Saturday, 29 December 2012

Definitions and Doctrine

How do you know someone is a Christian?  Interesting question, asked by @SallyHitchener on Twitter.  I thought for a while, then decided it had to be self-defined.  I cannot tell if you are, or are not, a Christian.  I can only say that I am.  Having said that, the word does have a meaning - one who follows Christ, or one who adheres to Christianity.  I became a Christian the day I chose to follow Christ.  I remember it clearly - I realised I had been waiting for someone to prove that God existed, that all the 'Jesus stuff' was true, to present me with a set of arguments that would rebut all others, and it wasn't going to happen.  What I was facing was something far deeper.  In the life of Jesus there was a question for me.  Would I become part of this story?  And so I did.  At that stage I had little idea of what was and wasn't literally true and there were lots of church teachings I disagreed with, but when I heard Jesus ask me to follow him, I bowed my head and said, yes, I will follow you.  I will try to live as you lived, I will study your word, I will accept your forgiveness and forgive others, and I will take you as my guide.
And that is when I became a Christian.  At that stage ideas of Trinity, virgin birth, theories of atonement and understanding of what goes on in communion were all concepts I couldn't get my head around (sometimes I still can't, and I'm not sure anyone can, for all the words expended).  I was still a Christian.  Nowadays I'm much more orthodox (I am a vicar and I signed the oaths in good faith) but I am no more or less a Christian than I was then - grace came to me when I responded to that call and it has not left me since.  So I define a Christian as one who has chosen to follow Jesus Christ.  I was baptised before I became a Christian (in temporal terms - who knows how God sees it?)  I accepted the creeds after I became a Christian, some time after.  The point of decision was the point at which I responded to the call of the gospel.
All of which led me to say that accepting doctrine, the "official" teaching of the church, is not what makes you a Christian.  What makes you a Christian is that response to Jesus Christ.  If you accept Christ then in some form you are a Christian.  It's a broad definition - after all Jehovah's Witnesses would say they follow Jesus, though I would argue that since they see him as less than God they don't see Jesus as Christ.  Does it matter if it is a broad definition?  I don't think so.  We have other definitions which are much more precise - 'Methodist', 'Anabaptist', 'Anglo-Catholic Anglican' and so on.  There is no one set of doctrines which define church teaching, or we would only have one church.  Accepting the bible isn't simple either - the bible is full of difficulties and contradictions and interesting ideas that deserve a lifetime of study.  On the other hand, you could sign up in full to the Apostles' Creed and still not bother loving your neighbour.
Doctrine scares me.  On the one hand we need it, to keep sane and clear ideas about what the church as a body signs up to, and it gives us a clear structure, and if our beliefs deviate from our church's doctrine we should at least identify that and understand where the differences are.  Without doctrine there is no effective study, no coherent argument, no body of knowledge upon which to build.  But on the other hand, doctrines deviate between the churches, and some of the fighting over doctrine has been vicious and persecutory.  Doctrine can be frightening.  My own church, the Church of England, came into being at a time when theology was done by axe and stake.  It was never worth it.  So what if you do or don't believe that the bread 'really' becomes Jesus?  I will share the bread with you either way.  I hold to the fundamental commandments of loving God and loving my neighbour, and I hope my church will too.
So I accept Jesus as my Lord.  I am a Christian.  I accept that the creeds and the historic formulations of doctrine are important and for the most part I accept them.  I do not, however, sign up to the violence implicit in the 39 articles so beloved of religious conservatives, which among other gems enshrine the death penalty.  More importantly, I will not treat the church as an institution which says 'you are in' and 'you are out', based upon narrow definitions of belief, definitions drawn up by a tradition which silenced women and ignored the views of many.  Our tradition is flawed, our authorities are human, our experience is subjective and our reason is limited.  We are all on a journey, seeking the truth, and all are welcome to join the company and follow our guide, our Lord Jesus Christ.  I will follow him as best I can, advise my congregations as best I can, but I can only ever point to him as the source of truth.

