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Epitaph for an Archbishop? For fear of sailing over the edge of the world, he never put out to sea April 7, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Current Affairs.
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NO, THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY hasn’t died; but he does seem to be doing a remarkably good job at digging his own grave, at least insofar as establishing good relations with the LGBTI community is concerned. In February — on St Valentine’s Day, to be precise — together with the Archbishop of York he signed off the House of Bishops’ now notorious Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage; last month he appeared to signal an end to the Church of England’s opposition to same sex marriage but offered no lessening or withdrawal of the restrictions placed upon clergy in that Pastoral Guidance; and now this month, in a phone-in on LBC radio (full transcript), he has outlined some of the thinking behind his own resistance to change: if the Church of England recognises same sex marriage, Christians in Africa will die.

This is flat earth thinking at its worst (or best, depending on your point of view), refusing to put out to sea for fear of sailing off the edge of the world — in this case, the refusal to put out to sea being the Archbishop’s resistance to same sex marriage in the Church of England and the edge of the world being Africa and the fear of further atrocities by extremist homophobes.

It’s the kind of slippery slope reasoning typified by the so-called Coalition for Marriage, C4M, driven by their fear of unintended consequences, and the moral equivalent of refusing to offer sanctuary to Jews during the Second World War for fear of Nazi reprisals; of refusing to take a stand against racism in apartheid South Africa for fear of worse oppression; of arguing that women ought not to be educated in the UK for fear of Taliban reprisals in India; or refusing to speak out for Palestinian land rights for fear of Israeli bulldozers demolishing homes — the list could go on and on, as the atrocities surely will, for those whose hearts are full of hate will always find reasons to justify their evil.

The dangers are real: all of these fears have at least some validity, but allowing them to hold sway over our decisions is not the way of Christ, who gave his own life rather than capitulate to prejudice and hate; more than that, who called his followers to take up their cross and follow him. That Christians will die is a given, given by Christ himself, but that does not make the scenes the Archbishop has witnessed any less a tragedy.

Archbishop Justin Welby is a man with a massive heart, a heart for the poor, for the oppressed and the underdog, evidenced most recently by the launch of the Listen to God: Hear the Poor initiative with Cardinal Vincent Nichols. As I noted with reference to the House of Bishops, he is right in what he affirms, but wrong in what he denies: he is right to be appalled and he is right to call us to awareness of possible global consequences; but he is wrong to allow fear of those consequences to counter right action. Refusing to do what is right for fear of others doing what is wrong paves the way for evildoers to continue with their evil and it can never be the way of Christian thinking or living: to quote Kes (aka Rebel Rev), the priest who asked the question that led to the Archbishop’s remarks, “What Justin said put the power in the hands of the oppressors and those who wield violence.” (Rebel Rev lives up to her name).

But here in the Church of England in England, this leaves us with a deep seated problem: we have an Archbishop who has publicly stated his belief that sexual relations are for marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, but who also says that there must be no predetermined outcomes to the Church’s ongoing conversations about human sexuality; who has signed off a document — the Pastoral Guidance — that denies his fellow priests the right to follow their conscience but which caters specifically to his own; and the reason the conservative conscience must take priority over the progressive conscience is fear.

Thus we have an Archbishop who perceives himself not as refusing to do what is right for fear of others doing what is wrong but as refusing to sanction what he believes to be wrong and backing up that refusal for fear of possible consequences elsewhere, exacerbated further by a failure to recognise his attitude as homophobic: homophobia kills; he and the House of Bishops merely hold reservations. He most likely would not recognise this statement, but it is as if he has said, “Let us show solidarity with Africa’s homophobes in the hope that they will see that our homophobia is nicer and moderate their behaviour accordingly.” And that, of course, will never work: instead, Africa’s homophobes will — indeed, do — perceive the Church of England’s position as weakness whilst theirs is strength. Thus holding back on full equality here in England has the very opposite effect to that which ++Justin hopes for: rather than moderate their behaviour, Africa’s homophobes dig in their heels, turn up the heat and expect us to follow their lead.

There can only be one way through such a brick wall and that is enlightenment by God. That enlightenment will come, as it came for me, when those opposed to equal marriage see that their fear and prejudice are groundless. It will come not by our screaming, shouting, denouncements and ad hominem attacks against a man caught between the cliff of conservative resistance and the tide of progressive opinion but rather by our willingness to follow Christ regardless of personal cost, by our willingness to show love, to show the better way.

It will come not by calling for ++Justin Welby’s resignation but by prayerful engagement; by those in favour of equal marriage demonstrating that God is, indeed, with us; that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of LGBTI believers in exactly the same way as in the lives of all other Christians; by showing that God does not condemn but accepts all of us just the way we are, regardless of sexual orientation; and further, that God does not curse but blesses those committed to loving, faithful marital relationships, regardless of gender difference or identity.

Christ’s message is twofold: first of all, he bids us trust in God, fear not, for he is in the boat and it won’t go down; but then comes another storm and another challenge: suddenly he is not in the boat but out there in the storm, inviting us, like Peter, to risk all, to step out of the boat and walk with him among the wind and the waves of uncertainty. It is as if he says, Who dares wins — but not so, for Jesus says, Who loves wins; it is love that conquers fear, it is love that brings courage, it is love that wins.

