Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Democracy is more than #GE2017 - let's get our act together!

OK. There's a vote coming up that will make a huge difference either way. Let's approach it with utter seriousness.
But it's not the be-all and end-all of democracy. There is more...
The stuff that is even more serious is the kind of stories we tell about ourselves as a country, the values we hold central... and how we talk to each other across our differences and what we do as a result of talking together.
That's real democracy.
So please, please, please, wherever you are in the country, whether you're 'safe' or 'marginal', before June 8th please organise some open get-togethers to talk vision, values, priorities, stories, identities, solidarities... and what we can do together as citizens. Because it's only by talking about that stuff together that we'll know what we need our politicians to do with us, or for us.
If you need help, or resources, Church Action on Poverty have got some good stuff. We've tried stuff in Hodge Hill which we can share.
Please: get people together, bridge divides, get people talking, get a taste for people power. That's the only way things will really change.

Monday, 17 April 2017

'Walks of witness' and an inter-faith Easter

I have a confession to make. Thankfully, we've entered the season of Easter in which grace and forgiveness are flooding the earth, and so my confession can come out more easily.

On Good Friday, I deliberately avoided engagement with some of my neighbours.

It was around 11.50am. I was making the 5-minute walk from home up to church for our meditative 'Stations of the Cross' service. I was in a bit of a hurry because I didn't want to be late (it was one of the services in the week that I wasn't responsible for leading, so was heading up simply to be there, to receive, to participate). And as I neared our little Tesco Express, I heard the unmistakably metallic sound of voices amplified through microphone and loudspeaker. A small group from one of our local Pentecostal churches, with a large cross, singing a song I didn't recognise. The song ended, the pastor took the microphone to preach.

And I passed by on the other side of the road.

The echoes of priest and levite in Jesus' story of 'the Good Samaritan' are not lost on me - although the folk outside Tesco didn't give the impression of needing or wanting any assistance. I do regret not engaging with my neighbours, my sister and brother Christians. But my response to them also got me thinking.

I am allergic to 'Good Friday walks of witness', at least in the way I have experienced them in many places.

It isn't just a personality issue (and I have examined myself repeatedly on this question). It's not that temperamentally I'm as allergic to public displays of faith as I might be to public displays of affection (snogging in front of a crowd of onlookers, for example). Yes, I often tend towards introversion, but that hasn't stopped me getting 'out there' and engaging with complete strangers for many different reasons over the years.

What I am allergic to is more theologically rooted. I'm allergic to the combination of unilateral initiative ('we, the church, have decided we're going to do this'), coming so often from 'the outside' to occupy - and implicitly claim ownership of - spaces that are not ours, 'broadcasting' a message that we claim as 'the truth', with little thought to how such 'broadcasting' might be received, let alone a dialogical responsiveness to what others might want to say. I am allergic too (and it all feels connected) to the message that seems especially to be broadcast on Good Friday - of 'the cross' (the symbol, as much if not more than the story) as 'triumph', 'victory', 'final solution'.

When I watch YouTube clips of members of Britain First marching down Birmingham's Stratford Road, just days before, brandishing a big white cross and broadcasting their messages of anti-Muslim hate, of course I understand that theirs is a vicious parody of what peaceable Christians are doing on Good Friday. But I can't help wondering if they have more in common than we might want to admit to: not only in their methods of communication, but also in the kind of message being communicated (the medium and the message are inextricable, after all). For most Christians, the message the God is Love will be incompatible with so much that Britain First stand for. But the implicit messages, that we come with God's truth, that we claim this ground for God, that we expect of others this pre-defined response - these kinds of imperialism make me wonder exactly who is parodying whom (and the answer may well date back all the way to Constantine if not even before).

Now I don't want to claim that we've got it all sorted in Hodge Hill. That would, ironically, be to fall into exactly the same kinds of imperialist temptation. But I do want to witness to a gift, or two, or three, that we've found ourselves being given here.

First, there's the now-established tradition of the Bromford Passion Play. I've talked about this so many times before, that here I just want to recall that it began with the initiative (and the creativity and drive) of someone with no affiliation to 'church', it developed as an invitation to Christians (among others) to walk the neighbourhood together (rather than invading it or claiming it as 'Christian space'), it wove together the story of the passion with the stories and longings of the neighbourhood, and it was enacted drama, rather than broadcast message, and so was an invitation to involvement, to be drawn into the story, rather than to respond to propositions. Although ending (like many 'walks of witness') with the crucifixion, it did not proclaim triumph, but enacted both comedy and tragedy - the central character enmeshed in relationships of love and power - and invited those who had been drawn in along the way to wonder, to make their own sense of it, to respond in whatever way they would.

