This is a rather unusual post for me to make as it simply shares information on the King’s website. However, I hope that readers of this blog will find it interesting.

King’s [College, Cambridge] has announced a £100 million campaign to improve student access, enhance our capacity as a provider of world class research and to maintain our renowned historic buildings, such as the Chapel.

King’s has among the highest percentage of state school educated undergraduates of any Oxbridge college (77%), but recognises much more still needs to be done to ensure greater access to Cambridge for able pupils from state schools and particularly for those pupils with socially and economically disadvantaged  backgrounds.

The campaign was launched on 1 December with the announcement of a £33 million gift from an alumnus to finance the building of two new halls of residence and the use of the rental income from them to seed a new student access and support fund. This fund will allow King’s to:

  • Add 10 new undergraduate places per year to their existing annual undergraduate intake of 130. These new places will be solely reserved for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Reserve half of these new places for students graduating from the new Cambridge University transition programme – which is designed to allow access to Cambridge from students whose potential has not been realised at A-level due to difficult personal circumstances – when it begins in 2021/22.
  • Launch a ‘post offer of a place at Cambridge but pre-A level exams’ tuition scheme for state school applicants. This is needed to reduce the much higher incidence of state school offer holders failing to attain their required A-level grades when compared with their privately educated peers.
  • Provide annual bursaries of £3,000 to all of the College’s undergraduates from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to ensure equal opportunities in the ability to accept the low or no pay internships which are increasingly necessary to open the door to careers in a wide variety of prestigious fields.

These initiatives will account for £50 million of the £100 million being raised, with the balance being invested in additional teaching and research capacity, new buildings and maintaining the world famous Chapel and Choir.

The Provost, Professor Michael Proctor commented:

“We are very excited about this campaign. We hope the initiatives it is funding to improve student access, both to Cambridge itself and to careers after graduation, will inspire other Colleges to do the same. A successful campaign will also ensure that we can enhance the world-class teaching and research we are renowned for and maintain and preserve our historic buildings. We have already reached half of the targeted amount and we are confident our alumni will be keen to contribute to help future generations receive the same education they themselves enjoyed when they were here.”

In October this year the University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope announced a new £500m drive to encourage and support applications from able students from disadvantaged backgrounds and ensure Cambridge is fully inclusive of the most diverse talent. The Vice-Chancellor said:

“We need to make sure that Cambridge is open to all who have the intellectual potential to flourish here, now and for future generations. I am delighted that King’s is launching such an important initiative, and to see our ambitious plans for improving student support become a collective endeavour across the Collegiate University.”

To find out more about the King’s Campaign and its aims, please see our At a Glance brochure

 

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On Tuesday I attended a memorial service in Southwark Cathedral. In his sermon the Dean of Southwark made a plea for senior clergy to spend more time doing theology and for more theologians to be among the ranks of deans and bishops. It was reported in the Church Times yesterday (30th November 2018) here In this blog I suggest that while there are important issues at stake they do not boil down to a competition between leadership skills and theology.

I was at the service because David Edwards was a predecessor of mine as well as of the Dean of Southwark’s. As far as I could see I was the only representative of an academic institution present. However what was not said at any point in the service – though the point was made in all the obituaries of David Edwards that I saw – was that he was not at home in Cambridge. As the Telegraph obituary put it

But he was not happy in Cambridge. The tension then existing between the deep religious tradition expressed in the glorious King’s Chapel and the aggressive secular humanism of the College high table was much too great for him to bear.

He was too much of a churchman to be really at ease on the frontier of the Christian faith, and it was with a marked sense of relief that in 1970 he accepted the Crown’s offer of the Rectory of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, to which was attached a Canonry of Westminster Abbey.

It is interesting that the Telegraph was able to suggest without irony that a Cambridge high table is ‘the frontier of Christian faith’. To me that’s an overstatement, at the very least the sentence should have an indefinite article, not the definite article before ‘frontier’: high table as a frontier of the Christian faith? Well, sometimes, but it is an intellectual frontier, not a social, cultural or political one.

