On the Anniversary of My Ordination

I’m writing this on 29 June – the 36th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon. Yesterday was the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. It is, I suppose, a good time to reflect, so here goes.

I began my ordained life as an evangelical, charismatic, Anglican Christian. More recently I have taken to describing myself as a “post-evangelical, recovering charismatic” Anglican Christian. Perhaps I should unpack some of those words…

An evangelical Christian is one who tends to hold the Christian faith with a particular set of emphases (BEBBINGTON, 1989):

  • Conversionism – the belief that lives need to be changed in response to the gospel. In some circles, you hear the expression “born again”, as if there were two types of Christian – those who are “born again” and those who aren’t. That’s something I struggle with because it implies that there is a hierarchy, that some Christians (the “born again” ones) are better than others. I do still believe that human beings need to change and that the gospel is an invitation to do so, but I fear that identifying oneself as a “born again Christian” is largely a way in which some try to make themselves feel superior to others.
  • Activism – particularly the desire to see others come to faith through evangelism. Evangelical Christians are keen to share their faith through personal witness and public proclamation. Again, I’m all in favour of this, but there is always the danger that for every person converted through a conversation with an evangelical Christian, there are others who would run a mile rather than be subjected to that experience. A recent book criticizes evangelicals for ‘always banging on about Jesus’ (BROWN & WOODHEAD, 2016).
  • Biblicism – a particular devotion to the Bible and holding it in high esteem. Again, I continue to have a high view of, and love for, the Bible, and hope that anyone who has heard me preach will appreciate this. The Church of England’s Articles of Religion, which you will find in your Book of Common Prayer, talk about the ‘sufficiency’ of scripture:

    HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

This was written against the view that Christians ought to believe everything the Church taught, whether or not it was “agreeable to God’s word”. Sadly – it seems to me – those who call themselves Evangelicals (particularly in the US context, but also in this country) often have a view of scripture that is fundamentalist. That is, it requires assent to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or infallibility – the idea that the Bible (as originally given) is without error or fault, as if it were dictated from on high by God and merely written down by human beings – and I believe that that does not do justice to the Bible as a work that comes to us from particular times and places, and equally reflects views and values that belong to those times and places. It is my view that, in order to do justice to what the Bible says, and the God to which it bears witness, it is necessary to ‘translate’ it – not just the language, but the ideas, values, and principles – into our culture.

  • Crucicentrism – (‘cross-centredness‘) a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Again, Christians of different traditions (particularly those of a more catholic persuasion) will emphasise the Cross of Christ as being at the heart of our faith, but evangelical preaching will more often stress the death of Christ on the cross – the Atonement – rather than other aspects of Christian faith. For evangelicals, a key biblical text is 1 Corinthians 2.2, where St Paul says:

    For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

It interests me that the stained-glass windows at St Matthew’s do not contain a single image of Christ crucified – something that you would find in many other churches. There are Christ’s parables and healing miracles, but no crucifixion. We are presented with Jesus as a teacher and healer, not as the Saviour, dying for our sins. The main east window (made by Trena Cox in 1939) depicts the Ascension, and we can see in that the wounds of the crucifixion, but the Cross itself is not portrayed.

So, are you still with me? I have said a little bit about evangelicalism, which is part of my heritage, and about what I value from that tradition, and what troubles me. It’s time to move on to the ‘charismatic’ part of my label.

Most traditional churchgoers have heard of places that you might call “happy clappy”. Instead of an organist and robed choir, there’s a band with guitars and a group of singers. Perhaps even a drum kit. The clergy may not be wearing clerical robes. They might not even have a dog collar on! The worship is ‘lively’ and informal and there may be prayer for healings and miracles. People may raise their hands in worship or start ‘speaking in tongues’, and there may be prophetic words offered.

