Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Baptism Hymn

I scribbled this metrical version of Mark 10.14-16 because I couldn't find a short processional hymn for the baptism of an infant within the context of a Sunday Eucharist. It's metre is 77.77 and works reasonably well to the tune "Buckland", to which "Loving shepherd of thy sheep" is usually sung.

It is short enough to not overly extend the liturgy. I struggled with the third line of the first verse when I first wrote it. The first draft had "For God's kingdom doth belong", which I really disliked. I'm not a fan of archaic language in new hymns, but "does" didn't seem right. This morning I had another look at it and thought that, while eschatologically inferior, "For God's kingdom shall belong" was a better choice.

The hymn is offered here for improvement if you have any ideas, or for you to use if you are looking for a short hymn for a baptism service.

Let the little children come,
do not hold them back from me.
For God's kingdom shall belong
only to such ones as these.

Very truly, hear my word:
Childlike must you also be;
trusting in your Father's care,
if you would his kingdom see.

Praise, O God to you be given!
Praise on earth and praise in heaven.
Father, Son and Spirit praise
throughout everlasting days. Amen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hymn for the feast of Ss Peter and Paul

For the poetic out there. I am struggling to find a decent hymn for the feast of St Peter and St Paul, so I thought I would have a go at translating the Latin Decora lux aeternitatis auream into metre (I really don't like the version in the New English Hymnal, just so that you know).

Below is (a) the translated text from Connelly's 'Hymns of the Roman Liturgy' and (b) my dodgy first draft of a hymn based on it. I have omitted from my translation the bits the go on about Rome for obvious reason. If you have any thoughts which would make it work better, please let me know.

(a) Fairly literal translation from Latin

A beauteous light streams down
from the eternal God
to grace with happiness the golden day
that brought reward to the Princes of the Apostles
and gave sinners a clear road to heaven.

Earth's teacher and heaven's doorkeeper,
Founders of Rome and judges of the world,
they take their place, laurel-crowned,
in heavens assembly —
the one triumphant through being beheaded,
the other through being crucified.

Peter, blessed shepherd, mercifully receive
your suppliants prayers
and with a word undo the chains of sin,
for to you was entrusted the power of opening heaven to men
and of shutting the open gate of heaven.

Paul, teacher without equal,
fashion our lives aright
and carry off our hearts with yours to heaven till faith,
whose vision is now veiled,
beholds the noonday glory,
and love, sun-like, is sole master of our hearts.

How happy, Rome, your fortune
in being dedicated to God in the Princes' noble blood;
for clad in your robe dyed purple with their blood
you far outstrip in beauty all else the world can show.

To God in essence one, in persons three,
the ruler of the universe,
be eternal glory, power and acclamation
through all the ages of ages.

(b) My poetic (???) translation

O glorious light, eternal ray,
Whose love and peace to us abound,
You make to shine the glorious day
The Princes of the church were crowned.

The great apostles by their lives
And teaching show us Christ the Lord,
Whose death and resurrection brings 
Pardon of sin and heaven’s reward.

O Peter, heaven’s keys you bear
O Paul, you teach the grace of God.
By sword and cross you came to share
The laurel crown and heaven’s laud. 

Blessed Peter, pray for us, your flock,
That loosed from chains of sin we may
By following the path you walked
share in the great, eternal day.

Saint Paul, unequalled teacher, pray,
teach us to live by faith, not sight
So may our hearts, transposed on high
Worship the uncreated light.

Unto the Blessed Trinity
Perpetual praise and glory be.
All power to the unity
Which reigns through all eternity.


Saturday, February 22, 2014


Matthew 6.25–34

People in advertising know that fear sells. Have you seen advert for the latest kitchen hygiene product from Detol? The Detol no touch hand-wash system! The idea behind it is that the thousands of germs which may be on the end of your liquid soap pump might hurt you, so now you can buy an automatic soap dispenser, recommended retail price £9.99, which means we never have to touch a germy nozzle again! Great idea… but completely pointless… So I get bacteria on my hands from my soap dispenser, but what do I do next? I wash my hands! Foiled again, pesky bacteria! The thing is, we’re all terribly afraid of bacteria these days, unless of course it’s L. Casei Immunitas or lactobacillus casei shirota, and advertisers know they can use our fear to sell us pointless things. Fear causes us to act irrationally.

