Friday, 6 June 2008

Belief and the mystery of humanity

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor in a public lecture in his own Cathedral in 2008 spoke about the the fashionable atheism of the late 20th and early 21st century as a reaction against attempts made by Christian apologists in the post-reformation era to demonstrate proofs of the existence of God, with certainty grounded in reason and experience. The Parisian Jesuit theologian, Joseph Moingt, interviewed several years ago, in his early nineties, attributed the rise of atheism to the authoritarian denial by the Catholic Church of the growing body of observational evidence about the universe calling into question the church's established dogma, offered by enquiring men of faith such as Galileo and Copernicus. Authority asserting itself in the face of the fact, lost its credibility in the eyes of many reasonable people – not only in the realm of science, but also in the real of social justice and equity.

From their different perspectives as a representative of the highest authority on the one hand, and as a seasoned loyal critic of the establishment on the other, come two complementary accounts of the prevalence of atheism in the popular imagination today. Both in their way concern the nature of certainty, and what happens when prevailing certainties no longer satisfy. Both observers would agree that certainty and faith are quite disparate attitudes, and that God's existence and relationship to humankind is not a matter of certainty but of faith – faith understood as loving trust, an attitude of openness, of confidence, of belief yet without excluding doubt and questions about the subject of belief.

Atheism for some is a conclusion of certainty, based on their experience, observation and reasoning. Yet, all these modes of engagement rely upon a belief which places faith in the capacity of humanity alone and unaided (except by each other) to understand the world and the meaning and purpose of life. Atheism places ultimate faith in the abilities of humankind, for better or for worse, to make the best of the life of which humans are conscious, without wanting to imagine that there is anything else to take into account when considering what existence is.

Atheism is a 'faith position' as worthy of respect, as it may be worthy of sensible criticism. It may be held and practised in a way that is morally no better nor worse than the way any religious believers behave. Both can act with nobility and justice, or in overbearing, arrogant and dogmatic ways in maintaining their positions. Both can be cruel, unjust, unscrupulous and in denial of the truth in the face of challenges. Atheists condemn religious believers for the violence of crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holy wars unwisely in the light of the French revolution's reign of terror, Stalin's purges, Mao's 'Cultural Revolution', or Pol Pot's killing fields. The fact that people are so readily reduced to violence, calling their morality into question gives rise to even more profound questions about humanity, regardless of what people believe or don't believe.

Whatever happens observably in human behaviour to illustrate equal ability of people to do either good or evil things, regardless of their beliefs poses questions about what motivates them to think and act the way they do. However simple and straightforward may be the reasons given for acting in one way or another, the question of what underlies the reasoning, what drives people to think and act in a certain way never recedes. Humans strive restless for reasons, for meaning in actions. It is a much more complex and elusive question to address. People are not reducible to simplicities without destroying their true wealth of characteristics as human beings.

Humans are complex in what makes them act and think the way they do, taken as a snapshot at any given point in time. They also change and continue to change in response to their circumstances and in response to their own reactions to and reflections upon circumstances, constantly adjusting to the dynamic flow of life. All human attempts at self observation, however disciplined they may be, fail to be totally objective, because the observer cannot be totally detached from the subject. The fact that humans are self-aware, the fact that such self awareness can be denied and ignored, both out of choice and necessity adds to the way a complete picture of being human eludes us.

The ancient fathers of the Church used the word ‘mystery’ not to denote a puzzle in search of a solution, but to indicate the inexhaustible source of meanings to be found in exploring the subject of faith and human nature. To speak of the mystery of our humanity is to rejoice in complexity and elusiveness, and to be ever open to new discovery about our selves and our consciousness.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Faith and the family - a tribute

I have searched for ways to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of God and into the mystery of who I am since my self-awakening as a child in early primary school.

My parents belonged to the Anglican Church in Wales, without being intensely devout or involved in its intimate affairs. I was not compelled to go to the Church Sunday School. In fact, I went with a few friends to a Congregationalist Sunday School in our village, which I found friendlier, although eventually I got bored with it. The lads talked about football in class, and I had this idea that we were meant to be learning about God. Football failed to win my enthusiasm then as now, half a century later. I was interested in something bigger than just a few people playing on a limited piece of grass according to rules that had no relation to the rest of life. I wanted to know more about life.