It would be wrong to reduce the charismatic movement to that caricature, but it’s a starting point! And it was my starting point: the church where I came to faith as an undergraduate in 1979 – St Aldates in Oxford – was an Anglican Church with an evangelical tradition which was experiencing charismatic renewal under the leadership of Revd Canon Michael Green. What was happening in Oxford was paralleled by the experience of St Michael-le-Belfry in York, led by David Watson (who I think was better known than Michael). These days, Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB) – home of the Alpha Course – is the charismatic movement’s flagship within the Church of England. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a member of the congregation at HTB and was sponsored for ordination by the then vicar, Sandy Millar. (As a side note, Nicky Gumbel who is – humanly speaking – the power behind Alpha, trained with me at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. If he is currently writing a piece reflecting on his journey from ordination, I bet I won’t even get a mention!)

In 2003, as part of an MA in Ecumenical Theology, I submitted a dissertation (JEWELL, 2003) looking at how charismatic renewal has affected evangelicalism within the Church of England, particularly in the ways in which ‘renewed’ evangelicals related to charismatics within other traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, which also experienced charismatic renewal. As you can tell, it’s a riveting read and I highly recommend it to you!

I won’t cover all that ground in this article (already a long way past my usual word count) but I will attempt a summary. You may have come across churches that describe themselves as ‘Pentecostal’. For example, King’s Church, Warrington, which meets in the Pyramid Arts Centre, is part of Elim Pentecostal Church. The distinctive feature of Pentecostalism is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, active today in the life of the Church: just as the disciples were filled with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1.5, 2.4), so believers today must be filled with the Spirit. Just as the New Testament Church used spiritual gifts – like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing – so must the Church today. Classical Pentecostalism teaches that baptism in the Holy Spirit is a required subsequent experience for the born-again believer – a second stage of initiation after coming to faith and being baptised in water. Those who have been baptised in the Spirit will evidence this by speaking in tongues or prophesying. As well as being rooted in the experience which we find in the book of Acts, Pentecostalism traces its history back to revival movements in the United States at the start of the twentieth century when speaking in tongues, prophecy and other spiritual gifts, were re-discovered. Pentecostal groups today may describe themselves as ‘Apostolic’ or ‘Full Gospel’. (Some Pentecostal Christians might look at members of traditional denominations like the disciples that Paul came across in Ephesus. Paul asked them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No. We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit. Acts 19.1-3)

To cut a long story short, the Charismatic Movement is what happens when Pentecostal beliefs and practices end up in mainstream denominations – like the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches. This began to happen in the UK in the 1960s. One important example is provided by the church of All Souls, Langham Place, in London. All Souls has long been an evangelical powerhouse in the Church of England. It is close to the BBC’s Broadcasting House and has often featured in BBC programming. In the 1960s, when Michael Harper was Curate at All Souls, he experienced ‘baptism in the Spirit’. His more conservative Rector, John Stott, wasn’t convinced, however, and when Harper left All Souls he set up the Fountain Trust, an ecumenical agency aimed at supporting those within traditional denominations who wanted to explore these new avenues. Harper’s own spiritual journey later took another surprising turn when he left the Church of England in 1995 and became a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church. (One of his issues was the ordination of women which the Church of England began to do in 1994. When I was working on my dissertation, I wrote to Michael Harper and he kindly replied. I was able to use a quote from that correspondence in my dissertation.) The Fountain Trust received some criticism from conservative Evangelicals for its ecumenical outlook. They saw it as putting subjective experience ahead of concrete biblical truths. Harper’s defection to the Orthodox tradition will have confirmed them in their views.

Some within traditional denominations who had experienced charismatic phenomena did eventually leave their historic churches and form new groups (including what were called ‘House Churches’), but some stayed. My own ministry as a Curate was influenced by Anglican Renewal Ministries (ARM, founded in 1982) which sought to encourage charismatic practice within the Church of England. I remember attending an ARM conference at which George Carey, then Bishop of Bath and Wells, was a key speaker. In 1991, Carey became Archbishop of Canterbury, which seemed to suggest that the Charismatic wing of the Church had taken hold. (Of course, he was followed by Rowan Williams, a man from a very different tradition. Then Welby succeeded Williams, and the charismatics were back!)

Time doesn’t allow me to do anything other than mention some other key influences on the charismatic renewal that I experienced, but they include John Wimber and the Vineyard movement, the so-called Toronto Blessing, and Spring Harvest.