Secondly, there's our very small, quiet little rituals that frame the night of Easter Day itself. We've got into a habit of gathering, outside, somewhere in our neighbourhood, as the sun goes down on Easter Eve, to share our stories of loss and longing, of disappointment and hope and hopes-not-yet-realised. And the next morning, 'while it is still dark' (as one of the gospels puts it), to return to the same place, and watch the sun rise. With a barely-alight paschal candle, we then make a pilgrimage around our neighbourhood, seeking to catch glimpses of resurrection as the world begins to be flooded with light anew. It is, in many ways, a 'walk of witness' - but 'pianissimo' rather than 'fortissimo' (as one Anglican bishop last week put it), and as much 'witnessing' in the sense of seeing for ourselves as 'witnessing' in the sense of communicating to others.

Thirdly, then, the particular gift of Easter 2017. On Easter Eve, after our sunset gathering, I received a text. An invitation from one of the councillors in a neighbouring ward - a younger Muslim woman, and a passionate community activist. Could I, and any sister and brother Christians, meet her the next day, in the afternoon, to visit some shops on the Alum Rock Road where, the week before, Britain First had made their threatening and hostile presence felt? Could we come and show our solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers, sharing in peace together after our Easter celebrations?

How could I say No? What an invitation - and on Easter Day of all days! And so, after six hours of Easter morning services and breakfasts (many of manage at least 3 on Easter morning!), a small group of five of us from Hodge Hill Church headed down to the Alum Rock Road to meet Councillor Mariam Khan, with some of the local neighbourhood policing team, and they acted as both our guides and travelling companions (in a neighbourhood which, for some of us at least, was less familiar). We walked together up the road, we are taken into a handful of Islamic bookshops and gift shops, we were introduced to each other and greeted each other with words of peace ('as-salam-u-alaikum' is simply Arabic for 'peace be with you', of course), we listened to people's stories and to their deeply-rooted convictions and beliefs, we responded with a little of our own Easter gospel, we received warm welcomes and generous hospitality, and together we found ourselves sharing in a process of mutual encouragement, strengthening and peace-making - even perhaps in the healing of wounds.

It turned out to be quite a remarkable 'walk of witness' - again, with that double sense of 'witness' as both receptivity and communication. It evoked for me deep resonances with Easter stories from the gospels, both of Jesus appearing to his fearful friends behind locked doors, breathing on them and saying 'peace be with you', and also of two of Jesus' grieving disciples, journeying back to their home village of Emmaus, and encountering Jesus both on the road as a stranger, and as the guest-turned-host as he broke bread at their table. Perhaps it also had echoes of that encounter on the beach where Peter's three-fold denial of his friendship with Jesus was re-worked into a three-fold affirmation of love, at Jesus' gracious and challenging invitation.

Perhaps there will never be another Easter day where the invitation to such a 'walk of witness' will come our way. It would certainly be very different were we, the church, to decide to take the initiative on it. But of one thing I am confident: this is not the end of the story. It is only the very beginning.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The 'Robin Hood' restaurant and Christian mission

"Charge the 'rich' to feed the poor: Madrid's Robin Hood homeless cafe". So ran the headline in a heart-warming Guardian article about a Spanish restaurant that uses the takings from paying breakfast and lunch customers, to fund free evening meals for local homeless people. The article was picked up by a senior colleague in my diocese, who wondered if we might be able to try something similar in Birmingham. That wondering raised, for me, several important and very timely questions.

On the one hand, what's fantastic about this Madrid restaurant is that it treats all its customers with equal dignity and respect. In the evening, as much as in the daytime, the tables are laid with tablecloths and candles, the food is just as good, as is the service from the waiters. This cafe doesn't just feed people who are homeless, it treats them with the reverence deserved of any human being but which often in our world is only given to those who can afford to pay for it.

The 'Robin Hood' cafe (its name chosen very deliberately) also creates a channel for a small redistribution of wealth: the rich pay a bit more for their food, the cafe owners make a bit less profit, and the 'poor' (interesting how the Guardian article problematises the label 'rich' but not its opposite) get a decent meal. A more sustainable charitable model, perhaps, than relying on donations to run a soup kitchen. It's almost as if the 'donors' are enabled to give painlessly, without a second thought - or even affording them a rosy glow of goodness to accompany their tasty dessert.

And that, I think, is precisely the problem with this otherwise inspiring story. The richer diners get their decent meal, their conscience salved, and they don't have to think too hard about those who will eat in the same restaurant later in the day. Like any other monetary giving, it can be done at arm's length, without the disturbance or discomfort (dare I even suggest 'disgust' might sometimes be at work here?) of an actual encounter with those on the receiving end. The maitre d' and the waiters do that bit, of course, however 'heroically'. But they are also paid to do their job. Those who pay to consume (both food and the badge of charitable goodness) can, like most consumers, isolate themselves from their neighbours in their little bubbles of consumption.

