Friday, 23 December 2016

Searching for Wonderful Things: A University Carol Service

Address at the University of Surrey Carol Service, 2016.


Guildford Cathedral during the current works, December 2016 Photo Trish Lambert
Look around you: what do you see? At first glance this cathedral is full of disappointing, grey, dirty scaffolding, ugly red plastic barriers and warning tape. Not terribly Christmassy.

But if you try and look behind it you might start to see it a bit differently. Perhaps then you can see that the scaffolding represents work in progress, of restoration, renovation and transformation.

Of course if you’re a University of Surrey civil engineering student you’ll be fascinated by it. As I speak, you’re probably calculating the weight bearing capacity of the beams supporting the scaffolding way up in the heights.

As you gaze up what do you see? Being poetic for a moment you might look up into the dark voids and spaces and ponder the mystery of universe and world and your own place in it. You might engage with the final reading tonight which speaks of ‘The light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ and proclaims, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*

This enlightenment changes how we understand the world and being human. Universities rightly pride themselves on generating learning through accumulating information and building knowledge. Universities search out and re-search knowledge.

The great challenge in a rapidly changing world is to ask an ancient question, ‘where is wisdom to be found?’ The habits of thinking that we have from our own disciplines will give us different insights and prompt us to wonder.

At the heart of this is the question of why sound waves oscillating at different speeds become music; why the tiniest micrometres of silicon are images of captivating beauty; why the stars, that have always prompted humanity to wonder, poetry and art, also contain clues and codes to understanding the depths of the story of the universe in which we exist. Wonderful things.

Where’s this all going? Where’s Christmas gone? Well, it’s right here. I just wonder if you had been a shepherd, called by angels, or one of the Magi, guided by a star, and you arrived at the manger in Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth what you would have made of it.

The scene was most unlikely as a holy place, a bit like this cathedral at the moment. A stable or cave, where animals live, an exhausted woman who has just given birth, and scared man, anxious about the mother of the child lying in the feeding trough.

Into that unpromising scene is born a child who is declared to be ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. It is a most extraordinary claim.

This claim is encapsulated by St John, who we will hear in our final reading. God, all that has been, is and will be, is now to be found in one particular place at one particular time with global, cosmic impact. John connects the very beginning of all things with the lives we live now, because in Jesus Christ is life, transformation and hope. John connects human knowledge and learning with God’s deep wisdom of the art of being human in faith, hope and love.

Mary famously declared, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’. To magnify is, at the same time, to enlarge and make more intense. A magnifying glass can expand our vision, and can intensify the sun’s rays to burn. This Christmas look beyond: look beyond the obvious, the tinsel, mince pies and glitter, search and re-search what magnifying the Lord means for you.

Over that unpromising scene in Bethlehem, a messy stable, a man and woman and baby, sang choirs of angels because in Him the fullness of God is pleased to dwell: and you know, looking at that, I’m sure they sang, ‘wonderful things happen here’.



© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Monday, 19 December 2016

John the Baptist: righteousness is not hereditary

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral, second Sunday of Advent 2016

Isaiah 11.1-10; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12

+In nomine Patris…

Over the last few years the interest in family trees has grown and grown. Family trees tell us something about who we are by naming the connections and relationships that have brought us to being: they tell us about the roots and branches of families, groups of people and ultimately nations.

They can be dangerous though. They can lead us to over identify with close biological connections - tight or exclusive and the bonds of family, kinship and nation can lead to an unhealthy tribalism or veneration of social groupings. This fragments the oneness of being human in a common ancestor made in the image of the One God.

It is precisely that issue that John the Baptist identifies in the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to hear him. ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones [the stones of the wilderness] to raise up children to Abraham’ (Matthew 3.9). In other words, don’t rely on your supposed ancestral connections, on your family tree, to think you’re right with God. Righteousness is not hereditary, it is something each one of has to work at here and now.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, as was well publicised at the time, discovered that the man he thought to be his father was not. His response was to situate his identity not in a family tree, but in Christ.

The axe ‘lying at the root of the trees’ (v. 10) will bring down the idea that righteousness is hereditary, that biology always gives the most sustaining relationships.

It is ironic perhaps that John the Baptist shared a family tree with Jesus. John was Jesus’ cousin, although like in many Asian families the word ‘cousin’ could be a loose description. It is clear though that Mary, the God-bearer from whom Jesus received his humanity, was related to John’s mother Elizabeth. So Jesus’ and John’s DNA must have been pretty similar.

But similar DNA does not cut the mustard. What connects John - and us - to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is in the fruits of repentance and baptism, for the forgiveness of sins, which is a demanding, radical association of ourselves with Christ above all things, even bonds of kinship and tribe. It makes us ask: what do true, sustaining relationships look like? Where do I find them in my life?

The axe, then, is not destructive. John proclaims a message of both threat and promise. Threat: an axe lying at the root of the trees. Promise: a shoot shall spring forth from the tree stump of the family tree of the man called Jesse. Both in his own day and here and now John brings threat to many and promise to all.

