“Pencils in the Hand of God”: Some thoughts on All Saints Day

‘You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint!’ Today is All Saints Day. Last year I posted a reflection on the day. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of that blog-post, and so I thought I would post it again. Thank you for your support of my blog over the past year, and I hope you enjoy reading this again.

Trystan Owain Hughes

Real God in the Real WorldBelow is a reflection taken from ‘Real God in the Real World‘, my latest book that can be used in groups or by individuals over the Advent and Christmas period. Each day begins with a bible reading and then uses lively personal stories and engaging illustrations from popular culture and the arts to reflect on the reading. The reflection below takes Revelation 7:9-17 as its starting point:

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all…

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‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

MentalHealthBrainToday is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.

mental-healthIn 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.

Mental-health-problems-007In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.

Praying1It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.

Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.

prayingHands_small_280x240Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.

79bd66b9-783a-43e8-8b27-bd6a663b5c51Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.

let-go-let-godWithin many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.

Psalm46.10A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.

“A vicar walks into a bar”: Why would anyone become a member of the clergy?

Rev.jpgIn a recent comprehensive piece of research by the UK Office for National Statistics, 274 jobs were considered as to which gave the most satisfaction. At the top of the list, as the most fulfilling occupation, was being a member of the clergy. Being a priest, vicar, pastor, or minister may not be the best paid financially, but it certainly pays in other ways. On the other hand, the job giving the least satisfaction was the position of a landlord of a public house or a wine bar. So, serving God beats serving pints of beer!

Sad man drinking in barInterestingly, in the hit song ‘Hope on the Rocks’, the American country music star Toby Keith describes the bartender in very priestly terms. People, he claims, go to bars with all sorts of problems – breakups, depression, grief, poverty – and they are desperate to be listened to, to confess, and to be comforted. The bar allows them the freedom to “drown in their sorrow and cry in their beer”. The bartender is, therefore, presented as being there to bring hope to their trials and tribulations. While there may be some amount of truth in this, most bar staff and pub landlords aren’t trained to deal with people’s turbulent lives and they haven’t chosen their livelihood because of a calling to care for people pastorally.

All Christians, of course, have a calling on their lives. God wants to use his people in their workplace and elsewhere, and no occupation is more important than another. Much of the satisfaction that comes through ordination, though, is because clergy are able to live out directly and boldly what they believe God is calling them to be. Before I became a member of the clergy, I lectured at a number of Universities. There was an enormous pressure there to attract new students to the colleges, so as to bring more money and financial stability to the institutions. Church leaders still have to deal with financial pressures, but most of their time is spent bringing God’s love to people who desperately need hope, peace, and comfort, and in showing Christ’s unconditional compassion to those who are struggling in an all too often uncompassionate, materialistic society.

revFor those who watch the ups and downs of parish life that Rev Adam Smallbone goes through in the BBC’s sitcom Rev, the level of satisfaction amongst members of the clergy might be a surprise. There is no doubt that, like the ministry of this fictitious inner-city vicar, most of us clergy go through periods of doubt, frustration, and disillusionment. There are even times when we might want to take off our dog collar and cut it into pieces. “I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more; I will abroad!’”, wrote sixteenth-century cleric George Herbert as he looked at his collar lying on the table.

Wedding vicarBut also like Rev Adam in Rev, those times of frustration fade into near obscurity in comparison with the times of fulfilment and satisfaction that our vocation brings – the times that George Herbert describes as moments when we hear God’s voice affirming our vocation. “As I raved and grew more fierce and wild at every word,” concludes Herbert’s poem The Collar, “me thought I heard one calling, ‘Child!’ And I replied ‘My Lord’”. It is, after all, a wonderful privilege to help people connect with the transcendence of life – to give opportunities for them to recognise that life is more than the hustle and bustle of their busy, competitive, and sometimes tiresome daily existence. It is also a magnificent privilege to be there at both the uplifting and unhappy times of people’s lives; at the ups and downs; at the hospitals and funerals and at the weddings and christenings. We stand alongside others in their tears and tragedy, as well as their joy and jubilation. We shake their hands after they commit their lives in love to another, and we hold their hands at hospital bedsides as they move from this life to the next. As such, our ministry is living out God’s compassion – suffering when others suffer and rejoicing when they are joyful.

