Sunday, March 29, 2020

Hooray for Thorny Issues!

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent being Passion Sunday

What do you find most irritating? Your son's solitary sock lying in front of the washing machine just after you've set it going? The new set of scratches on the table leg made by the cat? The man in your workplace who has bad breath and literally uses the word "literally" every five minutes?

The phrase "thorn in the side" has long been in use. We use it when we speak of a recurring irritation that prevents us from doing what we want to do or at least making a pleasant task unpleasant. It is that constant distraction, the background noise, the pain in the foot, the way that someone speaks to us, or will not leave us alone.

St Paul says that, even when he is so blessed by God, God will not take away the thorn in his flesh. Can God love us and not relieve us even from little pains?

[PAUSE]

During times of isolation and confinement, we become more acutely aware of things that truly bother us, especially in the people whom we love most. If we're doing Lent well, we will also be aware of things that irritate us about ourselves. We become aware of our own habits and how we react to the shortcomings of others. Do we ask God to take them away?

Of course we don't!

[PAUSE]

It is a fact that pearls are formed in oysters by a grain of sand in their shells. That grain is a source of constant irritation, and so the oyster encases that grain in a substance that becomes a pearl. It helps the oyster deal with that irritation.

What the Christian has is worth more than pearls, it is Love.

What irritates us most about the people we love are precisely  the things  that make them different from who we are. Our son's robust joy of living results in him not putting his sock in the washing pile. Our cat's useful ability to catch mice necessitates sharp claws. Our colleague might be irritating, but that's because he is who he is and that makes him the neighbour we need to love because God loves him.

The things that irritate us most are the things that ground us in reality. Einstein says that it is because he possesses a stomach that he has to worry about money. The people of Corinth are philosophers and thinkers. If they had their way, they would be free of the body and just sail through existence as disembodied minds.

That's not what God wants. St Paul, too, could spend his whole day in prayer and ecstasy, but he would not do what he needs to do. The thorn in his flesh is there to ground him, to remind him that he is still earthly, and that he must be humble before God. 

So St Paul turns his irritations around. They become something to rejoice in because they remind him who he is and Who God is. His irritations become a thing of glory: when he is weak, God is strong. In enduring the pain of his thorn, St Paul is venerating the cross he has to bear, and God gives him the grace to endure and to rejoice in enduring.

[PAUSE]

We Christians know that we have bodies and spirits and that we need both to be truly human. The thorns in our flesh keep us together and make us really human.

Only when Christ comes again will we be rid of the things that irritate us because we shall be complete. Until then, we must live with those things that niggle us most and praise God for allowing them to keep us truly human.

Irritating, isn't it?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Sowing alms

Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent

A letter plops through the door. It's addressed to you personally and you don't know who it's from. How exciting! And then you open it. "Friend, can you spare £1 a month to support XYZ...?"

How do you feel? Is it a disappointment?

[PAUSE]

There are lots of charities out there all asking for money. Many are very worthy and make a real difference to the lives of the needy. Others are less scrupulous and spend the money on less than useful administration.

Sometimes we tire of all this. It seems to be unending begging.

[PAUSE]

St Paul seems to be a bit unscrupulous, too. He tells the Corinthians that he has boasted how generous they are to the Macedonians. This seems to have made the Macedonians give more to the relief fund for the needy of Jerusalem. Now St Paul is telling the Corinthians that he's sending people to them to help them collect alms so that when the Macedonians visit, he won't be embarrassed by a small Corinthian collection. 

Is St Paul being cheeky or is he being manipulative and dishonest?

[PAUSE]

If we look carefully at St Paul's theology of almsgiving, we see that he is perhaps being a bit cheeky but ultimately has concerns for the well-being of the Corinthians, Macedonians and needy of Jerusalem at the forefront of his intentions.

St Paul tells us that he sees almsgiving to be like sowing seed. If we show much seed then we can expect a good yield. But surely, if the Corinthians are generous in giving money to the needy, they are not going to get a return on an investment?

St Paul is using the same association of giving alms with sowing seed as Our Lord does. Almsgiving is not just giving money, it is taking pains to make a positive difference in someone's life. The more goodness we sow, the more goodness is to reap. Unlike material goods which decrease when we share them, the goodness of God that we sow in the world increases when we share it. This is why St Paul is not being dishonest or manipulative in challenging the Corinthians to be cheerful givers and to be generous. He wants everyone to benefit. Even if people compete at doing good things, they do so in the knowledge that everyone wins. 

That's how it is with God. Everyone wins.

