Monday, September 29, 2014

Creation and control

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity being our Harvest Festival.

It seems that Our Lord would not think a great deal for harvest festivals. After all, we seem to be ploughing the fields and scattering needlessly. He says quite categorically: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”

Perhaps we should behave like the animals do, and just let things happen. Actually, Our Lord does have a point.

Animals don’t sin.

We might think they do when they leave presents on the carpet, but we know full well that we cannot attribute that to wickedness or unkindness. What do we say? “They don’t know any better.” But we do, and that’s the problem.


St Francis reminds us that we are not just creations of God, we are all part of one single creation. We’re in this together. In that sense, the animals are as much part of our family as we are. We can take that further and say that the wheat, and the barley and crops are part of our family too.

That sounds as if we’re going a bit too far. You’re not going to count a geranium as your grandmother and invite her to tea. However, we are as much part of God’s Creation as a rock or a stone or a piece of algae or a plant or a duck. Whatever He has created He has created on purpose.


What separates out human beings in Creation are our ability to know, our ability to reason, our ability to shape Creation around us, and our ability to go against God’s will. When Our Lord tells us that we are “better” than the fowls of the air, He is speaking of our ability to shape and use God’s Creation according to our own free will. We have been created for God’s good pleasure, to enjoy and look after the world around us.

Our Lord is not criticising us for having barns and for reaping and sowing, He is criticising the fact that we worry about the future believing that we alone have the power to control it. He criticises us for living for the Creation when we should be living for the Creator. We forget that we are part of Creation.

We seek to exempt ourselves from how Creation works by thinking ourselves the only ones who deserve to exist because of our ability to shape the world around us. Yet, “we plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand”. God sustains us all. Unless we learn to trust God as well as work hard, we will eventually lose sight of God and our own purpose in Creation.

We come to our harvest festival in a spirit of thanksgiving. We remember that we rely on God to provide for us, but we also remember our duty to the world around us, the duty to feed others, take care of others and allow others to grow.

As Christians, it is our job to sow the seeds of love into the world and water them. It is also our job to enjoy what God provides for us. We should not feel guilty for what we have; we do, however, need to make sure that others (animals included) have the opportunity to enjoy Creation too.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rewarding Punishments or Punishing Rewards?

What use is a reward really? I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Should I reward a pupil who has done good work? Should I punish a pupil who has done bad work? Of course, my work as a teacher would be completely undermined if I allowed pupils to get away with doing no work and I would do a great disservice to the child who put his heart and soul into his homework which I then ignored. Children need to be valued and their work respected. Do rewards really do this?

What does a reward for good work actually achieve? Well, it means the work gets done, this is true. In that sense, I have what I wanted - completed work for me to mark and assess. It’s only a short-term quick-fix. What does the child really get?

This is where I get worried. If I reward a child for doing good work, then I’ve reinforced the idea that everything is a transaction, i.e. if you do well then you will be rewarded. The child doesn’t do the work in order to learn, to gain understanding, further development and progression to the adult world. No, the child does the work so that he gets a reward. Look at the logic here.

A) If I do the work then I get a reward.
B) If I don’t get a reward then I don’t do the work.

The two statements are effectively contrapositives. The reward sets the tone as to whether the work gets done, and we lose the idea that the actual doing of the work is the goal in itself. If our children see every action on their part as something transactional then this may indicate why we’re becoming more and more materialistic. We have that well-used phrase, “what’s in it for me?”

Work then has a definite value placed upon it, namely the value of the reward, rather than something done for its own sake. One might then suggest that all human interaction becomes little more than experimentation and conditioning of laboratory rats. That might be a bit too far, but it’s perhaps not hard to see how we could reach such a conclusion.

What then about punishment?

Again, this very much depends on whether a punishment is used as a negative reward. We might punish a dog for making a mess of the carpet and it learns not to do it again – though I hope we would find better ways of house-training a puppy! Lab rats again are conditioned through the awful use of electric shocks to keep them according to the correct behaviour. Should human beings be dealt with in the same way?

St Benedict says:
“Every age and degree of understanding should have its proper measure of discipline. With regard to boys and adolescents, therefore, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, whenever such as these are delinquent let them be subjected to severe fasts or brought to terms by harsh beatings, that they may be cured.” (cap. XXX of the Rule)
Discipline involves modifying behaviour. We humans do need to be conditioned in the way that leads to God. Pelagius effectively tried to show that human beings could condition themselves to produce the correct behaviour for entry into Heaven. We are fallen, and that means we need to discipline ourselves against sin.

