Creedal or Confessional? Reformed or a Church of the Reformation?

GAFCON 2018 is over.  Evangelical Anglicans from all over the world have gathered in Jerusalem, expressed their many concerns about worldly influences in the church and declared that the old structures of the Anglican Communion have failed and need to be reformed.

It is difficult to measure the extent to which Churches currently in Communion with Canterbury have been drawn into this movement.  They claim to represent the majority of Anglicans in the world.

They have created their own global Council of Primates as a governing body and have an Executive Council involving Australian bishops, they have renounced the four Instruments of Communion upon which the Anglican Communion has been built for the past forty years – The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting.  None of these has any legally binding power over the autonomous Anglican Dioceses and Provinces but accepting all four has been a mark of being in Communion with Canterbury and thus authentically Anglican.  It seems to me that the GAFCON churches have separated themselves from the Anglican Communion and become a church in their own right.   I have no problem with that.  We already have many different expressions of the Church – of people expressing authentic Christianity in very different ways than the way I choose to do that.

It is hard for me to see this other than through Australian eyes, where the Dioceses of Sydney and perhaps Armidale and a scattering of clergy and parishes throughout the other dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia have formed a raucous voice for change in the Anglican Church.  They claim to be concerned about unity, yet they are behaving in ways that seem to be provoking a schism.  They claim to represent the orthodox Anglican faith, yet they speak in new ways about what it means to be Anglican.

The Diocese of Sydney, for example, wants to dominate the National agenda at General Synod and then rejects the symbols of our common witness by refusing to allow parishes to use the latest iteration of A Prayer Book for Australia.  What is that about?

And they have been pushing the barrow of Lay Presidency at the Holy Communion against the tide of tradition and the will of the Anglican Church of Australia.  Maybe they just want to participate in their own little bit of Episcopal rebellion.

They claim an affinity with the churches and traditions of the European Reformation and describe themselves as Confessional Anglicans – but are either of these two things consistent with Anglican history and what it means to be Anglican?

Confessional or Creedal?

One of the features of many of the churches of the Protestant Reformation in Europe was that they aligned themselves with one Confession or another – Westminster, Augsburg … – and paid particular attention to all the elements of a true faith.  These confessions spoke of the nature and centrality of the Bible and a whole range of developed theologies about Jesus as Son of God and how the Atonement works.  Every jot a tittle of these Confessions was important and to deviate from any proposition was to be in error.  It is this approach to the faith seems most evident among the GAFCON churches.  A great deal of attention is paid to the places in the church that are in error – whether that be concerned about doctrine or practice, but most obviously divided on the issues of human sexuality.

I am not a devout student of History but in my understanding of the Anglican Communion, it has been Creedal rather than Confessional.  The Anglican Church has affirmed the three historic Ecumenical Creeds of the Church – The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and St Athanasius’ Creed.  Rather than dealing with doctrinal minutiae, these creeds rightly focus on the central issues of our faith and most emphatically on the idea of the Trinity.  Beyond these three creeds, Anglicans allow for a diversity of opinion and practice – and has been known generally for that freedom and what if has called the Via Media of the Middle Way.  While the GAFCON churches generally like to affirm the Articles of Religion in a Confessional way, most Anglicans see it as an historical declaration that laid the foundation for its own Reformation of the Catholic Faith.

A Church of the Reformation or a Reformed Catholic Church?

There was a clear and different history for the Church in England compared to the emerging Protestant Churches of Europe.  Both movements began with a desire to reform the Roman Catholic Church.  The European movement seemed much more concerned with doctrinal error.  Great Swiss, French and Scottish theological traditions developed creating a variegated tapestry of protestant traditions – Reformed, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, not to mention the earlier dissenters represented by the Anabaptists and others.

The English movement was largely about ecclesial and political autonomy from Rome.  Yes, some aspects of Roman doctrine and practice changed, but essentially the Church of England followed the same orders for ministry, the same ecclesiastical structures, and very similar liturgical practices.  It was a reformed Catholic Church.  Now I understand why my early Anglican friends insisted that the Anglican Church was not a Protestant Church.

The GAFCON Churches say they want to reform the Anglican Communion from within rather than dissociating themselves from the existing Communion by creating a new one.  Yet it seems to me that they are already creating a parallel entity that is separate.  They have created their own Global Council of Primates.  They have created their own Global Gathering of Confessing Bishops centred on Jerusalem.  They have their own executive Council to govern the church and to determine the theological framework of the church and its membership.  The only thing they have yet to do – perhaps it is on the slate for GAFCON 2028 – is to establish an Archbishop of Jerusalem as head of the Reformed and Confessing Anglican Church.

