The Rise of the ‘Nones’

One of the great advantages of the pandemic (not that there have been many!) has been the ability to attend training sessions and other events from the comfort of your own home by video conferencing. (Admittedly, you have to make your own coffee, but at least you don’t need to find a parking space.) The Church of England has hosted a number of these ‘webinars’, including one entitled Connecting with Young Adults – exploring the world of the ‘Nones’. The ‘nones’ (not to be confused with ‘nuns’ – yes, they did make that joke) are a contemporary phenomenon. They were identified by Professor Linda Woodhead in a lecture given in 2016. From about 2013 in the UK, when you ask people what their religion is, just over half of them say ‘none’. We now live in a culture in which ‘no religion’ is in the majority. Amongst younger people the situation is even more stark. 70% of young adults now say they have no religion. Those who do say they have a religion are divided approximately equally between Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. (Of these, I think it is true to say that Muslims are most likely to express their faith actively, through attending worship and so on.)

Dr Ruth Perrin, who presented the webinar said that the rise of the ‘nones’ can partly be explained by their honesty. Older generations, filling in forms, when asked to indicate their religion would be more likely to tick ‘C of E’ regardless of how actively they practised their faith. That expectation is now gone, so younger people are far more likely to say that they have no religion, rather than tick the ‘C of E’ box. The rise of secularism has been going on for centuries, but young adults have grown up in a world where a secular viewpoint has become the norm. Whereas older generations might have had a sense that there was ‘more to life than this’, today’s young adults are more likely to believe that nothing is real unless it can be known by experience or proved by science.

Young adults are also much more sceptical of authority in all its forms – whether it’s government, journalism, financial institutions, or the Church. And the Church has had too many scandals to be readily trusted.

As the webinar presenters said, it’s really hard to have a religious identity in this environment.

How then does the Church reach the ‘nones’? To begin with, we need to understand something of how culture has changed from one generation to the next. Dr Perrin told the story of how, as a young woman, if she wanted to call a boyfriend without her parents listening in, she had to go out to a phone box in the street. To young adults and young people, that is unimaginable: they have their phones with them constantly and are connected to whole networks of people via devices that they have in their pockets and bedrooms. One of the findings of research into the world of young adults suggests that they are ‘connected but alone’. In other words, they can communicate with any number of people anywhere in the world, but they still report feeling lonely.

We inherit values from our parents and grandparents, but what happens in our teenage years affects how we understand the world for the rest of our lives. So, just think what it was like being a teenager when you were one, and how that has changed for each subsequent generation. You may be familiar with this classification: if you were born before about 1939, you belong to the ‘Silent Generation’. Next come the ‘Baby Boomers’ (born 1940 to 1959), followed by ‘Generation X’ (born 1960 to 1979).

Today’s young adults are ‘Generation Y’, also known as ‘Millennials’. Born between 1980 and 1994, they came of age in the current millennium. Then comes ‘Generation Z’, born 1995 to 2010. (Greta Thunberg belongs to Gen Z). (If you are wondering what comes after Z, those born since 2010, the answer is ‘Generation Alpha’.)

You might think that everyone younger than you belongs to the same world, but there are differences between the age groups: Millennials will tell you that they don’t understand today’s teenagers! So, what chance do the church’s Boomers have?!

One criticism that is often made of the church is that we are keen to answer questions that people aren’t asking. There is a disconnect between what we do, and the lives of younger adults. Much of what we do is not meaningful. Imagine walking into a communion service in one of our churches when you have never learned the significance of what is happening to those who take part. It’s just mystifying. (Dr Perrin told the story of a young adult who was invited to attend a church service. She said she would be interested to go, but didn’t think she could because she didn’t have a ‘ticket’. She had assumed it would be like the gym where you need to be a member to use the facilities.)

It’s not that young adults are all hostile to the church (that was more prevalent among Boomers and Gen X), they just have no exposure to or understanding of what we do. Linda Woodhead describes them as ‘maybes, don’t knows, and not sures’, rather than ‘Dawkins-esque atheists’. And it’s not that they don’t care about anything. They do care about many things: the environment, justice, poverty, mental health, issues of race, gender and identity. These are areas where the Church is not considered to have anything very much to say.

We believe that the Gospel has a lot to offer in response to those questions. But Dr Perrin’s point was that we need to begin by listening. During the pandemic, 29% of young adults reported symptoms of depression. How can the Church contribute to the support that young adults need? One local example of good practice is the church’s presence at the Creamfields festival: we have heard from Linda (Buckley, our Reader) about the contact made with young adults attending the festival. Many of them assume that the church wants nothing to do with them, or that it has nothing to offer, other than judgment. But Linda and other church volunteers host a safe space, offering water and Jammie Dodgers, and a listening ear. They have had many valuable conversations with young adults who are prepared to open up to a supportive older adult who is prepared to listen without judging.

Dave Male, the Church of England’s Director of Evangelism & Discipleship, who hosted the webinar asked Dr Perrin if she was encouraged by the optimistic reports of young adults’ interest in spirituality (broadly defined), or in despair because of their lack of interest in the Christian Church. Dr Perrin was torn: she despaired at the lack of connection but believed that:

“God is equidistant from every generation.”

How then do we connect with young adults? It’s not about being ‘trendy’: young adults are very aware of fakery, and are looking for authenticity and sincerity. It is about building relationships which means a consistent, caring presence over time. The Church doesn’t need programmes aimed at young adults, it needs to offer hospitality and relationship.