Which brings me, disturbingly, to church. I'm not going to launch a full-on assault here on 'consumer Christianity', where you (the consumer) choose your brand, go for your 'fill-up', and move on somewhere else when it's not working for you any more. No, plenty of others have got that base well and truly covered. What I'm struggling with here is 'charitable Christianity', and I'm pretty sure most of us Christians are well and truly embedded in it. It operates on a very clear and simple model: we go to church to 'fill up', and then we're sent out into the world to 'give out'. If you're from a more evangelical tradition, you might hear the gospel in church, and preach/share it in the world. If you're of a more catholic persuasion, you'll be fed with the eucharist in church, and then disperse, like the broken bread, to feed others. In the Church of England eucharistic liturgy, this logic is laid out very clearly in one of the two post-communion prayers: "may we who drink his cup bring life to others, we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world" - a logic echoed in the strapline for Church of England Birmingham's new 'resourcing church' when it proclaims it wants to be "light for the city", "bringing hope and light to Birmingham".

Now all of this is, at the very least, half of the truth. The trouble begins when we make it the whole truth. If we are to preach the word, then others must be the listeners. If we are fed to feed others, then those others have nothing that might nourish us in turn. If we are the "light for the city", then where we are not is, implicitly at least, in the dark.

In the gospels, it is Peter more than any other who is confronted with the half-truth nature of these beliefs. Peter is well-practised at getting things 'half-right': "you are the Messiah", he proclaims, before instantly getting it terribly wrong when he refuses to let Jesus take the path of suffering laid out before him. But the moment I have in mind here comes later on, at Jesus' 'last supper', when Jesus kneels down and attempts to wash Peter's feet. "You wash my feet, Lord?!" Peter protests. Surely it should be the other way round?! Peter has 'got' the idea of 'service', it seems - but can't get his head round being on the receiving end.

I love Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) precisely because it's the day of the year we get to re-tell that story, and re-enact it too. We're invited to confront the sweaty, dirty, mis-shapen awkwardness of each other's feet, and to get up close and personal with them with a bowl of soapy water. And while it's a privilege to be involved in doing the washing, it's the being washed that seems always to be the hardest part. Women with tights have a particularly convincing reason for finding it difficult. But it's not just a logistical challenge. There seems to be something that goes very deep within most of us that, like Peter, resists letting someone wash our feet. Disturbance, discomfort, disgust, maybe. But more basic than any of those, simply being on the receiving end. Being touched. Being 'served', without retaining the power of paying for it. Little wonder, that even among my wonderful congregation in Hodge Hill, at most only 50% of those who come to Maundy Thursday service are usually game enough to have their feet washed.

Now I don't believe there's anything particularly magical about foot-washing that inherently disrupts the logic I laid out above. I know of plenty of Maundy Thursday stories of Christians going out of church to wash the feet of their neighbours - either literally or metaphorically (shoe-shining seems to be a popular version at the moment, at least among communities where shiny shoes are more the norm). If the more sacramental among us did foot-washing rather than eucharist every Sunday, you can bet we'd be having our feet-washed to go out and wash others' feet as a matter of course.

But what foot-washing does have over preaching the gospel and breaking bread is the in-built element of disturbance, discomfort and disgust attached to being on the receiving end of it. It could never (I think) be something received easily, casuallly, without an degree of awkwardness about it. And maybe that's precisely why Christians haven't adopted it as a central, weekly practice. Maybe that's why it's not central to the anneal gathering of clergy in Anglican cathedrals that happens every Maundy Thursday morning (even if it may be talked about in readings and sermons in those gatherings). Maybe learning to have our feet washed can teach us something about an openness to receiving strange, awkward, holy gifts from our neighbours - rather than allowing ourselves to imagine that we're always sent out of church to 'bring' something, 'give' something to others?

In our neighbourhood over the last few weeks, a wonderful and rapidly-growing team of volunteers have started a weekly cafe, in partnership with The Real Junk Food Project, cooking and serving food that would otherwise have been thrown away by major supermarket and restaurant chains. The meals themselves are of the best quality, and the service is warm and friendly. One of the distinctive things about our Real Junk Food Kitchen is that it operates (like all TRJFP cafes) on a "pay as you feel" basis: you can pay money for your food (if you want to and are able), or you can pay by contributing your time, skills and gifts (to the cafe, or to other things happening locally) - or both! Where our cafe differs from Madrid's 'Robin Hood', then, is that there are no separations between those who can pay and those who can't - in fact, few people will notice who is who. We all eat together, and in the process, make friends across our differences, and receive the gifts each other brings. Those of us who feel less comfortable being on the receiving end just have to get over ourselves (including un-learning our consumerist and charitable tendencies) and learn to welcome the (sometimes strange) gifts that come to our tables. There's something pretty Easter-y about that, I'd suggest...

