Thursday, 27 December 2012

Homily for Christmas Night

St. Andrew’s Church in Blackhill has a board with writing in large letters outside the building - what used to be known as a “Wayside Pulpit.” It’s a sort of static sandwich board on which the church can put up words for people to ponder as they go past. At the moment the board reads, “Christmas is not about our presents - it’s about Christ’s presence.” Something to think about - perhaps

Christmas is about God coming into our world, the presence of his Son with us in human flesh just like our own. But we shouldn’t get too solemn about it and certainly not curmudgeonly. If we don’t enjoy the presents which people give us, then we’re rather missing out on the celebration. Whatever the gift may be, we’re to receive it with gratitude. If it comes as a surprise, our response shouldn’t be, “Oh no, I don’t get them a present.” It should be “thank you - how kind.” And if you want to put a religious spin on it, the gifts we receive point us to God’s great gift to us in Jesus. If we think we haven’t earned it, well that’s the whole message of Christmas - God comes to us and loves us, even though we don’t deserve it.

At this point I need to take a look at what I’m saying. Lamenting to a friend that I hadn’t wrapped any presents or even opened all my cards and that I  still had a sermon to write, he replied: “I haven’t written one either, but it’s not as though people come for the sermon.” Well, maybe you have… But I’m encouraged by something I saw somewhere which sang the praises of carol-singing: “Carol services are a corrective to clerical over-interpretation of the Christmas story.” In other words people will find what they are looking for as they sing and worship - and clergy need to be aware that they might be trying to find things in the story which are simply never going to click. Just be open to the joy of Christmas - and share it.

So don’t get too serious... That’s the only encouragement I need to share with you some terrible Christmas jokes, though they may be better than the ones you get in your crackers.

What’s brown and creeps around the house?
Mince spies!
What do you drain Christmas dinner brussel sprouts with?
An advent colander!

Have you heard the one about the Microsoft Advent Calendar? 
It crashes every time you open the windows!

Around Christmas time each year my dad used to work in a tiddlywink factory. But he didn’t like it. He said it was counter productive.

What's the most popular wine at Christmas?
‘Do I have to eat my Brussel sprouts?’

What did the bald man say when he got a comb for Christmas?
Thanks, I'll never part with it!

Mum, Can I have a dog for Christmas?
No you can have turkey like everyone else!

What happens if you eat the Christmas decorations?
You get tinsel-itus!

Mother bought a huge turkey for Christmas dinner.
'That must have cost a fortune!' I said.
'Actually I got it for a poultry amount,' she said.

Doctor, Doctor I'm scared of Father Christmas.
Doctor: You're suffering from Claus-trophobia.

 [Jokes courtesy of Grove Books December email - and I didn't use them all!]

That’s enough of those, I think. The great thing about a joke is when you don’t expect the punchline. It just takes you by surprise. The Virgin Mary expected that she would live out a quiet, hopefully contented, life in Nazareth with her husband-to-be, Joseph the Carpenter. They didn’t know that their whole lives would be disrupted by the message of the angel. Shepherds looked after their sheep by night - another cold night on a Judaean hillside, until they are roused by a chorus of angels. The message of the birth of God’s Son is given not to the priests of the Temple but to pretty rough-and-ready men who lived on the edges of respectable society. And when wise men in the East decide that a star in the sky means something special is going on, the surprise for them will be that the new-born King is not to be found in a palace in the capital city - he’s in a very ordinary dwelling in the humble backwater village of Bethlehem.

What is God’s surprise for you? St. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the Word of God and the Light of the world:

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.

That’s the tragedy of the human story. That God’s love is held out for us as a gift, but so many of us think it can’t possibly be for us. Perhaps we think it will put us under some sort of obligation. Perhaps we just can’t believe that we’re good enough to receive it.

But the truth of Christmas is that God’s love is for all - for you, for me, for our families and friends… and for the people we don’t get on with as well, and even our enemies. God’s love is bigger than our presumptions, prejudices and sheer inability to comprehend. And it’s so big that it comes to us in one as small as a tiny baby.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas at St. Cuthbert's

Sunday 23rd December          
10.30a.m. Sung Parish Eucharist
                 - an All-Age Service with Holy Baptism

Monday 24th December         
6.00p.m.    Carol Service with Christingle – join us for this lovely service with candlelight and Christmas bells.
11.30p.m. Midnight Mass of Christmas
Tuesday 25th December        
9.30a.m.     Parish Eucharist with Carols
                   - a service for all ages.

