Addiction: Radical Compassion and the Spirituality of Imperfection (Ministry Blog Series – 7)

I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years. This paper was given at a conference in Bangor in North Wales hosted by Cynnal, the clergy counselling service, and the Living Room, a community-based recovery centre in Cardiff. With thanks to Wynford Ellis Owen for inspiring my ideas on the spirituality of imperfection.

Some years back I was taking a service at a care home. I read confidently from Matthew’s Gospel: ‘The greatest commandment is love God with all your heart, your mind, and your soul; and the second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself’.  Without warning, an elderly woman at the back of the room suddenly shouted: ‘I don’t love my neighbour’. I was left speechless. I looked at the care assistants, they looked at me.  But the moment of silence gave the woman the opportunity to add: ‘and, listen ’ere vicar, if you knew her, you wouldn’t love her either’.

That woman, of course, had stumbled across a timeless truth – it’s easier to preach love and compassion than it is to live it out. Those who are struggling with addiction know all too well that people can be judgmental and can be hurtful in their speech and actions. Similarly, those of us who care for the afflicted and addicted can sometimes be treated with indifference and ingratitude by those whom we are trying to help. Whatever our experience, Jesus was unequivocally clear – we are called to love the other, however difficult that is, however idealistic that sounds. To do so, though, we need an understanding, firstly, of what Christian love demands of us, and, secondly, of what a spirituality of imperfection should entail.

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  • Radical Compassion

The Reformation was a watershed moment in Western history which reformed a faith that was in need of spiritual revival. But it also planted seeds that resulted in the triumph of individualism. In terms of our faith, this led to a championing of individual and personal salvation over-and-above the communal, along with all-too-often harsh judgementalism of words and actions. In the secular sphere, there is also a direct link between individualism and the rampant commodification, consumerism and materialism that besets modern society.

An individual relationship with the divine is integral to faith, but that relationship will become stagnant if it doesn’t inspire us to reach out to others. We are called to love God and love neighbour. The challenge is to step beyond our own individual egos to recognise our commonality. Most Christians pray “our father” each week, yet our theological emphasis has traditionally been on the “father”, rather than on the little word “our”. If God is “our” father, that means, whether we like it or not, all of us are God’s children and are brothers and sisters to one another. This is at the foundation of radical compassion.

The phrase ‘brothers and sisters’ is, in fact, used very often in scripture. Also, the New Testament frequently uses the Greek word ‘brothers’ (adelphoi) to refer to men and women, to brothers and sisters (e.g. in Acts 1:15). In later translations, this is often translated “believers” or “disciples” for inclusivity. But this misses something important about the original word and reflects a general move away from the use of “brothers” and “sisters” in Christian circles. Other groups, whether other faiths (such as Islam) or ethnic and racial groups, still regularly use ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ when addressing each other. My dad, an ordained minister in the Anglican Church in Wales, continues to use these terms when meeting strangers. It is such a rare thing to hear, though, that, on saying ‘Thank you, brother’ to one shopkeeper, he was surprised to be asked to which masonic lodge he belonged! Something of the familial side of the human journey is being lost for Christians by the waning of this biblical tradition. To view others as brothers and sisters leads to a recognition of both our intimacy with, and our duty to, each other.

Love of God and love of our neighbour, then, are not separate dimensions of our spiritual lives: they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. ‘We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other’, wrote social activist Dorothy Day who stood alongside the addicted on the streets of New York and elsewhere. Interestingly, the word for ‘compassion’ in the Old Testament is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem. In other words, our treatment of each other should reflect the love of family. We should treat others as if they had shared the same womb as we did, as if they were our own flesh and blood.

Despite its Western roots in the Reformation, though, this is certainly not a modern, western issue. Tribes and peoples across the world have, in the past and present, divided themselves from others, seeing the world through the lens of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The word dinka for the Dinka people of Sudan means ‘people’, thereby suggesting that other tribes are not people, but are subhuman. Their bitter enemies, the Nuer people, have the same attitude, with the word nuer meaning ‘original people’. Similarly, many thousands of miles away, the word yupik for the Alaskan Yupik tribe means ‘real people’.

As Christians, our call is to go beyond such divisions and discords – to recognise our common unity, to see others as family and to move away from a tribal, insular, inward-looking attitude that values only ‘people like us’. By doing so, we can be inspired to create loving, compassionate communities. If God is father of all, then we must treat everyone as if they were in the same family as us – those with whom we don’t get along, those with whom we don’t agree, those who are ill or injured, immigrants, the poor, the hungry, the addicted, those of different nationalities and races, those in our prisons, those of different faiths, the unemployed, the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless, the hated. As Desmond Tutu puts it: ‘In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian – all belong… We are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All, all are my children’. It is shocking. It is radical’.

  • A Spirituality of Imperfection

Allied to this emphasis on radical compassion, in which we view each other, as best we can, as family, is demanded of us a further attitudal shift. This shift demands a recognition of both the imperfection and the beauty in each of us. The doctrine of original sin asserts that the primordial sin of Adam and Eve tainted all subsequent generations. This belief is often derided or dismissed by the secular world. While its language and imagery may seem archaic and alien to modern sensibilities, few doctrines have more contemporary relevance. For us to affirm a radical compassion, we need a recognition that all of us, whoever we are, however settled our own lives seem at present, have a bias or tendency towards self-centredness and selfishness that leads to downfall.

Taken in isolation, however, the doctrine of original sin leads to an incomplete and blinkered spirituality. It needs to be regarded alongside a further Christian doctrine. In the first chapters of Genesis, God creates humanity in his own image, and, on looking back at his handiwork, we are told that he “saw that it was very good”. In other words, yes we hold a doctrine of original sin, but we also hold a doctrine of original righteousness. This crucial doctrine must never be ignored or relegated in importance – it affirms that we are all, each and everyone of us, valuable, unique, irreplaceable, and infinitely loved.

