Friday, November 22, 2013

The Deans' Conference 2013

It is a pleasantly informal photo for the very diverse (even motley) group of characters who are the Cathedral Deans in Aotearoa-NZ and Pasifika.  I came away from the conference encouraged by the talented colleagues who shared their stories and their faith.  Some face enormous challenges.  At the very least, we meet to remind ourselves that we are not alone.  It was good to meet in New Plymouth and, speaking personally, it was great to be back in 'The Naki' and to see some familiar faces and old friends.  St Mary's was a wonderful and generous host to all its visitors!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

C.S. Lewis Revisited


Coincidences ... are there really such things as coincidences?  That strikes me as a very C.S. Lewis kind of question.  I have not read C.S.Lewis for ages but he came to mind when I prepared the sermon for the Choral Eucharist last Sunday with that rather farcical passage in Luke 20 where the Sadducees question Jesus about the post-resurrection marital status of the woman who had survived seven husbands.  That got me on to the limitations of analogical thinking and led me to ask why Lewis had represented Christ as the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories.  Then, the same evening, on the BBC Knowledge programme was a presentation by the Lewis researcher Michael Ward on his book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S.Lewis (Oxford, 2008)

I had not heard of the book but the outline he provided delighted me.  I had never been able to quite make sense of the intellectual disjunction between Lewis the accomplished medieval scholar and the popular writer of childrens' books.  The medieval scholar revelled in the imaginative coherence of medieval cosmography, its sheer complexity and interrelatedness, wheras the Narniad did not seem particularly complex and seemed, at best, to hint in places at a fairly strained allegory of the atonement; how the Narnia books related to one another was not at all clear, or even if it were possible to even speak of a sequence.

Ward's point, his discovery, was to suddenly recognise that buried beneath the layers of the Narnia books was the medieval imagination and that each of the books exhibited the influence of one of the seven planets: Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus and Saturn.   I was surprised to realise how differently I began to feel about the Narnia stories!   They were no longer an aberration but formed by a subtle and secretive imaginative understanding of ultimate reality.

I have bought Ward's books and purchased a mass of the Lewis books (for Kindle) and already start to wonder about a course - possibly for Lent.  Anyone interested?

Diabetes Awareness Day: a blue Cathedral

When the organizers of Diabetes Awareness Week invited me to let them illuminate the Cathedral in Blue - together with other buildings in the Octagon - it seemed a good opportunity for the Cathedral to express support for the common good.  I was glad to receive this photo this morning and also to see that they had taken my invitation to place an explanatory banner on the Bishop's Walk (not called that because our own Bishop is wont to walk there but because of the images of the 4 Bishops which adorn that balcony - among them Bishop Neville represented holding an image of the Cathedral).

Of course the colour blue has various associations and there may be some who will suggest a bright red, or encouraging green.  Who knows what the future will bring?

As it stands, I am pleased to see this image of the Cathedral and to usefully employ our privileged space in the centre of the City, a tangible expression of public theology.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day 2013: Forming our moral imagination

I am posting the text for the address at the Cathedral's Armistice Day Service: the service went well and one remark I received stuck with me.  I don't know the lady, but she observed, 'Although I am a pacifist, the words of this service are so moving, so beautiful, I can only concur.'

A casual bystander watching this and other Remembrance Day services might not be too sure exactly what we are about; what we are doing this for.  The sight of uniforms, of stacked arms, the procession of colours, the placing of regimental colours on the altar might – for some – seem to imply an honouring of war; even – at a considerable stretch – something like a glorification of war.  That of course would be a gross misunderstanding. 

Now it may surprise some to hear me say this, but we are not here for some sentimental or abstract purpose or to engage in a series of symbolic gestures and words to ‘honour the dead’. On the contrary, the matter is more urgent: we are here because we dare not forget.

