Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We are all made in the image of the God we choose to serve."

Blaise Pascal

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pour your Spirit upon us

Just back from a really stimulating day with other chaplains at the Clinical Pastoral Education Retreat to Dromantine. It fell to our group to lead worship at the beginning and for it I wrote the following responsive prayer based on the first part of Isaiah 61 (I came home to discover that Stocki had referred to the latter part of the same chapter in his Surmise today promoting the upcoming Four Corners Festival - it is a truly inspiring chapter of scripture... perhaps that is why Jesus chose to read it to his home Synagogue in Nazareth.) I may have written it for a group of chaplains, but, if the Pope is correct in defining the contemporary church as a "field hospital" for those wounded in the world (a concept which we explored today) then it is an appropriate prayer for all those who are part of the church...

Sovereign Lord pour your Spirit upon us,
Anoint us to bring good news to the poor and the powerless
Wherever we may encounter them on our journeys:
Send us out to bring healing to the heartbroken.
May we proclaim pardon for the imprisoned,
Whatever form of captivity people find themselves entrapped in:
May we announce that this is the year of God’s grace.
May we bring comfort to all who mourn and are weighed down with grief
May we bring bouquets of blessing in place of funeral wreaths
the perfume of joy in place of the aroma of death
and clothe them in praise in place of deep despair.
Sovereign Lord pour your Spirit upon us. AMEN


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Harmony, Melody and Musical Musings

Harmony requires that people sing slightly different tunes. Not discordant ones, but different. 
In the Methodist Church we pride ourselves on our singing. "Methodism was born in song" we claim... but these days most of the the singing that goes on is in unison... Slowly the four part harmonies that used to characterise some classic Wesleyan hymns are being forgotten even more rapidly than the wider corpus of Wesley's hymns...

And what is true musically is at times true theologically. There is a desire for us all not just to sing from the same hymnbook, but to sing the same parts in a very small range of songs.
People singing different tunes or introducing different songs can be made to feel very unwelcome in certain parts of the church... and I am not specifically talking about the Methodist Church, but we are as guilty as any...

However, there is a limit... I was in a church recently where when it came to the chorus, which in our church involves myself and maybe one or two other people singing the harmony, in this church 90% of the people there sang the harmony, or a variation of it... and the melody was almost lost...

Again this can be true of us theologically... The belief that no-one has a comprehensive understanding of the mind of God that that there is no monopoly on theological truth is not an excuse for theological anarchy... 

We need to know the melody... the core credo... but this should be counterpointed by the harmonies... different voices, singing slightly different tunes... to the delight of the same audience of one...


Sunday, November 16, 2014

More Messy Women (and Messy Men) Please

Today, Monday 17th  November, the final piece of legislation allowing women to be appointed as bishops is due to make its way through the General Synod of the Church of England. I generally don't comment on the goings on in sister denominations unless something so outrageous happens that I drop my guard and have pressed the "publish" button before engaging the "grace" circuit in my brain... So I am not going to make any comment except those that might be inferred in the light of the superb event in the Agape Centre on Friday past, entitled A Night with Messy Women.
In this Wendy Johnston recited from memory the family tree of Jesus in Matthew chapter one, before going on to recite the stories of the 5 women cited in that story... all of whom, in the eyes of established Jewish social and religious circles would have been even further down the social scale than "normal" Jewish women... either because of dubious sexual morals (ignoring the dubious sexual morals of the men who consorted with them) or their ethnic origins... "See those foreign women, coming over here and taking our men!"But the stories of Tamar, Rehab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary are all arresting... some inspiring, others deeply shocking... but all essential to salvation history as we know it... And the fact that the only women specifically mentioned are all social outsiders is profoundly revolutionary... perhaps prompted in part by the fact that Matthew was possibly a social outsider himself as a former tax-collector who had brought shame on his Levitical roots... As has been said elsewhere, this performance deserves further outings, and we are looking for a suitable venue/slot in the Four Corners Festival in February, when I would hope we will also look at the stories of contemporary messy women in a panel afterwards... But I hope that Wendy is bombarded with requests to do this the length and breadth of the country and beyond... It deserves a wide audience...But more than that, I would like to see many more messy women, in the CoE, CoI, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and every flavour of Christianity under the sun, being encouraged to find their place in the ongoing salvation history of the world... And more than that, I want to see more messy men encouraged to play their parts more prominently, not just as trophies of grace gloriously saved from their particular moral morass or cultural no-go-zone, but as channels of grace wherever Jesus encounters them... Conforming not to the peculiar worldview of planet church, but being transformed, and transformative influences in a world that needs people willing to get involved in its messiness.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Half-Baked Reflections on the Cake Case

Please note that all that follows, as always, are my personal rambling reflections on this complicated case, and not the position of any other committee, organisation or group to which I belong/ed.