GAFCON-affiliated Bishops have already presided over the consecration of Bishops for churches that are not in Communion with Canterbury.  They have sent out a Missionary Bishop to establish the Anglican Province of Europe.  The Anglican Church of North America has established a new church alongside the Episcopal Church of the USA.  They have done the same in Brazil and elsewhere.  I suspect that the Diocese of Sydney is laying the foundations for such a move here by sending their missionary sons from Moore Theological College to plant new and faithful churches in dioceses over which +Sydney has no jurisdiction.

The GAFCON Churches had abandoned the Instruments of Communion because the LEadership of the Anglican Communion has been compromised – yet they want to control the Invite List to the next Lambeth Conference, ensuring that none of the Bishops and Primates of Anglican Churches they disagree with – especially about human sexuality – are invited.  They have stepped outside the boundaries of the Anglican Communion and then, looking back at those left behind, have said that those remaining are the ones outside the boundaries of the Anglican Communion.  But the boundaries have not moved.

For all intents and purposes, GAFCON has created a new church – they just can’t admit it yet and no doubt the stumbling block is managing the divorce that will involve a property settlement of global proportions.

Is your God Two-faced?

In his book “The Jesus Driven Life” Michael Hardin draws our attention to an interesting proposition – that the God of most modern theology and as taken from most readings of the Bible is not the God that is revealed to us by Jesus.

He characterises traditional theology as deeply influenced by both pagan understandings of God as well as Platonic philosophy. This leads to two basic errors as he sees things. Firstly, under the influence of Platonic thinking, we have evolved notions of God that are just not Biblical, and are certainly not reflected in the teachings of Jesus, and he cites the first proposition of the Westminster Confession as a stark example of this.

Secondly, we have come to think of God in pagan terms, by which Hardin means that we have a transactional relationship with our God – “If I do this for God, God will do this for me” – who is capable of doing both good things and bad – or retributive – things to us. He draws a parallel between this idea of God and the ancient Roman god Janus, after whom January was named, who is most commonly referred to as the God of Peace and War.

If we do bad things, contrary to the will of God, we can expect war and pestilence as gifts from our God. If we do good things, in conformity with the will of God, then we can expect peace, wealth and many children as gifts from our God.

Hardin begins one of his chapters with this story as a way of illustrating this view of God:

“Imagine you are back in high school or college and the prettiest or most handsome person, the one who is intelligent and witty, outgoing, the one everyone wishes they could have as their boyfriend or girlfriend comes to you and says, “I want you to know that I really find you attractive, in fact, I love you.  I love you so much, so deeply, it astonishes me.  I want to be with you forever, you light up my life, you are the reason I exist.”  Wouldn’t that be just amazing?  One of the reasons for the popularity of romantic comedies is that the boy/girl is in these circumstances and they end up with the one they so desire.  Imagine spending your life with such a person who was absolutely devoted to you, who loved you with an undying love, who cared for you in ways you could not imagine or dream in your wildest dreams. 

“Now before you could respond with a “Yes” or a “Hallelujah, thank you Jesus!!” suppose they went on to say “But I also want you to know that if you will not love me in return I will make your life a living nightmare, a hell on earth.  I will spread rumours and lies about you; I will trash your home.  I will make it my life’s goal to punish you in every way possible if you won’t accept my love for you.”

This framework of understanding God is so embedded in out theology, our liturgy and our hymnody that we can only think of it as our “normal”, yet Hardin says that this is not what God is like if you examine the teachings of Jesus.

One of the common terms Jesus’ uses as a reference to God is “Abba” – a term of familial intimacy – which helps to make sense of the only two references Jesus makes of what God is like.  On one occasion, he says that if your child asks you for some bread, you wouldn’t give him a stone, or if they asked for some fish you wouldn’t give them a snake.  From this, Jesus asserts that even as we who are not perfect, know how to do good things for our children, even so much more will God give us good things.  On another occasion, Jesus draws our attention to the feeding and clothing of the most insignificant creatures on earth with abundance and glory.  From this, he concludes that we should not be anxious about having enough food and clothing in our lives because God will ensure that we are looked after because we are precious in the eyes of God.

The teaching of Jesus also portrays God as forgiving – forgiving of our sins even before they are committed – a grace which we are called on to replicate in our relationships with others.  His teachings call us to follow three basic commands – love God, love your neighbour and love your enemy.  By these three things we will fulfill the requirements of God.

So I ask you, is your God two-faced?  Is your God capable of punishing you as well as rewarding you?  Is your God both retributive and gracious?  It is hard work undoing so many years of theological reflection, but I really wonder if these words of Hardin that are taking us directly to the teaching and life of Jesus might not give us a much better idea of what God is like.

