Tuesday, May 2, 2017

'THE LORD OF THE RINGS' in Book and Film: An Appreciation

I don’t quite know what inspired me to commit to reading Tolkien’s epic again after so long. It must be over 15 years, as I don’t think I had done more than dip into it again since the movies were released. But having now re-read it in full, and subsequently re-watched the movie trilogy, thoughts are swarming in my head.

Firstly, to my relief, as I got going with the novels the magic was still there. And if some of the mystery and magic is not quite as fresh after repeated readings (the first of which was in the summer of 1972, at the end of my first year away at university), then there were ample consolations. For example, I was surprised to find how much of my memory of the books had been filtered through the movies, and to some extent I was able to recapture the preternatural largeness of Tolkien’s vision, his cosmological, historical and linguistic inventiveness, his landscape, and (above all) his characters. How much larger they are – and how much more striking in their grandeur and their spiritual and moral dimensions – when stripped of the imprisoning shapes of earnest thespians, the ever-present New Zealand skyline, and the conflict in artistic sensibilities between a 20th century Oxford don and a 21st century Antipodean purveyor of cinematic blockbusters.

And speaking of that artistic conflict, perhaps the greatest joy of re-reading this magnissimum opus as an older and hopefully wiser man was a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of Tolkien’s literary skills and his spiritual and moral ethos. This last observation needs unpacking a little.

Reading the trilogy as a young man, I received it uncritically. I was swept up by the magic both hidden and revealed in Middle Earth, inspired by the courage and strength of its main characters, enraptured by journeys of discovery and the comings of age that transpired, triumphant at the destruction of bad men and creatures. Even so, I found that the Author’s sometimes overwrought prose and lengthy poetic elaborations sometimes got in the way of the narrative. And at the last reading, around the time of the Millennium, I found myself disheartened by what we might call the socio-economic morality underlying the narratives. Whether fair or not (but not, I suspect, without an element of truth), it seemed to me that the Author spoke through his characters when they modelled a conservative social structure: when women were expected to stay away from men’s business, when the ordinary folk were expected not to meddle in the affairs of their “betters”, when there could be nothing nobler than to die in a Pyrrhic victory for the defence of a political order.

I am being too harsh of course, because every writing is a product of its era. But those thoughts along with the seeming crustiness of Tolkien’s prose and dialogue, and the superfluous literary flourishes, were a stumbling block at the beginning of the new millennium: a time when I was personally engaged in a fresh journey of spiritual, moral and cultural discovery. So what had changed by the time of this last reading?

Well the world has changed, of course; reactionary and xenophobic voices proliferate, and Tolkien’s voice speaks prophetically to our times. But much more significantly, I feel that for the first time I had just enough spiritual and literary depth of my own to appreciate Tolkien’s far great spiritual and literary depth. Subsequent to the previous reading, I trained and was licensed as a Lay Minister in the Church, experienced a wonderful second career as a teacher of religion, philosophy and ethics, and most recently published a novel of my own. By virtue of these successive explorations, I have at last been able to perceive some of the stitches in Tolkien’s literary creations: to turn a critical but appreciative eye on his storycraft and writing technique. Most of all I have seen for myself what I had heard often enough second hand from others: the scale not just of his skill as a novelist, but of his spiritual and moral profundity.

Perhaps the Catholicism (with a capital-C) of Tolkien’s world-view blinded me to this before. His friend and contemporary, C. S. Lewis, produced spiritual and moral tracts that I could better relate to, as well as novels whose religious message accorded with my own thinking and belief. But now Lewis seems trapped in a time-bubble of Edwardian values and expression, while Tolkien’s more open cosmology and thematic development offer insights into sovereignty, temptation, redemption, good, evil and loss that seem more-or-less timeless.

And the key to appreciating the morality of Tolkien’s imagined world without judging the Author is the hopeful sadness the pervades every episode, the musical ‘dying fall’ audible in every dialogue. In Middle Earth, as in the only sound Christian ethical framework, the supreme moral authority to which each person must answer is the dutifully-informed individual conscience. And salvation, while in its essence the unearned gift of a sovereign Power, can only be truly appropriated by a sacrificial and potentially costly participation in the outworking of that Power’s purposes in history.

