Among the many useless and largely since forgotten pieces of information which I had to ‘mug up’ before taking my 11 plus exam (many years ago) were ‘collective nouns’. What do you call a group of bishops? Or jellyfish? Or asteroids? I was reminded of this as I prepared to incorporate the short reflection by Canon Jack McDonald into this week’s blog. Jack is one of our two Canons Theologian, and last week we had an offering from Canon Robin Gill, our other Canon Theologian. What I wondered briefly, is the collective noun for Canons Theologian? (Answers on a metaphorical postcard please!) Indeed as a ‘bonus’ we also include this week a response by Robin to Jack’s reflection.
As well as the contributions by Jack and Robin there is a recent prayer offered by Canon Sam Wells of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a poem ‘The Great Pause’ written by my husband, Alan Amos, a few weeks ago – which I find particularly powerful – and a biblical reflection on the lectionary Gospel with the coming feast of the Holy Trinity in mind, which draws on material I wrote earlier this week for Roots on the Web. We close by including some comments written by Bishop Tom Wright about 20 years ago on what it means to speak of God as Trinity. This blog began of course, about 18 months ago initially seeking to offer a ‘European’ perspective on the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, and over the coming few weeks it will probably move back towards holding this as its main focus. Realistically, of course, since the virus and its aftermath will be with us for a long while yet, ‘incarnational’ reflection on scripture is likely to continue to include discussion of the impact of the current ‘difficult days’ on individuals and communities. When the blog was initially established I assiduously sought to find other people to write for it as much as possible – ‘success’ in my book was marked by my writing as little as possible for it! I would like to get back towards that model – so this is an invitation to readers, both from the Diocese in Europe and elsewhere, laity and clergy, to offer to take responsibility for the ‘main’ item (the lectionary reflection) in the blog during one of the weeks from the beginning of July onwards. Please do contact me if you are willing to do this.
Director of Lay Discipleship
Preparing a church for ‘socially distanced’ worship for Pentecost, monastery chapel of Mont Voirons, Haute-Savoie.
Prayer for Pentecost
God of rushing wind and tongues of fire,
in your Holy Spirit you turn the world upside-down.
By the power of your Holy Spirit,
set our hearts on fire with joy and wonder.
Transform the sadness of many and the bewilderment of most and make this virus season a time of renewal,
rediscovery, solidarity and discovery.
Show us your son’s face
in the face of the stranger, the hungry, and the lost,
that your church on its birthday
may resemble its crucified and risen Lord.
In whose name we pray. Amen.
(Canon Sam Wells)
The Great Pause
‘The Great Pause’ is a name which, since March, has been given by many to the time we are currently living through. It has generated creativity, both visual and written. I particularly appreciate https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijRxAw_5Kdk Alan’s poem starts from this term, and draws out some interesting observations. I especially appreciate the link he makes to the announcement of ‘silence in heaven’ (Revelation 8.1). Given the approach of Trinity Sunday it is worth observing that though it does not use later trinitarian terminology, the Book of Revelation offers one of the most trinitarian visions in the entire New Testament, especially as it speaks of the God who ‘was and is, and is to come’ (Revelation 1.8). Reflecting on this reminded me of the prayer ‘Lord of Time’ which I originally included in the blog on Remembrance Sunday 2019, which also offers a perspective on Trinity and time. You may want to look through ‘back issues’ of the blog to find the prayer.
‘The Great Pause’ –
now dignifies our virus time;
giving us pause for thought…
reminding us perhaps
how western Christians
have let slip
any idea of pausing;
sabbath, Lord’s day
the confines of
a shopping trolley.
In the East they do better
with their fasts and observances
while Ramadan and Yom Kippur
remind us that for the faithful
life is subject to divine interruptions.
And so here we are with this disruption
ephemeral it may be
within the greater shape of things
and yet it calls a halt
on the way to greater consumption
and all-encompassing activity,
posing the question ‘for why’, ‘for what?’
probing the measure of our existence.
‘And there was silence in heaven
for half of an hour’
why was this required?
because what comes next
lies beyond a veil
behind which all creation
yearns and strains;
none can see a future
yet to be disclosed;
hellish or heavenly
that is the question;
and we, poor scraps of
shape in our breathing
in our being
something of the answer
as we expend our thirty minutes
of virus time.
(Canon Alan Amos)
A ‘mural’ of the Zoom chapter meeting during which Jack’s and Robin’s papers were originally presented.
