Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon on Civil Union / Gay marriage debate

It has been some months since I wrote anything in this blog - but here is the draft of the sermon I gave in the Cathedral this morning.

The debate in parliament on what has been characterised as ‘gay marriage’ has dominated many of the headlines this past week and the Prime Minister has warned MPs that the debate could become emotive.  There has also been a great deal of email traffic on the subject and I was at a diocesan meeting recently where someone reported that an influential parishioner had warned that if the Anglican Church came out in favour of gay marriage, he/she would withdraw their support.  

What do we think about this?  I am still thinking my way through the subject and in this sermon I am not telling anyone what they should think but rather sharing where my thinking and my prayer seem to be taking me.

I think one of the most obvious facts we need to be clear about is that not everyone in this debate is talking about the same thing.  For instance church and state views on marriage are not identical.

One fact is certain.  The church did not invent marriage and certainly does not ‘own’ it.  Marriage has ancient roots in human society – anthropologists speculate that it began when hunter-gatherers began to settle and form agrarian societies, possibly in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago.  

Also over many centuries marriage has tended mainly to be not about ‘love’ but about an ordering of relationships with a very pragmatic and secular purpose, namely to ensure that property was secured.  Until relatively modern times, even in Christian and church contexts, this attitude was influential.

Today, what marriage and civil unions have in common is that they are both a way of ordering human relationships.  I understand that the Civil Union legislation in New Zealand is largely based on the Marriage Act.  As I have attempted to follow the debate I have sometimes wondered what the problem was – and how marriage and civil union can be deemed substantially different in what they set out to do.  I struggle to see a difference.

So I am trying to think this through theologically.  To do this we need to begin at the beginning (Theology 101!) - with understanding ourselves (all humanity irrespective of belief) as created by God and, most significantly, ‘created in the image of God’.  This means that in all our diversity and with all the divergent complexities of genes, physiology and psychology that form us as human beings – we all carry the divine imprint ‘the image of God’.  That is our distinctive claim as human beings and on that foundation we build a vast range of attendant theological claims – including, for instance, human rights, theologies of knowledge and creativity and so on.

(Someone may say – ‘what about evil?’  How can the image of God square up with the fact of evil?  Well let’s think of the image in us as being ‘defaced’ and needing to be restored: that is the redemptive work of Christ and our task in this life is to so live and work that, by God’s grace, the image of God shines clear through us.)

What I notice however is that, in the church, we repeatedly seem to ignore this fundamental reality about ourselves.  We have a history of doing this quite ruthlessly: we repeatedly demonise those who think differently from us.  For example, the church labelled Galileo as a heretic and started the Crusades saying this was God’s will: so much for us acknowledging the image of God in the other!

When we read the Epistle and the gospel texts set for this Sunday we encounter what the Apostle James calls ‘the law of liberty’ and what Jesus speaks of as being ‘within…the human heart’.

Please bear with me if I boldly over-simplify here!  If I understand the gospel at all, it is that we are called into a greater and more radical freedom than we can imagine, and more than we may be comfortable with!  At the very centre of it all, what deeply matters is who we are in our hearts and who we are becoming - together!

So, let’s think about marriage – briefly.   Since 1563 (The Council of Trent) the church has understood marriage as a sacrament.  I think this is absolutely right – but I am speaking as an Anglican theologian – and the sacramental nature of marriage lies not in what the church does but in the relationship itself.  It is in what the couple gift to each other: their love and commitment to each other through all the hazards of life.  Together (in the old language of the catechism) their life together is sacramental - an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.  They are each bearers of the grace and love of God, of healing and wholeness, to one another and to the world.

Notice, if you would, that I am not talking about gender here, but about the signs of grace and holiness that flow through our human capacity for love and commitment: whether ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ the capacity and the call for us to be bearers of Christ to one another remains at the heart of our deepest relationships.  Whatever name we may give to any ceremony that acknowledges this does not seem to me very important.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Asset Sales & Faith in the Public Square

There is news that Archbishop Rowan Williams will have a new book (Faith in the Public Square) released before the end of this year when he stands down from Canterbury. It is reported to be a scathing critique of the public policy of the Conservative Government in England and, from what I have seen, many of his rumoured criticisms could be applied to our own government policies in New Zealand.