And so there is much in Middle Earth that should not be, including division and social injustice. There is much heroic and dangerous work to be done in translating the providence of that higher power into lasting unity and justice. And in doing that work, much that is beautiful and noble in the world will be lost forever. Hope is never far from the characters’ lips, even some of the worst, even in extreme adversity. Yet even in triumph there is lasting sadness at the inevitability of loss. And yet even in the face of inevitable loss, good motives engender acceptance and healing.

In short, then, while there were no surprises in the twists and turns of the plot, re-reading the books was a joy. But what of the cinematic project?

Long-time devotees of the novels approach any such project with a mix of excitement and dread. On one hand, there is the hope of seeing one’s favourite scenes cloaked in concrete imagery. On the other hand there is a realistic acceptance that no film, even were it of unlimited length, could fully do justice to a literary work of such size and depth. Tolkien’s descriptive prose was of a high order, giving an auteur-director like Jackson plentiful clues for his sets and settings but also giving each reader his-or-her own mental pictures with which a cinematic realisation has to compete.

The best that the Middle Earth-fetishists could reasonably hope for then, was that the movies would adhere faithfully to the main story-line, would listen to the existing fan-network in matters of visual design, and (perhaps above all) that all the most loved and/or hated characters would be impersonated in a manner true to the literary originals.

And the first instalment, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ fulfilled many ardent fans’ wildest dreams. The characterisations, and even the majority of the casting, were close to perfection. Not everybody warmed to Wood, Weaving or Mortensen; not everyone felt that the Elves and their domains were beautiful or mysterious enough; and there were other niggles. Some, for example, were hurt by the exclusion of Tom Bombadil, although how anyone thought that having Billy Connolly or Russell Brand or similar spouting knowing doggerel in funny clothes would have sustained the development of dramatic tension, Galadriel only knows! In short, though, legions of viewers were given hope.

With the second instalment, The Two Towers, the hopes of many were dashed. It was, of course, a critical and commercial success – but strictly as a movie on its own terms. As a translation of the novel to the screen, it was heavily compromised. In part this was due to the underlying book. The most demanding and least rewarding of the three novels, structurally as well as narratively, it serves the purpose of recitative in an opera – functionally pushing the story-line forward and setting the scene for the great arias of the final act. It was always going to be a tough one to turn into a movie that would stand on its own feet, separated from the first and third instalments by a year in each case.

And in the process of manipulating the story-line to accommodate the main incidents from the book, while providing all that infilling plot and character development, and while offering a decently spaced succession of cinematic high-points and dramatic moments for the lead actors, the spirit of the original is heavily traduced – especially in the motivations and actions of some beloved characters. We are left with a weak and whinging Frodo; an Aragorn who doesn’t really want to be king; a proud and cold Théoden; a remarkably unloveable Éomer; a Gimli who provides little more than comic relief; a Faramir who is really no more than a weaker but more disciplined version of Boromir; a rather sparse bunch of Ents who have to be tricked by a sly Hobbit into declaring war on Saruman; a squad of regimented Elf-solders who turn up out of the blue and are able to be felled by nothing more fell than Orc-arrows; some pretty unthreatening Nazgûl who do little more than flap around in the sky squawking like wounded parrots from time to time. I came away wondering whether I would bother to watch the final episode.

Fortunately, much improves in the final movie, ‘The Return of the King’. Apart from Frodo, whose characterisation never seems to regain the stature it lost in ‘The Two Towers’, most characters acquire greater gravitas, or purpose, or strength or warmth or menace as appropriate. Once again a massive attempt is being made to honour the original novel, and there are moments of great power and pathos to trancend both earlier episodes. The most serious omission is the Scouring of the Shire, but as with Tom Bombadil in the FotR, even there one can see justification in keeping to a manageable overall length and preserving the dramatic shape of the whole. At least, the final ‘dying fall’ at the Grey Havens is handled with poignancy and dignity.

The tragedy of the movies, I feel, is that a generation is growing up that will never retain personal mental pictures of Middle Earth that are free of Peter Jackson’s supervening imagery. I would say to anyone who still has the opportunity: read the books first, form your own mental pictures, then let those be the criteria by which you judge the movies. And for those denied the opportunity to do that, do read the books in any case; there is much to enrich your heart and mind, even if you can never read the dialogue without hearing Sean Astin’s Californian hippy take on a rustic English drawl echoing inside your head.

