Month: January 2021

Grace-filled Churches

 A reflection for Christian Unity Week 2021                  

It’s funny how you end up in a particular church or denomination.
When I was a boy the Catholic priest visited my grandfather who was ill, to give him communion.  I had hoped to stay with him but the priest said to grandad –  “He’s not a Catholic!” and ordered me out of the house. I had been a regular at the Methodist Sunday School, but just before the annual Anniversary service, the teacher took away my part in it and gave it to someone else.  I voted with my feet.  Then I joined the Scouts and as they met in the local Church of England Church, I became an Anglican. I have felt ‘at home’ in the Anglican Church most of the time since.

Religious experience of a negative kind can turn people away from Church very easily.  It can also colour your judgement about other Churches.  It took me quite a few years to think kindly of the Roman Catholic Church after my encounter with my grandad’s priest. I’m sure they will be relieved to hear this but I forgave the Methodists rather sooner!

It sometimes feels like attempts at Christian Unity fall foul because every church believes that it is right and that it alone has the truth. 
There was once a Church in a town which was signposted with The Church of God. All went well for a while but eventually there was a bit of a fallng out. A group of the members broke away and set up a rival church. The sign outside proclaimed: The TRUE Church of God. Again things flourished for a while but then there was another argument and some of the members of that church left. They bought a building a bit further down the road and soon they opened their doors. This time, the sign read: The ONLY True Church of God.

It sometimes feels like attempts at Christian Unity fall foul because every church believes that it is right and that it alone has the truth.  How false is that!
The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, in his book, The Dignity of Difference, wrote this — Only in heaven is there Truth. On earth there are truths. God is the only real truth and all over the globe people are seeking to answer that profound question of Pilate to Jesus at his trial – what is truth?

Truth on earth, Rabbi Sacks says, is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. What propositions conflict is not necessarily because one is true and the other false. Rabbi Sacks. He suggests that the difference is because we are coming at something from different angles but both are only part of the truth

I believe that we can only look to God for the real answer and anyone who claims to hold THE truth exclusive of others, is bound to be mistaken.  We can only learn truth if we listen to others and share our insights with each other and, of course, most important of all, listen to God in prayer.

Because of this everyone has something to contribute to the knowledge and experience of God. No one’s perception is greater than any one else’s and the real wisdom isn’t that someone knows something absolute which cannot be disputed. The really wise person, Rabbi Sacks maintains, is one who knows all have some share in the truth and is willing to learn from them, for no one knows all the truth but each of us know something of it and it is in sharing these insights that our life and our faith are enriched and our knowledge increased.

There is much in Judaism I admire and there is much in Islam that I respect.  My Hindu hairdresser in the North taught me a lot about prayer in the family.  I love the joyful and convincing hymn-singing and biblical insights of the Methodists.  I like the ritual and devotion of the Roman Catholic Church.  I love the ceremonies of High Anglicanism; the intellectual honesty of Anglican theology; the exuberant praise worship of our evangelical brethren. 
I draw strength from Celtic insights into the sacredness of places and people; I enjoy the simple rhythm of Taizé; I find enrichment in ancient prayer forms like the Labyrinth; I adore the Orthodox Liturgy. 

I am reduced to silence by the witness of monastic places like Bec where Sister Iréné painted an Icon which breathes prayer into my home; I like the simplicity of worship in a quiet rural church and my heart soars during Anglican Cathedral Evensong and much, much more.

I find talking with Christians of other denominations fascinating.  There is so much to learn.  Within the church community I am part of, St Mary-at-Latton. I rejoice at the many different insights people bring to worship.  There is so much to share.

And God is in all that and in much, much more.  He is bigger than all our concepts of Him or He would not be God. 

Wide Vision goes with deep exploration. God is always teaching us something new. 

Evelyn Underhill (mystic and spiritual guide) spoke of all our differing expressions of faith as ‘Chapels in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit’. 
I love that.

We are all part of the Universal Church – and that’s what being Catholic means.  What gives any church real authenticity is if, in the words of Michael Ramsey, it is filled with the grace-giving presence of Jesus Christ.  Grace-filled churches have no need of labels.  They simply reflect our Lord Jesus Christ and so try to live close to God who is the giver of ALL Grace and Truth. 