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

An urgent slowness

I was invited to present at a conference on 'A Future for Post-Industrial Communities?', organised by Hope Not Hate and the Leeds Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change. It was a very thought-provoking and energising couple of days, with some very passionate and insightful presentations and conversations. Oddly, though, it seemed I was the only speaker from an explicitly 'faith community' perspective, and one of very few who both worked in and lived in the place they were talking about. This is what I said (with the slides I used with it):

This is where I live and work: the Firs & Bromford, a 1950s & 60s outer estate, in east Birmingham, tower blocks and maisonettes, semis & terraces, and a rapidly-changing population, with growing Somali, Nigerian and eastern European communities, among others.

We’re facing urgent challenges (globally, nationally, locally):
Deepening austerity, poverty & inequality;
Deepening divisions, simmering racism that sometimes explodes;
and in the background to it all, a global environmental crisis, which will force more and more people to move en masse, and yet will also force us all to live more locally.

In neighbourhoods like mine, we don’t just receive an unjust sharing of resources... we've also witnessed over the years the crumbling of neighbourly relationships, and losses in our individual and collective sense of identity... often a result of internalising the negative messages of outsiders (politicians and media especially).

We call this ‘the wasteland’: one corner of the Bromford estate, on which the City Council built tower blocks in the ‘60s, which rapidly started sinking into the mud (who knew – it was a flood plain!)... they pulled them down in the ‘90s, and the wasteland has been abandoned ever since – even though many local people walk through it every day, on their way to school, or the shops...

And it was in the wasteland, one wintry April afternoon, under the concrete pillars of the M6 motorway, that we crucified Jesus... in the first Bromford Community Passion Play. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ cried the dying man – and the echoes seemed to resonate with some of the deepest stories of our neighbourhood...

...and out of the silence that followed, these defiant words of Maya Angelou sang out:

So, if there’s one question that guides our work locally more than any other, it’s this:
Passion can mean suffering, of course – where’s the pain? where does it hurt?
But it also means, what fires you up? what are the things that make you get up in the morning? what are your deepest loves? what brings you to life?

Phil & Flo are passionate about their neighbourhood, our neighbourhood. Flo’s lived on the Bromford for over 30 years, and if she issues orders, you jump to it. Phil’s joined Flo here more recently. He works in one of the few remaining local factories. But his real passion is theatre: putting on a performance, making people laugh.

The Bromford Theatre Group was Phil’s baby. He started it from scratch. From Christmas pantos to Halloween ghost walks, from Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties to the Community Passion Play, the theatre group gets people involved, draws out their passions and gifts, gets them doing stuff they’d never dream of... builds community, and energises people for action.

But what of the local church? That’s what you’d expect a vicar to be talking about, I’d guess. You might also expect me to talk about church initiatives in the community, church-run projects filling the gaps in service-provision where the state has retreated, caring for the vulnerable, feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger, just like Jesus did...
The trouble is, it’s actually quite easy to do that stuff. And it's really, really tempting. Being the central agent in the story, doing things ‘for’ others, standing up to the evil oppressors, following in the footsteps of the social justice superhero Jesus...
The trouble is, so often that makes us Christians part of the problem. Part of the power inequality problem, the white problem, the male problem, the middle-class, do-gooder activist problem... Perhaps identifying with Jesus, identifying with the divine, is about the last thing people like me should be doing... So what’s the alternative?

Well, how about finding inspiration in The Full Monty instead? Not identifying with the brave blokes who got their kit off, though. Identifying instead with the women-folk in the film who teased them, wolf-whistled them, raised an eyebrow to nudge them towards being the men they didn’t imagine they could be...
In Hodge Hill, with only slightly less sexual tension, we’ve searched out our local ‘unsung heroes’, those ordinary people who make a big difference in our neighbourhoods, in quiet, often hidden ways. Often people who lead from the middle, not from the front. People with passion, gifts and skills that they’re willing to share more widely with their neighbours.
At our weekly Open Door drop-in, the DWP think we hand out food parcels and help people do their job searches. And we do. But it’s much more important to us that we share food together, unearth people’s passions together, dream and plot and grow new stuff together, and where we can, build solidarity to challenge the systems together...

But people don’t often come to us without us first going to them. So our Street Connectors are out every week, knocking on doors, asking people what they’re passionate about... not asking them what they want us to do for them, but what we can do together to be the change we want to see...

And most recently, we’ve started trying to bring together people for Community Conversations, across differences of age, ethnic background, class and politics, to share openly and honestly what we love and where we struggle with our neighbourhood, our city, our country, and what we can do together to make all 3 better.

