Friday, 29 January 2016

Teach us to care and not to care…

These are words from T.S.Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday. In past year’s I’ve quite often found myself reading the poem on that day itself – and am never much the clearer for understanding what it is about! But poetry – rather like the parables of Jesus – is not really for explaining. When we try to explain things there’s always the danger that we’ll explain them away. Poetry – again like the parables – is to engage the imagination. At its best it takes us to places we hadn’t expected to go.

The approaching season of Lent is an opportunity to embark on a journey not knowing quite where it might lead us. Traditionally it’s the time we remember Jesus’ 40 days spent fasting in the desert. He does that straight after his Baptism and before he embarks on his public ministry of teaching, preaching and healing. Before we speak we should listen – Jesus knew that and it’s a lesson for us continually to re-learn. If we’re going to use Lent as a time to journey and listen, we have to recognise that we can’t pre-determine the outcome and final destination.

For which reason I’m glad that this year our Bishop of Durham is coming to our Deanery to give a series of Lent Talks. Bishop Paul is speaking on the subject of “Blessing” – how God blesses us, how we may bless God, what it means to share God’s blessing with the communities in which we live. For clergy it’s good not to have to think about a Lent Course and what might work in our parishes. We’re going to be on the receiving end. We want to be sitting alongside our parishioners as we listen and learn together. So please do make it a priority to come to the three Thursday sessions at Christ Church, Consett on 18 & 25 February and 3 March.

Perhaps we’ll do something else in the parish in the remaining weeks of Lent. But for now I want to think of it as a time not to plan, but in which to receive. Activism can make us all too restless – too full of care for our own good. As Eliot wrote in his poem:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain…

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Equal Marriage - and a Wedding at Cana

At weddings I frequently find myself saying to people that they won’t find much in the Bible about marriage – not a huge amount that might actually commend it as an institution anyway. Adam and Eve are described as man and wife; but there’s nothing to say that they entered into their relationship with the intention of marrying each other – they’re simply there for each other. Noah is the next character where we get some insights into his family life – but as a husband he falls short of many of the ideals we might hope for. Abraham conceives a child with a servant girl when his wife fails to give him a son, and when a legitimate heir is born he comes to the conclusion that it’s God’s will to get rid of both mother and child. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, fathers his twelve children with two wives and two concubines. After that we get characters like Samson whose lack of regard for faithfulness in marriage is matched only by lack of regard for human life and his ruthlessness in dispatching anyone who gets in his way and incurs his enmity. Move on to kings like David and Solomon and you find them taking multiple wives and concubines and cheating whenever the chance arises.

So what do we make of this statement by the Primates of the Anglican Communion last week? – that “the traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union.” Well… I agree that it’s the traditional doctrine of the Church. I want to say it resonates with me – I get a real thrill when I read out the Preface to the marriage service in these words:

Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given
that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.

But I have to say there’s a problem when the affirmation of a traditional doctrine gets used as a stick to beat a particular Province of the Anglican Communion – the Episcopal Church of the United States – because it’s seen as not toe-ing the line after having given its approval to so-called “Equal Marriage,” what most people would call same-sex marriage. I have to admit that the action of the Episcopal Church has made me uncomfortable. I want to go on taking weddings the way I always have. I love those words about “husband and wife” knowing the grace of God through marriage. But even as I say that, I have to say as well that the Bible shows us an awful lot of examples where marriage falls short of the ideal, where it’s far from a monogamous faithful relationship, where people use and abuse it. The only really clear teaching in the Bible on marriage as a life-long committed relationship between a man and a woman comes from Jesus – and even then the Disciples question who could measure up to that ideal, and St. Matthew’s Gospel straightaway qualifies Jesus’ words by allowing divorce on the grounds of adultery.

Jesus’ teaching was just too direct for most people. St. Paul would write about marriage breakdown and whether there were circumstances where a husband and a wife might separate. And while the Roman Catholic Church still struggles with the issue of how to use its annulment procedures, most people – most Christians – are simply pragmatic about marriage and divorce and re-marriage. What could be more Christian than to pray for people whose relationships have failed, welcome them and give them a second chance?

