‘Where two or three are gathered in my name’ (Matthew 18.20)

This week’s blog offers some thoughts on the lectionary Gospel, Matthew 18.15-20 and Epistle, Romans 13.8-14.

Clare Amos
Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

vestibule-mosaic-in-hagia-sophia-1024x683

Vestibule mosaic, Hagia Sophia: The Emperor Justinian presents the ‘church’
to Mary, the Mother of God.

This week’s Gospel reading, Matthew 18.15-20, in which Matthew explores how to deal with conflict in the life of the church, has significance for me in terms of my personal history in relation to the Diocese in Europe. I moved to Geneva at the beginning of September 2011 to work at the World Council of Churches, and it was a sermon on this biblical text that I heard preached during my first Sunday in the city when I attended Sunday worship at Holy Trinity, Geneva. The choice of that text was following the provision of the Common Worship lectionary, which repeats itself every three years.

The sermon was preached by the then chaplain and it was a good sermon in which he sought to mine the Gospel text for its wisdom on the topic of conflict in church life. In my innocence as a ‘newbie’ I didn’t realise that there was in fact quite a lot of conflict going on at that point in time in Holy Trinity itself and that the sermon was intended to speak into that situation. Happily, the church has moved on since those days, and that in itself has been a learning experience.

Matthew’s Gospel is of course the one among the four that gives most attention to the internal life of the institutional church. Indeed the very word for church – ‘ekklesia’ in Greek – does not appear in any of the other three Gospels. It comes however four times in Matthew, three of those instances being here in chapter 18. The lectionary Gospel for both this week and next week draws on this chapter in which aspects of internal church life and discipline are explored.

One of the interesting features of the Gospel of Matthew is its structure. Embedded within its 28 chapters are five significant ‘teaching speeches’ of Jesus. The number five is unlikely to be accidental – it probably deliberately echoes the five-fold structure of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The five teaching moments are the Sermon on the Mount (5-7); the mission discourse (10); the chapter of parables (13); this chapter reflecting on the internal life of the church (18); and finally Jesus’ teaching about the future (23-25). I intend to explore more about this structure next week, but for the moment what I want to highlight is that Matthew’s interest in church life does seem to be part of his wider interest in structure and order.

Where ‘the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3.17) may well epitomise our vision of the ‘ideal’ for the disciples of Jesus, but fairly quickly during the apostolic age it was discovered that to build a healthy Christian community – a ‘church’ – required give and take, constructive agreement and concessions – even, if you want to use the word, ‘laws’. In a sense this is the fundamental story of Christian history over the last 2000 years – how to marry up the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God with the need to create some sort of structure that could hold together the followers of Jesus in a way that enabled them to witness to their role as ‘the Body of Christ’. One of the principles to enable this, which Paul sets out in this week’s lectionary Epistle, Romans 13.8-14, where he clearly seems to be drawing on the words of Jesus himself, is for all to be bound by the law of love: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (compare Matthew 22.34-40)

Different Christian traditions have, over the centuries, sought to offer different answers to this conundrum, of holding together the freedom of individual faith alongside the compromises that Christian community requires. I would suggest that it is characteristic of the Anglican tradition to seek to honour and hold together both ‘freedom’ and ‘structure’. It is actually quite a difficult balancing act to get right, and I suspect that we Anglicans have often failed – but I still believe that there is a glory in accepting the challenge of this via media.

There is of course one additional feature that is seen as characteristic of Anglicanism, or at least of the Church of England. That is the relationship between church and state. Here, of course, we in the Diocese in Europe may have a different perception to those parts of the Church of England on ‘the offshore island’. But even so in many of the countries of Europe we are used to one or other church having a particular relationship with the state in which we live. It adds another dimension to those questions of structure and order.

Which makes it in fact interesting and important to comment on what is not selected as the lectionary Epistle for this Sunday. Over the last couple of months we have been steadily making our way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I initially assumed that since we reached the end of chapter 12 last week, the beginning of chapter 13 would be the lectionary Epistle for 6 September. Not so. For the choice of the compilers is to omit the start of chapter 13 and to begin with verse 8. The first seven verses of the chapter, which are omitted, focus on the relationship between Christians and the political state in which they live, in Paul’s case, of course, the Roman Empire. The chapter begins with the injunction, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities: for there is no authority except from God…’ (Romans 13.1). This verse was used in the past to justify evils like apartheid, so perhaps it is understandable that the lectionary compilers chose to omit it. Personally however I feel that was the wrong decision and that this passage needs to be read. There are various competing perceptions expressed in the New Testament about the relationship between church and state. In my view, we need to wrestle with them all, even if ultimately we want to disagree with what they say. To leave out this ‘difficult’ passage – which actually has been very influential in the course of Anglican history – feels rather a ‘cop out’. We cannot understand the history of the Church of England, or indeed the universal Church, without acknowledging the influence of Romans 13.1-7.

Two interesting pictorial examples of this. Two floor mosaics have been discovered at Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Palestine in New Testament times, and which remained important into the Byzantine period. The text of both inscriptions is Romans 13.4, exhorting the reader to honour the political authority as ‘God’s servant for your good’. It was once suggested to me that the location of the inscriptions might originally have been the library of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the influential bishop and church historian, who was a great supporter of the Emperor Constantine and his policies.

caesarea romans inscription

Floor mosaic in Caesarea Maritima, with the text of Romans 13.4

The other picture is a vestibule mosaic in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (see above at beginning of blog). It comes from the 6th century and depicts the Emperor Justinian presenting ‘the church’ to Mary and Jesus. It makes transparently visible the understanding of the relationship between Empire and Church in the Byzantine period. There is of course a bitter-sweet irony in reflecting on this mosaic at the present time, when it might well be regularly covered over to respond to the new sensitivities associated with Hagia Sophia reverting to its former status of being a mosque. For the very fact that this action has been taken by the Turkish government is in itself a clear mark that the question of the relationship between religion and state is one that will not go away, and which affects many of the religions in our world today.

 

Today (Thursday 3 September) is the feast of St Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome in the late 6th century, who sent Augustine on the mission to England, and who was influential in shaping the spiritual and political power of the later papacy. At the Eucharist this morning we used a collect honouring Gregory, which speaks into the issues explored above:

Almighty Father, who made thy servant Gregory a bastion of faith in an age of turmoil: Grant that your Church, built upon the sure foundation of the saving work of your Son, may ever be a beacon of hope to the nations, and an instrument of your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Take up your cross?

This week’s lectionary blog takes its starting point from the challenging comments in the lectionary Gospel ‘If any want to become my followers.. let them take up their cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16.21-28) and lectionary Epistle ‘Bless those who persecute you’ (Romans 12.9-21).

Clare Amos
Director of Lay Discipleship.
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org 

Chorachrist

Mosaic, ‘Christ, the Land of the Living’, Chora Church/Kariye Mosque, Istanbul

Back in April 1979 my husband Alan and I made a memorable visit to the far south-eastern corner of the Diocese in Europe. I have to confess however that the diocesan connection wasn’t particularly in our mind as we made that journey!

We had travelled to the Tur Abdin region of South Eastern Turkey, from Beirut where we were then living, via Damascus (where Alan took a service on Easter Sunday afternoon), and Aleppo (where we stayed with our friends the owners of the famous Baron Hotel and took another Easter service). From there we took a surreal journey by train along the banks of the river Euphrates via Deir-ez-Zor and Hassake to Qamishli where we stayed with a family of Syrian Orthodox Christians. The son of the family, who would years later become the Syrian Orthodox bishop of Hassake had been a pupil of Alan’s at the Syrian Orthodox seminary in Lebanon. Qamishli is on the Syrian-Turkish border, and after staying with them for a few days with their assistance we crossed into Turkey, into the ‘Tur Abdin’.

‘Tur Abdin’ is an Aramaic (Syriac) name which means ‘the mountain of the worshippers (or ‘servants’) – of God – Abdin is Aramaic for both ‘worship’ and ‘serve’.  It is the historic heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church: until the massacres during the First World War it was where the Patriarch of the Church had his seat. Over the previous 50 years or so many of the Christians of the Tur Abdin had left the area, migrating either to Istanbul or eventually to a variety of western countries. However we were told that there were about 5000 Syrian Orthodox still remaining there, with the town of Mardin as their main settlement. There were also two monasteries which (among the many which had once existed in the region) still functioned as monasteries each with a very small but living religious community.

Life was very difficult for these Syrian Orthodox people of the Tur Abdin; not only did they encounter hostility from the Turkish government, but also they were frequently physically attacked by militant Kurdish groups. Because of our Syrian Orthodox friends we had been invited to stay as guests at the two monasteries, first at Deir Zafaran and then at Deir Mor Gabriel. It was an unforgettable few days. But in terms of the focus of this week’s blog what was most remarkable was the different ‘take’ on the situation of their co-religionists by the two different leaders of the two monasteries. The monk in charge of Deir Zarafan felt that his role was to help his fellow Syrian Orthodox Christians escape the very real difficulties they had to live with, by migrating if possible. The monastic leader of Deir Mor Gabriel by contrast explained to us passionately and at considerable length that it was important that they should stay, for the task of disciples of Christ was to be prepared to face difficult situations and to be ready to ‘carry their cross’. There was an honour and a glory to persecution.

