Sunday, 31 January 2016

In Haydon Old Church: an ancient simplicity and holiness

This afternoon we wrapped up warmly here in our village of Haydon Bridge and went up to the Old Church for a service to mark Candlemas. 

Let me explain. As you'd expect from its name, Haydon Bridge sits snugly in the valley astride the South Tyne River which, with its fine eighteenth century bridge, give this pleasant place much of its character. (If you've read this blog before, you'll know that the river can be capricious: the village was badly hit by the floods caused by Storm Desmond in December, said to be the worst since 1771 when the old bridge was swept away.) 

However, the medieval village of Haydon was not down here, but on the ridge that rises north of the river and culminates in the long serrated line of the dolerite Whin Sill that carries Hadrian's Wall. Here, it is thought, the monks of Lindisfarne came in Saxon times bearing the body of St Cuthbert on their long journey around the north before they finally found their home in Durham. As in many other places, a little church was built here to commemorate Cuthbert and in time, a village gathered round it. 

Over the centuries, the village gradually migrated downhill and established itself in a more sheltered location around a strategic crossing point of the Tyne. A new church was built at the end of the eighteenth century near the bridge, also dedicated to St Cuthbert. The nave of the Old Church was demolished in order to provide building stone for it. But the medieval chancel was spared, and this survives on the hill in its stone-walled churchyard protected on every side by trees from the fierce upland winds. It stands entirely alone now, for the ancient village has disappeared and all that is left of it are scattered farmsteads and an ivy-clad signpost where the road divides, pointing the way to 'Haydon'. You hardly realise you have arrived at the tiny church, so hidden is it from view. From the gate, an avenue through a dense thicket of yews leads into the churchyard, a secret garden where, you sense, human feet rarely tread these days. Down on the busy A69 that now bypasses the village, who would guess that the clump of trees up there on the hill conceals this secret corner of Northumberland? Inside, there are Early English lancet windows above the altar, some nice Victorian stained glass, and memorial tablets to village worthies. And there is a fine Roman altar that at some time past was colonised from Hadrian's Wall and returned to usefulness again as a Christian font. 

I've painted a picture of a place of solitude, all that is left to show that a human community once lived up here. But that's not to say that it's deserted. Haydonians have always loved this old church and taken care to look after it. And this ancient place of worship is not redundant. Far from it. It feels inhabited, lived in. A service is held here on the last Sunday of every month: usually Prayer Book evensong (with hymns), but also special services to mark the seasons of the Christian year. After Christmas we celebrated Epiphany here. Today it was Candlemas. There is no electricity, no generator, so winter services are held entirely by candlelight. You dress accordingly and expect the worship to be bracing. Afterwards, mugs of hot tea are poured from thermos flasks with home-made cakes and biscuits to enjoy. The candlelight creates a lovely sense of intimate homeliness, what you might call foyer. In summer the light pours in through the south door, and there are wine and nibbles in the churchyard. People aren't in a hurry to leave. That's just as it should be when a community gathers for worship.

It would have been so easy for this little church to have been left to decay, silent and forgotten, subsiding over the centuries into its hillside, one more memory of the days when people lived and worked and worshipped here. It's to the great credit of the Vicar and PCC that they have seen the potential the Old Church has for spirituality and outreach. For it is part of the Christian heritage of Northumberland, set in one of those North Eastern 'landscapes of faith' I wrote about a few years ago in my book of that name. Our Christian heritage is more and more valued nowadays by people who wouldn't at all describe themselves as 'religious'. It's good that this parish values its cherished historic asset that will bring enrichment to those who seek it out.

But I'm thinking of a lot more than this. I believe Haydon Old Church is one of those 'thin places' that increasingly draws pilgrims in search of spiritual meaning and sense of direction. It responds to Larkin's 'hunger to be more serious.' It isn't famous like Cuthbert's Holy Island, or mighty Durham Cathedral, or the Saxon church at Escomb, or Bede's historic churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, or Wilfred's marvellous crypt half a dozen miles downstream at Hexham Abbey. But what it shares with all these sites is its profoundly numinous quality. Here you feel you are on holy ground. In its loneliness and simplicity, it takes you on a journey both beyond yourself, and at the same time more deeply into yourself, so that you begin to see reality in new ways, and glimpse God. 

And here's where it has the potential to offer so much to our spiritually impoverished century. Holding services regularly is important, but it's just the beginning. A church like this holds so many possibilities for welcoming visitors to this lovely part of Northumberland, for heritage and arts activities, and above all, for promoting reflectiveness and spirituality through pilgrimages and opportunities for guided prayer and meditation. These are stones that speak of history, of the varying fortunes of a village community over a thousand years and more. This by itself is endlessly fascinating to anyone with a sense of place. But more important even than this, they speak of faith: the faith of those who first planted Christianity in this Northumbrian soil; the faith of those who watered it and kept it alive across the centuries; the faith of their successors today who like them live by hope in the Word made Flesh, Christ crucified and risen.