At home, from my mother, I learned awe and wonder in the face of the beauty and vastness of the world, about beginnings and ends, about finitude and infinity, time and eternity. From my father, I learned about respect, value, dignity, work and creativity, vision and practicality.

My mother spoke about God with reverence and not without anxiety. She took me to church with her, to kneel in quiet adoration at the Parish Church's early Sunday Communion service. My father took me to the sea shore, and to the engine room of the ship that ferried us on holiday. He took me on his travels, showed me what being a representative meant in his world of the mining industry.

My mother opened to me the world of singing, that spoke of life so much more than speech alone.

My father taught me how to press down the first guitar chords I ever learned, and introduced me to the joy of accompanying the music of others. My mother failed to impart to me her expertise and enthusiasm in piano playing, much to my continuing sadness. The guitar has remained my close companion ever since.

Together my parents made music, giving pleasure to others, especially to members of the extended family. Through them both I learned to value hospitality and friendship, and openness to each other in family life. Through them I discovered delight in learning and the pleasure of hard won achievement. “Work hard and you'll go far.”, my father would say to me as I grew up.

Through my parents I learned to be careful with money, but not to put my trust in material wealth. Through them I learned to treat success with enjoyment, but also with caution. Through them I learned that enquiry and questioning was as acceptable as having one's own convictions.

Their religion was grounded in the way they lived, more than in their outward forms of piety. They valued the organisation of the church, but were never in its thrall. They were surprised to become the parents of a priest, and far from certain of what this meant for them and their faith. They may never have understood quite how much my calling owed to them.

I grew up in the aftermath of the second World War, and the story of what this meant for members of a mining family. They taught me to be responsible in using freedom as the birthright of one who first saw the light of day in the same month Hitler died. Yet, they were not always sure in their understanding of what our generation did with this freedom, and made sure we knew it. It made for conflict at home, and a deep searching for truth at the core of my life.

What could I ever rely upon to see me though, to make something of life's opportunities?

Sunday, 22 July 2007

To be a Priest of God today

Let me declare my vested interests.

For nearly nearly forty years I have served as a priest at an extraordinary time when Christian belief, practice and values have declined to the point where they are no longer owned by the majority of the population. Churches in Britain are now a 'cultural' minority of similar size to Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish religious communities combined.

In the contest of ideas that has been going on throughout my lifetime if not before, all traditional religious communities, belief systems and cultures have been overwhelmed by the vigour of a materialist consumer ideology, driven by the creative enterprise of modern science and technology commanding an economy which now embraces the entire world. Much as I admire human achievement and thrill to witness many of the great changes and leaps forward in knowledge, I have always been greatly disturbed by the patchiness of moral progress, the persistence of social injustice, chronic poverty and the rule of force. All of these degrade our humanity and undermine progress. Indeed because of this great weakness, the very means of making progress from which we benefit can be turned against us with great destructive power.

Since I was a young man I've seen the danger that materialism turns into a idol to be worshipped, an idol capable of consuming its devotees. I offered myself for the priesthood at a time when contemporaries were protesting against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam war, and engaging in politics to fight against injustice, notably apartheid, at that time. I felt that the most important battle to be fought was for humanity in danger of losing its way by the abandonment of its relationship with God. Getting ordained and serving in the church was my response. Not that it ruled out doing other things, but to my mind the spiritual struggle was what most needed to be waged, and I wanted the world to know that. Have I succeeded? Have I contributed anything worthwhile to the things I care about.Indeed, is there anything I can say or do that will make a difference in times like ours?

In the minds of some, religion has been discredited by the findings of science, and the practical capabilities of technology to change the world for the better. In the minds of others, religion is no longer of interest or value in giving meaning to their world, or not even worth enquiring into, on the part of those who were raised outside the direct influence of any religious community.

There are still others to whom a religious world view remains important. Some cling to traditional religious beliefs and approaches to life, reacting against the predominant world-view, in order to protect themselves and what they hold to be sacred. Others search for meaning and value in life wherever they feel they may find it among the remains of religious and spiritual tradition which persist despite all the changes of the past half century.