[PAUSE]

If we hold onto a worldly view of material worth, then it becomes harder and harder to give, because the more we give the less we have. Our Lord Jesus challenges us to change our point of view and see what we have as seeds to sow and grow. What we lose physically, we gain spiritually and substantially so that, when harvest time comes, we actually have more than we planted through God's goodness.

[PAUSE]

How much do we give, then? As much as we can hope to bring good into everyone's lives. We might not be able to give to everyone, but we should rejoice in the knowledge that what we do give will make a difference.

After all, the seed that Our Lord does is His own body in the grave. Look how that grows and bears fruit!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Continuing Laughter

A few years back, the Anglican Catholic Church had a stall at the Christian Resources Exhibition in Epsom. Much of it was a very positive experience as we met some interesting people and saw the clever things they were doing for the sake of the Gospel. Unfortunately, it was very expensive for a little Diocese, but it was well worth doing. It was fun and good-humoured, except...

There are two instances where such good humour wasn't in evidence. One was a stall by another church group whose remit was to restore orthodoxy to the CofE. They sat in their stall with faces like thunder and, to be honest, they didn't seem to be engaging with people. I guess that the Thirty-nine Articles will do that to you if you eat them for breakfast, dinner and tea.

The other was a persistent female minister who wanted to argue with us constantly about doctrine which she disagreed with vehemently and refused to listen to our explanations. She would make a beeline for us with volleys of diatribes all designed to tell us how awful we are.

Admittedly, we are a "loathsome" church according to some in the CofE. That's understandable: the existence of the ACC is due to a fundamental disagreement as to what Catholic Faith teaches. The Continuing Anglican Church was born of fire and fury. We were angry at the betrayal of what the Church had always believed and taught by those who wanted Doctrine to move with the times. There are still good reasons for us to be angry. This is usually when the CofE claims to speak for all Christians or undermines the faith of those who follow tradition or when they have been completely dismissive of us and actively obstructive. These days, we find that we can work around the obstacles that the CofE episcopacy puts in our way, largely because we have good friends in the CofE priesthood who are willing to ignore the snobbery of their bishops. 

The fact is that we are small but stable in our doctrine and stable in our leadership. And, contrary to the opinions propagated by those who hate us, we do have a sense of humour.

Once, knowing my Bishop's love of classic Disney, I photoshopped a "Mickey Mouse" biretta to his head. Of course I sent it to him. We do laugh at ourselves, of course. It would be hard not to. Sometimes, we seem like the ecclesiastical equivalent of Dad's Army. We all have our eccentricities and quirks. Some of us would be more at home across the Bosporus and thus find themselves regaled with stage whispers of, "don't mention the filioque!" Others of us pale at the sight of a Canterbury Cap, so of course I "threaten" to petition the Bishop to make them obligatory.

We need a sense of humour given some of the flak we get. There's a website out there which might seem to offend us, but we find it funny largely because of the sheer bald untruths it contains! It might as well be a Spitting Image sketch. I take it as quite a compliment to be lampooned so roundly. Perhaps it wasn't meant to offend at all, but rather give us an affectionate "roast".

Humour is vital in this day and age. As our modern civilization is taking a bit of a big hit at the moment, things seem dark. We need to laugh again - not in the sneering, unpleasantness of character assassination that seems to make up most of modern humour and against which St Benedict rails in the rule. We need rather to laugh at ourselves in love, noting our propensity for hypocrisy and hubris, and knowing that humour brings us back to earth with the same sort of bump as falling off a swing after trying to be Superman.

Of course, the seriousness of the present COVID-19 is obvious. People are dying, and that just isn’t funny for their relatives. The Economy will take a hit and many institutions are being tested to the limit. And yet, we are not insignificant little beings that rise and die in a day. All flesh may be grass and all the glory of Man but the flower of grass which withereth and falleth away, but the Word of the Lord endureth forever. And we bear His image. We are not insignificant or why else would God die for us? We are not completely Evil, or why else should we be saved? Our will is not completely corrupt or else why would the Lord take upon Himself a human will?

And that’s grounds for laughter.

We laugh because, despite the agonies and miseries that we bear, we are loved and that love would rather see us suffer pain in order to feel love truly than to disappear into insignificance. We laugh because of the incongruity of our desire and what we really need. We laugh because what seems to be utterly ridiculous to an unbelieving, cold, indifferent Universe is true – God exists, God loves, and God saves.

This is what Continuing Anglicanism fights for furiously. We believe what the Church has always believed and we look at those who have changed the rules, not with derision, but with the same anger that one has for a dearly beloved brother who would rather risk his life in a death-trap of a car than stay with something reliable and true. We don’t do hatred and, if we do then we lose our Christianity. The trouble is, being frightfully English, we don’t do anger very well unless someone puts the tea in the cup before the milk. I suspect our American brethren are the same, only not with tea: Americans can’t make tea!