Friday, August 5, 2016

THE ENGLISH WITNESS - A Brief Introduction

On the 9th April 1973 (I still have my old passport with the date stamped in it), I arrived in San Sebastián for the start of a six-month study placement. It was a marvellous and unforgettable experience. This elegant resort city, with its beautiful beaches, rugged hinterland and vibrant social life, was paradise for a couple of dozen language students from a wet and windy university campus in England’s industrial heartland. Food and drink cost a fraction of what we were used to at home, and aside from a few hours a day studying we threw ourselves into socialising with a vengeance.

There was a dark side to the experience, however. San Sebastián was, and is, the cultural capital of the Basque Country – the beautiful, hospitable but politically volatile ethnic enclave that straddles the Atlantic border between France and Spain. In the embittered twilight years of the Franco regime, when suspected Basque activists could disappear in the night, and where an innocent foreign visitor could receive a police beating just on suspicion of speaking the forbidden Basque language, the potential for dire mishap was constantly lurking in the background. Indeed, and tragically, for decades the region was a byword not for its beauty or hospitality but for terrorist atrocities.

And most of us were not the types to keep at a safe distance from local preoccupations. On the one hand, we were cultural explorers well before the age of the gap year; we were smitten with the idea of alien cultures and world-views, and constantly open to new ways of living. But at the same time, most of us still revelled, at least to some extent, in an awareness of our social, economic and educational superiority over the local people (people with whom we nevertheless forged close friendships and a great deal of solidarity). That mildly patronising attitude of which some of us were guilty – that rose-tinted perception of a rather simple Ruritanian society to whose threats we ourselves were immune – risked blinding us to the very real dangers.

It was inevitable that some of us would get close to people who were actively engaged with the region’s deep-seated political tensions, and that one or two might get a little too close for comfort. I know that in my own case, enamoured as I was with the local culture and not always totally at ease with my lovely colleagues and compatriots, there was more than one occasion on which things could have taken a dangerous turn. In later years, I reflected at length on how any one of those rash moments could have turned out; how they would have affected my subsequent life, and the person I might have become in one of those parallel universes of causality.

I had long fantasised about setting a novel in that beautiful but potentially deadly setting, but lacked the literary skills to do so. But over the years business writing, public speaking, teaching, and the successive arrival of children and grandchildren gave me the confidence to make the attempt. And so it was that what started out as a more modest memoir and travelogue metamorphosed into what I have described as “a tense psychological thriller with some quite nasty bits”.

Inevitably, the traumatised protagonist of the story is largely me. Or perhaps more accurately an anti-me – a darker, and (I like to think) more dysfunctional version of myself from an alternate reality in which the ever-present potential for disaster has actually materialised. And the travels and casual encounters of that summer are pretty much as they happened. But at each stage I have explored how things might have turned out, and what the short- and longer-term consequences might have been. Strangely, perhaps, the hardest thing of all was allowing characters I had nurtured into life to be bad people and/or to get hurt.

All the other characters and the main storyline are entirely fictional, and (in publishing-speak) no resemblance is intended to anyone living or dead. Even certain places and establishments have been camouflaged or anonymised out of respect for the privacy of others. However it is possible, given the genesis of this work, that some of those who shared the author’s real life experiences may be reminded of real people or their words or actions. As I say in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, I hope they will take any such parallels as a sign of enduring affection and respect. 

Finally, a massive thank you to everyone who helped to make that phase in my life so memorable, as well as those who have patiently read the manuscript at different stages and given feedback. It's far from perfect, even in my own eyes, but the next one will be better.

THE ENGLISH WITNESS by John C. Bailey is exclusively available via Amazon's Kindle store.
Link to Amazon UK page   (Other countries: please search on title from within the Amazon site)

Sunday, March 13, 2016


(Philippians 3: 4b-14; John 12: 1-8)

What does it mean to call yourself a Christian? One of the biggest challenges facing the Church today is confusion as to precisely that. It was the first question I used to ask my students when they began the study of Christianity: What makes somebody a Christian? Is it enough to be born in a Christian country? Does being christened as a baby make you a Christian? Growing up in a Christian family? Going to church on Sundays? Trying to be a good person? Or is it a matter of what you believe?

There was little agreement among my students, and there’s little more among adults – not just outside the Church but within its ranks as well. And I must be sensitive in what I say, because people can get quite defensive if their views on a question like this are challenged. But when St. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he was quite specific as to what it meant to him to be a Christian.