Christianity seems to have perpetuated the notion of heavenly reward and eternal punishment. It’s not the only religion. One can consider the Islamic Hadiths:
“[I]f somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection.” (Bukhari Volume 8, Book 73, Number 73)
Thus suicide bombing is actually condemned in mainstream Islam!

In Christianity, we have the fates of eternal bliss in the beatific vision or the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness.

Yet, are these really rewards or punishments?

When we come to confession, we can come with either perfect contrition or with imperfect contrition. We confess our sins because we are sorry that we have offended God, or because we are frightened of going to Hell. Imperfect contrition is enough, but perfect contrition is most desirable.

Imperfect contrition is very much like the conditioning of lab rats. We fear the electric shock and so we seek to prevent that shock from happening. It can lead to leaving God out of the equation. Yet, to fear Hell is a Benedictine virtue. This is true, yet this hinges on the proper understanding of what Hell really is. So what is the true Christian reward?

The answer can only be God Himself. If we start seeing God as our reward, then we do lose the legal and arbitrarily judgemental side of Christianity. If God is the reason why we exist then we can only but find true happiness in Him, because “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

We fast on Friday. Why? Because the Church tells us to? Because it is a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday? Or because we remember that Our Lord died for us on Friday and we want to honour that love shown for us of our own free will. Should we therefore fast on Friday to gain a reward for doing so? Or because we fear punishment for mortal sin? Or should we fast on Friday because we want to?

If we look at this issue in the sense of reward and punishment, then we see that it is an exercise in conditioning behaviour, but it is not always edifying people. Unless there is a specific desire to fast on Friday, we have nothing more than a learned behaviour in the hope that God will reward us for not eating meat, or at least will not burn us in Hell for doing so. This is where the laws of the Church are in danger of becoming arbitrary and damaging people’s real relationship with God. It is also where the laws of the Church can become Marx’s opiate of the people. The Church thinks so that you don’t have to! That can’t be right!

Not everyone is going to be a theologian. Likewise, one does not get to Heaven by what one knows. The point is that one seeks God. This sounds desperately individualistic and that Individualism is very much the bane of Traditional Catholicism, for we get the rather protestant notion of personal salvation and private readings of Scripture alone sufficing for one’s justification. We know that membership of the Catholic Church is required for Salvation, because we are all members of the body of Christ. The Way is contained in the Faith of the Church which is changeless. Nonetheless, we, each of us, must seek God as the person He created us to be as a part of the body of Christ. It is not a question of reward or punishment. It is a question of finding love, life and happiness as opposed to hatred, death and misery.

Our whole life is, then, an exploration for God, learning to know where God is and where God is not. Thus Human beings necessarily need a knowledge of Good and Evil if they are to achieve their goal of finding God Himself. The Church possesses the method even if the teachers are no better than the students. If we’re seeking to be rewarded for our actions then either we will be extremely disappointed in the case that what we’ve been after isn’t actually God, or we receive grace upon grace upon grace more than we can actually conceive and so the microscopic managing and apportioning of reward becomes meaningless and trivial. St Paul tells us that whatever we experience now in this transitory existence is nothing in comparison with what is already within us, namely the image of the invisible God.

It seems to me that many folk, even ourselves, often have an all too legalistic interpretation of Christianity. The Church has law in order to keep good order, to ensure that the truth about Christ is evident, and to make fair and liberal provision of the grace of God through the Holy Sacraments. Yet, the Lord shows us that burdening the people with arbitrary law is contrary to their being able to live. We need to know what sin is, yes, but we also need to know how to be free from sin. We need to know what grace and mercy are as well as justice. The Law killeth, but the Spirit giveth life! What then are the alternatives to rewards and punishments? Well, somehow, I need to demonstrate to my pupils the beauty of mathematics for its own sake and for its relevance, nor only in their lives, but in living itself. If they seek something of material worth, then they will find nothing.

Likewise, all we Christians can do is demonstrate that we have something valueless (and thus useless to a world where value matters more). Yes, we should cry out at the way that the world treats the children of God, but the true worth of our Faith is how much we show that worldly matters, squabbles, and disputes are too tiny to be considered in comparison to the Divine.