There are many different potential audiences I might seek to catch the attention of. My experience doesn't allow me to ignore any of them.

It's not that I'm ambitious to gain attention. I merely wrestle with the question of what can I say that will lead everyone to stop and think about their lives – their origins and their destiny as human beings owing their existence to that which is utterly beyond comprehension. What can I say that will enable others to see questions about God in a new light, and take them seriously?

Being, as the Bishop who ordained me insisted ; 'a priest of the church of God', governs how I approach life and how it is best lived and enjoyed to the full. It means being set aside, consecrated to represent others in relation to the source of our being, not only in the performance of religious rituals, but through prayer, by being a spiritual guide and interpretor of life's journey to anyone prepared to trust me in this role. To be a trusted person, an ambassador, a resource person, on behalf of anyone who lives by faith, not merely a representative of my own religious denomination, is what this means to me..

I want to commend the practice of a life of faith to every kind of person, no matter what their present convictions may be, no matter how healthy or broken their lives might seem to be. Faith, meaning living by trust in One who is beyond comprehension as the author of our existence, yet who can be reasoned about and more importantly can be understood and related to, by the opening up of the inner self to that which is utterly beyond self. This is what I consider to be the most worthwhile and rewarding of all human activities.

Faith acknowledges that our ultimate purpose, meaning and value do not rest within ourselves or the universe we are part of, but in the One we cannot grasp, who transcends us, who embraces us, holds us in being, who invites, but does not compel our awe, wonder, adoration and worship, whom we regard as God. To be a priest means not only being a representative person in relation to God. It means being an advocate for God, a lifetime's calling to proclaim and persuade others of the value of seeking to know and worship the source of our being.

This is what it means for me to be identified openly, publicly as a preacher of the Gospel by ordination as a priest of the church of God. And I thank God for the freedom to be just this, in Britain today fully aware of how others in the priestly role who put their lives in danger by simply being openly what they are. Having said that, I have noticed during my working life how much of the good will once expressed towards clergy is ebbing away, and being replaced by contempt, mockery, hostile criticism, emphasis of the failures and weaknesses of a few rather than the strengths and successes of the majority.

But, who am I as a priest? How did I come to be possessed by such a calling?

Monday, 18 June 2007

Notes to shape a chapter on global organisation

Waiting and seeing is what makes for fecundity in a time of paradigm shift. None of our existing world pictures make sense. Nothing of what we think we are as the observers of the scene completely holds together. This a time when degradation and chaos, stand out and contradict the impressive orderliness and success of established institutions and enterprises - for example in the way huge wealth and chronic povery can live side by side in cities equally sophisticated, all over the planet.

This is a time of uncomfortable gestation of a new unifying perspective - my God is it uncomfortable. This time, it's not about individuals conceiving something great which makes sense to others because it is so original and truthful; it's about something shared at the outset - shared in the sense that many people have part of the entire picture that makes the whole, and nobody has the whole picture. So each needs to trust the other to share their parts in order to see the whole.

All are propelled by the same desire for and discipline in finding the truth, even if each is driven by different motives to find the truth. All are different, and cannot integrate what they know unless they accept each other's differences as part of the key to the whole picture. This requires so much work on the part of everyone involved, not least work on oneself - more than existing religious ways on their own can provide, unless they have their own internal more modest kind of paradigm shift, leading them to renounce their claims of exclusive superiority, and humbly to recognise themselves as 'members of one another'.

The growth rate of academic and industrial scientific research into the material universe, and every aspect of human existence, biological and social, is such that the factual knowledge base of mankind is now doubling every decade. The unprecedented expansion of scientific data is matched by growth of inventiveness in devising ways of putting it to use. Even the organisation of this vast body of information, in order to make it accessible and useful, is now a science in its own right.

One of the most revolutionary aspects of successive scientific and industrial revolutions over the past two centuries has been the scale on which human co-operation has developed. This has occurred in terms of

  1. numbers of people involved with a common purpose

  2. geographical diversity of locations from which they operate

  3. complexity of the organisations which enable collaboration to take place.

  4. degree and kind of specialisation required to participate in collaborative enterprise.