In the context of alcohol dependence and substance misuse, as in any other context, we must affirm the spirituality of original sin and original righteousness. For those of us involved in pastoral care, the doctrine of original sin  is essential as a reminder of our own fallibility and of the fine line between respectability and ruin. Russell Brand, in a recent interview, put it this way: “I relinquish the idea that I’m not homeless, in the gutter, smacked up, off my nut, because I’m somehow superior; [rather, I’m not those things] because of a random set of coordinates and events that have deposited me in a comfortable life”. That fact in itself, the realisation that nature and nurture are at the root of the hand that we are dealt, helps us withstand a punitive and condescending attitude towards those with addictions.

If, as Christians, we are courageous enough to face the reality that if we had another’s genes and a similar upbringing, there is a good chance that we would be acting in the same way, then it becomes almost impossible to ignore the cries of the hurt, the addicted, the suffering, the lonely, the anxious, the homeless, the disenfranchised. As the sixteenth-century English reformer John Bradford is purported to have exclaimed when he saw a group of prisoners being led to their execution: “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”.

While the doctrine of original sin reminds us of our own fallibility, the doctrine of original righteousness reminds us of the divine spark in the other, however far down the tunnel of darkness they have fallen. After all, New Testament incarnationalism leads us to recognise that in responding to the needs of those in the throws of dependency, addiction, or recovery, we are responding to Christ’s own needs. ‘Truly I tell you,’ asserts Matthew 25:40, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The life of the Christian must be a process of recognizing Christ in the other, and especially the other who is enduring suffering or difficulty. Charles de Foucauld, the Cistercian priest of the early twentieth century, lived amongst people of a different religion, tradition, and race, but insisted that every person was to him, quite literally, “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself”. His house in Algeria became a place where the locals knew that they were welcome at any time, however poor they were, however sick they were. “We are all children of God;” he wrote in his journal, “we must therefore see the beloved children of God in all people, and not just in the good, not just in the Christians, not just in the Saints, but in all the people”.

A spirituality which recognises the Christ in others helps us to offer the hope of new beginnings and transformation. After all, while original sin reminds us that nature and nurture have a huge hold on our lives, original righteousness reminds us that we are not wholly in bondage to those factors. Determinism is not a philosophy that sits well with the Christian concept of Metanoia (“repentance”). We are not simply complex robots shackled by our backgrounds and our genes. In recognising the unique worth of each and every person, despite their broken and fallible natures, we affirm that none of us are fixed and finished creatures. The resurrection affirms that God’s possibilities are limitless and all have potential for development, growth, and new life. “Behold I make all things new”, asserts the book of Revelation (21:5).

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The spirituality of the compassionate father of the prodigal son is at the heart of the call to be Christian. We often relate to the errant son in that parable, and we sometimes fear that we might be the jealous older brother. But God is calling us to join him as the running father, who loves and welcomes even his most rebellious, abandoned or lost children. As physician Paul Tournier wrote, considering a friend who was going through a divorce: “The circumstances of our lives are different, but the reality of our hearts is the same. If I were in his place, would I act any differently from him? I have no idea. At least I know that I should need friends who loved me unreservedly just as I am, with all my weaknesses, and who would trust me without judging me.”

Sadly, it is often the case that neither our churches nor our lives exhibit such a grace-full and compassionate spirituality. Most of us can find a reason, biblical or otherwise, why a certain person or particular group of people can be viewed as unwelcome or undesirable. Yet the challenge of radical compassion and the challenge of a spirituality of imperfection should be our modelling of a kingdom where no prodigal son is unwelcome and where there are no undesirables. Jesus did not turn his back on anybody; he welcomed them with open arms in the shape of a cross.

A Christian response to the cost of living crisis (Ministry Blog Series – 6)

I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written. This is a copy of my notes for a discussion that I took part in recently with Bishop Barry Morgan (former Archbishop of Wales) and Matt Batten (comms officer for Archbishop Andy John’s Food and Fuel campaign) on the theological challenge that the cost of living crisis poses.

What is the role churches should play in addressing questions about poverty and justice?

The churches need to be playing an absolutely central role in addressing the challenge of poverty and justice. To abandon those experiencing financial hardship is to abandon the gospel. Poverty robs people of dignity and value and so the challenge of those who are “struggling to make ends meet” is central to our faith.

Concern for the well-being of others arises naturally out of biblical theology and our understanding of the Gospel, as does a desire to see the vulnerable and needy provided for and protected. At the heart of God’s character and his relationship with his world is care and concern for the poor – we see this in the teachings of the Torah, the prophetic tradition of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, the ministry and teaching of Jesus, and the life of the early Church.

It is therefore outrageous that so many children in the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world, are living in poverty and that families are dependent on foodbanks, even those people who are in employment. While the cost of living crisis will impact each and every one of us differently, Christians cannot be silent while so many experience the crisis in an acute way, facing poverty or destitution.

So the challenge to the churches in facing this unacceptable situation, with child poverty on the increase and families having to make choices of eating or heating, is absolutely clear. But, of course, it’s not just about being hungry or being cold. Often the suffering of poverty is hidden from us. In the past few months, the numbers of those suffering mental ill health has soared, even amongst people who were previously stable, as individuals face anxiety, worry, and often a sense of shame at their struggles. Economic poverty has a devastating impact in a plethora of different ways on the lives of both individuals and communities.

How do you react to the statement that God helps those who help themselves?

