Friday, 28 September 2012

Rowan Atkinson for Archbishop

My attention has just been drawn to an apparently unconscious comment on the BBC's news about the Crown Appointments Commission, in which the writer said "By trying to please everyone, Rowan Atkinson has pleased no-one. Religion must remain a matter of faith and principle, uncompromised by trendines."

Joking apart, it is briefly amusing that we can bet on the appointment at any bookie's in the country, and it is contrary to our Anglican understanding of episcopacy that we should put all the weight of future hope or distress about the Anglican Communion on the shoulders of the new archbishop. He is not going to make the difference, though he could be influential. The Cambridge historian EH Carr in 'What is History' years ago reminded us of the heresy of assuming that history is about a few important people.

++Rowan (Williams, not Atkinson) was right to observe that we need to replace him with two people. Not that he's arrogant, but the issues at stake for the Church of England are not the same as the issues at stake in the Anglican Communion. For what it's worth, I might as well join the fray, praying that it won't decline into affray when the announcement is finally made.

The Anglican Communion has over my lifetime turned from a family of churches into an unwieldy monster of an institution which has become far too self-important. To be Anglican is to be a Christian in a particular way, which I need not here define. The irony of the various Anglican schisms around the world is that if I find myself meeting parties or churches on either side of the great disruption, I feel at home, regardless of their institutional status. Hear me well, I do not find myself agreeing with everyone. How could I? But I do recognize that they are all family, and our quarrels, disputes and downright bitterness are the internecine wars of a family. 

So there is a significant part of me that is not worried whether the Anglican Communion falls apart or not. It has become a little too dependent on its organizational centre. We need instead to fall back on the centre of our own provisional status as church and our own human sinfulness. We also need Jesus Christ far more than we need a solution-solving communion-redeeming Primate. I also think that this is the moment for the leader of the communion to be chosen globally, from among the Primates, by the Primates... After all, we are not papalists. And though we come much closer to being conciliarists in our philosophy, we know that councils may err. Really we do!

So do pray for the new appointment. We need a wise, godly, thoughtful man. But above all, pray for the renewal and reformation of Anglican Christianity. Where it has grown cold, may the Holy Spirit warm it with fire Where it has strayed, may our Saviour recover it. Where it has lost faith, may the Father discipline and challenge it. And in all this, pray that we won't miss the beam in our own eye when we are too quick to jump to judgements about 'all those other wretches out there'.

The gates of hell will not prevail against Christ's Church.


Monday, 24 September 2012

Pray thankfully, passionately, with anguish and with perseverance

This morning, I was working on the prayer diary for the Fresh Expressions team, and found myself drawing from 1 Thessalonians for the opening passage of scripture. I used 1.2-3 'We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.' 

From there, I found myself wanting to encourage those who pray for the church to pray like Paul, and facebooked  'Pray for the church like Paul did, with thanksgiving, passion, anguish and perseverance.' Several people 'liked' it, and I thought that it might be helpful to unpack it a little.

For Paul, to pray with thanksgiving is to acknowledge what God has already done, in this case in the church at Thessalonika; to rejoice that the ministry that we share with God in Christ is bound to bear some kind of fruit (even if it's sometimes hard to see); to recognize that he and they are bound together for eternity; and to allow himself a little pat on the shoulder. We're not very good at this last one as Christians, feeling that it's somehow arrogant. I think that God gives us encouragements in our ministry precisely so that we can feel our hearts lift. All we have to avoid is being puffed up! He actually says in 2.20 that these Christians are his 'glory and joy'!

To pray with passion is to pray knowing that it makes a difference. And what a difference Paul prays for. In this letter, apart from praying that he will be united with them, he prays in Chapter 3 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Fancy praying for your own congregation or assembly, that they be so holy that they appear blameless on the great Day of Christ's coming. Passion is coupled with expectation, faith in boundless possibility and a great enthusiasm, therefore, to ask.

To pray with anguish is to carry the burdens of those for whom we have a care or a responsibility. I found myself asking when was the last time that I wept in prayer, and I'm not sure that I know the answer. Last year, I led worship with a group who had just had a gruelling study day on the abuse of children. I was 'warned' that they might be vulnerable, but didn't know what I was letting myself in for. The intercessions passed quietly enough, but at the end of the service, a young woman started to sob. I sat with her and her friend for a while as she sobbed and railed at heaven and screamed at God to stop the injustice of it all. So it was for Paul to pray with anguish.

To pray with perseverance to to do what Paul is talking about when he enjoins us to pray without ceasing. This text has been much misused in some contexts to pile one liturgical action on another. Nothing could have been further from Paul's mind. He simply calls us not to let go of the issues while they are still in front of us, to pray on our knees and throughout the day, to hammer like the importunate widow on the doors of heaven, to wrestle with issues until they are resolved. Why? Because God has amazingly invited us to share in his pain, his plan and his care for the world, as fully as he does, and calls us to be dissatisfied - as he is - until all the weeping and tears are over.

I write this not because I have achieved it, but because I haven't, as an encouragement, not as a condemnation, to kindle a fire that will not go out, because God first burned with love for you.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Praying for the conflict to continue? An alternative

The current political cocktail in South Africa is a potentially deadly one, and I find myself growing helplessly frustrated with the miners, with the dreadful demagoguery of Julius Malema and with the apparent inability of the police and the military to maintain the rule of law without resorting to terrible levels of violence. As so often, the less-badly paid act as a vanguard in political and economic unrest. The miners have more money, more health and more organization than their even less well-paid compatriots, and are able to demonstrate – and to resist – more effectively. Others follow in their train.

I know too that at the heart of this is the economics of inequity, coupled with the political savoir faire of a generation schooled in the conflicts of apartheid. Of all peoples, South Africans know how to storm the citadels of power.

Inside me, a voice shouts ‘Why can’t they just pay them more?’ The platinum, gold and other precious metals that they mine make many rich, but not the miners. Of course I would have to pay a price, in the cars that  I buy, the jewellery that I purchase, a soaring cost of living in the West and falling standards of life. No more cheap ride on the back of Africa and Asia, then?

I can’t quite get my head round it all. There’s no point in inducing liberal guilt, nor in simply reducing my own standard of living in protest. That feels too small. I know we are all in this together, and that the well-being of the world depends on cooperative action. That too feels like a distant joke.

So what shall I do? Well, I think I will pray that the problem doesn’t go away for South Africa, and that it has deep global political repercussions for us all. I shall pray that the simple economics of less platinum, higher price, begins to have the weight  of a global lesson in the ethics of cause and effect. God never meant us to live beyond our means, and I will prepare myself for a more realistic emerging lifestyle. It’s beginning to happen. May God’s kingdom of justice  and righteousness come, and may we be blessed by it when it does.