Reality

In one of his ‘Four Quartets’ the poet T S Eliot says

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

I had the feeling today that we were being asked to cope with a great deal of reality in the General Synod.  I’m not complaining.  The priestly task is precisely that, engaging in the reality of the world and bringing it to the altar.  That is what is at the heart of the incarnation.  God enters into the depths of our reality and engages with it.  Jesus is the most real person, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is constantly wanting to make clear

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. (Hebrews 2.14)

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The ‘flesh and blood’ that Synod was asked to engage with today was real and painful.  We began with the response of the Church of England to the first report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). I, like so many millions of people, watched with horror the two documentaries that the BBC recently showed into the Peter Ball abuse scandal.  I watched as the stories of victims and survivors were told.  I wept, as I am sure you did, at the inadequacy, no, it was more than inadequacy, the complicit inability of the church and its leadership to engage with reality when it was presented to it.  One speaker in the debate today commented that they were surprised by the reaction of people to the documentaries, as though they didn’t know what had been going on.  It was all in the reports we were told, and that is true.  But the way in which the story, the reality was presented to us, that was new and that was so powerful.

The debate on the response of the church to the IICSA report was powerful, painful, honest.  But it left me feeling … well, I don’t know to be honest, numb, guilty, angry, sorry, all those things and more.  But what is any of that compared with those whose lives have been damaged, permanently scarred by what they have suffered at the hands of those in the church they trusted?

That debate was followed by one on the Climate Emergency and Carbon Reduction Target.  Again, it was a deeply powerful debate and there was an almost palpable sense of powerlessness in the chamber.  The issues are so huge, what can we possibly do?  I had proposed an amendment, to name cathedrals specifically in the Motion so that we work alongside the rest of the church and are challenged alongside the rest of the church in achieving the zero emissions target.  Another amendment, which was also accepted, but not one proposed by me, changed this target from 2045 to 2030.  I didn’t support that – I think we are being unrealistic.  But the decision was made and that is what we have committed ourselves too – and, in a way, good for us for being so bold. Climate change is a present reality for so many of our sisters and brothers and we must never forget that.

But the final bit of ‘very much reality’ came in the afternoon, in the debate on Paupers’ Funerals.  The very phrase sends a shiver down the spine but, as we heard there has been a 70% rise in the number of these funerals over the last three years.  You would have thought such things were Dickensian, the experience of young Oliver Twist when he is working with the undertaker Mr Sowerberry. But this is now our reality, when people go into debt to afford a funeral for their loved one, when some councils will not allow family or religion at a ‘Public Health Funeral’, when families do not get to know when the funeral is taking place and will not get the cremated remains of their loved one back, simply because they are poor and I suppose, in Dickensian terms, are ‘undeserving’ of common human dignity and respect.

It was a painful and disturbing debate.  But my mind went to the texts of the Requiem Mass where so many find their comfort in the face of death.  At the very end of the Mass, before the coffin is carried from the church, the choir sings the ‘In paradisum’

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.

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Dives and Lazarus and their changed realities

At the gate of the rich man’s house lies the pauper Lazarus.  Luke tells the tale in Luke 16:19-31.  The rich man and the pauper, the poor man, Lazarus, both die.  But the poor man’s reward is rich in heaven.  Whoever is before us at the Requiem we sing of the pauper, and that is how it should be.  The harsh reality in the parable is this, as Abraham, our father, speaks,

“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” (Luke 16.25)

Is this more reality than you can bear, the abuse of the innocent, the rape of the planet, the plight of the dead, the sorrow of the living?  But it is for this reality, into this reality that Jesus came, that Jesus comes, and this reality with which the church must engage.

Incarnate Lord,
you share my flesh,
you share my pain,
may I share your joy,
in your kingdom reality.
Amen.

Turning up the heat to turn it down

I was away from Synod yesterday.  I wanted to be present at the ordination to the priesthood of our curate, Fr David Adamson. It was great to be there in St Mary’s Lewisham, celebrating 1100 years of ministry from that spot this year.  Since 918 priests have been celebrating the sacraments of the new covenant and so it was a special place in which eight women and men had hands laid on them and in the power of the Spirit and with Christ’s authority were sent out as the latest generation of those who would do this – bread breakers and word breakers.