The statement “God helps those who help themselves” is completely alien to a theologically-literate faith. In the context of poverty and justice, there is certainly nothing biblical about that statement. In the book of Genesis, God looks at his creation and sees it as tov me’od (“very good”). Thus, God’s intention for this creation is that there should be no shortages. We are, after all, gifted with more than sufficient provisions to meet our physical needs. So, Levitical and Deuteronomical laws ensure care for the vulnerable and marginalised in society, while Sabbath and Jubilee pronouncements lead to debts being regularly cancelled. Later in the Old Testament, the prophets rage against the injustices of the day and the structures of their society. So the expectation is certainly not that we leave people to fight their own individual struggles, but rather that we ourselves should rage against today’s injustices and ensure that we provide for those on the losing side of the inequality divide. Certainly that’s what the early church did – the book of Acts details the church of the disciples dedicating time and resources to meet the immediate needs of those struggling in their communities.

It is clear in scripture that poverty contradicts the will of God, and so Christians need to ensure that we nurture communities where no person is left behind, where no child goes to school on an empty stomach, where no parent has to make a choice between feeding their children and feeding themselves, where no young person has to eat raw food because using their hob is too expensive, and where no pensioner has to choose to sit in a cold and damp room just so they can afford their daily meals.

How can we engage with others to work towards a fairer society?

Generosity is at the heart of working towards a fairer society. St Paul urges generosity in his epistles and we Christians should be encouraging and showcasing generosity in our churches. Archbishop Andy John recently invited churches to be “practitioners of generosity”, urging every congregation to donate 10 boxes of basics items for the foodbank distribution network during Advent. The fact foodbanks and other ventures like pantries need to exist in twenty-first century Wales is appalling, but they do exist and the need is increasing in light of the cost of living crisis. So we need to be generous in our giving – donating food to foodbanks, but also donating money to charities. After all, the whole charity sector is feeling the effects of economic instability, with donations to charities going down considerably because people need their money for food and fuel.

We also might consider generosity in terms of opening churches and church halls as warm spaces for those struggling to heat their homes. This, of course, relies on the church being able to pay its own gas and electric bills – and that’s no longer a given. But we can still as churches and Christians join forces with other public bodies or charities to work together to continue reaching out and assisting.

Is it possible to be ambivalent or non-committal about politics and faith?

Being ambivalent or non-committal about politics and faith is not an option for Christians. The arc of the biblical narrative is for justice, fairness and equality – and these are political matters. From the outset of the creation narratives, we hear that God creates humanity in his own image. That may only be one little verse in the Bible, but its implications are profound. If all people reflect God’s image, then we are duty bound to care for one another. Poverty robs people of what God intended for them; it inverts God’s desires for his creation.

No wonder Jesus tells us that we see God himself in the face of the poor. ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me’, he says in Matthew 25. But the real challenge is what he says a few verses later, when he states: ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me’. In other words, it’s not just about what we do for others, it’s also about what we’re not doing for others. That’s a huge challenge for our commitment to politics, social action, and justice. God is present in people who are struggling, financially or otherwise, and, if we Christians are not there standing alongside them offering hope, warmth, and light, then we are not living as Jesus wanted us to and, of course, we we are not living as Jesus did. Not only was Jesus’s teaching unequivocal about what we ought to do with our wealth and resources, but he himself modelled a life of selfless solidarity with the marginalized of his day.

And so, in light of the biblical call for justice and in light of Jesus’s life and teaching, Christians can’t be ambivalent when surveys are showing one in seven adults in the UK had skipped meals or routinely gone without food, when the number of workers on zero–hours contracts in the UK have increased fivefold in 10 years, and when we hear dreadful stories about people having to eat pet food or trying to heat food on radiators.

Where do things like prayer and fasting sit within a prophetic and radical engagement with the world?

We sometimes feel helpless when we face the problems we see in our society. But our faith is all about hope. And that’s where, for me, prayer and spiritual exercises collide beautifully with prophetic and radical engagement with our world. As Christians we believe that God is at work in the world and so our prayers matter. They matter objectively, but they also matter subjectively. Desmond Tutu described prayer like sitting in front of a warm fire. Just as we become warmed ourselves as sit in the light and heat of the fire, time spent resting in God’s love makes us more loving ourselves.

So prayer strengthens us and inspires us to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. There’s a wonderful African proverb: “when you pray, move your feet”. And there’s something profound about that – prayer is essential, but remaining on our knees is not an option. Pope Francis talked about prayer by stating: “you pray that the hungry will be fed, then you get off your knees and you feed the hungry – that’s how prayer works”.

Again, we can look at the model of Jesus. It’s no coincidence that Jesus began his ministry by quoting the Jubilee passage in the book of Isaiah “the spirit of the Lord, is upon me, because he has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor”. But Jesus’s life was not one that was only marked by social action, just as his life wasn’t only marked by prayer. Jesus’s life was a balance between prayer and action – we could call it contemplative action. We need to embrace that beautiful balance in our lives.

With news that the 2021 census results show that less than half of the UK population identify as Christian, do people care or even believe that the church is the voice of the marginalised?

I think perhaps that question starts in the wrong place. Rowan Williams writes that “God did not make us human to become Christian, but he made us Christian to become more human”. In other words, what matters is not whether people care or believe that we Christians are the voice of the marginalised, but rather that the Spirit does inspire us to become the voice of the marginalised. Reaching out in compassion and love to our brothers and sisters who are vulnerable and struggling financially is what becoming more human is all about. It is also what God is all about – he is, after all, the God of justice.

The reality is that Christians do so much in local communities to assist those who are struggling, whether financially or otherwise. According to a recent survey, Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to be taught and experience generosity in their own lives than non-Christians. The poll found that 79 percent of Christians who practice their faith said they had been taught the importance of generosity, while only 58 percent of non-Christians said the same. And so it’s little wonder that church communities across Wales, as elsewhere, are becoming hubs for generous activity in the cost of living crisis, whether as foodbanks or warm spaces.