In the gospel reading which we heard earlier, Jesus tells us how to live a life which isn’t dominated by fear and anxiety. But to some of us his words might not quite hit home. Jesus lived in a largely rural world. It might have just about made sense back then to tell people to trust God not to worry. But he didn’t have school fees or a mortgage to pay; he didn’t know the strain and stress of modern life, particularly during the economic squeeze. And what about all the people who do look to God and who do seek his kingdom and righteousness, but are still cold, hungry and thirsty, who suffer form preventable illness, who don’t have nice clothes to wear and who live in poor accommodation? Should we really take Jesus advice seriously? His words might seem a little hard to swallow.

Well I think we should. In fact, I think that Jesus teaching liberates us from the fear and anxiety which, far from making life better, makes it considerably worse. There are two things that Jesus says can liberate us from being ground down by anxiety:

The liberating love of the Father
The truth is that, rich or poor, we worry. You worry about getting more (or even enough) if you’re poor, or you worry about hanging onto what you have got if you’re rich, and you worry about a whole raft of things in between. This tells us one thing and one thing only. Getting more doesn’t free us from worry. Having little or nothing is a source of great misery and stress, but you can’t make your life less miserable and stressful simply by having more. So worrying about how much we have is useless, it turns us in on ourselves. It is completely unproductiveexcept, maybe of stomach ulcers. As Jesus said, you can’t add another moment to you life through worrying. Far from it! You may shorten it. 

Worry grinds us down into the ground, but Jesus wants to raise us up to live lives of hope and joy, and so he reminds us that although our troubles make us feel unimportant, our lives is of great value to God. Jesus points us to the natural world, to birds and flowers. If God cares enough for birds that he feeds them, and cares enough for ‘grass of the field’ (which lives and dies in a matter of days) that he clothes them with beautiful flowers, won’t he also supply the needs of his people? Jesus wants us to realise just how important human beings are to God. Much more important than flowers and birds. If God loves us so much, he will give us what we need.

Now Jesus isn’t saying that we don’t need to work, or that we can be lazy. Martin Luther, the German reformer said that some people think that Jesus’ teaching means that we can sit back and wait for God to drop a roasted goose into our mouth. But that really isn’t what Jesus has in mind. Anyone who knows birds knows that they are actually quite industrious – God feeds them by providing in nature the means by which they can feed themselves. Gardeners, likewise, know that plants expend a great deal of energy in producing flowers. They are not ‘Lazy’ (if you can refer to a non-rational organism in that way), they work incredibly hard. Both birds and flowers cooperate with God. In both cases what they lack is not industry but anxiety.

So we too should work hard, we do what we need to do, but we’re not to worry about things which lie completely outside of our control. That really is the folly of worry – we end up making ourselves responsible for things which human beings could never really be responsibility for – and we forget that there is a God.

The liberating desire for God’s Kingdom and righteousness
This phrase ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these will be given to you as well’ really is the key to understanding Jesus’ radical call to live a life without fear for tomorrow. The Kingdom of God isn’t a static territory like the United Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is a dynamic reality. Neither does striving for God’s Kingdom mean striving to get into heaven when we die. That is far to individualistic a view of religion for Jesus. To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive to see God’s reign as King, which is already a present reality, become more and more apparent. 

God’s righteous kingdom is one in which there is no poverty, hunger or thirst, where there is no trouble or war but only peace. It is a kingdom of perfect justice and fairness. So if we are to strive for these things, we make them priorities in our own lives as individual Christians: in the way we are with our families, in the way we behave to each other in church, in the way we spend our time and money. But we are also to strive for these things in the life of our community, to pray for the day when the kingdom of God is made known in all its fulness. The question we always need to ask is this, ‘how are the values of God’s Kingdom reflected in the life of our Church?’ 

