Friday, September 28, 2012

Francis and the Diaconate

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

This prayer, attributed to St Francis of Assisi, doesn't actually date before 1912. That's not to say it isn't a Franciscan prayer. From what we know of this colourful and yet simple man, these words could easily have poured from his heart. These words are perhaps overused by popular spirituality. Yet they are worth reflecting on.

Can we honestly pray this prayer in full?

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, let me sow pardon;
where there is doubt, let me sow faith;
where there is despair, let me sow hope;
where there is darkness, let me sow light;
and where there is sadness, let me sow joy.

The question that is now posed to us is how we go about our lives as this instrument of the peace of God. There is pure activity here: a Quietist would be dreadfully uncomfortable praying this prayer because it speaks of human activity that does the will of God.

Our Christian lives abide in a great tension between being and doing, and this tension has indeed gone some way to splitting the Church. Perhaps it's fair to say that being isn't a passive activity either but rather a way of communicating that being to others. While there is such a disfigurement in the human condition by which we are drawn to sin rather than sanctity, human beings are still bearers of the image of God Himself. It is something which every human being has in common with every other - even with our worst enemies!

We cannot get away from God in ourselves. In the 139th Psalm, the Psalmist demonstrates that whether we go up into heaven or into Sheol, or to the East or West, we cannot get away from God. God is within! Not spatially, but beyond what we understand as space. After all, in God we live and move and have our being.

Whether this is a prayer by St Francis or not, we can still understand the depth of his awareness of God in all things. Take the Cantico di fratre sole from which we get the hymn
All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice!
Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
Make music for thy Lord to hear,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
That givest man both warmth and light.
Dear mother earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.
And all ye men of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care!
And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.
Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!
Perhaps we can see why the prayer to be an instrument of God's peace is so Franciscan. It tries to forge the connections between human beings. We cannot be truly human if we seek only things to happen to us, but rather if we make things happen for others then is our true humanity exposed.

Of course, biologically, we share much with the animal kingdom. We may indeed have an irrevocable affinity with God's creation, but we go beyond it with that reasoning that asks "why?" and that questions our very being. This does not mean we can ever separate ourselves from either the animal kingdom nor from our affinity with the angels. God's Creation is a whole. Human beings are called into stewardship to take care of this world. It is fair to say, we are not doing the greatest job.

The moment we realise that we should not expect the world to come to us, the closer we are to finding God within ourselves. We seek first the kingdom of God by the observation of His rule and all good things are added unto us as we perceive the truth of what God has done in His Creation. Then with a greater understanding of His work, we find the true peace of God which will pass our understanding.

The truth is we can only find God's peace if we are prepared to be instruments of it. But what will we sow?

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Fruits of the biological machine?

Sermon preached on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th September 2012 at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis

As you walk down Rochester High Street,
 just before you reach the turn off to the Corn Exchange
you see a pillar, about 13’ high and 2’ wide.

 On top of the pillar
 you see a man dressed in rags and tatters,
hair unkempt,
long straggly beard.

It’s clear that he’s been there some time.
 Of course, you’re interested.
 “Hello!” you shout, “greetings friend!”

 The chap looks down
and decides that you are worth
 breaking his silence for.

 “Hello down there!”

In the exchange of introductions
 you find yourself introduced to St Simon Stylites,
 the saint famous for spending
a great deal of his life doing
what you see him doing
– standing on a pillar all day and all night.

Of course, you naturally ask him why.

 Simon explains,
 “I’m mortifying my flesh
so that I can live in the Spirit.”
Mortifying his flesh?

That sounds positively barbaric!
 Something that went out in the dark ages!
 Does this really do anyone any good?


We tend to cringe at the thought
 of any form of over-exuberance in this country.
 So someone  standing on pillars,
wearing hair shirts,
 or deliberately beating themselves up
with whips and chains
in order to discipline their bodies
are people that may horrify us,
or at least make us cross the road.

We often regard folk like that
 as being in desperate need of psychiatric help and a wide berth!