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Our host at the monastery of Deir Zafaran

Whenever those remarks about ‘carrying your cross’ appear in the lectionary I remember that experience and still puzzle over which of our two Syrian Orthodox friends was ‘right’. A readiness to suffer on the part of Jesus’ followers – especially for their faith – is an imperative which has been profoundly embedded in Christian theology for the last 2000 years. And yet we also affirm that Jesus came to bring life, and that God desires good and well being for all people.  We are not being called to deliberate masochism.

It is of course an issue that these days has international implications. The Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, who has deep personal connections with the Diocese in Europe, produced a report on the issue of the global persecution of Christians which was commissioned by the UK Foreign Office.https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/

There is also a thoughtful response offered by the Anglican mission agency USPG, (an organisation which itself has close links with the Diocese in Europe). While accepting much of what the ‘Mounstephen Report’ suggests it does make clear that there is still more work to do in the area, and that a conversation with global counterparts from other faiths needs to be part of the discussion.

https://www.uspg.org.uk/about/policy-/policy-.php

I myself am certainly aware, not least from my years of living in Lebanon, that Christians can be instigators of violence as well as the recipients of it.  Indeed there was an example of it on that surreal train journey across North Syria back in 1979. We shared our compartment with an Assyrian Christian (the ‘Assyrian’ Church is a different church to that of our Syrian Orthodox friends). On discovering that Alan was a Christian priest he told us something of his family story. His sister, he said, had married a Muslim, so ‘of course’ he had taken his gun and shot them both. He was worried that another sister of his might do likewise and he would have to shoot her too! What was most remarkable about the tale was the way that he assumed that all right-thinking Christians, such as Alan, would agree with his perceptions on this topic.

Over the last few years however I have often remembered that train journey which took us across precisely those tracts of Northern Syria where for 5 years or so ISIS terrorised the inhabitants. The Christian population of the area has been decimated, either by murder or migration. Deir ez-Zor became an ISIS stronghold. The family that we stayed with in Qamishli is now living in Sweden.

I suspect too that the Christian population of the Tur Abdin is now considerably further diminished from the days of our visit. Both the insecurities of the wider Middle East and the current political climate in Turkey have hardly acted as an inducement to remain. I grieve for several reasons over the recent ‘change’ in status of the Kariye Museum  (Chora Church) from museum back into a mosque in Istanbul. Perhaps the deepest reason for my concern however is the negative ‘signal’ it (like the change in the status of Hagia Sophia) seems intended to give to the tiny, but historic, Christian community in Turkey, including the Tur Abdin. Turkey is of course not a far away country of which we know nothing. As I said when I began, geographically speaking it is a corner of our Diocese in Europe.

Jesus, fellow traveller and friend,
you step out boldly on your journey,
chiding our fickleness and fear.
As you mark out the road ahead,
consecrate us as your companions,
so that we keep you in our sight,
as our pattern and guide.
Teach us to tread your path of service,
granting us courage to follow you,
even to the foot of the cross,
to the place where, in pain,
the glory of your way is revealed. Amen

‘Therefore…’

This blog posting, which draws on two of the lectionary readings for Sunday 23 August, explores the ‘therefore’ at the heart of Christian scripture and theology.

Dr Clare Amos, Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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Icon of St Peter, St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai

As some in the diocese know, although I am a biblical scholar by ‘background’, over the last couple of decades the main focus of my professional work has been in the area of interreligious dialogue. On the whole it has been an enjoyable experience, though with one or two very difficult moments. I have visited some interesting places and had the privilege of encountering fascinating people. There are of course different forms of interreligious dialogue – over the past half century a fourfold schema, initially developed by the Roman Catholic Church, has been widely accepted. It describes interreligious dialogue in the following ways: The dialogue of life; The dialogue of action; The dialogue of religious experience; The dialogue of theological exchange.

I have therefore no illusions that the so-called ‘high level dialogues’ in which I have been involved in recent years are the only or even the most important forms of dialogue. But they do have a place in the pattern.

However one of the features of at least some of these dialogues has been a refusal to engage with theological concerns, certainly on the part of dialogue partners from other faiths, but sometimes by the leadership of the Christian teams as well. I can remember the view being stated from time to time by significant religious leaders, ‘Our dialogue is just about ethical, social and practical concerns, it does not relate to theological matters.’  I can also remember well such a meeting at the National Cathedral, Washington USA, at which I politely challenged the Sunni Muslim leader who had just said that – rather, I suspect, to his shock and irritation, not least because I was a woman (highlevel interreligious dialogue is a field in which full gender equality is not yet assured!).

Why did I make such a challenge? Well the answer is implied in this week’s lectionary Epistle Romans 12.1-8 which I probably half quoted in my comments that afternoon in Washington. It is that word ‘therefore’ – a fairly insignificant little Greek word oun, which is the second word of this chapter. But on that word, I believe, hangs the edifice of Christian ethics. It is a pattern which is reflected in several of Paul’s letters, but which is probably expressed most clearly in the Letter to the Romans. Ethics is always underpinned by theology. The two cannot be separated. Our ethical practice, both within the Christian community and in the wider world, is consequent on our theological beliefs. We believe this, ‘therefore’ the implications are that we do that!

So, for example, in the Letter to the Romans in chapters 1 to 8 Paul sets out in considerable detail his core theological beliefs about the work that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ concluding with the stunning affirmation that nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.39). Chapters 9 to 11, in which Paul explores what we would call today the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, feel a bit like an excursus. And then we come to the ‘therefore’ of chapter 12 – which leads into the following chapters, 12 to 15, in which Paul sets out the ethical consequences of those earlier theological expositions. As I tried (not altogether successfully I think!) to explain to that dialogue partner in Washington, for me, since my ethical positions as a Christian ultimately depended on my understanding of the central mysteries of the Christian faith, it was difficult, or even impossible, for me ‘just’ to discuss ‘social’ matters without also at least some reference to their theological underpinning. It wasn’t that I wanted to engage in arid debates about the person of Christ or the nature of God as Trinity, but that theology and ethics are interwoven. I still feel that strongly. Interestingly I was cheered that day in Washington when some of the Shia Muslim delegates came up to me afterwards and privately said that they agreed with me.

Our lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday is Matthew 16.13-20, which is Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession of faith, in which of course his understanding is rewarded with the pledge, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’ (Matthew 16.18). As it happens there too, theology and ethics are interwoven. The realization by Peter and the other disciples that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ leads, a few verses further down, to the challenge to them to ‘take up their cross’ (Matthew 16.24).

This week’s lectionary portion from Matthew has of course had fundamental practical implications for the life and history of the Christian Church. Those of us in the Anglican Diocese in Europe are only too aware of the dominance in western Europe of the Roman Catholic Church, which could be said to take its founding charter from these verses. Whether we like it or not, and personally and professionally my own relationships with Roman Catholic structures and colleagues have been very warm and good, being an Anglican in continental Europe inevitably means reacting or relating to the presence of Roman Catholicism.  We are, I think, entitled politely to ask some quizzical questions at times, and perhaps encourage the church to show the human face of Peter.  There is a wonderful icon of St Peter (see above at the top of the page) that is held at the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. It is one of the oldest Christian icons, dating back to at least the 6th century. It survived the iconoclastic controversy because St Catherine’s was by then under the jurisdiction of Muslim rulers rather than Byzantine emperors.  What I love about the Peter icon is that it is far less stylized than is typical with later icons. Peter shows a very human face!

peter and andrew icon

Icon of Peter and Andrew embracing, Pontifical Church for Promoting Christian Unity

There is another icon that depicts Peter which I also cherish. It is on the wall of the main meeting room of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome and it shows Peter and his brother Andrew in an embrace. It was a gift made to Pope Paul VI by the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople when he visited Rome in 1964. It speaks visually of ecumenical hopes for closer relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches after the split and schism which dates back almost 1000 years. Andrew is of course the putative founder of the church in Constantinople. Interestingly, in terms of the thread with which this week’s blog began, I do think that the different theological understandings of the church in Western and Eastern Europe have impacted upon the social and political fabrics of these countries. The relationship between theology and practical ethics is a topic for intra-Christian dialogue, as well as for discussion between Christians and people of other faiths.

*****

My husband Alan Amos wrote the following brief poem in response to my reflection above:

Walking the walk of faith,
day by day, we give our consciences an airing
in the presence of God;
walking the walk that brings together
what we do
with who we are
and even who we shall be.

*****

Lord of the church,
Teacher of disciples,
You loved your friends to the end,
And gave them the example of leadership through service.
May we who follow you today
accept the radical challenge you still offer
to your companions on the way throughout all time.
Stop us short if our values go astray,
and enable us to discover in obedience a perfect freedom.
Above all, help us to make your church a pattern for a new world
Rather than a pale reflection of this one.

Jesus the Parable of God

 

I am very grateful to Revd Paul Wignall, Diocesan Director of Reader Ministry and colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team, for exploring this week’s lectionary Gospel (Matthew 15.21-28) which focuses on the meeting between Jesus and a Canaanite woman.