This is why, despite there being people throughout the world who have little or nothing, who experience much trouble in life and little comfort, that we can still say, with confidence, that God provides for his beloved children. In fact, he provides abundantly. He provides abundantly by asking those who have received much to be the means by which he provides for those who have little. As we seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, we will necessarily seek to bring people out of poverty. We will try to alleviate suffering, sickness and trouble wherever it is found. And if the Kingdom of God really becomes our primary ambition, if living under God’s righteous reign becomes what we value most highly, then we will have a faith which can face trouble and still remain firm, because whilst churches come and go, whilst money comes and goes, whilst people come and go, the kingdom of God comes and grows and will one day fill the whole earth with justice, mercy and peace.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

love is a place...

                                                             love is a place
                                                             & through this place of
                                                             love move
                                                             (with brightness of peace)
                                                             all places

                                                             yes is a world
                                                             in this world of
                                                             yes live
                                                             (skilfully curled)
                                                             all worlds

                                                                                                           e.e. cummings

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Divine humility...

Mal. 3.1–5
Luke 2.22–40
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
For many of us, these words of Simeon which we have just heard, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, signal a blessed departure from Evensong. I remember once being at a particularly tedious Evensong where we had a very long reading from the book of Genesis. The reader went on and on and eventually concluded, quite properly with ‘Here endeth the lesson’, to which one of the congregation humourously replied, ‘Thanks be to God’.  Here though, the departure in mind is Simeon’s departure from this life, having beheld God’s promised salvation. A fulfilled promise which brings to an end Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and reminds us of the strange way God fulfils his promises. To appreciate this though, we need to step back and look at the rest of the story Luke tells about the coming of the Messiah.

Luke’s story begins and ends in the temple, the symbol of God’s living presence among his people. In the first chapter we find a priest called Zechariah on the duty rota to offer incense to God in the temple. He had probably done it a hundred times before. He’d get his charcoal going and put some incense on it and wave it about, nothing out of the ordinary about this fairly mundane ritual. Except this time was different. This time, as Zechariah was waving his censer and the people were praying outside, an angle appeared. Zechariah, was understandably terrified. But the angel calmed his nerves and gave him a message. He was told that he and his wife, Elizabeth, who were both very old would have a son, a son who would make Israel ready for God’s return to them. In the words of Malachi, the Lord they sought would suddenly come to his temple, and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be the one to prepare his way.

Now, at the end of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, we return to the temple. Here, another elderly man receives a message from God. Not this time in the form of an angel coming from heaven, but as the fulfilment of a promise which God had made many years before. Simeon could depart this world in peace knowing that in the baby he held in his arms, he had seen salvation. At this moment, the Lord had returned to his house as Malachi had prophesied. But look at the way in which he comes into his temple. 

Many expected the Lord to come as a warrior to occupy that which was his by right. But he comes as a child. ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’, but none had realised that they would fall, not beneath the might of a conquering war-lord, but would be silenced by a baby that needed to be carried. So often we want to see shock and awe, for our enemies to fall beneath incontrovertible force, whether intellectually or politically. We respect strong leaders who get things done, whatever the cost. And so often the church looks little different to the world. We want to have our way, on general synod, even perhaps in this church. We can be tempted to use coercion to win the day. But though we might win the battle, it will be at the expense of our soul. If we are Christians then we are followers of Jesus, and the manner of Jesus’ coming turns our conceptions of power and influence on their head.

Yes the Lord is like a refining fire, he purifies his people. But how does the Lord purify? Not violently and destructively, but by bringing them light. Yes, the Lord will restore the glory of his people. Not by destroying his enemies though, but by making this child a light for the enlightenment of the gentiles, allowing those who were his enemies to become his friends. The outcasts are to be admitted to his holy nation and this will be the glory of Israel. This wasn’t the revelation the world was expecting, and it certainly wasn’t the sort of glory Israel had wanted and prayed for. But it was what God had intended, and it was, in reality, more truthful and glorious than they could have ever expected. Perhaps sometimes, we need to be open to God leading us into better future than we could have imagined by ourselves?

The Lord comes to Judge. But how does he judge? Notice that we often talk about “the rise and fall” of people, nations, empires. But not here. With Jesus the order is reversed. He will cause the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will cause us to stumble and to be seen for what we truly are, but he will also lift us back up back up to new life in him. No one will be immune from falling under this judgement and restoration, not even Jesus’ mother. His sword of judgement would pierce here own soul too, as she came to realise that her relationship with her son was not to be one of a mother but of a disciple. Yes, Mary had to learn this like the rest of us; we all come to Jesus the same way. And it would be by his hand that she would also be raised back up too.