Sunday 30th December        
10.30a.m. Sung Parish Eucharist

 Tuesday 1st January                       
11.00a.m. Eucharist
                 - with Prayers for the New Year

Sunday 6th January                        
10.30a.m. Sung Parish Eucharist

May the joy of the angels & the peace of the Christ Child

be God's gift to you this Christmas!


Monday, 3 December 2012

Cause for Good News…

This is the "View from the Vicarage" article which appears in our new Parish Magazine - now online:
We know how much we need news we can be glad about. In making notes for what I might put in this edition of the parish magazine, I found myself writing about the defeat of the Church’s attempt to bring forward the Consecration of Women as Bishops - and about Bishop Justin leaving us so soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s all rather depressing. You can read about it elsewhere in this magazine.

But here I need to remember that this is the edition of the magazine that covers Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. These are the seasons that tell us that there is Good News even when everything might seem dark. Don’t jump too quickly into Christmas mode… First there’s Advent, the time of waiting for Christ’s coming. It’s about knowing there is good news ahead, but we have to make sense of it in the here and now. Then there’s Christmas - God touching us as he comes in the fullness of our humanity as the Child of Bethlehem. And then Epiphany is about the recognition of what God has done - that his glory is there to be revealed in Jesus.

God calls us to trust him - and the sign of his trustworthiness and enduring love is revealed in Jesus.
Archbishop Rowan had more cause than most to be disappointed at the failure of the legislation on women bishops, but as ever he rose to respond with charity and deep wisdom. As he made his farewell speech to General Synod, he quoted St John of the Cross, who said: ‘Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.’ For the word “love” he suggested we could substitute the word “trust.” What can you say when someone tells you, ‘I don’t trust you anymore.’? ‘Where there is no trust, put trust, and you will find trust.’ ‘Where there is no love, put love, and you will harvest love.’I heard those words of John of the Cross preached by someone else a few days later. I asked her if she’d been inspired by hearing what Archbishop Rowan had said. In fact she hadn’t heard or read the speech at all. They were words which she already knew and which sustained her.

Where there is no love, put love, and you will harvest love.’ That’s our calling. And at Christmas we see that God has already done just that.

Martin Jackson

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Rediscovering the Church - honesty, integrity and charity

Sometimes you know that anything you say or write about a particular subject or situation is going to be quite inadequate. The picture above is Bishop Alan Wilson's response to Tuesday's General Synod vote on women bishops. No further words were needed to express what so many have felt.

It's a terrible way for Rowan Williams to end his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. A man who is so deeply holy, wise and concerned for all people - within and without the Church - who has been so unjustly derided for actions and leadership which have been sacrificial in their costliness - is rewarded with a final defeat for all his efforts. And our Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, takes on a role in a Church which is characterised by intransigence on the part of a minority and numbness on the part of those who dared to hope we might move forward - and whose hopes are dashed.

Knee-jerk responses are unwise. But what needs to be said first is that the Church as a whole has not voted to defeat the consecration of women as bishops. 42 out of 44 dioceses of the Church of England voted in favour of this move. Within General Synod itself the House of Bishops voted almost unanimously for the motion, the House of Clergy overwhelmingly so. And the House of Laity voted by a large majority in favour of the legislation to ordain women to the epsicopate. The legislation was defeated simply because every "House" within General Synod must vote in its own right by a two-thirds majority in favour of of the motion - and the House of Laity's majority failed to attain this proportion by six votes. So disregarding the clearly-expressed recorded majorities of thousands of Anglicans in a process of several years leading to the final vote, a total of only six lay members made all the difference and defeated the resolution.

At the time of the vote I was with a group of Durham clergy in dialogue with clergy from the Diocese of London - just a few miles from Church House. We were led by Canon Stephen Cherry who has identified a basic problem in the notion of a House of Laity existing as an entity separate from Bishops and Clergy. The Laity are not in fact "non-clergy." The true understanding of the laos is that it consists of the entire body which is the holy people of God - lay and ordained. The question must be raised, just who are the House of Laity representing.

Stephen argues the case for "a single Synod." I'm not sure... There is something to be said for a system with checks and balances. But it is also obvious that these checks and balances have developed into a system for creating blockages and the thwarting of true discernment.

The answer is not - as some are saying - to ask Parliament to legislate for the Church nor to remove the Church's exemption from Equality Legislation (would they apply this to the RomanCatholic Church at the same time?). The Church must find its own way. But it needs to do so honestly and with integrity. There has been so much concern to produce legislation that would "protect" those who cannot accept the ordained ministry of women. And the end result of this process is that those who sought this legislation have voted against it anyway. Surely it is inconceivable that a process involving so much hedging-about can be envisaged for the future.