We just have to glance around us at this time of year, late autumn giving way to early winter, to see threat and promise in the trees. The trees have all but shed their leaves. They look at their most dead. And yet deep inside the tree sap is brewing ready to rise and generate new leaves and new growth.

So it is that our final arboricultural image is in the promise that springs from the stump of a tree, the stock of Jesse.

Isaiah names this promise; St Paul, in our second reading, in the letter to the Romans also references it. This is an inclusive promise that the heirs of the patriarchs and prophets are not solely the people of Israel but those who have been adopted into the people of God in Christ. They are known as the Gentiles, that is you and me. We have no ancestral entitlement yet, Paul says, there will come from the root of Jesse ‘the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, [the nations, the peoples, the tribes]; and in him shall they/we hope’ (Romans 15.12). The God of Israel is the God of all Nations, ‘from whom’ as Paul writes elsewhere, ‘every family in heaven and on earth is named’.

In the Lady Chapel of this Cathedral there is an icon, of the Orthodox tradition, which is of the Jesse tree. At the bottom Jesse lies prone, asleep or possibly dead, yet growing out of him is the trunk of a tree. In the branches are our ancestors in the faith, patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets. And at the heart of the Jesse Tree is the Mother of God with her Son, our Saviour, enthroned on her lap. As the Elizabethan poet, Francis Kindlemarsh, put it, ‘an earthly tree a heavenly fruit it bore’: that heavenly fruit, Jesus Christ, the earthly, Mary.

The invitation of that icon is to be grafted into the living vine, to the Tree of Life in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist prepares the way for the coming Lord, and demands of us lives that reflect the purity and holiness of the One Who Is to come. Something that we achieve, not by our ancestry, not by our own strenuous efforts but by confessing our sins, resting in Christ and receiving his life in baptism and eucharist.

Sharing in that life may we pray that the God of hope will fill us and all the world with all joy and peace in believing, so that all may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Monday, 31 October 2016

Becoming Saints

Shaping the lives of the Saints - All Saints’ Reflections
Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Guildford Cathedral is flanked on the north and south by a series of statues. At first glance you might think they are a collection of saints; but they’re not. There are holy men and women on the West End, but the statues on the north and south sides are less obvious than that.  In the form of the human body, they seek to express the virtues, cardinal and theological, down the south side and down the north the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The virtues - Courage, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Love - may be regarded as a series of values, ideas to aspire to. Values are very fashionable. Businesses, churches, schools, hospitals all trumpet their values in prospectuses. Teachers, clergy, and others, have to do school assemblies based on the school’s values which often feels like an exercise in promoting the school’s propaganda or performing contortions to make an abstract value seem applicable in the children’s lives and connect to the gospel.

The virtues are not highly fashionable, not least as they seek to form moral character, which is usually is assumed to mean moralistic, self-righteous, pompous behaviour, which is the polar opposite of what they are meant to do. That sounds a little like the perception of saints. They could be seen as being holier-than-thou, unhealthily unworldly, stained glass wimps.

The purpose of virtues is in the forming of habits and ways of acting that lead to what we call a virtuous life. This means that they train us in the making of decisions. From classical times the virtues shaped moral living. So you could say that saints are those frail human beings who have responded to the call to be formed in the virtues, especially those of faith, hope and love. But also the saints, like you and me, have bestowed upon them the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

A rather grainy picture of 'Understanding' by Alan Collins
Guildford Cathedral
It’s the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding that has intrigued me recently as I have walked past. This depiction connects the gifts of the Spirit and the virtues with being shaped and formed in the ways of holiness in a slightly unlikely way. On it, the haloed figure holds an unfurled scroll with the Biblical reference Ephesians 1.18. It’s inviting us to read that verse:

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (AV)

This are significant words for what it means to be a saint: eyes seeing the light; knowing the hope of God’s calling; and knowing the riches of the glory of God’s promise to us in company with each other and those who go before us.

In this passage, which is a prayer being offered, an expansive and expanding vision of holiness is being stretched out before us. After all the prayer goes on to refer to ‘the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power’ (v19). And let’s be clear: holiness is not pie-in-the-sky, vague or wishy-washy.

To read this alongside Luke 6.20-31, as the lectionary asks us to, roots the blessedness of that vision of holiness firmly in lived, embodied, daily realities and offers a deeply stretching way to approach them. It does so in the language of blessings and woes. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and reviled will all find blessing. Jesus beholds them and blessing falls upon them. 

Those who have life ‘sorted’ - the rich, the replete, the laughing ones – and who seem comfortable now will find that they need to rely more on God to know blessing, so that the rich will recognise their poverty, the replete their hungers, the laughing their pains. So you’re blessed now: seek further blessing from God.

This is the way to becoming more human not less, with the most stretching instruction of all, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. Do we even know what we really want others to do and be for us?

In his Rule St Benedict says, ‘Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy, that you may truly be called so’ (My italics). In other words don’t ask for the label of saint without first behaving like one.