When the Lord comes to his temple, he surprises us with his lowliness, with his willingness to step down and become weak, and this not only judges our attempts to find our worth in strength and power over others, but frees us from the burden of having to mask our own failings and weakness. 
St Augustine of Hippo wrote,

Human pride pressed us down so low, that divine humility alone could lift us up.” (Sermon 188)

And so when we embrace divine humility, when we embrace the God who shows his power and glory through weakness, we are transformed and raised up. The salvation Simeon saw was a baby, the saving presence of a God who gently changes the world, who refuses to fight fire with fire, who refuses to save by violence or coercion, a God who chooses to identify with humanity, not in its pride and aggression, but in its weakness and vulnerability. Simeon and Anna had waited a lifetime to arrive at this moment of seeing God’s salvation, of holding it in their hands. But for Mary and Joseph, this was going to be the beginning of a much longer story. And it is a story which we are caught up into as well. We must learn to follow Jesus into the deepest darkness, to the places where human life is regarded as dispensable and cheap, to put aside our pride and status and to raise up those who have fallen. And in doing this we will be showing Christ’s light to the world, we will become mirrors which reflect the light of the world into the gloom, we will become people who lead others into liberty.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Into obscurity...

Mat. 4.12–23

When I was a child back in the 1980s, the milk marketing board had an advertisement in which two Liverpudlian boys, fresh from a game of soccer come into the kitchen. One boy asks for some lemonade and duly gets passed the bottle while the other boy pours a glass of milk. ‘Milk’, the lomonade drinker says, ‘yuck’. ‘It’s what Ian Rush drinks,’ says the milk drinker, ‘and he says that If I don’t drink enough milk when I grow up I’ll only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley.’ ‘Accrington Stanley’, says the other boy, ‘who are they?’, ‘Exactly’ the milk drinker replies. Well, in Jesus day, you might very well have heard two boys talking about their future career as Rabbis and one boy saying to the other ‘If you don’t pay enough attention in Torah class when you’re older you’ll only be good enough to be a Rabbi in Capurnaum’, ‘Capurnaum, where’s that?’ ‘Exactly’. Capurnaum was a small Galileean town of about a thousand people on the fringes of Jewish culture and religion. It really wasn’t the place to begin a great public ministry. It was an ordinary sort of place. A boring sort of place. A place of no consequence. And so as we continue to  think about the Epiphany of the Lord, the making clear to all who will see that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, we come to this reading in which Jesus divinity is made manifest, not through traveling stars and heavenly voices, but in the mundane, in the smallness of and obscurity of life in first century Galilee.

The first thing to notice about Jesus’ glory being revealed in the ordinary is that this is the path that he consciously chooses. When John the Baptist, the forerunner was arrested and Jesus knew that he would now take centre stage, he retreats. He takes a step into obscurity. And this isn’t just any old obscurity. Galilee, the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the first parts of Israel to be subjugated to foreign rule when they were conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 723BC. This was the region of Israel which first descended into the darkness of foreign occupation. These territories, deep in darkness, would be the first to have the light of the Kingdom of God dawn on them. And so Jesus glory is clearly seen in his going not merely into obscurity, but stepping into to the darkest region to start his ministry. This is, after all, going to be the path that Jesus the Messiah follows. He walks into deeper and deeper darkness until it finally takes him to a Roman Gibbet, and from that Gibbet, he sines the light of the kingdom of God into all human darkness.

The second thing we should notice is how Jesus shines in the darkness in the message he proclaims. He doesn’t come up with a novel, exciting, new message. He says exactly the same thing that John the Baptist has been saying. Jesus first sermon in the gospel of Matthew is borrowed material, a great comfort to every preacher who reads his sermon and thinks, ‘there isn’t an original idea on that page!’ Jesus was there long before. But more significantly, the message that Jesus borrows from John the Baptist is the message which has just earned John a place in jail! Jesus doesn’t choose to soothe with kind words, but to echo the same words which, on John’s lips had caused such offence. Words of the approach of another kingdom; heaven’s kingdom, which will look radically different to the kingdoms people like Herod preside over. So Jesus shows forth his glory by choosing an unpopular, risky message. A message which could make his career every bit as short John’s. But a message of profound importance, which calls us all to prepare for the day when God will get involved with every aspect of human life, from our money to our relationships. ‘Turn’, says Jesus, ‘start living the kind of life that will find approval when God’s kingdom comes.’