How else can there be further progress unless there is simple recognition that women - just like men - are created in the image of God? A single clause resolution that it shall be lawful to ordain a woman to the office and work of a bishop in the Church of God is all that is necessary. And then stop talking about our different genders and look to our common humanity. There will be those who are unhappy about this, but they haven't been persuaded from intransigence by legislated protection. Instead as a Church we need to resolve simply to treat each other with a charity which has so far been terribly denied.

Meanwhile as Sam Wells points out, for those who feel like giving up on the Church, then try the Kingdom: "Throw yourself into life among the least, the last, and the lost and rediscover the church there."

And lest we feel that the sinking ship picture betrays a jaded resignation by Archbishop Rowan, here's a link to his remarkable response to the outcome of the Synod vote.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reaching the end of October

Well... there's less than half an hour to go as I write.

October began with our Harvest celebrations - it's impossible to show just how beautiful the church was, but still more important was the spirit of celebration and the generosity of giving both of food and goods for The People's Kitchen in its work with homeless people and in terms of cash for USPG the main mission society we support.

Then the stuff of parish life until we reached the end of the month with more celebration. Over the last weekend many members of the congregation joined in celebrating the 70th birthday of Ian Severs and we were joined in church by many visitors from far and wide for Dobson Heron's 50th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood.

Much more about what we've been doing - and what we are planning in the November issue of our Parish Magazine (click and get it here in colour). Included is this "View from the Vicarage."...

In the midst of the storm…

As I write “Superstorm Sandy” with its hurricane force winds is raging in the north-eastern states of the USA, its devastation reaching into Canada. Up to 65 million people are affected, 6.5 million are without power, much of New York and New Jersey is flooded - and that includes seven subway tunnels which serve the city. The Stock Exchange has been closed on the grounds of bad weather for the first time since a great blizzard in the 19th century. And heavy snow is falling or anticipated now over a wide area as weather systems collide. Tens of thousands have been forced from their homes or await rescue. The damage will cost tens of billions of dollars.

Perhaps that gives us a sense of perspective on the quite abnormal weather we’ve had in recent times. With little cause for complaint we can be swift to grumble - though when things get really bad that is what often brings out the best in us.

I had personal cause for concern since my brother lives not far from New York City just over the New Jersey border in Pennsylvania. He sent me a message that things were “pretty wild” with the power going on and off. Later that a tree had gone down in his neighbour’s garden - and then the power seemed to go off for rather longer (though obviously the internet was still working!) - I haven’t heard any more since.

There has been loss of life - though thankfully on nothing like the scale hurricanes have caused in less developed countries. But the damage now being suffered shows us just how vulnerable we have become to the forces of nature. Our society depends upon our ability to control the environment - when we lose control technology, transport and so many other systems fail and we feel our helplessness. How do we give that voice?

Rather than complain, one of the clergy my brother works with posted this:

O ye Waters that be above the Firmament, bless ye the Lord:
praise him, and magnify him for ever…

O ye Lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord:
praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let the earth bless the Lord:
             let it praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord:
praise him, and magnify him for ever.

You might recognise the words of this biblical hymn. How would we respond? In the midst of the devastation, there is still a cause for wonder at the power of Creation of which we are but a part.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Reviewing the situation…

(This is from our new October Parish Magazine - you can read the whole of it online by clicking the link. Meanwhile we've been updating the Calendar and Sermon / Homily pages on this blog, as well as our parish website)

It’s time for my “Ministerial Development Review.” Doesn’t time fly? This is the process by which clergy are encouraged to assess where they are in the exercise of their ministry and priesthood - and they are now helped by a parallel process of gathering “feedback” from lay people in their parishes and others with whom they work.

I first engaged with this sort of process on a voluntary basis many years ago. We called it “appraisal” then - no forms were filled in and no records made of the discussions. But it was a positive experience - the more so because the person who did the appraising was himself a volunteer, and he wasn’t going to pass anything on to anyone else. After that the diocese set up a scheme of “Ministry Review,” recommended but voluntary. I’ve had an excellent peer consultant in this process and till recently met with him every three or four months - mainly I would do the talking, but his silences were a wonderful steer on the new directions I should be considering.