Tolstoy and fraternité – lessons for Covid-19
One of my promises to myself during the pandemic lockdown was to re-read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ve read it before many moons ago, egged on my my brainbox older brother Simon, while I was supposed to be preparing for my O levels. As a boy, I instinctively felt drawn to Andrei Bolkonsky, the dashing, athletic, clever but tortured hero of the book, but felt crawling dislike for Pierre Bezukhov, its idle, unstable, dissolute and tortured antihero. I recall being infuriated that Bolkonsky dies, whereas Bezukhov not only survives but gets to marry Boklonsky’s pretty, charming, bubbly but tortured fiancée Natasha Rostova. Age has taught me that maybe Tolstoy was encouraging us to see that at some times in our lives we need to be a Bolkonsky and at others a Bezukhov, and maybe at others a Rostova too. If you can’t stomach the full book, which is both massive and a little indigestible, try Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 unsurpassed seven-hour epic film version. Failing that, Tom Harper’s 2016 BBC series is pretty good, although not much shorter than Bondarchuk.
I read an article by Jean-Michel Dauriac recently, ‘L’exigence de fraternité chez Léon Tolstoï’, which introduced me more than reading War and Peace did to the texture of Tolstoy’s religious beliefs. Much of his literary output was devoted to faith, not just his great novel Resurrection, but philosophical works like A Confession and The Kingdom of God is Within You. Rebellion against injustice, stupidity and oppression is characteristic of Tolstoy, but this revolt is always placed inside a clear account of what fraternity is for men and women. Fraternity involves non-resistance to evil, a Christian anarchism and a dream of social and political utopia. Fraternity goes way beyond the insincere category of fraternité in the French Revolution, which even debated whether fraternité (Robespierre) or propriété (Lafayette) was the more appropriate term. For Tolstoy, fraternité must show a limitless solidarity which sees all men and women as brothers and sisters. A simple example from St Paul is the question of table fellowship in Galatians 2.11f: if people see themselves as followers of the Messiah Jesus, they have no option other than to subordinate their cultural and religious scruples about diet to the over-riding command to share open table fellowship, both eucharistic and conventional, with their brothers and sisters.
It is this solidarity-fraternity in Paul, reflected in Tolstoy, which motivated my reply to my dear fellow canon theologian Robin Gill at the Zoom diocesan chapter on 28 May. Robin, in his typical forensic and gracious way, outlined a theory of virtuous living by the faithful elderly in which they might voluntarily choose to emulate Simeon and Anna in Luke 2 by foregoing the right to receive medical treatment in order to benefit someone of less venerable years. My reply to this noble altruism is to say with Tolstoy: thanks but no thanks! Your gesture is selfless and noble, but the Christian response must be one of fraternity, in which we cannot allow you to make this sacrifice and in which we all struggle together to ensure that none is left behind.
How we share the limited medical resources available to make this fraternity possible is a difficult political question, but the Christian championing of fraternity must be dogged and defiant. At a time of pandemic when we cannot share table fellowship with groups vulnerable to Covid-19 like the elderly, we nonetheless share a real virtual table fellowship by fighting their corner as their sisters and brothers – as indeed Robin himself suggests.
May God bless and protect us all at this difficult time.
(Canon Jack McDonald)
Response to the Responder
I have much enjoyed this response by Jack. He may well be right that I have underestimated ‘fraternity’ (or sobornost in Russian). However, tellingly, while he was busy reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I was reading Fydor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Ever more theologically nuanced than Tolstoy, Dostoevsky concludes that each of the characters in his novel has real moral worth and a considerable amount of selfishness. Even when we attempt to be altruistic, we may well fall into the twin traps of pride and selfishness. I must include myself in that.
Nevertheless, in a spirit of friendly blog-banter, I am not fully persuaded by Jack’s critique, since I do not believe that specifically in the context of triage there can possibly be a ‘right to receive medical treatment’ (as he claims). The point about triage is that, when deployed ethically, it should only be used in a crisis situation when the demand for a life-saving intervention exceeds supply. This lack of a suitable intervention might result from human folly (as in war), from science still being developed (as in the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine), from political failure (as in not stocking up on PPEs) or from a lack of highly specialized medical staff (as in ICUs). We simply cannot all have ‘rights’ to things that are scarce.