Nonetheless there is something odd in Andrew Nunn’s argument from David Edwards (if I can put it that way) here. The man who was in retrospect seen as the champion of liberal and radical ‘south bank theology’ was nonetheless ill-at-ease with the relentless challenge of ‘aggressive secular humanism’ in Cambridge and was relieved to get away from it into the bosom of established and cathedral religion. And while his productivity was astonishingly impressive, his books, as the Telegraph obituarist put it, ‘were all pitched at the level of the average clergyman or intelligent layman’. A phrase that today speaks of another world, a world which was at some distance from where the most radical radicals ‘were at’ in the 1960s.

A different ‘other world’ was referenced by the Dean in his sermon: the seventeenth century bishop Lancelot Andrewes shooing away all who might get between him and ‘his book’ before midday. There was a time not so long ago when clergy were expected to study by morning, visit in the afternoon and deal with more public matters or take their ease in the evening. In such days the parish clergy would have been a more bookish lot than they are today- not only a parson but a clerk in every parish.

All this is a very long way indeed from the training delivered today to new deans and bishops courtesy not of the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge but of the Judge Management Institute, and in railing against it Andrew Nunn is not a lone voice but one of several who, with increased frustration it seems, express a desire that theology be given more space and priority.

Theirs is a cause that I would like to cheer on, and while I am disposed to be sympathetic – after all I am understood by my colleagues and students to be a theologian and have written a few books and spend my time in the space Edwards found particularly uncomfortable (and while it was doubtless rather edgier and ruder in the 1960s, the ministerial and theological challenges are, in my experience, at least as real and are certainly more relentless and complex at King’s than in any other post I have occupied).

But I am not going to give the cause three hearty cheers, rather two (alluding if I may to the 1951 essay on democracy by E.M Forster, one of the secular humanists who Edwards may well have encountered at high table at King’s).

There is certainly a need for the church to be more theologically thoughtful and to strive for more genuine clarity; the church should also be bolder in raising genuinely difficult theological questions (i.e. those that matter to the population at large and not just those that threaten to divide what remains of the church) and be more receptive to those who are off-message. Every pearl is retrospectively grateful, so to speak, for its grain of sand. If decision-making and direction-setting take place without the contributions of people who have dedicated significant time and serious effort to absorbing the wisdom of the past and the science of today, then we should prepare ourselves to live with the consequences of a wisdom deficit in the medium to long term.

I want to suggest, however, that to put this all down to a lack of ‘theology’ is to be having the wrong argument, to be fighting the wrong fight. The real issue here is not theology but values. And I feel it’s unfortunate that the word and notion of theology is being used in a rather tokenistic way.

On the one hand, what I mean is that theology isn’t necessarily a good, productive, helpful or even truthful business. Theology isn’t a self-purifying pursuit. On the other I mean that theology isn’t necessarily absent when people are at a distance from their books, for instance when working on spreadsheets, or talking about targets or strategy. Not everything purports to be theology is theology at all (never mind good theology) and not everything that looks as if it is not theological is actually devoid of theology.

It seems to me that the church of today is being driven along by much the same forces that are driving other institutions: anxiety leading to an excessive desire to control on the one hand, and to dampen internal controversy and conflict on the other. What is needed therefore is not less leadership but less anxiety; not less strategy but less self-consciousness; not more ‘theology’ but more curiosity and willingness to learn. And it needs all this coupled with an openness to the possibility that God has a will and that as yet we have not quite worked out what it is.

The main task of ‘leadership’ is to keep working at the task of clarifying what that will might be, and then of encouraging obedience to whatever emerges while affirming conscientious dissent, perhaps seeing in that the possibility of a future clarification. All the while we must recognise that there is always going be a gap between us and God. And that’s the point, because it is when our thinking and talking is mindful of that gap, yet longing for it to become smaller and recognising that it will never disappear, that we are engaging theologically.

Do we need theologians? Yes. But we need theologians who practice a theology that doesn’t so much demand space and priority but emerges from situations where the presence of God is known and the absence of God is felt. That’s the engine of theology. It comes not from libraries but from life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been thinking about the sort of guidance for life that is found in the New Testament.  The more I reflect on it, the more it seems to me that the approach is so different to a law-giving and to law-enforcing one that it is right to receive the New Testament’s ethical urging as an invitation to a conversation about the sort of person we should aspire to be.

With that in mind there follows a sermon on Ephesians 4. 17-end.