Geographer Paul Chatterton has written an article titled ‘“Give up activism”...’. He reflects on how environmental activists blockading an oil refinery unintentionally cast the petrol tanker drivers as their ‘others’, on the ‘opposing side’. Instead, he argues for giving up the moral high ground of ‘activism’, to ‘learn to walk with [our] others on uncommon ground’.
We (we the church, we the paid 'activists') are learning something similar in Hodge Hill. That the only meaningful way we’re going to address the urgent challenges is by letting go of our need to always ‘take the initiative’ and instead to seek to ‘hear to speech’ the gifts and challenges of our neighbours. And that kind of change can only ever happen slowly. But it’s a kind of slowness that has never been more urgent.

It may be only us in Hodge Hill who need to hear this from our neighbours, but maybe you do too, from the people you’re passionate about:

Friday, 17 March 2017

After listening (2): Philip North and the role of a bishop

So much has been written and said over the last week about the appointment of Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield, his subsequent withdrawal, and all that happened in between. So much of it angry and bitter, polarising and dividing. And not simply, I've noticed, the usual entrenched poles and divisions. Among women and men who are passionate advocates of women's ministry at all levels of the church, there has been sadness and frustration with each other about how this recent conversation has been conducted, how we should rejoice or protest, how we might be seeking 'mutual flourishing' - and what on earth that even means.

I'm hesitant about adding to the words, the noise, the cacophony. It's taken me a week to feel ready to articulate something. I, like many others I suspect, reached a point where I 'switched off' from the debate because I had reached my personal saturation point. So I may have missed someone having said already what I want to say here. It's not a big thought. But it may just possibly be a thought that tries to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction.

I don't want to talk about whether Bishop Philip would have been right for Sheffield. I don't want to talk about how the full ministry of ordained women and men might have been affirmed and celebrated in that context. I want to explore briefly what we expect of any of our bishops and how we appoint them in the first place.

One of our basic assumptions about bishops seems to be that they must speak. They must lead through saying the right things, in the right way - whether internally, to the church, or externally, to 'the world'. And we will watch carefully what they say - or have said - and judge them accordingly. They will explain their 'position' (on any number of issues) by what they say, and we will each of us locate them on our personal ecclesiastical 'maps' by what we hear from them.

Bishop Philip has been hailed, from all 'sides' (and it seems there are many), as a powerful, prophetic voice for people and communities that have been pushed to the margins of our society. On the day of his appointment, in an address at Sheffield cathedral, he spoke strongly of wanting to be 'a bishop for all'. He had 'a number of ideas' about how he would work to 'develop and enhance women's leadership' in Sheffield diocese, but wanted to speak to them first before commenting in public, he said. I have no doubt, in the appointment process, he was asked repeatedly to give assurances on precisely this question - and quite possibly to explain, to the handful of people involved in his appointment, what those 'ideas' might be.

But what if that process had unfolded rather differently? What if one of our basic assumptions about bishops was not that they must speak, but that they must listen? And that we would judge a good bishop by the quality, care and attentiveness of her or his listening? Listening which, if it is genuine and deep, always opens the listener to the possibility that she or he might be transformed, moved, challenged and changed?

What if, to extend this thought a little further, there were to be no firm announcement of the appointment of a new bishop until the candidate preferred by the nominations panel had spent a year (yes, a whole year) travelling round their prospective diocese, engaging in 1-to-1 conversations with clergy and lay Christians, and people beyond the church too, not trying to persuade them of her or his suitability for the role, but listening to them intently and receptively? Surely, after such a sustained and careful journey of listening, the candidate should be more confident in their sense of what this particular role will demand of them. And hopefully also, the members of that diocese will have a much better sense of who this person is whom God might be calling to minister with them. But most crucially, the bishop-to-be will have opened her- or himself to be transformed, moved, challenged and changed by those encounters. And that will, if genuine, have been seen clearly by those s/he has visited. And it will also, if genuine, have actually transformed, moved, challenged and changed the bishop-to-be her- or himself. And at that point, and only then, would we invite all involved, diocese and candidate together, to ask themselves and each other whether they can hear the prompting of the Spirit to confirm this appointment.

It would be painfully slow, and hard work. It wouldn't play remotely well in the news media and on Twitter. But it might just land us with some better appointments, some better bishops, and transformed relationships between bishops, their clergy, their sister and brother Christians, and their non-Christian neighbours.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

After listening? A response to the CofE House of Bishops

Dear Bishops,

I write this as a straight, white, middle-class, male priest in the Church of England. In those identity markers, I share much in common with most - but thank God, not all - of you. But I write too as a member of the body of Christ, a body which includes people like me, and - thank God - people very different to me, in sexuality, ethnicity, class, gender, vocation, theology.