Further offers from both clergy and laity to write for this weekly lectionary blog would be very welcome. Please contact me, Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship.  clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One of the things we know for sure about Jesus of Nazareth is that he told stories. His stories could intrigue and shock, delight and challenge, give hope and comfort. I’m sure they entertained as well. His followers remembered those stories and told them often when they gathered in their little grief-filled circles of healing and hope after his crucifixion. Of course, human nature being what it is Jesus’ stories shifted in shape and emphasis depending on the person retelling it. And there were new stories, in Jesus’ style, continually being slipped in as bread and wine and fish were shared in the name of their risen Lord. We call these stories parables: deceptively simple tales of ordinary people in easily recognisable situations, given a twist to make you think, a little jolt to make you sit up and look at the world in new ways.

Gradually, Jesus himself and the things he did became the subject of the stories too. As has been well said, parables about Jesus were added to the treasure trove of parables by Jesus. The four gospels are carefully and beautifully assembled mixtures of these two kinds of stories. Jesus himself becomes the parable: what he said, what he did, what happened to him; to make us think, be surprised and shocked, intrigued, angry (perhaps), hopeful, above all challenged to live as he lived.

I think that one of the most challenging parables about Jesus is today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel (15.21-28) about an encounter, not in Jerusalem or Galilee, but out on the margins – the region of Tyre and Sidon – and with, for a Jew, one of the most marginal of people: a Greek woman. It’s not the only telling, of course: Mark gives us an earlier version (7.24-30).

1280px-SubmergedEgyptianHarbour_TyreSour_Lebanon_RomanDeckert04112019Submerged columns in the ancient harbour of Tyre, south Lebanon, with the modern city of Tyre (Sur)  in the background. (Creative Commons)

Parables, whether by Jesus or about him are meant to be told; performed if you like. A storyteller uses all her skill to create mood and place and character, to puncture expectations and raise questions. Try it yourself: read the stories out loud, alone or in a group. Change the mood. Change how the characters speak, shift their emotions around. See what happens. Bring them alive.

This pair of retellings of a story give you plenty of clues. Mark’s marginal woman comes quietly, cautiously, to Jesus. Matthew’s woman arrives noisily, even a bit aggressively (try performing it that way, you’ll see what I mean). Mark’s Jesus responds in kind: softly, with the delicious play on the word ‘children’ – the Jewish people / the marginal ones. Matthew’s Jesus responds in different kind, giving as good as he’s getting: you’re not my problem, I’ve other priorities. The disciples don’t help: “Send her away; it’s so embarrassing!” But she moves in closer, demanding he pays attention. His push back is harder still: you expect me to throw what I bring to the dogs whining around our feet (people like you)? She won’t let go: even the scavenging pack of dogs are allowed the crumbs. Only then does Jesus change tack, shifts mood, responds, offers mercy, peace and healing.

At first sight, Matthew’s Jesus seems uncharacteristically unpleasant towards the woman. But again, set this story in Matthew’s own context. It follows a group of sayings about ritual purity and impurity, part of a thread that runs through the whole gospel, an ongoing debate with pharisaic Judaism seen (as sadly christians were beginning to do by the 80s AD) in the worst possible light (15:10-20). Despite what he says there, it looks as though Jesus wants to play the purity card  himself, refusing to throw things of value to the dogs (the impure gentiles). But the woman turns the tables on him and, in his name, turns aside all questions of what is pure and impure. In God’s eyes there can only be mercy, grace, and healing. The next part of the gospel speaks of healing for everyone (15.29-31).

We can put it another way too. Mark’s way of telling the story creates a conversation between Jesus and the woman. They talk to one another, listening and speaking carefully (look at the words, read them out loud, feel one reaching out to the other). In a conversation we conspire together (heart touches heart, breath intertwines) to find a way forward, towards concord. Matthew appears rather different. Jesus and the woman begin at a distance. This isn’t so much a conversation as a discussion from entrenched positions. A discussion. Never forget how close that word is to others: percussion, as we beat one another into a concussion from which are likely to flow only bad repercussions. But notice too how the woman (and ask, perhaps, just why Matthew lets it be the woman) lowers the temperature, shifting the attack into a challenge, and the discussion into a conversation. Is Matthew inviting the church too, so hung up at times on questions of purity, of who is inside and who outside, to shift from the attacking mode of discussion into the challenge of conversation, to listen?

 

*****

Jesus our Way,
Strange story teller who has become for us the story,
Living word through whom the eternal God shines out,
Meet us face to face in our time.
Stay with us and open for us the scriptures,
Illumine our eyes and set our hearts on fire,
So that with you as companion on our journey,
With joy we will be enabled to discover
That the key to unlock this mysterious library is always love.
Amen.
(adapted from a prayer included in CTBI Lent resource, ‘Opening the Scriptures’)

Pity the Nation: a time for transfiguration

Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship reflects in this week in which the Feast of the Transfiguration falls. You can contact Clare at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

theophanes transfiguration good version 1

Theophanes the Greek: Icon of the Transfiguration

A couple of months ago meeting  via Zoom (as one does!) with some diocesan colleagues, one of the group commented that our experiences over the last few months were the most difficult times any of us had had to live through, or were likely to have to do so. I had to demur. For it is not the case for my husband and myself.

I am very conscious that Alan and I are comparatively ‘privileged’ for these Coronavirus times. We live in a lovely house, with a large garden, in glorious Dorset countryside in a village with a great esprit de corps. If you have to experience lockdown it is a good place to do so. What is more, since both of us are formally retired from paid work (though we do seem to be busier than ever at the moment!) we are spared the threat of redundancy that is understandably creating anxiety for a great many people.

But for us, there is really no comparison between the ‘hardships’ of the present, and the fear and challenges we lived through on many occasions in Beirut, during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, including the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Alan became chaplain to All Saints Anglican congregation, Beirut, in 1975 just as the civil war was beginning. He had arrived in Lebanon a couple of years earlier to teach at the Orthodox seminaries, and found himself asked to take responsibility for the chaplaincy. Alan and I met in Jerusalem in mid-1977 when I was lecturing at St George’s College, deciding to get married 5 days after we met, and I moved to Beirut in January 1978 – for an ‘interesting’ first few years of marriage. We of course contravened all the sage advice designed to facilitate and lead to an enduring relationship. All I will say is that we are still married 42 years later.

We left Lebanon in August 1982, towards the end of the Israeli siege of West Beirut, having lived under siege for the previous couple of months, with little electricity, water – and certainly very little security. I can still hear the scream of the Israeli jets dive-bombing parts of the city, and wondering if our apartment building would be their next target, not least because in the car park outside the Palestinian Red Crescent had set up a mobile communications centre which seemed to be doubling as a broadcasting station for the ‘Voice of Palestine’. In spite of all this, it was a profound wrench to leave that country that meant so much to both of us. In fact it wasn’t the war that caused us to leave. It was due largely to the embedded sexism of the missionary organisation which we were associated with, which had led us to apply for lecturing positions at Westcott House Cambridge, to which we had been appointed in March 1982. We felt we needed to honour these new roles, even though when we applied for them we had not expected what was to come in the summer of 1982. In retrospect I am glad that we left then. Dangerous though it was, up to 1982 life in Beirut was not more hazardous if you were a foreigner. That was to change within a year or so, when the deliberate targeting of foreigners for hostage-taking began. If we had continued to live in the country we would either have had to leave very quickly after a warning – or if we had left it too long Alan would probably have spent a few years enjoying the hospitality of Hezbollah.

I have mentioned this personal history largely to explain why the explosion in Beirut earlier this week, has moved and saddened me so. As I wrote on my facebook page the morning after the blast I am not sure whether the fact that it seems to have been a terrible accident due to institutional incompetence makes it better or worse. When we lived through the civil war in Lebanon we used to tell ourselves that out of all the horror and bloodshed a ‘new’ Lebanon might emerge, with an end to its sectarianism, fostered by the corrupt political class for their own ends. It has become apparent in recent years that the ‘old’ elite and old attitudes are still very much in control.

all saints beirut

All Saints Church, Beirut

 

Alan was chaplain of All Saints Church in Beirut. Due to its position close to the Green Line it was shut up for much of the civil war (our regular Anglican services during the period took place at borrowed churches in the city). The last service held in it for about 12 years took place on Ash Wednesday 1977 (there was plenty of dust and ashes around!). I myself never went inside the church until a visit to Beirut in 2012 though I was told a lot about it. It had been a building much loved by the church community. It used to be on the seafront, and sometimes members of the congregation would dive in immediately after Sunday service.  In fact the structure of the church survived the civil war fairly much intact, and it was well restored and even extended in the 1990s and more recently. It is no longer on the seafront  however – since the coastline has been changed by a fill of earth and rubble. It is also now surrounded by tall apartment blocks, hotels and shops, definitely a small ‘house of God’ in the middle of mammon. Ironically this week mammon seems to have protected it fairly well, for although it is only about 1 km from the site of the explosion, the surrounding taller buildings shielded it to a considerable extent. Quite a lot of the glass in the church hall shattered, but other than that there was not substantial damage. In fact, the Near East School of Theology where I lectured when we lived in Beirut suffered rather worse. Though it was further from the epicentre of the explosion, the fact that it was a much taller building with a plate glass front meant that the damage there was considerable.

damage at all saints

Damage at All Saints after the explosion of 4 August 2020.