A young man approached a Cherokee elder and said: “within me are two wolves. One is wild and full of violence and hatred; the other is full of gentleness, compassion and love. Tell me which one of these wolves will win?”

The answer came slowly. “The one you feed.”

The New Testament doesn’t have stories like this about wolves but it does talk about the contrast between the old person and the new person, and that between the behaviour of the wider community of Gentiles and what is expected of the Christians. The passage we heard from the letter to the Ephesians is based on just this contrast. The Gentiles behave abominably. But you, the recipients of the letter, are Christians. You must behave differently. They, the Gentiles, have but a poor understanding. They are unenlightened. They are alienated from God. They are ignorant and their greed has got the better of them. The hostile wolf is in control.

But that same greed and ignorance is a deep-set aspect of you as well. You may have converted, but the hostile wolf within never quite dies.

So Paul challenges the Christians. They have been converted, but they must still convert. Faith isn’t just a matter of believing a few things. It involves the transformation of the whole person. And this emerges from an inner struggle: the struggle between desires that provoke harmful actions, and those that build up community; struggle between the wild wolf and the kind wolf.

We are a long way away from the Ten Commandments here. In the New Testament we don’t find a list of ‘dos and don’ts’. What we find are lists of character traits that are fitting for followers of Jesus and which make Christian communities distinctive.

Among these are truthfulness, the capacity to feel anger – but not get locked into it; a willingness to work hard and to be generous with the rewards of your labour; an avoidance of gossip and bad-mouthing, and a complete absence of malice; and all this coupled with kindness, tender-heartedness and an intention to forgive.

The ‘dos and don’ts’ of the Ten Commandments are reasonably easy to understand and create nice straight lines that clarify things so that we can know precisely when we transgress. The values and virtues of the New Testament demand of us significantly more interpretation.

The question of truthfulness, for instance, can perplex us. We are used to people saying ‘total disclosure’, but we are also aware of being put off by ‘too much information’. I once heard a convincing sermon that argued that we should not always tell the truth. ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ may be right in court, but much of the time we can’t really live like that. For instance, it’s not fair or appropriate for parents to tell children everything they know. We rarely live in the world of complete disclosure or ‘the whole truth’. And yet honesty matters hugely, as does the intention not to deceive. But honesty must always be kind.

Those of us who are provoked to anger from time to time can feel affirmed by our passage. Be angry by all means. But don’t settle into anger. Anger is understandable and acceptable and sometimes good, for a short while. If it is habitual, or if it settles into rage or bitterness, that’s because something’s wrong with you, not a sign that there is something wrong with others. And if some serious injustice is what’s provoking you then it’s a campaign and a political strategy that you need, not violent explosions of rage.

It’s interesting to note that there is an expectation of hard work among the early Christians. They are told they must not only respect the property and ownership rights of others, but be generous with what they have. Practical generosity is just as important in the New Testament as not pinching things was in the Old.

I sometimes wonder why the New Testament puts so much emphasis on not being malicious, not gossiping and so on. I can only suppose that this is because there was something of a culture of gossip among the early Christians. People can be really cruel with words if they like, and habits of waspishness, remarks that are cutting, or just plain cruel, are commonly found in institutions. At one level it’s a coping strategy for those who are threatened; at another it’s a form of entertainment, some salt and vinegar on the potato chips of otherwise dull conversation. But these are descriptions, not excuses. The biblical message is clear. Don’t gossip; find something better to talk about!

The passage concludes with the instruction to be kind to one another, tender-hearted and forgiving. These words all point at practical forms of living that express the attitude of love to our neighbours. They are positive examples of what it means to love your neighbour. It is impossible, I suggest, to think of a person living a Christian life, or an institution enshrining Christian values, without kindness and tender-heartedness – that is living with a significant degree of sympathy, warmth, compassion and having a forgiving spirit.

The New testament gives a clear indication of what it means to think, talk and act as a Christian. But the truth is that conversion takes a lifetime. The nasty wolf within us never quite dies; never quite gives up. As the wise Cherokee elder suggested, whether you are end up being consumed by bitterness, envy and greed or develop into someone kind, tender-hearted and forgiving, depends to a great extent on which of your inner wolves you feed.

