion, since they are free to promote them and gain converts to them like other viewpoints. Yet to Christians it seems that secularism is already everywhere, judging from how we have allowed and encouraged our commercial and business worlds to become mercenary and exploitative, seeing how the materialism of the market replaces the value placed on God and our love of others, especially the poor. Propagating the working assumptions of secularism is also prevalent on TV and Radio, from documentaries to quiz shows. Yet our religious education consensus in this country has been wisely crafted over the last 150 years to ensure young minds receive two things. First is an understanding of the beliefs and values of Christianity as the force that has shaped and defined our entire civilisation; secondly is not the imposition of religion but education about it, borne out of a hard-won history of learning tolerance and reconciliation, so that we can know how to live together with respect and humanity. Yet the countries which have no such tradition of religious education, the places where only one faith, or secularism, or atheism, is imposed, appear now to be incapable of making sense of the world of faith and how important it is to people’s identities, their sense of where and how they belong in the world, and their aspirations. To impose secularism in the hope that it will bring about harmony is a dangerous fantasy, just as much as imposing Islam is in the Middle East, and just as imposing one form of Christianity was in Spain, or Russia, or England in the past.

So, what is needed? St Andrew followed St John the Baptist because he saw all that was wrong in the world and wanted it to change. He turned to follow Christ because he understood that the Kingdom of the Lord would return not by force of arms, or the impositions of authority, but strength of goodness (something we used to call virtue) and out of love, a love so strong and inexhaustible that it could win through and withstand anything, even death itself. As St Paul puts it, “When the day of evil comes, put on the full armour of God, so you can stand your ground, and having done all, still stand.” (Ephesians 6.13)

The way St Andrew saw this was that it was not just matter for him to respond to personally, but a concern that faced the whole of his nation. He observes Jesus as the one to take away the sins of a whole world, and this conviction spread to his brother Peter, then to Philip and then to Nathanael, as we have heard (John 1.35-51). Nathanael recognises Jesus not just as Lamb of God, and Son of God, but also as King of Israel. Jesus replies that this insight gives a vision of how heaven itself comes down to earth all the time, as earth  rises up to go into heaven. This is what we celebrate as the true reality to things in our Liturgy.

So it has to be that we see both the world and our faith in the Lord not as two separate things, keeping faith in God out of one box, and keeping our dealings in the world in a separate one from our religious observances. The Lord is the Lord of all, or he is no Lord at all and all of this is irrelevant. And so, it is for us to say that we do not wish the world merely to tolerate us, or to allow us space. We say, “You must change. You must face the coming of the Kingdom. What you see as a weakling Lamb, a disposable commodity, a sentimental story of adversity overcome, and just the cycle of life, is none other than the Son of God in all His power.

“As, of old, Saint Andrew heard it
by the Galilean lake,
turned from home and toil and kindred,
leaving all for His dear sake;

Jesus calls us from the worship
Of the vain world’s golden store:
From each idol that would keep us,
saying, Christian, love me more.”  C F Alexander

Monday, 7 December 2015

Commission on Religion and Belief Report: No help to pluralism, but surrender to the objectives of organised secularism

Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public LifeI am so dismayed by today's report from the Woolf Institute's Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. A great deal to digest and clearly some of the reflections and proposals are constructive. But....

I did a hurried first read through this morning. In parts it buys into a liberal-secularist view that religion is private and the public square is neutral. Thus the default is 'no religion' and 'shared values' in which secularism can proselytise with state sanction, behaving like a religion but claiming it's not. But it's inconsistent: "non-faith worldviews" and religious worldviews ought to be studied as alternates - so are they religions or not? If one or each religion should be relativised in the public square and in education, why provide the secular-humanist religion or worldview the position of "working assumption" in all the areas and school subjects from which religion is not allowed to have any bearing? (I write with some experience of working with those who wrote cross-curricular RE resources that cut both ways, so that study of religion - a legal requirement now more important than ever - was not siloed or confined to one denomination).