By way of background, Paul was writing to a young church whose confidence in their status as authentic Christians had been badly shaken. They’d come under fire from a group of aggressive “Judaizers”: campaigners who were trying to draw them back into the caste divisions and the legal and ritual observances of traditional Judaism. Paul’s method of defence is (predictably enough) to go on the offensive. He systematically dismisses the grounds on which these people claim to be holy. And he does so by pulling to pieces his own past life as a fine upstanding member of the religious establishment.

Let me summarise his words, and then we can look briefly at each phrase in turn: I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. In regard to the law, a Pharisee. As for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Let’s look at each of these claims:

·      He was circumcised as an infant
(he had undergone the Jewish equivalent of baptism).
·      He was of the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin
(he was born into both a holy nation and an important religious clan).
·      He was a Pharisee
(Pharisees had advanced theological training and an intensely pious lifestyle).
·      As for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless
(speaks for itself).

In short, Paul pigeon-holes his younger self as one of the ultimate religious elite. If anyone could ever be a holy and righteous member of God’s people based on race, nationality, family ties or religious zeal, then he was that man. But he goes on to say to savage all these claims (I am abbreviating his words here): I consider all these things…a loss compared with the supreme worth of knowing Jesus as my Lord.  In fact, I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…not through any righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but through faith in Christ. And he goes on to describe exactly what that faith in Christ will involve: he wants not just to live like Jesus, but to experience the same kind of sufferings as Jesus, to undergo the same kind of martyr’s death as Jesus, and ultimately to experience the same resurrection from death.

This is challenging, isn’t it? Paul is using deep theological language that may be unsettling to some people. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but if I were to ask how many people here would be happy with a martyr’s death, I wouldn’t expect to be trampled in the rush. So let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: only a tiny minority of Christians are ever called to be actual martyrs. And the real essence of what Paul is calling for, can be summed up in one word: identification. For Paul, only one thing ultimately qualifies somebody to be called a Christian: a whole-hearted identification with Jesus – not just believing things about him, not just doing the kind of things he did, but living his life and letting him live through us, regardless of the cost.

I’m not at that point - not by a million miles. Even Paul himself found it an impossibly tall order. “Not that I’ve already obtained all this,” he admits. “I haven’t yet arrived at my goal.” But he points to what he can do and what we can all do: “One thing I do,” he says. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 

So what does this mean for us? What makes us Christian? Do we need to reject our country’s Christian heritage, our parenting, our religious life, as Paul seems to do in this passage? Certainly not. We’re not engaged, like Paul was, in bitter controversy for the soul of the infant church. We can be humbly thankful for the Christian values enshrined in our national and family history and in our churchmanship. But we don’t have to depend on those things for our sense of Christian identity. For that, Paul’s words give us a vital road map: Identifying with Jesus. Forgetting what’s behind. And pressing on towards the goal – the goal of union with Christ. That is Paul’s roadmap for living as a Christian, for calling ourselves Christian. 

Part of a teacher’s job is coaching students whose motivation is flagging. And the most important coaching question is this: Where do you want to be, what do you want to be doing, in 5 years’ time? And the follow-up questions, once they’d articulated their hopes for the future: What would you need to do to get there? What weaknesses do you need to address? What obstacles do you need to overcome now, to get to where you want to be in the future?

I wonder how St. Paul would have answered those questions. What goals do you think he would have set for himself 6 months or a year or five years ahead? What would he have seen as the steps he had to take, the obstacles he’d have to overcome? [...]

And what about you and me? That’s a more sensitive question. But could I ask you to think for a moment? (nobody’s going to ask you to share your thoughts). What would you wish for yourself a few months or years from now, particularly in relation to your spiritual life? Perhaps you’re happy with things the way they are. But I wonder if anyone here senses a hunger or thirst for something more: for a closer walk with Jesus, a deeper understanding of God’s purposes, a more prayerful or disciplined life […]

And then there are the follow-up questions: How might you get there? What might you need to do? What obstacles might you need to overcome – things or attitudes that get between you and Jesus? [...]

I’m going to leave you with those questions. But a word of reassurance before I finish: There are no right or wrong answers. Thinking back to our reading from John's Gospel, perhaps (whether male or female) you’re like Mary: someone who loves nothing better than to rest in Jesus’ presence and express their love for him. Or perhaps you’re more of a Martha, always busy, always making yourself useful in practical ways. Either way, you are who you are and who God made you to be.