On the other hand, young adults are digital natives – they have never known a world without the internet and other information technologies. For them, social media is the front door. If you don’t have a social media presence, you don’t exist. We are very proud of the work we have done during the pandemic with taking our worship and other events online. But while many of us (Boomers and Gen X-ers) are at home on Facebook, Millennials and Gen Y-ers have abandoned Facebook (because it’s not cool) and live instead on Instagram and Snapchat. (By the time you read this, they’ll have abandoned those and moved on elsewhere.) We’ll never be able to keep up with them, but that’s not really the point. They’re good at detecting fakery and any attempts to appear ‘relevant’ will be rejected as insincere. What young adults are after – what all of us are after, really – is authenticity and relationship.

You may know that the Church of England is looking at its vision for the 2020s. The Archbishops have expressed this in terms of the Church’s need to be simpler, humbler, and bolder. They have identified as a strategic priority, “A church that is younger and more diverse”. For your prayerful consideration: how can our churches become simpler, humbler, and bolder, and how will we work towards becoming younger and more diverse?

Mothering

In a Strange Land

In a pub quiz at some point in the future, the host will ask, ‘in what year did the Tokyo 2020 Olympics take place?’ At the time of writing, the answer looks like it might be 2021, but that’s still uncertain. In a future church quiz, the host will ask, ‘in 2020, which was the first church service to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?’ The answer to that is the one that was planned for Mothering Sunday on 22 March 2020.

In other words, it’s been nearly a year since the Prime Minister took the remarkable step of announcing that churches would have to close. The Church of England followed this by confirming that church buildings would be closed for services, including weddings and baptisms, and that funerals would only be able to take place at crematoria or at the graveside, not in church buildings.

A lot of legislation, guidance, and instructions, followed. At times it seemed as though the advice changed daily, and we got used to waiting for the next announcement from the Prime Minister and his advisors, followed by statements from the Church about how to put all this into practice. At first, the new rules were in place for a period of three weeks, and here we are, a year later, having been through various levels of lockdown and restrictions. We might think of this experience as one of ‘exile’. Like the psalmist, lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, who asks

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137.4

We have been living in a strange land. It’s difficult to get this past year into perspective. We very quickly got used to describing things as ‘unprecedented’ (although, as I have noted elsewhere, humanity has lived through many existential threats in its history. It’s just that we modern folk in the developed world had got used to a relatively secure existence.) We took to online worship and discovered new ways of doing things. No one had heard of Zoom, and now here we are, Zooming away to our hearts’ content. (Recently, during a streamed service of Compline for Lent, my Zoom crashed and had to be restarted in the middle of the prayers. Sadly, I missed the opportunity to announce that ‘normal service will be re-zoomed as soon as possible’.)

We’ve got used to hand-washing, face-covering, and social distancing. We stay at home unless we have to go out, and we go out for walks in every kind of weather, if we are able. Over on social media there are still people arguing that COVID19 is a hoax, or manmade, and that government rules are designed to limit our freedom in order to implement some diabolical global plan (funded by Bill Gates, apparently). (These are the same people arguing that the moon landings were faked and that the earth is flat.)

In the mainstream media, there are arguments about how the pandemic should be handled and about how and when we are going to recover. There are also arguments about what the church should have done and what it should do now.

Mother Church

The pandemic has clearly had a massive impact on the church. Not least because so many of our most faithful supporters and generous givers are in the age group which has been most affected. The pandemic has brought into the light some trends that were well underway before the coronavirus struck. You may have seen in the media that the Diocese of Chelmsford is planning to cut clergy posts and is appealing for more funds to support clergy numbers. The pandemic may have accelerated that process, but I understand that the Chelmsford diocesan board of finance was saying back in 2017 that the shortfall in parish share (the money that parishes give to the diocese to support mission and ministry) would “consume all the diocesan reserves by 2020”. Similar situations exist in other dioceses. As far as I know, there are no plans in Chester diocese to make clergy redundant or to close churches, but it does seem likely that, when clergy retire, or move on, their replacement will take longer to arrive, if at all.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have responded to media speculation with an article in The Spectator magazine which was headed ‘A defence of the Church of England’. (Some will be quick to point out that Stephen Cottrell, who became Archbishop of York in July 2020, was, before that, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the diocese referred to above.) The Archbishops note that, in media coverage of the pandemic, you might have seen the question, ‘Where is the C of E?’. They offer an answer:

We have been burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry and praying for our nation. We have been doing this not as superheroes, but as human beings living through the same crisis as everyone else: grieving, home-schooling, worrying, getting sick, shielding, isolating, weeping.

My own experience of the pandemic has included bereavement – my mother died from COVID19 very early on. My father was hospitalised and unable to attend her funeral. (I have written about this in my personal blog.) I have also had anxiety over loved ones who have been ill. I have had the frustration of not being able to visit family in this country and abroad; of children and grandchildren that I can see on a screen but not hold or hug.

In my ministry there have been so many things that I have not been able to do, or have had to do differently, from livestreaming worship to conducting funerals at the graveside, having only spoken to the families by phone or video call.

The Archbishops talk about their shock at reading what the media say is happening to the Church and they try to set the record straight:

There are no plans to dismantle the parish network. We are committed to our calling to be a Christian presence in every community.

They point out that, while some churches have closed, over 100 new congregations and churches have been planted in recent years. The Church is committed to maintaining its presence in the poorest parts of the country and in rural areas. Although there are large numbers of clergy retiring, this year has seen “the biggest rise in ordained and lay vocations for a quarter of a century.”