Friday, 14 December 2012

On being controversial

I like being a village vicar.  I like being a chaplain to those in need.  I am at my best taking occasional offices, welcoming new Christians in the lovely sacrament of baptism, presiding over the joy of a wedding, holding in my heart those who mourn as I take a funeral.  I have no aspirations to become a bishop - as a natural introvert I cannot imagine a worse job - and I have, at last, found my dream job.  I am an awkward-shaped peg fitting neatly into the awkward-shaped hole that is this combination of incumbency and chaplaincy.

I'm busy, too.  Christmas is approaching rapidly, like a truck with me squarely in the headlights.  I have a series of sermons to prepare and deliver, a party to host and clear up afterwards, a whole set of celebrations both inside and outside and it seems all-consuming.

I should be focused fully on my local roles and pulling together worship which I hope people will find transformative and special, taking the ancient Christmas story and retelling it for the world today.  Instead I find myself drawn into the blogosphere, hooked on Twitter, constantly rechecking the state of the State church.  The twin controversies over gay marriage and women bishops have hurt and distressed me more than I expected them to.  If I don't want to be a bishop, why does the exclusion of women from that role hurt me quite so much?  Why could I not sleep the night of the Synod vote?  Why did I feel overwhelmingly compelled to write a polemic on gay marriage, when I am neither a professional theologian nor a senior member of the clergy?  I do not want the rude responses that will inevitably follow, I do not want arguments within my local church and, while I don't mind a spotlight when I'm at my best, I could do without it right now.

I think some of this is precisely because of my slight distance from the issues on a personal level - I am not ambitious and not an academic with a position to maintain.  I am something much more important, for I hold the 'cure of souls' of the people within my parish.  Most of those souls are female, or gay, or both.  They need a church which affirms, welcomes and supports them as equally loved and valued by God.  Somebody has to speak up for their pastoral needs.  The Church of England, the mysterious capital-lettered version, as opposed to the kind group of people who worship in my church each Sunday, has to hear that all people matter, and the people who matter most are those outside the church still waiting for their invitation.  Yes, ordaining women upsets some people, having women in leadership positions upsets some people, and marrying gay couples will upset some people.  Crucially, though, those people may leave the church but it is likely they will not leave the faith - if they are sincere Christians they will go elsewhere.  Meanwhile our current discriminatory positions alienate much larger numbers of people not just from the Church of England, but from Christianity itself, and I cannot think of any more urgent issue for the Church today than the exclusion of these souls from Christ's body.

I have not yet laid down the national issues for the parochial issues as I had hoped, but I carry them on in parallel.  The little resin figures of Mary and Joseph are travelling around the parish, ostensibly on a donkey but quite frequently getting taxi rides from the Vicar, and at each stage an amazing thing happens.  Something potentially kitsch becomes extraordinarily beautiful, as we remember all those who travel, willingly or unwillingly, and we see every family as holy.  A blessing comes to every place that receives the figures.  I am learning so much from this experience.

The carol services continue apace, and are all lovely.  Groups of children, groups of elderly people singing old hymns with varying tunefulness, and all fill me with joy.  I love Advent and the joyful waiting which is so different from the penitential intensity of Lent.  I suppose, being strictly liturgical, we shouldn't have all these carol services yet, but the world calls to us to show the real Christmas alongside the advertised fantasy, and the church must respond.  This year, more than ever, I hope that Christmas will bring the church some peace, and joy, and goodwill.  We need it.

O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A Liturgy for Las Posadas

This is the liturgy we use for Las Posadas as they go around the village.  It has been well received.

Las Posadas

‘Las Posadas’ developed from the Mexican tradition of taking the statues of Mary and Joseph around a community.  The figures of Mary and Joseph travel from home to home, seeking shelter with different families along the way.

When it is your turn to host Mary and Joseph, you will be contacted by the previous host.  Please agree a time to receive the figures and make the previous hosts welcome, perhaps with tea.  There is a short handover liturgy which follows.

Please also contact the next set of hosts and agree when you will visit them to hand the figures over.  If you are unable to hand the figures over in person, please contact the Vicar and she will come and take them from you.  Please pass this sheet on with the figures.