THE DOUBLE movieThe recent film The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade and based on Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, may be situated in a dystopic, parallel world but the characters voice feelings that are widespread in today’s world. Jesse Eisenberg describes himself as a lonely and disconnected “Pinocchio”, a “wooden boy, not a real boy” who needs to be brought to life. That disconnect with the world around us, that loneliness and longing for community and connection, remains deep in the heart of humanity. By becoming a vicar, priest, or minister, we have the privilege of offering light and new life to those who come to us, as we support and love them through their journey. The wonderful irony is that, by offering people God’s grace, we are, in turn, offered so much fulfilment and satisfaction ourselves.

If you yourself feel God might be calling you to be a vicar, priest, pastor, or minister, please do talk to your own church leader.

Does being a Christian make us any more loving and compassionate?

lampshade - the one we got! It’s over three months now since we moved house and, considering we had Christmas and a new baby in that time, we’ve done pretty well in sorting the Vicarage out. Last week, we even got lampshades sorted in the rooms. They were delivered to the house and my wife and I put them up in the morning. Later in the day, I was sitting in the living room with a fellow vicar, under the glow of a wonderful new lampshade (the very one in the photo!). As we were chatting, my 7-year-old daughter came back from school and burst into the room. She looked straight up at the lampshade and stood staring up at it in appreciation. I reminded her that she should have first greeted us when she walked into the room. “Don’t just look up, look across as well”, I said. Quick as a flash, my colleague said “well there’s the sermon for next week!” We both laughed and got on with our meeting, but those words I said stayed with me – “don’t just look up, look across as well”.

IsaiahAs I was reading Isaiah 58 yesterday, I realised that there was not only a sermon but also a blog post in that little phrase! In that chapter God explains to his people why he is so displeased with them. They have certainly been carrying out their religious observances and duties – they have been fasting, praying, and keeping God’s commandments. The problem is, however, that they have also been exploiting their workers, oppressing the poor, being unwelcoming to the stranger, ignoring the hungry, and refusing to house the homeless. In other words, in Isaiah God is saying: “don’t just look up at me, look across at my children as well”.

Cardiff University ChaplaincyThis got me asking myself what difference our faith makes in our lives. I remember talking to one rather vocal atheist student when I was chaplain of Cardiff University and he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He charmed me by telling me what a good and compassionate person I was, but he didn’t finish there. “Yes, you’re a good, kind person, but that’s just who you are and it’s not necessarily anything to do with your faith – are you trying to tell me that, if you weren’t Christian, you’d suddenly become cruel and uncompassionate? So, basically, what’s the point of your faith?” I still find those words challenging. After all, if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ, then it must make a positive, loving, and life-affirming difference in our lives.

teabagAt the crux of this is the question whether being a Christian makes us any more loving and compassionate? Or does our faith make no difference to us outside of the hour each week that we give to going to church? Attending a church should make a huge difference to our lives, but it only does this if we allow it. It’s like having a teabag and a mug of hot water. The tea is a weekly church visit, and the water is the rest of the week. There’s no point keeping that teabag separate from the water. In fact, the tea bag is pretty useless without water. In other words, a church visit is useless if it doesn’t have an impact on each of our daily lives. So, we need to let the tea infuse the water; we need to let our faith enthuse every moment of our week – every conversation we have and every decision we make. If we don’t, we may as well stay in bed on Sunday morning. If our faith makes a difference in our daily lives, then it is priceless; if it doesn’t have any impact, then it is worthless.

The reality is, of course, that all of us are too often like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. We try desperately to allow our faith to make a difference, but end up getting our priorities completely wrong. The stand that we take as Christians on things that we think are important, blinds us from the things that really are important. Someone recently said to me how great it was that the Church can still get on front page of newspapers in its defence of “our beliefs and values”. Unfortunately, the Church’s priorities are often misplaced, and those so-called “beliefs and values” rarely reflect the heart of Jesus’s teaching. While we are busy discussing women bishops, gay marriage, and the loss of Christian influence in this country, the real message of the gospel, the message of liberation, grace, hope, peace, and joy, gets left behind. Sometimes I feel we are like the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 – while the revolution was raging all around them, they were holding councils to discuss liturgical colours.