Charismatic Christians are different from Pentecostals in that they don’t usually hold such a clear belief in ‘baptism in the Spirit’ as a second step of Christian initiation. They are more likely to see being ‘filled with the Spirit’ as something that can be experienced on any number of occasions as part of their walk with God. Charismatics may pray in tongues, but they don’t see speaking in tongues as essential evidence of having been baptised in the Spirit.

I earlier described myself as a “post-evangelical, recovering charismatic”, so let’s look at that now. In 1995, a vicar called Dave Tomlinson published a book called The Post-Evangelical (TOMLINSON, 1995). It describes a journey, that I suspect many of us have been on, of someone who has come to faith in an evangelical context – after all, it is the evangelicals in the Church who are most committed actively to challenge people to accept the Christian faith – but who come to find that they cannot support all the trappings of evangelical culture, particularly a fundamentalist approach to scripture, and conservative views on social and ethical issues. This is not a matter of abandoning a biblical worldview: it is about coming to a realisation that we all interpret scripture through a cultural lens, but some evangelicals don’t seem to know that. You may have discussed some deep issue with an Evangelical Christian, and they say, “Well the Bible says….” They give you chapter and verse and imagine that that ends the conversation. In my view, being able to quote the Bible intelligently is never the end of the conversation. It is always the start. We need to ask how to take values and principles from a very different culture and apply them in our own. In the book, Tomlinson denies that he is an ex-evangelical. That suggests a rejection of all that evangelicalism encompasses. He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to take with him aspects of that heritage, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The word ‘evangelical’ simply means ‘to do with the Good News (or gospel)’. Surely, all Christians should be evangelical in this sense!

Using the word ‘post’ also suggests a connection with postmodernism (a subject too vast for even this long piece!). As a handy approximation, you might say that the Modern World begins in 1492 when Christopher Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ and discovered America. He had left behind the old world and discovered the new. Mediaeval Europe, in which the Pope told you what to believe and the King made you behave, was replaced by a world in which discovery trumped tradition, individuals were free from obedience to hierarchy, and we began to believe in science and technology rather than superstition… The Modern World ‘ended’ in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America. There were celebrations of the event, of course, but there were also protests and anti-celebrations. It turned out there was more than one way of telling the story of Columbus. Rather than the dawn of a new age for (white) Europeans, it was a time of oppressive and violent abuse of indigenous people. Columbus hadn’t discovered America at all: the Native Americans were there already, and it was their land he took. This sense that there is more than one way to tell a story – the idea of competing narratives – is at the heart of postmodernism, which is suspicious of any single, big story (the metanarrative) which tries to explain everything from one point of view (usually that of the powerful).

Evangelicalism is rooted in a ‘modern’ world view. But many of us have grown up in and are deeply steeped in post-modernism and the assumptions of Evangelicalism no longer stand unchallenged.

And that is my position. I am a thoroughly post-modern Millie and whilst I value my evangelical heritage, I also recognise that evangelicalism is a culture like anything else.

So what do I mean when I describe myself as a ‘recovering charismatic’? This is a tongue-in-cheek play on the idea of a ‘recovering alcoholic’. Someone who has given up drinking alcohol may not see themselves as ‘no longer an alcoholic’. They are still an alcoholic, but they no longer drink alcohol. I have described above what the Charismatic Movement looks like and said that I came to faith in a charismatic context. I had an evangelical conversion, and this was followed, some weeks later, by being prayed with to receive the filling of the Spirit. It seems to me that, at its best, charismatic renewal breathes life into churches. Some have compared it with what the 1960s did to Western culture, when:

“The traditional, the institutional, the bureaucratic were rejected for the sake of individual self-expression and idealised community. (BEBBINGTON, p. 232)”

Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing is up to you. Today, much of the 1960s counterculture has become mainstream. (As, for example, Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury, with Glastonbury coverage all over the BBC.) Much of what the Charismatic Renewal sought to do within traditional denominations is now taken for granted. I personally value informal and creative contemporary worship, which you will find in many churches. I don’t get as much out of more traditional formal services, but I understand that, for others, that would be their spiritual home.