Of course, the Church faces huge challenges – as it did before the pandemic – including the maintenance of its buildings and the financial cost of sustaining mission and ministry across the whole country. The most recent financial report for the Church of England is from 2019 (pre-COVID). This shows that, in nearly half of the parishes in the country, annual income is not enough to cover annual expenditure. Only a quarter of parishes have enough annual income to cover five extra weeks of expenditure. The biggest item of expenditure is, of course, parish share.

A piece in the Church Times points out that we find ourselves in a new place:

there has never been a time in the Church’s history when either the organisation or the buildings were funded on a democratic basis by the people in the pews.

In other words, in the past the Church of England was funded in part by rich benefactors and in part by tithes imposed on the less wealthy. The situation now is that, if we want to continue as a national, parochial, church, the funding has to come from “purely voluntary, deliberate giving by ordinary parishioners”. And that is a shock to the system!

In our two churches, we face huge issues, but we are not alone.

Mothering Sunday

I began by saying that our current experience of ‘exile’ started with Mothering Sunday in 2020, and here we find ourselves approaching that occasion again. In my sermons for Mothering Sunday, I usually point out that the Christian festival has all but been overtaken by the secular celebration of Mothers’ Day. But in church our thoughts are not just with mums but also with our ‘mother church’. Traditionally, people would visit the church where they were baptised (their ‘mother church’) or the cathedral (the ‘mother church’ of the diocese). Young girls in service would be given the day off and this would mean they were able to visit family, including their mothers.

Mothering Sunday falls mid-Lent on a day also called Laetare Sunday. ‘Laetare’ is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ and is taken from the traditional texts set for the fourth Sunday of Lent. Isaiah 66.10, 11 tells God’s people to ‘Rejoice with Jerusalem’ and pictures Jerusalem as a nursing mother to her children. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul takes up the story of Abraham and his descendants. We are Abraham’s spiritual children, and our ‘mother’ is the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4.21-31).

The traditional gospel reading for Laetare Sunday is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This became associated with a relaxation of strict Lenten fasting and the day was also called ‘Refreshment Sunday’. Gifts of cakes and buns were made for Mothering Sunday to be given to parents. Simnel cake became particularly associated with this tradition.

At the time of writing, we are starting to hear of the proposed roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions. The success of the UK’s vaccination programme provides a glimmer of hope, but we are all warned that the road ahead must be travelled slowly and cautiously.

The twin focuses of Mothering Sunday – family and church – are both going to be affected by restrictions, this year at least. We live in hope that next year we will be in a better place. But as things stand, both family and church could do with a bit of love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

February sees us marking Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: both ultimately to do with love and both affected by the current pandemic. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, which would have been perfect for the weddings afternoon that we have held at St Matthew’s for a number of years. We should have been inviting couples who have booked weddings with us to a meeting in church with the prospect of a glass of fizz and the opportunity to talk about the plans for their big day. It has always been an enjoyable occasion as we have welcomed couples, and their guests, and shared their excitement.

25 people attended last year’s event – brides and grooms, bridesmaids and best men, mums and dads. We offered them a cup of tea and a piece of cake, showed photographs of weddings from previous years, played the bridal march, and interviewed some returning couples who said – without being bribed and with very little prompting – what a fabulous wedding ceremony they had had at St Matthew’s. ‘Perfect’, was the word they used.

We also had bellringers, flower arrangers, a musician, a warden, and a verger, to talk about what they could offer to make each wedding personal and special.

In the end, of the six weddings booked at St Matthew’s for 2020, only one actually took place – a much-reduced ceremony postponed to Christmas Eve for a couple determined to get married whatever the circumstances! The wedding was very different from what they had originally envisaged, but it was nonetheless a very special and memorable occasion.

At the start of 2021, we have a number of couples looking anxiously at the restrictions in place and wondering if, by the time their wedding day comes around, they will be able to celebrate as they hoped, or if they will have to postpone yet again.

Lent, Holy Week and Easter

The Church of England has also published advice on how to mark Lent, Holy Week and Easter in a COVID-secure way. Ash Wednesday – which falls on 17 February this year – has traditionally been marked by a service including the Imposition of Ashes. This is usually done by the priest making the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead in a mixture of ash (made from last year’s Palm crosses) and oil. But how do you do that safely in a pandemic where social distancing is prescribed? The guidance suggests sprinkling the ash on the forehead; but I don’t see that going well: worshippers will be getting it in their eyes, on their clothes, up their noses and everywhere. I’m not sure it’s something we can do in a dignified manner. So, maybe the imposition of ashes is one of the things we’ll have to give up for Lent this year?

What’s Love got to Do with it?

I started by saying that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were both ultimately to do with love. Valentine’s Day celebrates romantic love. It was originally a Christian festival honouring a martyr (or two) of that name who possibly performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Of course, the saints’ feast day falls in Spring when, according to the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. The romantic associations of Valentine’s Day ensure the sales of cards, chocolates and flowers, and make it hard to get a table in a restaurant, at least in a normal year.