Holiness is a life lived in the intensity of the awareness of God’s presence day by day and a life lived and shaped by that reality. The ecology of holiness is supported by the intensity of God-filled moments that we call the sacraments. The Eucharist is the supreme example of this where in word and sign we are pointed to the divine banquet gathered with all the saints. Bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is the food of the saints.

Holiness is humanness in all its fullness and potential. Just as the virtues were named so as to shape habits and actions, so the call to be saints invites a transformed life. The call to holiness is the call to be a saint; one of the holy ones of God. The call to holiness is the call to be real, more real than you can possibly imagine. The call to holiness is the call to be part of a family that extends beyond biology, kinship and DNA.


So I pray for myself and for you: May the eyes of our understanding be enlightened; that we may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. Amen.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Reflections on the Advocate & advocacy

The definition of advocacy from the mental health charity Mind is the act of getting support from another person to help you express your views and wishes, and to help make sure your voice is heard’. 

There is a growing recognition of the need for this sort of advocacy and its real power and worth. Advocacy enables those who, for whatever reason, cannot articulate their own story: in other words those who cannot give an account of what makes them, them; their identity; who they are.

Classically, in legal terms, we are familiar with the role of the advocate as the person who has the expertise and training to articulate the story or case of another person in their defence, the role a barrister takes in our system. The advocate gives clarity to the defendant’s story, marshals evidence and articulates the case. The advocate is not the defendant. The advocate does not even have to believe the defendant, but comes to inhabit the defendant’s story such that it can be put on the defendant’s behalf.

That is the case for someone accused of a crime, but advocacy goes wider than that. We can add to the example of ‘Mind’ those of advocacy for the many groups of people whose voice goes unheard in society, like carers at home, minorities, children, those undergoing coercive control, survivors of abuse or trauma, those for whom life is being sucked out of them by over domineering colleagues or family members.

This sort of advocacy in a social sense, either in the workplace, at school or society, draws on the same skills. This often hinges on helping someone not simply articulate their own story, but to help them to understand it and take hold of it. The advocate in this sense also helps identify when someone else is suppressing a person’s story or their identity and sense of who they are.

So for example, part of my role as a chaplain, indeed in my job description, is one of advocacy. This is advocacy in the second sense that is not about a courtroom. That might be advocacy on behalf of a student who extenuating circumstances affecting his or her work, or a member of staff who is feels victimised or bullied by another.

More generally I am, with fellow chaplains, an advocate for the place of faith and belief on campus, which involves telling the story of the way personal faith and belief within a community of faith is integral to the identities of so many people.

In the Christian Church the role of a priest is to help God’s people to articulate their story corporately and personally. That is the sense in which a priest is a storyteller. Not spinning yarns, but holding together a narrative of identity, into which is woven the hope, the faith and the love of God presented to us in Jesus Christ, who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us the narrative of what it is to be human and a creature made in the image and likeness of God, where we find our first identity.

This is where our dedication to the Holy Spirit at this Cathedral points us to the importance of advocacy because advocacy is at its heart the work of the Holy Spirit, named in the Gospels as parakletos, the principal meaning of which is ‘lawyer for the defence’, ‘defender of the accused’, or in the words of the Te Deum sung at Morning Prayer, ‘the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide’.

The Spirit is the advocate who helps us articulate our identity in Christ, and draws into the narrative of the love of the Father and Son. This is the process of sounding the depths of our faith, seeing who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is, all the better to understand how we take hold of our humanity and the person we were created to be.

That is the context of Advocate in the passage of St John 15.12-end. Read in the context of the imminent prospect of martyrdom and it has a very pressing character: the parakletos is what gives the martyr the ability to speak and act as one shaped by the story of the death of Jesus that becomes more than a wasted life but one that is enveloped in the friendship of God, the fruitfulness from God and testimony of God.

For those of us not facing martyrdom, the parakletos still operates to shape our lives that we, like the martyrs, abide in the love of God that gives wholly of itself.

So then we have the parakletos on our side, but that implies that there is someone or something not on our side. This is what the Bible, and Jesus, term Satan, a name which means the adversary, the one who puts the case against us, the one who wants to declare us guilty.

The adversary wants to unravel the story of God’s love, faithfulness and simply being on our side. The adversary wants us to believe that we are laden with guilt, never good enough. The adversary wants to tell the church today a story that takes us off in directions of despair and patching things together, not remaining faithful to the story of God.

As the story unravels we become gospel amnesiacs and then we really are lost and in need of seeking out, which of course God will do. Counsels of despair about the future of the church or the worthiness of human beings disregard the work of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide.

Perhaps sometimes the problem is that we tell the story against ourselves.