But sometimes God sets us to questioning what we do, as a way of calling us on to new things. And if questions like these intrigue you, then don’t grapple with them alone. [Our pastoral team] love to have conversations about things like this, and they can help in all sorts of ways as you plan your spiritual journey in the months ahead. 

Let’s bow our heads in prayer…

Thursday, December 3, 2015


The first thing I had to learn as a trainee teacher is that to plan anything without a clear set of intended outcomes is a recipe for disaster. It is a universal truth. Unfortunately, the tendency in politics and increasingly in business is to decide what you want to do and then see where it leads.

And so, if you want my opinion, the parliamentary decision to commence bombing in Syria was an error of judgement – an uneasy political fix driven largely by domestic pressures and short on both strategic and tactical thinking. 

However, that is just my view. The decision has been made and is already (with a speed that suggests the result was a foregone conclusion) being executed. How should Christians react? Here are some reflections:

1.     We should pray. On one level, of course, that’s stating the obvious. But we need to pray in breadth as well as depth. The object of prayer is transformation, and our prayers at this time need to be informed by a knowledge of national and international affairs as well as by our experience of God’s love and mercy. We should bring to Him not just our fears but our hopes, not just our people but all people, not just the sins of the world but the self-centred feelings and desires within ourselves that are part of the problem. Any transformation of the world has to start within each one of us.

2.     As already suggested in the preceding paragraph, we need to keep ourselves informed. That means watching the news, dipping into a range of newspapers in print or on line (rather than sticking to the one that tells us what we want to hear) – in short, digesting a variety of different interpretations and opinions. This will be precious ballast for our prayer, but also our armour against the slanted interpretations that we can expect to hear from politicians, media pundits and religious commentators. It has been said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and it is only by opening our ears to different and possibly conflicting versions of the truth that we may grasp the bigger picture in all its complexity.

3.     We need to be politically engaged. That message has not always been popular with Christians, but in this age of moral relativism we are uniquely equipped and called to be the conscience of the nation. We may, and indeed should, differ amongst ourselves, but we share a body of revealed spiritual and moral truth that (like it or not) forms the ethical foundation of our polity and still permeates the fabric of our society and governance.  

That does not mean, I hasten to add, that secularists and other faith communities may not equally share in this calling. In an important sense those voices should function as the Church’s conscience. We will always have a distinctive viewpoint, and our conscience must be primarily informed by our own understanding of ultimate truth. However, we have no right to be tribal about the truth. And every occasion on which we find ourselves at odds with others of manifest good-will is a prophetic opportunity to reflect on whether we are still being honest to God. 

What might political engagement mean in practice? While blocking our ears to the siren-call of class, political and cultural loyalties, we have a duty to make our Voice heard and to call our political class to account. For now, the die has been cast, but opportunities will arise in the coming months to assess the viability of our military undertaking and to challenge our elected and unelected leaders on their conduct. In the meantime we have a core duty to show Christ’s love to everyone regardless of their faith or politics. To do less is to abdicate the responsibility we share as part of God’s incarnate presence in the world.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King: What does Christ's "kingship" mean in an upside-down world?

(Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37)

I can’t recall who it was or when it was, but I clearly remember somebody once saying to me - in a somewhat aggrieved tone of voice - “The world is going to hell in a handcart.” I can’t even remember what sequence of world events it was that prompted his outburst. But I’m pretty sure that they didn’t match the horrors that have hit the headlines over the  past few months.

Of course, in one sense people of my generation and later have had it easy. Anyone who can remember the World Wars of the 20th century has lived through horrors on a larger scale than anything that has beset Europe in the 70 years since the fall of Nazi Germany. Four years ago I had the painful privilege of visiting Auschwitz, and that brief exposure to the pitch darkness at the heart of modern European history has left a permanent mark on me.

Even so, compared with anything experienced since then, and beginning with the horror of the World Trade Centre, events in the news have been so dreadful as to shake some people’s confidence in world order as we know it. How can world peace be maintained, people are asking. In the global village that we all inhabit nowadays? How can the peaceful nations of the world avoid getting sucked into the orbit of regions where there seemingly no hope of peace? How can governments - not least our own government - be expected to steer a wise course between the interests of their own citizens and the harsh realities of the international situation?