So it doesn’t matter if people outside the church see us as the voice of the marginalised – it matters that we are. It is, after all, our duty and calling to reach out to the marginalised and vulnerable, to empower and enable people, and to ensure power balances are redressed.

The Topsy-Turvy Revolution of Christmas

I preached for the final time at Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff on Christmas Day 2022. My sermon attempted to connect with those of different ages, including children, and those on different stages of their Christian journey. Our Reader, Eleanor Williams, acted as Angel Gabriel during the sermon (wearing angel wings and halo!) and she did so with her usual humour and charm. After the service, a number of people asked for a copy of the sermon, so I include it here on my blog.

Someone asked me recently about the favourite book I’d ever been given as a Christmas present. It’s a classic novel, highly cultured and deeply theological, about a man who lives an upside-down, back-to-front life. He even takes this as far as walking backwards, wearing his hat the wrong way, and carrying his walking stick from the bottom up. Written by the celebrated author Roger Hargreaves, who was far too often overlooked for the Nobel Prize for literature, the book is called Mr Topsy Turvy!

I was given this book when I was six years old, and, in my mind, there are similarities between this classic from the children’s Mr Men series and the book that really has changed my life. The Bible, after all, is a story of a topsy-turvy, upside-down, downside-up, inside-out, outside-in God. Nowhere is this more strikingly clear than at the outset of the New Testament, when the gospels start with the birth of Jesus that we celebrate today. This topsy-turvy narrative lays the foundation for the wonderful, life-giving faith that we now live out over 2000 years later. We get so used to hearing the message of Christmas year-after-year that we can sometimes forget how subversive and revolutionary our faith really is. Just imagine the conversation between God and the Angel Gabriel around nine months before Jesus’s birth.

God must have said to Angel Gabriel that things weren’t going too great on earth. There were so few people who were listening to his topsy-turvy, subversive message of love, kindness, and hope. And so he informs the Angel Gabriel that he’s considering sending his son down to teach, and show through his own life, this revolutionary way of living.

Angel Gabriel: “Great idea, Mr God – so, my suggestion would be to wait about 2000 years when television will be invented and TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter will really be able to help your PR campaign go down swimmingly”.

But God is determined that the birth of his son happens immediately, in the first century, because people needed a new saviour and fresh hope as soon as possible. This was the first topsy-turvy decision.

Angel Gabriel: “Ok, sounds a bit strange, but I’ll go with it… So, I see the Romans are pretty powerful at the moment. So let’s get your son born in that wonderful city Rome – the sparking capital of the world”.

But God wasn’t interested in the kind of power that Rome represented. Instead, Jesus was to be born in a small, middle-eastern country that was mired in turmoil and problems.

Angel Gabriel: “Ok, Israel, hmmm… strange choice, but it sort of makes sense as your son will be coming to your chosen people, God, to save them and to give them great hope”.

But God has other plans. He wants to break through the tribalism of the world then and of the world now. He wants to give the peculiar message that we are all loved by him, we are all important to him. Jesus may have been born as a first-century Jewish man, but his message of love and peace and hope and joy is for all people and all times.

Angel Gabriel: “Yes, you’re inspiring me now, God – I can get down with that message… so let’s get your son born in one of the wonderful palaces of Jerusalem – maybe to a King or a great warrior or a talented politician”.

But God wants Jesus, right from the very beginning, to topple our ideas of wealth and power – he was going to be born in a manger, amongst the dirty animals to a young unknown girl.

Angel Gabriel: “Right, I’m starting to see where this is going… but we definitely need to ensure your son’s teaching inspires followers who are important people, wealthy people, influential people… we’ve got to ensure his message continues for ever”.

But God’s vision of the future was different – his son was coming to proclaim good news for the marginalised, the criticised, the belittled, the scorned, the poor, the vulnerable, the grieving, the imprisoned, the depressed, the hurting, the anxious, the disabled, the sick, the lonely. Jesus’s topsy turvy message would be: “the first will be last and the last will be first”.

Angel Gabriel: “Sounds all a bit crazy to me, God… but, at the very least, you should have your son to either die a hero’s death or not to die at all and just live forever in his kingdom, ruling in glorious majesty”.

But God has one last twist in his plan. Jesus will die the horrible and painful death of a criminal, hung up a cross. And then he will come back three days later to rule in a different kind of kingdom – the kingdom of love and peace in the hearts of each and every one of us, if only we choose to embrace and live out his topsy-turvy message. 

Angel Gabriel: “Right, I give up – why don’t you just do what you want God – but don’t come running to me when your upside-down, topsy-turvy, downside-up, subverted, revolutionary, inside-out, outside-in world comes crashing down on you!”

But there are no guarantees that if we follow Jesus our lives won’t come crashing down – there are no guarantees that our lives will be trouble free. But today, Christmas Day, is a reminder that, while our topsy-turvy God may not be promising us an easy life, he is promising us, his disciples, the strength to live out his revolution. When we walk out of this building today and when we welcome in the new year, the baby in a manger should inspire us to turn our broken world upside-down – to ensure that the lonely have company, that the sick are visited, that those imprisoned by addiction are set free, that those experiencing prejudice and hatred are shown love and compassion, that those facing discrimination because of their race, gender, or sexuality are liberated from oppression, that those who are depressed or anxious see silver linings in their clouds, that those who can’t afford food on their tables or heating in their houses do not go to bed hungry or cold, that those who feel the heart wrenching despair of grief do not feel alone and abandoned, and that those who can’t even force a smile on Christmas Day know they are loved and infinitely valued. This is the faith of the crying, helpless baby in a manger. This is the topsy-turvy revolution we follow.

What is Ecumenism? Seven reasons churches must work together (Ministry Blog Series – 5)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . My good friend and colleague Revd Siôn Brynach has recently been appointed Chief Executive of CYTUN (Churches Together in Wales) and so I thought this was a good time to share a paper I wrote recently about the future of ecumenism in Wales.