So, what I am suggesting is that elderly people such as myself might think twice before demanding scarce treatment for themselves and thereby depriving younger people of that treatment. In a genuine triage situation (and only in a triage situation) some people (and, in the case of heart transplants, most people) will sadly be deprived of life-saving treatment. I would feel very selfish indeed for demanding that treatment for myself.
But, of course, following Dostoevsky’s shrewd observations, I may be fooling myself.(Canon Robin Gill)
A reflection on Matthew 28.16-20: I am with you…
Years ago I remember listening to the great American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann preach at the theological college where I was on the staff. It was, as you might expect, brilliant, although in all honesty I cannot remember most of what he said that evening. But what I do recall was Professor Brueggemann saying, with a ‘wicked’ smile on his face, – ‘The Bible is subversive’. He was right: one of the glories – and challenges – of our scripture is the way that from time to time the biblical writers throw a spanner in the works, confounding our perceptions of what is right and proper.
For many of us the Gospel of Matthew is often seen as the ‘proper’ Gospel, concerned with such niceties as proper respect being paid to the apostles, and for the ordered life of the Church. So I find it a joy when we discover that there are times when Matthew can be as ‘subversive’ as the other Gospel writers in the challenges that he offers us. It is as though Matthew pricks some of the balloons that he himself has inflated! One good example of this is when Matthew ‘subverts’ the ordered and structured nature of the genealogy with which his Gospel opens by mentioning five rather scandalous women within it to break the pattern. Then immediately after the genealogy Matthew introduces Mary’s ‘scandalous’ pregnancy with Jesus – who will be ‘Emmanuel’. And Matthew’s stresses the importance of this by then explaining that the title ‘Emmanuel’ means ‘God with us’. ‘God with us’ is of course the frame within which the whole Gospel of Matthew is structured. There is of course a clear ‘echo’ of the phrase in Jesus’ final words to his disciples which form part of our Gospel reading this coming Trinity Sunday. ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20) Enclosed within this beginning and end in the life and ministry of Jesus Matthew is sharing with us just what it means to speak of ‘God with us’. That theme can perhaps speak to many of us in new ways in the current ‘difficult days’ in which loneliness and ‘self isolation’ are the experience of quite a number of people.
But it is also fascinating to discover some of the ‘trails’ that Matthew takes us on in his exploration. It involves quite a lot of mountain climbing: it doesn’t take much to realise that Matthew is rather fond of mountains – indeed of course here in Matthew 28 the climactic end to the Gospel takes place on a mountain-top. As someone who spends time living in the Haute-Savoie region of France I resonate with Matthew’s love of mountains. There’s the mount of temptation, Sermon on the Mount, mountain of healing and feeding (Matthew 15.29), transfiguration, Mount of Olives – the eschatological mountain, and finally here at the conclusion of the Gospel the mountain where Jesus commissions his disciples for mission. The mountains seem to ‘yodel’ their messages across the valleys between them. Just one example: there are some key words and ideas, ‘all’, ‘authority’, ‘worship’ which link this mountain (Matthew 28) with the mountain of temptation (Matthew 4). Briefly, it seems to suggest that even the resurrected Christ is not seeking to reign ‘from above’ – for that was the temptation which he dismissed all those chapters before. Rather he, and his disciples that he sends out on mission, are to be ‘among’ and ‘with’ those to whom they are sent. And the final ‘twist’ in Matthew’s subversive tale – where is it that we will see Jesus ‘with’ humanity. Matthew 25.31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, offers the unexpected and ‘scandalous’ (?) answer. ‘“Lord when was it that we saw you hungry… or thirsty… or a stranger… or naked… or in prison?” “Just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me”.’
Loving Father in heaven
Emmanuel, God with us,
Of your goodness
you have given us yourself,
The richest gift of all.
You invite us to seek for you,
In the face of your Son,
Where you have imprinted your likeness,
Made glorious with the wounds
Of suffering and passion.
Grant us a spirit of generosity,
So that we may be enabled also to discern your features
In the changing kaleidoscope of this world’s need.
What does it mean to celebrate God as Trinity? The following comments by Tom Wright originally published about 20 years ago offer a fascinating – and subversive? – insight into what it means to speak of God as Trinity, which perhaps speaks particularly acutely into the present time. It is also helpful to draw attention to Bishop Tom’s short book ‘God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath’, published just over a week ago.
In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word ‘god’ might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted…. the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe’ … The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.(Tom Wright, ‘For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church’)