My message is simple. Give some honest reflection to the way in which you nourish your soul. You may like to start by asking this: ‘To which of those inner wolves do I give the best breakfast?’

—————-

I came across Cherokee wolf story in the chapter by Richard Carter in the book Forgiveness in Practice Ed Stephen Hance (JKP 2018).  I am glad to say I also have a chapter in this wide-ranging book.

As a young priest in Manchester I came across several terms of disparagement that were new to me as a southerner.  It surprised me to hear something described as a ‘duck egg’, or ‘neither use nor ornament’.  I later realised that the second of these echoed a rather grand phrase of William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

Today is Trinity Sunday.  The occasion in the year when we are more or less obliged to turn our minds to the highest realms of theological abstraction – and when smart clergy invite someone else to do the preaching.  But it’s me today, and as its exam season I have set myself a theological question: “is the doctrine of the Trinity ‘duck egg’, ‘use’ or ‘ornament’?”

Christians believe that God is not adequately described in the language of traditional monotheism.  On the other hand, we certainly do believe in the internal unity and simplicity of God.  God isn’t some kind of metaphysical cake made up of different ingredients. For one thing God isn’t created or made. There is no possible recipe for God. God is before and above every concept of making, or any process of fabrication, that we can imagine.

This is one of the reasons why the creed is so careful to say that the Son of God is ‘begotten not made’. ‘Begotten’ is a very special word used to distinguish the origination of the Son of God from any other kind of origination.  Certainly Jesus was not made or created in the ordinary way. The biblical way of expressing this was in terms of a young woman conceiving who, in the biological sense, had no right to do any conceiving: the virgin birth.

When it comes to the Holy Spirit the credal word is not ‘begotten’ but ‘proceeding’. The Spirit comes out from God.  Again, this is not a matter of making or creating. But from what, exactly, does the Spirit come forth?  Our creed says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  The Orthodox churches are not happy with this and their creed lacks the famous (well, famous to theologians) filioque clause; for them the Spirit proceeds from the Father only, not the Father and the Son.

For the Orthodox the filoque clause is a duck egg. They look to John’s gospel chapter 15 verse 26 which talks about the Spirit ‘proceeding from the Father’.  In the west we focus a little later in the same gospel where Jesus breathes on the disciples after the resurrection and says ‘receive ye the Holy Spirit’ (John 20.22).

One question floating around behind this is something that all agree to be a theological duck egg:  subordinationism.  This is the idea that there is a hierarchy within the Trinity.  Subordinationism is a heresy.  It’s wrong to think of the Father as the boss, the Son as the heir-apparent and the Spirit as the poor relation.  And yet it is historically true that the Holy Spirit is often the Cinderella of the Trinity.  If you look at the Christian year, or Christian art in general, or the windows of our Chapel in particular, you see them dominated by the second person of the Trinity. And that’s perhaps understandable. Jesus was, after all, God incarnate, and one of the great things about being incarnate is that people can meet you in person, tell stories about you, write books about you and draw pictures and make films about you.  Indeed, part of the purpose of the incarnation is to tell us what God, whom we cannot see, is like.

The first and the third persons of the Trinity are much harder to represent, though that hasn’t stopped anyone, from Michelangelo to a young child, imagining God the Father as a venerable old man with flowing robes and an equally flowing beard.

There hasn’t been as much pressure to create images of the Spirit.  They exist, of course, ‘breath’, ‘wind’, ‘bird’, ‘tongues of flame’, but these are so dynamic, and so diverse, that people don’t seem to get confused as to whether or not the Holy Spirit really is a bird, although they do think that God the Father is a father.  The worst duck egg regarding the Spirit is the Cinderella factor. And this is one reason why the Orthodox are so against the filioque clause: they see it as making the spirit minor.

But it’s the ‘God as a grand old man’ theology that is the worst duck egg of them all. This is why it’s so helpful for Julian of Norwich to say ‘Just as truly as God is our father so God is our mother’; although it has taken us about 600 years to notice that she said it. Julian was also right to correct herself when she wrote that ‘the Son sits at his Father’s right hand’ with these words: ‘But this does not mean that the Son sits on the Father’s right hand, side by side, as one person sits beside another in this life; for as I see it there is no such sitting in the Trinity, but that he sits on his Father’s right hand, that is to say, in the highest rank of the Father’s joys’  (Revelations of Divine Love Ch. 51).  Again Julian is right – there is no such sitting; and nor is there any no actual right or left hand of God.  But there is fullness of joy and mutual love.