 

Where is your Garden of Eden?

apple-tree-spiritspr-fireside

The other day, just after it was announced that the world had reached 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2 my wife said to me “You know, I think they got the Garden of Eden story back to front.”  What she was alluding to was a thought that that “The Fall” didn’t stuff things up all those years ago – but that the actions of humankind in these past two centuries have signed the death warrant for planet earth.

We have always understood the Garden of Eden Story and the part we call The Fall as an etiological story explaining how humankind’s original perfection in God was degraded into the sinful status we now struggle with every day.  And we as Christians have understood that through this event the whole creation was degraded and subjected to death and decay.

So I began wondering if there was a new way of working with that early myth to connect us with our current circumstances.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, one interpretation of the meaning of the Temptation of Eve and Adam in the Garden goes beyond the idea of them both obtaining some knowledge of good and evil.  The tempter’s response to Eve’s explanation that they had been told by God not to eat the fruit of this tree or even touch it – otherwise they would die – was to say “That’s not true; you will not die.  God knows that when you eat it you will become like God.”  That was the temptation – to become like God.  Another way of saying this is that by eating the fruit of the tree Adam and Eve were usurping the role of God – taking God’s place in the world God had created.  And that was the beginning of the downward spiral.

All the evidence we have about the plight of our planet where the atmosphere and weather cycles are becoming more and more destructive to human existence suggests that things started changing dramatically about 200 years ago.

It was about that tie that we developed an appetite for large-scale consumption of coal for heating and steam-powered transportation and machinery for manufacturing.  Not all that long after, electricity generation with coal, supplying vast grids for industrial and domestic use, added to the consumption of coal for steam, and then not long after that motor-vehicles, powered by liquid fossil fuels came onto the market on a huge scale.

Concurrent with those developments was the full blossoming of the Age of Enlightenment in which the scientific world-view was finding natural and scientific explanations for all sorts of phenomena that earlier generations attributed to God.  In fact, one of the features of this growth in knowledge was a growing body of people who began to displace God altogether from their world-view with some suggesting that as our knowledge grew so humankind would evolve into better and better people.

I can’t help seeing a parallel here in the idea proposed as a way for understanding the temptation of Eve and Adam – for it seems to me that in this age humankind tried to take the place of God in the matter of a responsibility for the earth.  Did we really have a Garden of Eden serving us all up to that time?  If so, have we chosen a pathway to destruction that no-one, not even God had dreamt of or intended.

We thought these wonderful resources had been given for us to use and use to make the world and our life on this planet better and better.

So we consumed.  We consumed and we consumed as if there was an unlimited supply of the resources we dug up out of the earth.  We consumed and consumed oblivious of the negative impact our consumption was having on the land, seas, our drinking water and the air, all of which were vital for our survival.  We believed the global system was so big that all of our actions were so insignificant that they could not be affected by our activity.

And the consequence of our failure to recognise our God-given place within creation and our interdependence with all other creatures is that we are living with the threat that all these things shall pass away – or at least our human part within it will come to an end.

Maybe this is what it feels like to be excluded from the Garden of Eden.  Maybe we have had the Garden with us all the time – but we just didn’t know it.  And so we didn’t care for it as we might have had we known.

It sounds regressive to say it and I want to affirm that our knowledge of life and the scientific world view has many good aspects to it.  Without it we would not have overcome many sicknesses and diseases.  Without it we would not have been able to cultivate enough food for us all to eat.  But if there is an underlying attitude that seeks to take God out of the equation, putting us in control of our own destiny (at least so far as we thought of it) maybe this is us trying to take the place of God – and there are consequences for that.

In our time there have been Christian prophetic voices seeking to rally humankind into a force that would take sides with God in restoring the creation we have so degraded.  That is at the heart of the Ecumenical Movement’s mission.  There have been social justice commissions of churches all around the world that have tried to call their people back into a new relationship with Creation that partners with God in sustaining the life that sustains us all.

Many have been calling us towards a simpler lifestyle that consumes less – less goods and services, less extractive resources, less non-renewable resources.  But the world seems to be running helter skelter in the opposite direction wanting ever-increasing consumption to ensure ever-increasing dividends to shareholders.

So, where will you find your Garden of Eden.  As Milton dreamed of Paradise restored, do you dream of the Garden Restored.  I try to – every day I try to think of us coming through this crisis into a better world – but I am still prone to despair at times.  How about you?

The Church is Silent

love.jpg

I wonder why it is in Australia that not a single national Church head, or Commission for Social Justice of any of the Churches has come out unequivocally in support of same-sex marriage?