I’m not out for a reward in life. I’m looking for something better than that. Aren’t you?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Daily Mail Christianity

I often think to myself what I would do if a female Church of England minister asked me to donate her one of my kidneys. It's one of those little hypotheticals that we often use to test the limits of our morals, our orthodoxy and our understanding. There are lots of these hypotheticals about which are brought up to challenge the way we think, often to expose the fault-lines of belief and tolerance.

 We've all seen the type:

  •  What would a priest have done had one of the September 11th terrorists come to confession before committing his acts? Should he have told the police?
  • Is Richard Dawkins right to tell a mother to abort an unborn baby with Down's Syndrome? Easy? What if that child was incompatible with life?
  • Is it right to deny birth control to a poor nation to control the size of the population?
  • Is organ donation right or, given that it necessarily involves the brain death of the subject, is it a near occasion of sin?

These are fine and challenging questions, worthy of careful consideration and investigation. One tool that theologians use is St Thomas Aquinas' rule of double effect.

However, it does seem that there are Christians out there whom one might regard as Daily Mail Christians. For my readers outside of the British Isles, the Daily Mail is a newspaper whose general approach to the news is... how shall we say?... reactionary. The situation becomes a bit like that of a non-rational creature with a given response when a certain stimulus is applied. With some Daily Mail readers, one can apply the stimulus "immigration" and be met with the answer "Not in my back yard!" I wish I could say that this is a parody, but there truly are people out there like this.

The human mind has evolved with automatic, emotional and rational centres. The automatic centre is often called the reptilian brain and seems to be devoted to basic stimulus-response decisions. Hungry = search for food: Frightened = release more adrenaline, et c. The Limbic system, in the current scientific theory, seems devoted to the emotional side, where our feelings and reactions are processed. Finally the outer and largest part, the neocortex, seems to be related very much with how we process rational thought. All three parts of the brain involved as we take in information from the world around us, and then make decisions based upon that information.

If we have three parts to the brain, then God has clearly intended us to have three parts to the brain (though I confess that I am using a rather simplified model) and, if the brain is used to process the data received, then surely all three parts are needed. This means that we need to approach big problems from the gut, the heart and the head all in conjunction with each other - all three need to be involved i n the process. Anglican Catholics might liken that to the use of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, the three-fold chord that binds our personal faith with the faith of our Fathers.

Removing one part of the brain from the thinking process does produce problems. The gut reaction is always immediate; the emotional reaction follows close behind as the situation sinks in; the rational part necessarily lags behind as it ponders the details more thoroughly with detachment and logic. One of the problems with the modern milieu is the search for quick decisions. For these, the emotional system is most dominant in our rationalisation and offers a quick response. However, quick responses are not always reliable. Likewise, a decision arrived at without the colour from the emotions loses a great deal of the humanity. In one episode of Star Trek, the ever logical Mr Spock was confounded by his use of logic when dealing with human problems. In one notable stand-off, his response was that of a chess player, while Kirk solved the problem as a poker player.

For the Christian, particularly the Conservative Catholic, it is all to easy to resort to the classical Catholic reasoning unthinkingly. Yes, there are answers and precedents from theologians and doctors of Divinity and saints. On many issues the teaching of the Catholic Church is clear and true. Yet too often, it has to be said, we Catholics can go straight to the standard answers without really listening to the question, particularly when that question involves the well-being and health (both in body and soul) of an individual.

There are some dreadfully complex moral questions out there. While the Catholic Church does indeed possess the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, as I've written before, it does not possess any key to the Abyss. This is of vital importance. Does the Church possess all knowledge of God's will? No, because the ways and means of God are beyond human scrutiny. Does the Church possess any knowledge of God's will? Yes of course. We know that Jesus Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life and that means literally extra ecclesia nulla salus. Is the Church visible? Yes it is. Does this mean it is completely visible? Only to God. Can we categorically say, then who is in Heaven and who is not? Clearly not. There are some who cry, "Lord, Lord" who will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

And what of sin? The Church MUST speak out against sin. Of course it must! The will of each person is not enough to bring them into Heaven, they must know God and they must see what God is not. Since sin (presumably) affects each of us (though I can only categorically say that I definitely am a sinner), the Church must speak out on issues that are unjust and contrary to the will and law of God, and that run counter to the covenant which He has with us. Yet, there are situations on which the Church has only the eyes of humanity and not the eyes of her Master. The eyes of the Body of Christ are in the Head, are they not? Yes, the Church does have knowledge on what sin is, but it does not have the full knowledge of particulars, nor full knowledge of the will of God. Since the Church does not possess full knowledge of the will of God whilst it is militant, this means that there must exist situations in which the Church simply cannot pronounce "sinful" one way or the other. It cannot possess all the information.

