More heresy

Jesus did not die because his ‘Father’ decided to sacrifice him in order to save humanity. Such thinking turns God into an unfeeling monster and the antithesis of love. Loving fathers today do not send their sons to die. The biblical references to Jesus’ death as a sacrifice are part of that early church process of finding meaning from their existing cultural and historical metaphors. I think we need to be brave enough to say that many of those metaphors are no longer appropriate to our culture and time, and indeed are significant stumbling blocks in communicating the nature of the Christian God to our society.

One of the urgent tasks of the Church is to rewrite its liturgies. Anglican liturgy, for example, is riddled with notions of sin, sacrifice, and blood. Whether understood literally or metaphorically the language conveys a worldview that society by and large has long rejected. We no longer believe that people are born sinful. We no longer believe in a God who requires people to be sent to Hell because of their sin. We no longer believe that in order for people to get to Heaven they need the blood sacrifice of a righteous saviour. We no longer believe that when we sip the wine at communion we are drinking Jesus’ blood. We may want to keep some of the metaphorical understandings of this tradition but the likelihood of being misunderstood is huge.

Instead we need to bring the resources of our best poets and writers to the task of writing liturgies celebrating the love, joy, and grace of God made known in Jesus and our experience. We need to find ways of talking about our need to change and grow without labelling people as sinful or wicked. We need to find ways to learn from the past without sanctifying carte blanche the writings of ancient cultures. We need to find ways to proclaim the triumph of goodness without excusing the triumphalist practices of yesteryear. We need to find ways of talking about the cost of love without turning Jesus’ death into a primitive atoning blood sacrifice.


Barbeque the Bear!

‘Are you a heretic?’ I was asked from across the room.

I laughed. Oxford is a town that has burnt a few. Only the other day I walked across the X in the middle of Broad Street where Cramner breathed his last.

The questioner seemed to assume a continuum from orthodoxy to heresy. I prefer to think that there are a number of valid Christian theological positions on a variety of issues, each trying to be true to their time, culture, and inherent understandings. So, for example, the basic evangelical atonement theory [actually ‘theories’] while being a nonsense to someone like me does have sound historical and theological roots. Christianity must try its best to evade an international standardization that insists on everyone thinking the same.

‘Are you a heretic?’ The context of the question was my belief that the status of the afterlife did not change post 33 CE. In other words, I believe Joe Average who died in 33 BCE, before God and Jesus did the death and resurrection thing, was embraced after he died by the God called Love. Similarly, Josephine Average, who died in 50 CE, and who knew and believed in Jesus, was also embraced after death by the God called Love. God didn’t change. The nature of God didn’t change through the life death and resurrection of Jesus, rather it was revealed.

What do you think? Should I burn?


believing in hope, daring to act

On Easter Sunday a Roman Catholic priest, Iggy O’Donovan, and his neighbour an Anglican priest, Michael Graham, concelebrated the Eucharist together in an Augustinian Priory in County Lough, Eire. They broke bread and drank wine together in memory of Jesus. A number of Catholics and Anglicans were present. The Augustinian priests also joined in.

This celebration made the front page of the Irish Times, as did the negative responses of their respective archbishops. It was also the basis of the lead opinion piece the next day and numerous letters to the editor. They unanimously applauded the actions of those at the Priory.

“There were once two men, both servants of God, who lived at a time of strife in their country. Once was a chief priest of his denomination and a man of conscience.

He stuck close to God and did not mix with Samaritans or any who expressed their belief in God in a different way.

He held to his position even while around him members of his denomination and others went to war, sometimes through words, sometimes through violence. He stood apart, an icon of his integrity.

The other was a teacher and a high priest in his own denomination.

One day he happened, by accident, to be in the city during an outbreak of violence between followers of his own denomination and Samaritans. He was appalled that the Samaritans in particular, and religion in general, should be treated in this way.

He organised a special service and arranged for a local Samaritan priest and his followers being embraced in warm welcome by the former adversaries.

Which of these men did the will of God?”

Mr McGarry, who penned the parable, was not concerned about the different theological understandings of the Mass held by Catholics and Anglicans. Rather he was concerned that, in the context of Ireland, Catholics and Anglicans should come together and proclaim their faith by their actions.

Fr. Iggy who instigated the concelebration said that he had returned to Dublin the day before the riots last February and was shocked by the ‘sheer visceral sectarian hatred of those young people’. He decided to do something about it.

As for the differences in theology, Fr Iggy said he celebrated ‘the Eucharist every day with Roman Catholics whose theology I do not share.’

Following the concelebration archbishops Brady and Eames, both highly respected men, expressed concern that such initiatives could cause widespread confusion, raising false hopes and producing misunderstandings. Ecumenical sensitivity is important.

Yet there is widespread impatience with sensitivity, as evidenced by the letters to the paper. Amongst ordinary laity and clergy in many countries, not just Ireland, there is a feeling that Catholics and Anglicans have far more in common than not in common. We both believe in Jesus. We both are committed to justice and peace. We both worship God. We both pray. Why then is it not possible from time to time for us to celebrate the Eucharist together?