Are they worried about dissenters?  That has not stopped the church speaking up in the past about our nation’s refugee policy or when the climate-change skeptics seemed to hold sway on government policy.  There has always been dissenters in the church.

Do they think that because the social contract of marriage between a man and a woman is a Biblical thing it cannot be changed?  That has not stopped many churches from promoting the equality of men and women in leadership in the church.  We did the same two centuries ago when social attitudes to slavery were changing.  Social structures change and we reinterpret the Scriptures to discover a way of moving with that social change.  And the sky didn’t fall in, nor did society fall apart when these changes became normalised.

Do they think it is proper to impose the Christian views of a very small sector of society on the whole nation?  Perhaps they are so used to sitting cosy with the powers that be that it is hard to give up the seat.  I really like the Kingdom of God parable about the Yeast but I do not think that this is what it means.

Are those who want to keep marriage as only for man and woman couples being selfish?  Why are they unwilling to allow others to share in the joy they have in relationship?

I just wish my church – or any other church – would come out and say unequivocally that extending the social and legal privileges of marriage to all people is something that will do no harm to the vast majority who will still choose to marry a person of the opposite sex, nor will it harm the children of any family where they are loved and cared for.

I support Marriage Equality.  I gladly walk in the Pride March each year if I can.  How is it that I can do that when I have grown up in the church for all my life and so should be completely saturated by what it means to be a Christian?  I have been an ordained member of the leadership of the church since 1981.  If opposition to Marriage Equality is such a no-brainer to most people in the church, how can I stand on this side of that line?

Let me outline just a few reasons:

We live in a Democracy not a Theocracy

We live in a society, a nation state that is secular – and so it should be.  This does not preclude any of us from having particular religious views or participating in any particular religious practices insofar as those practices do not breach the laws of society – in the way, for example, that female genital mutilation – a religious practice – is considered to be extreme child abuse because it generally is undertaken on children and so is a criminal offence.

Secular states very often hold legal positions on moral issues that are contrary to sincerely held religious views.  Abortion is a clear example.  The fact that the sate permits legal abortion does not force anyone to have an abortion.  It simply offers an option.  Many religious people continue to oppose this and that is their right.  Some states in the USA continue to exercise Capital Punishment for serious crimes as does our near neighbour, Indonesia.  Interestingly, some Christian people see no problem with this because capital punishment is part of the legal code in the Old Testament, while others lobby very energetically to have capital punishment done away with as a sanction in the legal system.

If the Australian Government was to make same-sex marriage possible I suspect the opposition of churches to it would continue.  I suspect that many Churches would continue to only marry men and women in heterosexual relationships.  Some might even opt out of all forms of civil registration of marriage, offering only a religious ceremony which would have to be supplemented by the couple attending a Registry Office or Civil Celebrant to complete the legal requirements of registering the marriage.

Community polling to date suggests that nearly 75% of the nation’s people support the legal changes necessary to allow for marriage equality.  Out politicians would do well to pay attention to that and act accordingly.

But I have more than social reasoning behind my position on this matter.

Jesus sat with the Marginalised

Jesus once sat by a well and talked seriously with a marginalised and scandalised woman.  She had been divorced.  She was living illicitly with another man.  She was a social outcast in her village.  That conversation transformed her life.

Jesus once invited himself to lunch with another social outcast.  Zacchaeus listened and his heart was transformed.

Jesus had a reputation among the religious elite of being a glutton and a drinker, “a friend of tax-collectors and outcasts.” (Matt 11:19).

So I have no problem marching with Gay people in the Pride March.  One man, a couple of years ago, spoke to me of the welcome he received in an Anglican Church in Perth where after 20 years of exile from his Roman Catholic faith he felt safe and welcome to receive the holy sacrament of Communion again.  I rejoiced with him in that and I thank God for the priest involved in that parish.

René Girard rightly observed that humans are highly predisposed to observing the differences between us and others and using that as a basis to ostracise or marginalise those who are different.  We do this on the basis of race.  We do this on the basis of religious views.  We do this on the basis of wealth (or the lack of it).  we do this on the basis of sexual orientation.  For many generations Gay and Lesbian people have been so marginalised that they have been fearful about revealing to others that they are attracted to people of the same sex, and many of them have struggled with confusion and doubt because society has insisted that they were ‘not normal’.  Christians and others in society have even justified the vilification of gay and lesbian people and have demonised them in such a way that they are no longer thought of as real people.

Some Christians, when faced with a moral dilemma, like asking the question “What would Jesus do?”  My bet is that if Jesus were here today, he would be hanging out with gays and lesbians, with trans and intersex people.  He would be listening to their stories and he would be affirming their humanity.  But most importantly he would be letting them know that, contrary to popular opinion in the Church, they are loved by God as they are.