WWJDOur call, then, is to realign our priorities. One way of doing that is to ask ourselves those four little words that used to adorn many teenage bracelets in the US – ‘what would Jesus do?’ The phrase has almost become a parody, but that shouldn’t mask the importance of reflecting on the question. Where would Jesus’s priorities be channelled if he were living today? Would he, nicene creed or doctrinal confession in hand, be desperate to root out those whose theology was not the same as his? Would he be bemoaning the fact that this country is becoming more multi-cultural and mixed-faith? Would he rile against those same-sex couples who want to commit themselves to a lifetime of love and faithfulness? Would he be worrying about a person of a different gender to him being in a spiritual position of authority? OR would he be actually be more concerned with living out the love and compassion that is so missing in so many lives in today’s world? Would he be standing alongside those seeking asylum, the hungry, victims of domestic violence, victims of human trafficking, those in prison, those in hospitals and hospices, those campaigning for the environment, victims of sexual abuse, and those oppressed by gender, race, or ethnicity?

leastAlthough it is dangerous to put any words into Jesus’s mouth, there is no doubt that he would identify with these groups. This can be seen in Matthew 25, which scholars tell us Jesus said with Isaiah 58 in mind. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” So, when we do live out our faith in our everyday lives and when we let our hour on Sunday infuse and enthuse the rest of our week, this is exactly what we will be doing – finding God in everyone we meet and treating them as if they were Jesus himself. That rather changes that phrase that we started with: “don’t just look up, look across as well”. The paradox is that when we look across at our neighbours, we actually are looking up, because we are looking at him! So, don’t just look up at him, but look across at him as well.

Together we stand: The importance of Christian unity

Family‘Though the body is made up of many parts, it is still one body’ (1 Cor 12:12). Last night I preached at a big service in Cardiff for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I started by taking about my family in North Wales. I am from a large family – I have three brothers and one sister. I tease my parents by telling them that they kept trying until they got one they liked! All five of us siblings look quite similar, but we’re actually very different people. We have different personalities (some of us are very firey and others pretty chilled), we have very different jobs (one brother is a headmaster, another trained as a gamekeeper and a plumber, and so on), we have different interests (one brother is a twitcher who travels the country birdwatching, another has STFC tatooed on his arm and travels the country following his favourite football team Shrewsbury Town, another was a finalist in the Welsh version of the X Factor (‘Can i Gymru’), and so on). So we all have same mother and father, we’re all brothers and sisters, but we have our own unique and precious characteristics that I know our parents love and cherish.

Christian UnityIt dawned on me this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity how our own families reflect the Church. From the time of the disciples, groups of Christians have thought and acted very differently. The early Christians in the book of Acts, for example, disagreed whether Christians should practice Jewish customs or not. By today, all us churches are very different in the way we worship, in our priorities, and in our theology. But let’s not forget that we are similar in one important way: we all pray ‘Our Father’, rather than ‘My Father’. So we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ, with Paul’s letters even referring to the churches as brothers and sisters. So we’re brothers and sisters who have our own unique and precious characteristics – ones that our Father in heaven loves and cherishes, and ones that we should appreciate in each other.

Jerry lee lewisWhen the five of us North Wales siblings were younger, we were brought up in beautiful Snowdonia. My Grandparents, who lived in the big smoke of our capital city Cardiff, used to call us the feral mountain children, and I quite often tease my own children by insisting that I was raised by wolves on the slopes of Snowdon. In reality, of course, we had no links with wolves, but I do remember that we all fought like cats and dogs when we were kids! I remember one punch up with my older brother that began with an argument as to who was more famous – Jerry Lee Lewis or Suzanne Vega. Twenty years later, I’m still certain I was correct – I mean, who is Suzanne Vega anyway?! By now, despite all our past fights and despite our differences personalities, we brothers and sister all get on very well, and we so enjoy meeting up with each other.