What I struggled with – and why I describe myself as ‘recovering’ – was my experience of stuff that was, to be frank, stark raving bonkers. I won’t give examples here for reasons of confidentiality and privacy. But some of the stuff that I witnessed and was subjected to I would today describe as ‘spiritual abuse’. The problem is that if God speaks to you – as God seems to do to some Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians – you can put yourself above contradiction. (I remember hearing Cliff Richard talking about women who would approach him saying, “The Lord has told me that I am going to marry you”. He used to reply, “Well, he hasn’t said anything to me about it!”). It can be tough being the vicar in a church where people are used to telling you what God is saying today. To disagree with them is to disagree with God. How can you argue with God? In some circles, the more bizarre the idea that pops into someone’s head, the more likely it is to have come from God. ‘If it made sense, it would just be my own idea. But because it makes no sense, that proves that it has come from God.’

You may have heard the case of American Charismatic preacher Jesse Duplantis. In 2018, Duplantis (who has a personal net worth of $20 – 30 million) says that the Lord told him he needed a new jet plane for his ministry. He already had three jets, but the Lord told him he needed another, at a cost (to his followers) of $54 million. I’ve not come across anyone in that league, but it illustrates the danger when someone can claim to have heard directly from God and is in a position of power.

When I was writing my dissertation in 2003, I went back to Oxford to interview Michael Green who had been my mentor as a young Christian and was important in my being accepted to train for ordination. I asked him his mature view on the Charismatic Movement in which he had played such a pivotal role. He said that it was 95% dross, and 5% that was pure gold. I understand the point. I’m not sure if my experience backs up the ratio.

So, here I am, a Post-Evangelical recovering Charismatic. I haven’t said much about the ‘Anglican’ or ‘Christian’ parts of my label, and given how long I have already spent on this article, I won’t say much about them now. I am a Christian. That is to say, I confess with my lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead. That means I’m saved, according to Romans 10.9, 10. And, for all my frustration with the Church of England, I do believe that the Anglican position is sound, so I’m not planning to go anywhere else.

And there we have it. A 30+ year journey put into words. Quite a lot of words, admittedly, but they still do no more than scratch the surface. What about the next 30 years? Where will the Church of England be in 30 years’ time? I think it might be appropriate just to say, “Don’t get me started!”

Alan Jewell


BEBBINGTON, D. (1989). Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: a History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Routledge.

BROWN, A., & WOODHEAD, L. (2016). That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People. London: Bloomsbury.

HARPER, M. (1974). None Can Guess. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

JEWELL, A. D. (2003). How Has Charismatic Renewal Changed the Ecumenical Landscape for Evangelical Anglicans? Liverpool: University of Liverpool.

TOMLINSON, D. (1995). The Post-Evangelical. LONDON: Triangle (SPCK).

Work, Rest, and Play…

One of the strange things about my job is what happens when I have to fill in an official form that asks about my work status. I am not employed, and I don’t have a contract. I don’t get paid to work: I receive a stipend. (I am ‘given a living’.) Technically, I am an ‘office holder’. I hold the office of vicar, but I am not employed by the Church or anyone else.

Since 2011, all new appointments of clergy have been under something called ‘Common Tenure’. This is an attempt by the Church of England to ensure that office holders have rights and responsibilities like those who are employed and who do have a contract. It came about partly because the Government has the power to give the rights of employees to those in work who are not employees and to impose employment legislation on the Church. Common Tenure is the Church’s attempt to ensure that it follows best practice, comparable to other professions.

For example, under Common Tenure, I have the right to a day off each week – 24 hours of uninterrupted rest. (I have that right – the reality is often different!) I also have the right to 36 days leave each year. (During the pandemic that, too, has been difficult.) Because of the nature of my office, I am not allowed to take Sunday as my day off, in the normal run of things, nor any of the Church’s principal feasts; or Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. In addition to annual leave, the diocesan bishop is allowed to grant periods of ‘special leave’. (I’m not expecting to need paternity leave any time soon.)