I have probably given you enough theology to make it plain that far from being a duck egg itself, the point of the doctrine of the Trinity is to show up theological duck eggs for what they are. And there are dozens of them. The old word for them was ‘heresies’. These days we don’t persecute heretics, we live with them. I don’t think this is weakness, because it is based on what you might call theological modesty. This is an intellectual humility which recognizes that while there may be a pure and perfect form of doctrine in the mind of God, it is beyond our capacity either to think it or express it.

This means that bad theology is inevitable. But it also means that bad theology is only a problem when people forget that all theology is imperfect. And yet provided we are informed and sincere in what we believe, diligent in the studies that support our faith, and respectful of those who believe differently, God can and will smile on us (not that God has a face or can smile, of course).

When comes to the William Morris test (is it ‘use or ornament’?), my feeling is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not especially beautiful or inspiring; so not an ornament at all. But it is useful. In fact, the Trinity is an absolutely essential and irreplaceable part of the cognitive side of Christian living.

And this is because the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t an answer or an explanation. It’s a device that prevents us settling for inadequate and immature pictures of God; a way of pointing to a truth we can’t quite grasp.

The ‘Trinity’ is not a duck egg, but an exposer of duck eggs, and while not especially beautiful, it is not only useful but necessary, even if ultimately mysterious.

As part of the Easter at King’s festival in Cambridge this year, we had a wonderful performance based on extracts from the diaries and letters of the young Jewish woman,  Etty Hillesum, interspersed with narration and music from the gypsy band, ZRI. We called it ‘Blazing Harmonies’ – a phrase coined by Etty herself.

It was an extremely powerful experience, and I am delighted to say that you can now listen to the whole thing on line, here.

Embracing and Questioning

I had the idea for Blazing Harmonies when I first read Etty’s dairies in order to preach about her as part of our ‘Women of Spirit’ series of sermons a few years ago. They only span a couple of years ( 1941-3 ) but extend to eleven notebooks. The English translation runs to around 700 pages. Editing it down for Blazing Harmonies was quite a task and obviously much was missed out.

However, as an introduction to Etty as a person of engaging, honest and positive spirituality it seems to work. It’s clear that Etty is a deeply reflective person, often at odds with herself, and that her core drive is to both embrace and to question everything, including her both own perplexity and the suffering that inevitably unfolds for her, her family and her people under Nazi occupation.

Collaboration

One of the reasons Blazing Harmonies came across so powerfully in the Chapel was because of the skill of the performers, not least the actor Rosie Hilal who read from the diaries.  She had never heard of Etty before I contacted her to ask her to consider the role, but quickly found Etty to be a fascinating character with a compellingly interesting approach to life. Rosie and I spent a day working on the script together which certainly enriched my own understand of and feel for Etty’s writing.

Rosie Hilal’s website

Time spent with Jon Banks of ZRI was also very important in the preparation. We met a few times and, as I explained the idea and introduced him to Etty, he played me recordings of ZRI’s music that he felt might work.  I found Jon’s approach, and the approach of the other musicians in the band, deeply sympathetic.  The shared energy and respect within ZRI was an extremely enjoyable and inspiring part of the preparations, and an integral aspect of the whole evening; informing the audience’s response to the words read, the place and the occasion.

ZRI’s website

The narrator was Donald Macleod, presenter of ‘Composer of the Week’ on BBC Radio 3. Donald’s instantly recognisable voice added precision and colour to the words I had written to help the story along; not an easy task given the huge gaps that were obviously left. Donald also entered into the spirit of it, not only improving on the detail of my script but also, and quite rightly, blending well-known phrases from the Authorised Version with the more contemporary version I had used in reading 1 Corinthians 13 – to which Etty refers in a letter written to ‘two sisters in the Hague’ in December 1942

Looking Ahead

I plan to take Blazing Harmonies further. Invitations have come in to present it in Holland, and I certainly want to develop the script, and risk a slightly longer presentation.