Ecumenism has changed. In my doctoral thesis, I explored ecumenism in the 1960s and many then were predicting the future to be a steady march to Christian unity. By the time I set up the Welsh National Centre for Ecumenical Studies with Dr Noel Davies in the 1990s, it was dawning on us that this was not inevitable – but there was still a feeling that it was good for both the Church and society that denominations work together. By today, we live in a changed world, with very different priorities, challenges, and hopes from even a generation ago. And so, in light of these, we need to reflect upon seven points in considering the future of ecumenism in Wales:

1. Ecumenism is absolutely necessary to the future of our faith.

We live in a society that is obsessed with choice. But in this I believe we don’t have a choice. Christians working together is not a preference for us to consider. For the Church to survive and thrive, for the Church to be a gift to Welsh society, this is our only option. As the Welsh football logo puts it – Together Stronger. After all, we pray to “our father”, not “my father” – we are all one family in Christ. It is facing the future together that we can become a true blessing, inspiration, and resource to the people of Wales.

2. Ecumenism in the future faces a different reality.

In the past we have, quite rightly, argued that ecumenism is absolutely necessary because it is a biblical and theological imperative. But, in today’s world, it is also absolutely necessary because of how the younger generations view us. Almost all non-Christians (young and old), and even a good majority of the younger Christians, express confusion and disbelief that we don’t work together. Many young people today don’t know what the word “ecumenism” is, but my experience of schools and universities show me that, when they talk of Christianity, they’re talking of ecumenism. Valuing and cherishing our unique traditions is an important part of being in this ecumenical family, but the fact that the world doesn’t see us as different is both a huge challenge and a liberating blessing.

3. The future of ecumenism is rooted in the community.

Good ecumenism grows from grassroots outwards – it evolves from practical action in our communities. Becoming a holy ‘talking shop’ alienates and divides. Ecumenism must make a very real and practical difference. In my experience as a parish priest and as someone who has trained ordained and lay ministers of various denominations, ecumenism comes alive when it is real people coming together to live out God’s love in their local community – to help refugees, to assist those struggling financially, to maintain foodbanks, to ensure environmental initiatives flourish, or to protest against discrimination and inequality.

4. The future of ecumenism is at the centre of public life.

It is only together that we can truly be at the heart of the public square and the public life of Wales. Recently I taught a Masters course for chaplains of various denominations, and the chaplains (health, military, school & University) were consistent in telling me that, aside from a small dissenting minority, those in our secular institutions and organisations still look to us for spiritual, pastoral, and moral leadership. In Wales, we are a country of two principal languages and a flourishing Welsh government. The ecumenical presence needs, therefore, to prioritise relationship-building and continue to be embedded in Welsh life (in both the Welsh and English medium) as a resource and an inspiration – in the Senedd, in schools, in the health service, in the media, in city centres, in rural workplaces, and so on.

5. The future of ecumenism cannot ignore the digital.

Both the local community and the wider society are central to ecumenism, but digital communities and communication are also of paramount importance. Churches and denominations cannot consign themselves to ecclesial ghettos, but need to work together to reach out to our digital world. I was delighted to speak to the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland trustees recently about the hugely successful podchurch venture that my church pioneered during the pandemic. Podchurch, which released worship that was centred on climate change, racial justice, disability, refugees, and many more issues, was listened to across the denominational spectrum and was able to inspire so many beyond my own tradition.

6. The future of ecumenism needs to be open to inter-faith friendship

Ecumenism emphasises our unity in Christ, but it also recognises our common humanity with our brothers and sisters in other faiths. This leads to fruitful dialogue and effective action. Not that ecumenism and interfaith work should be confused – in the early 2000s I resisted pressure to make the Welsh National Centre for Ecumenical Studies the “Welsh National Centre for Inter Faith Studies”. It is only because churches come together in ecumenism to celebrate both their similarities and differences that we can have something unique and inspiring to contribute to inter-faith dialogue and action.

7. The future of ecumenism is grounded in hope.

So many people in Wales have lost their attachment to institutional religion. But this need not lead us to lose heart. Those of us championing ecumenism can build on two things:

a) The latest studies reveal that spirituality is still important in people’s lives. The work of theologians such as Gordon Lynch and Charles Taylor have shown that people’s spirituality is simply taking a new form – in film and music, or in exercise and yoga, or in football and other sports, or even during public grief, as was shown after the death Queen Elizabeth II, when places of worship were visited for prayer and for the signing of books of condolences. Together churches can consider the implication of this popular spirituality and then work to provide moments of uplifting transcendence for a society hungry for connection.

b) As well as the presence of an innate spirituality, the respect for the tireless work of the churches for social justice is also increasing. The impact that ecumenical initiatives have had in Wales in recent years has shown this, both at a local level, with life-transforming ecumenical projects like Llanfair on the Penrhys estate in the Rhondda Valley, and nationally, with inspiring CYTUN work on such important issues as campaigning against poverty, welcoming refugees, and combating climate change.

So, yes, ecumenism has evolved so much in the past decades. But its absolute necessity remains. In a world where there are now so many divisions in areas of politics and identity, we Christians can embody a wonderful unity in diversity to bring hope to our fractured world, as we speak for those with no voice, stand alongside the sidelined, and reveal to the people of Wales that our faith is good news for all.

What is the theology of safeguarding? Building welcoming communities of love and grace (Ministry Blog Series – 4)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . This post was written as a blog post for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales.

Safeguarding. It’s a word that, to some people, brings to mind another seminar we are made to attend and just another box to tick. When it comes down to it, we sometimes feel we have better things to do than sit through another safeguarding course or read yet another email or article on the subject.

