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.

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

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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