For now, I hope that you enjoy the webcast and get drawn into reading Etty’s dairies yourself, and thinking, with her, through some of life’s deepest questions and perplexities. She inhabited a specific historical moment in a very particular way; but her courage, candour, questing and ultimate calm will shine out as long as people encounter her words.

Webcast of Blazing Harmonies

The Etty Hillesum Research Centre

 

Sustainable Joy

An Easter sermon preached in King’s College Chapel.

One of the many great things about the peculiar liturgical life of this Chapel is that we have as many people attending worship on Good Friday as on Easter Day. After all, the two days proclaim the same gospel, the same God, the same Jesus. The one focuses on the cross and the other on the empty tomb. The one is associated with lamentation and sadness and guilt; the other with joy and gladness and victory; on one we hear of betrayal and brutality, death and burial, on the other we hear of early morning messages, running races between the disciples, an absence where one would expect a presence, and misunderstandings in the garden and on the road to Emmaus.

There is less ambiguity on Good Friday. The story is told differently by the different evangelists, but there is no doubt how it will end. The man on the cross is going to die and be buried. The male disciples – with the exception of John – will forsake their friend. Desertion, desolation and dereliction: these are the words of the day. And it’s clear what these things feel like, what they mean, and where they are headed.

Jesus dies and descends into hell. Hell is not, as is so often quipped, ‘other people’. Hell is the absence of anyone who cares about you, and the absence in your own heart of any care or concern, never mind love, for anyone else. It’s not something to which you are consigned. It’s where you end up if you opt against love and truth and justice in your everyday decisions. Jesus goes there to reach out in love to those who are not loved and cannot love. It is the extreme edge of his mission. It is in hell that the resurrection begins.

So: ‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above … [and] … put to death whatever in you is earthly’. That is to say – if you believe in the resurrection, and have glimpsed, or been touched by, the presence of the living and loving God, then you need to reorient yourself, and ‘kill off’ the toxic attitudes, desires and habits that take your life in the direction of isolation and hell.

The resurrection of Jesus is a gateway to a better way of living; one that is new, fresh, fulfilling and positive, and which leads us away from hell and towards the fellowship of the kingdom of heaven.

Positive though this is, it does involve some serious giving-up. We tend to associate giving-up with Lent, but our little Lenten disciplines, whether they involved refraining from chocolate or strong drink, are really just the warm-up exercises for serious Christian living; for living out the gospel of eternal, saving and transformational love that we proclaim and celebrate today.

Easter is above all else an occasion of celebration, joy and delight. But none of those words make sense unless they are grounded in ideas and realities like ‘love’ and ‘communion’, ‘justice’ and ‘peace’. It is possible (we all know this) to celebrate selfishly; to have happy feelings unkindly, and to delight cruelly in the failings of others.

The apostle Paul saw and heard of plenty of this sort of Christian immaturity in the communities that he ministered to; and this is why he wrote to them saying that they should knock it off. As he says to the Corinthians, ‘you say you are celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but I hear that those who can afford it are simply over-eating and getting drunk. That might feel like joy to you, but it doesn’t look like joy to me.’  We need to be advised in similar ways today. To be challenged not to be content with things that make a few of us happy for a while, but to seek true and lasting joy for all. Sustainable joy, one might say.

I think it was Jean Vanier who said that one of the tasks of the church today is to teach the world how to celebrate.  He, like Henri Nouwen, learnt this lesson not from the privileged, healthy and successful, but by sharing his life with disadvantaged and profoundly needy people. It was here that both found true spiritual joy bubbling up irrepressibly.

The resurrection of Jesus is nothing if it is not irrepressible.  And Easter joy is nothing if it is not sustainable.

We are not talking here about someone’s theory of life. We are not talking about good news for the few. We are talking here about something earth-shattering and mind-blowing for all. A belief that, despite the way it seems when we look around us, love is stronger than death; love is stronger than hatred; and love is a far more profound force than malice. The core Christian belief is that evil, horrendous though its consequences can be, is actually defeated by the love of God that was revealed in Christ, from the first cries of the infant in the stable, to the dying words of the man on the cross.  Those last few words were positively laden with both humanity and theology. Horror and death are embraced, but the eternal power of love presses on and shines out to the end.  At the very end Jesus cries out:  ‘it is finished’ ‘completed’, ‘accomplished’. The achievement of the crucified Christ is to have lived on the receiving end of sin without succumbing to it; the triumph is in relentlessly replying to abuse with transformative love and hope.