Winds of ChangeAgain, just as brothers and sisters go through changes in the way they treat each other as they grow-up and mature, so the relationships of churches and denominations have developed. Five hundred years ago we were literally killing each other, and even only 50 years ago, there was so much hatred, bitterness and prejudice on all sides. My first book, Winds of Change, researched church relationships in Wales during the twentieth century, and, as I trawled through old newspapers in dusty archives, I remember being shocked at what I was reading –  local chapel members attacking Catholic priests with stones, Anglican bishops announcing that all other churches in Wales were intruders, and Catholics claiming those outside Rome were not going to heaven. Well, things have certainly changed. We are so used to saying that things have changed for the worse. So we should rejoice and thank God for a change for the better – our churches have grown-up and matured, and we now lovingly recognise each other as brothers and sisters.

unityWe must remember, though, that relationships do not survive without effort. I am close to my brothers and sister because I phone them, we visit each other, we write e-mails to each other, I try to remember their birthdays (although there’s a lot of them!), and so on. Likewise, my relationship with God is alive because I talk to him in prayer, I listen for his voice in life, I recognise him in the people I meet, I study and read his book, and so on. So, in this Week of Christian Unity we might want to make a promise to ourselves that we will nurture our relationship with our brother and sister Christians – not just this week, but throughout the year. We could visit each other’s churches, we could pray for each other, we could support each other in any events organised – coffee mornings, special services, kids events, social nights, and so on. We can let those outside our churches know that, to us, religion is not something that divides, but is something that brings us together. After all, we are all parts of the body of Christ, and, to quote 1 Corinthians, ‘there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other’. As Psalm 133 announces, ‘how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!’

Rock of Ages: Pop music, faith, and the challenge to the Church today

Nick Cave stained glassTen years ago, I taught a University module on pop music and the Christian faith, which was the first such course to be taught in the UK. One of the essays I would give the students was on Australian rock star Nick Cave’s perspective that pop music expresses our desire to reach out to the sacred. “Ultimately,” he writes, “the love song exists to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine”. This viewpoint inspired me to write a later article in Anvil: The Journal for Theology and Mission, which argued that a conversational approach to pop music should be an integral part of the Church’s outreach, especially in connecting with younger generations. The article is still available online: ‘Pop Music and the Church’s Mission’.

one republicMy thoughts on this subject have not changed. In fact, when I hear the lyrics of the music that my children play, I am more convinced than ever that pop music holds both a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity for Christians today. Our pop charts continue to be full of spiritual searching, with many songs suffused with direct religious imagery and references. “Baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard… Seek it out and you shall find”, sing One Republic on ‘Counting Stars’, presently at number 3 in the UK charts (compare Matthew 7:7-8). Other recent songs have been even more direct with matters of faith. “When food is gone you are my daily meal; When friends are gone I know my saviour’s love is real”, sung Florence and the Machine on their 2009 hit single ‘You’ve got the Love’.

madonna like a prayerNone of this is new, of course. Faith and spirituality have always had an intimate relationship with pop and rock music, from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones (just listen to ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ on 1972’s seminal album ‘Exile on Main Street’), through to Madonna, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and U2 (whose songs are even used in some churches to form the structure of a communion service, cleverly entitled the ‘U2charist’).

Avril LavigneFor most songs, however, it is not their direct rooting in theology or Christian imagery that encourages those of faith to take note of them. Rather, it is the fact that they deal specifically, if often unwittingly, with key Christian themes such as sin, salvation, love, responsibility to one’s neighbours, hope, loss of innocence, compassion and redemption. In so many songs, there is an implicit, rather than an overt, sense of transcendence, which accompanies a real search for hope and meaning in a seemingly cold and uncaring world. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m, I’m with you”, sung Avril Lavigne on her 2003 award-winning song.

moby - jesusWith such a deep spirituality within much of today’s popular music, engagement and dialogue is essential, especially if the Church is to understand generations that are largely lost to its fold. Christians are called to a dynamic relationship with popular culture, in the same way that St Paul considered, and engaged with, the cultural and social make-up of the people to whom he was preaching (Acts 14:1-20). After all, both music and poetry harbour, to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, ‘the eternal marvel and silent mystery of God’ and so it is absolutely imperative that the Church takes seriously their contemporary forms. As William Romanowski puts it: “We need a different kind of Christian approach – an engaged, critical, and productive involvement with the popular arts – grounded in a faith vision that encompasses all of life and culture”.

Women Bishops – This is Wales, calling the Church of England

Women Bishops  6To have contributed one vote towards yesterday’s historic “yes” vote for women bishops in the Church in Wales feels special. I was there five years ago when the Church in Wales rejected women bishops, and I saw the pain that so many were feeling at that time – many tears of sorrow and incredulity were cried. Yesterday, though, it was tears of joy that were flowing at the Church in Wales’s Governing Body. For someone like me, it was a happy and jubilant day, which had affirmed an important biblical principle – “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). For many of my colleagues, though, it was the pinnacle of many tireless decades of praying and campaigning.

