LGTBI Mass Reflection

On my penultimate day as a Pastoral Assistant, we hosted our first LGBTI Mass. When I arrived in the Parish a year ago it was something I had been keen to see us explore, combining our catholic tradition with our inclusive theology. Over time, for a variety of reasons, I must admit that I became less excited with the idea. Having originally bullied Fr Iain into agreeing to say one, upon his return from prolonged sick leave he in turn bullied me into following it through after all.

A lot of interest has been shown in the Mass, both positive and negative, and the poster advertising it has been viewed more than 60,000 times on Twitter. In response to this, and to a number of requests for copies of the liturgy, I am publishing this blog post reflecting on the Mass – along with the liturgy we used.

Feel free to use, change and play with it to suit your situation (bearing in mind copyright restrictions others may impose) – if you might consider hosting a similar service. Much of it comes directly from a Common Worship, but a few Collects and prayers come from the Inclusive Church resources on their website. The recent prayer written by Jeffrey John, calling on God to shake up the Church, is also included in the intercessions.

Service Sheet (PDF)
Service Sheet (Publisher)
Readings and Intercessions (PDF)
Readings and Intercessions (Word)
Eucharistic Prayer (PDF)
Eucharistic Prayer (Word)

Some thoughts…

‘LGBTI’ and ‘Mass’ are two words that can barely be imagined together. That’s why I found the idea rather irresistible, a chance to boldly show that being traditional in your outlook doesn’t preclude one from being radical, with a theology firmly rooted in the world around us today. The greatest tradition of mankind is progress towards the Kingdom.

I originally had slight trepidations – having been part of a successful group in Gloucester diocese meeting every other month around an altar, I wanted to emulate some of that companionship without replicating a formula which might not suit our context. It was vitally important to me that we were in no way being patronising to the LGBTI community. Much as I admire a lot of the work done by LGBTI Christian organisations, there can sometimes be an ‘overly-nice’ edge to their work – losing sight of the cross because you’ve completely covered it with rainbow flags and beaming smiles. The Gloucester group handled that extremely well, so the pressure was on.

My response to this was to formulate a liturgy that drew upon what we would be doing anyway. We always have a Vigil Mass at 6:00pm on a Saturday evening, and I began with that service as my starting point. I wanted us to say: “Tonight we’re particularly acknowledging the struggle of LGBTI people, often at the hands of the Church, and reflecting on how we welcome LGBTI people into the Body of Christ. You’d be welcome to join us for that.” In that way, it becomes a safe space for people to perhaps find the doors of Church for the first time, or simply to ‘be themselves’ within a Church environment more than they are usually able – allowing them to explore the amazing diversity of God, reflected within themselves and each other.

The liturgy had to expand in order to reflect the prayers we wanted to offer, and we therefore added a time of ‘physical prayer’, lighting votive candles and placing them in the window sills. At the end of the service these were carried outside and placed at the foot of the cross. It was heavily based around our usual practice for the All Souls Requiem Mass, which last year was quite possibly the most moving service I have ever been involved with, and this allowed us to give the individuals we prayed for the same level of dignity as we do our departed brothers and sisters.

Since watching ‘Beautiful Thing’, in film and on stage, I have had a great desire to use ‘Move in a little closer, Baby’ as a Processional… If that sentence makes you balk, read the words carefully and imagine they are God’s call to us. While, for a few reasons, that idea had started to seem less attractive to me, in the end I knew it was the right thing to do. ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’ has become a mini-anthem for both Churches in our Parish, so it was essential that we included it. Alongside that, and other musical choices throughout which we would normally be using for the Vigil Mass, Jo Winn-Smith, our Reader, suggested ‘This is It’ (I originally thought she meant the Michael Jackson version, in which he calls himself the ‘light of the world’..!) and ‘We are family’, both of which worked extremely well. They pushed the edge of what felt ‘right’, but by placing them as we did, surrounded by other music and deep, searching prayer – culminating in the Eucharist – I came away feeling very comfortable nonetheless.