Welcome Liturgy

Visitor(s)         Peace to this house
Host(s)            Welcome in the name of Christ

Visitor             We come as travellers, strangers in a strange land.
                        Will you welcome us, make room for us, shelter us as we travel?
Host                Come, and be welcome.

Visitor             Let us pray.
                        Loving God, as we bring these figures to this home,
                        we thank you for the opportunity to shelter them for a time.
We remember all those who are far from home,
and ask that you will shelter them in your love.

Host                 Loving God, we pray for all those who are homeless tonight.
                        We remember those who are hungry and cold.
We pray for those who shelter them,
in hostels and homes and churches,
and wherever space can be found.
We pray for the runaway and the refugee,
for the migrant worker and the rootless unwanted child.
We ask that you will show us how to care for them.

All                   Our Father in heaven,
             hallowed be your name,
             your kingdom come,
             your will be done,
             on earth as in heaven.
             Give us today our daily bread.
             Forgive us our sins
             as we forgive those who sin against us.
             Lead us not into temptation
             but deliver us from evil.
             For the kingdom, the power,
             and the glory are yours
             now and for ever.                  Amen.

Host                 We receive this figures into our care.
                        The Lord be with you.

Visitor              And also with you.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Same but different

An article low down on the news page caught my eye.  Fashion models have started demanding better treatment from those who employ them.  'Good for them', I thought.  No one should have to accept being sexually abused or pressured to strip for the camera.  No one should be paid in clothes, not cash.  They do a job.  It's a competitive industry and this enables those in power to take unfair advantage of them.

Is this so different from the women bishops argument?  On the face of it, the two situations are a million miles apart.  Priests are called to minister to their communities, models are called to sell clothes.  Crossover career options are rare, other than perhaps showing off your new chasuble for a church magazine.  Yet there are commonalities.  Women are not accepted as they are - the fashion industry wants them to be compliant, disturbingly youthful and thin, ridiculously thin.  The Church of England, or more precisely the combination of two powerful minority groups within the CofE, want us to be helpers, assistants, a quiet but hardworking background for the male leadership performance.  There is a perception that the gifted female leader is threatening - not for nothing are we still called, maliciously, 'priestesses', with many loaded implications.

Those who are opposed to women in leadership in the church throw biblical texts around, texts selected in isolation and inaccurately translated.  My belief, though, is that the texts are an excuse for the underlying belief that women are somehow fine as helpmeets but threatening as leaders.  We have been described, over the past week, as 'hysterical' - an insult which should have died out along with the primitive attitudes to female physiology and psychology that coined the term.  I do not enter into theological debate about sexism, any more than I do about racism.  Discrimination is abhorrent, a moral wrong, and should not be tolerated.  Ironically, we have allowed discrimination to continue in the name of 'tolerance' itself.

It is sad to see the Church of England up there on the everyday sexism project, that excellent catalogue of the daily assaults and indignities that women (and sometimes men) endure.  Several people expressed their total disbelief that this could happen in this day and age.  It is there that we see the common ground between the abuse of models and the abuse of priests.  This is not about theology, this is about the objectification of women, who are treated as lesser creatures.

The dreadful decision of Synod has shown up the ugliness of sexual discrimination for what it is - a refusal to accept that we are all, equally, children of God.  We are made in God's image, redeemed by God's love and called to worship, and sometimes to lead, in the name of our loving God.

I hope I can put this down for a time.  I hope my next post will reflect the joyful anticipation of Advent, and that I will stop looking back to a year when our hopes were raised, lowered and then dashed.  We have a gospel to proclaim, and I hope I can now focus on the new church year and sing out the good news once again.  It's just not that easy right now.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Yup yup yuppety yup yup this is just The Vicar’s Daughter yup

Hello. It’s me. ^ The Vicar’s Daughter. Which you probably know already because you can probably read. At least, I assume you can read because otherwise you probably wouldn’t be on a very texty blog. And by texty, I mean it has lots of text. And you have to read to see read lots of text, so yeah… Anyway, I’m rambling.