We may walk apart from the CofE. We may be enraged at what she has become. We may rub our foreheads at the latest misguided gimmick she uses to pull in the crowds. We must, however, look for ways at least to laugh together at the Devil and his vain attempts to win the battle he has already lost and never had a chance of winning, while simultaneously realising that we are still very vulnerable to his temptations. In times of trouble, we just have to force ourselves to gaze at God through the glass darkly and live, laugh and love.

For the record, we had a metal darkly once, but it rusted

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Pestilence and Penitence

And so we find ourselves in strange times. I won't say unprecedented as there is always a precedent if we look hard enough. In my lifetime, I have never seen churches closed and the Mass suspended.

Is that a lack of faith?

We do need to balance our spiritual lives and physical lives carefully. The spiritual life should come first because that is where we encounter God most keenly and it is where our immortality begins. Our bodies will rise again with our souls so that we can be the complete person that we are. 

Does that mean that the churches should stay open and the Mass said in defiance of this pestilence?

We should first listen to God. Rather than launch ourselves into action or pious fury, rather than cower behind closed doors, rather than scan the news constantly, we should connect with God. This is where isolation can be a benefit as it forces us to look at the state of our immediate personal environment and do something about it.

So, first we pray to God for the eyes of our souls to be opened and cleared from the detritus of our daily living. Then we can see what He shows us.

Secondly, we pray to God for the wherewithal to put right the state of our souls as far as we are able. This outbreak happening during Lent may indeed be a vehicle by which God meets us in our isolation show us what our real illness is. It will be His sacrifice upon the Cross that will save us from all our sicknesses but we have to apply the remedy, just as Naaman has to do the almost banal and take a bath!

Thirdly, we must pray to God for strength when things get messy. The paralytic let down through the roof has his sons forgiven but when he is healed, he is still expected to pick up his own bed and walk. We cannot expect life to be without struggle because this denies us the opportunity to love in all the fullness of its meaning. We cannot simply continue to hold Masses in proud defiance of this pestilence because that action is rooted in pride, not humility. 

Fourthly, we must pray for the courage to love others and potentially open ourselves up to infection. St Damien of Molokai is renowned for catching the disease of those to whom he was called to minister. He was able to bear a disease that we might not. Our strengths and weaknesses differ from person to person. The only constants are God and Love. We need to dare to love God first and then dare to love our neighbour. That takes great courage at times.

Fifthly, we must pray to be beacons of God's hope and light to them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. We must obviously pray for the alleviation of the suffering caused by this disease, but we also have to remember that a virus is right on the edge of what it means to be a living thing and deserves the respect that all things living require, for God is the Life. It is our rejection of God that means we must take the consequences of our actions whereby this virus lives in the disorder we created for it. Our hope is in God who will bring us out of death and into life where we are in harmony with all things. And we are to live out this hope and die in this hope so that others may know of God's great love even in the darkest, blackest night.

Then, when we have prayed in isolation, we go out and live joyfully for the love of God and neighbour, venerating the cross of our own suffering, and doing God's will in humility, praying all the while.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

When "generous orthodoxy" isn't.

Sermon for the third Sunday in Lent

Does it bother you that we are not in communion with Rome? Does it bother you that we are not in communion with the Orthodox Churches? What about the Church of England?

History is littered with excommunications. Priests refuse to give the sacraments to princes and paupers alike on account of their sinful lives. Bishops refuse to share in the sacraments with other bishops because they believe that they are teaching things which are contrary to the Christian Faith. Our lack of communion with Rome and the Orthodox Churches are facts of history and bear witness to our disagreement about what Christ teaches.

Is excommunication the best way to deal with people who disagree with us about the Catholic Faith?

[PAUSE]

St Paul is writing again to the Church in Corinth. We only have two of the letters he writes: there are at least two more out there somewhere. The main reason he writes again and again is that there are disputes within the Church in Corinth. The first time he writes, there are people within the Church who are trying to separate from each other because they recognise different bishops. They follow Paul, Cephas, Apollos or Christ. Those who say they follow Christ mean that they don’t regard anyone as apostles but go straight to Christ. This first time, St Paul says:

“Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”

St Paul categorically states that the Church should not be divided.

“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

By the time we get to the second letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says,

“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”

He is quite clear. The Church should not be divided by personalities. We cannot reject our bishop if he is teaching what Christ bids him to teach. Nor can we decide to have as our bishop the person who makes us laugh, or has a nice singing voice, or preaches in a particular way. If God has called a man to be our priest or bishop, then He has done so for our good whether we like him or not.