 Then again, most folk in this country
find the idea of a Lenten fast as something
 too enthusiastic or obsessively religious.

 It seems terribly overmuch even
 to go without something for 40 days.

What’s wrong with going along
 with what our bodies tell us to do
rather than treat them so harshly?

Many biologists tell us that
Mankind is nothing more than an intelligent ape
– a biological machine.

If this is so
then this would explain our natural desires,
the need to eat,
to sleep,
to mate
and to avoid pain.

Every living organism has these needs
and so it is quite reasonable for human beings
to have instincts for
and avoiding pain.

This is why it appears unnatural to go in for fasts,
 to say prayers in the middle of the night,
 to live lives of celibacy
or even to go in for acts of physical endurance.

So, why do people balk
at this self-discipline of the religious
in the light of the Olympic Games?

 After all,
athletes withdraw from
eating, sleeping, and many other things
 and put their bodies through some terrible pains
 to become more than physically fit
to achieve something.

To become an athlete is something that our society praises.
Such folk get knighthoods
and honorary doctorates for winning a race,
but people standing on pillars or spending hours
 in prayer and fasting are regarded
as cranks and crackpots
even if the same people
go on to help those in need.

 But then Athletes win Gold medals, don’t they?

What does the self-disciplined Christian get?


It is quite clear that we are more than just biological machines.

Our athletes demonstrate
that there are things in life worth striving for
 and that we have things to prize
beyond the basic maintenance of our bodies.

We have other sensations too.

A biologist might ask, “such as what?”
Well, St Paul would say:
 “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness,
goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”

If you’ve ever had to feed a cat who hasn’t eaten
for half-an-hour,
you’ll know that cats can’t do patience.

There’s certainly no temperance
with Bonobo Chimps,
David Attenborough will tell you that! 

And yet we know that human beings
can be just like animals too.

 Look at the ten lepers that Our Lord heals.

Nine of them care only
that their misery is relieved and go away.

There is no need for gratitude
when all you are concerned about is
 the continuation of the basic biological necessities.

 It is the one who looks beyond
his physical comfort to see God
 who finds himself truly healed. 

He is healed at the level of his spirit as well as his body.

He is a human being made whole.

Christians aren’t disciplining
 themselves for some physical,
palpable recognition or achievement.

 We are cultivating our awareness
 of the spiritual which
 is intensely difficult in a world
biased towards the physical.

In order to be aware of the health of our spirit,
we have to turn away our attention
from the constant crying
of our bodies to be satisfied.

We hear St Paul remind us that
 “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh:
and these are contrary the one to the other:
so that ye cannot do the things
 that ye would.”

 He is telling us that
 there is nothing more defeating
to the health of our spirits than constantly sitting,
fat and contented,
watching “Murder She Wrote”
on the telly.

We cannot become aware of God
whose existence is not material
 if our lives are constantly focussed
on the material.


Of course,
our bodies do need food, sleep, love and healing,
 and for their maintenance
we need to take care of these temples
of the Holy Spirit.

But if we want to grow the fruits of the Spirit,
if we want to cultivate
 “love, joy, peace, long-suffering,
 gentleness, goodness, faith,
meekness, temperance”,
then we have to struggle
and experience some pain caused
by denying our bodies the comforts
 that they all too readily receive these days.


If we are not aware
 in ourselves of our struggle
between our flesh and our spirit,
then one of them has clearly won the battle.

Flesh or spirit, which one is it?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Communicating Catholicism

The trouble with adjectives is that they can become malleable in meaning. I'm yet really to get into the philosophy of nominalism and discussions about what it means to mean something in my amateur sojourn through the philosophical universe. I notice from Fr Hart's blog that there is a big discussion about the confusion as to what "Catholic" means. From Anglican Papalist quarters, there is the question of what it means to be Catholic when one isn't in communion with the Pope. Indeed when many people hear the word, their mind immediately leaps to Roman Catholic.