Marriage as an Icon of Christ and the Church

Much opposition in the Church to same-sex marriage comes from a misguided notion of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  A metaphor of this relationship that is found in the Bible proposes that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride.  And the church has given this metaphor eschatological meaning by speaking of the end-times as the final coming together of Bride and Bridegroom at the heavenly banquet – also referred to as a wedding feast.

The metaphor is etched deeply and has been used to justify a rigid stance against any change of marriage from that between a man and a woman.  Why has this been so?

I suspect that the indelible understandings of what marriage ‘really means’ is based more on the words of the Form for Solemnization of Matrimony as found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer 1662.  There it says that:

  • holy Matrimony..is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is between Christ and his Church;
  • [marriage] is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and [should not be undertaken in order] to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God;  

It fulfills three primary functions:

  • First, It was ordained for the procreation of children,
  • Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication;
  • Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. 

This first function gets a lot of press in the debate.  It seems that if one is supposed to have babies then there has to be a man and a woman.  Yet we know that medical advances today, as well as changes in social norms, mean that same-sex couples can and do have children.  Adoption laws have changed permitting such couples to adopt children, and some couples come together with children from previous relationships.

And what about older men and women who want to be marriage.  If the woman is beyond child-bearing age, does that mean they don’t qualify to be properly married?

As a result many today have been rethinking the theological basis for marriage in a Christian setting.  For me there are some very simple inclusive ways of looking at the meaning of marriage that still reflect the mystery of the relationship between Christ and his Church.

God is Love

Firstly, John’s Gospel affirms in many places that God is love.  All agree that this is a central concept in our discussion of the nature of God.  John says in his first letter that love comes from God (I John 4:7) and that those who live in love live in union with God and God lives in union with them (I John 4:16b).

How can we then say  that the love between a same-sex couple, which is, they claim, identical to the love between a man and a woman, be said to be anything other than an expression of the union between that couple and God?  I suspect that such a claim might sadden God.

Faithfulness is Gender Neutral

The aspect of God’s love that is most often interjected into the meaning of marriage is faithfulness.

Again and again, the Prophets of Israel spoke of the unfaithfulness of the people of God to their covenantal relationship with God as adultery.  One even married a prostitute to exaggerate the point.  But this language is metaphorical.  Faithfulness is faithfulness and the gender of the parties who enter into a covenant of faithfulness is immaterial.

Trustworthiness is also Gender Neutral

Another aspect of the nature of God that has been translated into a significant aspect of marriage is trustworthiness.

In the history of Israel and the Early Church, God is spoken of as utterly trustworthy and it is to this that we aspire in our marriage relationship.  Regardless of their gender, couples who cultivate and maintain the greatest trustworthiness are living in a way that reflects the image of God that is within them, with which they were born.

What About the Seven Verses?

There are indeed seven verses in the Bible that, when translated into English appear to condemn homosexuality in unequivocal terms.  What are we to do with these?

There may well be more verses in the Old and New Testaments that permit or even encourage slavery.  That does not make me an advocate of slavery today.

There certainly are more verses in the Old and New Testaments the propose and seek to maintain the subjugation of women to men as an expression of the proper social order.  That does not convince me to advocate a complimentarian view of men and women in the church.

Neither do these seven verses convince me to continue the years and years of exclusion, abuse and marginalisation of people whose sexuality is different from mine.  I welcome and rejoice in the love I see in my Gay and Lesbian friends.

Marriage Equality will add a whole new and wonderful dimension to marriage as we currently know it and it will take nothing away from those man and women who are married to each other.

I wish my church would speak up for them at a time when so many will be trying to shout them down.

.

Learning to Preach in the Anthropocene

eco-theology

This was the intriguing title of a presentation by Emeritus Professor the Rev’d Dr Graeme Garrett to a group of people, Anglicans and others, at a Workshop reflecting on the recent Encyclical by Pope Francis called Laudato Si.

graeme-garrett

Dr Graeme Garrett

After explaining that ‘Anthropocene’ is a proposed name for the current geological epoch in the history of earth, Graeme spoke compellingly about the common failure of preachers to preach with equal vigour about God the Father, as “creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen,” compared to their preaching about Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and of the Holy Spirit as the empowerment of God among us.