For a couple of months the British media seemed to be fuelled by copious amounts of cake, as Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood put a battery of amateur bakers through their paces on the Great British Bake-Off. It was, on the whole, good spirited stuff, except when Northern Ireland competitor Iain Watters' Baked Alaska melted, and Iain himself went into melt-down, followed in due course by huge swathes of the Great British public…
I did think, at the time, that there was a certain irony in a Northern Irish baker being at the centre of this ridiculously over-hyped story, given that, in the background another Northern Irish cake-based controversy was in the making. I’m sure that most of you know the story by now, but for those who don’t, back in May Gareth Lee, of QueerSpace went into a branch of Ashers Bakery in Belfast and asked for a special cake for an Anti Homophobia and Transphobia Week event in Bangor. They requested that the QueerSpace logo, a photo of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, and the statement “Support Gay Marriage” be printed on the cake. As I understand it (and I am prepared to be corrected as I got tired trying to track down anything approaching a precise timeline of this and so I am reliant on my oh-too-fallible memory) the order was initially taken, but after further consideration the owners/directors of the company decided they couldn’t fulfil the order because it contravened their Christian beliefs, and offered the customer a full refund. I don’t know what happened in the interim, but the first I became aware of the whole thing was when it hit the headlines 2 months later, with the news that the Equality Commission was threatening the bakerywith court action if they did not make some sort of restitution. This then prompted a question in the Commons by that champion of equality and expert in matters culinary Gregory Campbell (though recently he has been commenting on curries rather than cakes) and an initial flurry of online comment: for example former conservative MP and Strictly Come Dancing (though not Bake-Off) competitor, Ann Widdecombe had her say… which then prompted a comment by Rev. Paul Thompson of the Government and Morals Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church on the 12th of July, a day usually reserved for comment on other matters that divide this province…
Things then went quiet while the Great British Bake-Off dominated the media… But not long after Alan Sugar’s craggy features replaced Mary Berry’s smile on a Wednesday evening the news broke that, following legal advice, the Equality Commission were going to follow up their earlier threat, and take Ashers to court.
Now, before we go further and I get very serious, and probably lose a few friends, let me make two comments –
First, regarding the Ashers Bakery chain - in my naivety I thought that this was something to do with avid celebrity baker Jane Asher, not a home grown Newtownabbey based organization named after the Biblical Asher, who was blessed by his father Jacob before his death saying that "his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties" (Genesis 49:20).
This (slightly obscure) reference points to the importance of the Bible and their Christian faith to the family who founded this bakery chain, the McArthurs, and that is laudable. But is there a difference between being Christian bakers (as they are frequently described) and bakers who are Christians? This may seem like I am splitting hairs, but I like to think that a living faith informs everything that a baker, lawyer, painter or whatever who is a Christian might do, without them defining themselves as a Christian baker, lawyer, painter or whatever, which might seem a more exclusive definition. But that is a side issue (although it may be informing some of the confusion in the whole debate).
Second, is it legal for bakers or printers or anyone else to print copyrighted and trademarked characters without the permission of the owners of the said copyright or trademark, never mind append any sort of unauthorized political/religious or even less contentious message to it? I suspect not. Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance and Peter Ould, blogging on the Archbishop Cranmer site, both suggest that this would have been a more straightforward reason to refuse to make the cake, but I suspect that despite their Christian credentials Ashers have baked cakes with such unlicensed images before. Mind you, I’m not sure that I would want to be pursuing a court case in which I admitted that I was trying to encourage someone else to do something illegal, and seeking compensation when they refused to do it. Sesame Street v QueerSpace may make for another interesting piece of litigation.