My years living in Lebanon have profoundly influenced my theology, and certainly encouraged my interest in the theme of transfiguration. Parts of Lebanon are still heart-stoppingly beautiful – in spite of the continuing corruption that allows virtually unfettered building to take place. Lebanon encourages me to reflect on what it might mean to transfigure disfigurement. My interest in the theme of religion and violence has also been provoked by my experiences in the Middle East, and there too I think that the language of ‘transfiguration’ has helpful insights to offer. As it happens I was preaching yesterday (6 August) for a Zoom service celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration. I share some of my reflections offered then below – and they are complemented by a powerful series of short poems that my husband Alan wrote after hearing the news of the explosion. Pity the Nation, Pray for Lebanon.

*****

Why the theme of transfiguration is important to me…

  • First some wonderful words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury. In his book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ Ramsey reflected: ‘The transfiguration ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel, and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.’ As Ramsey suggests, the transfiguration is at the heart, core and centre of the New Testament, holding together the great Christian themes of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. In fact I would probably go further than Ramsey does in this comment and suggest that the transfiguration really lies at the core of Christian theology and spirituality. Indeed Christian spirituality has itself been described as ‘the art of transfiguration’.
  • Secondly Michael Ramsey and his theology sum up for me what is the best about the Anglican tradition. And I think that it is no accident that Ramsey cherished the transfiguration so deeply because I believe that there is something about the transfiguration which reflects the particular charism of the Anglican way. For Anglicanism at its best seeks to interweave in a creative tension two contrasting trajectories or threads. As Anglicans we value tradition, continuity, hierarchy, worship, our internal life, the role of authority, the importance of unity; but we also acknowledge the need for transformation, for outreach, change, egalitarianism, for subversiveness, diversity and mission. If you unpack the story of Christ’s transfiguration, both in terms of its Old Testament precursors and its place in the Gospels, you find both these threads held together creatively in the story.  And I think our task as Anglicans, is to be a visible expression of the ‘good’ (a word that appears in the transfiguration narrative) of allowing both threads to interface with each other. Because in their meeting and dialectic there is a special transfiguring power which takes us to the heart of the Gospel. It is not easy: most people and places fall off one side or the other. But it is I believe a challenge worth striving for.
  • Thirdly, in the professional work that I have been doing over the years in the field of religion and violence, I have begun to explore how religion as transfiguration can be a vital antidote to religion understood as fundamentalism which I regard as profoundly dangerous. Fundamentalism is intrinsically dualistic, with a sharp dichotomy between good and evil and the blind certainty of its proponents can lead to desire for violent change. Transfiguration on the other hand, at its core affirms the goodness of creation, and of the world which God so loved. It calls us into a conversation which changes us as we seek to change the world by drawing closer to God. Indeed we discover that we cannot change others unless we ourselves are willing to continue to be transfigured as well. Something of this is caught in the icon painted by a 15th century artist Theophanes the Greek (see above). Notice how the light shining from Christ seem to touch, and sink into the forms of the disciples themselves, and invite them to respond so that they – and we too – as  created beings can be illuminated and transfigured by the meeting between the light already within us, and the light which beams from the figure of Christ, and gradually the circle of transfiguration widens out to include others in Christ’s transfiguring light.
  • Finally, until the twentieth century the transfiguration was a neglected feast within the Anglican tradition. It wasn’t until 1928 that the keeping of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6 was mandated in an Anglican prayerbook. Now in fact the Transfiguration does rather well – for as well as August 6 it is also commemorated either in or just before Lent. Yet the two occasions in which the church calendar encourages us to remember this Gospel story have a rather different feel from each other. Back in or near Lent, we are encouraged particularly to reflect on Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop as being the precursor to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.The celebration of the transfiguration at this point in the year in August is not quite the same. Falling as it does towards the end of the liturgical year, and close to the time of harvest in the northern hemisphere, it encourages us to reflect on the eventual destiny of creation, when all in the end will be harvest. Eastern Christians who have seen a profound link between the transfiguration and the need for care of God’s good earth have a sure instinct. The transfiguration of Christ is a foretaste of the time when the whole of creation will hopefully share in the circle of God’s movement of glory and blessing. Something that took place 75 years ago today has sharpened the importance of that meaning. For on 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Hiroshima. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular action and its implications for the end of the Second World War, there is certainly a very bitter congruence that it should have happened on this particular day. There is a challenging prayer which speaks of the fact that now we as humanity have been offered the choice of two ways to walk, towards the radiance of the transfigured Christ or the disfiguring radiance of the bomb, towards the radiance that descends to touch, to heal and to restore, or towards the radiance that descends to defend, to murder and to destroy. We have in fact been offered the choice between life or death.

    Until two days ago that was how I was planning to end my sermon. Then on Tuesday evening there was the dreadful explosion in Beirut. Thankfully it was not a nuclear bomb. But it is telling that people in Lebanon have referred to it as Beirut’s Hiroshima. As most of you probably know Lebanon is very dear to both Alan and myself. When we lived there during the civil war, Alan wrote a prayer that was used regularly in All Saints Anglican Church where he was chaplain. I draw on this to end by praying for the transfiguring of the achingly beautiful land of Lebanon.

God bless Lebanon,
Guard her children,
Guide her leaders,
Give her peace;
May Lebanon become once again a place of unity in diversity,
Where all may learn to honour one another,
And humankind as your creation.
In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.  

*****

Fragments for a Lebanon blown apart…

This country is cursed
shouted the young man
in shattered Beirut

He was right of course
not cursed by Allah
but by religion.
( I use the term Allah because in Arabic it is used both by Christians and Muslims)

Those in the prison of sectarianism
do not see the bars of their cage
they only see the bars of the cage
of their neighbour.

Abraham, Jesus,  Muhammad
all had problems with religion
as they found it
corrupted upon earth

It takes a human being
to turn the best into the worst.

This is the Ottomans’ doing
how they made each sect
a little empire in itself
paying homage to their Sultan.

Alan Amos

*****

‘Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful…

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.’ (Khalil Gibran)

Discipled for the Kingdom of Heaven: Blog for Sunday 26 July 2020

With this edition I return to my diocesan blog in its more ‘traditional’ form i.e. primarily exploring the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. The lectionary Gospel is Matthew 13.31-33,44-52 and I comment on it below. However I intend also to continue to incorporate other material and reflections when available. This week I want to share with you some thoughts by Andrew Caspari, our diocesan secretary, inviting your prayers for Ammi, the son of Grace our senior diocesan safeguarding adviser, who is very ill.

The blog actually appears on St Mary Magdalene’s day (22 July), and Alan Amos, my husband, has deliciously taken up the cudgels on her behalf! Mind you Alan and I disagree how you spell Magdalen(e) – but you can’t have everything!

And I include a prayer I myself wrote about 14 years ago which takes as its starting point the lectionary Epistle for this coming Sunday, Romans 8.26-39.

I am hoping to continue to produce the blog on a weekly basis, but would very much welcome offers by laity and clergy in the diocese to take responsibility for it on a given week.

Dr Clare Amos
Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

matthew on shoulders of isaiah

This window in Chartres Cathedral, France,  depicts a (little) Matthew on the shoulders of a (large) Isaiah. It is one of a series of four of the evangelists on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophets. It resonates with the theme of ‘Treasures Old and New’ in this week’s Gospel reading. 

*****

As Director for Lay Discipleship in the Diocese in Europe I have a vested interest in this week’s lectionary Gospel reading. It is the conclusion of the passage that I find especially intriguing. I quote from the NRSV (even though in this instance I don’t particularly like the translation).

‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

The Greek word translated as ‘trained’ is a passive form of the verb matheteuo. It is a verbal form that is related to the noun mathetes, which means ‘disciple’. The noun mathetes, ‘disciple’ is of course very common in the New Testament, the related verbal form isn’t[1]. It appears four times in total in the New Testament, three times in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 13.52; 27.57; 28.19) and once in Acts (Acts 14.21). On the other three occasions when it appears the NRSV includes the word ‘disciple’ in the translation eg ‘after they had made many disciples’ (Acts 14.21). So, in my view, it is unhelpful that here in Matthew 13.52 rather than speaking of people ‘discipled for the kingdom of heaven’ the NRSV has chosen a translation of ‘trained’. It loses the connection both with the other times the verb appears, and with the fundamental noun ‘disciple’. (I note that Nicholas King’s recent translation does say ‘discipled for the kingdom of heaven’.)

I think it would be fascinating to write a short book on discipleship exploring the four different times that forms of the verb matheteuo appears. It seems to me to span quite a range of what Christian discipleship is supposed to be about. I have just added the idea to my personal – already rather long – ‘to do’ list. But the occasion when it appears here in Matthew 13.52, at the end of a chapter of parables, is especially interesting. It is the link that is made between discipleship and bringing out of the treasure store what is new and what is old. This, Matthew’s Gospel seems to be suggesting, sums up the nature of discipleship. It has sometimes been put forward that in the use of the verb matheteuo ‘Matthew’, the evangelist, is slightly cryptically alluding to his own name. If that is the case, and I think it is an intriguing suggestion, he is seeking to present his ‘writing’ as a ‘scribe’ – which is of course, this very Gospel itself, as a model for his ideal of discipleship. And I think this is worth serious reflection, because one can see how this particular Gospel does seek to offer treasures new and old, with its deep embeddness in  yet also critique of Old Testament traditions and imagery.