However, if a bishop or priest starts preaching or teaching that which is contrary to the Catholic Faith, then St Paul says we cannot be yoked to him. He who does not preach Christ Incarnate, Crucified and Risen is not for Christ but has been deceived. If any of our priests says that he does not believe in the Resurrection, then he has automatically departed from the Church.

[PAUSE]

There is a phrase that is becoming current in some churches – “generous orthodoxy”. It’s a way that a committed evangelical can be in communion with an Anglo-Catholic. The trouble is, it focuses on the appearance of worship. If the Evangelical does not believe in sacraments then how can he have the same faith as the Anglo-Catholic? “Generous Orthodoxy” is an attempt to unite the Church in appearance but not in truth.

[PAUSE]

If we think the Church needs uniting, then we must unite it on the basis of the truth of what we believe. If we trust our own interpretations of the Bible then we cannot unite with someone with a different interpretation without first entering into dialogue to see whether both interpretations can agree on the truth.

We can be generous in our orthodoxy by assuming that someone who calls themselves a Christian is what they say until they show us very clearly that they aren’t. Anyone who preaches hatred of another human being is clearly not a Christian. St John says, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” If Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life as He claims, then no Christian can preach hatred of another human soul.

[PAUSE]

We should want to be in communion with all Christians. Our Lord Himself prays for all who believe in Him, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

It is Christ that truly unites us.

Whether the Pope likes it or not, we are already in communion with him. Whether the bishops of the Orthodox Churches like it or not, we are already in communion with them. Whether we like it or not, we are in communion with any bishop who has received the Apostolic Succession and consecrates the Real Body and Real Blood of Christ in union with the apostles according to the Catholic Faith. There is only one Lord Jesus Christ. If we receive Him, then we are in communion with everyone else who truly receives Him whether we believe that they do or not. This is why we must be generous.

However, we are not to use communion to endorse behaviour which demonstrates that we are not Christian. St Paul says “if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” This is because anyone who thinks these are acceptable to Our Lord clearly does not believe in the same Jesus Christ as we see in History but rather an idol of his own making. We cannot be in communion with false Christs. However, just because we are not in communion with others does not mean that we should stop loving them. Love for our neighbour is always commanded for every Christian no matter who that neighbour is or what he believes.

[PAUSE]

If we are in communion with Our Lord, then this is enough for us to worry about because, in following Him, we will naturally unite ourselves to all those who love Him too.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Truth Naked

Sermon for the second Sunday in Lent

There is a sculpture of the Crucifixion by Michelangelo which is quite unusual. It displays his usual skill and mastery over the stone from which he carves it. The figure of Our Lord is beautifully life-like and displays the great misery of one crucified. What is unusual is that Our Lord is naked – completely and utterly naked. Nothing is left to the imagination.

Does that trouble you? The crucifix that you’re most familiar with probably shows Our Lord clothed only in a loincloth. This is inaccurate. The fact is that people are crucified naked.

[PAUSE]

Nudity is something that Christians have struggled with for a long time. Some have revered the naked body, others have reviled it.  Pope Pius IX famously has the statues of naked men and women covered up in part of the nineteenth century reaction against nudity. St Francis strips naked before the bishop to show his contempt for worldly possessions. So why is it shameful? Why do people get hot under the collar about it?

God created us naked. Naked we come out of the womb. The first Christians are baptised naked. And yet, the moment someone comes on the television showing a little more flesh than usual, there’s an uproar. Some television programmes exist to display nudity precisely to scandalise “polite society”.

Perhaps one reason is because in our day and age, people equate nudity with sex. People deliberately change their bodies so that they will become more attractive when naked. They cover themselves in tattoos, have hair removed, even go in for plastic surgery so that they will look better with no clothes on. Some people develop dreadful eating disorders because they believe that their body is grotesquely ugly and they so desperately want to be beautiful, forgetting that they already are beautiful.

[PAUSE]

When Adam and Eve sin, they realise that they are naked. The truth of their sin is apparent to everyone like a bad tattoo. And so, in shame, they cover themselves because they know that God will see the Evil that they have done. Now that they know that what Good and Evil are, they know that God hates Evil and that they have to cover up this blemish. We see the young man, probably St Mark himself, stripped of his clothes as he runs away from those arresting Jesus. His nudity exposes his shame. And this shame taints us all.

We find ourselves in bodies that age, wither and fall to bits. Our beauty fades, even for those who try and change their bodies in order to remain beautiful according to the standards of a sinful world. The aging of our bodies is testament to our sinfulness because the wages of sin is death. Our society hates the sight of old people because it reminds them of this. Look at the efforts we go to to stay young! And yet, the aged body is no less beautiful to God than the young body. He created both.