If that’s the case for a man and a woman – that they need mercy, forgiveness, healing and grace – then there is a real issue to attend to when it’s the case of two people of the same sex who wish to live together in a committed loving, faithful relationship. I’ve been reluctant to say that that should be described as the Sacrament of Marriage. But it’s an issue that isn’t going to go away. And we need to ask – why should our Anglican Communion use sanctions against one member Church for taking a different approach on the grounds of sexuality but fail to discipline other Provinces where Christians have been complicit in the persecution of minorities on the grounds of their sexuality or have permitted the continuance of polygamy amongst their members? How do any of us measure up to the teaching of Jesus… as opposed to the more general Scriptural evidence that marriage so often is about people relating to one another in the midst of failure – at their best trying to make something good out of very messy situations?

I haven’t got the answer to this – but I have a traditionalist heart and I take heart from today’s Gospel reading and from the way it is used in the Marriage Service…

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) speaks of matrimony as a “holy estate” which “Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee.” The Prayer Book preface is written in magnificent language, but I’m afraid that our use of the language has changed in the last 400-odd years: to speak today of Christ adorning and beautifying a wedding by being there runs the risk of making him into something of an ornament, or at best saying that he was there as something of a celebrity guest.

The Alternative Service Book which was in use between 1980 and 2000 tinkered with the words and probably made things worse: “Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself a guest at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and through his Spirit he is with us now.” I have to say they strike me as being rather an apology, even rather lame. I wonder what the majority of wedding congregations make of them: “Jesus.. was himself a guest at a wedding in Cana of Galilee...” – “so what?” I suspect most people must think, if they think about the words at all. Some people go to lots of weddings, some to very few – so what if we know Jesus went to one?

Which is why I’m glad that we now have the Common Worship Marriage Service. Instead of starting off effectively saying “Jesus once went to a wedding, so there” the reference to Cana comes in a summing-up of the purposes of marriage: “Marriage is a way of life made holy by God, and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.”

In a way this takes us back to what the BCP is saying, that marriage is a holy way of life, because it’s a human way of living that actively fits in with God’s purpose. And then it goes on to talk about the blessing of marriage. Jesus blessed it by being there, today’s service says, but the celebrating was already going on. Celebration is something that God calls us to do, and when we do it he adds to the blessing. Dramatically so at Cana. There the wedding guests had celebrated so much that the place was drunk dry; and the contribution of Jesus is to turn water into wine so that the celebrating can go on.

Jesus’ miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana is something to do with excess. The partying already seems to have been going on quite long enough, some might say. But then Jesus takes these big jars, orders them to be filled with water, and changes it into wine – at least 120 gallons, perhaps as much as 180 gallons. Excess follows upon excess, and the partying goes on.

Some commentators on this passage have debated whether we should believe the literal truth of the story. Isn’t it too big a miracle?, some have asked. But in fact, St. John’s Gospel doesn’t call it a miracle. Not a miracle but a sign, “the first of his signs,” says John, and by it Jesus “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

We need to ask, “do we see the sign – and where it points us?” A sign of excess that points us to a God who loves us to excess, a God who comes in Jesus and enters into the midst of our human celebration. And he does so when people may not be expected to know any difference. The steward at the wedding-feast doesn’t know where the new wine has come from – he doesn’t know what Jesus has done, but he is amazed: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk,” he exclaims. “But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus is there and at work, but people don’t even notice – some of them are too drunk to notice. And the sign is that the best is still to come.

It’s a lesson to us, when we fail to see the signs of God’s presence in our midst, when we complain about how hard life is, when we think that things used to be so much better and now can only get worse. There was Jesus in the midst of the throng, working quite unnoticed, and the best was still to come.

Jesus calls us to the Feast. He calls us to celebrate. He calls us to live out the richness of human life – and hopefully to perceive the signs of his presence, the varieties of his gifts which, St. Paul reminds us, are nevertheless gifts of the same Spirit. He calls us to work for his Kingdom and to recognise that the best is yet to come.