But turning to Ash Wednesday, and paraphrasing Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” Most churchgoers associate Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and being tempted by Satan. Lent, however, has varied in length through its history and was associated with solemn preparation for Easter, particularly by those who were to be baptised and those seeking to be reconciled to the church. The practice of abstinence, prayer, and study recommended itself to other Christians and became a part of the Church’s year. If you do decide to follow some Lenten observance, starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Eve (or Holy Saturday), then have a look at your calendar: you’ll see that it adds up to 46 days. How do we reckon the 40 days of Lent? Well, obviously, as I am fond of pointing out, Sundays don’t count! Why? Because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, a little Easter. It’s a day for feasting (in moderation, of course), not fasting.

But what’s love got to do with it? The bible tells us that

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life

John 3.16

This self-giving of God shows us what love looks like. Our loved-up wedding couples are just one example of what love can do. It changes lives. Jesus shows us what love looks like taken to the infinite degree. He holds nothing back but gives his all for the world he loves. The story of Good Friday is the story of love without limit. The Easter gospel of resurrection shows us that a love like that knows no bounds. It is eternal.

Love in the time of coronavirus may feel in short supply, particularly for those who live alone; or for those who share a home with someone they don’t love, or who doesn’t love them. But we hold on. We hold on to our conviction that, at the end of the day, love wins.

Perhaps the saint for our times is Julian of Norwich (1342 to 1416). Mother Julian lived in the wake of the Black Death and was – as we would say today – self-isolating in a small cell linked to St Julian’s church in Norwich. She experienced a world devastated by plague, and her own sickness led her to believe that she was on her deathbed. Into this darkness came the light of Christ, in the form of visions (‘shewings’ or revelations) of God’s love, demonstrated particularly in the passion of Christ.

In one vision, Julian sees something no bigger than a hazelnut, sitting in the palm of her hand. What is it?, she asks. She is told that this everything that God has made. She is amazed and concerned by its littleness and fragility. How can something so tiny and so vulnerable survive? The answer?

It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

Mother Julian sees God’s creation as loved and sustained by God.

How shall we see our world? The world glimpsed only through windows if we are shielding. The world we encounter on our daily walk (if we are able to get out). The world seen through fogged-up glasses (if we wear them with a mask). The pandemic reminds us just how fragile our world is.

Before AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and now covid-19, it was tuberculosis, the plague, cholera, typhoid, and influenza that cut swathes through the populations of the world. Perching like puffins on the cliff edge is the historically normal situation for humanity, but we had forgotten.

The precariousness of our existence is an uncomfortable thing to dwell on. But we have come through a year in which there were tens of thousands of excess deaths in the UK, and we are not through yet. Julian believed that our fragile world was created and is sustained by divine love. So I will give the last word to her, finding light in the darkness:

but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well

Alan Jewell

Epiphany: The Light Shines

For my Christmas sermon, I noted how difficult it was to celebrate Christmas without singing – at least, without singing in church. We did, of course, manage a couple of carol services, following the appropriate regulations and guidance which allowed carol singing to take place outdoors. The St Matthew’s service was held in the car park of Pewterspear Green sports pavilion (thanks to the trustees) and the St Cross service took place outside the church building. Both of these events were appreciated by all who attended, and both were special, memorable occasions. My thanks to those who worked hard to make them happen and everyone who supported them.

The St Matthew’s service came together surprisingly well, given the logistical challenges we faced. We were able to run a cable from the pavilion to power a public address system; and the car park security lighting meant that we weren’t in the dark. Even with the lighting and torches, however, it was difficult to see who was there, but we reckon that there were 66 people in attendance.

I learned afterwards that some in the congregation had seen shooting stars above our heads while the service was taking place; I’m sorry I didn’t see them myself! It occurred to me that, although we have mostly been thinking about what we have lost due to the pandemic, there might also be some things that we have gained: like the opportunity to see shooting stars overhead while singing Christmas carols. That’s something that would never have happened during a service in a church building!

The carol service at St Cross was also a great success. Things were a little easier to manage there as we were on our own turf. Over 50 people joined us, and some said, as it ended, “We should do this again next year!”

I didn’t hear any reports of shooting stars during the St Cross carol service, but earlier in the evening I did see the so-called ‘Christmas star‘. This conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky, something which hadn’t been seen for 800 years (and your next opportunity to witness the event is 400 years away), has been compared to the star over Bethlehem which we read about in Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2.1-12). Early in the 17th century, the German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, proposed that the biblical star of Bethlehem was in fact a conjunction of these planets.

Stars and other heavenly bodies have always been popularly associated with, well, the heavens. Halley’s comet, for example, has made some notable appearances in history that have been equated with good or bad news, including in 1066 where it was seen as prophesying the Norman Conquest and the defeat of King Harold. It is depicted as such in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Whatever the astronomical facts, Matthew tells us that

after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
(Matthew 2.1,2)

These wise men, or Magi – Persian astrologer priests – have seen a new star which they interpret as a sign that a new ‘king of the Jews’ has been born. This is bad news for the man who currently holds the title! Herod the Great was given his position as king of Judea thanks to the pagan Emperor Augustus (who proclaimed himself as ‘son of the divine’ after his adoptive father, Julius Caesar was posthumously deified). To Herod, this new star in the sky is no good omen, but a sign that his position is under threat. Herod was ‘notorious for reacting savagely to rivals’ and the story that unfolds is in keeping with that.

The idea of light coming out of darkness is very familiar in our bibles, from the creation story in Genesis, to the Book of Revelation:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good;
Genesis 1.1-3

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, there is a prophetic word that

a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel;
(Numbers 24.17)

This came to be seen as pointing to a time when a leader would be given to God’s people. Matthew presents us with a star that leads the wise to Jesus, who will be King, not just for Jews but for Gentiles too (the Magi were, of course, not Jewish).