Like the very gracious and wise statement from St Martin's in the Fields today, I too want to welcome some of what is in your report: first and foremost, your re-affirmation right at the outset that "all human beings are made in the image of God". What follows in the report, however, is not just "challenging or difficult reading", as you suggest. It is, I believe, deeply flawed in ways that you do not seem to acknowledge. Ultimately, in fact, it seems to contradict your initial affirmation: it fails to see, acknowledge and honour the image of God in may of our sisters and brothers in Christ. There are, I suggest, three interconnected reasons why it fails in this respect.

Firstly, while it claims to listen attentively to the Shared Conversations, this report represents a failure to listen. "The House hoped to sustain the atmosphere of careful and respectful listening that had marked the Shared Conversations," you write, "but was clear that the current situation requires some clearer assertion of where the Church now finds itself" (section 14). Among a select group of bishops, you continue, the "emerging consensus" was that "there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage". What did need revising, you tell us, was the "resources, guidance and tone" (section 18). Among other things, "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships" (section 23) will be produced.

Much in this report has the character of an 'interim' document, a 'snapshot' of how things are right now, a 'work in progress'. However, what has happened is that you have chosen to end a period of intense and attentive listening - a process within which many people made themselves incredibly vulnerable - with an "assertion", a reiteration of the established position, a suggestion that what is needed is a resource to 'teach' that position more carefully. Any further reference to "listening" in the report is absent, other than a vague sense of "double listening" to "Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures" and to "the particular culture in which we live" (57), a listening "with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion" (60), and "to other Synod members’ responses to this report" (69). Further careful listening, most particularly to the experience of LGBTI people within and beyond the Church of England, seems now to be irrelevant.

We are a divided church, and for some those divides are felt much more deeply than others. This is not a time for "reassertion" - it is a time for acknowledging those divides with deep sorrow, and for committing ourselves to further listening to each other. An "emerging consensus" among a small group of bishops is not an adequate basis on which to write a report such as this. However much I, and many others, may be impatient for a change of direction (and not just a change of tone) within the Church of England, this is one of those moments where a bit more daring patience is what is most needed. Who knows, at this critical time in the wider politics of the world, the hard-won experience of 'listening across difference' might even have been a gift we could have offered the world beyond the church.

Which brings me to my second point. You will by now have picked up, hopefully, the deep offence you have caused so many of your sister and brother Christians by pairing the terms "lesbian and gay people" with "those who experience same sex attraction". You may think you are practising, as well as advocating for, a change of tone with this report. You may believe that your reassertion of "the Church of England’s teaching on marriage" can be held consistently with a reaffirmation of the image of God in all human beings. However, if you are indeed continuing to 'listen', you might have heard just a little of the hurt felt by LGBTI Christians at your use of words here. A phrase that is heard to deny some of the deepest reality of people's lives, their most intimate sense of identity, their profoundest experiences.

What we are talking about here, technically, we call a question of ontology. Descriptions of reality, of 'the way things are', of who and what people are. Serious listening to other people takes seriously their own descriptions of who and what they are. Any suggestion that even the Shared Conversations were a 'level playing field' is falsified by this one reality: those on one 'side' of the conversation refuse to accept the ontological reality of those on the other side. Those who refuse to accept the God-given reality of same-sex love are not just limited in their listening - they are denying the reality of those they are listening to. To claim that the 'vulnerabilities', or the 'sacrifices', on both sides of these conversations are comparable, then, is to wilfully ignore the imbalance of power, of recognition, of capacity to listen and be listened to. To reassert, in such contexts, the Church of England's existing "teaching on marriage", in whatever "tone" of voice, is to continue in such wilful ignorance. Jesus' teaching on our attention to "the least of these" surely cannot come as anything other than a rebuke to such closedness.

Third and finally, your report is a failure of theology. You recognise, rightly, "that alongside missiology, we should place pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology as cardinal points of the compass in navigating towards a right understanding and true judgment in this area" (section 58). You propose, as we've already noted, "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships". But nothing you say in this paper (and particularly in your outline of the content for that new document, in section 34), suggests that you will spend much time, effort or care exploring a theology of sexuality itself. To reassert the place of "sexual relationships" within the "current doctrine of marriage" fails to consider what Archbishop Rowan Williams has called "the body's grace": the place of sexuality within all of our relationships (and our sense of embodied identity), and the reality of both healthy and unhealthy sexuality, both inside and outside of 'marriage'. The report concentrates on questions of form and institution (marriage), and almost ignores questions of content (sexuality). It is almost as if you, as bishops, can only cope with thinking about sexuality when it is 'safely' boundaried inside the institution of marriage - and that the institution itself then allows you to avoid thinking about it even there.