This is where the Church must be so careful and speak with the heart in conjunction with the gut and the intellect. Sometimes, Church Authority must have the humility to remain silent on specific cases. Further, true Church Authority must only ever pronounce in true love. It cannot pronounce simply from the rule book. While it is good for the Church to take up arms of protest, it must first seek to offer something. It is naive and ridiculous for the Church to campaign loudly against prostitution if it has nothing to offer those who are slaves to necessity.

How might that conversation go?

Church:       An end to prostitution!!

Prostitute:    I need the money to fuel my addiction to heroin.

Church:       Well you shouldn't have got addicted to heroin in the first place. Now stop being a prostitute and corrupting our city's morals.

I don't need to say how silly and unrealistic that is. It's a straw man through and through, but it does illustrate a point. The Church and the World have different morals. What is legal in the World is not always the will of God, and vice versa.  Prostitution may be legal for the world, but it nonetheless is a sin against the body and the self. Yet, condemnation and voluble protest from the Church is not what is going to save prostitutes. That argument cannot be won, unless there is some mechanism that the Church can provide that will be able to release such a person from that slavery - and that means material as well as spiritual.

The Church provides such a valuable resource in Confession to absolve the penitent of all sin. That authority is promised to the Church. It works, it works effectually and it works effectively. Thus anyone struggling with guilt will find such assurance of the love of God in the confessional. However, what does the Church do about the material needs? How does the community of the Church rally around any one who has been caught in prostitution? How will it meet the needs of a prostitute wrestling with addiction?

There are plenty of organisations out there to help. They will be the first to demonstrate the need for less judgementalism from the Church and others who might revel in the "holier than thou" attitude. If we're going to protest loudly against gay marriage, then we need to ensure that we have a way of ensuring that gay couples can be loved for who they are and that any true love that they may have for their partner is recognised. If we're going to protest loudly outside an abortion clinic, the we're going to have to make very sure that we have some concrete, practical, loving, supportive and generous help for each of the women who may be considering using that place. If we're going to protest loudly against birth control, then we are going to need to find away to help any family to support any additional little mouths that arise from the decision not to use birth control.

It does stand to reason. Our Lord God Himself came to save. He protested loudly against the sins of humanity, the sins of the scribe and pharisee, the sins of the world. Yet, He showed us very clearly that we need to put our money where our mouth is. He did something about that sin. He did something about all the people whose lives were blighted by sin, not by empty reaction or impotent rhetoric, but by loving action. He condemned the sin AND saved the sinner. He demands no less of the Church. We may not have His eyes, but we have His heart. If we're truly the Church, then if we make an decision without engaging the heart as well as the gut and the brain, then we're empty and foolish.

We should not be Daily Mail Christians, spluttering our tea when we read of the latest "outrage" doing the rounds. We should be out there, making a real difference with the love Christ gave us.

So, would I give up a kidney for a female Church of England minister? What do you think?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Getting cross with suffering

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

How many times a day do you make the sign of the cross? How many times have you made it during the Mass so far? Have you ever wondered why?

It’s a strange fact that the sign of the Cross is actually a sign of blessing. When we cross ourselves outside of Mass, we say “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” and thus ask for God’s blessing upon us. Only Our Lord could turn a device meant for torture, pain, humiliation and death into a symbol for blessing. Just think. In other ages, it could be the sign of the rack, the noose, the stake. All of these devices have been used to destroy some innocent people, or at least some misguided people. None of them, however, have been as designed explicitly for torture, pain, humiliation AND death as the Cross.

Why then, have we the Cross as a symbol of blessing if it represents such a terrible, gruesome and miserable way to die?