But a number of years ago things got official. The “Pastoral Conversation” was introduced - and with it came forms and a meeting with a member of the Bishop’s Staff Team. I don’t think you could be forced to do it, but there’d probably be some frowning if you didn’t. I happen to think that there does need to be a review process for all clergy - but I wondered just what happened to all the sheets of paper I covered in ink, and how much anyone took notice of the summary of the “Conversation” itself.

The latest incarnation is the “Ministerial Development Review.” It’s required of everyone who holds a post by “Common Tenure”… which means the Castleside bit of me needs to do it, but the Benfieldside bit could plead exemption by virtue of “Freehold.” Along with the paperwork I’ve submitted, eight people from the two parishes and beyond have been asked to fill in “feedback forms.” I’m very grateful to them, because they looked dreadful. As for my own form it asked me to start by listing the objectives agreed at my last MDR and to indicate both the extent to which they have been achieved and what has come from working at them. So I rang the Archdeacon to say there weren’t any. Apparently the form has changed - and I should review my “Role Description” - which has never been agreed (in fact it’s still a work in progress). I’ve managed something in the end.

The moral is, I suspect, that you’ll get so frustrated by the whole process that it forces you to think what you really should be doing with your time. Perhaps it’s by such processes that we all learn!    

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Weddings and wonder

Congratulations to Ed and Rebecca Turner who married in St. Cuthbert's on Sunday 26th August. A massive congregation included fellow-members of both St. Cuthbert's and the Durham Musical Theatre Company - as a result the singing was better than we've heard in a long time! And all in all a wonderful occasion marked by faith and love - evidence of what is to be hoped for.

With two weddings between our two churches last weekend, the pace is picking up in the parishes. Our website has been updated and the new Parish Magazine for September is now online - click for more details on what we're up to!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Better late...?

There's been little recent let-up in busy-ness in the parish - or other parts of my life... Hence the infrequency of posting here, and the lateness in the appearance of our Parish Magazine. But it's out now - you can read it online (and find a lot more about what's been keeping us so engaged) by clicking here.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Deanery Confirmation @ St. Cuthbert's

This evening we celebrated the Confirmation of 25 members of churches in Lanchester Deanery. Torrential rain didn't daunt any spirits, though apparently the church sprang three leaks in the course of the service - one  member of the congregation was seen to leave his seat to return with a bucket.

Sadly no picture of this. But here's the newly-confirmed group with the Bishop of Jarrow:

And this is our own Parish Group (including our youngest candidate - from St. John's):

Finally the Vicar dared trust someone with his camera to take this picture:

Sadly there are no pictures of the wonderful buffet which parishioners provided in the Hall - but it was a wonderful occasion, and many thanks are due to so many people who have worked terrifically hard all weekend!

Catching up #2 - St. Cuthbert's Summer Fair

Yesterday, Saturday 23rd June, didn't bring the best of weather for our Parish Summer Fair. Though it wasn't really any worse than any of the other Saturdays of June! Undaunted, stallholders set up all their wares in the Church Hall - with so many customers it was barely possible to move at times.

Teas proved as popular as ever at the crowded tables - and React Theatre Group provided entertainment sharing stage-space with the Tombola.

All in all a wonderfully successful afternoon enjoyed by all. Many thanks who worked so hard to such brilliant effect!

Catching up #1 - Olympic Strawberry Teas

The Olympic Flame came right through both our parishes of Benfieldside and Castleside on Saturday 16th June. The relay entered County Durham in Shotley Bridge, greeted by thousands of spectators - Shotley Bridge Village Trust's Blog has lots of pictures and videos of the event.

Runners took the flame right up through Blackhill. Strangely (?) it was then driven round Consett. But from there the runners took their turns again as the flame came down through The Grove and Moorside into Castleside, right past St. John's Church, where it turned up the road towards Rowley. So we were well-served by the opportunity to "Line the streets."

St. John's Church took the opportunity of gathering crowds to put on Strawberry Teas. No attempt at putting them on in the church garden - but the prospect of sitting down out of the wind and rain brought in lots of happy customers - and every tea was sold!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Olympic Anticipation and more...

"You can tell it's the first day back after the half-term holiday," said a deputy headteacher after I finished this morning's school assembly. For me it was certainly challenging as I tried to keep the interest of nearly a hundred 4 to 7 year olds - and I could only agree: "Well, I'm glad you've got them for the rest of the day!"