Again, under Common Tenure, I have the responsibility to cooperate with the diocese’s scheme of Ministerial Development Review (MDR), Education and Training. This is like continuing professional development that you would find in other professions. In July 2021, as part of my MDR, I met with the Archdeacon of Chester, Mike Gilbertson, to review my ministry, to identify how my ministry might best develop and what training or other needs I had. One of the outcomes of this meeting was that we identified that it might be time for me to take a Sabbatical.

Legally, a Sabbatical comes under the bishop’s power to grant special leave to clergy. It is a period of 90 days paid leave, during which time the person taking the Sabbatical still receives their stipend but is on leave from the duties of their office. I can already hear voices saying, “It’s alright for some!” and I understand that.

There are professions where taking a sabbatical is par for the course – academics, for example, often have the opportunity to take sabbatical leave. They might use this time to do research or writing, uninterrupted by the routine meetings and other administrative demands of their job. In some parts of the world, long service leave is available to all. In Australia, for example, anyone who has been in a job for a certain number of years is entitled to a period of leave in addition to their annual leave.

To qualify for a Sabbatical in Chester Diocese, you have to have been in post for not less than seven years, and not have had a sabbatical for at least seven years. I was ordained in 1986, which means that I have been in ministry for over 35 years, and in that time I have only had one previous Sabbatical – I used that in my previous parish to complete a Master’s Degree in Ecumenical Theology. It also meant that I was able to take Christmas Day as a holiday and spend it with my parents. And that meant they were able to see their grandchildren on Christmas Day – a rare occurrence. (In my previous diocese, the bishop insisted that sabbatical leave had to include being on holiday for either Christmas or Easter – because it is the only opportunity you will have until retirement to be off on either of those holidays.)

The word ‘sabbatical’ comes from the biblical idea of Sabbath, where, as part of God’s good creation there is a rhythm of work and rest (Genesis 2.3; Exodus 20.8-11). You work for six days and then the seventh is the Sabbath when you do no work. The bible also gives the land a sabbath: you work the land for six years and then, in the seventh, you allow the land to rest; you leave it fallow (Exodus 23:10–11). The idea is to give the land chance to recover so that it will be more productive when you return to it.

This is also the idea behind clergy taking a period of sabbatical leave: it gives an opportunity to rest from the demands of work and to reflect and, hopefully, return to their duties renewed and refreshed.

Following my MDR meeting, I applied to the Bishop to ask for Sabbatical leave. The bishops considered my request and agreed to it. My Sabbatical will begin in November this year and end in January 2023. So, I will be off work for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. We plan to spend part of that time in Australia, visiting family, and spending time with grandchildren at Christmas – something we would not otherwise be able to do.

You may know that I have just come back from Australia, as I took my post-Easter break to travel to Melbourne. While there, as well as playing on the beach with grandchildren, I made contact with the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, and spoke to him about my plans. While we are in Australia, I will make the Cathedral my home church and hope to learn about how the Anglican Church in the Southern Hemisphere marks Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. In England, we do those things during the winter – Christmas falls around the time of the winter solstice when days are short and dark, and cold. So much of our seasonal liturgy is about the light shining in the darkness. But in Australia, of course, Christmas Day is in the summer. People go to the beach and ‘chuck another shrimp on the barbie’. (Imagine singing, “Snow had fallen, snow on snow… in the bleak midwinter” when outside the sun is cracking the flags!) As it happens, the Dean of Melbourne was born in Germany and has also had to give thought to how the church can translate its liturgy from the northern to the southern hemisphere. I look forward to continuing that conversation with him.

I am aware that this opportunity for me comes at cost to others. With the wardens of both churches I will make sure that services are covered in my absence. (I am also planning to take one of the church musicians with me, so that will mean that we will need to make other arrangements for church services.)

My job between now and November will be to get in contact with other clergy in the Deanery and Diocese, including those who are retired but have permission to officiate, to ask for them to take services at St Cross and St Matthew’s during my period of leave. I hope that most services will proceed as normal, but we might need to look at some united services if resources are stretched. I will, of course, prioritise the main services for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

I am very grateful to the Wardens and PCCs of both churches who have expressed their support for my sabbatical. I plan to return to work revived and refreshed and better placed to face the challenges of the years ahead.