I almost wrote a Lent course a few months ago based around the theme of ‘Treasures New and Old’. The ecumenical body Churches Together in Britain and Ireland had invited me to write their 2020 Lent course, and had offered me free rein as to the theme. Such ‘freedom’ can of course be a challenge – and I was torn between a range of possibilities I would have been interested to explore. Although eventually I went down another route[2], at one point I was seriously considering taking the motif ‘Treasures New and Old’ as the overall theme, and exploring how both the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ are valuable in the life of the church and need to engage in dialogue and dialectic with each other eg in worship, social views, theology, understanding of mission, ministry etc.

Coming back to this idea in Covid times, one of the learnings that the church and we as disciples have been through in the last few months, is surely in this area. We have been forced to evaluate what are ‘treasures’ and what are ‘dross’. What are traditions and practices that we want to hold on to and return to when life becomes ‘normal’ again, and what are the areas where the pandemic has encouraged (or forced?) us to find ‘new’ treasures? The art of blog writing, which I am definitely going to follow in this instance, is of course to pose the question rather than offer the solutions!

But at least I will leave you with the thought that an essential part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to ‘treasure’ both the new and the old!

 

*****

In God’s Hands

I am grateful to Andrew Caspari, our Diocesan Secretary, for these reflections. Please pray for Ammi and his family. Andrew certainly deserves his two weeks off!

We have been beset by some serious illness in my, now virtual, office of the Diocese in Europe. This is not Covid-19 but other things. Ammi, the 22-year-old son of one of the staff lies in hospital in a coma following emergency brain surgery. His Pentecostal mother, Grace, is arranging hourly prayers and this week he squeezed her hand to confirm he could hear her and in defiance of medical wisdom as to his condition. ‘Ah yes,’ Grace told the medics, ‘but we have been praying – you might want to join in.’

Another member of staff was rushed to hospital and did not take a phone charger. With the help of the chaplain I was able to go there and deliver a charger for her very old phone though I doubted it would work. Rev’d Samuel told me ‘we plugged in the phone and it lit up, it was as though you had brought the light of Christ to her.’ I disputed this saying it was the only thing I could do. I asked Samuel how he was managing as practically the only visitor in the hospital. He replied, ‘I just walk around talking to people. It is mostly about football as many don’t want to talk about God. But that is fine – that is what God is calling me to do and it makes people happy and better.’

Small things can make a big difference.

Many of us have been crazily busy and doubtless somewhat stressed in these past few months. Archbishop Justin Welby had words of comfort for me with a group of colleagues on a call last week. Speaking on zoom from an enormous chair in a wood panelled room, he told us of a Bishop he met in the Democratic Republic of Congo who was dealing with war, ebola and famine. When asked how he coped, the Bishop told the Archbishop: ‘I do what God enables me to do and leave him to deal with the rest.’ Archbishop Justin encouraged us to remember the verse in 1 Peter; ‘Cast your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.’

So, with that thought in mind, I am taking a couple of weeks off.

*****

Mary Magdalen’s Complaint

I do wish people would call a halt
to debating my virtue in cyber space!
Two thousand years of argument
is, thank you, quite enough
without finding oneself
the centre of
a twitter storm!

These days you can’t have a boy friend
Without the most scurrilous
Accusations!
Not that my so-called ‘relationship’
with Jesus son of man
was ever what you assume!

No, it was not at all like that;
we lived in different times,
in different climes
mentally,
physically
and thank God,
spiritually!

I suppose you might say
I was on his ‘wave length ‘
Fair enough
But that was just
A matter of sheer grace
finding I could understand
because
I was understood.

And what about all my ‘sins’
you ask in
your prurient  way…
those devils that were cast out
what tribe did they belong to ?

Must you ask?
Is it not enough
To know you are forgiven
By God’s own self?
Do you have to rummage
through Judea’s dustbins
searching for ‘the truth’?

He called me his ‘strong tower’
and I rejoiced at that –
even if Peter got a bit envious –
he sent me with his newborn
Resurrection message.
The first to wing it with the news!

So there.  You have
quite enough problems of your own
without scraping history’s barrel
salivating over mine!

Thanks be to God!

Alan Amos

*****

I wrote the following prayer, based around Romans 8.12-39 while working for USPG and the Anglican Communion Office, and it was extensively used in the 2007 Set All Free campaign, which marked the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade in the British Empire.

Abba,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
You have graced us with the spirit of freedom,
And the privilege of calling upon you by name.
May we use this precious freedom
To give a voice to all who are enslaved
By poverty or persecution,
Held captive by discrimination or disease.
Grant us courage to name injustice wherever it appears,
And to speak your Word of truth,
Sure that the love of God in Christ Jesus has power
To set all people free,
Enabling them to live in glorious liberty,
As your cherished sons and daughters. Amen.

 

 

I kings 3.5-12

[1] Both the verb matheteuo and the noun mathetes probably ultimately derive from the ‘primal’ verb manthano= I learn.

[2] I looked at scripture and explored parts of it that might set ‘our hearts on fire’. The course is still available in a digital form at http://www.ctbi.org.uk/lent/

Discipleship in Difficult Days 17 : ‘This enemy, the virus’?

Over the last weeks and months I have sought to draw together and share prayers, poems and other reflections relating to these ‘difficult days’ in which the Covid-19 virus has so dominated and changed our personal – and church – lives. As we seem now to be moving into a new stage, what some people are calling a ‘new normal’ it is perhaps appropriate to draw this use for my ongoing http://faithineurope.net  blog towards a conclusion.

So this ‘issue’ of the blog is, I think, the last that will go out under the title ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’, and the blog will eventually revert to its original focus – offering reflections on the lectionary readings for the forthcoming Sunday, with a ‘Europe’ focus in mind. I am going to give myself a couple of weeks ‘holiday’ (at home!) and then hopefully turn to exploring the lectionary. I would be very grateful for contributors, whether familiar or new, who would be willing to offer a reflection on the lectionary readings – I am trying to draw together a list now to take us up till the end of October, so please be in touch if you can offer. I enjoy writing and theological thinking myself, but am very conscious that there are other voices around our diocese whose insights can and should be shared.

This ultimate ‘edition’ of ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’, offers more of the splendid Haiku poems composed by Jean Mayer of the Anglican chaplaincy of La Cote with our current experience in mind. It draws attention to a lovely song written for these days by John Bell of the Wild Goose Worship Group, which some of you may wish to use in your churches. My husband Alan has contributed a couple of the poems he has been writing in ‘lockdown’ – which resonate with the overall theme for this edition. My own latest thinking was stimulated by a reflection by an ordinand of Westcott House Cambridge which I refer to below – and which I think raises a question that will not go away. I link this exploration to some passages from the Book of Genesis, which are appearing as one of the Old Testament alternatives in the lectionary during recent and forthcoming weeks.

One final point: in the United Kingdom, where I have been living since late February, the term that has been drawn on to describe the government instructions to the population to stay at home is ‘lockdown’. But in continental Europe, especially in French-speaking countries, the normal term used is ‘confinement’.

As one of my colleagues in the Ministry Experience Scheme programme of the diocese has commented, ‘confinement’ does not have the simply negative resonances that the word ‘lockdown’ does. For ‘confinement’ is a term also used to describe a woman’s experience during the late stages of pregnancy and during the period of giving birth. As many around the world continue to suffer from this death-dealing pandemic, human beings – especially people of faith – need to explore what are the ‘new’ things – ways of life, priorities? – that need to come to birth after these difficult days.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

IMG_20200629_130502

A witty display of book titles, chosen with ‘difficult days’ in mind, found in the window of our local bookshop. 

 

A couple of months ago I included in the blog (Discipleship in Difficult Days 10) a collection of seven Haiku poems written by Jean Mayer, of La Cote chaplaincy, reflecting on her then experience. Several of them were linked to Holy Week and Easter. The following poems, written more recently, portray her ongoing experience, in Switzerland,  during recent weeks.  The last Haiku offers a very fitting conclusion, to which indeed we could all say ‘Amen’.

 

Social distancing
two metres a world apart
yearn for warm embrace

Care homes ban visits
fearful and lonely they sit
nurses’ hands console

Yoga, pilates
tai chi, skip, dance or just stretch
keep fit while locked in

Trump wants rapid cure
inject or drink bleach says he
experts shriek ‘no way’!

Thousands queue for food
jobs lost – ends no longer meet
shock to Swiss system

To mask or not mask
that is the question – unsolved!
virus mocks our plight

Scarecrow hair needs care
cut, colour, brushing and more
Figaro sings hope

Waiting for vaccine
striving to live with constraints
pray lessons were learnt!
AMEN

*****

Rev John Bell, of the Wild Goose Worship Group and the Iona Community, well known for many years for his creative contribution to the life of the churches (I first had the pleasure of meeting John more than 30 years ago!) has written a powerful new hymn/song for these days,’ We will meet when the danger is over, we will meet when the sad days are done…’.  The words and music score, and a video recording, are available here:

https://www.urcmerseysynod.org.uk/ahymnforcoronatime.htm

With characteristic generosity John is allowing his composition to be freely available, provided proper crediting of authorship is acknowledged. Churches and others in the diocese may want to make use of this song.