Perhaps it was the subject I took (fish and fishermen called to be disciples). As I drove to school I passed the notices which have appeared along the main roads of both my parishes warning us of severe delays and road closures next Saturday as the Olympic Torch Relay comes to County Durham. Maybe I should have talked about the Olympics - though I suspect I'd have had only about as much success in failing to quell the various hotspots of post-holiday conversation.

But certainly Olympic  anticipation is in the air. The Torch enters County Durham over the bridge into Shotley Bridge at 16.04 on Saturday 16th June - and then it's uphill through Blackhill to Consett. Leaving Consett the Torch is carried through The Grove, Moorside and Castleside then turning left at St. John's Church towards Rowley (there's a timing of 16.54 at Gill View, so presumably about 5p.m. at St. John's.). So I'm really pretty chuffed that it's going the full distance through both our parishes.

And both parishes are celebrating. In Shotley Bridge the Business and Community Partnership has activities and celebrations throughout the afternoon from 1p.m. - more  about this on the Village Trust's website and its poster. In Castleside the school has activities through the morning - and in the afternoon St. John's Church is offering Strawberry Teas from 2.30p.m. (another poster here).

Meanwhile the sermons section of this blog has been updated - and you can go direct to Rosie Junemann's sermon for yesterday by clicking here.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Not servants but friends

Every now and then it's good to find yourself stating what is, I hope the simple truth - the less dramatically put the better.

The whole of today's homily, preached at St. Cuthbert's and St. John's, can be found by clicking here - and this is an excerpt from the middle:

... There’s a deep truth in this story about how God relates to us. Left to ourselves we might find our lives have little direction. Who can we depend on? What sense do we make of life? What gives meaning to our existence? What can I do to make a difference to the way I live? So often we just can’t come up with the answers to these questions.

But the message of Christianity is that it is God who comes in to make the difference. Already he is watching out for us - watching over us… And in Jesus he comes to us to bring us to a new way of living and hope. When there is nothing we can do to help ourselves, it’s Jesus who comes to our aid. When we can’t earn a sense of well-being or wholeness - and our lives feel so incomplete - it’s Jesus who redeems us. He pays the way for us - with a love that takes him to the Cross. He doesn’t demand that we argue a case why he should take notice of us - he simply gives us his love… and dies for us.

He could require that we should be his servants - he could make a charge for his attention and care. But instead he calls us “friends.” As he tells the disciples in today’s Gospel reading:
You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends…
I wonder if we’re very good at taking this in? Perhaps it depends on how we treat our friends… And these days people can acquire Facebook friends by the hundred - until we might wonder, just who really is my friend? Or perhaps we simply don’t consider ourselves worthy to be counted as God’s friends.

The good news from Jesus is that we don’t need to be worthy. We can’t do anything to earn God’s friendship. We need only to be loved - to know God’s love...

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Last Words of Jesus...

It’s worth thinking about these words. And of course it depends which Gospel you look at. St. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t record any speech of Jesus following the Resurrection - at least if you follow the view of most scholars that the original end of his account is Mark 16, verse 8. St. Luke has two cracks at it - not only the last words of the Gospel which bears his name, but also his account of the Ascension   as we find it in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The gist here is that the disciples need to stay in Jerusalem, to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit - and to recognise that the Holy Spirit will empower them in the lives they are to lead as Christians. As we celebrate the Feasts of both the Ascension and Pentecost this month, it’s a vital reminder of how we should live - waiting on God, dependent on his power and ability to guide us.

St. John’s Gospel ends with a conversation and even a note of dispute. Here Jesus’ words are spoken not to any group of Christians or to a crowd, but to one man - the apostle Peter. But they are words that he speaks to anyone who wishes to be faithful in discipleship, “Follow me.”

Take a look at these “last words” - ask what they say to you.

I started reflecting on them myself because of the last words which St. Matthew’s Gospel records: Jesus’ assurance that he will be with his disciples “to the end of the age” - and an instruction: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” That seems to be a large part of my calling at present. We may not record any baptisms for this month of April in St. Cuthbert’s, but there were three baptisms on Easter Day in St. John’s - and more before the month’s end. And in May I’ve booked six baptisms in St. Cuthbert’s with more in St. John’s. We know that Baptism is something people want for their children. But - as people ask me - when will we see them again?

In Jesus’ last words baptising goes along with “teaching people to obey everything that I have commanded you.” I can only do my best in encouraging parents and godparents to take seriously the responsibilities they take on at Baptism. And all of us do well to reflect on what we see in Baptism. Something fundamental going to the core of our relationship with God - vows we renew at Easter and affirm in Confirmation. How can we live out the message of Baptism? - and share it with others so that they live it out with real meaning?