The reality is, though, that safeguarding is absolutely integral to our faith. It’s part of our calling and should be central to our discipleship, ministry, and mission. As Christians, each of us has an important role to play in promoting welfare of children and vulnerable adults. Paying attention to interpersonal boundaries and power imbalances is far from being an inconvenience, but is intrinsic to a life-giving, compassion-filled faith.

Perhaps understanding the theological and biblical roots of safeguarding can inspire and challenge us to a fresh vision of the importance of fostering a culture of safety in our churches. After all, as theologian Krish Kandiah puts it, in the Bible there is “a clear mandate, motivation and mission to ensure that those who are or may be vulnerable are heard, defended, and treated appropriately, effectively, fairly and compassionately”.

The theological foundation for safeguarding stems from our creation in the image of God. Who we know God is, and how we know he acts, sets the precedent to how we should relate to each other. Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote: “in the beginning was relationship”. In other words, God is relationship and the concept of the loving Trinity, God as ‘three in one’, brings that home to us. So, our call as Christians is to reflect the relationship that God is – loving, affirming, welcoming, caring, and protecting.

After all, in Psalm 121, God himself is described as our “keeper” and the Hebrew word used there (somereka) can be translated as “safeguard”. In fact, even the theological concept of “salvation” relates to this, as the root of the word “salvation” in Greek (soteria) implies safekeeping. So, care and compassion are at the core of God’s very being. As a result, we ourselves are challenged to live out God’s radical care and love, ensuring we advocate for the lowly, the lost, and the least in our communities. As the book of Proverbs puts it (31:8): we “speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves and protect the rights of all who are helpless and defenceless”.

And, of course, this relates to the cross, which stands at the very centre of our faith. By acknowledging the horror and pain of the cross and God’s presence in Jesus’s cries of agony, we are compelled to challenge all forms of manipulation, violence, and suffering. The cross is, as theologian Elaine Brown Crawford puts it, “an eternal statement that humans should not be abused”.

The agony of the cross then leads to the resurrection, which further affirms our commitment to fostering safety for those who are under threat, ushering in transformation, new life, and hope for individuals and communities. And, just as the resurrected Jesus had scars on his body, so we also stand alongside those who bear their own hidden scars, not least those who have been ignored and failed by the Church in the past.

So, churches are mandated to become places that embody a kingdom where the dignity and ultimate worth of all is championed. While the structures and processes of safeguarding may seem inconvenient on occasion, they are an essential part of this mandate. They can become instruments of God’s kingdom, whereupon children and vulnerable people can be helped to flourish and can be provided with the safe places they desire and deserve. As such, safeguarding is not only at the heart of God’s being and will, but is at the heart of our own identity as Christians, underpinning everything we do, everything we stand for, and everything we are. It is through championing the absolute centrality of care and safety in our churches that we can truly build welcoming, hopeful, compassionate communities of love and grace.

Thought for the Day: The Beatles, the Beatitudes, and the God of the Unexpected

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, Peter Jackson, most famous as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, edited footage of the three weeks in 1969 when the Beatles recorded their final album. It’s a marathon of a documentary, almost 9 hours long, but it’s also fascinating. It reveals how the creativity of the Beatles was fuelled by marmalade on toast and it shows how, in their final months as a band, the sometimes-fractious relationships between the Fab Four inspired them to compose some of their most timeless tunes, including “Let it Be” and “Get Back”. Their plan was to end the three weeks by performing in an ancient auditorium in Tripoli. Eventually, though, they simply decide to climb up to the rooftop of their studio in London and play a concert to the astounded people walking past.

As the police desperately try to gain access to the rooftop to put a stop to the concert, the filmmakers interview people on the streets below. Some are unhappy at the music blasting out, while others are excited by the final time the Beatles would ever perform in public. The interviewers then come to an ageing vicar. We might expect him to side with the greying businessmen condemning the loud music. Refreshingly, though, he doesn’t play into the stereotype of the grumpy Christian bemoaning noisy youths. Instead, he looks up to the roof, smiles warmly, and says that rarely do people get anything for free and how wonderful it was that the young people were enjoying it so much!

As I watched that joyful, unpredictable vicar, I was reminded somewhat of the God that he was following. The Bible reveals to us that our God is the God of the unexpected. Jesus’s teaching reveals a God who topples our predictions and confounds our expectations. In particular, he doesn’t side with the people who we think might deserve it. Instead, he embraces the people that our society believes should be side-lined or ignored. This God of ours brings the people on the edges of life to the centre stage – all the lonely people, as the Beatles put it, but also the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the grieving, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling, the lowly, the gentle, the marginalised, the powerless, the hated, the outsider, and the unwanted.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus astonishingly refers to these people as “blessed” (Luke 6:20-26) – or even “happy” as the Greek word used (makarios) can be translated. In God’s eyes, it is the struggling people on the edges of our society who are blessed and happy. This sharply contradicts how our world seems to work – where the rich, the capable, the successful, the powerful, and the famous are glorified, while others are viewed as expendable consumers, to sell things to or to be discarded as unprofitable or useless.

The Beatles famously sang that “all you need is love”. Whatever they meant by that, our faith reminds us that Christian love is something radically different from saccharin-sweet Valentine’s Day love. God’s love destroys the dominant worldview and ushers in a strange kingdom that has dramatic implications on our lives. It demands that we ask ourselves some searching questions. Who do we glorify in our world? Who do we demonise? How do we view certain people and groups? Are we truly living out our upside-down, downside-up, topsy-turvy, flipped-around faith? Or are we simply standing around, like the predictable people in the Beatles documentary, complaining about the noise and looking down with disdain on those who are not like us? And are we too quickly slipping into our comfort zones and descending into the stereotype of how we think a “normal” Christian should behave and react?