St Cuthbert is at the heart of one of the Christian North's defining stories. Haydon Old Church is part of it. I think Cuthbert would welcome the way the parish is embracing this undiscovered treasure and thinking imaginatively about how it could continue to enrich the life and mission of the church here in the Tyne Valley. 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Should We Fix the Date of Easter?

A formidable line-up of Christian leaders is discussing whether to fix the date of Easter. It includes Pope Francis, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Coptic Pope, the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

When so many global concerns clamour for the attention of religious leaders, why on earth are they even considering talking about the church calendar? Isn’t it a case of displacement activity of the first order?

These are waters to venture into warily. Blood has been spilt over the date of Easter. For the Saxon church in England, Bede tells us, it was a big point of dispute between those who followed Roman use, and those who adhered to the old Irish calendar. When a royal husband and wife observed different customs, there were years when for a whole week, one would still be fasting while the other feasted merrily away.

When I was a chorister and (God forbid!) my thoughts wandered during the sermon, I used to amuse myself deciphering the complex rules set out in the Book of Common Prayer to calculate the date of Easter. My head would spin with Sunday Letters, Epacts, Golden Numbers and long division by 19. I even wrote an article about it for the school magazine, arguing that we should fix the date of Easter on the second Sunday of April. Not only would it be so much simpler, and make life more convenient for a lot of people, and enable Christians across the world to celebrate the resurrection on the same day, but it would also mean more reliable bank holiday weather and considerably increase the frequency on which Easter Day fell on my birthday.

There is, clearly, a strong ecumenical case for Christendom to observe a single liturgical calendar. Nobody would dispute that. It’s impressive that even Islam in its bitterly divided state observes the same (lunar) calendar, as of course does Judaism. So I’m all for top-level discussions about whether agreement about the date of Easter could be reached by the world’s historic churches.

But I’d need persuading to think it’s right to disconnect the date of Easter from a long history of determining it in the way we currently do. Here’s why.

Firstly, its origins go back centuries before the Christian era itself. Easter Day falls on the first Sunday after the Paschal Moon which is the first full moon after the spring equinox. (There were debates about what happened when the full moon fell on a Sunday, and whether it counted if that was the equinox itself.) It’s the Paschal Moon that determines the date of the Jewish Passover on the night following 14 Nisan. So the Christian Easter is hard-wired to Judaism and the Festival of Passover. This is made much of in the New Testament where the passion and resurrection accounts are shot through with passover imagery. It’s not too much to say that the entire biblical theology of Jesus’ death and resurrection is premised on it. We should not sacrifice it.

Second, this close relationship between the Jewish and Christian calendars is a vital link between our two faith traditions. Holy Week and Easter texts have always had a special regard for Jewish rites and ceremonies taking place at precisely the same time of year. Our two faiths are uniquely held together by scripture, history, covenant, and also by our common observance of time. It would be a bad mistake to weaken the calendrical and liturgical threads that bind us together. (I should declare an interest here and admit that I write as a Christian of Jewish background.)

Third, the calculation of Easter, involving as it does the movements of sun, moon and earth, gives our feasts and fasts a dimension that is nothing less than cosmic. Astronomy and our concept of time comes into things. It tells us that what we do as people of faith is intimately connected to physical science and mathematics. You could say that the universe is ‘aware’ of and ‘interested’ in when and how we celebrate the passion and resurrection of Jesus. That is to say, Easter is of cosmic importance. It involves the whole of creation. It isn’t any old date in springtime that happens to suit us.

I believe that our capacity for religious imagination is at stake here. The prosaic ‘second or third Sunday in April’ could never capture the rich theology that I’ve outlined. Easter would be cut adrift from a truly ancient religious history. It would have severed its relationship with astronomy and mathematics that makes it a festival not only of human but of universal significance. The symbolism of the paschal season which is the pivot of the entire year would be impoverished. A glory would have departed.

Easter, with its idiosyncratic and rather wonderful variation of date, compels us to notice it and adjust our lives around it. It’s that way round. I’m just not persuaded by arguments from convenience. However, as I said, I’m all for worldwide Christianity agreeing on a matter that shouldn’t divide us. I’d have thought that nowadays there was sufficient consensus about the calendar to achieve this. So by all means, let an ecumenical conversation happen. But please don’t let’s give up on such a long and rich paschal tradition too quickly.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Gay Anglicans and the Primates' Meeting: the open letter

I've signed an open letter that is published today. You have probably heard about it in today's news. More than 100 people, described in the press-release as 'senior Anglicans', have written to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York ahead of the Primates' Meeting this week. Here it is in full. 

