Sunday, 4 October 2015

Divorce: Jesus And Religion

The Roman Catholic Church starts its three week synod on the family today, which is expected to look at, among other things, the way their church treats remarried divorcees.

Possibly coincidentally, today's Gospel reading in CofE churches was the divorce passage from Mark's Gospel:
Then some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts.  But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In the house once again, the disciples asked him about this. So he told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
It looks such a simple passage, yet beneath the surface so much is going on.

The story represents three different viewpoints; the three key concepts have very different meanings today from 2,000 years ago; few people today are familiar enough with the Old Testament to get the underlying issue; and religious institutions persistently reverse the approach taken by Jesus.

I had a stab at this passage a few months ago, Are Wives Like Cars, so I'll try to avoid repeating too much from that, and start with the underlying issue. Jesus tried to point the Pharisees back to this when he asked what Moses had commanded, but they miss the point ... as do we, probably. I'll quote the full passage from Deuteronomy, rather than the Pharisees' gloss on it:
If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house. When she has left him she may go and become someone else’s wife. If the second husband rejects her and then divorces her, gives her the papers, and evicts her from his house, or if the second husband who married her dies, her first husband who divorced her is not permitted to remarry her after she has become ritually impure, for that is offensive to the Lord.
Turn the first sentence around and the point becomes more obvious: before a man can throw his wife out of his house he must give her a certificate saying she is free to remarry. At that time a lone woman, by and large, had no access to any means of making a living other than begging or prostitution. So a wife thrown out by her husband would be destitute. This law is about compassion in the face of hard-heartedness: the woman needed to have a husband in those days, so if her first husband throws her out she must be allowed to become someone else's wife; even if she ends up a low-status second or third wife that is still better than destitution.

Note also the point that once she has remarried, the first marriage is over: she may not go back to her first husband. So religious people who suggest that even after a second marriage is completed the first marriage is still the 'real' one are simply wrong, at least in God's eyes.

Marriage in those days was pretty much a contract of ownership: a wife belonged to her husband (see the tenth commandment). That's why a man could have multiple wives but a woman belonged to just one husband.

So the Pharisees see this passage as allowing a man to get rid of his wife, at least under certain circumstances. Their 'test' question is really about what those circumstances are, and what we now call 'churchmanship': where does Jesus lie on the liberal/conservative spectrum - the sort of thing that seems to matter so much to religious people. 'Liberals' reckoned that a husband could get rid of his wife for any reason he liked, such as overcooking his dinner, whereas 'conservatives' were more inclined to focus on the production of legitimate children, so the wife could only be put away for adultery or, probably, infertility. Either way treats women as 'things', as possessions, and Jesus is having none of it.

When the Pharisees don't get his point about certificates of divorce and compassion, he takes them back to first principles. Marriage was not designed to be about ownership, with the wife as a disposable possession, but about lifelong partnership: two people working together in the world God made. Divorce was allowed not to encourage hardness of heart, but to give a compassionate response to the fallenness of this world.

Mark appears to gloss what Jesus said later to his disciples - to make it more relevant in Rome - by talking about women divorcing men, which couldn't happen in Judaism (it still can't in Orthodox Judaism). But his basic point is clear: marriage is meant to be lifelong, and both parties have their part to play in making that work. Marriage is a lifelong contract and remarriage therefore breaks that contract: the essential meaning of 'adultery' in this context is 'contract-breaking'. Once the remarriage is complete, though, that first contract is over and a second lifelong contract takes its place. The remarriage is real and must be honoured.

So we come to religious institutions. Jesus is teaching about compassion and justice, religious people respond with judgement and exclusion. Church of England treatment of divorcees who want to remarry is pretty shabby, to be blunt; but the current Roman Catholic approach to remarried divorcees is simply unChristian. I hope over the next few weeks the Church of Rome's approach will become more humane; the CofE is already changing ... although ever so slowly.

Bottom line: to break up a marriage is wrong (but note that this may happen long before the actual divorce) but we live in a fallen world. When someone remarries after a divorce that new relationship is now a valid marriage and should be respected and supported by all ... especially by the couple's local church.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Be Proud To Be Humble

Humility and humiliation are pretty much opposites, even though they sound so similar.