*****

I am grateful to my husband Canon Alan Amos for allowing me to draw on for this blog the poems he has written over the last weeks and months. Here are two more: the first in particular links well with the theme of the reflection below, the second feels appropriate to use as this current form of the blog draws to a close:

Declaration of war, the virus responds

 All across the world
your leaders have declared war
against poor little me!
Enough to give me a big head
as I jump like a flea
from one resting place
to the next.
Pity your leaders
never thought
to declare war
on my ugly sister poverty –
well they did actually,
without really
meaning it.

 

Looking forward…

We stand at the threshold of a brave new world
or will it be one of bravado
masking ineptitude?
Can we muster the courage
to enter a world where we share resources
with equity,
give space for others
so the voice of their needs
may be heard?

*****

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a prayer that could be used by people of different faiths who wished to come together to pray about the Covid-19 situation. With the help of my husband I rose to the challenge. One of Alan’s proposed amendments to my first draft text was to suggest that the virus should explicitly be labelled as ‘enemy’. I accepted that suggestion and the final published version of the prayer included the phrase ‘this enemy, the virus’. But I have wondered ever since about the words. The idea that we need to ‘love our enemy’ is embedded pretty deep within my Christian psyche! Is it ‘nice’ to refer to the virus in such a hostile form? I genuinely am still wrestling with this question, and what I offer below is intended to be a basis to encourage discussion rather than offer a definitive answer.

So this concluding blog of the series looks at the question of ‘enmity’. I was prompted to take it forward at this time partly because I came across an interesting reflection written a few weeks ago by Pippa White, an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, on ‘Covid-19 and the language of war’. https://westcottblog.com/2020/06/11/covid-19-the-language-of-war/   Do take a look at it. Pippa makes clear her hesitation about such language.

And then, since this blog also seeks to pay some attention to the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday – I have been struck by how frequently the current lectionary readings, especially from the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter to the Romans and the Old Testament ‘continuous’ sequence from Genesis 21.8-21 are very ‘binary’ in their focuses, in which a sense of ‘enemy’ is not far away, even if the word itself is not necessarily used.

A couple of weeks ago the selected lectionary Gospel spoke of Jesus apparently proclaiming ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10.34) and then goes on to speak about setting family members against each other.

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading draws attention to the ‘contrary’ nature of those who listened to Jesus’ message (Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end). The coming Sunday also offers us that passage from Romans in which Paul describes the turmoil going on inside himself using the idiom of ‘war’ (Romans 7.15-25a).

As regards Genesis, the coming Sunday’s reading is the beautiful story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca – but this is a brief interlude of light relief in between several weeks that have and will offer tales of fraternal strife and competition. Two weeks ago Genesis recounted the horrific story of the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother Hagar into the wilderness by Abraham, to apparent death. It is a story on which I have reflected long, not least because a number of years ago I wrote a commentary on Genesis, in which I tried to take account of modern Middle Eastern and interreligious concerns. It is horrendous – a father deliberately sending his son out to die.

It is no accident that it is placed immediately in Genesis before the near sacrifice of Isaac which was last Sunday’s lectionary passage, and that the two stories are probably intended to be read alongside each other. Tellingly, we tend to be much more conscious of the horror of Isaac’s near death in Genesis 22 than we are of Ishmael’s in Genesis 21. Does Ishmael’s life matter to us as much? I believe the saving grace of the story as it is recounted in Genesis is that the writer of the Book of Genesis actually intends us to find both stories and their interplay deeply disturbing and ask ourselves some pertinent questions.  After our ‘interlude’ with Isaac and Rebecca, in which the word ‘love’ is used for the second time in Genesis (the first time it appears is in Genesis 22, to refer to Abraham’s love for Isaac), we will return again for several weeks to the theme of fraternal strife with tales from the story of Jacob and Esau.

It is an overarching theme of Genesis that human beings are placed in a ‘binary’ world, tasked by God with eventually drawing it into a sense of unity. This is somehow played out through these stories of family relationships. I hope to return to this theme when I return to the blog in a couple of weeks’ time.  But what might that mean for our relationship with the virus? Perhaps, as one of my husband’s poems suggests it is our ‘enemy’ which we want to distance from ourselves partly because it dares to make more apparent than we like to acknowledge those things about ourselves or our world that we are uncomfortable with – the glaring realities of poverty and injustice in much of our world, and the acknowledgement of our own mortality.

Yet the fundamental Christian rite of initiation, baptism, speaks deeply, as indeed does the reading from Romans 6.1-11, used as the lectionary Epistle the Sunday before last, of how in baptism, we are united with Christ in his death, so that ultimately we can also be united with him in his resurrection. The one is not possible without the other. I leave you with the following thoughtful comment:

‘Sometimes I wonder, in most of our celebrations of baptism, if we reduce the waters of baptism to a mere sprinkle, and cover it up with rosebuds and lace and talk about cute babies and “God loves you” because we dare not speak about the strange and wonderful work which is beginning in this child on this day. You know how we always try to avoid death. Baptism is death which leads to life.’  (William H Willimon, Remember who you are: Baptism, a model for Christian life, Nashville: 1980)

 

Discipleship in Difficult Days 16: One Body, in God

The strange circumstances of this year have enabled me to reflect in a way that I had never quite done previously on the threads that draw together Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and the feast that is widely called ‘Corpus Christi.’

I have been helped particularly by the Common Worship liturgy for Pentecost, which includes some powerful symbolic actions that perhaps speak more loudly when, as recently, they are taking place in one’s own home. At Pentecost, as the Paschal Candle is extinguished, to mark the end of the 50 days of the Easter season, each of us is invited to light our own candle – a visual statement that it is now up to us to follow through the work of Christ and be in our turn ‘lights of the world’ reflecting God’s love. The following week, on Trinity Sunday, we discover that the essential nature of this divine love which we are required to emulate is to hold together diversity and unity. Corpus Christi – as it is widely known in many countries of our diocese – follows swiftly on after Trinity.

Perhaps one way of thinking about the connection is to suggest that Holy Communion, itself speaking of both unity and diversity, constitutes nourishment enabling us to live out the life of the Trinity. I have to confess that the ‘official title of the day in the Common Worship lectionary ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ doesn’t quite ‘cut’ it for me… I would rather think of it as a Day of Thanksgiving for the privilege of living out our role as part of the Body of Christ.

As our various contributions, prayer, theological reflection and poetry this week make clear, this fundamental sequence within the Christian year cannot but have implications for our response as individual Christians and as a diocese to the killing of George Floyd. I am especially grateful to my colleagues on the diocesan Ministry Team for their input.

Clare Amos

Director of Lay Discipleship

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

mafa supper

 

Prayer for Lives That Matter

God of Abel and Cain, the one who was slain
and the one who denied complicity or responsibility:
visit those who can’t breathe because of the virus
or because of oppression at the hands of another.
Raise up leaders who offer their people vision and hope;

empower any who dwell in the midst of violence
or live in the face of prejudice;
and make your people a rainbow
that promises plenty at the end of the storm.
In the name of Christ, our brown-skinned Lord,
in the power of the Spirit, who speaks in every tongue. Amen.
(Sam Wells, St Martin-in-the-Fields)

*****

Prayer used at diocesan service for Racial Justice, 12 June 2020

God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception.
Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty, and worth of every human being.
Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters in the same human family.
Open our hearts to repent of racist attitudes, behaviours, and speech which demean others.
Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history.
And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds,
build bridges, forgive and be forgiven,
and establish peace and equality for all in our communities.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

*****

Prayer linked to Romans 8 initially used in national UK ‘Set All Free’ campaign 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

Abba,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
You have graced us with the spirit of freedom,
And the privilege of calling upon you by name.
May we use this precious freedom
To give a voice to all who are enslaved
By poverty or persecution,
Held captive by discrimination or disease.
Grant us courage to name injustice wherever it appears,
And to speak your Word of truth,
Sure that the love of God in Christ Jesus has power
To set all people free,
Enabling them to live in glorious liberty,
As your cherished sons and daughters. Amen.

.*****

 

Today I will pray…

I am glad to incorporate several more of the powerful prayers written by Paul Wignall, Chaplain in Las Palmas and Director of Reader Training. I have included them in the order that Paul wrote them – so they conclude with his prayer for Corpus Christi, which clearly alludes to current events. To read them sequentially in this way gives them a particular power. Paul’s penultimate prayer was written a week ago, with the Feast of St Boniface in mind. The life of this 8th century saint, who travelled from England to continental Europe to share the Christian gospel, also has wisdom for our current age.

 

Today I will thank God for my dreams –                                                                                            the silent healers of my mind and body as I sleep.                                                                          And I will thank God too for my waking dreams,                                                                           my imagination, my longings and my hopes.                                                                                   As I thank God for making dreams part of life,
I will above all give thanks for dreamers                                                                                          who find a way of making their dreams into reality
and changing the world into a better place.
I ask God to give me the grace to make me one of their company. Amen.

 

Today I will thank God for people with imagination.
I will thank God for those who dream                                                                                               of better worlds and ways of doing things.                                                                                       I will dig deep into myself to find                                                                                                       the foundations on which life is built –
the life we share, the life                                                                                                                       which moves us and makes us.                                                                                                            And I will pray for the courage and humility                                                                                  to be changed by what I find there. Amen.