The debate yesterday was remarkably gracious – with both sides contributing with warmth and humility. Anglicanism, after all, has always been a broad Church, and we already have many different and contrasting voices within our theological and liturgical spectrum. Yesterday’s debate showed that we were no different to any other family – a motley crew of diverse folk held together, most of the time at least, by love and respect.

My own brief contribution to the debate seems a distant memory by now. However, a number of friends and colleagues have asked that I reproduce the words that I spoke from the podium. Below are therefore those words, reprinted in the knowledge that my friends and colleagues in the Church of England might be inspired by the fact that, at the moment that I spoke them, I truly believed that the Governing Body was going to vote “no” and that I was to return back home disheartened again. As it happened, the Bill went through effortlessly, with members of all shades of theology (evangelical, Catholic, traditionalist, liberal, charismatic) voting conclusively for women bishops:

Women Bishops 3“Yesterday, we heard about the rise in the number of children attending our churches. But once they hit their teens, it’s then they really start questioning. I coordinate a group called The Journey in the diocese of Llandaff, for 16 to 24-year-olds. A few months ago, we held an event called Grill-a-Bishop, and Bishop David Wilbourne came to be grilled by a group of over 30 young people. The question of women bishops was the very first issue they wanted to discuss. These young people came from different churches from across the diocese and hailed from a range of theological backgrounds, but all of them seemed to be of the same opinion – that NOW is the time for women bishops.”

“Listening to the discussions of these young people, it was clear that, yes, this is to do with theology, but it is also to do with the health of the Church, it is to do with affirming the ministry of all God’s people, and, with the nations cameras looking on, it is to do with the Church’s credibility in our society. I have no doubt whatsoever that voting against this Bill for women bishops will be extremely damaging to how the vast majority of young people view the Church in Wales – those young people who come to our churches, but also to those on the periphery and to those who do not attend.”

Women Bishops 2“As an outgoing chaplain at a large University and as coordinator of The Journey, I felt I had to try to say something about a group who aren’t represented here today. To the majority of teenagers and young people, continuing to say “no” to women bishops, especially as we already ordain women priests, is seen as nonsensical and backward. It is something an increasingly unbelieving age-group finds unbelievable.”

“And I personally find it unbelievable that I could be going back for this year’s Freshers Week at the University, for my last few weeks as chaplain there, to tell the students that we didn’t pass this Bill. It is certainly true that women bishops are not the answer to our problems as a Church, BUT it is also true that our problems will get a whole lot worse if we keep saying “no” to women bishops.”

“Get ready, I’m going to serve”: What has tennis got to do with ministry?

Canon John RowlandsLast night I preached at the 40th anniversary of the ordination to priesthood of Canon John Rowlands, Rector of Whitchurch (Cardiff), Canon Chancellor to Llandaff Cathedral, and former Principal of St Michael’s Theological College, Llandaff. On his request, I have edited the sermon and include it here:

Four years ago I was appointed as chaplain of Cardiff University. As I was curate of John’s parish at the time, he called me to his office to congratulate me. He was especially excited about having a big leaving party and service for me here at St Mary’s, Whitchurch, and he suggested I should make it on a Sunday afternoon. He left it for me to arrange the rest. I decided on a date, sent out all the invitations, and then met him again to organise further details. When I told him the day it was to take place on, he opened his diary, flicked through the pages to July, and, to my surprise, the blood drained from his face. Now, I knew something was seriously wrong, because, due to John’s famous love of the sun, it is quite difficult for his face to turn white! When he could finally speak, he stammered: “but it’s the Wimbledon final!” Well, those of us who know John well will know he is a huge tennis fan, but when the colour finally came back to his cheeks, he very kindly said: “for you, Trystan, for my first time in decades, I will give up watching the Wimbledon final”. I felt truly affirmed and loved… and then he added “unless, of course, Andy Murray gets to the final, and then you’re by yourself!”