Now, the Holy See officially denies the appellation "Roman Catholic" because it believes itself to be THE Catholic Church and all who refuse to be in communion with her to be non-Catholics. Yet for those outside, particularly in the Orthodox and Anglican Churches, the "Roman" epithet is quite reasonable because of the affiliation of the Holy See with the Patriarch Bishop of Rome. It is possible that one could hear of the Antiochene Catholic Church or the Alexandrian Catholic Church, et c, only for these they feel no need to stress the idea of Catholic. It's already part of their make-up.

The squabble is mainly over the ownership of the word "Catholic" and who has the authority both to define it and to make the judgement as to who or what is Catholic and who or what is not. So what does "Catholic" mean?

Many of you who read this will have a better understanding of what the word means than I do and I would be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs were I to make statements that "Catholic" comes from the Greek kath holos meaning "concerning the whole". Again, many of you will be familiar were I to mention the Vincentian Canon that the Catholic Faith is "Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est." Catholicism is to do with wholeness, what the whole Church has always believed everywhere and yet, as Fr Hart notes, the word in Anglican circles is used to separate the "Catholic" High Church from the "Protestant" Low Church. That which is supposed to unite actually divides.

The Church to which I belong is the Anglican Catholic Church. This causes a great deal of confusion to people. Am I a Roman Catholic? Does my Church exist to act as a holding bay for those taking up  the Ordinariate? Shouldn't that be Anglo-Catholic? Are we Anglicans or not?

But look carefully. If my church confuses people by being called the Anglican Catholic Church, then those people ask questions. If they ask questions, then they have started a dialogue with me and with my jurisdiction. I can then talk to them about the beliefs that I share, not just with my Bishop, my priest and my Diocese, but with all Christians who accept the Apostolic Faith as laid down in the Scriptures and in the Church Fathers and the first seven truly Oecumenical Councils. That confusion has been a great vehicle for me to talk to people, to listen to them and what their understanding of things is. I can strike up a friendship, or not, but at least there is an interaction.

Many people want words to mean the same to everyone. They want to say "I'm a Catholic" and for everyone to know what that means. The trouble with carefully defined adjectives is that they end conversation. No-one debates the meaning of what it is for a triangle to be "right-angled" because the definition is precise and pertains to an object which possesses an abstract reality rather than a physical reality.

On the other hand,Human beings are notorious for blurring boundaries of definition, often deliberately. So what a word such as "Catholic"means to one person can be very different from what it means to another. There are calls for Anglicans to fight to take back possession of the meaning of the word. But why? First, with the large number of Roman Catholics, that's rather tilting at windmills to get everybody in the world aware of the fact that we Anglican Catholics are just as Catholic. Second, it's a bit silly when many in the world are unchurched and don't really care what the word means in the first place. Thirdly, and this is my point, to make everyone aware of what Catholic means destroys the possibility of communicating with another person stone dead. The conversation becomes:

A: What religion are you?
B: I'm an Anglican Catholic.
A: Oh.

rather than

A: What religion are you?
B: I'm an Anglican Catholic?
A: Anglican Catholic? Don't you mean Anglo-Catholic?
B: Well,....

A: What religion are you?
B: I'm an Anglican Catholic?
A: Are you CofE then?
B: Well,....


A: What religion are you?
B: I'm an Anglican Catholic?
A: Is that possible? How does that work?
B: Well,....

The Anglican Catholic Church believes herself to be as properly Catholic as the Roman Catholic Church. We certainly do not believe that we are THE Catholic Church, but merely a visible part of it. Our sister churches of UECNA and APCK have similar beliefs but they are as much part of THE Catholic Church as we are and many other good Catholics who come under many polygrammatic acronyms. We are proud to have the word "Catholic" as part of our name and if this causes confusion among people, then good! We then have something to talk to them about, and, if we're good Christians first, we will talk to them in a way that is kind and generous and more interested in them than perhaps they are in us. Perhaps that way, we can show our Lord Christ according to the whole of our lives and not just in our intellects.