Then, surprise, surprise: the proposal directed against Catholic schools as if they were divisive, when the history with its aftermath is of Catholics being the ones to be excluded. This will ensure that all children go to schools in which teachers and governors promote secular humanism as the basic position against which to interpret religion. What will be the point of the Church of England's schools having no relation to church worshipping life, or the bringing to bear of its values on wider society through its historic positive task of the formation of young citizens; and, in a worrying repeat of history in which Catholics are once again threatened with the restriction of their liberty to play a full part in civic life and public services, what will be the point of Catholic schools that are prevented from providing education and upbringing for their own children as well as welcoming children of other faiths and none (which they do)?

Perhaps the commissioners would like to add up the purchase price of the Anglican and Catholic bought and owned premises of all the schools receiving state funds for providing education just like any other, and then compute if they can afford to buy the Churches out. No? I thought not.

Three other observations:

1. Once again there's Bishop Harries' hoary old proposal that at traditional civic services, other religions can celebrate elements of their worship in Christian Churches. He earlier proposed that the Koran be read in Bristol Cathedral before the judges' service. I don't see the New Testament being read out in mosques. There's a question of mutual respect and integrity here. It is unacceptable that Islamic claims, which cannot be extricated from the inherent assertion that Islam is senior to Christianity having surpassed it, have a place for public proclamation in churches. The Christians in other parts of the world having their lives and homes, churches, towns, hospitals, schools and monasteries wrested from them would find this incomprehensible.

2. The coronation service with its central rite of anointing is derived from the inaugural rites of the reign of the Byzantine Christian emperor, with other elements derived from the ritual for making a king in ancient Israel. By nature it cannot be an interfaith service: it is a rite of consecration to God after the pattern of Christ the King. By all means have a non-religious inauguration (we already have: it's called an Accession Council followed by Proclamation of the new Sovereign, the day following the demise of the Crown) - we could have swearing in at Westminster Hall too, but why would that need any religious elements? Leave the anointing and crowning to be what it is (incidentally the last of its kind left).

3. Have people forgotten that 5 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave two stunning addresses on (a) Christianity and other faiths in their shared responsibility to society to faith leaders at St Mary's University, Twickenham, and (b) the vital need for the mutual conversation and bearing upon each other of faith and reason, religion and society to civil leaders at Westminster Hall? One of the authors of the commission's report, one Rowan Williams, was present as Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and seemed to welcome it. Yet - unless I am doing an injustice - it does not seem to have been taken into account or cited in the text or appendices. This is a glaring omission as it has been the most high-profile and widely covered treatment of religion in society in the UK in the last decade. Indeed the Pope was saying and magnifying what the Anglican bishops were saying at that moment, and were not being heeded on. Yesterday's news is tomorrow's kindling, it seems.

Finally, I cannot see how the place of people's personal religion and identity, or that of entire large bodies of various kinds of believers, or the rights of secularists or humanists as identifiable minority organised constituencies, are strengthened by the weakening of others. Even if people don't go to Church much, or don't believe in Christ and his sacrifice like they once did in this country, Christianity is the defining shaper of its history and identity for 1500 years at least. Only 60 years ago, Winston Churchill described our "finest hour" as the defence of Christian civilisation against the malevolent forces of pagan and atheist Nazism and Fascism. Now the great and the good want to dismantle everything that once defined us. This will not help Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or non-Anglicans to have a greater stake in civil society: it will hand all the say to the secularist thought police who have been dominating our education system, trades unions and local government institutions for decades, forbidding Christian practice behind the pretence that it 'might offend' someone.

Of course, they haven't addressed at all one of the big problems in England for historically excluded Reformed (the Old Dissent) and Catholics (the Recusants) alike: the constitutional establishment bonding the Crown, the armed forces and the Church of England, in which other churches and religions are not permitted fully to participate. As much as I am in favour of the each one of these in their respective offices severally, this exclusive bond at the heart of the British constitution and society really needs addressing - but who would dare?