There was much celebration in the air on 17th December, when it was announced that the Church of England had appointed its first female bishop. And that joy was particularly felt around Stockport, where this milestone was announced! Our first woman bishop is to serve right here, as Bishop of Stockport, as one of two Suffragan (Assistant) Bishops to the Bishop of Chester. Rev Libby Lane is currently vicar of St Peter’s, Hale, having served earlier in Stockport itself, so she is well known in these parts. She is to be consecrated on 26 January 2015 in York Minster. I’m confident that Libby will carry out her responsibilities and ministry with great care, wisdom and skill.
There is relief for many of us that the Church has finally taken this step, and so demonstrated a fundamental tenet of our faith, that we are all equal under God, and all with gifts to be used in his service, irrespective of race, class, gender etc. We recognise that this is also a difficult step for some to adjust to, and we trust that the Church will continue to support that minority who are still finding it difficult to accept women’s ministry.
But three cheers for Libby, and for the Church of England!
It’s now two years since the first Foodbank opened in Stockport. There are now four around the Borough and their services continue to be in great demand. It is believed that as many as 9,500 children in the SK postcode are living in poverty, a quite appalling statistic. It’s been calculated that in Greater Manchester 15% of people skip meals simply because they do not have enough money to spend on food. In a society where obesity levels are rising and a criminal amount of food is wasted this simply should not be. Of course as individuals we cannot solve this problem on our own!
But we can all help. A number of our local supermarkets (Sainsburys Hazel Grove certainly) have receptacles by the checkouts into which people can place items of food they wish to donate. So why not buy one or two extra items to donate to the Foodbank each time you do a shop? You could even do a ‘Foodbank shop’ and take your shopping to the Hazel Grove Foodbank at the Baptist Church (for opening times and lots more information about our local Foodbanks go to http://stockport.foodbank.org.uk/). So remember (as Tesco have been telling us for years) that ‘every little helps’ and that together we can make a difference.
I was very struck by a news story I’ve seen about a Pakistani teenager called Aitzaz Hasan. This is the 15 year-old boy who stopped a suicide bomber attacking his school in the Hangu region of Pakistan, but who died in the process. I don’t know many details, but what I saw on the BBC News website suggested that he saw the bomber and realized what he intended to do. He went to him to try to confront him, despite his friends trying to discourage him from putting himself in danger. But he wanted to stop the man destroying his school and his friends. In the event, the bomber detonated his vest and killed both of them, but the 2000 students in the school were saved. A family member said:
“My cousin sacrificed his life saving his school and hundreds of students and school fellows.”
What tremendous selfless courage on the part of a 15 year old. It’s a tragic story, but a moving one. And one that inevitably has echoes for me of the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross: giving his life, so that others may live.
It reminds me graphically of the need to pray that those who seek violent solutions may be moved to find peaceful ones; and the need to pray constantly for those who seek to bring peace, and who need courage to do so – not just in situations of extreme mortal danger but wherever justice is being threatened.
I give thanks for the extraordinary strength and altruism of people like Aitzaz. I wonder if, even in our own relatively quiet corner of the world, we might make it our resolution for this new year to have the courage to strive against violence and injustice wherever we confront it. We need to pray for peace, and we need to make sure we live out that prayer too.
The BBC has found itself coming under fire for its extensive coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela and has responded by referring to him as a man of ‘singular significance’. That hits the spot. At his trial in 1964 he made a speech lasting 176 minutes which closed with the following words:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He uttered these words in the expectation that he and all his fellow accused were soon to feel the end of a hangman’s noose; something that renders them deeply poignant. But they reflect so well his political and personal values. Of course he was not sentenced to death as it turned out but spent the next twenty seven years as a prisoner mostly on Robben Island.
What was so striking about Nelson Mandela was his ability to forgive those who had treated him with such hatred and brutality. He spent what would have been the best years of his life in prison; he wasn’t there to see his children grow up – so much was snatched away from him and yet he managed to rise above embitterment to be a force for reconciliation. It’s in no small measure due specifically to him that South Africa’s adoption of democracy was relatively peaceful.
His story and the ideals he cherished encourage us to rise above embitterment (which sometimes gets into our bloodstream for the most trivial of reasons) and to embrace reconciliation. As we approach the Christmas season and reflect on the birth of Christ we need to remember that his also was a life of sacrifice and he taught us, above all, to learn to forgive. It was on the cross, as his life, his future, his family and his friends were being taken from him in an act of outrageous injustice that he called out, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Would our world not be a much better place to live in if we could but learn to forgive?
Nelson Mandela was a man of the utmost integrity and his legacy will be to inspire a generation to know that peace and reconciliation are possible and that ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ should not define human society. He has shown us (as Jesus, above all, showed us) that we can do better than that.
By the time you read this, as many of you are aware, I should be the other side of the North Sea. The plan, as I write, is to go out to Oslo towards the end of November, to join Brenda, who has been in Norway since the end of August. She is working at the Music School in Oslo, and I’m due to be looking after the Anglican Chaplaincy here until the new Chaplain arrives in January. Thank you all very much
again for your support for this secondment and sabbatical. I’m leaving you (temporarily!) in excellent hands, with John Knowles coming in to support Rob, Jenny (back from maternity), and Hugh, along with all the rest of the Staff Team.
