There is much that is surprising and impressive about the story in the news this weekend about the Archbishop of Canterbury discovering that his biological father was not the man married to this mother at the time of his birth.

Apparently the rumour started at a dinner conversation with a journalist from the Daily Telegraph. When the journalist told about it he decided that the bet thing was to get the facts. The facts have come out and, according to Justin, have made no difference to the question of who he thinks he is.

The irony in this is that it seems to have made a lot of difference to the way in which people regard him. Rather than having gone down in people’s estimation, he has gone way up – and largely because of the straightforward way in which he has handled the situation, and the modest and humane way in which he has commented on it.

Facts, are, of course, facts. But facts can also make people wriggle and squirm, even when as unequivocal as these.  But Justin seems to be an entirely squirm-free person.

Of course he, like everyone else, has plenty of personality flaws and failings, but this is not the sort of situation to expose them. On the contrary – it is when dealing with the unexpected and the awkward that Justin is at his best because he is also his most straightforward and immediate.

People have written about the humility that has been evident in this episode, and that’s  fair comment. But I wonder whether there is also something here about the way in which a mature faith works. Faith that is which is so anchored in God’s love and transcendence that it embraces the world and its facts with a combination of curiosity and courage. If you felt pompous you could call this mysticism that faces two ways.  If you didn’t feel so pompous you could call it living in the real world. 

Either way, this has been good weekend for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Hild is one of the more remarkable and vivid characters of the Anglo-Saxon era. The Venerable Bede calls her a ‘most devoted servant of Christ’ in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Hild was 66 years old when she died, having lived a life of two perfect halves: thirty three years as a lay person and thirty three years as a nun. Not that she was any ordinary lay person – or for that matter any ordinary nun.

She was born a princess in 614 – and grew up in Bamburgh castle on the north east coast not far at all from the holy island of Lindisfarne where Aidan had established a school of missionaries who were bringing Celtic Christianity to England. She was baptised at the age of 13 in York with her uncle the King. It’s impossible to know whether this was by choice or not, but it is clear from the way her life unfolded that her faith was a very deep and significant part of who she was and at some point she must have become, if I can put it this way, a voluntary Christian.

Hild lived in times of great change and upheaval. As well as the spiritual movements that were challenging and changing people’s hearts and souls there were constant disputes, and battles would have been frequent and brutal. She would have seen plenty of soldiers and battle-scarred people at the castle where she grew up – indeed her name, Hild, indeed means ‘battle’. But her own life at the castle would have focused on domestic duties and we can imagine her developing skills in embroidery and weaving. She did not marry and it was her own decision to become a nun.

Although by this time in her life she was probably living in Kent, and she initially intended to follow her widowed sister into a Frankish monastery, she returned to the north east and joined one of Aidan’s training monasteries not on Lindisfarne itself but on the banks of the Wear. She must have quickly impressed Aidan because he soon made her abbess of the convent at Hartlepool. According to Bede, Aidan ‘visited her frequently, instructed her assiduously, and loved her heartily for her innate wisdom and devotion to the service of God’. She also impressed King Oswui who put his own daughter into Hild’s monastery and later gave Hild land to establish a new double-monastery at Whitby.

We don’t know much about what life would have been like here, but double monasteries – those containing both men and women – were not rare in this era. We can imagine the windswept cliff-top community reflecting something of the Saxon culture that would have been everyday life at the equally windswept Bamburgh castle when Hild was young, though with a strong theme of Celtic spirituality running though it. This was a world of runes and the hallowing of the ordinary. The famous Whitby comb comes from this era. It is a small piece of bone on which a fragment of a one sentence prayer for help begins in Latin and then stumbles into the vernacular, making it an apt symbol of the cultural diversity that was everyday life in seventh century Yorkshire. The prayer is not unlike the sort of prayer that visitors leave when in our own St Edward’s Chapel ‘My God, almighty God, help – name’.