Today we can point to organisations embracing millions of people in a common purpose. Not just armies for making war or keeping peace, but millions linked by manufacturing, broadcasting, transport, or health, even millions competing energetically with other millions organised to the same end in order to put their (similar) products into the global market place.

The big collaborative project may be exploration, research, trade, crisis management, war, law making, education, or building cities, infrastructure for transport, communications or energy supply. Within two centuries, human enterprise has evolved in practice from being national to international, from intercontinental, to being global in scope, embracing all countries on earth in different ways. This development has not been uniform or universal, but the very visible changes many people have witnessed in their lifetimes, whether they live in the developed or the underdeveloped parts of the world, demonstrate the far reaching nature of change that has occurred.

With so much knowledge to be acquired and put to use, nobody can specialise in everything. Not even those that specialise in organising or regulating human enterprise, through politics, management and legislation, can control the whole without the participation of many whose expertise they do not share.

In earlier millennia, great creative projects – wonders of the world – were realised by the collaboration of a few, but relying upon the enslavement of many. This is still reflected in the economic imbalances between people within countries and across the world. The larger the scale of human projects, the more free collaboration rather than coercion proves to be effective and efficient in achieving the end result.

The emerging world of the third millennium is one of inter-dependency, rather than domination and dependency, democratic rather than autocratic rule. This does not dispense with the need for creative and enterprising initiative leadership, but authority has to be earned and asserted, rather than imposed and enforced, if an organisation is to function harmoniously. Negotiation, exchange and consent in this context are important dynamics, contrasting markedly with traditional notions of dictate, submission and obedience. We are in a period of transition in which the effectiveness of the former over the latter is being put to the test – usually by conflict and contention between ‘believers’ of one regime or the other.

Thanks to the world wide web, the entire knowledge base of humankind is becoming more accessible to people everywhere. The global reach of communications means that it is no longer necessary to concentrate research or production facilities in one place and bring all materials and ideas together there. Tasks and resources can be allowed to flourish wherever in the world these can be most efficiently deployed, since distance is no longer a great concern in communication of ideas or sharing of results. The distribution of technology and education in scientific method now provide tools and a common language for collaboration which spans the planet. Even so, there remains a profoundly geographical and cultural component to what kinds of knowledge are favoured and put to best use in different places.

Tools and common language assist the emergence of a common vision of humanity and the cosmos. The more people have access to the same information, the more dialogue between people rooted in different cultures and regions clarifies what they hold in common, and what sort of future they envisage for themselves and their descendents.

People can be fufilled and motivated to achieve a common aim for quite different reasons. Movement beyond competition between differing reasons and intentions, towards mutual value and respect, makes possible collaboration for common aims. Threats to the future of the world from total war, poverty, disease and environmental catastrophe are the shadow side of industrial and technological development. Neveretheless, they serve to concentrate the mind and the will on the important task of seeing things whole, and recognising for the sake of survival the total interdependence of all people and the environment on each other.

The troublesome factor in all this is that political leadership so often appeals to ignorance or prejudices based on the way things were in the past. Leadership in science, industry and business looks way ahead, aware that past successes are no guarantee of survival tomorrow. Whilst the Bush administration sought to hinder the development of a concensus response to the challenges of climate change by denying and challenging the evidence of global warming, the American business community heeded the warnings of science, and got on with developing the appropriate responses to eco-crisis.

Whilst global pharmaceutical companies tried to hold fast to their monopoly on anti-retroviral AIDS treatment drugs, for a host of considered reasons, some third world countries went ahead, manufactured and delivered drug supplies on their own, outside existing laws and conventions, and proved by doing this that it was possible to save lives on a credible scale. Moreover, it has not resulted in the collapse of the drugs industry or its research programme. But it did rely one someone being able to think outside of the box, beyond convention and precedent, something apparently difficult in such complex circumstances.