There is hope, however. There was a glimpse of hope just in the eruption of sympathy and resolve that followed the recent atrocity in Paris. But above all, there is hope in the interwoven patterns of divine promise and the human history that we find in Scripture. Indeed, much of the Bible was written in response to times in which it seemed even then the world was going to hell in that proverbial handcart. And as always in Scripture, that offer of hope comes bundled with a challenge to each one of to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Our two readings from Scripture this morning encapsulate both the promise and the challenge extremely well.

Our first reading came from the book of Revelation, the series of dramatic visions that constitutes the Bible’s grand finale. It’s a difficult book to decode, full of complex symbolism and cataclysmic pictures of the world’s end that there isn’t the time to unravel here. But the author himself was a political prisoner, a victim of persecution. He was writing to giving his readers assurance in a world that seemed to be going to hell in a handcart. And the statements and promises in this passage bear directly on our fears about the present time:

Firstly, in wishing his readers the grace and peace of God, the author refers to Jesus Christ as the ruler of the kings of the earth. And in the context of the times, the message is clear: However crushingly powerful earthly rulers may appear - and however indecisive, corrupt, even downright evil - they (like us) have a king whose name is Jesus. They will ultimately be accountable to him. And in an age when it’s so unfashionable to believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs, the passage gives us a much needed boost. Indeed, the coming season of Advent isn’t just about remembering the first Christmas; it’s just as much about the Second Coming of Jesus - the time when he will establish his kingdom fully here on earth.

Every eye will see him, the author promises. All peoples on earth, even those who have been in denial of his authority, will submit to him. For as the passage reminds us, God is the Alpha and Omega of the universe. Or as we would say, the A to Z. The beginning and the end and everything in the middle. There is nothing that escapes him, and it’s through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of human history, that God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.

The message of Christ’s kingship was driven home further in our Gospel reading, where we hear the words of Jesus himself. He is on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asks his inquisitor. And what a rich question it is - it’s a double edged question. On the one hand, Pilate is asking if the Jews owe Jesus their loyalty - and if so, why are they so keen to bring about his death. And on the other hand the question deals with Jesus’ relationship with the Roman authorities whom Pilate himself represents - is this man an enemy of Rome, to be dealt with as a threat to law and order?

Jesus’ reply speaks volumes about what is happening in the world, both then and today. And it can be summed up in just seven brief words: “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says (repeat). And in case we miss the depth and richness of Jesus’ responses to Pilate’s interrogation, let me paraphrase them: “You have to see things in their proper perspective, Mr. Pilate. No, I cannot rely on the loyalty and submission I deserve, even from my own people. And neither am I trying to whip up a rebellion against the Empire. Because I am working on a completely different level. Ultimately, you will see that all power and sovereignty is vested in me. But for now, caught as I am in the power vacuum between your people and mine, I am a powerless thing in your hands.” So much depth of meaning in such a simple statement. And that explains a lot. It explains why earthly powers manifest at the best weakness and self-interest, and at worst monstrous barbarity. It explains why all that is allowed to go unchecked. Because we are in a transitional period. Like the people of Middle Earth in the classic Lord of the Rings saga, which was firmly based on a Christian understanding of history, we are living in a time of weak, untrustworthy stewards. We are still waiting for the Return of the King. For a while human weakness and even outright evil have free reign. But the King is coming back. He will appear without warning. And all mankind will see him, in the words of Revelation, even those who pierced him.

All that is embedded in today’s place in the church calendar - the feast of Christ the King. In another week we’ll reach Advent, a season of repentance and hope when we remember the Lord’s first coming as a powerless servant and look forward with fear and excitement to his return as conquering king. But for now, in this, the last Sunday before Advent - which is also the last Sunday of the church year - we think of Christ as the king who has not yet been fully unveiled in the sight of all the world. But let there be no mistake on the part of his faithful people or on the part of those who deny his lordship. The kingship of Christ will be revealed and established in the sight of all the world. To those of us who are appalled at the ways of the world, it is a comfort but also a challenge. Are we going to be part of the problem, or will we be part of the solution?

As Pope Pius XI declared at the establishment of this feast around 90 years ago (abbreviated):  
The faithful, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage… If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth…and if this power embraces all men, (then) it’s clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds…He must reign in our wills… He must reign in our hearts… He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments…of justice unto God.”Let us pray….