 

I will pray today for all who speak.                                                                                                     For those who use their voices and find words                                                                                to bring calm and truth, hope and confidence                                                                                 for those who are struggling with life,                                                                                               I will call down God’s blessing.                                                                                                            For those who use words to sow discontent,                                                                                   tell lies or manipulate truth,                                                                                                                I will call down God’s mercy.                                                                                                                And for those who speak for the voiceless,                                                                                      the despairing and the forgotten,                                                                                                        I will call down God’s creative love.                                                                                                    Teach me O Lord, that when I must speak,                                                                          to speak with care. Amen.

 

St Boniface:

Today I will pray for everyone                                                                                                             who is living in a country where they were not born.                                                                   For migrants by choice and for those                                                                                                 escaping destruction, hunger and fear.                                                                                             For young and old together                                                                                                               finding new lives and opportunities.                                                                                                 For those who still endure marginal,                                                                                                 excluded and poverty-stricken lives in their lands of promise.                                                    I pray for generosity between all people.                                                                                          For imagination and curiosity.                                                                                                             But above all I pray that all will be welcomed and feel welcomed. Amen

 

 ‘Corpus Christi’:

I will give thanks today for the presence of Jesus Christ
in the midst of a scared and broken world.
I will give thanks that he stands among us, quietly,
to heal anger and despair, brokenness and loss.
And I will give thanks that he calms my fears
as he shows me his wounded hands and feet,
the marks of torture;
and his eyes smile encouragement to go on,
even in the hardest times. Amen.

 

 

*****

Breaking open the locks

Today is traditionally known as ‘Corpus Christi’ – the feast day of Christ’s Body; a day of thanksgiving for the institution of our common Christian meal, the Eucharist. It started as a city feast, a feast of ordinary people, to celebrate their common life. It was marked by processions, by joy, and by plays – it’s a starting point for the tradition of public theatre across Europe.

Above all it was an affirmation that the common meal of Christians – sharing in bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ – is a wonderful public event, open to all. The Christian meal may have begun among fearful friends in a locked room as a way of healing the pain of the loss of their teacher and master, Jesus. But the fear turned to wonder, joy, hope and new life. It broke open the locks, smashed down the doors, and became a meal to which the whole world was invited.

Over the past weeks it’s been a meal we haven’t really been able to share in the ways we were used to. And now that we can come together once more let’s not forget: it’s not ‘our’ meal, it is for the world. We gather to eat (and soon, I hope, to drink) but not for ourselves alone. It is well said that the eucharist has four actions: taking, breaking, blessing and sharing. We can take and break and bless as much as we like, but unless we also share with the world not only the meal but the freedom and hope it stands for – what we do has very little value. (Paul Wignall)

*****

‘Bending the knee’

bending the knee

The celebration of ‘Corpus Christi’’, which was inspired by the thought and devotion of St Thomas Aquinas in the mediaeval period, gives the Church a renewed opportunity to remind itself of the origins of our worship and to ‘bow the knee’ or genuflect, in celebration at Our Lord’s presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

This gesture of bowing the knee, which many across the world adopted in the midst of impassioned marches and protests, following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, has a new and powerfully political currency… At Corpus Christi we reflect on the meal which Jesus gave us, which is our ultimate sustenance and our means of calling ourselves the Body of Christ and knowing God’s love.

In the Eucharist, our central act of worship, we bow the knee, in humility, against the oppressive forces in our society and towards the one who took the form of a servant and lived amongst us incarnate. He was not white or European. His ancestry was that of a people who had been oppressed and enslaved. His action at the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday prefigured a renewed flight from the oppression of slavery. The Passover meal which Jesus centres his actions within both at table and on the cross, was the Jewish celebration of the end of slavery, the passing over the Angel of Death, the movement from bondage, out of Egypt and through the Red Sea towards a new and promised land of freedom.

That journey was appropriated and made new in the taking of bread and wine at the Last Supper. Jesus’s Body and Blood, are his and ours. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is. Slavery is ended, oppression is shown for the monster it is, and new life and new hope are ours, now and forever. (William Gulliford)

*****

‘Crucified love’

The Christian concept of the Trinity reveals that God is not the chief commander or the chief avenger – but the crucified love. Not unit, but unity. God is not just personal, but interpersonal God. He is dialogical. Within Him there is a timeless dialogue of infinite and untiring love, and we have been taken up into this dialogue.

roublev trinity

We refer to ourselves as the body of Christ, because we are incorporated in Christ through our baptism. Since we are incorporated in Christ, we are also incorporated in the Holy Trinity. We can imagine ourselves sitting at the table with the three angels and sharing the chalice with them. … The icon of the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18.1-15) by Andrei Rublev is one of the most mesmerizing works of art. As you try to understand how do the angels relate to each other, you get caught up in the dynamic that is going on between them, the circular, even spiral movement of their gestures.

Each angel refers to another, echoes another, but what gives this hypnotizing effect is that their gazes never meet. The first one is watching the second one, but the second one doesn’t look back – he is watching the third one. The third one doesn’t look back, but he is tilting his head. They do not meet each other’s eyes. Their relationship is completely opened.

Why is that? If two would exchange looks, the third one would be left outside, excluded. But their relationship is not exclusive. None of the angels, none of the persons of the Trinity is caught up in binary relation. What the icon tells us is that the nature of the Trinity is to embrace everything, to be opened.

Trinity represents the very idea of the possibility to go out of yourself. Three persons, but there is no domination. There is not one person that usurps all the attention….. There is no play of power… Trinitarian persons are not searching to receive their own reflection back, as we are often tempted to do. We want to see in the other only what is familiar to us, only what we like. We create our own ideal and see this ideal reflected in others. We want to see our own ideas being confirmed. We think that this is our comfort zone, but is it really? Does it make us free? Does it make us happier? Does it make us progress? … (Ksenia Smyk)

*****

Corpus Christi

Love’s feast is come again
this year we celebrate online
the ardent lines
that reach out to infinity;
parameters of love that know no end
and where we are
becomes the place of grace.
(Alan Amos)

Discipleship in Difficult Days 15: I am with you…

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.

Clare Amos

Director of Lay Discipleship

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

viens saint esprit

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’ –
this phrase
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
elided into
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
interruption, episode;
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
weary humanity
shape in our breathing
in our being
something of the answer
as we expend our thirty minutes
of virus time.
(Canon Alan Amos)

*****

zoom chapter meeting

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)

 

 

.

Discipleship in Difficult Days 14: May your communion be fulfilled in us

There are three items in this week’s blog offering. The major contribution is a fascinating theological reflection on COVID-19 by one of the two Canon Theologians in our diocese, Revd Professor Robin Gill. It is based on a presentation which he offered yesterday (28 May) to a Zoom meeting of the Chapter. Revd Professor Jack McDonald, our other Canon Theologian, will have his opportunity to reflect next week!

This is complemented by a poem my husband Canon Alan Amos has just written. The virus has somehow encouraged the poet in Alan that has been a key part of him all our married life! This poem is written with Pentecost in mind.

And we begin with sharing a prayer that could be described as co-written between Alan and myself, with input also from Bishop David Hamid. When about two months ago, Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, started to hold services that were Eucharists celebrated by priests in their own homes, with the worship shared by Zoom with the congregation, it became important to find and include a prayer that expressed the desire of those who could not receive the physical elements of Communion to make their ‘spiritual communion.’ Perhaps partly because it was such an innovation within Anglican practice, we opted then for quite a ‘traditional’ prayer – that of St Alphonsus Liguori to underpin this practice, and we are grateful to those who drew it to our attention. But St Alphonsus’ prayer is quite ‘Italianate’ and perhaps jars a bit on some Anglican sacramental sensibilities. However we could not find satisfactory alternatives on the Church of England website so St Alphonsus has been quite widely used in the last couple of months. Nonetheless, nudged by a friend in Geneva who is not a fan of St Alphonsus’ offering, we finally composed a prayer for the purpose of ‘spiritual communion’ that we feel is better reflective of mainstream Anglican spirituality and offer it below. Our understanding is that because there is not currently a formally authorised prayer for this purpose offered in Common Worship it is canonically permissible to use such a prayer, said by a member of the congregation before participants partake in the act of ‘spiritual communion.’ We would welcome further discussion and reflection on this theme, which is likely to be with us for a while yet.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 *****

A Prayer for the Act of Spiritual Communion/ Uniting in Communion

We offer and present to you, Lord our heavenly Father, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and living sacrifice; grant that being present together in heart and mind at this holy communion we may now be filled with your heavenly blessing through the redeeming grace of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ… [ short pause ]

… Lord Jesus Christ, in outward signs of bread and wine you have made known your presence among us; (* as we unite with one another from the places where we are // may we unite ourselves with you and embrace you with our hearts, souls and minds). May your communion be fulfilled in us now through the work of the life-giving Holy Spirit. Amen.

*the alternatives offered in the brackets above are still under discussion!

(Two interesting reflections, ‘tracts’, on the theme of the Eucharist and Communion in these ‘difficult days’ are offered by Rev Christopher Craig Brittan of the Anglican Church of Canada, where he is Dean of Divinity at Trinity College, Toronto, and are available here https://www.anglicanjournal.com/the-eucharist-and-coming-out-of-lockdown-a-tract-for-these-covid-19-times/   and here https://www.anglicanjournal.com/on-virtual-communion-a-tract-for-these-covid-19-times-ii/)

 

The well known prayer, Anima Christi, found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, also works well in this context:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malignant enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That with Thy Saints I may praise Thee
Forever and ever. Amen.