As are self-respect and arrogance. Pride, confusingly, can cover both of the latter, so one needs to be careful when talking about it.

One of the traumas of the Thatcherite eighties came about because her government destroyed much of the, traditionally male, industrial sector of the British economy, replacing it with service jobs, many of them taken by women. So whole swathes of British society, where the men had taken pride in their role as breadwinners, were turned upside-down, and many of the men felt deeply humiliated.

I used to know (slightly) a female rower. She was physically stronger than any of the men around, yet some of them still spoke about men and women having different roles in life, because "women are the weaker sex".

Back in the day I was, I reckoned, a pretty good team leader at work. I was lucky enough to have some good people in my teams, who went on to become team leaders themselves. My aim and hope was that they would be at least as good as me, in their own ways, preferably better. That's part of how I saw the team leader's role, and I took pride in it - pride in seeing my pupils become greater than their teacher, if you want a slightly up-ended Biblical reference.

These days I take a certain amount of pride in having a decent working knowledge of the Bible, especially in terms of its contexts and how it fits together. A while back I went to a quiet day led by David Winter and was struck by how much greater his knowledge was. I was humbled, even slightly envious perhaps, but not humiliated. Why would I be? One encouragement was that maybe there is some purpose in the otherwise unpleasant process of getting older after all (David Winter must be well into his eighties, I reckon).

One final example: long ago, when my wife and I were young, we both used to play our guitar for young people's groups and for a monthly evening service. I worked very hard indeed on developing some basic competence on the guitar - I am not by any means a natural musician - whilst my wife was held back by a certain lack of confidence, in spite of being naturally far more musical . Over the years her guitar playing inevitably far outstripped mine, and she regularly uses it to lead worship. I take pride in feeling that I was part of the process of her developing her talent.

Marriage has enough challenges and pitfalls, it seems to me, without getting hung up over who is best at what, and which are men's and women's 'natural' roles.

Marriage is about partnership: if one is better at child-rearing and the other at paid work that is a blessing, whichever way around these skills fall (which has relevance, incidentally, to the arguments about gay marriage). If the skills are more ambiguous then it is necessary to work together to find the best way forward. But no-one should be humiliated by the role they find themselves in - challenged and stretched maybe, but never demeaned.

I'm not sure this ramble has quite gone the way I intended when I started ... that sometimes happens when I take physical rambles too, especially if I try a 'short cut'. But I think the picture at the top highlights something of what I wanted to say.

It is not really the tasks and roles we carry out which are humiliating; it is our attitude to them. If we take pride in our work and in our lives; if we recognise in ourselves that we are God's dearly beloved children, for all our perceived flaws; if we look at others and see past the stereotypes to the individuals, each with their own unique combination of giftings; if we live as followers of Jesus, who humbled himself to save us ... then we can learn to be truly humble without being humilated.

It is our arrogance, really, which ends up humiliating us. If we avoid hubris and prejudice, and truly value our neighbours as ourselves, then it is good to be proud to be humble.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Partnership For Missional Church: Initial Impression

PMC kicked off this weekend, with representatives from churches across Reading and Berkshire meeting together for the first big session. Coming at the end of a long hard week, it took me much too far beyond overtired. So, was it worth it?

It'll be a while before I get my brain into gear well enough to really get to grips with it, but my early impressions are generally good.

Some of the publicity earlier in the year was concerning: they quoted statistics for "churches who completed the programme", which is a big no-no statistically, and some of the language was reminiscent of the many 'big-church' programmes which have come out of the US over the years.

One of the main speakers at this weekends launch was from the USA, where the programme was developed, but he was careful to point out that PCM was based, at least in part, on the work of Lesslie Newbigin, the British theologian who emphasised the need for mission within our own communities long before that became fashionable.

Over the past twenty or thirty years I have been involved in a lot of mission initiatives amidst the general decline in church congregations in Caversham and beyond. In all that the only serious church growth I have experienced came, not as a result of a mission programme but, it seems to me, as a direct result of one good minister following another in a church, who focused on serving God in our community as best we could. Even then it didn't really stick: after he left the church returned to slow decline.