He raised with us the difficulties of speaking about the eco-sphere and in fact all creation without raising concerns among our congregations about us preaching politics.  Reflecting the views of so many, recent Presidential aspirant in the USA, Jeb Bush said “I think religion should be more about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”  This attitude makes it hard to speak about Eco-Theology without some of our listeners feeling we are over-stepping our mandate in preaching.

greg-seach

Dr Gregory Seach

In addition to this we were treated to a lecture entitled “The ‘Priesthood of all Believers’: Human Beings and Creation from an Orthodox perspective.”  by the Rev’d Dr Gregory Seach, Warden of Wollaston Theological College in Perth.  What came through was that in the Orthodox tradition there is a sense that Creation Theology is in fact at the centre of all theology.

Beginning with the notion of the Priesthood of All Believers, Gregory made a convincing case for an egalitarian view of ministry in the church despite the existence of an ineradicable hierarchy in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox expressions of the Church. Since all ministry – undertaken by lay or clergy – is an expression of the ministry of Christ, whoever is undertaking the ministry is in fact standing in Christ’s place.  “This is what it means,” he said, “to be part of the body of Christ.”

He then sought to make a link between Adam as the first human of Creation, and Christ, sometimes referred to as a ‘Second Adam’.  He teased out parallels between the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden by Satan and the temptation of Christ in the Wilderness by this same deceiver.

In the Garden, Satan said them “You will not die.  God said that because he knows that when you eat it you will become like God.”  The temptation here was to turn creation to his own ends, effectively usurping the role of God.

In the Wilderness, Satan finds in Jesus a determined refusal to usurp the role of God or do anything that was against the laws of nature.  At every challenge, Jesus says “No!”  In doing this he is demonstrating what was later declared in Paul’s letter to the Philippians – ‘He always had the nature of God ..[but] of his own free will he gave up all he had’ becoming a human and taking seriously his new relationship to God as a human that meant he too, would die.  For him to have done otherwise would have been to usurp the role of God.

These two stories provide book-ends on the period of sin because the refusal of Jesus undoes the acquiescence of Adam and this takes us right back into the Creation story as those blessed of God again.

As if to make sure we understand that the ending of Jesus’ life would take us back to the Creation story, the Passion Narrative in John’s Gospel begins with Jesus and his disciples crossing the Kidron Valley and going to a garden called Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives in the Synoptics.  Three days later the risen Jesus is first experienced by some women in the Garden.  With these images the Gospel writers have placed Creation right back into the centre of the story – Paradise has been Regained as Milton eulogised.

Gregory then took us into the liturgies of the Church where we find connections to Creation all over the place.  It is there in the Gloria where we affirm God’s proclamation of ‘Peace to all God’s people.’  It is there when we affirm our faith in the Nicene Creed, saying  ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things, seen and unseen.’  It is there when we pray the Lord’s Prayer to a Father who is in Heaven and whose will is to be done in heaven and on earth.  It is there when we speak of our Lord, ‘The God of all creation’ when we give thanks for the gifts that have been brought to the altar.  And it is present in each and every Eucharistic Thanksgiving Prayer in APBA.

This leads then to some very reasonable questions.  Why is it that Creation is so absent from our consciousness about theology and God?  Why is it that when the Season of Creation or Sustainable September liturgies are used in churches, some, at least, of the people feel like we are getting too political in church?

Pope Francis says

“Today … we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

(Laudato Si, Par 49)

I came away from this day with a wondering and a determination.  A wondering about how I could integrate this concept of Creation into the fullness of our everyday life in a parish, and a determination to have a go at it.

 

Sustainable House Day 2016

Yesterday we participated in a significant event in the cycle of events for Sustainable September – we opened our home to show people what we had done make our home more sustainable.  This related particularly to strategies to reduce our energy and water consumption, increase the efficiency of our use of these finite resources, and reduce the carbon miles associated with the food we eat.

Over 70 people came to visit us and I hope they were inspired to adopt even just one small idea in their homes as a result of seeing what we have done.  We gave them all a little booklet as a resource.