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Christ is risen

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A time to shine the lamps and acknowledge the light...

Monday, 2 April 2012

The hands that build can also tear down

"Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whome he raised from the dead..."

In today's Gospel reading, St. John goes on to tell how - at dinner - Lazarus's sister, Mary, came in to anoint Jesus' feet with costly ointment and to wipe them with her hair. "The house was full of the scent of the ointment..."

Yesterday's Gospel of the Palms, read in St. Mark's account, tells how Jesus began approach to Jerusalem "at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives." The two villages of Bethphage and Bethany are only a short distance apart - it would take minutes to walk between them. But now they are divided by the euphemistically-named "Security Wall." In Bethany it cuts literally across the main street. To travel from Bethany into Jerusalem now requires a diversion of several miles around an illegally-built huge Jewish settlement - and then its Palestinian residents would still have to negotiate the Israeli checkpoint.

In Bethany the church depicts Christ's start of his journey down the Mount of Olives. Inside there's a large rock which he's said to have used to get on the donkey - so large it would probably be easier to get straight on!

But the sense of his Passion continued into our own day is still more graphically depicted by the adjacent Palestinian house, demolished by the Israeli authorities - and the other side of the wall.

"For those who still make Jerusalem a battleground, let us pray to the Lord."

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Faith and Fruitfulness

Having returned from pilgrimage to the Holy Land before the beginning of Lent, I still haven’t sorted out the pictures that I took while I was there. I know there’s over a thousand of them. About 200 are on my phone - so I sometimes find myself scrolling through them, generally in an odd moment when I’m waiting to do something else.

I see that the final picture I took is of a man squeezing pomegranates. He’d set up his stall outside the church where we’d held our final Eucharist. And he’d chosen his location wisely. Having had no refreshments since breakfast and nearing lunch, we were a large group of thirsty pilgrims, ready to buy his coffee, orange juice and the juice of pomegranates.

The pomegranate is a delicious fruit. And it has special symbolism in a number of different religions. For the Jews they represented the fertility of the Promised Land. Wikipedia tells us: “It is traditional to consume pomegranates on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) because the pomegranate, with its numerous seeds, symbolizes fruitfulness. Also, it is said to have 613 seeds, which corresponds with the 613 mitzvot or commandments of the Torah. And they’re a frequent decoration - in the Temple, on the hem of the High Priest’s robe, perhaps a model for Solomon’s crown.

They’re symbolic also in Christianity, often woven into the fabric of vestments and liturgical hangings. They’re found in the paintings of Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci amongst others, and placed in the hands of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. The fruit, broken or bursting open, is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus' suffering and resurrection.

It’s significant that this was the last picture I took - the place was Abu Ghosh, the likeliest location of Emmaus, the village to which two disciples walked on Easter Day when they were joined by Jesus. They failed to recognise him until they had invited this stranger encountered on the road into their house - and there he broke bread. Then it was they knew him to be the Risen Christ.

At Easter we are called to recognise the fruits of Christ’s work for us, his love shown upon the Cross, his sacrificial death - and the power of the Resurrection. I was glad that our pilgrimage ended in Emmaus - the place where the risen Jesus was seen and known. Let’s pray that his love for us may be a reality which we find at work in our lives.

And meanwhile our Parish Website - with details of Holy Week and Easter - has been updated.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Covenants - Anglican and God's

It was somewhat appropriate that the Lectionary Readings for Sunday reminded us of the  nature of the New Covenant promised by God - certainly it enabled me to reflect on what seems to be the end of the process within the Church of England in the quest for a Covenant for the Anglican Communion. Here's what I preached - the readings were Jeremiah 31.31-34; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33...

Here are some words from today’s first reading - from the prophet Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what a “covenant” is? The term can be used in different contexts. During the 1980s and 1990s perhaps churchgoers heard less about the biblical use of the term than about a “covenant” as a financial device. If you took out a “covenant” with a church or a charity - agreeing to pay so much money to that church or charity over a minimum period of time, say four years - then the church or charity could reclaim the tax you’d already paid on that sum of money. You can understand the appeal this sort of covenant held: the church or charity was promised committed giving over a particular period, and it got even more money back by reclaiming the tax from the Inland Revenue.