Pray, then, with me for Archbishop Justin’s eyes to be opened. Pray that he will discover that love which drives out all fear, and in particular drives out his fear of where it might all end, his fear of sailing over the edge of the world — for the world is not flat, as some suppose, and the answer to that question of where it will all end is this: back at home, when we have circumnavigated the globe (not without some adventure, danger and yes, even death, along the way) and returned to safe harbour, to Jesus himself, the one who is Lord of the Church and who is able, more than able, to keep his Church from falling.

And pray too for our brothers and sisters in Africa…

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Howling at the Moon and a Failed Messiah April 22, 2011

Posted by Phil Groom in Lent & Easter, Short Story.
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I AM WOLF. I howl at the moon:

Look-look-look! Look-at-the-moon — the mooooon! The moooooooooon!

Your sheep hear my voice: they know me, and they tremble. As they should: they are easy prey by moonlight, their white coats highlighted against the darker fields, picked out by the moon — the moooooooon! They are as stupid as they are woolly, crowding together, heads inward, no lookouts, the strong pushing towards the centre, the weak exposed. Easy prey — I dash in, seize a haunch, a quick toss of my head, she flies high, I catch her by the throat: she is no longer sheep, but meat. I drag her away for peace and quiet, away from the incessant bleating and the smell of fear. Once I am gone, they quieten down.

It was easier then ever that night, brighter than ever, and the shepherds had gone, leaving only a hireling and a dog: both fled at my approach as the moon lit my path.

She is a harsh mistress, the moon. She knows no compassion in her endless rounds; and when she is full, we are lost, dazzled, beguiled, unable to hunt. Who can hunt by moonlight? We live by scent, not by sight: by moonlight our prey see us coming and they scatter to their holes, to their dens, to the air. Give us darkness, a new moon and silence — we pass you by, a whisper on the wind: you don’t know where we’ve come from or where we’re going and we ignore you. Have you any idea how disgusting human flesh tastes? Or how you smell, with your soaps and perfumes and the moon only knows what else you cover yourselves in?

When she is full, we are frustrated, we raise our heads and we cry:

Look-look-look! Look-at-the-moon — the mooooon! The moooooooooon!

Are your human minds truly as dull as your senses? You slam your doors, you lock them and double lock them, shuttering the windows to keep us out. Only your shepherds have the sense the moon gave them: they know we cannot hunt and so they gather their flocks in folds and lay themselves across the entries. True, they do not stink as the rest of you, they smell only of their charges, but still we will not cross their bodies. We know they are armed and that they will kill.

So we howl, louder and more insistently. And we remember: we remember the world as it was before you humans took it from us, when sheep were wild and the hunt was free — when a ram would charge us, enraged as we threatened his flock. But now, even the rams are tamed, pathetic creatures fathering runts on pathetic bundles of fear. You humans — you have all but destroyed our world, your world, and the closest most of you will ever come to us is a fox. Oh, what an insult, to be likened to those vermin! But that’s what you have done to our world.

Silverwind draws alongside and whispers to me: on with the story, he says, on with the story. I am too easily distracted nowadays as I await my homecoming.

You humans fear death, don’t you? Even your failed messiah sweated blood as he cried out to his father, surrounded by the sheep he had gathered around him. Human sheep, there for the slaughter as human wolves gathered around them. You are a strange breed, you humans: you fear us but you harbour far worse within your own community. I guess it’s a part of your aloneness: that none of you truly knows another or is truly known, isolated within your own minds, with your faulty, selective memories.

We wolves are never alone, even when separated from the pack; and we do not forget. We are one: one heart, one mind, one pack, one purpose, a unity stretching back through time to the first wolves who gave us birth. We inherit our ancestors’ memories as our memories are in turn inherited by our descendants, and we cannot die. True, our bodies grow old and frail, our bodies can be captured and butchered by you or your hounds as the whim takes you; and like you, we fight to survive: we do not surrender our bodies easily. But nor do we fight death when we know that our time has come: death holds no fear for us, for life is rooted in death, in rhythm and tide, in the balance of seasons.

Your failed messiah understood this, despite his fear: he knew where he came from, where he was going. He knew the power of memory, knew that his father would not forget him, and he put rituals in place to help his followers to remember. He came from a people of memory, he remembered his forebears, their fears and hopes and follies; and he lived in those memories, reawakening those fears and hopes but countering the fear with love, building on the hope with golden possibilities, with stories of enemies becoming friends. “Follow me,” he said, and they did, in droves.

This was his undoing: his popularity with the poor, with the outcasts, the weak and the lame. He welcomed them all: enemy collaborators, prostitutes and pimps. He turned no one away but bade them all to follow his way, his way of questioning and challenging the accepted way, of revisiting ancient memories and asking what they meant, where they pointed, what they could lead to.

We knew him. He loved our hills, our empty places, away from human company. He too howled at the moon, cried out to his father, wept with frustration, desperation, anger and grief. We mocked him at first: a god in human clothing. Ah, he laughed at that one and took his revenge: beware, he told his followers, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. That made us laugh more than ever and when he returned we danced, running rings around him as he dipped and dived and tried to keep up.