This is the true triumph of Easter, and the true heart of the gospel. It’s most properly and convincingly proclaimed in a way of life in which its love that does the talking, the doing and, above all else, the willing. Christianity is, of course, a religion for people of all ages, because people of all ages can love. But it’s also a religion of learning, growth and development.

Christian maturity involves the warm and passionate embrace of life in its fullness, diversity and glory; it involves a desire and a longing to reflect the loving purposes of God; it involves moral clarity, but it eschews judging others; it is constantly looking for moments of delight, but is only interested in the sort of joy that is sustainable because it is based in truth and community and generosity of spirit.

It is this maturity to which the resurrection of Christ calls us, and for which the life of worship and sacraments, praise and prayer, equips us. It is an open-ended maturity, lived out differently by each individual person.

This is perhaps why the stories of Easter Day are mysterious and strange, ambiguous and open. Good Friday is simple by comparison. It was an end. But if Good Friday was a full-stop, Easter Day is the next capital letter. It’s the beginning of a word; the beginning of a sentence; the beginning of a story that it’s up to you and God to write together.

I hope and pray that this Easter Day may be the beginning of the story of the rest of your life, and that that story and that life will be one of deep, delightful and sustainable joy. And that, whatever circumstances you find yourself in, you become aware of, and respond to, the irrepressible power of God: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

 

 

The first day of the installation (see previous blog) concluded with Compline – at which I gave this brief address:

The service of Compline is intended to close the day peacefully. It is a service of completion, closure. As it begins, we ask that God may grant us a quiet night and perfect end.  The ‘perfect end’ is a reference to death. It is the prayer that our death may be peaceful and timely and well-prepared.

It might be thought, then that there is some irony in concluding this disturbing evening with such a service. For the people who have been on our minds, the untold numbers of Syrian refugees, in particular those who have taken to the seas, have very little hope of either quiet nights or perfect ends.

Not for these refuges the sorts of worries that keep us awake at night – the stresses and anxieties that haunt us in our comforts; for them the actual real and pressing dangers and deprivations that are known by the homeless everywhere, but with all the added uncertainties that come from using the most vulnerable modes of travel that we can imagine.

If Issam’s little boats touch out hears, it may be because of what they reveal of the fragility of the human beings, our brothers and sisters, who are represented by burnt matchsticks, and the feebleness of the mud-guard boats that promise to take them to a new future.

Syrians are not naturally inclined to take to the water. And we should remember that those who do are on the second or third phase of their refugee journey.  We might wonder with what thoughts and expectations they embark.  Some take a lemon to stave off the seasickness, some will wrap their certificates of professional qualification with their passport in two or three plastic bags, some will carry a torch or laser pen in the hope that should their boat fail to make it – as many do not – they might attract attention and be rescued before otherwise inevitable death by drowning, others may carry a toy, something to hold or cuddle or to be otherwise distracted by. For many refugees are young children.

We can be confident that many, if not all, will know depths of fear that we can hardly begin to imagine.  Who would have thought that the Arab Spring would have led on to such suffering when it began to unfold seven years ago?  Who knows what will have become of the Syrian people and nation in seven years’ time?  We can be sure, however, that while many in Syria will yet have no choice but to face death at home, others will, as human being facing danger and destruction have always done, begin to make their way to a hoped-for safe haven beyond the mountains or on a distant shore.  There is a deep determined hope in such travelling that should fill us with admiration just as the danger and suffering fill us with sympathetic fear and compassion.

Our service will shortly begin. We will pray for a quiet night and a perfect end. But let us not only pray for ourselves, but for all those who have been so powerfully brought to mind this evening. And let us pray with the same determined hopefulness that inspires refugees, and the same gritty resignation to the fact that suffering will be real and hard and terminal for many of those who decide to leave home and seek peace elsewhere – that there might indeed be a new dawn, a new day, and new future in which hopes for quiet nights and perfect ends are not ironic, but realistic.