Sunday, May 17, 2015


 (Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26;   John 17: 6-19)
Yesterday, between 30 and 40 of us from across the three parishes came together for an open strategy day here in church. The main item up for discussion was the future of the Church of England and our own benefice in particular.

I wonder what you think, particularly those who couldn’t be here yesterday. How do you imagine our benefice and the wider church will look in 5 or 10 or 20 years’ time? How many members will we have? How will we be organised? Will we survive at all in our present form?

These are big questions, and there’s little agreement on the answers. But our local and national leaders are all too aware that the average age of regular churchgoers is rising steadily. In their minds (and the logic is difficult to argue with) if our church doesn’t learn to recruit and retain younger people and families, it could disappear within a generation.

Put in those terms it’s a rather dispiriting picture. But I believe that history and our Bible readings tell a more encouraging story – a story not just of survival but of renewed growth. I want to make three points this morning:
  1. To express confidence that in God’s good time the Church will return to growth;
  2. Based on today’s Gospel reading, to explain and justify that confidence.
  3. And finally, I want to report on an exciting new initiative to promote growth in our church, in our time.

1.    I'm confident that the Church will return to growth.
The Christian movement started out pitifully small. Once Jesus had ascended into heaven and the remaining disciples had had a chance to take stock, our reading from Acts tells us that they numbered about 120. On one level, that’s impressive growth – a tenfold increase on the original 12 disciples.

But think of the odds stacked against them: Just 120 people in an isolated backwater of the vast Roman empire, harassed by the Jewish community from which they’d come, and about to be brutally persecuted by the Roman authorities. Yet we know that just a few days later on the Day of Pentecost, the number rose by 3,000. We know that within a generation there were pockets of Christian belief and worship throughout the Roman Empire. And in less than three hundred years, Christianity had become its official religion; so robust that when the Empire finally collapsed the Roman church was left standing – and it’s still there fifteen centuries later. Christianity is the biggest mass movement in human history, with total numbers estimated at close to 3bn - getting on for half the population of the world.

What of more recent times? In the industrialised west, numbers regularly attending church are at their lowest ebb in history. But it is church attendance that is ailing, and enormous numbers still see themselves as Christian. And in other parts of the world, the picture is much more positive. In Africa, the church has grown colossally, to the point where churches are sending out missionaries to Europe and America. In China, Christianity was almost extinguished during the Cultural Revolution, but recently it’s been growing faster than anywhere in the world.

In short, growth is deeply embedded in Christianity’s DNA. And one thing that we can be sure about - sure from history, and sure from God’s promises in Scripture - is that his Church will keep growing. Not necessarily in out time, of course, and not necessarily in our neck of the woods; but then again, perhaps sooner and closer to home than we dare to hope or expect. We live in a time of searching: searching for faith, for hope, for meaning. The church has been slow to adapt to the changing needs of the society in which we live, but as I’ll tell you shortly, there are signs of change.

2.    Why am I so confident that the Church will return to growth?
Why should this ancient, sprawling, error-prone organisation, actively disliked as it is by some people, have been able to cheat extinction with such regularity? We see hints of an answer in our reading from John’s gospel, where Jesus prays for the church

I’m sure you didn’t find the passage easy to follow – I certainly didn’t. But it makes one thing very clear: As the church, we are something unique, something different from anything else that has ever been. Jesus prayerfully tells his Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world.” In other words, although we may be fallible human beings and the Church has made some dreadful mistakes, the reality is that God has actually taken us out of the world and given us to Christ. And twice more in this passage, Jesus declares explicitly of us, “They are not of the world any more than I am of this world”.

Going a stage further into Jesus’ prayer, he makes it clear over and over again that his followers have a unique relationship with God:
  • ”You gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.”
  • Again, “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.”
  • “They knew that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”
  • And last but not least. “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
 That final statement is key. In short, we are here for a purpose. We are no longer OF the world, but we have been sent back into it as an integral part of God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. And whatever ups and downs we may go through, as individuals or collectively, growth is in our DNA.

3. How can we encourage Church growth here and now
The Bible and history give us every reason to hope that the Church will continue to grow. And we’ve spent some time reflecting on why that should be the case. But we know that the church can experience setbacks. We‘ve seen it happening violently in Syria and Lebanon; it has been going on quietly in this country over several decades, to the point where some have questioned whether a large, broad institution like the Church of England can survive for much longer. Is there anything we can do to turn the tide, to restore our church to growth?