St Paul reminds us of the great promise of God.

“For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.”

When we rise again from the dead, we will still have our body. You would not be you without your body, just as your dead body would not be you. But God will give us immortality to put on like a garment. Death will not reign in our bodies and our nakedness will not be shameful because we will be without the sin that separates us from God.

So why wear clothes now? Why can’t we be naked now?

[PAUSE]

St Paul reminds us that we are always to behave respectably. When he writes his letters, the only women with uncovered hair were the prostitutes. So, Christian women should be modest in order to demonstrate a willingness to engage with secular society but not succumb to its excesses. The same is no less true for men. We often forget the terrible part that men play in degrading the bodies of women and their own by encouraging them to dress provocatively. By remaining decently clothed, we show our community that we will not give ourselves over to its disrespect of the naked body.

To God we will always be naked, but then we should want to be naked before God. When we stop hiding ourselves from Him, when we reveal the sins we have committed, the dark thoughts we have imagined and the wicked motives we have harboured, then He will do something about them and make us beautiful again in our own eyes. We will be glorious because our sinful bodies will be like His glorious body. Confession allows us to see our own beauty again.

[PAUSE]

We should not be scandalised by the sight of a naked Jesus. He is naked for us to show that, in Him, there is no shame and great beauty in being the people He created

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Reviewing Anglican Catholicism

I find myself quite surprised that my book on Anglican Catholicism has been reviewed on Amazon. Two reviews have been very kind and encouraging. One review takes me to task for using Anglican Catholicism in the title when, perhaps, I should have used "The Anglican Catholic Church". My reviewer is a self-described Anglo-Catholic in the Episcopal Church of the USA and one, I assume, that likes to refer to himself as an Anglican Catholic.

When I was on Facebook, I was a member of a group called "Anglican Catholicism" which had members who thought themselves as such but held to the diverse beliefs of ECUSA or the CofE. This included people who accept the confusion of sexual identity within the sacraments and even one man who claimed that the Quicunque Vult was Satanic in origin! I think I stand by my decision not to dabble in Facebook.

On the other side, "Anglican Catholic" is a term used by the Anglican Ordinariate for their members. These are people who are in communion with the Pope and who reject the validity of their former priests in the Anglican lineage. The fact of the matter is that they are Roman Catholics because they are under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. 

As I said in my book, the principles of Anglican Catholicism lie in the authority of the Church of the First Millennium with a magisterium built on Scripture, Tradition and Reason in that order of importance, in the standard of worship being the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and liturgies that conform to it, and in the valid Apostolic Succession of Anglican Orders. The Affirmation of St Louis is a precis of this. Agree with these, and you have a claim to being an Anglican Catholic.

My opinion is quite clear. Anyone who accepts the heresies of ECUSA and the CofE denies their right to the term because they equivocate on what it means to be Catholic. There are no female Catholic priests. There are no Catholic spouses of the same sex. That's just how it is. Nor is an Anglican Catholic properly in communion with Rome. People can choose what they like to believe but labels are exclusive not inclusive otherwise they are utterly meaningless. A label makes a discrimination.

Discrimination is a word feared by the Liberal because it always means a discrimination into an oppressor and an oppressed. This is because many Liberals today subscribe to Marxist Critical Theory rather than the language of the Love of God. Their talk is of rights, power, privilege and entitlement never of the love of God that we find in the Bible nor of His promise of Eternal life unless it is all reinterpreted through their Marxist lens.

Discrimination proper involves the simple task of telling one thing from another and treating them with the appropriate action. Discrimination is not always a discrimination against, but Marxist philosophy will always make it so. Women are different from men: they are both deserving of respect and love by virtue of their humanity, but their physical differences to which Science bears witness and their spiritual differences to which Holy Scripture bears witness means that they cannot be treated interchangeably. Their differences must be respected in order to give them the full dignity of being human.

And so the same with Anglican Catholicism. One cannot be an Anglican Catholic if one believes that women can be ordained priest and thus disrespect her God-given difference to be a woman. This has political ramifications for any communion that does.

I had rather hoped that my book would be clear on this point, but my reviewer didn't think that it was a book for him in mind. His opinion is perfectly valid and I'm flattered that he took the trouble not only to buy a copy but to read it and review it. I do believe, however, that the title is correct as it stands and if this offends people, well, that's unfortunate but perhaps necessary. We could all do with being offended sometimes: it reminds us what we truly believe... such as the perfectly Orthodox Christian Creed known as the Quicunque Vult.