The final way manifests his glory in our gospel reading, is by calling. Again, the people he calls are only remarkable for how unremarkable they are. They are fishermen, blue collar workers. Not the super wealthy, the learned or the powerful. These workmen are the people Jesus calls to follow him in bringing light to the world. So just as Jesus’ glory is revealed in his journeying into the far country, it is also made manifest in the humdrum traveling companions he chooses. And the disciples follow. They catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory and they cannot help but follow. And that following involves great sacrifice –the leaving of a stable income, and even scandal –it was religiously disgraceful to leave your father and wander off on an adventure. Responding to Jesus’ call and following him was risky business. But follow they do, and in following they teach us perhaps the greatest truth about how Jesus’ glory is made manifest. Just as Jesus’ makes his glory clear in the ordinary place he chooses to exercise his ministry and the ordinary people he chooses to  follow him, so to the disciples most clearly glimpse the vision of his glory in the ordinary, every day business of accompanying him, of listening to him and learning from him. Jesus is most clearly seen as the incarnate God, not by assembling evidence, or reading books, but by becoming his friend, his companion, his follower. It is in becoming a companion of this extraordinary man, in his vulnerability and his humanity that we most clearly see his divinity. And in beholding his light, we become radiant with it ourselves, attracting others like fishers of people to Jesus Christ, the source of all goodness, beauty and truth. So may we take seriously, the call to turn from all which keeps us from following Jesus, to live the sort of life that finds approval in God’s kingdom, and to devote our lives to the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jesus calls us...

For those preaching Matthew 4.12–22 this Sunday, here is some Herbert McCabe on the necessity of discipleship in experiencing the manifestation of Jesus' divine nature:
"So long as we are asking historical questions about what Jesus was like, we shall, according to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, come up with answers to the effect that he was a man; not, therefore, an angel or a 'supernatural visitant', but a human being like ourselves except in not deceiving himself or playing at being superhuman when we do when we sin. But, of course, we do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is in this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence – rather as when we say that the world is created we are considering a different dimension of it from the one we look at as physicists. 
  The insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he his divine, is available only to those in whom this rapport is established, to those 'who have faith in his name'. That is why the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, is able to pronounce on the divinity of Jesus, as she has done (I would maintain) implicitly in the New Testament (especially in John) and later more explicitly in the conciliar pronouncements. It would, I think, be absurd for a man to say: 'I am not a Christian myself, but I do see that Jesus must have been the Son of God'. 
   It is in the contact with the person who is Jesus, in this personal communication between who he is and who I am, that his divinity is revealed in his humanity, not in any, as it were, clinical, objective examination of him. Any such examination will simply reveal correctly that he is splendidly and vulnerably human."
(Herbert McCabe, God Matters, 71) 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

On sharing bath water...

Matthew 3.13–17
It had to be an i-pad. The parcel was the right size, the right weight, and you’d been dropping hints like mad for the last twelve months. You pick up the package every day, and gently squeeze the box… that’s good packaging. That’s Apple packaging. That’s ‘made in California from sustainable card stock’ packaging. It had to be an i-pad. Then eventually the day comes, the family gather around the tree, hand out the presents and you all begin unwrapping. Just to appear humble, you open the boring presents first, the socks, the jumper, the book. You want to save this one till you have almost exhausted your pile of gifts. And there it is. You slowly unpick the wrapping paper and peer inside… a cheese knife and board… a cheese knife and board! “Well we know how much you like cheese, and with this you can eat it in style”, says your mother. I’m sure you’ve had moments like that, where you have built up a sense of great excitement about something, a gift, a new job, and it doesn’t turn out quite as you had expected or hoped.