Common features of such mission programmes have included them being centrally driven, process-led, with a general attitude of helping 'them' to see the truths that 'we' hold, and often focused on a big early push, typically without much follow-through.

One thing about PMC which impressed me early on is the idea that God is already at work outside the church congregations, in the surrounding communities. Part of the 'partnership' idea in PMC is that we can find 'partners for peace' amongst people who may have no direct contact with church at all. The hope is that we can find ways to work with them so that both parties gain.

The other big positive is the timescale. PMC basically runs over three years, but with the intention of creating permanent changes over those years, so that mission becomes an ongoing part of church life beyond that.

The first year is labelled as a 'listening', or 'discovery', phase, although the activities seem very much aimed at improving communications both within church congregations and between congregations and their neighbours.

Because PMC is a long-term thing, it obviously needs to run in parallel with our other mission work, although maybe encouraging us to a greater awareness of what we are trying to achieve and why.

Someone once told me that if you want to push a destroyer away from a dock wall, there is no point giving it a short hard shove, you'll just put your back out. The secret is to give a long steady push, which will slowly give the movement you want ... unless the wind is blowing the other way.

My first impression of PMC is that it is trying to be a long steady push, whilst helping us discern which way the wind is blowing so we can work with it not against it.

Time will tell if I'm correct.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

All-Age Worship For All Ages? Ramble

Let's Dance Together
Who else would all-age worship be for? Ah, if only things were that simple!

These posts are all rambles, of course, but this one is even more than usual a setting down of initial thoughts on a subject. My views are very much subject to change. You could always use the comments section below to help with that ;)

The trouble with 'all-age worship' in the Church of England is that it's often used as a euphemism for 'family worship', which itself is often a euphemism for 'children's church'. Which is often ... childish.

On top of that, St Johns has had the problem of the CTM Parish losing clergy just as the all-age service started development, resulting in a loss of vision and coherence, along with a balance of ages at the service which has been highly variable. Some months we have been heaving with children, and the challenge is to involve them all, other months there were very few, and they didn't want to be involved anyway.

We now have a clear idea where we are for clergy over the next six months or so, after Jeremy has moved up north: decidedly lacking. Therefore there is a lay team who will be responsible for the monthly all-age service, from next month. I am part of that team, hence my desire to explore a vision for a reboot.

I think we should start by going back to the basics of gathered worship: praising God together and listening to God together - praise and prayer.

So I think we start by finding out the favourite hymns and songs of the congregation and using them: we are a small congregation so we need everyone to really put some oomph into their singing. People have got used to action songs at all-age worship and all ages seem to enjoy them - if not overdone - so that is an addition to help create  a sense of movement and involvement. Given a foundation of good singing, we can gradually introduce some good newer songs, in order to stop things getting stale and to find new favourites.

The intercessory prayer slot in the basic Anglican service outline is a suitable place to build something a bit different from the usual fare. Because all-age services don't include a Eucharist there is time and space for being a bit more adventurous here. Although prayertime is probably something we will need to prepare variations for, depending on who comes that morning. If there are lots of young children then prolonged silence is going to be tricky to achieve, if there are almost none then lots of running around will find few takers.

Initial thoughts include Taizé chants, Celtic prayers - even healing prayers - and using icons. We have quite a few icons scattered around St John's and moving the congregation around a few of them (vaguely after the manner of stations of the cross) may be engaging.

One piece of feedback that has come through clearly is that people like movement and they like involvement, whatever their age.

One basic I haven't mentioned yet is the Bible: sharing together in the word of God. This isn't because I don't think it is important - far from it - but because I am currently short of ideas. In general lay people don't have permission to preach in Anglican services, unless they are LLMs. As I'm the only LLM in the parish that is limiting in one sense, although liberating in another.

Traditional preaching, even with visuals and a bit of question-and-answer interaction, is not the only way to engage with God's word. It's probably not even the best way. The challenge is to somehow combine giving the context of a passage with helping people draw out for themselves, maybe in small groups, the meaning in their lives. But it's not just about words: talking about the Bible is one thing, responding to it, creatively and actively, is another.

