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?

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 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

How are you? #100daysoflockdown

So, how are you?

In normal times, that’s a question we ask without really expecting an answer. Or, without expecting a real answer.

I ask, ‘How are you?’ and your reply is ‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ I’m fine thanks.

But we’re not in normal times. We’ve passed 100 days of lockdown. #100daysoflockdown And the question, ‘How are you?’ has taken on a new significance. It has a new resonance.

Out for our daily walk, we see someone we haven’t seen for weeks or months and ask, ‘So, how are you?’ The question sounds different and the answer may take a lot longer than just, ‘Fine thanks, how are you?’  There’s more to say. Have we been ill, or have we managed to stay well? Have those close to us been well or have they struggled? Have we lost a friend or family member?

Again, we might end a conversation, or an email with the words ‘Take care’. It used to be a formula, it’s become something else, something deeper. We might replace it with ‘Stay safe’.

Lockdown is not a sprint but a marathon. You may know that many years ago I did the London Marathon. I’m no athlete, but it was something I wanted to do, so I put my mind to it. As part of the preparation, I completed the Great North Run, which is a half-marathon. Just 13 miles. When I got to the end of that, I felt good. But if you had asked me to jog back to the start, I couldn’t have done it.

In the picture our marathon runner is passing the 13-mile marker, the halfway point. One of the problems with lockdown, is we don’t know how are far through it we are. Near the end? In the middle? Or is this something we are going to return to, perhaps even live with for a long time? It’s not a sprint but a marathon, and marathons are exhausting.

What does Jesus say?

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11.28

In normal times, when I preach on this, I sometime say, “What else do you need to know?” You don’t need a sermon; you just need to hear Jesus saying these words to you.

Jesus talks about religious leaders whose religion is a burden on others. They themselves don’t lift a finger, but they place a burden on others (Matthew 23.4). If the demands of your religion are a burden to you, you didn’t get it from Jesus. Why do we allow others to weigh us down with burdens? Jesus says:

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11.30

Which is not to say that it’s all fun and games following Jesus! As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7.15-25), it’s often a struggle. But the struggle is between knowing we are loved and that what God wants for us is absolutely the best for us, and putting ourselves back at the centre of the universe because we think we know better. From Adam and Eve to St Paul and to us, that struggle continues. Because life is not a sprint but a marathon.

That’s why we need to hear the voice of Jesus saying to us today

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11.28

How are you?

Saints and Souls

In the Church calendar, the first of November is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows. In the early church, when believers died for their faith, they were commemorated on the anniversary of their martyrdom. With an increasingly full calendar of saints’ days, and the possibility that there might be some Christian martyrs known to God but not to us, the Church added a celebration of all the saints, which at some point settled on 1 November. If ‘All Saints’ feels a bit like the Church’s ‘Hall of Fame’, what about those who have died whom we knew and loved, regardless of whether or not the Church might regard them as ‘saints’? For them, we follow All Saints’ with All Souls’ Day, a commemoration of the faithful departed. (In a more ‘catholic’ understanding, we might pray to the Saints and for the Souls!)

In practice, we will mark both All Saints’ and All Souls’ days on the nearest Sunday (3 November this year). In our morning services that day we will consider the example of the saints who have lived out their faith in their day – “lights of the world in their several generations” as the 1928 prayer book put it – and pray that we will have God’s grace to follow them in our lives. The day also reminds us that the Christian life is lived as “members of a company of saints whose mutual belonging transcends death”. In the evening, we remember and give thanks to God for “those we love but see no longer”, the ‘souls’ whose memory we treasure.

In my preaching on All Saints’, I often like to say that the ‘Hall of Fame’ view isn’t necessarily very helpful or biblical. Sometimes, the example set by saints in their own day doesn’t transfer well to our experience. Take Saint Simeon Stylites. He was born in about 390AD, the son of a shepherd in what is now Turkey. As a 13-year-old child, Simeon heard a sermon on the Beatitudes and “developed a zeal for Christianity”. At 16, he entered a monastery but his extreme austerity led his brothers to ask him to leave. He shut himself up in a hut for 18 months and apparently went through the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. He then moved to a mountain in what is now Syria; but even there he couldn’t escape from the crowds of pilgrims who came to ask for his counsel and his prayers.

So Simeon did what any of us might do. He spent the rest of his days out of reach on top of a pillar. There he could stand and pray, experiencing the scorching heat and numbing cold, kept alive by gifts of food sent up to him. He still couldn’t escape attention (some said he did it for attention!) and even emperors sought his counsel. Walls were built around his pillar to keep people away – especially women. (He wouldn’t even see his mother until after her death when her coffin was brought to him so he could say his goodbyes.) (See this article by Margaret Visser.)