photo-04

SHD 2016 Greenwood Green

Looking Ahead

I wonder if you have ever thought “Christianity is pretty confusing sometimes?”
If you have I wonder whether it might have been after you read the Gospel story we had today, or something similar.
Sometimes there even seems to be conflicting guidelines about it all.
A few weeks ago we skipped over a section of Luke 12 in which we are encouraged not to worry about what we will wear and where our food will come from.  These words are very similar to the words Matthew records in the Sermon on the Mount – and they are good words for us, aren’t they?
It is indeed clear to us all that we spend far too much time worry about things in the future over which we have no control, and it is a good idea to simply trust that God will sort it out.
This is an idea that St Francis took very much to heart, perhaps even to an extreme.  Franciscans live very much for the moment.  They practice the art of being focussed very much in the present without worry about what has passed or about what will come tomorrow.  A story is told of an example of the extreme to which Francis took this “rule”. 
When you are living on peasant rations, as Francis did, an important part of your diet will inevitably be dried beans or lentils.  Those of you who cook will know that all such things need to be soaked overnight at least before you try and cook them – otherwise they will be neither palatable nor digestible.   However, Francis took the view that putting the beans into water to soak for cooking tomorrow was contravening this rule of not worrying about what you will eat tomorrow.
I suppose we could do the same to any sort of rule, really, but I think most of us get it, that we in our time are surrounded by inordinate causes of anxiety and worry about things over which we have not control, and the idea of shedding those worries and focussing right in on exactly what is happening now is a good idea.
So, we are encouraged to stop and smell the roses.  We are encouraged to put aside the things from our past that cause us to be bitter or revengeful towards others.  We are encouraged live in this moment.
The Gospel story we have before us today seems to be telling us something of the opposite – at least it does if that is the right way to interpret it.
I am sure all of you hearing it this morning would have been puzzled by the possibility that Jesus was commending someone for being dishonest and encouraging us to do likewise if we really want to get ahead.  I know that I did, when I first looked at it earlier this week in preparation for today.
One of the things we have to remember when we read parables is that the content of the story is far less important than the point of the story.  Indeed, if we think the content is the story we will be misusing it.
The story of the Good Samaritan is not about Samaritans and Jews or priests and Levites – it is about how to behave in a neighbourly fashion.
So, in a similar way this story is not about behaving sneakily or even dishonestly with the things we might be entrusted with.
I think the key thrust of this story is Jesus telling his listeners that they would do well to make preparation for their own wellbeing in the future – ie with God. 
The shrewd manager is commended for taking steps to ensure he had some “friends” who would look after him when he was finally disgraced by losing his job.  He knew what was coming and he took steps to protect himself from it.
His wisdom in taking steps to protect his future, I think, is the thing that Jesus is calling us, the “children of light”, to make sure we pay attention to.  Of course he doesn’t want us to be a sneak or cheat with other people’s money; but he is throwing down a challenge – And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? “
This, I think is the nub of it.  If we can be wise and astute about all the responsibilities we have in this world, then it is a shoe-in that we will handle our sacred trusts well, too.  This is the idea that is embedded in the COLLECT for today and which I will echo in my blessing for you at the end of the service.
The focus of our lives should rightly be the things of God and in this area of life we all have a responsibility to nurture our life in God, to always be growing and developing;  and a good way to ensure we make good choices there is to practice making good choices in the other areas of our lives.
So, a question worth asking ourselves is:
“What are you doing today that is laying good foundations for your tomorrow?”
The kinds of things that might weigh in on this could be:

  • Cultivating those gifts of the Spirit in your life – faith, hope and love etc. 
  • Nurturing your spiritual life by simple daily practices that keep you focussed on God 
  • Practising trustworthiness and wisdom in all areas of your life 
  • Ensuring you remain connected to that community of believers in which you are accepted and loved 
  • Find some small way in which you can give to others that improves their welfare – maybe as a donor but maybe as a volunteer 

I don’t know what will be right for you, but I do know that the work of the Spirit of God involves prompting us about one thing or another like this, and if you are feeling such a prompting, listen carefully to it and see how you can take it up in ways that will show that you have understood what Jesus is commending in this seriously strange but very helpful parable.

"I am the way …"

American activist and labour organizer Cesar Chavez said, “When we are really honest with ourselves, we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of [people] we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of [humanity] is to sacrifice ourselves for others in totally nonviolent struggle for justice.”


I came across this quote in Common Prayer today and was struck yet again by the simplicity of the Way that Jesus proclaimed, as well as its universality.  His way, the Way we are called into, is that way of death and resurrection.  

How often in our personal experiences have we found that in the great tragedies or losses in life we discover some new resource within us our around us that is able to transform our lives?  Similarly, in the lives or organisations or even the structures of society, out of great calamity can come creative new ways of being.

A story is in my head without a hyperlink to its source but I think it may have been told in one of Marcus Borg’s books.  In a seminary in the USA where for reasons understood only in the USA there was a Hindu man on the faculty who participated inclusively with the other members of the faculty in leading the college community in worship in the Christian way.  The text for the day was John 14:6 – Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the live.  No one comes to the Father but by me.”

The Hindu man began his homily with words that must have been the least expected.  He said, “I believe those words of Jesus are absolutely true.”  So often, when we hear these words we see them as reinforcing our instinctive desire for an exclusive claim that Jesus the person is the way, but this Hindu preacher went on to explain that in his understanding of the major religious traditions of the world, there was this common thread that they way in which a disciple finds life, true life and ultimate meaning is through a death and resurrection experience.  They may use different language to describe it, but when it is all boiled down they mean the same thing.