Surely inspired by the Spirit, the Advocate, St Paul asks in Romans, ‘If God is for us who can be against us?...who will bring any charge against God’s elect?’ (Romans 8.31b, 33a). It’s a question that comes in a passage where Paul has asserted that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Paul knew as we do that our live and hope comes from the extent to which we are grafted in, to use St John’s imagery, into the life of the True Vine, Jesus Christ. It is this life that gives us the capacity to love in a way that counts nothing of the cost, to be fruitful and to testify to that love for as Paul answers his own question:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 8.37-39

There’s the case for the defence, the story into which we are grafted, the story of the self-giving, saving love of Jesus Christ articulated for us in our life in the parakletos, our Advocate and Guide. 'Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love'.


© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Sunday, 18 September 2016

God or Mammon: Where are true riches to be found?

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral on 18th September 2016, on the text Luke 16.1-13.

Tax collectors Marinus van Reymerswaele
‘Mammon’ is a good old fashioned word: as the Authorised Version of the Bible renders Jesus’ words at the end of the gospel reading today: ‘you cannot serve God and mammon’ (Luke 16.13). More modern translations, accurately, translate the original Greek word, mam┼Źnas, as ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’. But mammon conveys something a little bit more, it suggests wealth or riches that are not entirely above board, a bit dodgy or are the object of worship.

‘You cannot worship God and mammon’. It’s a pretty punchy conclusion to Jesus’ rather extraordinary parable, variously known as the ‘Unjust Steward’, the ‘Dishonest’ or ‘Crooked Manager’.

Every time I read this parable, and believe me, I read it through a number of times in preparation for preaching this morning, I find myself squirming. What is going on here? Why do I squirm and recoil when I read it?

First of all, I don’t like the manager. He’s squandering the rich owner’s property and is negligent. He clearly should have been disciplined years before. And when he’s found out - after whistle-blowers have finally plucked up courage to expose him - the manager wriggles and finds strategies to make the best of a decidedly bad situation.

Here we don’t have hot blooded sin - like rampant sexual passion, intemperate violence or spur of the moment lying, which are bad enough - but cold blooded sin, calculated plotting and scheming. This is the worst kind of white collar crime going on.

And then there’s the rich man, the master, who colludes with all of this and somehow thinks it’s laudable. Many a tycoon seems to enjoy seeing an employee being quite as devious and slippery as the tycoon himself: after all, what were his riches based on?

The debtors also quite happy to accept the freebie that they are gaining: none of them challenges the dishonesty of the manager. We might even start to think, ‘well, I wouldn’t be like the manager, and I wouldn’t be like the fat cat tycoon, but as for the debtors, well, what they did by accepting some reduction of the debt they owed wasn’t illegal: he’s rich he won’t notice…’

So what’s Jesus up to in this parable? Is he really commending all this behaviour? If we think that, then I want to suggest that we might read the parable completely the other way round.

The problem comes when we read this parable thinking that Jesus is commending it to us wholeheartedly. Jesus isn’t holding this parable up as an example to us to look at, study and replicate. Rather he is holding a mirror up and asking: ‘what do you see of yourself in this? How do you make choices as you negotiate the complexities of the world? What does all this look like to you when you are my disciple?’

This parable should make us squirm and then examine why. We should take heart from that squirming; it means that our ethical antennae are alert to the contradictions in the parable, and the cognitive dissonance it contains, because we realise that there is something profoundly wrong going on, that there is no such thing as victimless crime ultimately, and that lack of probity and honesty in small things grows and mutates rapidly into something bigger and impossible to control. Jesus refuses to give us the answers we expect but makes us do some work so that we are not the spiritual equivalent of the manager, being bad stewards of what belongs to someone else: that is to say, not being negligent and squandering our God-given gifts.

When we squirm at this parable we are drawing from a deep ethical tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures articulated by, amongst others, the prophet Amos who condemns those who exploit the poor, by making small measures, profiteer and passing off the sweepings of the wheat for good grain.

Yet we know, and this is hard too, that the world of business relies on risk, on taking a chance and exploiting an opportunity. Without entrepreneurs generating money and moving it round then economies stagnate and poverty becomes endemic: look at North Korea or Zimbabwe. The parable of the talents reminds us that money needs to move and work in an economy: the servants who made their money work and grow are commended and rewarded; the servant who dug a hole and put his talents of money in it is told that, because his expectations were nil, he should expect nothing now the master has returned.

Then there is the whole business of being financial directors, fund managers, budget holders, accountants or those of us dealing with household budgeting: each of us has to manage money, however limited or plentiful it is.

The Cathedral itself has to wrestle with a financial deficit and ask questions about endowment income, the balance of income and expenditure, prudent use of resources, the fostering of generosity.

There are plenty of good Christian disciples who are faced with the challenges money brings at work and at home, and many, I know, wrestle deeply with issues around the ethics of money, endowments, dividend yields, implications of low-interest rates and personal debt.

This is where the word ‘mammon’ comes back in. Mammon is corrupted, corrupting wealth. It is the blind pursuit of wealth hanging the consequences for the poor. Wealth becomes mammon when it is pursued for its own sake, when little corners are cut or small deceits begin and inevitably snowball into bigger ones. That is the deceit and corruption of mammon, that money is worth chasing for itself and not what it can do for others.