One thing is clear – there’s nothing normal about our faith, and neither is there anything comfortable, snug, or predictable. Instead, Jesus introduces us to the God of the unexpected and, by doing so, he rips up and tears apart all the world teaches about human nature. In our faith is a radical, revolutionary call to sacrifice, love, and compassion. Through our faith, and with our help, God can and will transform our broken world.

Lent Book with Resources – Opening our Lives: Devotional Readings for Lent

Thinking of a Lent book for your daily reading this year? Or are you leading a weekly Lent group in your church? Allow Opening our Lives: Devotional Readings for Lent to challenge and inspire you this Lent. As well as daily reflections and weekly questions in the book itself, the following videos might also aid your reading and/or discussion:

Week 1: Week 1 Lent – Open our Eyes to your Presence – YouTube

Week 2: Week 2 Lent – Open our Ears to your Call – YouTube

Week 3: Week 3 Lent – Open our Hearts to your Love – YouTube

Week 4: Week 4 Lent – Open our Ways to your Will – YouTube

Week 5: Week 5 Lent – Open our Actions to your Compassion – YouTube

Week 6 (Holy Week): Week 6 Lent – Holy Week – Open our Pain to your Peace – YouTube

Easter Sunday: Easter Sunday – Open our World to your Hope – YouTube

Extra: Interview with Trystan Owain Hughes about ‘Opening our Lives’ – the official BRF Lent Book for 2021 – YouTube

Extra: Easter Tiny Perfect Moments – A Reflection Recorded for High School Pupils – YouTube

Official BRF Lent Book 2021

Official Archbishop of Wales Lent Book 2021

Endorsed by Bishop Ruth Bushyager, Amy Boucher-Pye, Bishop June Osborne, and Bishop Graham Tomlin.

“Easy, attractive, and thought-provoking reading” (Church Times)

“Hughes‘s comments, based upon sound scholarship, are written out of his experiences and inspire the reader to look more closely at the things of faith“ (Methodist Recorder)

“Blending story, insight and commentary… weaving wisdom from the Bible with stories from his life, examples from books and movies, and insights from great Christian thinkers… a rich resource that will give you plenty to not only ponder but to put into practice” (Women Alive magazine)

Available from all good bookstores, including Eden, Amazon, BRF, Waterstones, and CHB.

Hope – A Christmas Reflection

The recent movie A Boy Called Christmas tells the magical story of how the young St Nicholas met Blitzen and the elves and became the Santa Claus we all know and love. At the start of the film, the King of Finland, played by Jim Broadbent, speaks to his subjects about the dark times they are living in. He says these words: “We all know times are hard. I mean really, really, really hard. I can’t remember the last time I smiled. Can you? What is there to smile about? We’re all miserable. We’re all missing something. And I think we know what that is… Hope. We all need hope.”

After the past few years, many of us can relate to those words. We live in times of turmoil – fractious political uncertainty, heart-breaking environmental damage, toxic ideological divisions, desperate asylum seekers, and, of course, an unforgiving pandemic. In his latest book, the New York Times bestselling author Mark Manson suggests that we all need hope to survive “the way a fish needs water” and, without a hope of a brighter, better future, “we spiritually die”. And he suggests that one of the essential things to build and maintain hope is a sense of control. In other words, if we lose a sense of control over our lives, we lose hope.

How many of us have felt in control of our lives over the past 18 months? Very few, I imagine. But what the pandemic has actually done is taught us a timeless truth about control. It’s taught us that the narrative of self-control is a lie – none of us have any real control over virtually anything! Our health, our jobs, our partners, our children, our weather – none of us have control over them!

Christmas, though, is a time when we’re reminded that, for all our lack of control, hope still lives on. This season opens our eyes to the small glimmers of promise all around us, twinkling like the tree lights in our living rooms. In the Christmas story, the angels announce to the shepherds the coming of a great hope – a Saviour who’ll usher in a new world. No doubt the shepherds were expecting to be told that this hope was to be found in a capital city or in a great palace, in the guise of a charismatic politician or a famous world leader. Instead, the hope entered our world in a helpless baby in a dirty manger in a grubby stable, born to two nobodies surrounded by braying animals, in a small seemingly unimportant town.

Despite the lack of hope in that scene, though, we know that somebody was in control. And, of course, in our own hopelessness, however bad things get, however dark it seems, however stormy the seas, we know that somebody is in control. That is why the light shines in the darkness. And it all started with that first Christmas morning. As the opening words of one Christmas song puts it: “A ray of hope flickers in the sky, A tiny star lights up way up high”.

That star in the night sky pointed to a Christ child who came to us in poverty and weakness, in a seemingly dull, unimaginative scene. But this is the beginning of the glorious colourful nativity that fills our lives and delights our hearts each Christmas, this is the dawn of a new hope. This is the reassurance that, if we lay down our desperation for control, the one who is in control will open our eyes, our ears, our hearts to moments of hope in small things in seemingly unimportant places.

So, yes, when we are reaching out to others through foodbanks or medicines or vaccines or education or charities or environmental care, this is God’s hope in action. But hope is also birthed in our smaller, seemingly insignificant actions – when we’re taking the time to help a neighbour, when we’re reassuring a friend with kind and uplifting words, when we make a phone call to someone who is lonely or struggling, when we speak out for justice for those who are desperate or marginalised, and when we practice kindness and compassion and patience. This is when God’s light is breaking through all around us, reassuring us, in the words of Maggie Smith in that film A Boy Called Christmas: “the darkest night will end, the sun will rise, and Christmas mornings will come again, when anything and everything can happen”.