So, Mum asked me to write this blog post about why I didn’t go to church today. To be honest, there’s quite a few reasons, but I mainly didn’t go because of the CofE’s vote against women bishops.
It’s fudgenuggetingly stupid, because 2012 is supposed to be not sexist, right? Like, urghhhh. And I mean, it wasn’t even like the synod couldn’t go for the majority, they had to have THE PRECISE NUMBER. And they only lost it by six votes. What surprised me even more than the fact that they voted against it, was the fact that almost all of the bishops voted for it (according to Mum, anyway), and it was the House of Laity or something like that (who are like average churchy people apparently) rejected it, meaning they lost the vote.

Basically, the synod are being stupid for not just going with the vote because the majority voted for women bishops, which is A LOT MORE PEOPLE THAN WHO VOTED AGAINST.

Now you’re probably wondering why on earth this kid cares. I care because if we’re stuck in an age in which women still aren’t able to do whatever the hell they want to do with their job, then we may as well go back to the Elizabethan times when a women was treated like property. As a female, I think that it should be an equal right. Whatever gender you are the only thing different about us is the fact our bodies are different. What about the women who would be amazing at being a bishop? What about them? I know for a fact that someone close to me, who would’ve been, probably, one of the first women bishops and they might not ever manage to be now. My mother is a vicar herself, and suppose she wanted to escalate to being a Bishop instead of a priest, surely she should be able to. It’s ridiculous that the church is still being sexist. It’s ridiculousness in true form that anybody is still being sexist.

This is the 21st century: wake up, sweetheart.


P.S. If anybody is wondering what the other reasons were: it was sleep.

P.P.S. Just kidding. That was a joke. Now laugh. *pokes*

P.P.P.S. I do still believe in God, and trust in him. I don’t believe or trust in the Church of England right now, however.


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

How long?

I really hoped this wouldn't be my first blog post.  I was hoping to kick off my 'official' Vicar of Borstal blog with a happy 'run-up-to-Advent' post, including a 'by-the-way-isn't-it-great-about-women-bishops?'  But no, we are where we are.  All around us women clergy, and plenty of other people, are reeling from the decision that women are not going to be bishops in the Church of England.  South Africa - fine. New Zealand - fine.  USA - fine.  But not, apparently, in the Church of England (though I love the idea that Wales might push ahead and do it anyway).  Apologies for using 'Church' as shorthand for 'Church on England' in the remainder of this post.

There's so much that's wrong about this.  The clear democratic majority that wasn't enough.  The unholy alliance between extreme conservative evangelicals and extreme Anglo-Catholics.  The way we didn't stand up and say 'This is wrong, discrimination is wrong, sexism is just as bad as racism and it must be stopped,' instead indulging in text-throwing and fudge.

I think that's where I see a glimmer of hope.  The Church was so caught up in trying to please everyone, in trying to square the circle, that this truth had been lost.  Now, in the glare of the world's media, suddenly it is embarrassing.  Defining someone in terms of their chromosomes first and their gifts second denies their human rights.  The Church is shown up as an oppressive, reactionary institution which does not treat everyone as made in God's image, as special and equal before God.

I see further hope in the way that the Church has, belatedly, realised that women are hurting.  Being constantly discussed as though we were a separate species, being denigrated both subtly and blatantly, hurts. Finally our tears are visible.  We see highly gifted women who will not now become bishops because they will be too old by the time we get around to it, and my heart goes out to them, but denying women's gifts denigrates all women, whether or not they are called to the episcopate.

My twelve-year-old daughter is refusing to go to church, as of this week, because the Church is 'being an idiot'.  I can't force her to go, nor would I want to.  I completely see her point.  Those who worry that a few people might leave the Church over women bishops would do better to worry about those who are so repulsed by this blatant sexism they will never darken our doors again.

In the days of the Reformation, women were not allowed to read the bible for themselves.  People argued against it with passion and sincerity.  Those people were wrong.  Reading the bible for ourselves has liberated women, has shown us that we are loved equally, has shown us that women were respected by Jesus and chosen to be missionaries to whole communities.  Fast forward a few hundred years and the leadership of women priests has shown that we are gifted and capable and have valid vocations.  Some may argue against this with passion and sincerity, but they are still wrong.  It is time for change.