Your Graces,

We the undersigned ask you, our Archbishops, to take an unequivocal message to your meeting of fellow Primates next week that the time has now come for:

- Acknowledgement that we, the Church, have failed in our duty of care to LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world.  We have not loved them as we should, and have treated them as a problem to be solved rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ to be embraced and celebrated.  We have made them feel second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, often abandoned and alone.
 
- Repentance for accepting and promoting discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, and for the pain and rejection that this has caused. We, the Church, need to apologise for our part in perpetuating rather than challenging ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people, such as the slanderous view that homosexuals have a predisposition to prey on the young.

We understand that the Primates come from a variety of contexts with differing ways of interpreting the Scriptures, but we urge you to be prophetic in your action and Christ-like in your love towards our LGBTI sisters and brothers who have been ignored and even vilified for too long.  

Please be assured of our prayers for you at this time, and that the world will know by our words and actions that everyone who is baptised into the faith is of equal value in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yours sincerely

This isn't the first time I've blogged on same-sex relationships. But at the risk of repeating myself, I wanted to say something about why I've signed. It's for three reasons, all of which will, or ought to, be self-evident to Christian people, whatever their theological stance and whatever their sexual orientation.

First, I've signed because the church must be a place of truth. It follows the One who proclaimed himself as the Truth that would set us free. The truth of human sexuality is often hard to speak about because it is so complex. The discovery of my sexual identity is a lifelong task, and a God-given vocation. In cultures where same-sex relationships are not approved of, and gay people experience pressure or even persecution, truth-telling is driven underground. (Even in the west, gay teenagers often find it extraordinarily difficult open about their sexuality in the face of peer-pressure that is suspicious or hostile.) Sex is intended to be one of life's joyful mysteries, but the church has often debased it through suspicion or fear into a sorrowful one. It's vital that the church models a society that is open and unafraid in its take on human sexuality, acknowledging the consensus of serious research into same-sex attraction, challenging what the letter calls 'ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people', and celebrating the truth of each cherished man or woman's sexual giftedness. This is a profoundly theological task that our church leaders must not evade.

Secondly, I've signed because the church must be a place of justice and equality. The treatment of homosexual people in many countries around the world is an offence to our sense of what is fair and right. At the very least, the honouring of human dignity and the recognition of difference should be a matter of ordinary courtesy. But Christians should aspire to an altogether bigger vision of how we should treat one another as made in the image of God. It is to me a matter of outrage that Christian churches anywhere in the world should collude with attitudes that are at best discriminatory and often very much worse where gay people are concerned. No primate would tolerate them if they stemmed from racism. A generation ago, many of us were hard at work endeavouring to make sure that women could take their place alongside men in the ministry of the Church of England. That too was a matter of justice because good theology always has a finely-tuned conscience. And while I am keenly aware that the idea of an 'inclusive church' can offend Christians in other more conservative parts of the world, and could also alienate people of other faith traditions, especially Muslims, it cannot be right not to act justly merely because of our fears. Our letter calls on the Primates to act according to what are surely their best instincts for a world that is more equitable and fair.

Thirdly, I've signed because the church must be a place of compassion and love. The Quakers (who have often been a long way ahead of the C of E in matters of justice, including their acceptance of homosexual people) are known as the Society of Friends. This is how St John sees the church gathered in the upper room, where disciples are set fee to love one another in a way that echoes God's eternal love for them. Human pain and suffering have a particular claim on our compassion. And we shouldn't make any mistake about the suffering and pain many gay people around the world experience. I include in this gay clergy and other ministers in the Church of England who, in an ecclesiastical culture perceived to be hostile, live in real fear of being found out. The Primates have a special responsibility to make sure that our churches are communities of hospitality and friendship that do not collude with hypocrisy. They, we all, have that calling because this is how God himself is always reaching out towards each of us. It's a great deal harder to act hospitably than to uphold simple binaries that banish the non-approved from acceptance. This truly is 'tough love'.

I hope that this letter will not come across as trouble-stirring or polemical. It's meant to be firm but eirenic in tone. It would be great if it helped give the Primates confidence as they debate human sexuality, if it helped them to know that every step they take, however tentative, towards changing entrenched attitudes and welcoming gay Christians into their communities will be warmly and gratefully supported. The first step, maybe, is to recognise that just as with female ordination, there will be differences of view among the Primates and this needs to be respected. (I'm not sure that it altogether is, yet.) As Justin Welby has said, in grown-up communities there must always be room for 'deep disagreement'. 

But our letter is looking for much more than this. We're looking for a deep change of hearts and minds. We use the word 'repentance'. That's undeniably a strong word, but nothing is less is called for in the face of any great wrong we have committed. I am pretty confident that in decades to come, we as churches shall be saying we are deeply sorry for the way we have mistreated and oppressed gay people in the past. So why not say it now? That would make the Anglican Communion a place of hope and sanctuary for LGBTI people across the world. 