Brenda and I both wish you a wonderful Advent and Christmas, and pray that these seasons will be full of blessing and enrichment for you all, and lots of fun too. We look forward to seeing you soon, and to being back with you.
God bless you all,
The view from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley to the old city of Jerusalem is unforgettable. Not just because it is spectacular but because of its central place in the story of Jesus. In his day there were no buildings outside the city walls and the scene would have been dominated not by the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque but by the beauty and grandeur of Herod’s Temple.
The Mount of Olives is the first stop for many thousands of pilgrims visiting the Holy City who then proceed to walk down the hill visiting a number of churches on the way. Towards the bottom of the hill, the Church of All Nations is built within the Garden of Gethsemane. In this garden all those years ago Jesus came face to face with the brutal reality of the way of the cross from which his humanity instinctively recoiled. Whilst his friends dozed Jesus agonised. Reflected on the inability of the disciples to keep awake with him I realised that walking the way of the cross as part of a pilgrimage is a lot easier than it was for Jesus. Of course his disciples simply found the whole thing too much and, Peter’s uncertain bravery apart, gave it a miss. I’m sure that if I had been one of the disciples I would already have hot footed it back to Galilee believing that fishing is an entirely excellent occupation!
Of course Gethsemane is a much busier place on an average day now that it was 2000 years ago. However we were given the opportunity a couple of days later to spend some time in a private section of the Garden of Gethsemane (entry by arrangement and by key only!). Nine of our party took advantage of the opportunity and, having been locked in, we began by reading the story of the agony of Gethsemane together before finding a quiet place just to sit, pray and reflect – just to be. Being there was a profound and transformative experience for us all, placing us so much nearer to the story. As I sat in a quiet corner I reflected on the words of Graham Kendrick’s ‘From heaven You came’:
“There in the garden of tears
My heavy load He chose to bear”:
Suddenly it became clear; Jesus wasn’t forced to the cross against his will, as if God the Father was pushing him in the back all the way to Calvary. He gave his life freely, in spite of facing the worst of human fear and agony whilst in the quiet garden. His ability even in extremis to do the right thing was reflective both of the freedom in which he lived and died and the depth of love and compassion he felt for all of humanity.
We sang ‘From heaven You came’ before we left the garden and to be able to sing ‘Here in the garden of tears, my heavy load he chose to bear’ struck a very deep chord. Being so close physically to where the gospel stories took place means coming face to face with them; there is no standing back and, with Pilate, washing your hands of any involvement. If Jesus was prepared to walk the way of the cross; if, in the garden, he was prepared to accept suffering and death on a level only he has endured in the long history of humanity then what does that mean for me? How will I respond to the one who kneels in the garden of tears and accepts the Father’s will?
What a momentous week for the Church!
On Tuesday 19th, the new Pope presides at his inaugural mass. On Thursday 21st Justin Welby is enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury. The attention of the world’s media has been focussed on these events, and even among sceptics there is a feeling that maybe something interesting and refreshing is about to happen; that there may be some changes ahead.
One of the most interesting things for many people has been the approach of the new Pope Francis. It was already known that as Archishop of Buenos Aires, he tended to take a simple approach to life: taking the bus, living in a relatively ordinary flat rather than the archbishop’s palace, cooking for himself, etc.
That “approachable approach” has continued since his election as Pope. He’s shown a humility and quiet humour that has already proved endearing; he’s gone walkabout (much to the concern of his minders!) and deviated from planned routes and itineraries; he’s talked about wanting the Church to be a poor Church for the world’s poor. He’s also demonstrated a desire to build bridges with other traditions and denominations, and not do things in a particular way just because that’s the way they’ve always been done. People are listening, and watching with anticipation to see where all this may lead.
Archbishop Justin, similarly, has a track record of conflict resolution, of courage, of humour, and of the ability to surprise. Both men have huge tasks ahead of them, and no one is expecting all the challenges of the Church to be overcome quickly. But there is a sense of anticipation – of an “episcopal spring” perhaps?! These are difficult times for so many people, economically, socially and culturally. But, spiritually at least, they’re also potentially exciting times.
Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin need our prayers – and not just in their honeymoon periods. And I sense they are getting a lot of goodwill at the same time. Watch those spaces!
From the Christian Aid website:
“Take time this Lent to count the blessings in your life and reflect on God’s abundant provision with your congregation, your family or your small group.”
Click here to download the pdf of Christian Aid’s Lent leaflet called Count Your Blessings . It’s a leaflet with brief daily reflections for each day in Lent, which draws attention to poverty and injustice in the poorer countries of the world.
Please see http://www.christianaid.org.uk/getinvolved/lent-2013/count-your-blessings/resources.aspx for more information.
Our weekly Take Away and monthly Worship Arrangements are available on the website from the “What’s On” page.
“We have some explaining to do.”