In John’s great preface to his gospel, the reading we hear in church on Christmas Night, we are told that in the coming of Jesus is life, and:

the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.4,5)

In the teaching of Jesus we often see darkness and light contrasted. Our lives are to reflect God’s light into a dark world:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5.16)

The New Testament book of Revelation presents us with Jesus as ‘the bright morning star’:

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.
I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’
(Revelation 22.16)

Seeing shooting stars or the Christmas star as part of our Christmas celebrations might just give us hope that, in a dark world, light still shines. At the time of writing, although a new national lockdown has been declared, we are also encouraged by the rollout of vaccines that might just enable us to turn the tide against this pandemic.

At the start of the new year, and as we hear the story of the wise seeking Jesus by following a star in the sky, let us have faith that, in whatever else we face:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
(John 1.4,5)

The Virgin Mary

The Blessed Virgin Mary, a picture of serenity in stained glass window or pious painted scene. In your blue cloak, and in quiet contemplation, you wait devoutly for the Angel to bring you his news.

But I wonder… I wonder if it was like that. Centuries of art, religious tradition and the occasional nativity play, may have got between you and us. Even your name, Mary – you sound so British! Or possibly Irish. ‘Mary’. If we think of you as a Miriam, we get a little closer to the Jewish peasant girl. You were just a teenager, really, betrothed to Joseph – older than yourself, probably – when the news came. An unplanned teenage pregnancy! You were not the first to find yourself in that difficult position; and not the last either! Fortunately, your Joseph is a decent chap and a quick word from an Angel of the Lord puts him in the picture too.

In the children’s nativity play, Baby Jesus arrives in the arms of an angel with tinsel wings, and is plonked unceremoniously into the makeshift crib. I wonder if his birth was as easy as that. I have a feeling that it wasn’t… No NHS hospital bed for you. No birthing pool. No ‘gas and air’. Not even the comfort and familiarity of your own home. Just you and that old man of yours and now you’re a family: the baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and placed in a manger. “Because there was no room at the inn”. Don’t think for a moment that’s what you’d imagined for your firstborn. In the nativity play, you sit on a piano stool and cheerfully welcome your strange visitors – shepherds in dressing gowns and tea-towel headdresses, and wise men with their turbans, cloaks and strange ideas about what makes a suitable gift for a baby. Their words, we are told, you treasured and pondered. Well, you’ll need something to sustain you: old Simeon will tell you, when he meets your little one that being his mother will break your heart: a sword will pierce your soul.

Oh, Miriam! Who could have known what lay in store when you said those words to the Angel,

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

 

The Virgin Birth

On Sunday (Advent 4), I spoke about the Virgin Mary – or ‘young Miriam’ as I like to call her. Someone who heard the sermon emailed me after to tell me something that a doctor friend had said to her:

“If a teenage girl came to me claiming a ‘virgin birth’, I’d say, ‘pull the other one’!”

My email correspondent wondered if the church had any explanation.

I had to say that, no, I don’t think the Church has an explanation. There’s a video of Richard Dawkins interviewing (former Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams about creation and miracle. Williams says that to talk of the virgin birth is to use the language of poetry, rather than science. Dawkins challenges him on this, asking whether he believes that the virgin birth is ‘true’ (not merely poetry). Williams says that he does, and that, equally, he believes in the empty tomb, because of who he believes Jesus is. Dawkins describes argument as ‘circular’: you believe what the Gospels say about Jesus because you believe what the Gospels say… Williams replies that there is enough about the ‘circle’ of Christian belief and Christian experience that he was prepared to ‘jump in’. Williams says that miracle is not God breaking in to the universe, or breaking his own rules, but that God the Creator has brought everything into being in such a way that there is consistency (the cause and effect that science requires) but also the possibility of an openness to God breaking through in particular ways. He would say that the virgin birth and the empty tomb are moments of openness to God breaking through – not breaking the laws of nature (which are God’s laws) but breaking through, in a way that is consistent with God’s self.

The Virgin Conception of Jesus in Scripture

The virgin conception of Jesus is there in scripture, at least in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark and John don’t tell us anything about Jesus’s birth, neither does St Paul. You could argue that they were not aware of this tradition, or that they simply assumed it as an accepted part of Christian faith that did not need stating. Luke 1.26-38 records the annunciation to Mary, that she will conceive a child, and Mary’s very reasonable question about how this can be, since she is a virgin. There is no attempt at a scientific explanation. This is simply God at work. Matthew 1.18-23 ties this in to the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7.14. Matthew is particularly interested in the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy).

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’.

The tricky thing about this is that the Hebrew text of Isaiah refers to a young woman, and not to a virgin. (They are not mutually exclusive of course, but Isaiah doesn’t specifically say that the young woman was a virgin.) Matthew was using a Greek bible which renders this word as ‘virgin’. Which is not to say that the doctrine rests on a faulty translation: some would argue that Matthew used the Greek text precisely to make the point that Jesus was born of a virgin.

The Creeds

The Church’s creeds make it an article of faith that Jesus Christ was ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary’, and the Church of England accepts scripture and the creeds as the basis of our faith. (Very early in the history of the Church there was the claim that Jesus was the result of some form of congress between Mary and a Roman soldier – whether consensual or not.)