Alan Jewell

The Cruellest Month?

A recent TV quiz show (yes, it was probably Pointless) included this question:

According to the poet, T.S. Eliot, what is “the cruellest month”?

The answer, as I’m sure you know, is April. But why is April the cruellest month? Eliot’s The Waste Land, from which this is the opening line, is a poem written in the aftermath of a global pandemic: not COVID19, but the Spanish Flu, which Eliot and his wife contracted in December 1918. The Spanish Flu may have killed up to 100 million people globally (more than those who had died in the First World War), whereas COVID19 (with the benefit of antibiotics and vaccines) has killed just over 6 million. The Waste Land, which is the setting for Eliot’s poem, is a barren, devastated land in which nothing grows. In this dark place, April is the cruellest month because, in our world, in normal times, April is all about growth and new life (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). It is Spring and the flowers which have lain dormant throughout the Winter start to show their colours. In the Waste Land, this does not happen, which is why, in the poem, April is the cruellest month. The hope that we normally associate with April and with Spring is to be dashed.

During our own global pandemic, the last two Aprils have also been cruel: in March 2020, the Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent and lockdown measures came into force in the UK. As far as I remember, we thought this would be a short-term period of deprivation. How wrong we were! In England, COVID restrictions with legal force stayed in place until February 2022. Even now, we are being reminded that the pandemic is not over, and that we need to continue to exercise caution and modify our behaviour.

So, how does April 2022 look? On the first of April, Ofgem raised the cap that limits the charges that energy suppliers are allowed to make, meaning that energy prices to consumers shot up alarmingly. Money saving expert Martin Lewis, and others, advised everyone to submit their meter readings to the energy companies on the 31 March, to ensure that the higher prices applied only to fuel used from 1 April. Inevitably, the energy companies’ websites went into meltdown, making this very difficult to do. Sadly, none of this turned out to be an April Fool’s joke and many will struggle to pay their bills. The future doesn’t hold much encouragement either, with the prospect of further eye-watering increases in October.

From a personal perspective, the disruption to travel is causing anxiety, with airlines cancelling flights because of staff shortages due to Covid, and scenes of chaos at airports as people become increasingly frustrated by queues and long delays at security and check-in.

April has also seen the continuing horrors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with stories of atrocities being committed by Russian soldiers. We have been faced with shocking images of civilian deaths, and there are calls for President Putin to face trial for war crimes. The cruelty of war is difficult to imagine for those of us fortunate enough never to have faced it.

Is there any antidote to the cruelty we see around us? Is there hope to be found, anywhere? At the time of writing, in the church calendar it is Lent. I’ve never really been a fan of ‘giving something up for Lent’. Especially when our motives may be mixed, at best. As someone has said, fasting without prayer is just a diet. Our Lenten disciplines can be just as self-centred as our festivities.

The English word ‘Lent’ comes from an Old English word ‘lencten‘ which simply means ‘Spring’, as that is when Lent happens in the Northern Hemisphere. (I gather that, in Dutch, the word for Spring is ‘lente‘.) ‘Lencten‘ may be related to the word ‘lengthen’, which is what the days do at this time of year. Lent happens in Spring, when we see the earth coming back to life. And it prepares us for Easter when Christians consider the story of Jesus who faces the wasteland of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We know that the darkness will be broken open by the light of resurrection on Easter Day, but I wonder how it all seemed to Jesus’s disciples who did not have that perspective. Cruel, no doubt.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews in our New Testament encourages us to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”:

who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12.2)

I’m afraid I have no words of wisdom when it comes to energy bills. Nor to the many other horrors and cruelties of the world in which we live. But Lent reminds us that the death of Winter gives way to the warmth and light of Spring, and that the wasteland of Good Friday will be replaced by the joy of Easter Day. As an old preacher once said:

“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s coming!”

Alan Jewell

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

On 29 June 1986, I was ordained Deacon in the Church of England in Dorchester Abbey. (That’s Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, by the way, not the one in Dorset). That means I have now marked the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon.