As I said, sometimes the examples of the saints of history are not all that helpful. The second thing to note is that the New Testament doesn’t recognise a ‘Hall of Fame’ model of sainthood. In fact, we are all called to be saints (Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2). Many New Testament letters are addressed to “the saints” in a particular place (e.g. Ephesus, Philippi or Colossae) with no distinction between those who are doing a cracking job of it and those (the majority, I think) who were struggling. These ‘saints’ are not those who have died and passed on to glory. They are living out their calling in this world with an imperfect faith and the constant experience of ‘falling short of God’s glory’ (Romans 3.23). They will also catch glimpses of God’s grace and know that they have this “treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7). I also like to point out that the New Testament always uses the plural form – ‘saints’, never the singular, ‘saint’. In other words, being a saint isn’t something that we do on our own. It’s always something we do together. Which is why we have a church to belong to. God might occasionally call someone to live their Christian life atop a pillar, but I doubt that that would be true for many. No, we are called to be saints together, encouraging one another in the tricky business of living out our faith in a world that needs a demonstration of what love looks like. There are no solitary saints. Come to a church service near to you and get your encouragement to live out your calling to be a saint!

Alan Jewell

All Good Gifts Around Us…

In 1843, the Revd RS Hawker[1], a parish priest in Cornwall, decided to hold a service in church to give thanks to God for the harvest. Secular celebrations of ‘harvest home’ had long been held but Hawker is usually credited with beginning what we now know as the Harvest Festival – an annual service of thanksgiving in church. (Hawker, a poet, was also the author of the Cornish patriotic anthem, ‘The Song of the Western Men’, published anonymously in 1826.) He adapted the older tradition of Lammas or ‘Loaf Mass’, when, in thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest (at the start of August) a fresh baked loaf made from the harvest was presented as part of the eucharist. This had been a traditional celebration, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Hlafmaesse.

In the 1940s, there was an attempt to revive the old Saxon agricultural festivals, including Plough Sunday and Rogation Sunday. Plough Sunday is the first Sunday of Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas and a return to work – the plough and seeds would be blessed to ensure a good harvest. Rogation seems to have its origins in Graeco-Roman religion where processions were held to invoke divine favour and the protection of crops. (The Latin word rogare means to ask.) Christian processions around the parish boundaries were made with prayers for God to bless the land. Some parishes still ‘beat the bounds’ in the week before Ascension Day.

The Reformation tried to put an end to the more superstitious practices associated with the agricultural year, and to make a distinction between praying to God, the Creator, and pagan cults of fertility; but many local customs and festivals trace their origin back to some of these traditional commemorations, or at least to their revival in the Victorian and later eras (such as Walking Days and Bawming the Thorn). In 2006, the Church of England published resources for the agricultural year as part of Common Worship: Times and Seasons. This recognises that our scriptures (Jewish and Christian) “give eloquent expression to the creative power and wisdom of God.”

“It is therefore a natural instinct for worshipping communities to develop patterns of worship and prayer around the agricultural year.”

Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year

The cultures in which our scriptures were produced were ones in which people lived much closer to the land than most of us do today. The Jewish festivals with which Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar were closely tied to nature and the seasons. Our supermarket culture, in which we can buy strawberries at any time of the year, grown somewhere in the world and transported for us to pick off the shelves when we want, is a very modern phenomenon. We are very distant from the realities of seedtime and harvest. But in our day younger people, especially, are reminding us that human activity now endangers the very ecosystem that sustains our lives and that of the planet. Perhaps within our church year, we need to look more closely at our dependence on God our creator and the world we have been given to care for as stewards.

In October, we mark the harvest season with services in both churches. At St Cross, the harvest festival will be at 10.30am on Sunday 6 October, followed by a lunch in church. At St Matthew’s, there will be a harvest festival service at 10.30am on Sunday 13 October. In addition, we have a Church Family Harvest Extravaganza at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October.

Please come and join us for any of the above and let’s reconnect with the LORD our maker:

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

From Psalm 95

The Revd Alan Jewell


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hawker_(poet)


[i] Sources: Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year © The Archbishops’ Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing. The English Year, by Steve Roud © 2006, published by Penguin.

The Big Welcome

It’s five years since I became vicar in the Benefice of Stretton and Appleton Thorn. My institution took place in a service at St Matthew’s on 10 September 2014. Doesn’t time fly! If you have heard me speak about that occasion, you will know that my clearest memory is of getting whacked in the face with a bell rope. I was carrying out the new incumbent’s traditional job of tolling the bell to let the parish know that it had a vicar. I was determined to give it my best shot, as people say that the number of times the bell rings is the number of years that the vicar is planning to stay. To begin with, I couldn’t hear anything so I pulled a little harder until I knew that the bell was moving. I also knew, from watching Dave Allen on the tele, that church bells are capable of lifting you off the ground if you are not careful. What I didn’t realise is that, unless properly controlled, the rope can whip back and smack you about the face, which is what happened to me. The Archdeacon and Rural Dean were the closest witnesses: they saw the whole thing but were not injured in the process. To be honest, it was only my pride that took a blow, but it’s quite something to be welcomed with a slap in the face!