What is making a significant difference in this new century is not simply the fact of global communication via the internet, but the fact that it is quickly becoming accessible through visionary projects, not merely to the powerful of the middle classes, but also to the poor, to people without work or housing. Due to open internet access schemes in libraries, schools, and community centres, let alone those available at low cost commercially, it is now possible for a homeless person to have an internet address, to share their social and political concerns with others across the world, and make common cause on creative projects that do not depend upon peoples' social status or wealth. Being able to have a voice, and public recognition, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, is the beginning of empowerment and self-help. The dark side of this promise, is that the same systems can be used to organise terrorist attacks without drawing too much attention to oneself, or being identified easily by a fixed location.

The choice to use these resources of such immense potential either to do good or to do evil still rests with each individual.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Ecological imaging of church and society

I'm fascinated by the complexity and diversity of human communities and organisations, and the way they interact, varying from conflict to collaboration. In th search for relevant contemporary images, I stumbled across something obvious, relating to the 'God's garden' metaphor used by Saint Paul. It gave rise to this reflection for the Pentecost edition of the City Parish Journal. I want to elaborate this when I've done a bit more study and reflection on ecological ideas.

Although arriving just as we expect summer to begin, the celebration of Pentecost posses more of a springtime mood. The gift of the Spirit transforms the disciples into ‘apostles’, meaning ‘people sent with a purpose’. They find motivation and confidence to move out from their native Palestine, along the trade routes intersecting there, to take the message of God’s love for the world to all people. It’s a new start in the history of the world’s faith, as people in new situations and cultures discover the universal relevance of the message of Jesus, and learn to live by trust in God through him.

This outward movement never intended to impose a fixed formula, nor to promote a particular brand of religion, although sadly this was all too often what happened. The Gospel proclaimed afresh in a new situation begins a dialogue about the meaning of life, about God and being human. Around these seeds propagated, new faith communities arise with their own identity and character. If many of them have similar appearance, this is because of cultural similarities between them.

The more Christianity has spread to different parts of the world, the more we’ve seen quite different expressions of the church emerge. Within cultures like ours too, new ideas, different movements of thought have led to church diversity among people bound by common language and geographical setting. It’s all as rich as the bio-diversity found wherever you look in nature.

The authentic expression of that unity for which Christ prayed at the Last Supper is variety bound together by love expressed in unanimity of compassionate action. The ‘narrow’ way of Christ does not have the safe uniformity of a pavement, but rather the beauty of a countryside path formed by both people and creatures which use and inhabit it.

The Spirit fully revealed at Pentecost is ‘Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father’ (in the original credal text). The Father is the Author and Source of life, the Spirit conveys life - that’s how we recognise the life’s presence, the difference between animate and inanimate objects.(Having said that, even inanimate matter, rocks and minerals are capable of being changed into something else, even if it is as a result of external forces, rather than from within themselves.) No institution or human edifice, however ‘full of life’ or capable of simulating life processes, can compare with the way life is manifested naturally. The Spirit in Creation constantly points beyond, to the Creator. As J. Manley Hopkins said : “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

A Church, true to its Lord, exhibits this ‘natural’ diversity, always pointing beyond itself to the Source of Being. And, we belong to it as ‘members of one another.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Reflections on Christ's presence