It is surely hard for us Christians to think of those who are dying in the Middle East in such horrible ways. Our minds try to run away from the facts, and we do not wish to think upon them. Millions of innocents (and not just Christians, it should be remembered) face agonies around the world at the hands of other human beings. There are many folk out there who say that because Man is so abominable to his brothers and sisters, a loving God cannot possibly exist.

Of course, this is false. Human beings have been given freedom by God, and that includes freedom to behave as we choose. We are free to choose to do evil just as freely as we choose good. Without God, though, we lose all sense of what is truly good. Even what we think is good can turn out to be the worst possible evil. The chief priests and Pharisees think that they are doing a good thing by protecting the people from Our Lord’s teaching.

“Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.  If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.  And one  of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,  Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”

They seek to make an example to prevent people from following Jesus, and so they subject him to the worst death imaginable at the time – crucifixion.

If human beings do this to the Son of God, what will they do to each other?


We have to remember God will deal with every single act of injustice.

How can we be so sure?

Well, that’s the point of the Cross. It shows that God’s goodness is more powerful than any evil that can come from man.

Our Lord suffered the worst that Mankind could throw at Him – torture, pain, humiliation and death – and rose above it. Indeed through the Cross, we have grace! It is through the Cross that God clears the way between Him and us. Just as He washed the world clean of sin in the flood, so does He wash us clean with the flood of love that comes through the cross.

Each time you cross yourself and each time you are blessed by the sign of the cross, whether at the end of Mass or at Baptism, you have the opportunity to be washed in the flood of God’s blessing.

This does not mean that the cross has been emptied of its heavy weight. Our Lord tells us that we must bear our crosses if we are to be His disciples. We Christians are not going to have an easy life just because God loves us. It is because he loves all people, even those who work wickedness, that we cannot be exempt from our crosses. We are in this together, and that’s hard to bear sometimes.

However, we may bear our cross, but does the Lord not bear it with us?


Monday, September 08, 2014

Can an Anglican Catholic change a lightbulb?

Sermon Preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on Trinity XII 2014, the week following the retirement of the parish priest Fr. Raymond Thompson.

My dear friends, here we are at our new chapter. Fr Ray, we hope, is enjoying his well-earned rest, but we must move forward without him present physically, though he is with us in spirit. This is a big change for us all, and perhaps we are rather daunted by the thought of what happens next.

There is a popular viewpoint that we Anglican Catholics don’t do change very well. Some will say that the only reason that we exist is because we refuse to change. We are being told, “get with the times! This is the 21st century.” Actually, we have! We have a digital hymnal with which we can sing our hymns. It takes a bit of programming and often the wrong button might get pushed, but we survive. Perhaps we should move further into the 21st century and use lightbulbs on the altar instead of candles. You’ve heard of e-Cigarettes – electronic devices that give the ex-smoker a shot of nicotine. Perhaps we should get an e-thurible?

Progress is one thing, but we have to ask ourselves, progress to what? What are we going forward to?

The future is a scary place. If the news today is anything to go by, then we’re right to worry about what the future holds. We worry about the future for our little ones and how they are going to cope with the problems that our generation has caused. This is only natural and with good reason.

However, we are Christians, and this is the good news. We hear our Saviour say, “take no thought, saying , What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

You have heard these words many times but they tell us about our progress. Progress to what?

Progress to God! It is worth noting that there is a difference between being Eternal and being everlasting. Everlasting means not dying, continuing as things rise and fall around you. It means that things continue to progress. Eternal means not being affected by the passage of time.

Eternal beings do not change or progress. God is completely changeless. If He is completely changeless then the Truth that He reveals to us is changeless too, so that every Christian in every age is told the same thing about the Eternal Salvation that comes from God. There is no progress in the Christian Faith! This gives us Anglican Catholics the strength to be in the world as it changes, knowing that the Faith, Hope and Love that we have received from God cannot change.

We preach “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” We can trust God, for “Such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

If our intention is to go forward in the same faith of our fathers and mothers, then we will find life, but we must continue in our trust. We progress towards the changeless God And Him alone.

This parish will have to change a few things in order for it to continue in that faith but, by-and-large, things will stay the same. There will always be candles on the altar. There will always be charcoal in the Thurible and, if it gets programmed correctly, there will always be hymns in the digital hymnal.

Let us go forth into the future, knowing God’s changeless hand upon us and know that our future is much brighter than the world can understand.