 These days it’s easier. You can “Gift Aid” your giving. You don’t have to say how much in advance you’re going to give - and you’re not committed to giving for any fixed period. If you’re a tax-payer and you don’t already “gift aid” the money you give to your church, then please start doing so - it costs you nothing more than what you would give anyway, and the church gets another 25% back in tax from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The same for charities. We should all think of how much we can give away of our income - and when we give, every tax-payer can make their money worth still more to the charity that benefits. If - after last week’s Budget - you think you’re paying too much tax, then remember that giving by “Gift Aid” enables you directly to decide where some of the tax you’ve paid should go - whether it’s to your church or to the charities you support. Our Treasurer can tell you more!

 “Gift Aid” has replaced covenants as a means of making charitable giving worth more. But the term “covenant” remains a legal term where someone is bound to do something. A “covenant” can be part of an agreement dictating terms for repayment of a loan. Buildings and land can have covenants placed upon them which restrict the way they can be used. You can make a covenant which is of legal benefit to members of your family.

 But the origin of the term is religious. When we say that the Bible is made up of the Old Testament and the New Testament, you could replace the term “Testament” with “Covenant.” So the Old Covenant is about God’s interaction with his people, the Jews. There’s a covenant with Noah after the Flood, that never again will God bring destruction upon his people in such a devastating form. There’s the covenant with Abraham where God promises that Abraham’s descendants will be a people for whom he will have special care. And there’s the covenant which God makes with Moses when he gives his people the Torah - the Law - on Mount Sinai. As for the New Covenant it’s still more far-reaching. The New Covenant is made between God and all people through the work of Christ on our behalf. God calls everyone to be his people through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And a Covenant is binding. To benefit from it we simply need to see that we are included - that God is calling to us.

 So Jeremiah speaks of God promising to make “a new covenant.” We need to read these words of today’s Old Testament Reading - and see how they apply to us.

 I’m afraid often, though, we just don’t act as if they really do apply to us. God is calling to us - to me… He’s inviting us to be his people. And we miss what he’s saying. Or we mis-hear what he’s saying. We can’t believe that we’re included. Or we think that if we’re involved, then other people should be left out. I’m afraid there’s been a process going on in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion over recent years and months which has been taking almost exactly that approach. It’s the move to create a “Covenant” for the Anglican Communion. In other words to come up with a form of words which every Church within the Communion should sign up to - the aim is to give a sense of what we hold in common, to have something we all agree upon. The problem is that we don’t all agree - so inevitably some Churches are going to get left out. And a further problem is - I’m afraid - that God himself is in danger of being left out. A Covenant in the sense it has in the Bible is not just an agreement made between people, however legally binding it maybe and with whatever good intention it might have of holding as many people together in unity. A biblical Covenant is always between God and his people. It’s about what God does for us - and what God promises for us.

 In fact we now know that the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion isn’t going to happen - or at least it’s not going to include the Church of England, so it’ll be a very strange Anglicanism that it could be left to propose. As of yesterday, a majority of Diocesan Synods voted against the so-called Covenant. So there’s nothing the General Synod can do to make it happen.

 Some people are really pleased about this - and are pretty-well literally trumpeting their glee. I’m glad it’s not going to happen. We should be held together by something more than paper agreements. But I don’t think we should now be rubbing a sense of triumph into the wounds of those who had proposed the Covenant. In a sense it’s a defeat for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who had both wanted the Covenant for good reasons - they wanted people to continue talking to each other; they wanted a Church where Christians are held in Communion - where Episcopalians from America can get on with Anglicans from Nigeria, where the radically conservative Diocese of Sydney can recognise the radically liberal Diocese of New Hampshire as an integral part of the Body of Christ; they wanted a sense of boundaries so that people could both know how far they can go and also be given the space to live out their witness.

But hopefully now - with the Anglican Covenant dead in the water - we can go back to recognising what the true meaning of “Covenant” is. We don’t need the one that was proposed because already we have a Covenant made with God through Jesus. And it’s something always new. In the written form of the Old Covenant - in tablets of stone given to Moses - it was all too easy to break. Even God can’t provide us with the legislation we need to be able to live in righteousness. Instead he tells us,
this is the covenant that I will make… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…
Can we believe that? We need hearts that are open to God, not documents telling us the limits to which we will hold each other accountable. We need not to be telling each other off, but hearing what God is saying to us. We need not effective sanctions, but the recognition of forgiveness. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That’s what God says to us - we are forgiven. And our calling is to live in charity and unity with other Christians with whom God shares that forgiveness equally.

 The next two weeks - which the Church calls Passiontide - are a time for recognising that our best human efforts always fall short. We can’t win salvation for ourselves. We can’t put the world to rights by what we want and what we want other people to do. We can’t do anything to make ourselves worthy recipients of God’s love.