Bede tells us that ‘all who knew Hild, the handmaiden of Christ and abbess, used to call her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.’ Her monastery was a very successful training academy for clergy who would later rise to high office and make a significant difference, including five bishops. Hild’s reputation and story became well-known and had its own profound effect on many who heard of her. And there were many who travelled, in those days when travel was arduous and dangerous, to seek her advice and counsel. She made all the members of her monastery follow the Rule of life, insisting particularly on the study of the scriptures, and she ensured that not only was there fairness and justice but also peace and charity. In other words, she ran a happy and peaceful family as mother, and gained the trust of many.

It was for this reason perhaps that when the decision was made to gather a synod to discuss the future of the church it was decided that it should be held at Whitby. Hild was responsible for the hospitality – a not inconsiderable task that would have stretched the resources and abilities of her community to the limit.

The synod of Whitby was called to settle a hot ecclesiastical issue. Was the church in England to be Celtic or Roman? The answer, of course, was that it was to be Roman. This must have been hard for Hild to bear as she was, after all, hosting this event at great personal cost and her whole life was based on adherence to the ways of Aidan and the Irish monks. But Hild, like Cuthbert, understood that once the decision was made it was her job to help people accept it and to move forward with that same spirit of charity and peace. This was perhaps one of her greatest achievements.

And there is another one. Hild was not only a brilliant leader of a community, a forward-looking reconciler and wise and devout person; she was also a talent-spotter. There was a young man in her community who had a gift for poetry and music – Caedmon. He was also a very shy and retiring person, someone of great aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity. But Hild encouraged him and enabled him to develop his unique gift. And so it is that in the annals of English poetry Caedmon is the earliest entry. So if we wanted a patron saint of composers, or spiritual singer-songwriters, we might look to Mother Hild of Whitby.

Hild is one of very few women to make the headlines or achieve celebrity status in the church of the Middle Ages. And yet we see in her a person of rare gifts and profound influence. Taken as a whole she offers a vision of the sort of person whose life reflects the best values of British Christianity. For what we see in Hild is someone whose life is Christ-centred, focused on learning and generous in hospitality; we see someone who is personally and domestically wise, politically astute, conciliatory in defeat, open to inspiration, music and art and encouraging of the young and talented. If we are wise, if we want to live lives worthy of our faith, we could do a lot worse than to allow ourselves to be inspired by her story.

 

This sermon was preached in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on 21 February 2016 as part of the series ‘Women of Spirit’.

Readers of Another Angle may be interested to read this …

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has announced the shortlist for the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, which will be awarded at the Greenbelt Festival later this year.

Archbishop Justin said: “This year’s Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist offers a glimpse into the riches not just of contemporary Christian thinking, but of Christian living. Each book has been a gift to the Church – helping us to think more deeply, act more wisely and witness more effectively to the glory of God.

“Writing such as this challenges, nourishes and inspires the Church to be ever more deeply and more joyfully what it is called to be: a praying, reconciling, proclaiming and witnessing community of people following Jesus Christ. It will be a real privilege to join my fellow judges in reflecting on these books, and sharing them with a wider audience when we announce the winner at the Greenbelt Festival this year.”

The shortlisted titles are:

Benigno Beltran, Faith & Struggle on Smokey Mountain (Orbis)

Stephen Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness (Continuum)

Anne Richards, Children in the Bible (SPCK)

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (Faber & Faber)

John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the memories of God (SCM)

Frances Young, God’s Presence: a contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity (Cambridge University Press)

The shortlisted books will be studied by the five judges over the coming months. They will meet together at Greenbelt on 28th August 2016 to choose the winning title.

Read more about the shortlisted books on the Michael Ramsey Prize Facebook page

For three years I have been working on a book about sin, The Dark Side of the Soul. When I started on the project I had no idea just how much I would learn in the process, or just how intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging it would be. But now the job is done and I have a copy of the book with its stunning cover in front of me.

It’s an obvious and easy time for a moment of reverie – all that reading and thinking and writing and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … (sigh), and editing and correcting. All that work and worry is now safely sealed between those covers.