A colleague of mine from a previous parish thought that the idea of Jesus being born of a virgin was a very bad doctrine: he felt that it was unhelpful that Jesus was different to the rest of us. Professor Ian Markham, who taught me for my MA in Ecumenical Theology, said that many church-goers had ‘grotesque’ views on how Mary got pregnant, more in common with pagan myths in which gods impregnate human women. (Zeus seems to have been at it all the time!)

The insistence of Mary remaining a virgin even after her marriage to Joseph does seem to me to betray a very unhealthy view of sex and gender, tied to an unhealthy view of sin.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book, “The First Christmas” compare the gospel accounts of Jesus’s conception with those of divine conceptions in Jewish and Pagan stories. They argue that, while there are similarities, Matthew and Luke are making the point that the conception story of Jesus demonstrates how Jesus is greater than those from other sources. The Christian teaching (predating Matthew and Luke) that the Gospels are reflecting is the claim that “Mary remained a virgin before, during and after conception (not birth) – and that made her divine conception different from and greater than all others”. In particular, the conception and birth stories of Jesus are contrasted with those of Caesar Augustus, who also claimed to be descended from God.

Borg and Crossan say “It is that divine conception that counts. It is the theology of the child and not the biology of the mother that is at stake.” They are very good on drawing out the consequences of the earliest declaration of Christian faith: ‘Jesus is Lord’. If Jesus is Lord, then it means that the emperor is not, even though he believes that he is. The gospel, then, presents us with a choice: who is Lord of my life? Caesar or Christ?

Parthenogenesis and Poetry

I’m aware that in the animal kingdom, parthenogenesis exists – ie asexual reproduction. But that can only produce female offspring. So, no, I’m not aware that there is an ‘explanation’ of the virgin conception of Jesus, certainly not from a scientific standpoint. Maybe Rowan Williams is right: that God has created the universe in such a way that occasionally things happen that do not conform to our understanding of scientific laws (but which are not contrary to those laws). Or maybe this is closer to poetry than to science. Whatever it is, it is about who Jesus is, the incarnate Son of God and invites us to choose where we put our faith. The gospel is an invitation to ‘jump in’ the story of the God who is made known to us in Jesus.

My correspondent’s doctor friend makes a good point, though!

Comfort and Joy in the Old Testament 3.

Isaiah 9.2,6,7

The prophet foretells the coming of the Saviour

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9.2,6,7

When we read the bible looking for universal truths, applicable to our own lives, our own times, we sometimes forget that the texts we are reading were written in particular places at particular times, far away and long ago. The book of the prophet Isaiah is named after a man who lived in the eighth century BC (‘before Christ’) Isaiah ben (son of) Amoz. At that time, the people of the bible (our Old Testament) were divided between two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah – centred on Jerusalem – in the south. Not only were the kingdoms divided, at times they were also at war with each other. In Isaiah’s day, the expanding world power was the Assyrian Empire. When the Assyrians planned to conquer both Israel and Judah, amongst others, the king of Israel and the king of Syria tried to enlist Ahaz the king of Judah in an alliance against Assyria. That failed, and Israel and Syria joined forces against Judah in an attempt to replace Ahaz with a king who was more amenable. Ahaz turned to Assyria for help against Israel and Syria, and Judah (the southern kingdom) became a vassal to Assyria.

The Assyrian Empire invaded Syria, and then Israel, which fell in 722 BC. When the Assyrian ruler was killed in battle, Ahaz’s son, king Hezekiah, rebelled against Assyria trying to take advantage of the power struggle going on. Hezekiah made an alliance with the Babylonian empire against the Assyrians, and tried to get Egypt to step in and help him. The king of Assyria conquered Judah, but left Jerusalem alone on the condition that Hezekiah paid tribute.

In the following century, the Assyrian empire weakened, and it was the Babylonians who were in the ascendant. The Babylonians destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and took on Egypt, with poor old Judah stuck in the middle. In the year 605 BC, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptian pharaoh, Neco, and Babylon became top dog.

The king of Judah was now Zedekiah. He rebelled against Babylon, and as a result, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, and took much of its population into exile in Babylon.

Fast forward to the C6th BC. Another great empire arises, the Persians, under king Cyrus. The Persians defeated Babylon, and Cyrus was declared king. One of the things that Cyrus did was to allow exiled peoples to return to their homes, including the Jews who would rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple.

Now, this is not a history lesson – there won’t be a test at the end – and you’ll understand that I don’t carry this stuff around in my head all the time; I’ve had to look it up! But the historical events described form the background to the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah ben Amoz himself lived through the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judah, but the book takes on a life of its own under subsequent prophets, interpreters, and editors, reflecting on his wisdom and insights in the light of their historical experience – of exile and restoration.

In chapter 7 of the book of Isaiah, we read that king Ahaz was so afraid of the Impending attack from the kings of Israel and Syria that “his heart shook like the trees of the forest” on a windy day (Isaiah 7.2).

So, the LORD said to Isaiah, Go out and meet Ahaz, and tell him not to be afraid of “these two smouldering stumps of firebrands”, and to warn him, that if he does not “stand firm in faith”, he “shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7.9) He tells Ahaz to trust in God rather than foreign allies (the Assyrians).

To encourage him, Isaiah says Ahaz should ask God for a sign. Ahaz, being a pious chap, refuses because he “will not put the LORD to the test”. Which is a good answer, but if God is the one offering the sign, maybe you should agree?