Failed Messiah, we called him, and he accepted the name — the name, the shame and the blame. He knew that he could not succeed: too many opposed him, too many had invested too much in the system that had brought them their wealth and status. But he refused to back down, to walk away: memory and hope drove him forward.

So you killed him. “He dances with wolves,” they said, and one of his own sheep, a wolf in sheep’s clothing but without a wolf’s honour, brought the dogs and the sheep ran away — all but one, but your failed messiah had seen the end from the beginning and told him to leave too.

We howled that night, howled as we had never howled before, howled until the cock crowed and the blood flowed and the human folly played itself out and he breathed his last, a failed messiah. One of the sheep found his courage and rescued the body. We gathered there that night, licked and pawed at the blood-soaked ground as his ghost moved amongst us. Silverwind, we named him, ghost of a failed messiah, who led us back into the desert and taught us to find ourselves.

We watched and we waited and his memory played true: his father remembered him and we knew, long before his followers found out. “Walk with me,” he said, “and remember the ancient paths.”

To those who remember, the ancient paths are still there, will always be there. I have walked them, I walk them still: but will you? Will you dance as he danced and risk your all to be free? Or, like so many of your kind, will you simply panic like sheep, the strong trampling over the weak as you force your way to the centre of your meaningless flock, forgetting that one day you will be the weak one pushed to the outside?

Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, he said, but be warier still of sheep who think only as sheep and of their own fortunes. There can be no life without the shedding of blood and much of it will be your own: the life that he offers is a blood-filled life; but it is a rich life if you will only learn to give it away.

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Broken, Bleeding, Betrayed: The Body of Christ Needs Hugs June 15, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Church.
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Christianity is a contact sport. If you belong to the Church of England you know that: the moment the priest announces the Peace, the pews explode as the people descend upon one another with whoops of enthusiasm — and deliver wet fish handshakes that make you feel like it’s a visit to the fishmonger’s rather than an encounter with a fellow pilgrim or a soulmate.

Don’t know about you but there are times when I need a hug, not a handshake. I need to know that the person I’m with is with me, not simply standing there in another private space. I need to know that we inhabit the same world under the same sky and share at least some of the same concerns. I need to connect, physically.

But that’s not allowed, is it? It’s not proper. It’s… too tactile. Too touchy-feely. Dangerous. Sensual. Ooh, now we’re approaching the nub of it. Can’t have Christians being sensual: it might turn sexual; and Christians don’t do sexual, do they?

They do, actually. It’s where the little Christians who mummy and daddy Christian bring to church with them come from.

But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem is fear. The same problem I highlighted in my last post about the BNP. Fear. Fear that the amazing, beautiful gift of physical contact that God has given us might . just . signal . something . else .

It’s a real fear, I’m not denying that. For those who’ve been abused by people who should have been trustworthy, by church leaders who’ve betrayed their calling, it’s a nightmare. But the greater reality is that such betrayals are not the norm. Let me say that again: abuse and betrayal are not the norm. Abuse is an aberration.

As followers of Jesus, we need to recognise that. We need to show that a better way is possible. We need to start from a position of trust. I’m not saying that’s easy. We live in a world of fear, where we’re constantly looking over our shoulders because the person behind us might be up to no good.

But in the church? Are we really starting from a position of distrust and suspicion? How can this be the body of Christ? Dear, sweet Jesus — is it any wonder you embraced the Cross with such passion? The pain of crucifixion has nothing on what your beloved is doing to her own body, tearing it apart week after week after week… repeating the words, “This is my body, broken for you…” but never seeing the blood spattered across her own damaged, beautiful, unearthly face…

And so hugs are declared too tactile. Too tactile. Too tactile for a community that follows an incarnate God … a God who walked amongst us and embraced lepers, who touched the dead, who spat on the ground and made mud that stuck to his fingers then gently, so gently placed, brought sight to the blind? This God of ours … this God who reaches out by coming down to meet us where we are, who dances with prostitutes and drinks with tax collectors … who turns water into wine whilst we do our best to turn wine into water … who celebrates the sheer physicality of life with barbecued fish on the beach for breakfast, walks besides us on empty roads … confounds our senses and disappears just as we begin to see him …

To those who think hugs are dangerous I say: my God hugs!! Let all the world in every corner sing: our God hugs! He reaches out, embraces humanity in all its wretched brokenness … and dies only to rise and say, put your hand here in my side, touch my hands, know that it is I …

This is God’s answer to the fear of physicality: incarnation followed by resurrection. No disembodied souls for our God but grounded, glorious down-to-earth physicality. We say: Do not touch! Do not walk on the grass! Do not pass go! Jesus says: Get out of jail free! Jesus frees us but we dare not be free. Jesus breaks down the walls but we demand barriers and safety nets.

And yes, sadly, we do need them. But first, we need trust. We need faith. We need hope. We need love: and perfect love drives out all fear. Perfect love leaves room for touch, cries out for contact.

Try it sometime. Break free from the wet fish handshakes and give your neighbour a hug.

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