[Mr G]

On Epiphany Watch

From Pagli, our Sponsor.

You may have been wondering where I have been lately. I haven’t been in touch since I gave advice about Christmas presents you could have got for the cat-lover in your life.

Since then, of course, there’s has been a certain amount of winter hibernation though we cats prefer to call it horizontal theology. In my case, as you see above, it is often more circular theology.

It is now much too cold to visit night clubs so contemplation is much the best way to pass the time. This is all well and good as long as strict instructions are left to one’s servants. Meal times must be observed at all times – that is, breakfast, mid-morning snack, late lunch, early tea, high tea, dinner and supper. There is no need to call us. We have excellent winter hearing.

As I say, in between, I practice Circular theology. You will see from the photograph above what this entails. It requires some slight adjustment in front of the Crib. There are offcially 3 Kings and, by then, no sheep though the farmers are forgetful souls. I was able to move the wayward sheep who promptly fell asleep until Spring. Meanwhile, I was on Epiphany Watch or guard. It may look as if I am sleeping but nothing could be further from the truth. I shall be vigilant at my post (when not eating or sleeping elsewhere) until the official end of the Christmas season on Candlemass which is, as you know, February 2nd.
After which, of course, we shall begin our preparations for Lent but I will speak to you about this nearer the time.

You may notice in the photograph that the Elephant (the artist formally known as Camel) has decided to overwinter chez nous.

Enjoy your winter, stay safe and stay in.


They Fled by Night

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Cartmel Priory | They Fled by Night – Josefina de Vasconcellos
photo – Mr G.

The account of the birth and infancy of Jesus have many highlights which build up the Christmas Story. First, the Annunciation to Mary and later, to Joseph, the visit of the Shepherds and then of the Magi, known more popularly as the 3 Kings. The Christmas season ends with the blessing of Jesus by Simeon and Anna in the Temple. The Christmas story is timeless and forever fresh.

In the midst of the joy and expectant promise that a (the) Saviour has been born for us, there is, however, one moment of darkness and deep sadness. We remember it as the killing of the Holy Innocents by Herod who felt threatened by the prospect of a King born into Judaism or, as the Magi put it, the child who has been born king of the Jews? They went on to tell King Herod, for we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage. These words put fear into Herod and he felt a threat to his own reign.
Threatened people behave irrationally and often cruelly and this was true of Herod. The result was the massacre of the innocent children 2 years of age or under in and around Bethlehem.
We remember this dreadful thing in our prayers and liturgy on December 28th.

But we almost lose sight of something which the New Testament covers in 3 scant verses. In Matthew’s Gospel (2: 13-15) we read that, after the Magi returned home, by another way, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to warn him. Herod was searching for Jesus to destroy him and then instructed Joseph, Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.  The Holy Family were to stay there until they are told it is safe to return home. So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus literally fled from danger – the tyranny of one man who, without the angel’s message could have resulted in the death of God’s plan to save the World through Jesus. Jesus thus began his early life as a Refugee and that has immense significance today for us.

Before the Coronavirus took hold of our world, the plight of the refugee was perhaps the most heartbreaking and divisive thing which the human race and its leaders had to face. Through no fault of their own countless numbers of refugees have been displaced from their homes and have desperately wandered around the Earth looking for safety, shelter love and care. In the process of this they faced immense danger,and used by unscrupulous people who used their plight for their own ends. If the history of this time ever comes to be written, the way refugees have been treated will be to humanity’s shame and condemnation. Even now, as I write this, our own Government is failing people both from the present time and the 1960’s and this is repeated globally. Yet very few of us who live in our country today can claim that our roots are anything but as immigrants. Even the nearest we come to native is Celt, Irish, Scots and Romano-British who began their long journey as part of Indo-European migration from the East in the dim and distant past.

From a religious point of view, of course, we need to remember what the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
   the world, and those who live in it;

We are merely stewards of the earth but with a big responsibility. We have a real care and sense of justice, both from the well-being of humanity but equally, for the care and stewardship of the animals, fish and birds; who tenant the earth. Also, of course for Nature, climate and the planet itself.
We have been given great and wonderful gifts but they are not given for us to exploit . Yet, few Governments take their responsibilities seriously. Self-centred interest always seems to take precedence. Very few who supposedly serve their country or the earth are capabable of seeing and responding to a bigger picture, a greater responsibility. They’re just not up to the job with which we entrust them.