To watch a recording of this reflection: https://youtu.be/reEAQMEd9D0

Thought for the Day: Our Wonky Hearts

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, I’ve been watching the TV series Britannia, about the Roman invasion of Britain. It was filmed on the beautiful stretch of coastline at Llantwit Major in South Wales, so I was inspired to go for a walk there with my family last week. We’d heard there were fossils in the rocks there, so we started searching. My wife suddenly shouted, so we ran over excited to see some ammonite or other. We were disappointed to discover that there was no fossil, but rather she wanted to show us markings on the rock that were shaped like a love heart. Our crestfallen 7-year-old bluntly blurted out: “mum, it doesn’t even look like a heart”. “Just look carefully”, my wife answered, “it’s a wonky heart!”

As I stood on that beach, it dawned on me that all of us have wonky hearts. This is, of course, quite literally true. Our hearts don’t really look like the love hearts that appear on Valentine’s Day cards. Instead, they can appear as a variety of shapes, shapes described by the medical school in the University of Minnesota as elliptical, conical, and trapezoidal. In other words, hearts are wonky.

While this is true physiologically, it is also true emotionally and spiritually. The love that we share with others will always be flawed and imperfect. Our care and compassion for those in need, for those undergoing oppression, for those who are struggling in life, for the environment around us, will always be lacking in some way. Bruce Springsteen once sang “everybody’s got a hungry heart”. But perhaps “everybody’s got a wonky heart” holds far more truth.

Rather than leading us to feel helpless and to feel as if we can never do enough or do things correctly, though, our faith teaches us to accept the limitations of our wonky love and to still strive, the best we can, to live out God’s commands to love those around us. In other words, even our little steps of wonky love matter.

It’s so easy to get sucked into thinking there really is no point doing anything if our hearts are flawed anyway. Recently someone told me that there was not much point cutting down use of their car or making a real effort to recycle. After all, they continued, our own feeble acts are like a drop in the ocean of what is needed. “If only China or the US governments would change their policies;” they concluded, “now that would make a difference”.

For us Christians, though, however seemingly small our good deeds, living out God’s love for the world around us is central to our calling. We certainly can’t do everything, but we can be the change we want to see. After all, this is what Jesus meant when he urged us to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness”. We bring in a little of God’s kingdom each time we speak a kind word to a neighbour, each time we make a phone call to a friend who is struggling or lonely, each time we speak out against inequality and injustice, each time we decide to walk rather than use the car, each time we donate to a charity. Our actions matter. They really matter.

So, yes, our hearts are wonky, but they still hold the wonderful potential to make just a little difference in a world that desperately needs love and hope. And the more of us that recognise that fact, the bigger the difference will be. As activist Howard Zinn put it: “small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”.

Thought for the Day: Friendship

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

I was flicking through TV channels the other evening and stumbled across a rerun of the TV series Friends. The trials of Joey, Monica, Rachel, Chandler and Ross kept many of us enthralled in the 90s. But I was suddenly struck by the famous theme tune, which sympathises if it has not “been your day, your week, your month, or even your year”.

Over a year now into this pandemic, it’s easy for us to feel that it’s not been our year, that our lives have been put on hold for far too long. The reality is, though, that nothing has really been put in hold and that we have grown, developed and learnt so much about ourselves, our faith, and our world through the pandemic. This is certainly true with how much many of us have learnt about the value and benefit of friendship – perhaps because we have missed our normal times with our friends (sitting, chatting in cafés, for example) or perhaps because we have had friends who have stood by us, bringing hope and joy into our times of worry and darkness.

Over the past few decades, though, most of us have been living increasingly isolated lives. In the US, research shows that one in four people have no close friends, while here in the UK our government is so concerned with social isolation that they have appointed a minister for loneliness. Over in Japan “Rent-a-Friend” companies are proving hugely popular and the trend is catching on elsewhere. Last week, I found myself sitting alone on my sofa, scrolling through social media posts. It dawned on me that I was connected to so many people, but I was not connecting with anyone.

St Augustine pointed out that sin makes us curve inward on ourselves. In other words, it makes us think that we can do it alone, to believe that we don’t need others. Our individualistic cultures make this all the worse – independence is championed, self-made people are praised, the glory of individual achievements is emphasised. And so we misalign our priorities.

Drew Hunter, in a book on the spiritual importance of friendship, powerfully suggests that, at the end of our lives, when we take a thoughtful glance backwards into our past, none of us will say “oh, I wish I’d spent more hours at work” or “oh, I wish I’d spent more time staring at a screen”. But we may well say “I wish I’d spent more time with my friends”. He concludes with a lovely line: “if you ask me what’s best in life, I’m going to give you names”.

Jesus himself came as a person of friendship. In John’s gospel he asserts that he is much more than the Master of his disciples – he is their friend (John 15:14-15). As we are now also his disciples, so his friendship is offered to us. And so it’s no surprise that friendship is so important in our lives, for our God is a God of friendship.

Our own friendships point back to Genesis, when God asserts that it was not good for us to be alone, and they point forward to Revelation, when we will be brought together in a new creation with Jesus. Friendship is, then, a gift from above. It is the ultimate expression of love. As nineteenth-century bishop JC Ryle emphasised: “the brightest sunbeam in the world is a friend – friendship halves our troubles and doubles our joys”.

So, this week, I want to encourage you to contact your friends. Have a chat on the phone, meet in a garden, or go for a walk. Commit yourself to be there for your friends and reassure yourselves they will be there for you. As the Friends theme tune continues: “When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, then I’ll be there for you (When the rain starts to pour) I’ll be there for you (Like I’ve been there before) I’ll be there for you (’Cause you’re there for me too)”.

Remember that friendships are holy. And that brings me to the second thing I want to encourage you to remember this week. Many of the words for our relationship with Jesus and God that can seem quite hierarchical. So, God is our father and we are his children, Jesus is a Shepherd and we are his lambs. But let’s not forget that God is also a God of friendship and Jesus offers us his hand of friendship. Reach out and accept that hand, because he is saying to you: “whatever kind of day, week, month, or year you’ve had, I’ll there for you!”.