Some of the more boring pieces of church literature to land on a cleric’s desk are the occasional reports of Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. This group of leaders and academics try to find common ground in the numerous issues that divide us. They have been meeting and producing reports for years. They seem to make little headway.

I don’t think there are many Anglicans or Catholics who want to join together into one denomination. We value our own traditions and don’t want to lose them. From my perspective things like papal infallibility and the exclusion of women from ordained ministry are insurmountable obstacles to a merging of the churches.

Yet from time to time ordinary Christians want to get together, if simply to celebrate the fact of our common allegiance to God in Jesus, and to break bread and share wine when we do so. At those times it is the sensitivities of our leaders that can be a barrier to our witness.

It was the witness, the message of Christians to society, which was all-important to those who gathered at the Augustinian Priory. Can Christians share with one another in a land renowned for Christians being suspicious of one another? A group of priests and laity answered with a resounding ‘Yes!’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if next week all over Ireland Catholics and Anglicans did likewise? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the week after that in every country where Christians gather it spread like spring flowers, bursting forth here and there, in high places and low, surprising us with hope and joy?


Pot Holes

I really get sick of pot holes.

Like today I was out for a lovely drive in through the countryside… enjoying the scenery… when I happened not to see the latest cavity. Bang! The whole car juddered and shuddered and an expletive escaped my lips. For the next few miles I endeavoured to regain my serenity.

My experience of church liturgies is often similar.

You see I am one of those people who don’t believe God is male. Or female either for that matter. Yet peppered throughout liturgical language are ‘Father’, ‘Lord’, ‘He,’ ‘Him,’ etcetera. These words are used almost as frequently as punctuation marks. I experience them as spiritual pot holes.

Now I pride myself on being a tolerant person. I know the maleness and anthropomorphic nature of the Divine is very important for a number of people. I also know that others enjoy the poetic nature of some older liturgies so much they are prepared to tolerate words they no longer believe. So for 20 years as a priest I have said and lead liturgies where this male God is present. I have done this because, using my driving metaphor, I enjoy the spiritual countryside so much that a few pot holes are not going to deter me.

However there comes a time when the road is literally littered with pot holes. Instead of spiritually swerving around them, using the best of my mental agilities, they are so numerous that I start to no longer enjoy the drive. If God is unassailably male, and we are constantly reminded of it, then the spiritual life of many Christians, me included, suffers.

Many years ago I was travelling in Chad. Most buildings sported bullet holes. The main roads had suffered a similar fate. Indeed the pot holes were so huge and numerous that the locals had created dirt roads alongside the main highway. Nearly everyone used the dirt roads.

My fear is that if the Church does not attend to its language, which is the primary means for portraying its images of God, and the pot holes of a male divinity continue unchecked, more and more people will choose not to drive on the road. In other words, people increasingly will choose to nourish their spirituality separate from the Christian Church, or just pay occasional visits.

Nobody likes pot holes.


Prayer of the Bear - Holy Sharing

Jesus said he would be known in the breaking of bread.
Whenever two or three gathered together
Wherever the simple act of breaking happened
Whenever there was sharing.

For breaking is taking what we have and sharing.
It is not rocket science, but almost as costly.
It is sharing our everyday sustenance
It is sharing in order that all have some and we have less.

In God’s dream there is such a thing as “too much” and “too little”.
There is such a thing as ‘fat’ countries and ‘skinny’ ones.
The world’s daily bread is not shared equally
And we all are the poorer for it.

When we break bread in memory of Jesus we dream a dream.
A simple dream that isn’t too hard to grasp:
Jesus can come alive, blessing here and everywhere,
If only we take, break, and give what we have.

O Risen Christ, who made yourself known in the breaking of the bread;
The bread we bread at this Communion table
Is a sign of the brokenness of all the world;
Through our sharing in the bread of life
Open our eyes, hearts, and hands to the needs of all people.


On the Edge of Ultimate Mystery and Nothingness

I first learnt about prayer in a church. Week by week I sat in a half-empty church, kneeling quietly, and listening to the Minister exuding a pious ambience say words which had little meaning for me. What did have meaning, though I could not have articulated it at the time, was the feeling that I was in the presence of something larger than myself or the other people present. Whether it was the candles, the darkened wood, the stained glass, or high-ceilings, I don’t know… but something conveyed to me the mystery and wonder of the Holy.

I was then fortunate to be inculcated into a 1970s form of evangelicalism. By means of a simple formula I took Jesus to be my personal saviour and lord. One result of this was to be taught another way to pray. Instead of reciting responses in church I was now encouraged to imagine an invisible Jesus in my bedroom to whom I could chat at will. God was a human-shaped being who wanted to be my personal friend.

Chatting to Jesus served me well through adolescence. I remember walking through the bush on the way home from school sharing all the ups and downs of my day with my invisible friend, one who would never interrupt my monologue with his own needs. Of course I still went to church, though usually to services where songs were accompanied by guitars and repeated over and over. The personal god, Jesus, I was told wanted us to endlessly sing his praises.