*****

flowers in garden

 ‘May the scent of beauty’s flowers…’

 

 A poem for Pentecost

Gracious Spirit enter your home

anoint our senses one by one;

restore our sight when inly blind

we tread dark corridors of the mind,

restore our taste for things divine

most surely found in bread and wine,

restore our sharing in these things

of holiness, may angel wings

hover above, around us still

defeating every thought of ill.

May the scent of beauty’s flowers

bring joy into the passing hours;

we look ahead to love’s embrace

to greet each other, face to face

and hear the voices that we love

no longer heard at one remove.

Comfort we pray those in pain

of mourning and bring hope again.

In all these things be our sure guide,

your healing presence at our side.

Alan Amos

 *****

Recent Theological Reflections on Covid-19

Recently I have read two outstanding theological reflections on Covid-19, one by the veteran Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann and the other by the Goldingays.

Walter Brueggemann’s short paperback book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief and Uncertainty (Eugene, ON: Cascade Books, 2020, 80pp.: 978–1-7252–7673-4. $14) is readily available on Amazon and a very good buy.

It opens with an extremely important distinction between three different ‘interpretive options’ in the Old Testament concerning the onslaught of a ‘plague’ (while recognising frankly that ‘plague’ is not to be equated simplistically with Covid-19):

  1. A transactional quid pro quo that issues in punishment for violators
  2. A purposeful mobilization of negative force in order to effect God’s own intent
  3. A raw holiness that refuses and defies our best explanations, so that God’s force is an irreducible reality in the world.

The first of these options is most evident in parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and, then, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel – signalling that ‘God’s creation is ordered according to a reliable moral intention that is non-negotiable’. The second features in Exodus, Isaiah and some of the Psalms — signalling ‘that the terror of YHWH is mobilized in order to preserve and enhance the rule of YHWH against usurpatious pride’. Whereas the third is most evident in the final chapters of Job and ‘concerns the sheer holiness of God that God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all’. Brueggemann finds resonance in each, arguing that they go beyond a purely rational and scientific understanding of Covid-19 (as necessary as that still is). His own preference is clearly for the third option, pointing to a growing awareness of our current ecological fragility resulting from human technological exploitation of God’s creation. Subsequent chapters apply this crucial insight to particular Psalms (especially 77), 2 Samuel 24, 1 Kings 8, and Isaiah 42 and 43. In each of these chapters he pays particular attention to the Hebrew concepts of ‘compassion’, ‘justice’ and ‘solidarity’, while weaving in criticisms of scientism (a form of ‘magic’), escapist consumerism and the simplicities of Donald Trump (Brueggemann is American) in the context of Covid-19.

John Goldingay and Kathleen Scott Goldingay’s article ‘Thinking with the Old Testament about the pandemic’ is available in the current issue of the journal that I edit, Theology (May/June 2020, Vol.123.3, pp.198-203) which is widely available in on-line Sage packages that all good libraries hold. Their reflections are largely consonant with those of Brueggemann (unsurprisingly, since some of his chapters are re-publications of earlier work), but they do add some intriguing observations. For example, on Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, they note that there are crucial differences between 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 6: ‘Samuel-Kings knows that in its day Judah is undergoing Yahweh’s chastisement and needs to think in those terms; Chronicles knows that in its day Judah needs encouragement about Yahweh’s grace rather than rebuke.’ They also note that: ‘In Jeremiah and Ezekiel Yahweh threatens epidemic twenty-nine times, as an aspect of the disaster menacing Jerusalem that they sought to prepare people for, or preferably to obviate. But there are no accounts of Yahweh fulfilling that threat when Jerusalem fell, as there are of death by sword and famine.’ And they finish their article with this poignant observation: ‘Alongside what the Torah does not say about epidemic and famine, Leviticus 19.13-18 would imply that such an event requires us to give concrete expression to loving our neighbour. We have been touched by a student offer to us as vulnerable oldies to do shopping for us, and we ourselves have been thinking about the needs of some friends whose academic gig-economy income has disappeared along with their work, and about how we can help them put food on the table’.

My own work is within Christian ethics and focuses more often upon the New Testament. In an article that I have road-tested on fellow members of the Diocesan Chapter, on Bishop Robert’s suggestion, I have been exploring the theme ‘Virtuous Living for the Faithful Elderly During Covid-19’ (this article will appear either in the September issue of Theology or in a journal of medical ethics). As someone over 70, I have found particular stimulus from St Luke’s story of Simeon and Anna greeting the baby Jesus in the temple.

Anna’s age is given as eighty-four and Simeon is often portrayed as being elderly, although Luke only implies that he is near to ‘seeing death’. Both are evidently devout and Simeon is also depicted as ‘righteous’. In Christopher Evan’s wonderful commentary Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 1990) – published when he was eighty himself, albeit still with another twenty-three years to live – Simeon is depicted as ‘a godly and inspired layman’ rather than the ‘priest’ of later tradition. Anna says nothing in the story, but Simeon echoes the canticles of Mary and Zechariah in the previous chapter of Luke:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’ (Luke 2.29-32)

Evans explains that this canticle is, like the other two, ‘a psalm of praise with the motive of praise for an action of God. It differs from them in being not diffuse but compact in form and content. It is a poetical construction of three closely knit couplets, each with lines of the same length, and the last with synonymous parallelism’ (pp.215-6). He also adds that the Greek of the final couplet is ‘ambiguous’ and ‘not immediately intelligible’, as this clunky NRSV translation suggests!

Be that as it may, it is worth noting in the present context, what Simeon is not saying. Holding the baby Jesus, he is not asking God to extend his life now that he has seen ‘your salvation’ and ‘the Lord’s Messiah’. Rather he is accepting his own ‘dismissal’, that is death, albeit ‘in peace’. Appropriately we now regularly use this canticle at funerals. A life is now complete and, hopefully, fulfilled. Ever observant and wise, Evans apparently commented later that, as a centenarian, he felt he should no longer be around to eavesdrop on people so much younger than himself. Perhaps he too thought that he should simply be handing-on – after all, his life’s work, Saint Luke, had now been handed on (I was one his students a quarter-of-a-century before its publication who thought it was near to completion even then).

A sense of handing-on is common among many of us who are now grandparents. So it is perhaps not difficult for us to identify with Simeon and Anna. We have been through the time when we might have identified more with the parable of the compassionate father faced with a prodigal child and, then, with sibling jealousy. We have shared Jairus’ terror at the thought — and for some poor parents the reality – of losing a child when ours was young. We have come through all of that and, now, we have the privilege of loving our grandchildren without feeling responsible for them and, as the cliché goes, being able to hand them back. In addition, many of us unhesitatingly prioritise their lives over ours and would, tellingly, regard their death as tragic but our own death as, at most, sad and perhaps not sad at all. We even tell our grandchildren that we hope to die long, long before them and that the world would horribly crowded if the old did not die. If we are faithful, we also tell them that when we die we hope to be with God.

None of this implies that we should neglect the elderly. On the contrary, the Pentateuch/Torah has frequent commands to care for widows, just as Ruth cares for Naomi. Anna and Simeon (if he was indeed old) are clearly treated with respect by Luke. And there are features of our care, or rather lack of care, for the elderly in Britain today that are deeply disturbing. When the full threat of Covid-19 passes, I believe that questions will need to be asked about the quality of care given in now largely privatised care homes. The rates of viral infection within them suggest to me that something is badly amiss. Considerable attention has been given to safe-guarding procedures for the elderly, but perhaps not enough for virus-guarding procedures.

Virtuous compassion and prudential governance for the elderly should surely go hand-in-hand. And, in turn, we who are elderly should, I believe, respond with compassionate and considered restraint – not, for example, demanding ventilators or, eventually, vaccines, that are in short supply, but asking for them to be given first to the young. Covid-19, unwelcome though it is, has much to teach us all about virtuous living and perhaps it reminds us of the importance of mature wisdom.

The theme of wisdom is one that keeps recurring within the Bible. This wisdom is really not about accumulating factual knowledge. In many areas of knowledge – especially mathematics and languages — we are rather better at that when we are young. It is much more to do with seeing things through a much greater perspective – sub specie aeternitatis – in the light of eternity. Tom McLeish’s astonishingly good book Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford: OUP, 2014) depicts this so well in his meditation upon Job:

The message of Job is that chaos is part of the fruitfulness of creation; we cannot hope to control it any more than we can bridle Leviathan, but by understanding we might channel it. Indeed new structures can arise when we do – the ‘beginning of wisdom’ is not to double-lock the casket of our ignorance, but to ‘seek the fear of the Lord’, where this is understood to be a participation in a creator’s deep insight into the structure of what he has made… situating our science and technology within a story of participative healing (p.256).

Covid-19 – whether it is a product of human carelessness or simply a spontaneous by-product of a fecund world that evolves through bacteria and, perhaps, even viruses – has undoubtedly created world-wide chaos in 2020 and maybe beyond. Yet our elderly responses to Covid-19 can indeed be virtuous, altruistic and a part of participative healing. The wisdom of the mature Job, especially in chapters 28 and 38 following, still resonates, concluding with the declaration: ‘I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’ (42.3). Being faithful in a context of (Covid-19) chaos and uncertainty might just be the most virtuous and helpful way that the elderly can live.

Robin Gill