Then in the afternoon I was present with a group from the Cathedral on the Pride march through central London.  I’d never even been to Pride let alone walk in it.  But the Chapter decided in 2016 that this was the right thing to do, to be honest about our stance on the rights of LGBTQI+ people and to make that clear by witnessing to it, on the streets.  I know not everyone thinks that we should be doing this, and I respect their views and am glad to name many of them as friends, but I don’t agree.  We need to tell people that God loves us all, whoever we are. So there I was with 30,000 other people marching with pride in Pride and having pride in the God who created each one of us.

So I missed the important debate on Safeguarding in the church and also the seminars on where we are in relation to the work being done on human sexuality.  But the trains this morning served me well and I got back to York in time to chair the first item of business in the afternoon (remember that the Synod goes en masse to Mass at York Minster in the morning).

Climate change

The Session in the afternoon was all around global issues.  The first two debates were about the response we make to climate change.  I was asked to chair the presentation and then the debate on how we use the influence we have through the investments that we have as a church in fossil fuel companies and it was a real privilege to be able to do so.  What was so encouraging was hearing about the tremendous lead that the Church of England is giving. Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement, was quoted as praising this work in which we have brought together a coalition of investors who carry real weight in the debates with the companies in which we are invested.

There were two amendments to the main Motion before Synod which were about how long we should give before we divest ourselves of our investments in such companies. It was an excellent debate and in many ways one in which everyone was right – it is urgent, already almost too late, but do we, frankly, have more clout if we remain an investor than if we take our money away and leave ‘them’ to get on with what they are doing without the pressure we can bring to create change?

The Oxford amendment which talked of 2020 as the deadline was rejected and the second amendment that kept us to the date of 2023 was passed.  The resulting vote on the motion was almost unanimous and we really have turned up the heat.

This was followed by a debate that came from London and Truro dioceses wanting us to develop a programme for calculating the usage of fossil fuels in all cathedrals, churches and church halls.  Whilst there is clearly support for that piece of work the debate was finally adjourned so that we can get a bit more information about what this might mean and what it will cost.  But we have only adjourned it until the next Group of Sessions in February 2019 – so you will hear more about this.

And then it was on to Nuclear Weapons. As I said before we haven’t really debated this for many many years and as many speakers commented in what was a very good debate, does this mean that over that time we have grown complacent.  In ‘My Fair Lady’ Professor Higgins sings of Eliza Doolittle

‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’

We have grown accustomed to there being weapons of mass destruction waiting ready to be used that will destroy everything the lives and the very earth the health of which we had just been debating. This debate was a wake-up call to us all that this is just not acceptable.  The Bishop of Liverpool told us not to worry if people thought we were being unrealistic, or naive or ‘young’ i.e. lacking that wisdom of years that makes people think that such weapons are justifiable.  The Bishop of Chelmsford, summing up the debate, referred to words of St Francis of Assisi

‘Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’

And Synod took that to heart and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Motion. So we are committed to working for the elimination of nuclear weapons! We’ve done what was necessary, now we will see what is possible and maybe what seems impossible will come about.

Creator God,
who formed the beauty of the earth
may we cherish it
and all who share it with us
and all who will come after us
that the best days of our planet
may still await us.
Amen.

Outward looking

It was a fascinating final day in General Synod and I’m delighted about that, especially for all those who are new to Synod (43% I heard, which is amazing). Often people get very frustrated that we seem to spend all of our time talking about internal politics – about women and sex and money – those kinds of things. Well, the good news was that on the third day the focus was beyond the church.

We began with Archbishop Sentamu and his wife Margaret telling us about their recent visit to the Pacific islands including Fiji and Samoa and the way in which communities there are being threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change. The whole presentation was fascinating and especially in the light of the Climate Change Conference that is about to take place and the fact that, as we listened in the Chamber, pilgrims were walking from the UK to arrive in Paris as a witness to our concern for the planet.

What was especially moving was a visual and spoken prayer delivered on a video by one of the Archbishops in the Pacific. The images were staggeringly beautiful and a celebration of the richness of the oceans. This was contrasted with images of the environmental effects of mankind’s greed and the effects of worshipping at the false God of profit.

When I worked for a time in the USA I loved a phrase in one of their Eucharistic prayers, Prayer C

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.

The fragility of this island home is really being made real to us.