Anyway, back to the decision by the Equality Commission to back the legal case against Ashers. It has been characterized as a David and Goliath affair by the owners of Ashers (in suitably Biblical terms), but given that they have been backed from the beginning by the substantial campaigning and fundraising power of the Christian Institute (who have the financial clout to advertise on Facebook thus clogging up my newsfeed) I think that David may go into this fight with more than 5 smooth stones in his armoury. Also it seems as if the entire New Israelite army will be cheering David on, with the Free Presbyterian Church in Ulster, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, sundry Anglicans, the Evangelical Alliance, the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Council of Social Responsibility of my ownMethodist Church in Ireland, weighing in, if not in support of Ashers, at least in opposition to the Equality Commission decision. Even the First Minister hasdescribed it as “Bonkers!” and given that responsibility for equality falls within the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister we know that he is a tireless champion of equity and fairness for all (?)…
Language such as that and much of the rhetoric around this case has been less than helpful. Repeatedly it has been said on radio phone ins and on social media comment sections that Ashers and those who support them are homophobic and discriminating against the LGBT community. I even listened last Sunday as Father Tim Bartlett was accused of discrimination on Radio Ulster by one gay activist because, in protest at the ongoing case Tim had announced that he waswithdrawing from some focussed dialogue between the Catholic Church and theLGBT community. On the other side there are those who have characterised this as “persecution” of Christians by the LGBT community and the liberal elite.  Meanwhile Ian O’Docherty, a columnist for the Irish Independent described the original issue as a “posturing ambush” where Ashers bakery had been targeted by gay rights activists deliberately asking “for a service they know will be refused,” and then working with “an arm of the State” in a calculated “shake-down”, “bullying” the Bible-believing bakers.
I have seen no targeting of Ashers as a Christian Company. Presumably Mr. Lee who placed the order was as ignorant as I was as to the origin of the name, and he seems genuinely surprised that the order was ultimately refused and a refund offered. But equally there does not seem to be a specific act of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Mr. Daniel McArthur, general manager of Ashers has clearly stated from the outset that they are willing to serve any customer irrespective of religion, sexual orientation or political belief, and that it was the statement on the cake rather than the purchaser of the cake that was the issue… I find myself in the unusual circumstance of agreeing with Ms. Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express, where she said “If the baker had refused merely to bake a cake because the customer was gay then that would indeed have been both unpleasant and illegal but the refusal was specific to the message requested for the cake."
Would the order have been refused had it been a heterosexual person asking for a cake in support of gay marriage? From what Mr. McArthur has said, the answer appears to be yes. Is that in itself discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation as the Equality Commission seems to allege? Without any other evidence I would suggest not.
Would the order have been refused had it been a heterosexual or homosexual person asking for a cake for a civil partnership? That question has, so far as I am aware, never been asked, but had it been it would have opened up a whole other cake of worms…
But the case/cake under consideration is one making what might be seen as a political statement on the subject of gay marriage… Ann Widdecombe in her column, went on to say “Surely it is an elementary feature of true democracy that nobody should be obliged by law to affirm that which he or she does not believe… In a free country the baker should be able to refuse to take part in what is effectively PR for gay marriage...” But actually in Northern Ireland I am not sure that we are at liberty to do that given that in the political powderkeg that is this province, political opinion is a so-called “protected characteristic”, meaning that we cannot be discriminated against on the basis of our political (or on exactly the same basis, religious) opinions in the provision of services. There has been a lot of nonsense talked/written about whether Ashers would have been at liberty to refuse to make a cake in support of Nazis/Fascists/PLO/Israel/ISIS/Sinn Fein (delete as applicable), but as I understand it (and I am not a lawyer) Northern Irish law offers little leeway to political discrimination, except where there is implied support for violence (although whether that would allow them to refuse an order of a cake in support of Blair’s Invasion of Iraq, if you were sick enough to order such is uncertain). Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance (who is, or at least was a lawyer) is correct in asserting that this addition to the Equality Laws of Northern Ireland  “was designed to give extra protection against sectarianism” but it is framed in such terms that it actually acts as potential cover to a wide range of political opinions, some which I might see as morally bankrupt (and I don’t mean conservatism). So as I see it, if you are not prepared to print/bake all hews of political opinion then you cannot, in Northern Ireland print/bake any. And given the wide definition of what constitutes politics here (including poppy-wearing, flag-waving, football team supporting, language-using) that may radically restrict your range of personalised cakes. (Rev. Peter Ould seems to disagree with my assessment, but I’m not convinced, and assume from the fact that the Equality Commission have added the political discrimination to the “charge” suggests that their legal advisors agree with me … although I do agree with him that the Christian Institute’s characterisation of this as a “clash of cultures” may be ultimately damaging to an authentic engagement on real issues of discrimination against Christians).
This may be the Achilles Heel of Ashers case, and if so they may end up being prosecuted under a very clumsy piece of legislation which ultimately may restrict the exercise of both religious and political conscience in the public square. The Methodist Church’s statement on this matter, which is what finally roused me from my blog-free slumber, suggests that at the heart of this is a “matter of conscience for Ashers” and commends them “for their willingness to take a stance” on the basis of that conscience. Ian O’Docherty, in the Irish Independent also suggests that “The heart of this case is the right to dissent and to follow your own conscience as long as you're not going out of your way to make someone's life more difficult,” whilst Norman Hamilton, former Presbyterian Moderator and Convener of their Church and Society Committee makes a plea for “much more scope to exercise freedom of conscience in such situations.” In this he explicitly argues for the much vaunted ‘reasonable accommodation’ as suggested by Baroness Hale reflecting/repenting at leisure after a muchpublicised prosecution for discrimination of Christian B&B owners, where she argues for a "conscience clause" to the equality legislation. This seems to be what Gregory Campbell was also asking for in the PMQ back in July, but I am with Peter Lynas in his belief that the reasonable accommodation argument actually concedes that discrimination has occurred but seeks a “get out of gaol free” card for it.
That isn’t real conscience. Real conscience costs… In all of this outrageously long post I have avoided offering my opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage, because ultimately this isn’t actually about that… it is about the right of people to exercise any sort of political discrimination based on religious conscience in the public sphere… But when it comes down to it I believe the government is at liberty to change the definition of civil marriage any time it likes. Whether that matches with the church’s definition of marriage is another question altogether… But the church cannot have it both ways… It cannot exercise its conscience to define marriage in its own terms AND continue to act, as many denominations do, as civil registrars. That is seeking to have our conscientious cake and eat it.
Peter Lynas doesn’t believe that illegal discrimination has occurred, whilst I do (although again, he is the one who was legally trained), but both of us believe that the legislation under which Ashers are likely to be prosecuted is seriously flawed. We do not need a conscientious objection opt-out of equality, but we do need more sensible legislation. Indeed Norman Hamiltonwants to encourage thoughtful, gracious and yet rigorous discussion about how Biblical faith should relate to equality legislation” and that “There is a need for Churches and Christian people to engage with these issues and indeed be to the fore in promoting such equality and human rights.” 
Frankly I was disappointed that the Methodist Church did not make such a plea in its own statement or affirm its commitment to equality for all… Perhaps, on the basis of our track record there was a feeling that they didn’t have to, but for those who know nothing of the Methodist Church’s continuing dialogue on such matters, our statement might be misconstrued as buying into the Christian Institute’s assessment of this as a clash between  Christian conscience and homosexuality. But there is no unanimous Christian position and hence conscience on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage (and indeed there is no unanimous position on same-sex marriage within the LGBT community). Indeed it was ironic that on the Irish Methodist website the news of the Council on Social Responsibility’s statement re the Ashers Bakery issue lay adjacent to an advert for an event tonight in the Agape Centre, where I am Superintendent, run by the Accepting Sexuality Group. 