It seems that the ABC has denounced David Cameron's talk of a "big society" as aspirational waffle "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."   Now that sounds familiar and it could be used as a phrase to describe what our own government is doing, whether one listens to John Key or Paula Bennett.

Consider, after all, how chief executive pay has risen in New Zealand (2004-2010) by nearly 80% while, in the same period, the average workers wages rose by a bare 27%.  Add to that the tax cuts given to the wealthy on the one hand and, on the other hand, tougher measures on beneficiaries, increased prescription charges, higher Family Courts charges, reduced Working for Family Families provisions, labour laws giving less security to workers, a desperately overworked social services system, a Ministry where further cuts are required and Chief Executives will receive bonuses or cuts for success or failure in meeting targets - what is going on?

One dreadful irony is that in response to the ever-growing gap in our society, and the despair that is engendered, the Ministry of Health proposes, over the next four years, to put $8 million into a 'community suicide prevention scheme'.  What do you think of this as an example of 'aspirational waffle' : '(the scheme proposes that communities will) "work together and develop their own solutions to suicide, and access informed advice and support to implement local community action plans."  That looks and sounds to me as something "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."

It seems that the ABC's book also  delivers some strong challenges to the rampant materialism and the unquestioning pursuit of so-called 'economic growth' that seems to dominate our western economic assumptions.  I understand that he has questioned the concept of 'growth' and the consequences that it carries - for instance, "By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry.   By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing."   These are things we need to think on - deeply.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Asset Sales

This is a place of truth-telling ... before God
 Asset Sales are on the news again, so I have decided to revisit last Shrove Tuesday and the Asset Sales Debate the Cathedral hosted with Andrew Bradstock and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues. 

It's hard not feel  more than a little sad today; even to feel rather betrayed, as the Government ignores its lack of mandate on this issue and persists with what I see as the folly and immorality of selling assets that belong to all New Zealanders.  That these sales are being persisted with at a time when costs are rising and the gap between the well-heeled and the scraping-by is still widening, really sticks in my craw.

The panellists

One quirky detail of the Cathedral debate comes to mind.  Each of the panellists had been issued with a notepad and pen and after the meeting I collected these materials and was intrigued to see on one pad the note 'God?'   I assume the writer was picking up on my welcome and introduction where I had observed how the Cathedral was a place of 'truth-telling' where we saw all our living and activities as being accountable and before God.

It may be that the panellist concerned found that the mention of God raised more questions than it provided clear answers - I won't argue with that.   The proposition that lies at the foundation of faith always presents God as THE question.
Putting the Vote against asset sales
I believe it is our God-dimension that ultimately puts these asset sales under question, and that our panellist was more right than he /she might have appreciated.

As I see it, the asset sales raise a question of good stewardship of natural resources and this flows back ultimately into a recognition of who we are as stewards of creation under God. To understand ourselves in this way causes me to doubt whether we can give such natural resources over to private enterprise where a strong sense of stewardship tends to be subordinated to profit and the benefit of a few takes precedence over the benefit of all.   Of course public ownership does not in itself guarantee good stewardship of the creation or the interests of the many, but my hunch is that private ownership is not the better choice.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Diocese near 'Collapse'?

Back to the blog after weeks and now on a Monday (day-off of course) I'm trying to string some thoughts together in the light of the week just past.  The headline on the front page of the ODT and the Saturday editorial that followed it up have certainly put the 'little enemy' (as I am told Anglicans used to be called here)  in the news - though probably not quite as we'd have liked.  Well done however to Bishop Kelvin for telling it as it is. Dropping attendances and declining finances are all part of our post-Christian context but the consequences of the Christchurch earthquake (massive re-insurance costs, earthquake strengthening) have forced us to face the questions that have been with us for years.  Remember that change-management maxim, 'never waste a good crisis'?  It's good to see that we're not!

In the Archdeaconry meeting last week it was fascinating to hear how some worthy folk talked about our church buildings - as if they were hindrances to our 'mission'.  Of course there may be instances in which that is actually the case but I am unimpressed with the way the word 'mission' is generally bandied about.  It is a portmanteau of a word and as variable to fashions and shifts in meaning as the changes in our southern lights. Sometimes mission is simply 'being present' - and that is what we need to remember about our buildings - at their best they are signs and even 'sacraments' of presence, signs of the numinous in the midst of a society that has been drained of the sacred.  That is one aspect of mission.