On the day you published your report, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that my LGBTI friends in faithful, committed relationships should have lots of sex, "joyfully, proudly, even loudly". It raised a few smiles and laughs on a day when there was much shock, grief, anger and tears. But I was making a point of deep seriousness. "By their fruits shall you know them", said Jesus. It seems that for many of you, it is impossible to imagine that faithful, committed, same-sex relationships can possibly reflect the love, the joy, and the glory of God. It is easier to continue in that unbelief if you stop listening to LGBTI people, or fail to acknowledge the reality of their own lives and relationships that they describe. So as a straight, white, middle-class, male priest in the Church of England, I urge both you, our bishops, and my LGBTI friends, to a wild patience, and an attentiveness to the fruit of faithful, embodied relationships. Only then might we all truly discover that we are 'one body'.

Revd Al Barrett
Hodge Hill Church
Wednesday 8th February, 2017

Sunday, 8 January 2017

'Full of grace and truth': Epiphany in Hodge Hill

Being overwhelmed

You don’t have to take a glance at the news to feel overwhelmed by life – but if you do happen to turn the telly or the radio on, scan the front page of a newspaper, spend a minute or two on Facebook or Twitter, then it is hard not to be overwhelmed by it all: by war, and destruction, and mass displacement of people; by angry, divisive, hate-filled politics; by the very real facts of climate change, and their potentially devastating consequences for the whole planet... Let alone the smaller overwhelmings of our own and our loved ones lives: illness, bereavement, pressures of work or money or relationships, the list could go on...

So in the midst of the multiple overwhelmings of life, how do we respond? It is so tempting to put our defences up, hide away, do everything we can to make ourselves impervious to the pressures, stiffen the upper lip and ‘press on’ with life, cutting ourselves off from as many of the overwhelmings as we can manage...

But there is another way. A riskier way. We might, as theologian David Ford has suggested, instead seek to live ‘amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes [our responses to] the others’. That probably needs re-reading a few times, and chewing over a little, for its meaning, its possibility, to sink in: to seek to live amidst the multiple overwhelmings of life in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes our responses to the others.


And if we dare to look for that ‘one thing’, then the Epiphany season (which is really the Christmas season continuing to unfold) points us to ‘the glory of God’: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14). In Jesus, in Jesus’ human flesh, says John, we see the glory of God. And that glory is full (to overflowing) with grace (we’ll come back to that in a moment), and truth.


Truth is a timely word right now. What could it possibly mean to be ‘truth-full’ in what is increasingly being described as a ‘post-truth’ world?

A little further on in John’s gospel, we’re offered one answer to that question: ‘This is the judgment,’ says Jesus: ‘the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because those who do evil are afraid that what they do will be exposed [brought to light]’ (Jn. 3:19-20).

The light, of course, is Jesus himself. The baby recently-born in the Bethlehem manger. In the light from this child, we are able to see as clear as day – so goes John’s gospel at least – what those who do ‘evil’ hope to hide, ‘bury’, ‘shred’. And while we can all, I would imagine, think of things that we would be keen to hide, in a week when Republicans in the US Congress attempted to shut down their own Office of Congressional Ethics, we might not need reminding that those with the most to hide are often those with the most power in our world.

Look at the magi, kneeling before the baby. They recognised the truth about where real power lay. Eventually, at least – after a costly detour to Herod’s Palace. Herod recognised it too – remember his response, the response of all tyrants to any challenge to their power – to try to silence, expel, eliminate their opposition.

But what about us? What does ‘letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the truth of this child’ mean, for us?

In October 1996, the Archbishop of Bukavu, Zaire, Christophe Munzihirwa, was assassinated, while seeking to defend hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from genocide. Just a few weeks before, he had spoken these words:
‘One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act... [P]eople of good will must never be disheartened when faced with the sudden unleashing of violence. In the midst of it all, the seed sown in the soil of our heart slowly germinates. When God becomes a child, he knows that there is no better way for him to express himself than through the weakness of that child. This is love telling us that it comes unarmed.’
Where, into what situations, relationships, encounters are we being invited to go with ‘unarmed’, ‘undefended’, love? What are we being invited to see that can only be seen, in Archbishop Christophe’s words, ‘with eyes that have cried’? Where are we being called to open ourselves to being overwhelmed, out of passion and compassion for our fellow human beings? It was Leonard Cohen, who died in November last year, who sang of the ‘crack in everything’ that’s ‘how the light gets in’. Through what cracks in our world, in our lives – however painful, at times – might we glimpse God’s glory, full of grace, and truth?


I wonder if ‘grace’ is perhaps a trickier word even than ‘truth’ for us? It’s become a technical, theological word these days. But its meaning is gift, generosity... un-earned, un-deserved, un-engineered, un-expected... evading any attempts at ‘accounting’, ‘record-keeping’, ‘calculating’... exploding the logic of our economies of exchange and payment, debt and credit...