So then, this parable holds a mirror up to us to ask do we seek to serve God or mammon? Managing wealth with an eye to the Common Good for the building up of the Kingdom of God is one thing, blind pursuit of wealth for its own sake is quite another.

This parable moves us to ask where true riches are to be found. We need constantly to move from serving mammon to wealth that serves; from worshipping mammon to wealth that worships and is used to honour God

This is where a reading of the parable that says it is not an example but an examination actually gives us space to hold together commitment to justice, equity and fair dealings with the demands of making money and appreciating its value.

The binary choice: God or mammon has always been, and will always be, a demanding one. Our very presence here today, and the offerings we make financially and the bread and wine presented, point us away from mammon and to the pursuit of true riches and wealth which is receiving the inexhaustible riches of God, given without price and yet everything given.



© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Education Sunday: searching and re-searching God's wisdom

A sermon preached at All Saints, Onslow Village, Guildford, Education Sunday 11th September 2016
Luke 15:1-10.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you known my sitting down and my standing, you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139.1)

+ In nomine Patris…

Today is Education Sunday and as a chaplain at the University of Surrey I have, or at least should have, an interest in the subject.

Of course education is not just about universities, it’s not even about educational institutions like schools or colleges or courses but it is about the way in which we encounter every day as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, about our world and environment, and most significantly about God.

Education is about being led into the mystery of God often just by glimpses, and is a powerful action of the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, often kicking and screaming and insisting on our own truth. Learning what we do not know is perhaps the most profound education of all!

Learning to live lives that are shaped like Jesus Christ helps us to learn what it means to be a true human being: made in the image and likeness and God and being restored in that image. This is what St Benedict in his Rule calls, ‘the school of the Lord’s service’. (Rule of St Benedict, Prologue, v. 45)

This morning’s gospel reading gives us two particular ways of thinking about education. First there is thinking about the method of education and then there is what the process of education actually is.

Jesus the Teacher - Coptic Icon
Jesus, as we can all agree, is an excellent teacher. If he wasn’t a great teacher then the chances are that we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Without good and clear teaching from Jesus, the first disciples would never have grasped what the gospel was about, and those who received the disciples’ testimony and teaching would never have been able to pass it on themselves. The transmission of faith relies on well taught people communicating the faith that they have received and learnt, even if they don’t grasp every last word.

So Jesus was a great teacher both in his method and content and both the method and content turn us into life-long learners.

His teaching style is characterised by taking questions head on, and, in the typical style of the Rabbis of his time, either to answer with a question or to tell a story.

These stories of memorable teaching are the parables: and we have two of those in this morning’s gospel reading. And in these parables Jesus both asks a question: which of you on losing a sheep or losing a coin would go all out to find that which is lost? And he tells a story: of the shepherd who searches, and finds and brings the found sheep home rejoicing and of the woman who diligently searches her home to pick up her silver coin.

Even if they’re not the best known of the parables many long standing Christians don’t have to trawl the depths of Sunday School experience to recall them. We can picture them and imagine them: the desperation of searching and the joy of finding; we can see ourselves in them.

Parables are memorable because of their pithiness – oh, that the same might be said of sermons sometimes! These parables so brief they are almost proto-soundbites.

But unlike soundbites they unfold layers of meaning and, because they are true teaching, they yield more and more meaning the more they are explored. Otherwise we needn’t hear or read them again; the matter would have been resolved.

So from ancient wisdom and teaching comes treasure ever old and ever new.

The overriding theme of both parables is searching.

The human quest of searching mirrors God searching out and knowing of each one of us. They raise questions of self-examination: what do I truly search for? What do others search for in me? What does it mean to say that God searches me out and knows me, as the psalm puts it? Am I really so precious that Jesus Christ searches me out when I am lost? Am I lost or found?

This theme of searching resonates in my role as a chaplain at the University. First the University is a research intensive institution, searching and re-searching information, knowledge and wisdom. Secondly my role has a pastoral dimension which, like a shepherd and pastor, calls me to search out those who are lost, stumbling or cry out for help.

Searching and re-searching is part of learning and growing, which is the heart of the educative process. We talk about life-long learning and, as Christian disciples (those who learn) this means searching and re-searching the scriptures. In other words, we pay fresh attention to the Bible as the words which are sweeter than honey to our lips.

There is a wonderful ancient method of reading scriptures that is at the heart of our searching and re-searching out of the meaning of God’s word in our lives called lectio Divina. This method invites us to a fourfold way of paying attention to scripture known under their Latin titles: lectio, the actual of reading it; ruminatio, the act of chewing it over, contemplatio, contemplation that leads us deeper into that word, and oratio, the act of taking that insight and praying with it.

A healthy church, or school or university is one that seeks to learn and to grow, that searches and re-searches. True wisdom is a gift of the Spirit who leads us into all truth: the Spirit who leads us in deeper to God’s word; the Spirit who sends us out to search for God’s wisdom, as we delight and wonder in creation, the earth and heavens, in one another and even – shock, horror - in the people we find most unlikeable or annoying.

May we all continue to search out the treasure which is Christ; may we be sought out by the Good Shepherd when we stray from what and who God calls us to be.


Please pray today for all in education, whether formal or informal, for teachers and learners in school, colleges, courses and universities. Pray that we may seek out God’s wisdom every day: a precious treasure. 

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Education Sunday: searhcing and re-searching for God's wisdom

A sermon preached at All Saints, Onslow Village, Guildford, Education Sunday 11th September 2016
Luke 15:1-10.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you known my sitting down and my standing, you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139.1)

+ In nomine Patris…

Today is Education Sunday and as a chaplain at the University of Surrey I have, or at least should have, an interest in the subject.

Of course education is not just about universities, it’s not even about educational institutions like schools or colleges or courses but it is about the way in which we encounter every day as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, about our world and environment, and most significantly about God.

Education is about being led into the mystery of God often just by glimpses, and is a powerful action of the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, often kicking and screaming and insisting on our own truth. Learning what we do not know is perhaps the most profound education of all!

Learning to live lives that are shaped like Jesus Christ helps us to learn what it means to be a true human being: made in the image and likeness and God and being restored in that image. This is what St Benedict in his Rule calls, ‘the school of the Lord’s service’. (Rule of St Benedict, Prologue, v. 45)

This morning’s gospel reading gives us two particular ways of thinking about education. First there is thinking about the method of education and then there is what the process of education actually is.

Jesus the Teacher - Coptic Icon
Jesus, as we can all agree, is an excellent teacher. If he wasn’t a great teacher then the chances are that we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Without good and clear teaching from Jesus, the first disciples would never have grasped what the gospel was about, and those who received the disciples’ testimony and teaching would never have been able to pass it on themselves. The transmission of faith relies on well taught people communicating the faith that they have received and learnt, even if they don’t grasp every last word.

So Jesus was a great teacher both in his method and content and both the method and content turn us into life-long learners.

His teaching style is characterised by taking questions head on, and, in the typical style of the Rabbis of his time, either to answer with a question or to tell a story.

These stories of memorable teaching are the parables: and we have two of those in this morning’s gospel reading. And in these parables Jesus both asks a question: which of you on losing a sheep or losing a coin would go all out to find that which is lost? And he tells a story: of the shepherd who searches, and finds and brings the found sheep home rejoicing and of the woman who diligently searches her home to pick up her silver coin.

Even if they’re not the best known of the parables many long standing Christians don’t have to trawl the depths of Sunday School experience to recall them. We can picture them and imagine them: the desperation of searching and the joy of finding; we can see ourselves in them.

Parables are memorable because of their pithiness – oh, that the same might be said of sermons sometimes! These parables so brief they are almost proto-soundbites.

But unlike soundbites they unfold layers of meaning and, because they are true teaching, they yield more and more meaning the more they are explored. Otherwise we needn’t hear or read them again; the matter would have been resolved.

So from ancient wisdom and teaching comes treasure ever old and ever new.

The overriding theme of both parables is searching.

The human quest of searching mirrors God searching out and knowing of each one of us. They raise questions of self-examination: what do I truly search for? What do others search for in me? What does it mean to say that God searches me out and knows me, as the psalm puts it? Am I really so precious that Jesus Christ searches me out when I am lost? Am I lost or found?

This theme of searching resonates in my role as a chaplain at the University. First the University is a research intensive institution, searching and re-searching information, knowledge and wisdom. Secondly my role has a pastoral dimension which, like a shepherd and pastor, calls me to search out those who are lost, stumbling or cry out for help.

Searching and re-searching is part of learning and growing, which is the heart of the educative process. We talk about life-long learning and, as Christian disciples (those who learn) this means searching and re-searching the scriptures. In other words, we pay fresh attention to the Bible as the words which are sweeter than honey to our lips.

There is a wonderful ancient method of reading scriptures that is at the heart of our searching and re-searching out of the meaning of God’s word in our lives called lectio Divina. This method invites us to a fourfold way of paying attention to scripture known under their Latin titles: lectio, the actual of reading it; ruminatio, the act of chewing it over, contemplatio, contemplation that leads us deeper into that word, and oratio, the act of taking that insight and praying with it.

A healthy church, or school or university is one that seeks to learn and to grow, that searches and re-searches. True wisdom is a gift of the Spirit who leads us into all truth: the Spirit who leads us in deeper to God’s word; the Spirit who sends us out to search for God’s wisdom, as we delight and wonder in creation, the earth and heavens, in one another and even – shock, horror - in the people we find most unlikeable or annoying.

May we all continue to search out the treasure which is Christ; may we be sought out by the Good Shepherd when we stray from what and who God calls us to be.


Please pray today for all in education, whether formal or informal, for teachers and learners in school, colleges, courses and universities. Pray that we may seek out God’s wisdom every day: a precious treasure. 