But of course this is certainly not an argument that every church should be kept: it is merely a caution not to operate with a facile polarisation of mission or buildings. I think the truth is that we are probably 'over-churched' and some rationalisation of our buildings, while painful, could be productive. In the ODT this morning the report on the Presbyterian's sale of their redundant Roslyn church is an example of what we may have to do - I pray that we may do this well.

I have heard gloomy prophecies of congregations vacating their buildings as they fail the required safety standard: well I'm not so sure of the sense of that and hope we can ask some fundamental questions and test the assumptions.  Here in most of Dunedin and much of the South, the earthquake risk today is no greater than it was decades ago.  Certainly our buildings may not survive a major quake but they may already have lasted ninety or so years.  Rather than seeing our churches as a problem or (worse) as a block to our mission, we now have an opportunity for dialogue with councils and government on how to preserve our best - even to have such conversations in the community is itself an activity that has something of the missional about it.  In the sharing and the listening - who knows what we may discover?

The ODT editorial on Saturday 16 June tackled the deeper question of the post-Christian  environment and pondered how the church can become again 'relevant' in our society.  For goodness sake: who or what determines relevance?   What measures might one use?   For instance, in a time when market forces seem to be taking over our assumed values and the importance of the human is being diminished accordingly, the church has an especially critical role as a counter-cultural presence and accordingly must ask the questions, challenge what is happening and work for a better society. In word, in deed and just by our presence - I think we do that.  Does that make us relevant?  Who decides?  Those ancient gospel images for mission - salt, light - keep pressing at the back of my mind.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Abide in Christ - the Church's 'core business'

Sermon for Feast of St John the Evangelist
at Choral Mattins

Gospel for the day

John 15:1-8

Text: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.(John 15:7)

One of the privileges of my vocation is that people feel at liberty to accost me, to fix me with their glittering eye like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and then proceed to tell me (because clearly it must have escaped my notice) that people no longer go to church as they once used to; and also ask me (as if I were the Pied Piper and had stolen them) where are the young people? All of this is usually said in a tone that nicely combines general lament with pointed accusation.

One frank response might be to inquire – ‘And where are your children (grandchildren) today? That might not be thought a very kind or sensitive response – but it would be revealing; because for many of us that thought would remind us of how the world has changed; how society has changed; how assumptions about belief and the expression of faith are now different; and how our current spiritual environment is now largely ‘post-Christian’. For example, how many of our children or our grandchildren know the Lord’s Prayer? That is something worth checking – because we can no longer assume that everyone does. However most important – the question ‘Where are your children or grandchildren today?’ reminds us all that we ‘catch’ faith in the nurturing of family life. If a close following of Jesus Christ is central in a family’s life through all the formative years, something of that tends to stick with the children and through the generations.

Of course I understand and often share the unease of those who accost me to lament and accuse. There are dissenting voices about the church. There are many who speak of the church as dying and who are looking for new signs of life, for ‘fresh expressions’ of faith; there are church leaders who talk of letting the old church die and of investing all our energy in a new way of being church. I admit to getting a little impatient when I hear this sort of talk – and there’s a lot of it about – if only because it displays a consumerist way of thinking about the church, a way of thinking that is all too close to the market forces mentality of the moment. It reminds me of the prophetic comment attributed to Dean Inge (the famous ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s, London) that ‘the church that is married to the spirit of this age will be a widow in the next’. The church’s real inner life is always at odds with the world; the church is a counter-cultural reality – always pointing us to the truth about who we are and what we are called to be. Such a church resists the commodity mentality and insists upon the mysteries of the inner life even as it calls us to resist the darkness of the world - injustice and the oppression of the poor.

In this context the appointment of Justin Duckworth as the new bishop of Wellington is especially interesting. Only recently an Anglican and recently ordained priest, Justin is associated with Urban Vision, what is sometimes called the ‘new monasticism’; groups of Christians living in communities working with the poorest, the least and the most marginalized. Urban Vision has placed itself under the spiritual oversight of the Anglican Church – it realized that its social activism needed a deep nurturing contemplative spirituality – and it discovered this in the New Zealand Prayer Book and the Anglican spiritual tradition.

Now this is not a reason for us to indulge in some self-congratulation about the wisdom of the Anglican tradition but really to remember what is the core business of the church and our ‘core business’ as followers of Christ. Our core business is captured in Jesus words: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.(John 15:7).