Poor old John the Baptist probably felt much the same way as his encounter with Jesus unfolded. John had been proclaiming to anyone that would hear that the people of Israel desperately needed to turn from sin and to turn to God again. And as a powerful symbol of this repentance, John called people to be baptised, to be washed, to be cleansed in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. So here is John, raising everyone’s sense of expectation, everyone’e excitement at the coming of the Messiah: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mat. 3.11–12). The one John prepared the way for was powerful and righteous and just, he would clean up Israel and clean up the world. John proclaimed loud and clear to all who came to hear him that when the Messiah comes, you better make sure that you are on the right side of the track. Repent, cleanse yourselves, get ready because he is coming, and when he does he will clear out God’s barn so that only the good wheat is left.

And then the moment arrives. Here he is. The long awaited gift is about to be unwrapped. Everyone waits with bated breath. But wait. How strange. This isn’t what we’d been expecting. He doesn’t sweep through the crowd with fire and judgement. He doesn’t come and condemn those sinners who haven’t repented, and pour God’s Spirit on those who have. He gets in line with them to go down into the murky waters of the Jordan. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the unrighteous, and presents himself to John and asks for baptism. You can imagine John’s surprise, his alarm. “You want me to baptise you?” he says. “I want to receive what you have to offer, I wan’t you to baptise me with God’s Spirit.” “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Mat. 3.13).

Here, for the first time, John wonders whether he has got the cheese board rather than the i-pad. And I suppose John has a point. He already knows that Jesus doesn’t look like the Messiah people had expected. He had come from Nazareth for starters, and his birth was far from uncontroversial. How easy it would be for Jesus’ detractors to pour scorn on him: “The Saviour? Really? You did know that he went to the Jordan with all the other spiritual losers to get baptised by John, don’t you? How can he save us? He’s as rotten as the rest of us.” But Jesus baptism wasn’t the outworking of a guilty conscience, it was to fulfil God’s righteous plan for our salvation.

In his baptism, Jesus identifies with sinners, he joins them in the waters of repentance, and in doing that, he transforms those waters. He sanctifies them so that they no longer merely remind us of the pressing need to repent, they are now the waters which declare our adoption as daughters and sons of God. Jesus joined himself to us in his baptism, and now, through our baptism we are joined to him, and we hear those same words, “you are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” We who are unrighteous, who however much we try to hide from it know the wrong we have done, the people we have hurt, the times we have failed, we hear those words, ‘you are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter’, and we learn that God’s approval comes to us not as our just deserts, but as a gift, completely unwarranted, but given freely and entirely without reservation. Given in person by one who made God’s glory and love known by standing with us in the grime of life. As we follow him, who will he call us to stand alongside? Whose bath water will he ask us to share?

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Let's not get too pompous about the (proposed) new baptism texts...

The brouhaha over the Liturgical Commission’s document “Christian Initiation: Additional Texts in Accessible Language” has intrigued me. First and foremost, I have been amazed at how many evangelicals (sorry to my many evangelical friends who haven't got involved with this) are now passionate supporters of the Common Worship project! When it comes to the Eucharist, the only liturgical fight is whether it is necessary to use it at all, it being so wordy and boring and all. But when it comes to baptism, the liturgical gloves are off. Suddenly the Church is full of ardent Cranmerian purists who loath any prospect of “dumbing down”. I find it interesting that some of those who have spoken against the proposed new texts seem not to appreciate that, if these were ever approved, they would be an additional provision, not a replacement. It would, I presume, be possible to keep a fairly traditional Common Worship format with one of the proposed prayers over the water in place of one of the existing ones? In essence, if this was formally accepted by Synod (I assume it is Synod that has to accept it?) it would merely enlarge the ‘Supplementary Texts’ section of the current Christian Initiation volume. So why get so worried?

I actually don’t mind the current baptism service all that much. While there are a few bits which are overly wordy and are uncharacteristically lacking classic Anglican economy of expression, but it does provide a theologically rich backbone to infant baptism. It is regretful that Common Worship has expunged baptismal regeneration from the Church of England’s liturgy —as far as I am aware, there is no modernised equivalent of the BCP’s “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate”— but it is still present enough in the liturgy to preserve this tradition within the Church of England.