Beautiful and fragile - our island home

Beautiful and fragile – our island home

The first real debate of this Group of Sessions highlighted another fragility and that is with regard to refugees. The debate was on our response to the Migrant Crisis. It was timely and much welcomed by the whole of Synod. It was, in fact, a very good debate and there were some really good speeches made. My own amendment was not in fact accepted by the Synod – but that was ok. Getting to make a speech on the importance of the subject and our disappointment with regard to the response of the Government, specifically in terms of the number of refugees we will be welcoming over the next five years, was a welcome chance to make what I believe is an important point. But, of course, I am pleased that even 20,000 refugees will be given a new and safe home with us and an on-going commitment to 0.7% of GDP for overseas aid is exemplary. But we can and, I believe, should do more.

The final vote on the motion, amended with a new clause proposed by Canon Giles Goddard at the prompting of the Bishop of Croydon and giving added strength to its final form, resulted in a fantastic 333 in favour, 0 against and only 3 abstentions. This was a clear message to the nation that we are committed to the ministry of hospitality that we see in Jesus whose extended arms always draw us in.

There was for me, to be honest, something of a Trojan Horse moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury made a speech during the debate which seemed to suggest that in voting for this Motion we were in effect saying that there was no option other than military intervention in Syria. Now, I may be wrong and it was one of those moments when I was so surprised that I couldn’t quite get the words down. He may well be right and he is politically astute but I wasn’t quite sure what I was voting for when I voted in favour!

There was then some legislative business at which moment the tea room became packed before we filled the Chamber again for a presentation on Public Perceptions of Jesus. This was an unpacking of the research that was behind the report ‘Talking Jesus’. Now, it was Mark Twain who famously said ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics.’ We certainly met with some statistics and some scenarios – it was mind-boggling. The basic idea behind the research was ‘If you are a Christian and you talk to someone not a Christian about Jesus what effect does it have?’

The basic answer seems to be very little or a negative effect in that they are put off and don’t want to hear any more. So perhaps we shouldn’t talk about Jesus at all and let God get on with setting people’s hearts on fire as on the road to Emmaus. Jesus seemed to do a much better job when he appeared as the stranger on the road and broke open the word and broke the bread which revealed his presence, a much better job than we manage to do when we talk about him. ‘Gogglebox’ vicar, the Revd Kate Bottley, Tweeted later on yesterday an image which said

‘Sometimes the best evangelism is simply telling people you’re a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.’

As it would say on exam papers – ‘Discuss’! But the stats are of course are useful and open up a conversation about how we do evangelism and they revealed the real gap that lies at the heart of the congregations – the younger middle aged – or was that just revealing something about their sample group?

The final debate was on the report of the Church Buildings Review Group. The debate had been anticipated by those who picked up the recommendation about ‘Festival Churches’ – churches which wouldn’t be closed but where the regular round of worship required of parish churches wouldn’t happen but festivals would be celebrated (well, that’s how I understand it). But there was much more besides in this very good report with some excellent theology on sacred place by the Bishop of Worcester who started from the writings of George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, who talked of ‘thin places’. That is really what T S Eliot picks up on in ‘Little Gidding’ one of his ‘Four Quartets’.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Our 16,000 churches are places in our communities made ‘valid’ by prayer. But how do they become a true asset and not a burden is the question we have to ask – and at heart it is a mission question. In Luke 9 Jesus ‘sends out’ his apostles and they then ‘return’. This is all about place – they went out on mission, they returned to the place of sending. Church has to be the missionary base as well as the place of festival, where the table is set and the bread is broken, where the people gather and heaven touches earth and earth touches heaven. It will be exciting to see how this report in its outworking will enable our theology of place to enable our life of worship and mission.

Little Gidding - a thin place

Little Gidding – a thin place

At the end of almost all the Groups of Sessions there is a farewell and on this occasion it was the Secretary General, William Fittall, who was leaving. He has served the church in this capacity for 13 years but has also served the church within the Diocese of Southwark (before his more recent move) as a Reader. His skills in administration, negotiation and diplomacy are grounded in a real faith in Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Justin began this Group of Sessions with a fantastically clever and amusing address in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen and he ended this Synod with an equally polished performance in tribute to William who, in turn, gave a great response.

So we left Westminster after retrieving bags and coats (all black of course so much confusion in the cloakroom!) and I left feeling very positive about the next five years. If it continues in this spirit maybe God can work through us.

Lord God,
bless the members of the Synod,
bless the work that continues,
bless the church we serve,
bless the people of this nation,
bless the world, your creation,
that we may be one in your service.
Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark