Sunday, 19 June 2011

Trinity Sunday Mary Benson 19th June 2011

The doctrine of the Trinity, of three persons in one God, holds a creative tension between enthusiasm and sympathy that should infect us all.

We just read Our Lord’s enthusiastic call to Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Belief in the Trinity isn’t something to be kept to yourself but something missionary, to be carried to others. Too often we fall short on this task, identifying with those who would condemn religious enthusiasts as lacking human sympathy.

Christian mission is enthusiastic and sympathetic. It reflects the sympathy God has within himself as Father, Son and Spirit as St Paul reminds us in the second reading where he uses Trinitarian doctrine to appeal for more sympathy among the Corinthian believers . Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. He says. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

The creative tension between enthusiasm and sympathy, between love and truth is hidden in the mystery of God himself. As we draw closer to God we find enthusiasm, sympathy - and in that tension creativity.

All of this I found powerfully illuminated in a book just off the press of interest to all who live in Horsted Keynes and especially to members of St Giles in particular. This book - Rodney Bolt’s As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil - The Impossible Life of Mary Benson.

The book gives sight of religious enthusiasm, Victorian and Edwardian England, same sex friendship, country life in Sussex and leaves you wiser about the wellsprings of creativity.

Mary Benson was born in 1841 and lived at Tremans from 1900 to her death in 1918. She was wife then widow of Archbishop Edward Benson, and this book tells the tale of her loves, trials and family. Mrs Benson worshipped here, her family gave the nativity window in her memory and her son Arthur wrote the fulsome memorial tablet in the porch.

Though religious enthusiasts are notorious for their failure to sympathise where sympathetic gifts are allied to a force of conviction there is a true reflection of the God one in three and a creative dynamic emerges. This appears to have been the case in the extraordinary marriage of Edward and Mary though the force of conviction was at Edward’s end and the pastoral sympathy at Mary’s. Headstrong Edward, loving yet exacting, proposes to Mary when she is only twelve. His helpmate eagerly sympathises with him, his family and many others with such humour and wisdom as to make her a great subject for Rodney Bolt’s biography covering her life, loves and faith pilgrimage.

Edward’s career, founded in the muscular Christianity of Rugby and Wellington College, takes him to Lincoln Cathedral, then onward to be first Bishop of Truro and, as climax, to be Archbishop of Canterbury. His pioneering at Truro earns recognition for gifts of leadership that he carries, with a psychological downside, so that, 12 years older though he was than her, it was Mary who was destined to carry him through many a dark mood. Her support came from a series of same sex friendships compensating for the emotional shallowness of their marriage and helping her recover from the eventual loss of both Edward and the high social standing that fell from her at his death in 1896.

Mary’s same sex friendships, especially the one with Edward Benson’s predecessor, Archbishop Tait’s daughter, Lucy, that continued after Edward’s death, have been controversial. The biographer draws from Mary’s diaries the distinction she made between the love she held in mind and heart for these friends and the physical expression of that love which she fought off. Her underlining of certain passages in her copy of Thomas à Kempis The Imitation of Christ illustrates the struggle she had with, to quote, ‘carnal affection’. Her counsel against physical sex outside marriage to her children is recorded in the book. Rodney Bolt is careful to honour her stated faithfulness to traditional Christian ethics. This is somewhat unintelligible through the sexualising of friendship in post-Christian society.

Is this understatement? St Giles is a haven for all of us, straight or gay, married or single since God’s sympathetic love is utterly inclusive. At the same time, I myself counsel, when asked, marriage and celibacy as the two Christian vocations, with sexual activity outside of marriage as a shortcoming to be repented of.

Others say the Holy Spirit is at work opening up new institutions, including same sex unions. A century on from Mary Benson the Church of England is divided here. As in the matter of women’s ordination the jury is out. All of which means we need to hold in tension a sympathy for individuals, especially those cohabiting, gay or straight, and those who are pushing for a revised Christian ethic, a sympathy, as I say, that doesn’t avoid acknowledgement of the well trodden path of the faith of the church through the ages. Our Christian faith covers our shortcomings, if we repent of them, and challenges us to keep a distinctive standard in terms of sexual morality. It’s a standard that, given Our Lord’s teaching that looking at someone lustfully is already to commit adultery, puts us all on the bottom step!

Back to the Bensons who set us on this thinking. If Edward was head, Mary was heart of an extraordinarily creative family. Arthur wrote the words for Land of Hope and Glory and edited Queen Victoria’s papers. Fred became a highly successful author and ice skating champion and Maggie a famous Egyptologist. Roman Catholic convert, Hugh gained fame as preacher and writer. All made their mark and all suffered great frustrations which, as writers, they document both indirectly and directly. Some of them blame their mental instability on their extraordinary parents. It seems that their living with unfulfilled longings – none married – became a crucible for creative expression. In one of Arthur’s inspirational images life can feel as two lady birds might feel on the inside and outside of a window signalling to one another yet unable to find intimacy.

Arthur’s last word on his mother on her memorial in the porch speaks of Mary’s eager sympathy, wise counsel, abundant humour and far seeing love. These qualities are captured in Bolt’s very readable book that follows her life story whilst opening up the story of England past through many delightful anecdotes. I loved the absent-minded Truro priest whose sister had to secure him to the altar rail with a dog chain and padlock to prevent him wandering off before the service was over. Mary’s attempts to get Arthur to St Giles brings from him a similar image of the liturgy as people penned in rows like sheep intermittently crying out together like ducks in a pool. The book, like its subject, easily catches the imagination.

Let the Bensons be reminders of the creative tension between enthusiasm and sympathy that should infect us all as Trinitarian believers.

God who is three in one enfolds us in his enthusiastic love. The Lord God enfolds us, as in this eucharist, meeting us just where we are.

In his enthusiasm he can’t bear to leave us there. He challenges us, not least in our human relationships, to move forward, with his help, to be ever more perfect reflectors of him, to whom, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be praise now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pentecost all age eucharist 12th June 2011 Birthday of the Church

Is it anyone's birthday today? This week? This month?

Tell us.... who you are, how old you’ll be and what you expect will happen on your birthday.

Well, whilst I’m very happy that your birthday coming up, today's eucharist is to celebrate another birthday.

It's not really the birthday of another person (although some people do talk about 'her') and it doesn't seem right to call it a thing.

Can the children think whose birthday they might be celebrating today?

Ask one of the children to open the present with the Spanish dictionary in it.Are they any clearer?

Ask another child to open the card and read out the greeting: 'Happy Birthday, The Church'.

How can the Church have a birthday?

When Christians talk about the Church, they aren't just talking about a building – they’re talking about all the people in the world who follow Jesus.

Nowadays there are about 2,000 million Christians in the world but roughly 2,000 years ago there were only about 120. Not 120 million, but just 120.

On the day that the Church was born, a day which Christians call Pentecost, these 120 people were hiding in a house in Jerusalem.

It must have been rather squashed in that house.

Rather like a baby ready to be born is a bit squashed inside its mother's tummy.

These 120 people were all together because they were very anxious. In the previous month they had been through a lot. First, they had seen Jesus die on a cross. That had made them very sad.

Then they had seen Jesus alive again. That had made them very happy.

Then, before their very eyes, Jesus had gone up to Heaven.

Now they were very confused and concerned.

What was going to happen next?

So the 120 people went back to Jerusalem and waited.

Ten days later, something amazing happened. There was a great wind from Heaven...

Let’s blow very hard as if we were the wind

Along with the wind there was something that looked like flames. These flames fell on the heads of Jesus' 120 followers and, like a baby being born, they came out of their hiding place and into the big wide world.

Now children who can tell me the first thing they did when they were born?

No doubt you cried. Babies cry because they want people to take notice of them. The first followers of Jesus didn't cry when they emerged out of their hiding place, but they did get the attention of other people in the city by using their voices.

They told everyone in the city about Jesus. But they all spoke in different languages - languages that were different from their own and which they had never learned. This was one of the many birthday presents that God gave the Church.

That’s behind the dictionary. At Pentecost God gave people the capacity to share about Jesus in every language and nation and send them out to just that.

Church members read out one of the different translations of 'Happy Birthday'.

At that time in Jerusalem, there were many people from different parts of the world. They were so amazed to hear their own languages being spoken that they gathered around to hear what the followers of Jesus were saying.

After Peter, one of Jesus' followers, had spoken to the crowd, 3,000 of them became Christians. Like a newborn baby, the Church had started to grow bigger.

Well no birthday would be complete without a cake.

Server lights the candles.

While this is being done the candles can be a reminder to us of the flames that fell at Pentecost on the heads of the first Christians.

Invite children to blow out candles.

When the candles are blown out, remember the great wind from Heaven that blew the disciples out of their house and into the street.

That’s what Pentecost means today, it’s a reminder that the Holy Spirit who came on this day is still with us and is waiting to inspire us to share with others about Jesus.

Just as the first Christians shared their love of Jesus with people, the cake will be shared amongst everyone after the eucharist.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Easter 7 Healing ministry 5th June 2011

In the news sheet you can see some of the means by which the church’s ministry of healing is made available at St Giles, places where Our Lord ministers to people at their point of need through his church:

• through the sacraments – eucharist, confession and anointing
• through laying on of hands - now available first Wednesdays 6.30pm starting 6th July.
• through the last Thursday of the month visit to Burrswood
• Through people’s names being placed on the sick list or submitted to the telephone Prayerline

I put this list in the news sheet following a series of PCC discussions triggered by a visit in April from the deanery healing ministry consultant Penny Sullens which had one outcome in a promise I gave to speak one Sunday about the church’s ministry of healing.

I thought this Sunday would suit well as it is set in those great days before Pentecost when the church is reminded of her dependence on God the Holy Spirit and of how the Spirit glorifies Jesus.

The church’s ministry of healing is a gift of the Spirit which brings God glory through Jesus Christ.

11 years ago the Church of England published a best seller. This book, A Time to Heal, has provided a vital contribution to the ministry of healing which it describes on the back as visionary, prophetic and dynamic.

This morning I have 6 brief observations, 2 under each of those three headings in A Time to Heal – visionary, prophetic and dynamic.

1. Visionary – what we’re about in the healing ministry is part of a recapturing of the power of the gospel
a) as some thing that is good and practical. Not just a theory but the power of God for salvation Romans 1:16. It’s practical in that it’s linked to people’s demands. Our response to these demands is set within a wider vision eg. social and ecological besides a vision for body, mind and spirit but it is essentially based on a vision of Jesus as practical Saviour
b) as the grounds of a new confident engagement of the church with the local community. Confidence rooted in the promises of God cf. +Rowan: What do I pray for in the Church of the future? Confidence; courage; an imagination set on fire by the vision of God the Holy Trinity; thankfulness. Confidence linked to humility – note the concerns for the safety of those we serve in ministry in ATH guidelines.

This morning as I lift up the vision for healing a question we might ask ourselves is: how can we help bring more people in our community to catch sight of the healing power of God?

2. Prophetic – what we are about in the healing ministry is being channels for God to speak prophetically to individuals and to the church herself.
a) Of redemption – the Saviour is a practical provider for body, mind and spirit and one who roots our life in his community and fellowship. The healing ministry is redemptive in that it fills what is needful in people’s lives. It is also redemptive in its transformation of suffering and sorrow as set out in Paul Bilheimer's Don’t Waste your Sorrows. People are stopped from wasting their sorrows by a prophetic word that opens them up afresh to a vision of God. Above all the prophetic element of the ministry of healing helps people relate faith to the nitty gritty of life cf. The Woman at the Well John 4
b) A call for fuller collaboration of laity and the ordained ATH stresses sacramental,pastoral and charismatic aspects. Prophetic renewal of healing ministry broadens from anointing (apostle) to charisms (prophets) since we are members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone Ephesians 2:19,20

A second pair of questions we might ask ourselves as a Christian community: How do we see the prophetic impact of what we do in the Lord’s name – where are the changed lives? Then secondly when it comes to raising up the ministry of healing how can we improve the partnership between priest and people to make better provision?

3. Dynamic

a)Explain cyclical/dynamic strands in church life – Zechariah 8:23 Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you”. Simon Magus, Leatha
b) Linked to spiritual transformation 2 Cor 3:18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit - wholeness/holiness – spiritual direction.

A last summary pair of questions to provoke more thought might be: What brakes are there here at St Giles on the dynamic we are talking about? What’s stopping the church as a whole and individuals from moving forwards to become more fully what God wants them to be?

I leave you with those thoughts as we take time to reflect on God’s word to us this morning.