Sometime in my teens Jesus the personal god became too small for me. I wanted something more, something that would interrupt me, even disturb me. I wanted to find a god who didn’t need sycophants to sing his praises. I was dissatisfied too with the glib and circular answers to hard questions like the persistence of pain, suffering and evil.

I then began a different type of journey, walking without knowing the destination, finding sustenance amongst unlikely people and thoughts, and all the time looking for ways to pray and being sustained by them. I meditated with other Christians, learnt Christian mantras, went on prayer walks and pilgrimages, was nourished by Taize and the Daily Office, and sat staring at candles for long periods of time. Poetry, music, prose, and silence were all part of my prayer. I also attended many churches and the holy places of other traditions, enjoying the beauty of some buildings and the care people took of them, and being repulsed by others. I enjoyed a variety of communities, worshipping styles and musical traditions, each trying to express that which was beyond words: a yearning and connectedness with the Divine.

Over these past thirty years I have sought a God whose vastness is honoured and who resists being reduced to fit our needs. I’ve sought a God who is both mystery and intimate, both lover and tormentor.

My experience has been that whenever I grab a model of God too hard it cracks. Father God cracked long ago. Mother God didn’t last too long either. God as Santa Claus was always seriously flawed. God as a being was doomed too. God as being lasted longer. God as comforter didn’t survive Elie Wiesel’s writings. God as ocean has enduring properties as does God as love, but both can be elusive. Even God as noun cracked.

This ongoing iconoclastic experience of searching, finding, relating, holding on, being held, letting go, and losing, has shaped my prayer. It’s been a spirited exchange on the edge of ultimate mystery and nothingness.


Prayer of the Bear - Disgrace to Fashion

Hey Jesus,
You were never easily labeled.
Branding you by the clothes you wore didn’t work.
You were an advertiser’s nightmare.
For with one lot of losers you’d wear their t-shirt,
then change with the next lot to their logo.
Each party you’d turn up to you’d be wearing something different,
as different as one party was to the next.
We just couldn’t nail you down…
Until we stripped every shirt off you,
and hung you up
as a disgrace to fashion.


Prayer of the Bear - godding

I’m languishing over a latte while watching the pouring in, the settling, and the pouring out of cafe creatures. Two by two they enter and exit the zoo.

I sit on my stool, trying to read. Around me the tables are cluttered with conversation, cups, and culinary smells. Cell phones buzz like blowflies.

“God is like breathing,” said some mystic. God as a verb. So I sat sipping, pondering, and godding.

God as a collective noun came in, looking rather stressed. They clutched their diaries and stridently made for the tables outside. Some animals need space. They talked business and didn’t laugh. They’re from a mission agency I believe, Protestant variety. God is deadly serious.

God as an adverb was at the table opposite me, energetically devouring a fluffy. Bubbly, giggly, and sparkling. Her mother, heaven be praised, was not big on restraint. The little girl was the rainbow every ark needs.

A regular comes over. We were both at a baptism recently. “Noah would have needed more than two dung beetles.” He’s been reading. “Yeah, think about it. 40 days and nights of rain plus 150 of swollen waters. Living on board with camels, horses, lions, jackals, goats, guinea pigs, wolves, boars, warthogs, ... You would know better than to shovel the stuff overboard, when the waters receded you would need topsoil. Still, that’s a lot of work for just two dung beetles. Better make it four.”

Don’t you love people who deal in practicalities? I still can’t get past Noah’s God drowning the vast majority of the planet.

Time for another latte.


Prayer of the Bear - Get a Grip

There is only one reason to pray, and it is not to petition or to please. It is, as it was in the beginning, to get a grip on our existence. Or to flag it down for a moment as it flies past. If we also win a little harmony from the human bedlam, that is serendipity.[1]

“Oh God its morning!” he cried pulling the duvet up over his head. Lighten our darkness we beseech thee.

Dressing gown and slippers adorned, stirring the porridge, caring for her soul, as the little ones stir awake.

The earnest believer opens his Bible, reads the prescribed text, and talks at God. God is courteous and kind.

Walking around the rocks, rod in one hand, as the day kisses the night adieu. The sea holds her other hand, and her heart.

The same, earnest believer tires of talking at God, and stops to listen. God does too.

The child runs, jumps into the double bed, and cries “I love you Mummy.” The warmth of uninhibited love floods her soul.

The warmth of the cup warms more than his hands wrapped around it. It is a moment of nurture and, today, a moment of contemplation.

They meet for breakfast every workday morn at six. It is a big breakfast, for big men, who lay big slabs of concrete for cars to park upon. It’s not the food, rather the jovial camaraderie, which feeds their soul.

They meet before breakfast. Gathered in the front room, today a chapel, they use a liturgy full of old words written by others about others. It doesn’t make sense. Just like the Church. But they gather anyway and leave feeling held.

The dog sniffs at nearly everything. It is curiousity incarnate. It is very sociable, indiscriminately greeting each and every early riser on the city streets. The woman enjoys being lead by the dog into the day, and into her soul.

In darkness and in light, in trouble and in joy, in season and out, knowingly and unknowingly, for our selves and despite our selves, we do it. Morning prayer.

[1] I have taken license with Maurice Shadbolt’s “reason to write” in One Of Ben’s.