Isaiah says, like it or not, God will give Ahaz a sign:

the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel

Isaiah 7.14

So now you know where that comes from. Matthew quotes it (from the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, which uses the word ‘virgin’ rather than ‘young woman’) in his telling of the nativity story (Matthew 1.23). Immanuel means “God is with us”. Its an encouraging sign for Ahaz, if he has the courage to receive it. He doesn’t. And the prophet foresees a time of gloom and darkness until Ahaz is replaced by a new king in the line of King David.

What does Isaiah see after the gloom and darkness?

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this

Isaiah 9.2,6,7

So, in Isaiah, we see a message of hope, of comfort and joy, but not yet. First, there will be darkness, deep darkness. But beyond that, if you can just hold on, there is light. It may be at the end of a tunnel, but there is light.

It would be nice to think that Christmas would mean an end to the darkness that we have all experienced this year. But that doesn’t look likely. The message of Christmas is that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. So, hold on. Hold on!

Most of my research for this piece comes from Marvin A Sweeney’s introduction to and commentary on Isaiah in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fifth Edition Copyright (c) 2018 by Oxford University Press USA. And then there’s always Wikipedia, of course.

You can see the video of this reflection here

Advent Themes

On Thursday I spoke – via video link, of course – with a group of Y6 children from one of our local primary schools. They had been looking at Advent and Christmas and had prepared a number of questions for me. These included

What do you wear on Christmas Day? I spoke about my surplice and the colour of my stole. I think they really wanted to know if I had a Christmas jumper. (I do.)

What do you eat on Christmas Day? I spoke about the Christmas puddings I usually make, following Nanny Wellington’s secret recipe. (Not this year, I’m afraid.)

And then I was asked about the themes of Advent. I had to think carefully. The traditional themes for Advent meditation are ‘the Four Last Things’:

Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell

The traditional sermon on Advent Sunday would talk about the Second Coming of Christ as judge and king; useful if the preacher feels the need to tell their congregation to ‘straighten up and fly right’.

“Are you ready to meet God when he comes as judge and king?”

Up to this point, the lesson had been pretty upbeat, and I didn’t want to bring things down. What I said was that, during Advent, Christians try to find some time to reflect on what kind of person they are and what kind of person they would like to be. It’s always difficult, given the rush to be festive that is going on all around us, but our weekly service of Compline and reflection gives an opportunity to take time out from the commercial and other pressures in the run-up to Christmas.

But this year, everything is different. When did Advent begin, that season of solemn reflection? There were no services in church on Advent Sunday. The first candle on the Advent wreath was lit virtually. It seems to me that, this year, Advent began just before Mothering Sunday, the first lockdown. We have had so much time to reflect on our own mortality and shortcomings, waiting for something better to come along, that it seems like we have been in Advent for ever. And the Christmas we are preparing for will be muted and limited. So, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s not use our Advent sermons and services to preach about the need to straighten up and fly right.

Let’s not pretend that the Christmas message is the one that says “he’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Instead, let’s hear the ‘comfort and joy’ that God offers in coming to us as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

Comfort and Joy in the Old Testament 1.

In these weekly reflections for Advent, we are going to be using the first four readings from the Nine Lessons and Carols service made famous by being broadcast by the BBC from the chapel of King’s College Cambridge each Christmas. They’re all from the Old Testament. And we are looking for Comfort and Joy in the Old Testament.

Livestream Video

You can watch the live streamed video of this reflection, followed by a brief service of night prayer (‘compline’) here

The Fall

In our first reading, from Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are in the beautiful garden that God has created. There is only one rule: you can eat the fruit of any tree; but not that one – the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die. Sounds simple enough! But you know what happens. Like a sign on a door that says, Wet Paint. Do not touch. You didn’t even know you wanted to touch the door until you saw the sign… (Click the link below to read the passage.)

Genesis 3.8–15, 17–19

Christmas 1918

This year, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the world: the greatest health crisis since the so-called Spanish flu of 1918.

So, let me take you back to Christmas 1918. The first World War had ended but not all the troops were home. Some were still in prisoner-of-war camps, and, of course, some would never return to family and friends.

The R number – that term we are so familiar with today – was between 2 and 3, boosted by the movement of troops, and the impact that the war had had on people’s immune systems. Wartime censorship left people ignorant and unprepared. The pandemic’s second wave struck in late 1918. There were no antibiotics to treat secondary infection, let alone antiviral drugs to treat the virus itself.

So, Christmas 1918. Some called it the Peace Christmas, but it’s clear that the world has been devastated by war and by the pandemic.

Eric Milner-White, who was 34 years old had been an army chaplain in the war. He was now the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, newly appointed to the post. He knew that the Church of England’s regular diet of prayer-book services needed something fresh and imaginative, and was determined to plan something special for Christmas Eve. He turned to an order of service drawn up by E.W. Benson, Bishop of Truro, for Christmas Eve 1880, for his cathedral which at the time was a large wooden shed. Benson had been concerned about the amount of drinking that went on in Cornwall during the festive season, and one of his aims was to attract revellers out of the pubs and into church on Christmas Eve. He created a service of nine bible lessons and nine carols. Bear in mind that, before the late C19th, carols were not sung in church. They were secular songs for people to sing at home, in the streets and in alehouses; folk songs, not choral pieces sung by robed choirs accompanied by a magnificent cathedral organ. So, Benson brought carols into the cathedral. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883 and took this approach with him, further popularising the singing of carols in church and the format of nine lessons and carols.