He went on to suggest that if we were to understand this wisdom of Jesus in inclusive rather than exclusive terms we would find ourselves calling all people into a common experience of true transformation that they really do understand and into which we are called by Jesus.

Its worth thinking about.

I have a dream

Today we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of that famous and inspirational speech by Martin Luther King Jnr by putting together a service of secular and sacred song, video and read out extracts of MLK’s speeches, liturgy and prayers that challenged us to re-vision a world of hope and peace in our time.

Here is the Homily I used for the day:

The central element to Martin Luther King Jnr’s philosophy was his belief in a divine loving presence that bound all life together.  This belief was behind all of his quests to eliminate social evil, and what he referred to when he preached of “the interrelated structure of reality” in one of his sermons.
He said: “all [of us] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one [person] directly, affects all indirectly
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
His wife wrote in 1981, “Even the most intractable evils of our world – the triple evils of poverty, racism and war … – can only be eliminated by non-violent means.  And the wellspring for the eradication of even these most economically, politically and socially entrenched evils is the moral imperative to love.”
She goes on in her forward to “Strength to Love”, a collection of Martin’s sermons, to quote Martin in explanation of this:
“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response.  I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen in the unifying principle of life.  Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.  This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.”
The world we live in today is just as much in need of this dream, this vision of mutuality and commonwealth, as the world into which Martin Luther King Jnr spoke 50 years ago.
This is not to say that nothing has been achieved for the better in those years.  Certainly not.  Much has been achieved, even to the extent of the American people electing a black man to be President not just once, but twice.
But there is still an enormous amount of social disadvantage based on racial grounds both in the USA and our own country, Australia.  As Coretta Scott King observed “the triple evils of poverty, racism and war [things which are at the heart of social disadvantage] … [are so] economically, politically and socially entrenched” that they will only be eradicated when we take seriously this radical imperative to love.
We are very much aware of the effect of pressure on housing stocks of our mining boom years that has made affordable housing something meaningless to the poor.  Homelessness is an epidemic of our time for far too many.
We are very much aware of the structural inequality that keeps the marginalised – our indigenous and refugee people – in the lowest paid jobs if they are able to get work at all.
We are very much aware of the life-expectancy and health outcomes gap that exists between most of us and our indigenous brothers and sisters.
When we say these things we are talking about the lives of real people – people who for the most part are invisible to the policy makers and politicians of our day.
They will only become visible as we are able to mobilise a view in our society that our well-being is inextricably linked to their well-being.  We are unable to be the best that we can be if we have failed to enable these to be the best that they can be.
This is at the heart of the dream, but where are the dreamers and idealists of our day?
Where are the protest singers of our time, challenging the new frontiers of disadvantage that asylum-seekers will be condemned to, as well as the entrenched frontiers of poverty and disadvantage and lower life-expectancy of our indigenous people?
There is still much to be done.
Martin Luther King III speaking at the World Council of Churches’ International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica in May 2011 was asked to address the topic of “affirming the dignity and rights of all and nurturing values of mutuality and interdependence.”
He said, “Today, as we strive to affirm the dignity and rights of all people, many tenacious forms of discrimination continue to undermine human rights.

“There is still racial discrimination.  There is still discrimination based on religion, nationality, age, gender and sexual orientation.”

He sees the beginnings of our ability to dismantle this entrenched discrimination and disadvantage in affirming the importance of cooperation and connectedness.  We have lost sight of these over these past 50 years as we have glorified competition and individualism.
On our political stage we rarely hear the term “commonwealth” – I sometimes hear the phrase “common good” in the prayers of the people in my Anglican church – and most public policy is framed in terms of how much the average punter will think is in it for them.
Another term we have lost, perhaps because of its gender bias, is “brotherhood”.  This term speaks of more than our common humanity – our brothers and sisters are those who are most closely related to us biologically, and perhaps we have been very good at looking after “our own”, as some might say.  In reality, though, we need to begin thinking of all other human beings – and some might even say all of creation – as our kin, our relatives, our biological family and to love one another accordingly.

I am not underestimating how hard this will be – for ourselves individually as well as as a nation. That is perhaps why we need good protest songs to sum it all up for us.  That is why we will need some good moral leadership that can challenge the systems of power.  That is why we all need a dream of what could be.

MANIFESTO: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

I recently came across a 1973 poem by American author Wendell Berry of this title and it seems to me that there is some profound truth in it for our day.

It speaks vividly of our enslavement to our consumerist society and the soul’s deep yearning form something more.  I think I want to be part of a Mad Farmer Liberation Front in our northern suburbs.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
(c) Wendell Berry, 1973.
What do you think?