Monday, May 27, 2013

Trinity Sunday Sermon


In a few words Pope Francis has effectively dismantled over a millennium of ecclesiastical squabbling between churches and repositioned  the church in relation to the world.

He was preaching on a passage in Mark where the disciples are displeased that someone outside their circle is doing good. Pope Francis said the disciples “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation”
Pope Francis went further in his sermon to say:
"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”  (The Huffington Post, May 22)

This demonstrates the gospel set for this Trinity Sunday: ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’

For too long Christians have fought with one another and with the world over what they have maintained to be the truth.  Church history from start to present illustrates that.  The debate in our diocese this weekend over who may be married illustrates this fact.  

However as Pope Francis well knows and as the passage this morning in John’s gospel declares, God is more than we can imagine and the Spirit guides us into ever greater understanding of the mystery and purpose of God.

On Trinity Sunday we don’t explore or celebrate the doctrine of God as if God were something we could examine; we can’t do that.  Instead Trinity Sunday is a reminder of how we talk and think about God: think of it as a theological grammar check.  One word ‘God’ is not enough; we have to talk of the Son and inevitably in various circumstances we find we simply must talk of the Spirit.   Of course when we speak of one of the ‘persons’ we find we are also implying the others: something powerfully imaged in the Rublev icon of the Trinity – where the three figures are shown so utterly in communion with each other that to speak of any one of them without implying the others is inconceivable.

We find the Trinity as an active and necessary guide in prayer:  (1) we do this formally in our collects which may be addressed to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit – as the familiar doxology tends to close them. (2)  We experience the Trinity more obviously in our informal prayer life and meditation: – as we contemplate the Father, so our thoughts and reflections are subtly changed as we speak to Jesus or invoke the Spirit.  Each of these three modulates and transforms our prayers and our understanding.  For instance, it can be that we start out thinking something about the ‘Father’ only to find later that our understanding has shifted as prayer and reflection contemplated the ‘Son’.  That may be an indication of how the life of the Trinity works in us; that each of the ‘persons’ acts on us and opens us to new insights and perspectives of grace.

Our entire spiritual life is lived in the experience of the Trinity continually changing us and leading us into renewed and deeper understandings of God and what God is doing with us in our world.  Each day, each year, we may think we traverse the same spiritual terrain but it is only superficially similar.  In fact we progress and change all the time under the impress of the Trinitarian life: our insights and sympathies, our openness to the divine presence, our growth in humility and love are part of an endless shaping and re-shaping by the three in one.  A model for describing our progression under the shaping and pressure of the Trinity might be that of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical spiral. Over time, our contemplation of God as Trinity continually works upon us; abrading some of the dead images and beliefs and honing where our understanding has become dulled – and opening us to fresh insights where we have previously been blind.

Using a similar model the 17th century poet John Donne vividly expresses this process of seeking truth through an image of a spiral ascent. It was a time of bitter divisions in the church and great confusion. In his own life he had moved from family roots in the Roman Catholic tradition to embracing Anglicanism – but all about him in Europe at the time were rival religious camps clamouring for allegiance and vociferous in their claims on the truth.  In one poem he wrote with an understanding that can still speak to us today in our faith journey:
…    doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Satyre III

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reflections on the Recognition of an Archbishop

I have just returned from the service at Taranaki Cathedral for the recognition of Archbishop Philip Richardson.   It is almost inevitable that after such events one enthuses at the splendour of the occasion, the liturgy, the music, even  the homily - and so on.   One could do that, and rightly, but that is not quite what most impressed me.

To explain this I need to backtrack a little, almost to 14 years ago when I was the Vicar of a largish South Taranaki parish.  Early in my tenure I was at a clergy conference and a very wise and experienced priest from the Wellington diocese who had much to do with South Taranaki when it was in the Wellington Diocese, asked me a slightly unusual question: had I any sense of  'darkness' during my ministry in the parish.  

Various replies came to mind, not all entirely serious, but I remember that I answered him seriously and admitted that there were aspects to my ministry in the region that I had not come across before; they were not clear and I would struggle to define them - but there did seem to be something of a stubborn miasma that I could not explain.

He went on to say that he had counselled priests from my area before and speculated that this was a spiritual consequence of the Land Wars of the 19th century which had left a deep legacy of bitterness, division, grief and loss.   That actually makes a kind of sense.  The notion of a curse as something grounded in the psyche and being passed on through generations, even soaking into a site or locus, did not seem to me as especially fanciful or implausible.

