Thought for the week, 22nd June; not business as usual

Recently, I was talking with a group of friends. We all were university teachers, but also of a certain age, with retirement fast approaching. So, as people of a certain age are prone to do, we looked back. We discussed what advice we might give to our younger selves; if we were forty years younger, would we contemplate careers working in universities? I was probably the most positive, but even I am very glad I am not just starting out in the university sector. Universities now seem to have a much harder edge than when I started. We have key performance indicators, we have to set SMART objectives which can be measured and evaluated every year. We have targets for income raised, papers published. In short, universities have whole-heartedly bought into the world of commercial business, where profitability and accountability are key. Now some of this is a good thing; 30 or 40 years ago, some in universities had very comfortable lives, drawing a good salary for very little in return. Universities do need to change and to meet the needs of society. However, we all agreed that whilst we needed to learn from the outside world, we simply could not copy what successful commercial companies did, because the core business of a university is not to make a profit but to educate students and undertake research. Somehow, this seems to have been lost, hence our collective lament.

Now on one level this story is simply about four elderly university professors and their lament. But I think there are wider lessons here. So many organisations, including the church, seem to have uncritically embraced the ways of working that are successful for big commercial concerns, forgetting that they exist for other purposes. I suspect a business case based on following an itinerant preacher with a handful of followers, ending in his execution, would get very far on “Dragons Den”. But in that there is a lesson.

Thought for the week, 15th June; Manifestos

We are now at the mid-point of the general election campaign. All candidates have now been declared; leaflets are starting to appear through doors, the manifestos have been published. The Church of England has responded by publishing a short booklet, “Pray your part”, with reflections and prayers for each of the last 21 days of the campaign. Doubtless some will scour this for evidence of political bias. It is certainly not the role of the church to tell people which party they should vote for in the election but equally faith cannot be a purely private matter. It is something Christians need to take to the polling station and that means we need to decide are the non-negotiable principles which any candidate or party must respect. The Christian belief is that all of us are made in the image of God, no matter how marred that may seem in some. From that it follows that all must be treated with respect and fairness. In the Old Testament there is a constant call to care for aliens, the poor, widows and orphans; the weakest in society. In the New Testament, Jesus reduced all this teaching to a simple command; to love our neighbours as ourselves. He then went on to show that our neighbours may include some surprising people. His teaching has been called a manifesto.

This does not answer how we should achieve a fair and loving society; by tax and spend, or tax cuts and economic growth. That really is for politicians to decide. But Jesus’s manifesto is one we can use to judge the spirit underlying the manifestos that they offer to us.

Thought for the week, 8th June; when the drums begin to roll

I write this just after coming back from Billingsley Church, where 13 of us from all parishes in the benefice gathered for a short service to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day. It would have been the right thing to do if I had said prayers alone to an empty church, but it was good to be joined by others. Many more will have watched the commemorations on the television, including the prayers offered by chaplains and religious leaders.

For the first time, there is now a British Memorial to the whole of the Normandy campaign. Unlike previous memorials, this has no religious symbols or references; a very 21st century attitude to how we think we should remember. However, I suspect most people will react to the memorial and to the commemorations of this anniversary in a way that is spiritual if not explicitly religious and will have been moved by the prayers. D Day, like many anniversaries of armed conflicts, confronts us with big issues, of good and evil, suffering and death. Whatever peoples views of God, the rites of religion give us the tools to process these. And for those directly involved, this is even more important. A senior army officer recently told the chaplain attached to his unit; “I will go deploy my men in conflict without a medic; I will not deploy them without a chaplain”. There are times when religion matters.

A service of remembrance Thursday June 6th

To mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, on Thursday June 6th, we will have a very short service in Billingsley Church at 6pm; I will ring the bells and say some prayers. It will be a short service. Anyone is welcome to join me if they wish, even if it is to simply sit in silence. Of course, the church will also be open all day for those who simply want a quiet place to sit and reflect

Thought for the week, 1st June; the candidates

Another 5 weeks of party political broadcasts, leaflets through the door plus goodness what via “social media” which, mercifully, passes me by unaware. And at the end, as one vicar commented a century ago, we will have one bunch of sinners replaced by another bunch of sinners. Or the same sinners if they are re-elected.

It is easy to be cynical about politics and politicians, but it and they do matter. We need to order our society, to find fair and just ways of living as a community and that is ultimately what politics is about. There is the lure of power and I suspect all those who stand for parliament do enjoy this, to a greater or lesser degree. But enjoying taking decisions is, by itself, morally neutral; if I am honest, I enjoy the very limited power I have as a vicar as I tell/delude myself I use it for the greater good. It is good that there are individuals who are prepared to offer themselves as MPs. It is our duty to think carefully about the merits of each of them and to use our vote wisely. To do this, we ourselves need to reflect on what are our core values, to measure the candidates against these. And, if we are people of religious faith, we should pray for those who are standing, that they campaign in a way that is acceptable and Godly.