For someone whose youthful ambition was to be a rock guitarist, it’s also humbling to think that some of my favourite moments from my time here so far have involved not the guitar, but the ukulele. The guitar (especially the electric guitar) is a cool instrument. But no one ever looked cool playing the uke, and that’s part of its charm. It’s a fun instrument and it makes you smile. At Praise and Play in both churches, I enjoy sitting on the carpet at the front of church, and singing with the little ones and their carers. I have on one occasion played the uke at a wedding – at the Bride’s request – and once at a Baptism – at the child’s mother’s request.

The uke also features in another of my favourite regular activities, The Singing Kettle, where we meet once a month in the church hall and sing through some old favourites, mostly from the 1950s given the age of the audience and the musicians, but older and newer songs too.

You may also be aware that the past five years have not been without their struggles, both personally and professionally. I won’t dwell on that here, but I am happy to acknowledge the support that we have had, and I hope that the next five years will see progress and growth in the life of both churches.

At St Matthew’s, we have now launched the Big Welcome project. When I first made enquiries about the post here, I was interested to see that St Matthew’s had plans to develop the building, to make it more accessible and welcoming, not just for regular churchgoers but to the community we are called to serve. It is an ambitious undertaking and not everyone is persuaded, but the Chancellor of the Diocese issued the Faculty which gives us permission to do the work on the basis that the parish has

“demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed… (which) will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

With the permissions in place (from the Church and the Borough Council) it is up to us to raise the funds if the reordering is to go ahead – no easy feat, granted! At Walking Day, there was a presentation (by Eric and Kylie no less!) and display. We have had leaflets produced outlining what we hope to do and inviting people to show their support by returning a pledge card.

At its heart, I think this is a matter of what we believe the church to be and what we think we are here to do. I know that, like most churches in the country, we are struggling with numbers and with fabric and finance. (Both churches have had damage done to their churchyard walls within a matter of weeks!) But I don’t see any point in simply battening down the hatches waiting for the storm to blow over. We need to engage with our communities and I believe that the Big Welcome project is part of our vision to do that.

At the time of writing number of fundraising events and ideas are being planned – from mugs and pens, to a barbecue, quizzes and a band night. Please look out for details of these and support them if you are able.

I hope that you will return your pledge card, if you haven’t already done so, and commit yourself to pray, to work and to support the Big Welcome project.

Alan Jewell

Jesus Walks on the Water

(Mark 6.47-end)

Along with turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000, the idea of walking on water is one of the best-known stories about Jesus. Although, I suspect that football fans who claim that their hero ‘walks on water’ might not know where that idea comes from.

The story takes place in the evening and through the night. Immediately before this, Jesus has fed the five thousand. In Matthew, Mark and John, these two stories also go together. (Luke doesn’t include it.) John’s gospel (6.1-25) tells us that Jesus realised that, after feeding the crowd, they wanted to make him king, and that is why Jesus beats a hasty retreat. In Mark, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up on the mountain to pray (6.45, 46) The disciples – never mind the crowds – don’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is, so he needs to get away from their inappropriate expectations, and try to persuade them that his is the way of service and suffering, not of whipping up populist mob mentality.

While Jesus is alone, the disciples are out on the lake (the Sea of Galilee), crossing to the other side and struggling with the conditions, battling with the wind and the waves. It’s early in the morning (between 3 and 6am) and Jesus comes towards them, walking on the lake.

The idea of Jesus walking on water is a striking image. The disciples think they have seen a ghost. They are terrified! Jesus has to speak to reassure them:

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

In v48 we read that ‘He intended to pass them by’. It sounds as if Jesus did not mean to help them. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to them. Or maybe this is to remind us of the story of Moses (Exodus 33.12-23) who saw God’s glory pass by. (Jesus comes alongside them.)

We saw in last week’s gospel (Mark 4.35-end), Jesus calming the storm, that the sea in the Hebrew mind, represents chaos and danger. (The Hebrew word of water – mayim – comes from a root – mem – meaning chaos. So, creation and the flood…) Here, Jesus has sent his disciples into chaos! (“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) In the account of his stilling the storm, Jesus sleeps and castigates his disciples for their lack of faith. Here, he appears to be passing them by. But he gets into the boat and the wind ceased. Jesus brings order to the chaos.

I said last week that Jesus doesn’t promise to calm every storm in your life. But he does promise to calm you in the storms that surround you. We may say, with the disciples, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” We need to see Jesus walking towards us through the chaos, getting into the boat with us and saying:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”