Now my guess is that you know what this means. Can you think back into your faith story and recall when you realised or decided that Christ was going to be ‘it’ for you? Was it through friends? Was it through a Christian group or community? Was it through reading the Bible or a book of prayers? Was it through the influence of a priest, evangelist? Was it through some experience – where suddenly the faith all made sense and you ‘knew’? Can you remember how you felt? It may have been a warming of the heart and mind, a sense of joy, of peace … something that beggars the most vivid description? Hold onto that memory, that recollection of the initial experience of Christ in your life. That is a precious clue to the life we seek.

You see, it seems to me that a church that is riddled with anxiety, fears, conflicts and resentments is a church that has temporarily forgotten the secret of its very existence and its calling – namely to ‘abide in Christ’. Let’s try and spell out what that means – at least in some rough summary fashion.

· It means to live in close connection with our Lord Jesus Christ.

· More than that, it means to constantly let Christ be the deep grounding reality of our lives.

· Let’s try again, and not pull any punches: it means that it is Christ who is our life; and to abide in Christ is to let Christ take us over. That’s what Paul meant when he said ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). That is the heart and the absolute goal of the spiritual life.

· To abide in Christ is to know what it is to live fearlessly – to know that all that we are and all that is - everything is held in the deep and loving purpose of God. To a fearful age and an anxious church that is a transforming knowledge – it is precisely what Paul understood when he proclaimed: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)

So I am going to suggest a few practical considerations to help us on our way as we seek to ‘abide in Christ’.

  • · Do we have a ‘rule of life’? Have we thought about how we live our life in Christ and have we set time aside each day for things as simple as daily prayer and bible reading; and things as practical as giving of our money, time and talents in God’s service?
  • · Do we encourage one another – by sharing our experiences and our stories?
  • · Do we spend time being together – whether just a cup of tea or having meals together? I would love to see our cathedral community doing that – and getting to know one another in the process.
  • · We need to share the faith wisely, graciously – consider inviting others to worship at the cathedral with you and to have lunch together; - and yes try to check that our children and grandchildren know the Lord’s Prayer!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It has been a splendid ANZAC service with the RSA choir in good voice and a very good congregation of all sorts who have come very purposefully for the occasion and others who have drifted in from the Octagon.  My address for the day is below:

Anzac Address 
St Paul’s Cathedral Dunedin 2012

I want to draw your attention to two claims I have heard about ANZAC Day.  (1) I am told that each year ANZAC Day services grow in popularity, especially among the young, and that increasingly in local communities it is the local observance at some local memorial that seems to be increasingly valued and in demand.  I merely report what I have heard; I have only this anecdotal evidence – no proof of my own.  (2)  I am also aware of opinions and speculations that say ANZAC Day is really our national day in the sense that it commands far more respect and attention than Waitangi Day.

If this is so, then we may be fortunate observers to a strange phenomenon: (1) it is amazing that an occasion that has its roots in a military calamity nearly a century ago, has not died out with its generation of combatants but expanded into our future generations and (2) equally amazing, that this day, for all it is remembering great loss and sacrifice, has for many become a day of more significance and imaginative appeal than our official national day.   How is this so? 

 I have no answer to offer but merely voice my hunch that the human spirit instinctively looks to where it may find hope and meaning. If that is so, then on this day, at dawn parades; in cathedrals around the country; and, most importantly, in a thousand communities; in country halls; and at various wayside shrines and memorials, we are all  bound together in a common purpose that we may find hard to put into speech and which, in fact is best expressed in that time of silence that we all share.

Yesterday my attention was caught by an article in the ODT on a debate about ANZAC Day.   The debate, hosted by the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, presented different attitudes to Anzac Day through the contrasting images of white and red poppies.  It seemed to me a valuable debate and one that allowed there to be merits on both sides.  But, I wonder whether it forgot to take into account our moments of national silence on ANZAC Day. 

You see, when we stand in silence on this day our thoughts are too big, too nebulous, to capture the whole horror of war in our net of speech.  Imaginatively we are simply overwhelmed.  Perhaps behind the mystery of this day is that somehow, almost miraculously, amidst and despite the horror and waste of conflict, human goodness somehow survived.  There were heroes who were decorated for their courage on the battlefield; and there were heroes of peace who refused to fight but won admiration for their integrity – and here I especially remember Dunedin’s own Archibald Baxter;  but heroism took many forms – not least at home as families endured and mothers and wives waited for the postman on his round or the dreaded telegram-bearing official on his bicycle.