I believe we are here to remember the horror and cost of war in a very disciplined and purposeful way and to resist to the utmost of our ability, any resort to war in the future.  We honour our dead not by any abstract remembering but by how we act and live in the present; by how we commit ourselves to the cause of peace and by how we help to shape our national life now and for years to come.

Consequently there is a sense in which we must, of course, look back.  We are accustomed to the innumerable memorials throughout our nation – many now forgotten and mouldering quietly,  all mute testimony to the unimaginable losses that decimated generations here and elsewhere.  We are accustomed to recall family albums with their sepia-tinted photographs of uniformed, fresh-faced young men, whose features are never seen again.  Books, exhibitions, films and the Internet show us images of grand departures with bands and troopships; then many more of appalling slaughter and waste; and, to complete the sequence, the return of a few, often maimed in body or mind, to a nation that has lost its innocence. Very properly and necessarily we say with Binyon’s Ode, ‘We will remember them’.

We are here because, this day of all days, through our vow to ‘remember’, we purposefully employ our moral imagination.  One aspect of our remembering is cautionary, passing on the warning across the years: a means to help ensure that we learn from history and don’t let this happen again. For, as Edmund Burke said, ‘those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.’ It is no accident that one New Zealand War historian closed his substantial photographic history of the Great War with Hemingway’s words: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’

Another aspect of our remembering, and especially essential to the growth of any moral imagination, is our willingness to think and emotionally engage, as far as we can, with the loss and horror that this day observes.  This is essential for our humanity because the capacity to identify and empathise makes us human and shapes how we live and act.

This is critical and urgently contemporary.  For instance, with terrorism: one commentator has boldly described the act of terrorism as a failure of the imagination. Referring to the acts of September 11, 2001, the writer Ian McEwan has argued that, ‘if the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed.   It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim.  Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.  It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality … Among (the terrorists’) crimes was a failure of the imagination.’

This is why we keep Remembrance Day and understand it as a time when we reflect very carefully on our nation and our way of life.  We need to ask some hard questions.  Do we nourish the moral imagination or do we stifle it?  When we set political objectives or welfare policies, when we determine economic goals or employment or housing provisions for all, when we evaluate educational priorities, when we elect a government – to what extent are we driven in all of these by a concern for the priority of the moral imagination in our national life?  Take one example: in our universities and schools the humanities tend to be comparatively ‘starved’: it is alleged that the marketplace needs graduates to be in science, technology, business, engineering – at the cost of such disciplines as religion, literature and philosophy that consistently remind us what it means to be human and critique those aspects of our life which may undermine our humanity.  For instance, as ultrafast broadband is rolled out across the country, have we really addressed the destructive power of internet pornography and recognised the extent of its harm, its power to diminish our humanity?

It may be that we are now paying the price for a systemic erosion of our values.  Last week there was national shock at the discovery of the Facebook site run by a gang of young sexual predators in West Auckland.  Their smirks, their sneering cruelty and their unfeeling humiliation of their victims chilled me. One commentator’s headline asked a question we should all ask: ‘How has New Zealand raised such sons?’

This Remembrance Day we must ask such questions.  We are not helpless.  We can all be a force for good, wherever we are.  Our country is worth fighting for.  We owe those we remember this day no less than that.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

HMNZS Otago: keeping her in our hearts

It is good to have news of the HMNZS Otago again.  In the past year they have rescued yachties off the Minerva reef; deployed to Antarctica in support of the Commision for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; conducted boardings on the Tooth-Fish fleet in the Ross Sea and fought bush fires on Great Barrier Island.  That shot of them boarding a fishing boat in terrible conditions is a reminder of the tough work they do.

We hope to see her in port again toward the end of the month in good time for a visit to the Cathedral before they deploy once more to the South for the southern summer.  (Obviously this means the ship and crew will be away from home over Christmas and the New Year.)