So, back to Taranaki Cathedral on Saturday morning: the first thing that impressed me was the abundance of Maori worshippers - yes it was a 3Tikanga service, but it wasn't just that. There was a 'lightness', even a rippling spiritedness that seemed new, fresh and energising. There were Maori there; there were people from Parihaka ( that most visionary and abused of communities); the military hatchments had been relocated; a new canonry was created to honour the legacy and strong ties of Sir Paul Reeves to the region, and, lingering in the background, was a reminder that the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, had been here - and much had been happening.  In all of this one has gratefully to acknowledge the vision and hard work of Archbishop Phillip and the leadership team he has formed in the region.   A spirit of hope and reconciliation is in the air and the difference is almost palpable.  

Now I am not saying that everything is now right throughout the ‘Naki’.  I would like to say that but it may not be so.  But things are changing and I notice the difference. The church was and is helping to nurture real changes. Thanks be to God.

The other thing that really impressed me was the sermon:  Judge Sarah Reeves preached and here was someone also making connections between church and society in a real way.  She spoke in particular of the changes to the Marriage Act and how society was becoming more inclusive and she compared the inclusivity that society was welcoming with the difficulties our church has in being inclusive – and of course the situation with the Human Rights Tribunal came to mind.

If I understand Judge Reeves correctly, she was looking for where there were signs of what a Christian must understand as the activity of the Holy Spirit: where is life being enriched, where is love being affirmed, where are people feeling included and valued?  It seemed to me that she warned the Church of being less loving, less life affirming, less inclusive than society.  I won’t argue with that: we sometimes act and speak as if we thought the Spirit of God was limited to the church! 

So, returning to Dunedin from New Plymouth, I travelled with a strong sense of the activity of the Spirit of God working in our church and our nation: working in Taranaki with signs of healing and reconciliation; and working in our society as differences are overcome and as some people come to feel included where they have not been before.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ordination and the Human Rights Tribunal

I find myself writing to try and clarify some of my thinking on this subject and because of the pain I feel at the dubious light the Church has been shown in at the Human Rights Tribunal this week.  Ordination is a bishop's prerogative; one assumes he/she takes advice, but to take the matter to this Tribunal is simply weird.   One may wonder why the Church's discernment process for ordinands should seem to show so much interest as to what goes on in their bedrooms!  Well, that's being frivolous of course - there is much more at stake.  

Ordination sets one apart to be, as it were, a walking, talking sacrament, bearing something of God's grace.  We do that in our vulnerability as much as in our strengths, but at the very heart of the discernment process must be a strong sense of the underlying wholeness of the person under consideration: a crucial aspect of that is always our sexual identity and relationships.  Presumably the expectation is that we be clear about our identity and comfortable with it; similarly that we be committed and whole in our relationships. This is always a sensitive area of inquiry and one where everyone carries some vulnerability.

Traditionally marriage has been regarded as the standard that marks a mature, committed Christian intimate relationship. A formal public ceremony (marriage, or civil union now that it is available, or even a formal blessing) to mark a faithful, chaste, committed relationship seems highly desirable.  Of course breakdowns and breaches of marriage have occurred and seen clergy subjected to discipline; for instance, a withdrawal of licence. However at present the church seems in a quandary about what to with same gender relationships (including those relationships that have amply demonstrated the maturity, commitment and loving faithfulness we associate with marriage):  the default position has been to say 'no' or 'wait' and to remind all concerned that our church processes have to work on a theology of marriage - after which our statutes may be revised.

However the promised theological spadework may not be either simple or clear - though I am confident that it will happen.  Think about it, what constitutes the essence of marriage: the declaration of the state and/or the Church?  Surely not!  I expect state and church would both say it is the free exchange of vows between two persons that defines a marriage; in which  case state and church are principally witnesses.  The 'real stuff'- the 'sacramental stuff' is in the inner life of the relationship between these two people who marry each other.  What then is the status of persons who also live in an exemplary faithful committed relationship?  Although there may not have been any formal exchange of vows, and despite the church's canons, can we simply 'write off' a relationship in which the partners are clearly bearers of God's love and grace to one another?  In other words, can one discern signs of God at work in this relationship and, if so, can the Church disregard it?  (This is hardly a new question for the church,  as the debates in Acts over Gentile circumcision remind us.)

If we look ahead, looking past a change in our canons concerning marriage, what happens for those who are already ordained and in committed but 'unmarried' relationships?  Could questions be asked and bishop's be compelled to act?  If the canons on marriage are amended could clergy even be required to 'marry' their partners, or else?   Some of the possible scenarios would be almost surreal: a series of 'shotgun' marriages? For goodness sake!