On this day we grieve for all the waste and all those lives lost or utterly changed; but we also want to say ‘Thank you, God’, for the countless acts of courage, decency and goodness that happened in the very midst of the carnage; those moments when we sense the best of the human spirit to be shining through; those moments, those men and women, in whom we might catch a glimpse of the best we can be.

The New Zealand war poet, Mike Subritsky, captures something of this wonderful gift of humanity in a poem from the Vietnam era and dedicated to the kiwi nurses – called ‘Sister’.

(A tribute to Pam M-T and all the Kiwi Nurses)

Young man, you ask me who I am,
and why I wear this faded yellow ribbon...

I am the woman, who held your dying uncle's hand,
and wrote a letter once that broke your grandma's heart.

I am she, who met the 'Dust-Off' at the door,
and carried bloodied, broken bodies through to triage.

Then cut through muddied boots and bloody combat gear,
and washed away the blood and fear and jungle.

I kept the faith when even hope was lost,
and cried within, as young lives ebbed away.

Those hours when death, frosted dying eyes,
mine, was the last smile many young men saw.

I have the voice, that blinded eyes remember,
and the touch of reassurance through the pain.

In darkest night when combat would return,
it was my name that many soldiers called.

I have dressed their wounds, and wiped away their tears,
and often read them letters sent from mum.

I hugged them close, and willed each one my strength,
and smiled and prayed that each boy made it home.
And here today, you ask me who I am...
I am the Nurse, who served in Vietnam.[1]

Here is a triumph of the human spirit that survives despite the wars. In such things new generations continue to find hope and meaning. We thank God for it.  We continue to stand in wondering silence on Anzac Day largely because of it.

[1] Mike Subritzky
©Copyright 2001

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Sermon for Charles Dickens’s 200th Anniversary

Sexagesima 12th February 2012

For the sermon this evening I have announced my intention of a theological reflection upon the work of Charles Dickens, in this his 200th anniversary. But which Dickens will we discuss? There is the Dickens we know as the champion of the poor; and the Dickens who largely created the Victorian Christmas not only with his ‘A Christmas Carol’ but also with his ‘Christmas books’; there is the Dickens of the public performances; there is the Dickens who appears in his published letters, and the Dickens who especially used St Matthew’s Gospel and was very familiar with the Book of Common Prayer. But, what I hope I might achieve instead is to help draw out the religious underpinning of Dickens’s literary imagination.

Remember now, if you can, Holman Hunt’s painting known as ‘The Light of the World’ (1853-54). I am confident that you are familiar with the painting. If you can I want you to try and see it in your mind’s eye. It is an allegorical painting representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me". According to Hunt: "I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject…" The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore only be opened from the inside, representing "the obstinately shut mind". Hunt, even 50 years after painting it, felt he had to explain the symbolism. The painting seized the popular religious imagination of the time; it drew huge crowds and went on a world tour (the original is in Keble College, Oxford, and he made a life-size copy for St Paul’s in London). I will come back to this painting in a moment.

For the moment it is enough to say that we can be confident that Dickens was familiar with Hunt’s painting and with the work of others of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was not especially well-disposed to the school: for instance he wrote a scathing review of Millais’s immensely controversial painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ when it was exhibited at the Tate. It shows Joseph at his workbench and the young Jesus having just had a nail taken from his hand. Dickens accused Millais of portraying Mary as an alcoholic who looks “so hideous in her ugliness that … she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.” He claimed that Millais presented our Saviour as a "wry-necked boy in a nightgown who seems to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter" and the Holy Family look like “alcoholics and slum-dwellers”

In Dickens’s extravagant language I suggest we recognize not just the critic entertaining his readers with a lively demolition-job but that he is enraged; that he sees the work as blasphemous. Dickens is furious because he sees in Millais’s realism a serious detraction from the idealised concept of the Holy Family that he held dear and which flows into various aspects of his work. Millais had touched a nerve in Dickens!