Entitled “The Christianity of Gay and Lesbian Truthfulness: Magnanimity and the Undoing of Scandal” the blurb claims that the speaker James Alison, a Catholic theologian, will explore how those who have been opposed to, hated, or frightened of, the LGBT community, might be encouraged by them, into what he describes as a fuller inclusion. Unfortunately, although it is taking place in my church, I cannot attend because I was already scheduled to be chairing a meeting elsewhere when this was booked. But I am strongly tempted to re-schedule, because this sort of generosity of spirit, is exactly what I would like to see practised in this whole debate.
Again I agree with Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance that the Commission’s approach, insofar as it has been portrayed in the media, has been adversarial from the start and as such, deeply unhelpful, and as Norman Hamilton suggests it potentially “undermines and shuts down the kind of respectful wider debate and discussions that are necessary.”
But is the onus of grace/generosity and the imperative of inclusion on what Ian O’Docherty calls an “arm of the state”?
Or is it actually on the church, and those who claim to be followers of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of God, whether they are Methodists, Presbyterians or Anglicans, Evangelicals or Catholics, butchers, bakers or candlestick makers?


Sunday, October 26, 2014

It has nothing to do with me...

At present I'm preaching a series on the Apostles' Creed, and today we looked at the clause referring to Jesus suffering under Pontius Pilate. One of the earliest and most effective Bible-based monologues I ever saw was one on Pilate by Riding Lights... But below is one that I wrote myself a good few years back, which I hauled out of retirement for this morning's service.

It has nothing to do with me...
It is a Jewish matter... Nothing to do with Rome. If I had my way I would have left them to it. Another spat between religious fanatics. So what if he claims to be the son of this Jewish god? What difference does that make? Sons of god are two a penny in the lunatic asylum... We’ve even had one or two on the throne of Rome... Sons of god, that is, not lunatics... Though some might say... No!! Don’t quote me on that. I’m in trouble enough as it is. I can’t afford another letter of complaint going to Caesar. That’s why I finally decided to try this man... The priests said that he was claiming to be the rightful King of the Jews... If I hadn’t acted on that I’d have had Herod up in arms as well as these damned religious fanatics.
I tried getting Herod to deal with him... He’s a Galilean so strictly speaking he is Herod’s problem, not mine. And he got rid of that other rabble rouser, the Baptiser a few years ago... I thought he would be glad to get his hands on this one... But he passed the buck straight back to me...
And the people... I thought they would be glad to have me release him. I invented a little tradition... releasing a prisoner in honour of the Jewish holiday... These holidays are always trouble... Passover... I wish I could just pass over it and forget it... But no... every holiday season the pilgrims pour in from all over the Empire, bringing their problems with them.
Well, I offered to release Jesus to them in honour of the holiday... And they threw the offer back in my face. I don’t understand these people... Last week they were praising him to the heavens when he waltzed into the city on the back of a donkey... They were taking the very shirts off their backs and laying them down as a carpet of honour for him. This week they were baying for his blood... They demanded that I crucify him... And then they had the gall to ask for Barabbas, a convicted murderer and rebel to be released in his place...
I don’t know how I’ll ever explain that one to the senate... The guilty goes free and the innocent is executed... There’s justice for you.
But what could Jesus have done in a week to turn the people against him? Mind you... He doesn’t exactly help himself. One minute he was refusing to answer my questions... The next he was admitting that he was a King... Him standing there, bruised and bloodied, covered in what looked like spit, and wearing clothes that weren’t exactly the highest quality before they had been torn to shreds. Him, a King! And then when I tried to explain what a dangerous situation he was in... That I had the power of life and death over him, he reminded me that my power was given to me from above... And that those above me would share responsibility for any of my actions... What was he trying to do? Absolve me of responsibility... When none of it was my responsibility in the first place...
So I just washed my hands of him... Literally... If he wants to die, that’s his choice...
It has nothing to do with me...


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Eighth Day

And finally, when you thought it was never going to end, here's my little personal postscript to our Harvest Celebration of Creation and Creativity, partly inspired by those practical deists who will die in a ditch over a literal belief in a 6 day creation but don't give a thought to the ongoing stewardship of this wonderful but wounded world... (There is also a line that owes more than a little to the late great Humphrey Lyttleton on "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue", which speaks volumes to my lack of real poetic pretensions!)

On the eighth day he arose…
And the work goes on…
With us as his apprentices
Implanted with his seed
The soul-seed of creation and salvation
Creativity and re-creation.
And so it continues day and night
The living word bringing order out of chaos  
Day in day out,
Week in and week out,
Resting from work and working from rest
Until the last minute of the last day…
When the hands of time tip over into eternity
When all creation bows before its creator
And once more he says
It is good… 


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

After Word...

We are coming near the end of this series of posts drawn from our Harvest Celebration of Creation and Creativity, and here I post another poem by someone else, in this case Ann Lewin, from her anthology "Candles and Kingfishers" (ISBN-10: 0951298232). I post this after watching the denouement of "The Great British Bakeoff" and am convinced that not only music, but good TV, cakemaking and all other creative endeavours, with a good leaven of fun, are God's gift to "enlighten duty and enliven praise" - and that is very important to me at the moment...

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.  This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Genesis 2:1-4

Thus the heavens and the earth were
Finished and were good, But
In the middle of the night, God woke.
“It might be burdensome” he thought,
“To give dominion over all created things
To earthling folk: lest they should
Take themselves too seriously,
I’ll give them music and a
Sense of fun, to enlighten duty and
Enliven praise.”
So in wise mercy did Creator God.
And all the seventh day, he rested,
well content.
by Ann Lewin