What might it mean to let ourselves be overwhelmed by grace? The Christmas season might seem to be the very best time of year to ask that question, and to think of real, tangible answers to it... Except... how many of us have ever found ourselves doing exactly such calculating and book-keeping with Christmas presents? ...how much do we normally spend on X, we ask ourselves (quietly, usually, in the private safety of our minds)? Or even more quietly and privately – how much do they normally spend on us?! Because we wouldn’t want to over-do it... or under-do it...

Such calculations are the polar opposite of grace, of course... But thankfully, there is another Christmas story... a story we don’t have to travel as far as Bethlehem to encounter first-hand – because if we open ourselves to be overwhelmed by grace, we discover it all around us, in our homes, in our church community, in our neighbourhood... So let me just give you a few glimpses of my Christmas story – which, for many of its chapters, might well be something of your Christmas story too, our Christmas story here in Hodge Hill...

Tom's lights, and Santa's sleigh...

There’s a young man called Tom, who lives with his mum and dad on the Firs estate, who every year has hung out bigger and better Christmas lights all over the outside of their family home, and raises money (from people’s donations) for the Make a Wish Foundation, helping to make dreams come true for seriously ill children... As if that wasn’t enough in itself, this year Tom agreed to drive his Santa’s sleigh (complete with light-up reindeers and seriously amplified Christmas songs) around every street of our estate, on a couple of Wednesday evenings before Christmas.

Our very own Pete Burrill was Mr Claus himself, with a good friend from the Hub, Clare, being Mrs Claus. A whole team of us walked along with them, rattling our collecting buckets, ringing our bells, handing out Christmas cards and chocolates to anyone who came out of their houses... and they did – they really did!

We must have spoken to hundreds of our neighbours, and many, many more came to their doors, or windows, and waved. The stunned looks of disbelief on the faces of some of the children were enough on their own to make it worthwhile, but it was so much more than that. And people gave generously to Make a Wish – we collected over £500 from the two evenings.

The 'Street Nativity'...

And then there was what we’ve come to call the ‘Street Nativity’. Our third one, this Christmas. ‘Mrs Claus’ swapped her padded red coat for a blue shawl to be Mary, and her new-born grand-daughter was our baby Jesus. The angels dazzled the shepherds amid more Christmas lights (this time for Alzheimer’s), the 4 magi came out of St Wilfrid’s Hall to join us, and Sonny at the Shawsdale chippy did a swift costume change from nasty King Herod to generous chip-shop owner, feeding us all for free with piping hot fish and chips. Even the donkey, kindly lent us by Curdworth Stables, got to gobble a tasty chip or two...

Countless quiet acts of hospitality and generosity

So much more kindness and generosity goes on out of the limelight though. I could mention the couple from St Wilfrid’s who invited a single mum and her son to join them for Christmas dinner, a link made through the new support group for parents with children with autism, set up by one of our fabulous Street Connectors, Jo. I could mention the immense generosity of folk from church here, who gave gifts of food for a Christmas hamper, and gifts of money, to help take some of the pressure off Christmas for one of our ‘Unsung Heroes’ and her family – and the kindness and hospitality Sarah and I were offered when we took the gifts round to them. I could mention Genny and the Old Rectory providing space for the Barrett family as we’ve sought refuge from the building work on our house, for a couple of months – and all the cooking, baking, crafting and games that our children have loved and learnt from Genny while we’ve been there...

'Cascades of grace'

All of these are just a few examples (alongside the many more that I haven’t seen personally, or heard of from friends and colleagues) of what the writer Ann Morisy calls ‘cascades of grace’ – a ‘domino effect’ where one grace-filled connection sparks another, and another, and another, and so on...

‘We have seen his glory’ we say with the gospel-writer John – the glory of a baby, lying in a manger... That is the message of Christmas, first told by Bethlehem’s shepherds – that is the repeated refrain of Epiphany, beginning with the magi... But like a stone dropped into a lake, the ripples of Christmas continue spreading outwards; like a solitary candle, whose light is enough to light countless others, the light, the glory of God, has come not just in a Bethlehem stable – but here, on the Firs & Bromford, across Hodge Hill, and in infinite glimmers of hope across time and space...

A quick glance at the news is enough to remember that there is much in our world that threatens to overwhelm us... but one of the biggest lies we are told is that Christmas is done and dusted, a past event, now packed back in its box and shoved into a corner of the loft. In words we’ll finish our service with today, the work of Christmas has only just started, the ripples of Christmas have only just begun to spread, the green shoots of Christmas have barely poked their tops above the dark and frost-hardened soil. Christmas begins. Here. Now. Let’s open our eyes to see God’s glory – truth-full, grace-full. Let’s open our hearts to be overwhelmed by it, transformed by it. And let’s see what cascades of grace, what ricocheting trajectories of hope, might be unleashed in our world...