murray serveFor the first time in my life, I ended up praying for the two weeks of Wimbledon that a British player would not get to the final. God kindly answered my prayer and Andy Murray was knocked out in the semis! As I was thinking about today’s gospel reading (Matthew 20:20-28), though, John’s love of tennis came to mind. The term “tennis” actually comes from the French word tenez (“hold on”), so it refers to the command “Hold on, I’m going to serve” or “Get ready, I’m going to serve”. The game actually has its roots in ancient Greece, but was then developed in medieval France, which explains much of the French terminology. Believe it or not, modern tennis was invented by a Welshman – Walter Wingfield, born in Ruabon, North Wales in the early nineteenth century – and the first ever proper game of tennis was played at a garden party in Nantclwyd Hall, Denbighshire. Interestingly, Wingfield and his friends used their servants to deliver the first ball of every point. So that’s how the tennis terms “serve” and “service” began to be used – because of the role of real servants.

Now, when I read about that, and reflected on John’s love of tennis, it got me thinking about today’s celebrations. “Get ready, I’m going to serve”. Forty years ago, John dedicated his life to Christ in a specific way when he was ordained to the priesthood. One year earlier, he had been ordained as a deacon. The word deacon, of course, is from the Greek word diakonos, meaning “servant”. In St David’s Cathedral that day, he therefore vowed to live a life of service – service to Christ and service to all of us. In other words, he was proclaiming to the world: “Get ready, I’m going to serve!”

apprenticeWhen you are ordained priest, of course, you continue to be a deacon, so you continue to serve the people around you. You are not their boss or their better, but their servant. This is very different from the attitude of the rest of society, which sees promotion to leadership as something which slowly relieves you of menial tasks. I hate to admit that I avidly watch the TV show “The Apprentice” – my excuse is that it gives me material for sermons like this! In “The Apprentice”, almost all the contestants seem to have egos the size of small planets and Alan Sugar seems to be impressed if kindness, compassion, and selfless service are placed to one side in the pursuit of money, authority, and power.

From our reading today (Matthew 20:20-28), it’s clear that Jesus taught a very different, counter-cultural view of the world. He overturned the value structures of our world. James and John were arguing about esteem and honour – they wanted to sit next to Jesus, in positions of privilege and power. The other disciples probably wanted such honour and prestige themselves, which is why they were so angry at the request. Jesus answered that those who follow the Servant must become servants themselves.

Servant Heart - handsThose of us who are ordained will sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the most important thing is that we look talented and worthwhile to the outside world… that we are a good preacher, or we have had a good career, or appear on TV or radio often. But, in reality, congregations care about something far simpler… the foundations. Has my priest got a servant heart? My vicar was there for me when my loved one died, or my vicar good at affirming and encouraging me, or my vicar made me a cup of tea and gave me some time when I felt sad or lonely…

Servanthood is what ministry is all about – approaching everything and everyone with a servant heart, however big or however small the task. But, of course, ministry is not only about being ordained. Each and every one of us is called to ministry, and part of the servant role of a good priest is to recognise the skills and talents of others, and to nurture and encourage others to live lives of servanthood. How many of us down the years have been approached by our vicar or rector and encouraged to help in all sorts of ways? Jesus’ first action when he returned from the wilderness was to gather together an unlikely team. Likewise, down the years, as chaplain, principal, and rector, John has affirmed and encouraged so many of us here in our own ministries – whether we are priests, deacons, church wardens, PCC members, lay ministry members, cleaners, choir members, junior church leaders, servers, readers, flower arrangers, or musicians.

appreciateAnd I know for the fact that he appreciates what is brought to the church by each one of us. When I was curate here in the benefice, I got tired of hearing from John how brilliant his former curate Ben Andrews was. Then I left here and chatted to the present curate Pete Mortimer, and Pete let slip that he was tired of hearing how brilliant Trystan Owain Hughes was. And it was great to be able to reassure Pete that his successor, when that happens, will get tired of people telling him how brilliant Pete Mortimer was! And that goes the same for every other person who is involved in this benefice, lay or ordained, past or present.

This affirmation, this building up of individuals and encouraging them in their own lives, is what servant priesthood is all about and it should be an inspiration and encouragement to us all, whether we are priests or not. After all, we’re all called to servanthood. We don’t need to be great intellectuals, we don’t need to be eloquent speakers, we don’t need to be wealthy, we don’t need to be highly gifted or talented. All of us, whatever our backgrounds, have something to contribute to God’s Kingdom on earth. All of us are called to tennis – to “get ready, and go out and serve”.