While I was writing this piece, I decided to check up on the bishop who ordained me a deacon. His name was Conrad Meyer, and as Bishop of Dorchester, he was an area bishop in the Diocese of Oxford. He wasn’t someone I got to know, as my curacy was in Aylesbury, where we came under the Bishop of Buckingham. (Oxford Diocese also has a bishop of Reading. The three area bishops support the Bishop of Oxford.)

In the years between ordaining me (which I was sure was a highlight of his episcopal ministry!) and now, what became of Bishop Conrad? I wasn’t too surprised to discover that he had died in 2011, aged 89. He had retired from Dorchester in 1987. (Nothing to do with having ordained me the previous year, I’m sure.) He became an honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Truro (Cornwall) in 1990. And then, in 1994, I learned to my surprise, he became a Roman Catholic. He was formally received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and, in June 1995, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI gave him the title Monsignor.

From the date (1994), you might have guessed that the issue which led to bishop Conrad leaving the Church of England was the ordination of women as priests. So, what to make of this? The man who ordained me as a deacon in the Church of England gave up his own Anglican ministry in order to become a Roman Catholic priest. Does that make my ordination less valid? Just to be on the safe side, I looked up the Bishop of Buckingham, Simon Burrows, who ordained me as a priest in Christ Church, Oxford, in 1987. (There was no Bishop of Oxford at the time – there was a vacancy before Richard Harries was appointed.) As far as I can tell, Bishop Simon remained an Anglican priest until his death in 2015. So, presumably my ordination is valid!

Of course, in reality, the validity of my calling to ministry doesn’t rest in the hands of either of those two men, or anyone else, for that matter. I believed then, and believe now, that it is God who has called me to ordained ministry; and that God has called me to be vicar in these two parishes.

People speak about ordination as a vocation or ‘calling’ – which it is. But there is a danger lurking there, if we miss the fact that all Christians have a vocation, not just the ones who get ordained or licensed by bishops. Each of us who has been baptised as a Christian has a calling, a vocation. Each of us needs to ask, What is God calling me to? As we hear in the gospels, the call of Jesus to those first disciples was ‘Follow me’ (e.g., Mark 1.17). Our calling is first to follow Jesus, in all that we are and all that we do. That calling is to all of us, but each of us also has a unique calling or vocation. The Church of England website has a page called ‘Your calling‘. Here it says that we “have come to understand Christian vocation in three areas”:

Social vocations – our place within the workplace and the community and how we contribute to the common good;

Relational vocations – our calling in relationship to God and other people such as family, friends and neighbours;

Ministerial vocations – our calling to serve and build up the church community and equip it for mission.

My vocation – and yours – is made up of a unique mixture of those callings. I would have put them in a different order: I would have put ‘relational’ first. So, that’s what I will do here!

My ‘relational vocation‘ is to do with who I am in everyday life, in my relationship with God and with family, friends, and neighbours. In particular, speaking personally, I have been called to be a Christian disciple, a husband, father, and now grandpa! So, how do I live out my faith in my relationship with family and friends? This is my ‘everyday faith‘ and has little to do with going to church or (in my case) being a vicar. I think this is my most important vocation. Jesus says that he has come so that we might have “life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10). The church side of things is simply a part of what we do. Life is the real business of faith, and, for most of us, that means life as it is lived in relationship with others. I think for many of us, that’s the real challenge. Not, Who am I in church? But, Who am I at home? And is there any tension between the person that I am in church and the person that my nearest and dearest know so well? (The one who gets grumpy and argumentative. The one who sulks when they don’t get their own way… Are we relieved that our church community doesn’t know that person?)

Our ‘social vocation‘ is to do with serving God in our communities and workplaces. As Christians, how do we contribute to the common good? This is ‘faith in action’. We live in a world in which a major question in people’s lives is how to be happy. I suspect that the pursuit of happiness is a wild goose chase. What if my happiness is not something to be pursued but rather the byproduct of doing good, of having purpose? Jesus talks about the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds a house on a strong foundation. The foolish builder builds on sand. Jesus says that wisdom – the strong foundation for our lives – is not about hearing his words but acting on them (Matthew 7.24-27), putting faith into practice.