Some years ago a church worker asked me. How can we become more aware of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist? At this point I started to write intending not just to provide them with some ideas to think about, but also to develop my own understanding about key issues of mission and spirituality. It's still an unfinished task ....
The Church teaches us that Christ is present, according to his own promise, when two or three are gathered together in his name (Matt 18:20). It teaches us that Jesus makes himself known to us in the action of the Eucharist, taking, breaking and sharing the bread and drinking the cup of blessing. (Luke 24:35) These things we believe, we take them on trust because they are derived from the scriptures. But, can their truth be confirmed to us through our experience? If so how?
Alleluia! He is near us. Faith believes, nor questions how.’, we sing in one popular Eucharistic hymn, and ‘Faith our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear.’, we sing in another. Such perfect unquestioning faith comes from another age, before people were trained and encouraged to question, examine and ‘own’ for themselves the truths proclaimed and shared within the community of faith. Even, so, faith, both then and now, is to be understood as a gift of the Spirit.
We’d want to say that we can open ourselves to this gift as much by enquiry as by trust and acceptance. Being able to rely upon our experience is important to us if we are going to make a commitment. If we want to grow in our relationship to God through Jesus Christ, we need to be sure of what we know of Him, not simply at the level of assenting to facts, but ‘heart and soul, and mind and strength’ (Mark 12:30)
When we gather for prayer and worship, and above all the Eucharist, we celebrate and recall all God has done for us through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. His story from two millennia ago is part of our present life, because his self-sacrifice overcomes the power of sin (humankind’s estrangement from God) and this means that the whole world is freed to be reconciled with God and this includes us. It’s as proper to say ‘Christ died for me’, as it is to say ‘Christ died for the sins of the world.’
Our prayer in the Eucharist recalls what Jesus did then, and claims it as a present reality. Pardon and reconciliation, healing and renewal are the essential dynamics of the process going on through the rites and ceremonies of worship. This is something God does with us through Christ’s presence, not something we do to ourselves or is done between us. Our conscious and willing participation in prayer opens us and makes us receptive to God’s action.
The miracle at Cana in Galilee, (John 2:1-11) about the transformation of water into wine, tells of the rescue of a wedding celebration from embarrassment and failure when the wine runs out. Jesus is present at the feast, but the only part he plays is in the background.
People on the receiving end are not even aware of the nature of the miracle, only the trusting obedient servants whose task is to provide for the guests know what's going on. Jesus does not advertise either his presence or his actions. To those who are aware of him, those who have begun a relationship with him, this event is a sign of divine splendour, hidden in the ordinary realities of an important social event. It ends up going wonderfully well, despite the setbacks.
To the eyes of faith, no matter how many or varied ways Jesus may be described, he is, most significantly, the human face of God. Some of his words and actions drew him to public attention and attracted people to him, although not all of his words and actions were obvious. The Gospels note his withdrawal from the public eye several times. His ministry continued quietly in situations where he was noticed by few if any. His parting promise was to be 'with us always, to the end of time'. Eyes of faith need to be trained to perceive how and where his quiet presence is making that vital difference, through those who know who He is, hear and obey his Word.
Mindfulness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of life is a choice that has to be deliberately made and held on to, in all circumstances. There are times when a sense of his presence is very intense, and times when the sense is so diminished that an act of will is needed to trust, whether we feel it's doing us good or not. Ultimately this deliberate commitment to 'seek his face' changes the way we look at everyone and everything. It changes the way we act, and our understanding of whether our actions are for better or for worse.
At the core of the Christian's baptismal commitment is a life of prayer which is centred on gathering with others for the Eucharist. The elaborate and poetic Eastern and Oriental liturgies, require several hours of singing, readings and ceremonies to take worshippers to the heart of the event, where the words of and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper are recalled and the command to do this in remembrance of him are obeyed. These ancient and traditional forms of worship originated in times and places governed by the rhythm of agrarian life. Their worship culture makes space for prayer of adoration and contemplation while the ritual action proceeds, and easily interacts with the environment of home and work.
Liturgies of the Western church possess a similar basic structure but are much simpler, using silence to allow space for personal prayer. They have developed to accommodate the spiritual needs of people in timetabled, structured working environments and domestic situations. Underlying this difference is the spiritual insight of St Benedict and others, summed up in the phrase 'laborare est orare'. Everyday living, away from the sanctuary of God provides opportunities to offer God as an act of worship everything that's done to the best of our ability. Such a noble intention doesn't satisfy everyone's spiritual hunger, however.
Preparation to celebrate the Eucharist with personal prayer and penitence takes an important role, also acts of thanksgiving and devotion following Communion, whether on the part of individuals or groups. Over half a millennium, these have evolved into extensions of the central action of the Eucharist itself, sometimes following on immediately, sometimes detached.
The recitation of the Rosary is a means to recall prayerfully key events in the life Jesus and his mother, as much as an active form of repetitive oral prayer. It is a means of living contemplatively with the Word of God in Holy Scripture.
Prayer of adoration, made in a place where the consecrated elements of the Eucharist are kept or displayed, is another means of creating an open space in which the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, expressed in his gift of the sacrament of Holy Communion, can be savoured and contemplated. Portions of the sacrament are primarily retained to be taken from the worshipping assembly to those who are sick or detained from attendance.
The words of consecration, the invocation of the Spirit upon the gifts offered, once spoken, cannot be unspoken. These gifts have only one proper function, to offer healing, reconciliation, pardon and strength to those unable to receive directly during the liturgical action. Their existence, once the service is ended remains a sign of the risen Christ's presence with and for His people, and it is as such that they have become a focal point for prayer of adoration, a space in which worshippers can savour with relish the eucharistic action and reception of Communion, and all this means for them.
There is no place in this life where Christ is not present, but there are places and occasions in which our attention can focus purposefully on God's self giving in Word and Sacrament. The prayers, rites and ceremonies with which these are clothed are inevitably culturally determined, and capable of getting in the way of the essential act of prayer, by becoming a performance which is an end in itself. This frustration was at least in part what led sixteenth century reformers not only to criticise but advocate the abandonment of customary practice.
The spiritual need which these activities addressed remained nevertheless, the hunger for continuing communion with the unseen presence of Christ still has to be met, in ways that nurture people and enable them to worship in Spirit and in truth, in the eucharistic liturgical assembly and away from it.
How can Church ministers and people remain fully awakened to the presence of Christ in the realities of contemporary life, when in so many ways its pressures rob them of the space and opportunities in which to do this naturally as part of their everyday rhythm? This question lies at the heart of any consideration of the life of prayer in our time.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