The Church of England has been developing a strategy to address precisely that question. Just a few days ago, Bishop M. launched a new diocesan initiative designed to promote church growth, to secure our future in a changing world. And a presentation by Revd P.  on that initiative was at the heart of yesterday’s discussions. There isn’t the time right now to discuss the contents in detail, and in any event they will be launched formally in a week’s time at Pentecost. But I can say this much: the new strategic vision will challenge us, it will challenge every parish in the diocese, but it will give us the resources, to do several important things:
  • To take stock of all the things we’re good at;
  • To use the resources we have more effectively;
  • To reflect on how we come across to the wider community; and
  • To develop fresh ways of reaching out to them.
The outlook is challenging but exciting. Far from threatening us with unwanted change, the new strategy offers us the tools to do what we already do more effectively, to be more truly ourselves, and to attract new blood. Growth is embedded in the church’s DNA. We are at last taking coordinated steps to reverse the decades-long decline with which we’re all too familiar. Over the coming months, we hope to see that growth potential converted into reality.

Let us pray: Father, as we prepare to embark on this new journey of discovery…

Saturday, April 18, 2015

VOTING WITH OUR FAITH (Easter 3: Luke 16.19-end)

I’ve been following the general election campaign very closely, and simultaneously I’ve been watching developments in the USA as would-be presidential candidates throw their hats into the ring.

There are many similarities politically between the UK and the USA, but these are eclipsed by enormous differences in both style and substance. And the biggest difference in my eyes is the role played by religion. In the USA, the religious right wing constitutes a solid political bloc. Christian leaders exert immense public pressure on elected officials and voters. And politicians in turn ignore religious concerns at their peril.

I think our system is safer. With rare exceptions, our politicians are very coy about their personal beliefs; they know that they have more to lose than to gain by taking any sort of theological stance; that any advantage they might gain with one segment of the population by invoking the name of God, they are likely to lose more ground with another segment. So how should Christians approach voting in an election? Does one party more fairly represent Christian ethical concerns than another?

I think that our reading from Luke’s Gospel gives us a clue. It’s a disturbing story: one that culminates in a poor man going to heaven and a rich man going to hell. And it’s been widely misunderstood. Jesus certainly wasn’t saying that the amount of money we have will determine our eternal destiny.

But what this story does do is stress that the Christian message has an ethical dimension. It doesn’t just illustrate the social values that Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount; it goes further. It makes clear that our attitude to the poor and needy, both as individuals and collectively as a society, is a central aspect of our relationship with God. 

Does that truth imply a responsibility on the part of Christians to vote for a specific political agenda? Definitely not, and we should not trust anyone who tells us the contrary. The House of Bishops of the Church of England recently issued a pastoral letter offering detailed guidance in the run-up to the election. Even they don’t presume to tell us how to vote, but they make clear what as Christians we must expect our national leaders to do.  The letter poses a number of crucial questions: not just about individual issues but about the kind of country and the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. To sum up their arguments, they quote this brief passage from the Letter to the Philippians: 

‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about hese things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

What can we glean from this guidance for our own decision in the coming election. My conclusion is that our Christian faith rules out three approaches that I’m afraid are very prevalent in our society:
  1. Our faith doesn’t allow us to be apathetic: to take the view that our vote is meaningless or that all politicians are interchangeable. And our faith certainly doesn’t require us to put ourselves above political debate.
  2. Our faith doesn’t make a virtue of voting tribally, as though we owe a particular party our loyalty through thick and thin, regardless of their policies or their historical actions.
  3. Our faith certainly doesn’t grant us the luxury of voting for the party that will do most for folks just like us. We have a duty to vote knowledgeably and for the common good.
 In short, our Christian faith cannot tell us which modern political theory or economic model will ultimately result in the fairest society. But it does demands that we vote for those we honestly think will do most for the sake of the common good. And it demands that we call our leaders to account for their performance in delivering social justice.

Let’s bow our heads, and I will say the prayer from the Bishops’ pastoral letter

Lord, we give thanks for the privileges and responsibilities of living in a democratic society. Give us wisdom to play our part at election time, that, through the exercise of each vote, your Kingdom may come closer. Protect us from the sins of despair and cynicism, guard us against the idols of false utopias and strengthen us to make politics a noble calling that serves the common good of all. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.