So, developing all-age worship, for all ages, around the basics of praise, prayer and the word seems to me to be the way to go.

The next step, I think, is clear: hymns and songs 'by request'. The step after that is slightly hazier, but is to do with a more interactive, engaged approach to praying together. The third step is downright fuzzy: engaging together with God's word. That's okay, fuzziness is where faith comes in. So long as the first step is clear we trust that the steps after will be ready once we have actually stepped out in faith.

I am working to a mental timescale of 6 months to get these three steps, or something a bit like them, up and running. That is roughly how long we expect it to take to recruit a new priest into the parish, bringing us up to our clergy complement. Having all-age worship which works by then opens up opportunities and challenges for the future.

Postscript: When looking on Google for a suitable picture for this post, I found the above which I thought looked good. When I followed up on its link I was surprised to find it led me to a church in West Warrington, the place Jeremy Tear, our previous community priest, has just moved to. The wonder of coincidence!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

People Like Us

About a month ago I did a post - A Quiet Life - looking at a couple of comments I had received about church services, and commenting on the second of them. It's well nigh time to look at the other one:
"Our Sunday service should be for everyone in the local community; but really it's for people like us."
To some extent 'people like us' could be seen in terms of standard things like age, race or class - and at St John's age in particular is a big factor. But I think there is another another sense of the term which has relevance to churches well beyond St John's, or even Caversham.

John Pritchard, in his book Beginning Again, makes the point that people have very different personal styles, which include different natural approaches to prayer and worship. Some have a very verbal, unemotional style: for them relating to God through words given in a controlled, formalised setting brings most satisfaction. Others need to be more emotional to fully engage, to express their hearts and to relate to God through feelings and desires. Then there are those who express themselves naturally in action and movement, those whose natural worship involves creativity and wonder, and so on.

I suggest that the vast majority of churches in the Reading area, and probably across the country, focus very tightly on the verbal and unemotional. Even those churches who sing modern "I love Jesus and he loves me" style choruses are, I would say, really only providing ersatz, prepackaged imitations of true emotion. Those who are used to such can use them, of course, to express something real, as can those who are used to formal prayers and liturgies. But that is really for the 'people like us' who are attracted enough to stick around in the first place.

Where is the space in our regular patterns of church worship for artists? Or for lively dancers? For prophets and healers to give God's blessing in the Spirit's time not ours?

It seems to me that the vast majority of church services in the UK are based around the idea that most worshippers sit passively to be talked to (at?) by one or more leaders, sit or stand to say words chosen by those same leaders or by some overarching organisation, and stand to sing songs chosen by one or more other leaders. Little corporate church worship is truly participative, or active, or truly engaging. Much, probably most, collective worship in UK churches is for consumers not for active members.

Inevitably most people who go to such services do so because they like it that way, more or less. Arguments and pressures are about details, about small variations in delivery ('happy-clappy' songs or 'dirgelike' hymns), and about ways of rearranging the deck-chairs ... well, furniture anyway. So most services remain for 'people like us'.

I write blog posts, so it is fairly obvious that I like working with words (along with the odd picture). I enjoy sitting and listening to a good sermon, although there are few preachers skilled enough to work without some form of visual input, I think. I generally prefer a style which is cool and thoughtful to one which is emotive and loud.

So, when it comes to 'people like us', I count as one of 'us'. But I value immensely different viewpoints and different styles, and I don't understand how anyone can function without a sense of wonder and an appreciation of creativity - even if it is other people's creativity.

Diversity is a vital part of human communities (indeed in non-human ones too), and part of the richness of the fullness of life Jesus offers lies in its range and inclusion of difference.

Having a restrictive church style is all very well and good for those who like it, but if we want to engage properly with the majority whose styles are different we need a rethink.

Maybe it's one church with several different congregations, maybe it is one congregation with a range of different experiences; maybe it is something else entirely.

God cares deeply for all those around who are 'not like us' - we are called to do the same.