About the authority of scripture

Over and above the historical information that can be gleaned from its texts, scripture provides the Christian community’s agreed sources of the life and teaching of Jesus. The authority of scripture lies in

  • The universal relevance of its myth, poetry and storytelling to different human experiences
  • The power of its images and symbols to stimulate imagination and argument creatively again and again in different contexts.
  • The freedom and responsibility of its challenge to live consciously in relation to God and others.

If believers declare scripture to be the revealed Word of God, they must reckon with the hidden mystery of its author, as they seek to detect within scripture the ultimate divine plan for humankind Scripture itself remains us of the need for caution and respect – ‘Who can know the mind of God?’ – Isaiah – it is necessary always to beware of reading into texts meanings that are inconsistent with its overall thrust and direction.

What we receive from scripture is indications of what is of ultimate value. Scripture also describes humankind’s diverse responses to what is revealed in the encounter with the divine. The response of the reader and interpreter is also vital in realising its meaning.

We read scripture, scripture reads us. Its divine truth is the fruit of a dialogue which can be acted upon faithfully, consistently. Merely to comply to the injunctions injunctions of scripture without due consideration to their meaning and purpose undermines the nature of its authority, and the ability of scripture to educate and nurture its readers in greater maturity.

Scriptural laws and prescriptions served either to guarantee social cohesion and security in a given context, or to provide a basis for individuals and community to engage in the rituals of prayer and worship. Their purpose was to protect people and enable them to live and grow healthily in their setting by full participation in myth, ritual and story, as a means to derive deeper meaning and purpose in life.

Within the body of scripture a wide variety of social and religious contexts is described . The unifying factor is that all concern human relationship to God thoughout the course of history.

The higher purpose and value of the laws and prescriptions of scripture is more important than their application in context. Both Jesus and the prophets exposed the hypocrisy of people’s (creative) attempts at minimal compliance with laws without reference to higher values – justice, truth, mercy, compassion – giving the appearance of doing the right thing, whilst actually doing little or nothing.

Laws relate to the circumstances of their enactment. They point to governing higher truths. Laws have had to evolve, adapt, or disappear (because they become irrelevant to changing circumstances) in every culture. They are no more than practical applications of transcending values.

Declarations of the immutability of laws and precepts in scripture are not universal injunctions, but applicable to the circumstances the particular code deals with. We have the responsibility to decide whether or not to extend that applicability, but cannot do so without reference to intention.

Treating the scriptures as a universal homogenous body of truth and legislation, as fundamentalists seem keen to do, is a choice taken. The church catholic has not gone so far as to prescribe in detail which of many possible ways of regarding scripture is definitive, even though it has in many instances derived definitive teachings from scripture, thus restricting dialogue and enquiry and to enforce compliance, in the name of certainty and security of faith. This goes against mystery, myth, poetry and story - handmaids of the freedom of Spirit.