Then there is our ‘ministerial vocation‘. This is about who we are as part of the church community. Each of us is called to serve as a member of the church. There are no spectators in church: each of us is called to be an active participant. For some, that will mean ordained or licensed ministry – what we call ‘public ministry‘, ministry that is recognised across the Church. It was while I was at university that I got a sense that God might want me to get ordained. But that inner sense had to be met by the Church’s affirmation. It’s not just that I ‘felt called’. The Church, through its selection process, had to recognise that calling in me.

But not all public ministry is ordained. The Church of England also recognises lay ministry particularly in the form of Readers (often called ‘Lay Readers’, although some dioceses use the term ‘Licensed Lay Ministers’.). A Reader in this sense isn’t just someone who reads from the bible in church, although they may well do that. Historically, the Church had Readers, or Lectors, who did exactly that. If you were going to become a Deacon or Priest, you might start as a Reader. It was one of what the Church called the ‘minor orders’, as opposed to the ‘major orders’ of deacons, priests, and bishops. (This distinction between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ orders seems to me to suggest that some orders are more important than others, which is exactly the opposite of the point I’m trying to make! What is important is to know and follow your unique vocation.)

The Church of England hasn’t held on to these ‘minor orders’ as steps on the way to ordination but in 1866, it revived the title of ‘Reader’. Readers are licensed to conduct services (other than holy communion, baptisms, and weddings, for which you need an ordained minister) and to assist the priest at communion. Readers may lead public prayer and preach, similar to a ‘Lay Preacher’ in other denominations. Many Readers also have other roles, including conducting funeral services. What Readers actually do varies with the particular Reader’s gifts and experience. Our own Reader, Linda, has developed a ministry which includes sharing weekly Reflections online. She also ministers to the Scouting movement and in other ways in the community. She has been called upon to officiate at funeral services where the person had a particular connection with her. The important thing about Readers is that they are lay people – part of the community in a way that is different from that of a priest. (There is something about ordination that ‘sets you apart’ from others. I wish there wasn’t, but it does seem to be the case!) Readers usually come from the congregation, as opposed to vicars who usually come from somewhere else. (Although it is possible for congregations to grow their own priests.) Readers are almost always volunteers, and they bring their experience of life outside church with them, as well as living out their Christian faith in the community beyond the church.

This diocese also has Pastoral Workers who support the church’s pastoral ministry. Pastoral Workers are trained and licensed and, again, are volunteers. We have Sheila working across both parishes in this role. Pastoral Workers may support those who look to us for christenings, weddings, and funerals. They may also visit the sick at home or in hospital.

As well as ministerial roles that are recognised by the wider church, each local church relies on every member fulfilling their ministerial vocation. So much of what we were doing before COVID19 arrived has been put to one side. But we have also developed new ways of ministering: the team that has been built up to lead worship via Zoom and Facebook continues in a way that we had not envisaged before the coronavirus. I’m very proud of them!

As we recover from the pandemic, there are many roles that church members can pick up – including reading the bible or leading prayers in church, welcoming people to services and providing hospitality afterwards. There are also roles in our work with children and young people, as well as the practical jobs that need to be done in and around our church buildings.

I did hear of a church where the vicar got fed up with preparing the Sunday service rotas. Instead of a quarterly rota they had some badges made with job titles on: ‘sidesperson’, ‘bible reader’, ‘coffee maker’, and so on. As people arrived in church, they had to pick a badge and that was their job for the service. I wonder whether we might try something like this. I have occasionally threatened to put ‘post-it’ notes under the seats in church. Wherever you sit, you look at the note and that’s your job for the year! (Although some jobs, like ‘musician’ or ‘bellringer’ are probably best left to those who know what they are doing!)

Imagine you have three badges. One describes your ‘relational vocation’. One describes your ‘social vocation’. And one describes your ‘ministerial vocation’. What does each of those badges say on it?

‘Friend’. ‘Charity Shop Volunteer’. ‘Church Coffee Maker’.

‘Grandma’. ‘School Governor’. ‘Bible Reader’.

What are your vocations? Let me know if you need any help discerning, following, or developing them.

Alan Jewell

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?