So I look at my book I ask myself  ‘Why did I write it?’ and, ‘What does it say?’

Why did I write it?

People today tend to think of ‘sin’ either as an excuse for a laugh, or as an excuse for a guilt-trip. Yet the truth is that the idea is not only really interesting, it’s ethically and spiritually important.

To say that human beings are sinful is a genuine, helpful and liberating contribution for Christianity to make to the world today. But it’s a hugely difficult idea to put across because people are so defensive about the suggestion and so dismissive of the language.

One of the slippery things about sin is that it hides under the radar of self-awareness. So a book about sin has to be a bit tricky too. As I say at one point, the idea is to shine a light into the dark side of the soul to give the demons a bit of a fright. Clearly this book isn’t a textbook, thesis or monograph! It’s serious about its subject, but not super-serious.

The last chapter is called ‘Demon Wrestling: A Practical Guide’. Maybe I should have called it ‘demon frightening for beginners.’ One reason for writing the book was to name and startle a few demons. These cheeky monkeys strut around the place full of vanity and pride, pretending that they do no harm, and how easily we let them deceive us.

Not that I really believe in demons. But the idea of demons does point to something about the experience of sin. We often think of it as coming at us from outside. The truth, however, is that what we think of as ‘outside’ us is probably just a bit of the inside that we are not very aware of – the dark side of the soul.

What does it say?

Well, yes it says that we are all sinners. I go along with the original sin idea, and I don’t think that there’s much point in thinking about how bad very nasty people are. In fact my chapter on ‘malicious tendencies’ is one of the shortest. The truth, I argue, is that more trouble is created, more harm done, and more people get hurt when no one is intending it and everyone believes him or herself to be acting in a well intentioned, justified or even benevolent way. I don’t say anywhere in the book that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that’s just because I try to avoid cliches. The point is a good one. Hardly anyone sets out to be horrible. Even trolls think that their actions are justified or helpful. Yet its often when we are high minded that we are at our worst – and vice versa.

One of the things I do in the book is to mash up the seven deadly sins and to come up with a contemporary list of deadlies or vices. My list runs to 23 which I group together in 6 clusters. What all these things have in common is that they are attitudes, habits or actions that, pleasurable or otherwise positive as they may seem, ultimately hurt the person who practices them as well as others.

I don’t think that there is a short list of capital sins from which all the others flow. My image of how sins works is more like a net or web of tiny, almost invisible, filaments. No one filament is that important or that powerful, but between them they ensnare and trap us in such a way that our wriggling and struggling only makes matters worse.

The things I’m most interested in are apparently blameless practices, or even virtues, that go sour on us.  For instance, I’m fascinated by our obsession with the shortness of time these days, and while I think that some time management ideas are really smart, I still see expert time managers getting busier and busier. Indeed, despite my best efforts it’s constantly happening to me.

Busyness is one of my deadlies. It’s okay to be busy – sometimes – but as a way of life it’s bad.  And I add ‘certainty’ and ‘control’ to my list of deadlies too. We tend to believe that if we were only more certain, or if we only had more control, the world would be better place. This is sinful fantasy. The truth is that many things are unknown and mysterious and when we are dealing with anything other than the most crude and basic processes it’s not control but guidance, and companionship, and facilitating the best efforts of others that will bring us closest to happiness, peace and flourishing.

Honestly I don’t think we will get to anything like peace, justice and flourishing without dealing with sin, especially the sin that hides itself in virtue. That’s why I wrote The Dark Side of the Soul.

 

 

A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

Lilian Groves is an 87 year old volunteer guide at Durham Cathedral. Already voted the ‘tourism superstar’ for Durham, Lilian is in the finals of the competition to find the VisitEngland national superstar, 2016.

I have just voted for her – and this is why.