Anglicanism has always been good at bridge-building: perhaps that's one of its gifts to the world church. That's why we have every reason to think it can rise to a challenge it has known about for decades. But I also want to sound a warning note. Our unity as Anglicans is profoundly important. But I don't believe it's more important than the fundamental Christian values which have given me the headings for this blog: truth, justice and love. If we know what is true, what is just and what is loving, we must not fail to obey their imperatives however painful the consequences may be and however little we may be honoured, still less thanked for it. 

So it will take great courage on the part of the Primates to do what our letter asks for. That's why we end our letter with the promise of our prayers for this week's meeting, and for Justin Welby as he presides over it. Let William Blake set the tone of our prayers and their debates with his famous words that get close to the heart of what we Christians believe about God and humanity:

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God our Father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is Man, his child and care....

Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

You can read the press-release at http://www.lettertoarchbishops.wordpress.com/.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

New Year Resolutions: a blog for Epiphany

It’s not too late for new year resolutions. It never is. There’s always a new year that begins at some time or other: anniversaries, birthdays, festivals.  

But as most of us know by now, it’s not too soon to have broken the resolutions we made so hastily a week ago. All those well-meant intentions about sugar, smoking, alcohol, sex, exercise, social media and all the rest – have they lasted the week? Will they last the month? Will they see us through as far as Lent when we go through the ordeal of giving things up all over again?

The trouble with resolutions is well-rehearsed each year. They address behaviours that are the symptoms of our condition, but not the condition itself. They tend to scrutinise (albeit selectively) our habits, our addictions, the things we obsess about. I’m not saying that they don’t sometimes help to bring our lives into better order so that we live more healthily and well. But we all know that it’s the motivation of the boot strap. Make a colossal effort of the will and you’ll change your life. And the bigger the effort, the prouder we can be of what we’ve achieved.

But resolutions don’t tend to go very deep. They don’t on the whole explore our motivation and attitudes, our values and desires, all the things that make us what we are and lead us to behave as we do. They sit lightly upon the mysterious world of the unconscious where our drives come from. Resolutions are sticking plaster applied to wounds that need a radical kind of surgery if we are going to change in lasting ways.

As a theologian, I find the annual performance surrounding new year resolutions utterly Pelagian. That heresy, said to be especially attractive to the British, claimed that you could achieve salvation (note the words) through the effort of your own will. Divine grace was there to help you, but it was down to your decision and your continued resolve to live it out. I’ve often pondered our love-affair with this way of thinking. It’s not just about personal life. Organisations love it too. Think of those endless strategic plans and management techniques all designed to bring about development and change by a corporate act of will. Pelagius would have bellowed three hearty cheers for the organisational mind-set (not least in the church) that is addicted to these things.

It's not wrong for people and institution to have aspirations for the future and set about realising them. It's how we do this that matters, and the depth at which we do it. It was St Augustine (of Hippo) who said that imagining we can do it all by ourselves is to subvert the gospel. What changes lives, he argued, is God’s love and mercy held out and made real for us in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Here was the power that transformed the world and human living, offered possibilities that we could never have dreamed of, gave us back our freedom to become fully human again and live as we aspired to at the profoundest level of our existence. ‘Love God and do as you will’ he famously instructed, meaning that when God’s redeeming love makes its home at the centre of a human being, our lives and values, attitudes and behaviours become aligned to God’s own vision for his world. This is the Augustinian vision of the good news.

What we need at new year, I think, is to embrace this promised way of being more wholeheartedly. What might this mean? For me, it means living in a way that is more aware of the love of God and the goodness of things. It means being sensitised to the pain of the world and the needs of my neighbour. It means recovering joy in little things, the daily gifts of common grace. It means regaining a glad and trustful outlook rather than a suspicious or resentful ‘take’ on life where we find ourselves acting not out of hope but out of fear. It means cultivating charity. It means nurturing what lasts rather than being obsessed by the transient. It means wanting to make a difference in the world and being motivated to act on that longing, just as God’s truth and love go on making a difference to us.

Tomorrow, the sixth of January gives us a beautiful image of how God’s transforming grace works in human lives. On the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the Magi who made the journey to worship the Holy Child. They were ‘overwhelmed with joy’ says the story. And they ‘went back by another way’ the text is careful to tell us. Yes, obviously to avoid the cruel Herod, but symbolically as an image of lives transformed by what they had experienced. The magi didn’t need resolutions. All they needed was to give themselves to what they had seen, this vision that gave them an entirely new perspective. Isn’t this what we need near the beginning of the year? And on every day that dawns?

Out with Pelagian resolutions and will power! In with Augustinian transformation and joy! In with the promises of God! In with a truly happy and hope-filled new year!