Nevertheless, I do see the need for some additional texts. The current Common Worship prayers over the water are a good example of this need for addition. The prayers are, I think, too wordy and too theologically dense, and dare I say it, a touch pompous. I was pleased to see the two sensible additional suggestions, but would have liked to see more, picking up some (though not all) of the themes in the current prayers.

Looking through the sample service further down the document, I found it to be merely a lesson in how the current rubrics could be creatively and pastorally read. With the exception of the decision (I really don’t like the new offering) the prayer over the water, and the presentation (the existing rubrics for this are very confusing. Can it be omitted???) it doesn’t, as far as I can see, do anything that one couldn’t already do. The Commission is a good case in point. The new suggestions just make it clear that the unfortunately prosaic provision which Common Worship currently has needn’t be slavishly followed, but that ‘similar words’ may also be used.

All in all, the flap about ‘dumbing down' has, I feel, brought out an excessive amount of rather uncharitable pernicketiness, particularly when you consider that no one is proposing a wholesale change to the baptismal liturgy, which the introduction to the document makes quite clear. Yes, the suggested additional provision isn’t perfect, but neither is the current liturgy, neither is any liturgy for that matter. We should all just get over it.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

God in man made manifest...

Matt. 2.1–12

"Let no one be found among you… who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 18.10–13)

So says the book of Deuteronomy. Stern stuff! And it is certain that first century Jews and Christians didn't viewed astrologers as jovial Russell Grant types. They were morally dubious people who worshipped the stars as gods, and looked to them for guidance, rather than looking to the creator of the universe and the Law he had given. Isn’t it strange then that three of the most popular, most memorable, most mysterious and enigmatic characters in the Christmas story are these Magi: astrologers, soothsayers, diviners, interpreters of omens, magicians. These are the first non-Jewish people to fall at the feet Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, and it is their extraordinary journey which we remember today as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. And they teach us something about the search that we all make to find God.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is the way that God guides the Magi. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Magi had decided to look for the new born King because they had read some prophecy from the Old Testament about the birth of the Messiah, and had dedicated themselves to searching for him. But no. That isn’t how this journey started. God used their idol, a star, to lead the Magi to his Son. And whilst that is unusual it is actually quite beautiful. People are led to Christ many different ways. Some are led through reading scripture, or through the nurture of a Christian home or Christian friends, or maybe through an Alpha course or something like that. But others may come to Christ through less orthodox routes: through New Age Spirituality perhaps, through a twelve step support group, through belonging to the Free Masons. If the journey of the Magi tells us anything, it is that God really isn’t too worried about the method he uses to draw people to his Son. Why? Because every desire and expectation it is possible to have, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Every desire for companionship or love is fulfilled in him. Every expectation of justice is met in him. Every yearning for goodness truth and beauty finds its source and goal in him. So don’t be surprised when people, following a star, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, are still led by God to worship at the feet of Jesus Christ.

But here is the irony of this story. God leads these morally dubious characters, by means of their idol to his son. But those who have the Law and Prophets don't join them in pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Perhaps they fear that this moment of Epiphany will challenge the status quo, or will undermine their power and authority, perhaps they are just afraid of change. For what ever reason the religious leaders choose not to look for the Messiah with the Magi, “After they had shown the fountain of life to others, they themselves perished of thirst”, in the words of St Augustine. And the king! Herod's heart is filled with even more darkness still. He knows that the coming of the Messiah means one thing and one thing only for tin-pot dictators like him. And in a desperate attempt to cling on to power, he plots murder of the vilest kind. Those who were the guardians of the oracles of God, who stood in the great line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the leaders of the people of God had become so accustomed to hearing God’s word, that it had become almost meaningless to them. They had become deaf to its cadences, fearful of its promises. And a group of unclean, idolatrous, star-gazing outsiders, proclaimed the good news of the birth of Christ to them. The outsider becomes the teacher. The first will be last, and the last will be first. 

So this new year, may we never become so accustomed to the things of God that we fail to seek the one who is born king of all. May we welcome the insights which God brings to the church through unlikely people, led by strange means, but still led to the crib and cross of Jesus. And may we be willing to lay everything at his feet, knowing that our deepest desires are all fulfilled in him.