Dean Milner-White who brought the carol service to Cambridge in 1918, said the purpose of the service was, through its bible readings, to show

“the development of the loving purposes of God … seen through the windows and words of the Bible”.

He wrote the bidding prayer, still in use today in the chapel at King’s, and, adapted for use elsewhere.

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.

This is followed by prayer -so those who are able to enjoy the celebration of the birth of Jesus remember “in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.”

And then:

let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

You can imagine the power of those words in 1918. That, as we celebrate Christmas, we also remember

‘all those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’.

The King’s College website tells us that

“the centre of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads.”

The story of ‘The loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience’ takes us today to the first lesson, from Genesis chapter three, where “God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head.” This is the story of ‘man’s first disobedience’ and its consequences.

Comfort and Joy?

I must admit, I tend to leave out these early readings when I’m planning a carol service! Perhaps our attention span isn’t what it was early in the C20th. Or maybe I am just anxious to get to the good bits – the bits with angels and shepherds and stars and magi… There’s not much comfort and joy in the inglorious story of Adam and Eve and the serpent.

But the Dean’s scheme is clever. Why is the birth of the Redeemer good news? Because we need to be redeemed. The sin of Adam and Eve is our sin too: we know better than God what is good for us! Well, we think we do. “I want to live in a universe where I am at the centre”. Let me tell you, that a universe where I am at the centre is no paradise! Never mind, “If I ruled the world…” It’s a good job I don’t! The crafty serpent offers us what we want: the right to doubt God’s faithfulness, to doubt God’s goodness, and strike out on our own, to be our own people. The story of the Garden of Eden is our story. We swap intimate fellowship with God – “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” – for a life of exile, alienation, separation from God, where everything is broken, including our relationships with God, with one another, with our planet and even ourselves, our own bodies. We traded a life of innocent bliss for a life of brokenness, shame and guilt.

Of course, it’s not my fault. Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. It’s just that there was something in me that resonated when the serpent offered a diabolical alternative to God’s good garden.

Where is the comfort and joy in the story of our fall from grace, our dis-grace? We have to wait until later in the carol service to hear the angels’ message to a band of frightened shepherds:

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Luke 2.10.11

And, as the prologue to John’s gospel tells us, it’s the good news of light shining in the darkness.

In the darkness of a broken world – the world of 1918 and the world of 2020 – the light shines and the darkness has never overcome it. (John 1.5)

Comfort and Joy

In a normal year, my December magazine article would contain a message about the importance of Christmas, and express the hope that all our readers would be able to attend one or more of our Christmas services, and perhaps invite family and friends to join us. We would be looking forward to Carol Services, Crib Services and ‘Midnight Mass’. That’s what would happen in a normal year. But 2020 has not been a normal year and who knows where we will be by Christmas, or how 2021 will look?

I’m writing this in November, during national Lockdown 2. Places of worship are again closed and we are waiting to hear when they are likely to re-open, making planning all but impossible. Archbishops have joined other faith leaders in asking for an exemption for places of worship, given all the work we have put into making our buildings and services as COVID19-safe as we can. That exemption has not been granted and we are urged to follow the regulations and guidance that are in place.

In most years, along with other clergy, I put some effort into reminding people that Advent is an important season in the Church’s year – and encouraging people to resist rushing headlong into Christmas celebration without spending some time in Advent reflection. This year, I feel different. The pandemic, which led to churches being closed for Mothering Sunday and Easter, has felt like an awfully long Advent. We have been unable to meet in church for worship or to share in holy communion. We have been looking forward to better things. Even in Lent, you’re not supposed to abstain from bread and wine at communion! But we have all been keeping an enforced abstinence from the things that are given to sustain us. Perhaps we’ll learn to value what really matters, having had so much taken away from us in this awful year. Enough Advent already!

So, bring it on! Put up your Christmas tree in November, if you want! Put lights on the outside of your house to combat the darkness and spread a little, much-needed cheer! Make mince pies and eat chocolate! Watch Christmas movies and listen to Christmas music![1]

And, in the midst of all the self-indulgence, the Christmas message invites us to think of others. The pandemic has seen many examples of people caring for others, including the extraordinary response to Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk for the NHS, and the little acts of kindness that were stirred up in people seeing their neighbours in need.

At the heart of so many communities, lies the church. It has been estimated that the Church of England alone is worth £12.4bn a year to the country through the events and activities it provides and supports. But what will our church look like next year? Will we still be here for Christmas 2021? We need to plan for recovery and growth if we are to continue serving our communities. Recent research suggests that churches which are engaged with their communities (not hiding away inside their buildings) are more likely to grow. Churches should be marked by:

  • A strong sense of connection with their local area (not just with their own congregations)
  • Perseverance – years of engaging with their communities
  • Hospitality and Generosity
  • Participation in social action, working with other people of goodwill, regardless of whether they are people of faith or not[2]

How will our churches in Stretton and Appleton Thorn continue to engage with our communities in the coming years? How can you be a part of that?

My December message usually ends with me wishing you and yours a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. I’m pleased to repeat that here, while, at the same time acknowledging that this is likely to be a very different Christmas from any that we have known.

But, even if everything else is different, I take comfort in this:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. (Hebrews 13.8)


[1] My favourite Christmas movie, if you’re interested, is Scrooged (1988, starring Bill Murray) and my favourite Christmas music includes folky stuff by Kate Rusby and the Albion Christmas Band.

[2] https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/13-november/news/uk/the-c-of-e-must-evolve-for-growth-says-cottrell