Thought for the week, 25th May; many faced

Being two-faced is not usually a compliment. However, the truth is that I wear a number of faces; at work, dealing professionally with colleagues and students; as a vicar, trying to help someone; with friends, relaxing. That leaves aside the faces people see when I am irritated, frustrated or in a bad temper. They are all part of me; I hope in all them there is some integrity, a link with what I am really like, or what I would like to be. But my face, my personality does change according to the circumstances.

One of the big challenges facing the early church was to make sense of a God who they saw in different ways. There was the God who Jesus called “father”; there was Jesus himself who in some way appeared as the son of God and then there was a force that inspired them, variously called the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Jesus. And when people looked, they thought they could see traces of these three in the Old Testament as well. They were convinced that there was just one God; that was the message of the Old Testament, but how to be also true to these three versions of the one God who they now also saw revealed?

From this came the idea of the Trinity; one God but with three faces or aspects that we can see; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And one of the keys to unlocking this came from classical Greek theatre. Maybe it was after a good night out watching “The Mousetrap” (or equivalent) that one of the Cappadocian Fathers had an idea. The actors wore masks to show the different sides of their nature; angry, happy, sad and so forth. The mask was called the persona (in Latin, a translation of the original Greek word “prosopon”) and within the Trinity, God has different faces, or persona which show different aspects of her/his nature. And so we sing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty… God in three persons, Blessed Trinity!” And, as a byproduct, the church gave to humanity the idea that we have our own personality, as a theatrical term adapted for theology quickly became a very useful concept for understanding ourselves.

Thought for the week, 18th May; hanging onto hope

Last Sunday brought mixed emotions for me. The morning service I led was poorly attended; whilst  there were reasons for this, it always feels discouraging when this happens. This was all the more so as I had a strong feeling that the evening service I was going to do the same day would also be low on numbers; some regulars were away and I was going to be in competition with other events. As it so happened,  I was wrong; I did get a good turnout for the evening service, but the events made me reflect on my emotions. It is often said that football managers get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go badly. There is a message here about keeping our reactions in proportion, not letting single events, good or bad, weigh too heavily upon us. But beyond this, I think there is a need to ground ourselves in something; to find the will to continue to chose what is good, what is moral, what is right, even when it appears it will make no difference. For myself, as a person of faith, this comes from my belief in God. It is not a naive optimism that everything happens for the best, but it is that the God who is love will have the final word.

Thought for the week, 11th May; looking to the skies

Last week I wrote this column on holiday in Scotland, on the Isle of Tiree in the Hebrides. The topic of that reflection was inspired by a visit to a Celtic monastery, clinging to a headland and facing out to the sea. But that same day, before visiting the headland, we had spotted some birds, soaring high in the sky above us. The bird-spotter in our party confirmed that they were a pair of sea eagles; through a pair of field glasses even I could see their white tails. Later in the walk we saw two more pairs. Whilst we had one eye to the ground that day, we also kept raising our eyes heavenwards, to the sky.

The God of the Bible, Yahweh, is always seen as a sky god, no doubt reflecting the early religious experience of the Hebrew people. Three thousand years of religious reflection has of course resulted in a more mature picture, not least because the so-called “sky-God” came to earth to live, die and rise again in the human that was Jesus. But still the old picture stays with us; this week we have celebrated the ascension of Jesus, when in particular the author of Acts picks up the traditional picture as he describes Jesus lifting up into the sky. Those who share my liberal theology sometimes smirk at this picture, but on this I think they miss the point. There is something magical and inspirational about gazing to the sky, the home of such magnificent creatures at the sea eagle. When showing off in front of other vicars, I might spout forth of how God is beyond Being. But the truth is, that if I want a picture that inspires me, it is that of the Lord of earth and sky, whose power and mystery I glimpsed in the eagles. Lift up your eyes.

Thought for the week, 4th May; Notes from Tiree

I am on holiday on Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. It is the windiest place in Britain, the first land encountered by Atlantic gales. Today I walked to the remains of a monastery, well over 1000 years old. It is perched beneath cliffs facing the sea, a collection of stone huts housing a community of perhaps 10. Even in the sunshine today it was wild, it would have been a very hard place to live in 1000. What drew monks to this place of isolation? Perhaps as they gazed out on the Atlantic , I wonder if they saw the wide ocean and the sweeping horizon as a worthy altar to offer their praises to the Lord of sea and sky?