 We can simply know that God loves us. He writes upon our hearts. And when he calls us, it is with a call to follow the way of Jesus. It’s a way which will lead Jesus to the Cross - and to seeming defeat. But only through his death can the way be opened to new life in the power of his Resurrection. In Jesus’ own words:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Friday, 2 March 2012

From Pilgrimage to Pilgrimage

I was in the Holy Land for 10 days in February - the first time I'd been back since living in Jerusalem for 9 months in 1977 - 1978, a "gap year" between university and theological college. It's going to take some time before I can properly absorb all the experiences of just over a week into which we packed so much. All credit to our leaders, Dominic Barrington, Robert Lawrance and Paul Kennington - and to Lightline Pilgrimages!

I took an excessive number of photographs! - and still haven't had time to sort them out. The first one (of over a thousand) above this text made me think. Had I taken the picture by accident? Obviously it's a picture taken through a rain-flecked bus window, but why is its apparent subject a modern housing estate with traffic island and road markings to boot? I had to look more carefully. The clue is in the background - it's a hill, more specifically Mount Tabor, traditionally identified with the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Special place as it is, the site of something sacred is in the midst of the  everyday. I'd been to the bottom of the hill in 1978 - during a day trip out of Jerusalem to the Galilee. It'll take too long to go up there, said the driver that day. If we go up there'll we'll have to miss something else out - like Nazareth. 34 years later I've now been up the hill. The temptation at the top was to start clicking away with my camera - to rush around looking at the sights. But our leaders wouldn't let us go straight into the church. We had to pray first - as we did round an outside altar at our first Eucharist of a wonderful pilgrimage. It was to be the pattern for the rest of our time together. Pray first, then look.

I'm back into the everyday busy-ness of parish life now, rather like the disciples who accompanied Jesus at his Transfiguration had to go back down the mountain. But it's time for another pilgrimage - through Lent. We can make our pilgrimages wherever we may be. But sometimes we have to go some distance and return to discover it...

Meanwhile I've been catching up with updates to our parish website. Our new Parish Magazine for March has been uploaded. And there are a number of new sermons / homilies which you can access from the dedicated page on this blog - my most recent offering, for the First Sunday of Lent is here.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Change of title

This Blog's web address is the same as it was, but I've just changed the title. It doesn't really require the question mark, because my parishes are indeed on the North-West edge of both the Diocese and the County of Durham. But I've put it in for the moment lest people object to any perceived overtones of lawlessness and rebellion - as if!

The main reasons for change were these:
1. Just the name of my parish standing alone as a blog title is a bit boring!
2. In the last few months I've acquired another parish - so in addition to St. Cuthbert's, Benfieldside (which is in Shotley Bridge, but also serves Blackhill and Bridgehill), I now serve also as Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of St. John the Evangelist, Castleside - this has the merit of being in Castleside itself, though it serves a wide area including Moorside, The Grove and the smaller rural communities of Rowley and Healeyfield.

I still live in Shotley Bridge - which for Castleside is a bit problematic, because it's 3 or 4 miles (depends on which way you travel) from the Vicarage, and the more recently-arrived town of Consett has grown up in between. Between the two parishes there's a choice of routes. The most attractive and shortest is along the valley and then a steep haul uphill, but it's also most likely to be snowed-under, iced-up or flooded. The easiest is also the longest via Consett and its by-pass; this requires gaining even greater altitude before losing it. In between I can cut through the estates of The Grove and Moorside, but this route is blessed with more speed-bumps than my car's suspension can really stand.

Still, I like it that both my parishes are on the edge. Admittedly we sometimes feel a bit forgotten by the centre. But we possess riches and beauty which the centre itself may simply not appreciate. And "edginess" is not a bad thing if it challenges complacency.

My main problem at present is simply workload: how to avoid doing everything twice, as well as dealing with parishes which have a population of about 15,000. Hence the lack of blogging. And sometimes it feels there's not much time to think... That's one of the reasons why I haven't included a customary "Vicar's letter" in the new February edition of our Parish Magazine - but I have printed our Bishop's New Year message, and there's a lot more, so please have a look anyway!

You can find an archive of the Magazine by going to the dedicated page on this blog - and you'll find a selection of sermons there too...

On the whole this is still very much about St. Cuthbert's. But service details for St. John's are now in the bar on the right of this blog page, as well as a link to its website. Hopefully more to follow.