Martin Luther KingSo I’ll finish with some words from Martin Luther King, delivered in a sermon only two months before his death: ‘Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love’.

Beyond the stained-glass windows: Radical compassion and our everyday lives

Compassion and sufferingOver the past few weeks, I have given talks on compassion in various places – at Parc prison in Bridgend, at the Theology Cafe at the Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, at numerous Mothers Unions across south-east Wales, and for a Living Faith group (the diocese of Llandaff’s course aimed at exploring faith in today’s world) at my chaplaincy in Cardiff University. Next week I will give a paper on compassion and healthcare at a conference in Birmingham. Before I go, though, I want to post something on a question that has been asked at many of my talks and has been e-mailed to me as a response to my blog posts – why do we have to be quite so radical in our compassion? I have therefore adapted a section from my book The Compassion Quest and hope you find it helpful in considering this question. Over the past few months, I have been assisting at St John the Baptist’s church in the centre of Cardiff, so I also include some photographs that I have taken of the stained-glass windows there, which take up the theme of compassion.

Compassion and JesusWhile the Old Testament presents God as compassion and urges us to imitate him in our everyday lives, the New Testament goes a step further, by giving us a tangible, living example of God as compassion and providing a blueprint for a radical model of compassion in our own lives. The person Jesus embodies the very heart of compassion. Christ’s love is a love that empties itself of status, power or privilege and takes on the form of a servant to others. Referring directly to compassion, the New Testament in fact uses two different Greek words. The first word is eleeo, which is primarily used by those who appeal to Jesus for healing. The second word, splanchnizomai, expresses a deeper and more passionate form of compassion. In modern parlance it could literally be translated ‘to be moved in one’s guts’, and is used for Jesus’ own reaction to those who are pleading for healing. Jesus, therefore, responds to those who plea for basic compassion (eleeo) with a compassion that is intimate and intense (splanchnizomai). The pain and suffering of others engenders not merely superficial sympathy in Jesus, but rather affects him in the core of his being. Jesus was compassion incarnate – compassion made flesh – and it is this deep-seated compassion that leads him to do something about the suffering with which he is confronted. It might be said, then, that it is not necessarily the physical healing itself that reveals God in Jesus’ miracles, but that God is revealed in the compassion that leads to the cure. ‘The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away,’ wrote Henri Nouwen, ‘but that God first wants to share the pain with us.’

Compassion and JesusNot so long ago, Philip Pullman, the agnostic author, published an apocryphal retelling of Jesus’ life, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This book vividly expresses the scandal of such radical compassion. Jesus is presented as having a twin brother, simply called ‘Christ’, who follows him around the Palestinian countryside, interpreting his teachings and his actions. He is particularly shocked at Jesus’ teaching about God’s compassion and grace. The parables Jesus tells (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the great feast, and so on) describe a universal love that is arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery, and the twin brother believes that this is simply a ‘horrible’ way of viewing love. Furthermore, Jesus’ lifestyle reflects this ‘unfair’ concept of love. He mixes with undesirables like tax collectors and prostitutes, he claims to be ushering in a time of compassion by announcing the coming kingdom of God, and he condemns much of what was considered as virtue at the time. In Pullman’s tale, the whole situation seriously disturbs the scoundrel ‘Christ’, and so he completely rejects his twin brother as naive and delusional. Yet it is this very attitude that is the crux of both the teachings and the actions of the Jesus that we Christians follow – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional compassion that transcends religious, political or ethnic differences. ‘What is needed is a radicalism that leads beyond both the right and left,’ writes Jim Wallis, the Christian political activist who serves as spiritual advisor to Barack Obama, ‘that radicalism that can be found in the gospel which is neither liberal nor conservative but fully compassionate.’