It is good, therefore, that Jesus understood and experienced the plight of the poor and the life of a refugee.

Of course, as quite often, whenever something unpalatable is shown to us, we anesthetize it. It came as no surprise, therefore, that this Christmas I received a card entitled, Rest on the flight into Egypt. It is by the Dutch/Flemish painter Gerard David and it was painted about 1510. It is a very beautiful card of a painting which shows Mary and Jesus resting while Joseph is knocking walnuts off a tree with a stick. The contented donkey is enjoying a little feed! The baby, dandled on his mother’s knee, wearing an androgynous dress, is cheerfully picking at a bunch of grapes. Our Lady is in a sumptuous two tone blue dress with a red lining. It is all beautifully arranged with not a fold or a hair is out of place! The surrounding countryside is wonderfully manicured. And, lovely though it is, it is completely false.

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Rest on the Flight into Egypt | Gerard David

There are plenty of others similar to it. But the sculpture which heads this article is very different. It was sculpted by Josefina de Vasconcellos and it is called They Fled by Night. It is of the Holy Family, also resting on their journey but what a contrast!

Mary and Joseph are totally exhausted both from the journey and from what they are fleeing from. Theirs is a journey away from death. Mary is slumped against Joseph, who worn out himself is holding her head, gently and supportively. Mary is stretched out asleep. Jesus, on the other hand, has woken up and is leaping forward. (Josefina often shows Jesus full of life and, as it were, raring to go! Her statue of mother and child in Blackburn Cathedral captures the same vibrancy).

There is a sense that whilst behind them there is darkness and fear and uncertainty, in front of them is a new life and a new way of being. Josefina has captured not just the refugees running from danger but rather towards a hope, a new joy and an understanding of what it means to live within the love of God.

Josefina carved the statue for exhibiting at St. Martin-in-the-Field in London. It was on display initially during World Refugee Year in 1959-60, as part of developing awareness and support of refugees across the globe. At the suggestion of Josefina it was later presented to Cartmel Priory. It can be found to the left of the entrance, made of resin bronze. It is utterly breathtaking and conveys an immediate message of the anxiety and hazards of the plight of the refugee. Something that Jesus understood more than most and for whom they have a special place in God’s heart.

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Cartmel Priory | They Fled by Night – Josefina de Vasconcellos
photo – Mr G.


A Theological Reflection …… sort of!

How would the Church of England deal with the statement that “the cat sat on the mat” if it appeared in the Bible?

The liberal theologians would point out that such a passage did not of course mean that the cat literally sat on the mat. Also, cat and mat had different meanings in those days from today, and anyway, the text should be interpreted according to the customs and practices of the period.

This would lead to an immediate backlash from the Evangelicals. They would make it an essential condition of faith that a real physical, living cat, being a domestic pet of the species Domesticus, and having a whiskered head, a furry body, four legs and a tail, did physically place its whole body on a floor covering, designed for that purpose, and which is on the floor but not of the floor. The expression “on the floor but not of the floor” would be explained in a leaflet.

Meanwhile, the Catholics would have developed the Feast of the Sedentation of the Blessed Cat. This would teach that the cat was white, and majestically reclined on a mat of gold thread before its assumption to the Great Cat Basket of Heaven. This is commemorated by singing the “Magnifi-cat” and “Felix namque”, lighting three candles, and ringing a bell five times.

This would cause a schism with the Orthodox Church which believes tradition requires Holy Cats Days (as it is colloquially known), to be marked by lighting SIX candles and ringing the bell FOUR times. This would partly be resolved by the Cuckoo Land Declaration recognising the traditional validity of each.

Eventually the House of Bishops would issue a statement on the Doctrine of the Feline Sedentation. It would explain, traditionally the text describes a domestic feline quadruped superjacent to an unattached covering on a fundamental surface. For determining its salvific and eschatological significations, we follow the heuristic analytical principles adopted in dealing with the Canine Fenestration Question (How much is that doggie in the window?) and the Affirmative Musaceous Paradox (Yes, we have no bananas). And so on, for another 210 pages.

The General Synod would then commend this report as helpful resource material for clergy to explain to the man in the pew the difficult doctrine of the cat sat on the mat.

– Author unknown

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