Like thousands of others I have seen Lilian in action. She gave me, my wife, children and parents a personal tour of the Cathedral when I first become a Canon of Durham in 2006.  A few years later I arranged for her to give Fr Michael Lapsley a tour and joined in myself. Michael is a South African priest and anti-apartheid activist who was sent a letter bomb that blew off his hands (You can see a 15 minute video The Michael Laspsley Story here). I remember Michael turning to me just after Lilian left us and whispering, ‘when it comes to Cathedral tours, that’s as good as it gets’.

Of course Lilian has, in some ways, a very easy job. Durham Cathedral is wonderful architecturally, the history is rich and it boasts two of the most distinctive, different and important saints in Cuthbert and Bede.  One the epitome of what people think of today as ‘Celtic Spirituality’, though you won’t find Lilian using the word ‘Celtic’ very often. The other ‘the historian’s historian’, as one undergraduate put it to me: Bede the Venerable.

Someone ought to work out how far Lilian walks in the course of year as a tour guide. There won’t be many 87 year olds who walk further. And few indeed who do so while talking in a way that is charming, informed, reverential and in the best possible way teacherly. Lilian quickly eyes people up and soon knows at what level to pitch her remarks. A committed Christian who is often at the 12.30 Cathedral eucharist on weekdays, and invariably in the congregation on Sunday morning, she doesn’t force her faith on anyone. Rather, working with the building, and Durham’s unique ethos, she eases people into the spirituality of the place which is spacious, gracious, kind and, above all else, living.

You might expect someone of Lilian’s age and experience to be quite set in her ways. Not a bit of it. When I went to see her in 2014 to suggest a new kind of tour focussed on war memorials that would be of interest doing the centenary years of the First World War, she immediately ‘got’ the idea and was keen to do the work that would make it happen.

Lilian has shared with me many stories about tours and encounters and experiences of them. What comes through to me most strongly when I have heard her anecdotes is not so much her passion for the Cathedral as her interest in and care about people. For Lilian it all becomes worthwhile when a child offers a fresh insight or there is a transformative moment when someone appreciates a minor detail that makes all the difference, or sees what is really in a stained glass window for the first time.

So, Lilian gets my vote as VisitEngland tourism superstar 2106 and I hope she might get yours too. You can vote here

And if I haven’t yet persuaded you, check out this amazing clip to get a glimpse of the legend that is Lilian.

 

 

 

 

Here are six ideas for Lent for anyone who feels too busy, or rushed, or hassled or stressed out by the pressure of things to do.

Don’t think ‘rush’, think ‘slow’.

Chill, take your time. Things have a habit of working themselves out unless your are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. If you are then you had better do what it takes to get the crisis sorted out and your life calmed down.  Life is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.

Don’t think ‘busy’, think ‘involved’.

‘Busy’ is one of the more pernicious four-letter words in our vocabulary. Often, it’s a boast disguised as a complaint.  There are plenty of people who would love to have more to do, to feel more valued, and to be more fully involved. If you are too busy it may mean that you haven’t bothered to involve others.

Don’t think ‘me time’, think ‘soul time’.

It’s easy to persuade people to try to have more ‘me-anything’ these days. However, the point about Lent is not to think about your ego-needs but to make time for your soul-needs. Soul time can take many forms – but it’s never ‘all about me’.

Don’t think ‘give up’, think ‘appreciate’.

If we take time to savour and enjoy those petty vices that so often occupy our consciences and dominate our spirituality their power over us may begin to wane a bit and we might turn our attention to higher things. If you love chocolate don’t give it up this year but become a discerning and appreciative chocolate connoisseur – and see what comes of that.

Don’t think ‘work-life balance’, think ‘wholesome living’.

Of course your life can start to go wrong if your work is too important to you, or too all-consuming, or if it’s relentlessly stressful.  But this can be true of any activity – not just work. Life isn’t something that starts when work stops.

Don’t think ‘Lent is long’, think ‘Lent is short’.

Because it is. Just as life is short. Just as every day is short. Don’t miss out on life or Lent by rushing around as a lonely busybody, feeling guilty about petty things and starving your soul of the time it needs to breath.

Have a time wise Lent.

For more ideas about how to give up busyness check out this website Give up busyness for Lent

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