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Thursday, 8 September 2016

On the Rhetoric of Growth in today's Church of England

Over the last few years the Church of England has become acutely aware of the decline in numbers of church attendance, especially amongst the young. In response there is a renewed focus on mission and numerical growth with a variety of strategies to address this.

The emphasis on growth raises questions. Is this a ‘dash for growth’? How healthy is exponential growth? What does the urge for growth say about our understanding of the Missio Dei? What account do we give of how disciples, new and old, find their place in the Body of Christ? What are the dangers in looking at the metrics?

I want to contend that the growth of the Church is good and important but it cannot be undertaken uncritically, especially in relation to the current rhetoric of the Church of England through reports such as From Anecdote to Evidence. I propose a fresh way of looking at growth through a reading of the Parable of the Sower which does not simply focus on results but on an organic approach learning the lessons of the Green Revolution in agriculture.

Growth is Good & of God


The Gospel of Jesus Christ assumes growth: growth into the image and likeness of God, growing into the full maturity of being sons and daughters of the Most High (cf 1 Peter 2.2); growing in the way the corporate life of the church is modelled (cf Ephesians 4.15); growing in our personal way of life as disciples (cf Colossians 1.10) and growing in knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf 2 Peter 3.18); growing and building up in love (Ephesians 4.16); even pruning brings growth (cf John 15).
The pruning of a vine for growth

Growth is good. But growth is multi-faceted and not just about the numbers, although numbers are clearly a part of it, as in Acts of the Apostles extraordinary numerical growth is reported (cf Acts 1.15; 2.41; 2.47). What is absolutely clear in the New Testament is that growth is from God (1 Corinthians 3.6., 7; Colossians 2.19)

It is growth in numbers that has taken the priority in the strategic planning and overviews of many dioceses and parishes. It is important then to reflect on what growth is and what some of the challenges and costs of that growth might be, as well as the benefits.

The Rhetoric of Growth: Anecdote and Evidence

The Church of England report From Anecdote to Evidence  is a key marker on the journey of reflection on growth, a journey begun by the Mission-shaped Church report in 2003. It forms part of the Church’s current rhetoric of growth.

Anecdote to Evidence gives pointers to the ways in which growth is achieved. Yet the title suggests that anecdote is a suspect way of reporting growth. The implication is that a quantitative way to understand growth is the only one that tells an empirically credible story. The implication is that anecdote is unreliable and not credible.

The Acts of the Apostles combines anecdote and evidence in testifying to the mighty acts of God in Christ and the numerical growth of the Christian community. Quantitatively we read, ‘that day about three thousand persons were added’ (Acts 41.b); qualitatively we read:

They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2.42-47)’.

St Luke tells the ‘anecdotes’ of the first Christians’ quality of life. That tells us that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Church which is what attracts people and grows the Church. Many parish clergy tell of growth in their churches. What are they talking about? Often that testimony is dismissed by the suggestion that the growth they detect is not real growth or that it is not sufficient to merit appreciation.

The currency of the Church is anecdote. Telling the story is integral to living the Christian life. Stories are compelling and shape the reality we want to see. Christians read the scriptures to discover and be reminded of the action of God in history. Christians celebrate the Eucharist to be rooted and anchored in the Gospel. Mission itself involves bearing witness to the telling of God’s story and its possibilities in individual lives and in the world.

A Cost to Growth?

Dashes for economic growth and exponential growth often have a habit of ending badly. Relentless emphasis on numerical growth can have adverse side effects when applied to the Church:

  • ·         It plays to a wider societal and media narrative that numbers are the only thing that counts in the life of the Church;
  • ·         It is anxiety driven. In the face of anxiety Jesus asks us to consider the lilies of the field – which neither toil nor spin - and yet they grow and, indeed, multiply (Matthew 6.28). In the face of anxiety the response is often to (clerical) control and lack of diversity of theology and style;
  • ·         It means we are deaf to the stories of the Spirit’s action in the lives of those who appear not to count in the eyes of the world – for example, children and the poor - but who are the first in the Kingdom of God. These are the quiet actions of the church in people’s lives exercised in daily pastoral ministry but that are never counted;
  • ·         The call to holiness, respect for faithfulness and patience can be diminished in a rampant rhetoric of growth.


The priestly task is to elicit the stories, to offer the vocabulary around which disciples, new and old, can frame and to hold the whole story, the anecdote, of the Gospel before the Christian community.

Harvest Focused Sowing

The ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture, and the associated development of new varieties of crop, was all about maximising growth. But it has had unintended consequences. The pesticides needed to support the new varieties had a devastating impact on insect life and other plants that feed birds. Farmers became dependent on global conglomerations who supply the specialist materials and are held in economic fetters. Furthermore, as can be seen in nature, a monoculture leaves the species at risk of extinction.

What are the parallels for the Church? The Church must be wary of finding a formula akin to the Green Revolution that makes us think there is a single resilient, genuine, variety of Christian. Monoculture in church life kills off those who are attracted to the faith yet do not find themselves at the centre, but ‘touch the fringe of the cloak’ (Matthew 9.20) and still know the healing power of Christ. To retain the purity of a single variety in a species means the loss of others. This can lead to the crowding out and choking of intergenerational contributions from the very young and the old and also different theological voices.

The challenge for the Green Revolution and Church growth is, how we nurture and feed the greatest number of people that preserves the ecology of the creation and human ways of relating to Jesus Christ, that are not imposed or controlled.

Christ the Sower

The Parable of the Sower

The parable of the sower opens up our wondering about proper sowing (Matthew 13.1-9; 18-23). This should be the dominant text for growth. It tells us that:

·         Growth is possible in all sorts of soils. However that growth will not be long lived unless the soil is well prepared and suitable for the seed to take root and establish its growth;
·         Growth happens at all stages but doesn’t guarantee fruitfulness. The seed that is eaten by the birds has no growth of its own but sustains another species. The other seeds in the parable all grow, but either not very much or they get choked: but growth had happened in them. At which stage do we count growth as meaningful: adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s…80s, children?
·         Growth to fruition varies in ‘productivity’. The yield of the seed that fell on good ground is not uniform: ‘in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty’ (v. 23). Even numerical growth cannot be final arbiter of growth. What is successful growth in a church: 100 people attending worship; 500? 1,000? 10,000? 2 or 3? (cf Matthew 18.20);
·         Growth is not just for its own sake. The wheat of the ear enables the plant to sustain itself in the future by the emergence of new seedlings. It also gives it fruit to others, that are not itself, to sustain them: birds and mice eat the wheat; human beings harvest the grain systematically in order to make bread and other staples; and the Biblical vision of gleaning enables the poor to be served too.

There is no one indicator of ‘real’ growth.

The value of abundant, surplus growth is seen throughout the biblical tradition: storing up for times of famine (Genesis 41.35-36); the tradition of gleaning (Ruth 2.17-23) Jesus and his disciples plucking of grain to eat (Luke 6.1). The wheat is abundant in its provision and not consumed by itself.

The Proper Sowing: Countering a ‘Harvest Mission Model’

All growth demands patience: be that the grain of wheat, the gestating child or in a congregation.

‘Take no thought of the harvest, but only of the proper sowing’
(T.S. Eliot in Choruses from The Rock)

'The Corn Harvest' - Peter Breugel the Elder
In human society the classic measure of success is the harvest, the end of the production line. It defines the outcome and measurement of our labours. In the contemporary Church of England parish churches invest a great deal of time and energy in celebrating the Harvest Festival. Harvest Festival rightly is a time of thanksgiving and, if celebrated well, has a global justice imperative. Harvest is comforting because it is about tangible results and measurement. In that way it plays to our sense of security evidenced by metrics.

It is as if the Church of England, fed by media obsession with church decline, has a ‘Harvest Mission Model’.

In the Church Year there is another agrarian based festival that is now seen as something of an antique piece in the way harvest is not. That is Rogation. Rogation (from the Latin rogare ‘to ask’) is about asking God to bless our endeavours, most obviously in the sowing of the seed on the land.

Rogation is not about measurement, but about trust and prayer. Once the seed is in the ground, out of our sight and our control, we do not know what will come of it: we trust that it will take root; we trust that it will grow; we trust that it will be fruitful. But we cannot control that growth.

What if we focused more on Rogation? What would that do to our mission paradigm? A ‘Rogation Mission Model’ could move us from desperate responses to the decline of an institution to a faithful, trusting response to the God who gives life and growth.

After all, St Paul writes that, ‘God gives the growth’ regardless of who sowed or watered (cf 1 Corinthians 3.6). Jesus says that the harvest is God’s; it is not our possession. Labourers are to be sent out into the Lord’s harvest: this is a proper understanding of the missio Dei.

Conclusion

Wanting to grow is a response to the environment that the Church finds herself in in Western Europe at present. That environment is felt to be hostile, antagonistic and repulsed by the whole notion of religious faith and belief. It is also part of the imperative to grow as seen in the Acts of the Apostles and Matthew 28.19.

I have argued that, biblically, growth is measured by fruitfulness and that the Church of England must not be driven by anxiety or desperation when it speaks of growth but remains faithful to the promises of God, who gives the growth.

The 'tool' the Church already has to respond to and to shape this approach is through the Eucharist, about which I have written elsewhere. The Eucharist holds the story of salvation, receives the fruits of the harvest so that the believer is fruitful and grows into the full stature of Christ to be and live out God's mission in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the Kingdom.

The task of leadership in the current climate is to ensure that the Church as a whole, and individuals Christians, do not become gospel amnesiacs.[1] It is to help both those new to the Church and those already within it to find their place in the story (anecdote) of God’s action within the world and coming Kingdom. Growth is downwards, outwards and upwards: personal growth leads to ecclesial growth, rooted in the Gospel and fruitful.



© Andrew Bishop, 2016




[1] Andrew Walker, Telling the Story: Gospel, Culture and Mission. London: SPCK, 1996.