Compassion and JesusCompassion should therefore be at the very centre of the life of every Christian, rather than at the periphery. We should be championing it to our children and teaching it in our schools above the desire for success and achievement. Albert Schweitzer argued that children have a basic capacity for compassion, which needs to be nurtured if it is to grow and thrive. Furthermore, once compassion is fostered in our children and in ourselves, we would more than likely see a snowball effect, as people ‘pay it forward’, as the film of that name put it. The more we give, the more others (and often ourselves) will receive in return. Individuals, communities and societies are thus enlivened and brought hope through this process. Like ripples on a pond, our compassion will have far-reaching effects on far more people than we realize. ‘If money goes, money comes,’ claimed Dr Aziz in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, ‘if money stays, death comes.’ Our faith does not remain behind stained-glass windows, where its pious and sanctimonious character confirms itself as irrelevant and trivial. Rather, we give ourselves joyously in radical compassionate love for others, as we act, in the words of Etty Hillesum who died at Auschwitz, ‘as a balm for all wounds’.

For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.

“Jesus, do you hate me?” Same-Sex Marriage, the Church and Compassion

QTIn a recent Question Time on BBC television, Welsh politician Chris Bryant recounted a time when the Papal Nuncio asked him how his wife was. The openly-gay Member of Parliament answered: “he’s a man”. To which the Roman Catholic dignitary responded: “what do you mean? Is she very butch?!” Bryant explained that he was gay and that he was in a civil partnership. The Papal Nuncio’s response was shocking, as he told the politician: “you do realise that you will do more damage to this world than climate change”. On the Question Time panel, Bryant then looked at the audience and gave a challenge to those who “for maybe understandable reasons” are passionately opposed to gay marriage: “just think of how you advance your arguments, because it can be very, very painful to some people”.

This anecdote reveals something of the oft-ignored issue in Christian discussions about same-sex marriage – the pastoral issue. Whatever our own theological and ethical viewpoint, it is undeniable that the Church’s attitude to gay and lesbian people has, at times in the past, been negative, judgmental, and uncompassionate. Instead of standing alongside a group of people who already feel wounded by a prejudiced society, the Church has either turned its back on them or, worse still, has been actively hostile. In other words, it has often failed in its pastoral duty towards a section of our community that has needed visible signs of God’s love. Ironically, in light of our call to offer pastoral care to all within our churches and parishes, the Church’s uncaring and unsympathetic attitude has led to a sense of disapproval, abandonment, and alienation.

MorrisseyIt is a sad fact that our faith, which should offer unconditional love, hope, and liberating forgiveness, is seen by many in today’s society as hateful, guilt-inducing, and judgmental. On Morrissey’s critically-acclaimed 2004 album You are the Quarry, the one-time lead singer of 80s iconographic pop group The Smiths announces he has finally found it in himself ‘to forgive Jesus’, who has left him with guilt, hang-ups, and low self-esteem. He finishes the song by screaming repetitively at Jesus – ‘do you hate me? Do you hate me?’ Instead of being a source of forgiveness, the Christian faith is now deemed to need forgiveness itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our attitudes towards gay people, who have felt unwelcome, unloved, and branded as ‘sinful’ by Christian reactions towards them.

The Church, therefore, needs to express an apologetic contrition for its past treatment of gay and lesbian people, before embracing a future pastoral response rooted in Jesus’s teachings and actions. Such a response must be centred upon a radical compassion – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional love that transcends differences of politics, ethnicity, and sexuality. We need to follow the risen Christ on the Emmaus Road, who came and walked alongside the two disciples, not forcing them to stop or to turn around, but entering into their current situation and engaging with it. As in any pastoral situation, there must be a desire to encounter Christ in “the other” (Matthew 25) and an openness to the possibility that our own attitudes may be radically changed from our engagements. After all, too often gay people are talked about, rather than listened to, in our churches.

LoveA pastoral statement to lesbian and gay Anglicans from 188 member bishops of the 1998 Lambeth conference, including Rowan Williams, pledged to ‘continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church’. Such a pledge has profound implications for gay people who are already professing Christians, but also for those on the periphery of the Church community, and it should radically challenge those of us in ministry. After all, at the very heart of Jesus’s life and teaching is the ideal of a compassion that is intimate and intense (Greek splanchnizomai), rather than simply a basic compassion (Greek eleeo). Jesus’s whole existence was one of standing alongside “the other” and championing God’s deep, unconditional love for all his children. Our call, which is both simple and challenging, is to follow that model of radical compassion.

“The life of Jesus suggests that to be like God is to show compassion” (Brennan Manning)

For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.

Thanks to Revd Rosie Dymond for helping me formulate some of my thoughts in this blog post.