It will be good to welcome them again - and we keep them all (and their families) in our prayers.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

All Saints & St Hilda's - Faith as Story

Once a year the Cathedral hosts St Hilda's Collegiate and the school takes a major role in the service; it is a time when the Cathedral is gratifyingly full as well over 500 pupils, parents and other family and staff overflow the building.  It is a service where churched and unchurched, believers and 'unbelievers' of all ages are present - by any standards a challenging task for the preacher, so, for the record, here is the sermon.  I hope we may yet get some photos of the service.

This morning, if you came into the Cathedral from the front steps, you will have passed close by to what might be the most substantial link we have with the first generation of St Hilda’s students. Though the original St Hilda’s buildings are gone, when this cathedral was rebuilt, those first students (for the years 1896-1918) donated the magnificent Baptismal font – there by the doors on the south aisle.  It is a substantial reminder that from the beginning there has been an intimate bond between the school and its cathedral. Of course times have changed, but St Hilda’s old girls still bring children here for baptism.

Of course what I am doing is to remind us all that the St Hilda’s story is (literally) embedded in your Cathedral and that it is not just a quaint memory of a long gone Anglican past but a story that continues within the life and mission of this diocese and Cathedral.  That is why the special character of St Hilda’s – a Christian School in the Anglican tradition – is so important to us.

So, for example, a 13 year old may go to a church camp and commit herself to following Jesus; she may not be sure of what this means but the experience changes her life, transforms her - and she has just begun to take her part in a vast story of which we can only glimpse tiny fragments. This story changes the world. The story that she has begun to share in is one we never finish with and it never finishes with us.

Some educators may not be comfortable with story as a form of knowledge, a vehicle of reality, but remember how in Hard Times Dickens caricatured a narrow understanding of knowledge in the words of the appalling schoolteacher, Thomas Gradgrind:
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” 

Thankfully, St Hilda’s is not the Gradgrind Academy!

Now, think of your own experience as readers, perhaps with reading The Lord of The Rings.  You will know that to share in a story demands that we just get on with the story; we don’t start arguing, saying ‘I don’t believe’; in all good stories we suspend disbelief, put our questions on hold and simply let the story take us where it will.  In some of the great stories we keep reading them all our lives; we keep coming back to them and each time, despite our familiarity, we discover something new, understand something, see something differently or make connections we had not suspected before.  It is as if the story we thought we knew unexpectedly changes and expands – sometimes more than we could have imagined possible.

Now I am talking about a hypothetical reading experience, a reading experience some of you will have had; but I am also specifically describing the experience of living the Christian faith.

Earlier this week I said to some of our year 9 students that when you enter the Cathedral you enter a story and that is true likewise of the Christian faith generally.  What I am suggesting is please don’t think of the faith as a set of intellectual concepts,  or tick boxes, true or false; but as a story that requires all that we are (heart, body and mind) and that we continue to read and engage with it; some parts we will think we understand; but it winds and twists; it interacts with our lives and experiences; we argue with it; we may put it away but later return to it; we experience moments of insight and discovery; times of confusion and doubt.  So, when we come to the cathedral on any Sunday we join with other ‘readers’; some who might feel a bit jaded; some who might be fresh and new, making discoveries all the time; others who might be struggling and questioning while others are simply glowing with joy.  The story that we share is one we never finish with and it never finishes with us.

The liturgy we share in this morning is a special way of telling and enacting the Christian story.   At the very heart of it, in the passage known as The Great Thanksgiving, it tells one story to which we continually return – how, the night before he died, the Lord Jesus took bread and wine and said that when we do this, he will be with us, among us, as fully present to us as in his body and blood.  And so, in our retelling this story, re-enacting it as a great play in which we all have a part, the bread and the wine, though chemically unchanged, assume a new significance; though visibly still bread and wine, their reality to us is cosmically changed.  So, if we come up to take communion (and all are welcome to) if we come even despite reservations and questions about the story in which we are sharing, we are choosing to move from ‘observer-status’ to becoming participants in the story.  Remember, the story that we share in is one we never finish – and it never finishes with us.