The above quote, taken from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ remarks to General Synod following the recent vote on the measure for the consecration of women bishops, challenges all members of the Church of England. Whilst for those of us who were hoping and praying that this measure would be passed its failure was a bitter pill to swallow; for the vast majority of the population who have little or no connection with any church it was utterly incomprehensible.
Before going any further it is worth pointing out that 42 out of the 44 Dioceses in the Church of England did in fact give their support to the measure and indeed, in terms of simple majorities, all three houses of General Synod (Bishops, Clergy and Laity) voted in favour. The high bar (a required two thirds majority in each house) led to the vote falling slightly short in the house of laity.
So how come, in 2013, when we have a female Supreme Governor of the Church of England (The Queen!) and over thirty years since the election of the first woman Prime Minister, the Church of England continues to deny its highest offices to women? In thinking this through we must bear in mind that the same theological concerns that led some in the Church of England to be opposed to women priests are equally relevant to the present debate about women bishops. The following is offered as a brief attempt to explain the issues that have brought us to this point as well as offering a personal response to them (which I do understand not all those reading this will agree with!).
The first issue concerns the person of Jesus himself and is a problem for some (but not all) of a more anglo-catholic persuasion. It is argued that, as the priest at Holy Communion represents Christ and Christ was male, therefore the priest must be male. This is linked with a doctrine of ‘apostolic succession’ which understands ordained ministry as being validated by the continuity of the laying of hands at (male) ordination traced all the way back to the original (male) Apostles. The response to this would be that, although Christ was undoubtedly male, he was most significantly a human being and that on the cross he represented and gave his life for the whole of humanity, female and male. If this is true then he can surely be represented by both female and male priests equally.
The second issue, which causes a problem to some (but not all) evangelicals concerns how we interpret those passages in the New Testament that seem to affirm that ordained ministry in the church should be an exclusively male preserve. It should be borne in mind that the world in which the Bible was written was very much a man’s world. So, for example, when Paul was writing his letters, the cultural context was very different to the one we are used to in Britain today where gender equality is widely assumed. So the question is that when Paul assumes, as he seems to in his first letter to Timothy, that church leaders and helpers are male and when, I Corinthians 14, he says that ‘women should remain silent in the churches’, are his words and assumptions binding on all subsequent Christian generations? Some would say that in the context of ordained ministry the answer is ‘yes’; that this is God’s immovable and unchanging blueprint for the church – men must have the ultimate authority.
However I would argue that this approach is fair neither to the Bible nor to women. What we must take into account is that, whereas many of the New Testament churches certainly did have exclusively male leadership (and although there is not time here to look at this in detail, there were, for example, local contextual reasons for Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 14), others very clearly did not. In Romans 16 v 7 Paul refers to a certain ‘Junia’ who is both a woman and ‘outstanding among the apostles’. In Acts 21 v 9 Luke refers to four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist who all had a prophetic ministry. Given that apostles and prophets were regarded as the most important Christian ministers in New Testament times it is hugely significant that, at least in the churches in Rome and Caesarea (and surely these are not isolated examples), women undertook these key leadership roles. There is other evidence that women and men shared all of the major leadership roles in at least some of the New Testament churches.
So what about Jesus himself? Yes, he did choose twelve men to be his core ‘disciples’ (in line with contemporary rabbinic practice) but there were many women (a number of them, quite confusingly, called Mary!) among his closest followers one of whom, Mary Magdalene, who had the honour of being the first to testify as an apostolic witness when she told the rest of the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord Jesus.
So I don’t agree that the biblical evidence can justify twenty centuries of excluding that half of humanity that happens to be female from any of the ordained ministries in the church.
So let’s return to the Church of England in the 21st century. The ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood in recent years has immeasurably enriched the life and ministry of the church and it has been such a pleasure and a privilege to have worked at Norbury over the years with Karen Martin, Helen Scarisbrick and Jenny Mayo-Lythall; to have recognised their vocation and learned so much from their example as ordained priests. Given that enrichment it feels to me that there is a particular injustice in continuing to exclude women from the episcopate as if to say ‘thus far and no further’. I long for the day when the first woman bishop in consecrated and wish that General Synod had made that possible back In November.
Of course there are those within the Church of England who deeply disagree with the views I am expressing and it is very important that measures are put in place to enable them to remain within the church and to exercise the gifts that God has given to them. In a world where minorities are often treated with thoughtlessness and brutality we must show that the church of Jesus Christ is a place where we allow space for people to be who they are without offending conscience. Such measures were included in the women bishops measure and if some more work needs to be done on them it is important that it is undertaken urgently and sensitively. But this is too fundamental an issue to leave until another day (or five years’ time!) because it is undermining the mission and ministry of the church.
The quote from Rowan Williams with gives this blog its title does reflects how painful it has been for him personally to finish his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury on such a unhappy note. As we continue to pray and thank God for him we should also be in prayer for his successor, Justin Welby, a strong supporter of women bishops, that he may have wisdom and courage in abundance. I hope with all my heart that we can correct this injustice lying at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England at the earliest possible moment. Tomorrow would be good!