Now come back to Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. There we see the kingly Christ, bearing the light in the dark wood of the world, and rapping gently at the door of the shut or darkened mind – now that is a painting that tells a story, it tells a story that one can live by. Hunt’s style is realist but it is, as he described it, a symbolic realism. And the same concept, I suggest to you, is at the very heart of Dickens religious imagination and forms the guiding principle of the great novels. Where Hunt paints with a symbolic realism, Dickens writes with a mythic realism: a shaping master-narrative – the Christian story – informs his vision. In short, he brings to the novel what we might call a ‘mythic’ imagination; a story to live by. This gives an underlying unity to what can otherwise seem a meandering and sprawling narrative – and think of the practicalities of him publishing books in monthly episodes – how difficult it would have been to have kept some inner coherence! I suggest that running through all the realism of Dickens’s narrative, and holding it together (even as month by month fresh sections of David Copperfield were published) is an underlying Christian mythos.

The locked door, the shut mind, the foolish deluded heroes of Dickens’s greatest narratives repeatedly demonstrate variations on the great Christian story of salvation - enfolding all who lose their way in the world’s wood, who fail to see the true source and goal of their lives and who only later grow to grasp the truth and figuratively to ‘see the light’. One may rightly consider the parable of the Prodigal Son as a masterful paradigm of this theme but Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ images it visually with Christ bearing the light in a dark place.

Dickens’s heroines are often bearers of the light of the world – and Agnes in David Copperfield is a good example. At the close of that long and wandering novel, after all the errors and misadventures, David eloquently acknowledges the light that is Agnes Wickfield.

…one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all. And that remains.

I turn my head, and see it, in its beautiful serenity, beside me. My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night; but the dear presence without which I were nothing, bears me company.

O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!

Agnes helps David in his journey from darkness to light; she is his light, his type of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, and the Light of the World. Yes, I am suggesting that her name is no mere coincidence but part of the greater shaping vision that structures the work.

If Dickens’s imagination is, as I argue, essentially formed by the great Christian narrative of salvation it is also given further substance and resource by the many ways in which he deploys his knowledge of scripture. So, in the second book of Samuel we find the story of King David as the King of Judah: and there we also find the account of how the King desired the wife of the Hittite Uriah, and arranged for his death in battle. How extraordinary then that Dickens has his David (Copperfield) similarly engage with Uriah (a most un-English name); compete with him for the affections of a woman (Agnes); and, while not arranging his death, dream of it more than once – as he says ‘I believe I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire and running him through with it.’ One speculates how deliberately Dickens made such an association in his work.

We see operating through the pages of David Copperfield, mainly through the heroine Agnes Wickfield, a testimony of light, an ethic of all that is won for humanity through the gift of the constant, tirelessly serving, selfless life. This ethic is what many would claim as our true Dickens, the Dickens we best like to remember: ‘the opponent of social injustice in the name of all victims, especially children, the orphaned, magistrate-hounded, mistaught, neglected, half-starved Olivers, little Dicks, Nells, Smikes, Dorrits, Davids, Jos, Pips wandering in the wilderness (Dickens’s figure) of an uncaring because still un-Christian world: ’ a world of debtors’ prisons and squalid rookeries, of corruption in high places and greedy City bankers – perhaps not so unlike our own time after all.

It is said that when Dickens wrote Great Expectations he re-read David Copperfield to prevent himself from any ‘unconscious repetitions’. The personal elements of the Expectations story were strong, especially in the vulnerable young Pip wandering in the darkness and marshes. The underlying creative religious vision, with its pattern of moving from error (or sin), through repentance to regeneration holds true but in Great Expectations an emphasis on forgiveness comes to the fore. The failure to forgive and its consequences are most powerfully imaged in the ghastly haunted figure of Miss Havisham and her death by fire.

The figure of Estella (the name signifies a star) is ‘The Light of the World’ for Pip, though she throws a much more diffident and ambiguous light than David’s Agnes. Yet light she is and at the close of Great Expectations (an ending notoriously worked over by Dickens) it is the evening, the time of star-rise, when Pip visits the site of Satis House and chances upon Estella. The words they exchange are luminously charged with grace and forgiveness and these two human figures (symbolically the latest Adam and Eve) leave the ruined garden with a new light about them.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’ GE,493

The Christian mythos that shaped Dickens’s imagination and subtly informed his greatest works, still has the imaginative power to subtly reach his readers today; to make us question how we live and relate to others; what it means to live honourably and – to bear the light of Christ in the world.