We had 15 people in the congregation (compared with a maximum of 5 for our Vigil Mass normally), along with a lot of interest from people who couldn’t make it (August seems a good time to start, as it’s quiet so you can make mistakes..!). We also had a good number of requests for candles to be lit via. Twitter. More than half the congregation were new to our Parish, the majority had found us through Twitter.

Beyond that, it has provoked a great deal of conversation and debate around the Parish – in the most healthy sense. The Parish is strong enough to offer a welcome to LGBTI people, without just ticking boxes. Discussions over the theology of marriage as a sacrament, of the rights and wrongs of IVF, and of the very meaning of relationships have taken place in the last few weeks over post Daily Mass coffee.

Woodham Parish, where I have served as Pastoral Assistant (based at St. Michael’s, Sheerwater) is not a place to sit in the congregation and hear nice, bland, warm and fuzzy things. It *is* the sort of place where you are encouraged to open your heart as wide as possible, despite the inevitable fact that this will cause a great deal of pain at times, in order to form a deep connection with others, and with God. That’s why I am delighted to have been part of organising this Mass, why I’m delighted that it looks like there is a real hunger for it, and am delighted that the Parish will continue to offer similar services in the future to feed this need. Christ came to welcome all, even those on the outskirts of society, into the Kingdom of Heaven. That doesn’t mean taking rotten apples out to the peasantry, that means taking risks with prayer, putting the Church on the line, and being honest. We fail at that as a Parish, I fail at it as an individual, but we try..! If you fancy trying it too, why not give a similar service a go?

My lover dies tomorrow

He’s almost close enough to touch.

I can see Him, sat there. Still and silent.

He’s good at silence. The things He has said with silence. The depth of emotion and understanding that has often passed between us without uttering a word.

Sometimes, if I’m honest, it’s not been very convenient. When I really want to hear a clear answer, when He really needs to be heard, He just stays quiet.

But He always comes back, always emerges from the gloom when I don’t hear or see Him. And when He does, the truth in what He says is never plainer.

But.

But no.

This time it’s different. This time the silence speaks of something ominous and empty.

I could reach out and touch him, but tomorrow I won’t be able to. Where now I could reach out and feel the Spirit pulsing within Him, tomorrow I will feel nothing.

Space. A gap. A vacuum where once I touched the graceful truth of love.

I will feed only on memories. But what memories?

His right hand, which I have let caress me… Embrace me… Know me… Will be ripped and shackled away from me. Even if He wanted to, He’ll never be able to speak of love through touch again.

His left hand has, so many times, pulled me up when I have fallen. With an unspoken compassion it has so delicately tended to my scars. The hand of healing will be scarred itself, the hand that cleansed my wounds will splatter the earth with its own blood.

His feet, the feet that planted the footsteps I have so carefully observed. I have tried my best to follow in His path, because it seems to be the best way of understanding who He is and what He wants. Tomorrow those feet will be stapled together, hoisted above the dust in which once they trod.

His body. That temple. That perfect construct – an object demanding attention, reverence, adoration, worship. It never needed to be shown off to demand my love. It never needed gaudy decoration to demand my love. Whenever I stopped and looked beneath the clothing I realised it was something more than a feast for the eyes that had demanded my attention. And tomorrow this temple, the place of worship I have dedicated my life to attending… Will be placed in the hands of those who cannot see or know its beauty.

Where once with care and dignity I removed His garments, they will be ripped and torn from Him. The body that I have revelled in, with which I have shared my own body in perfect mutuality, will be humiliated beyond words. With less than no regard it will be put on full and unadulterated view for mockery.

And finally His breath will go. The strain will take its final toll and He will die. Leave me defenceless, broken and alone among my enemies.

Why?

Why?

Why?

I gaze in dumb, wide-eyed terror at Him as I taste a mere fraction of the answer. An answer I can never understand.

My anger, terror, revulsion transform as I focus on the only thing I know. The truth He has spoken a thousand thousand times to me, in a thousand thousand different ways.

He has always spoken in the silence. He has told me of a ‘love’ that no word can even hint at.

I want to run to Him, scream and engulf Him totally until my memories of love burn into Him. A final attempt at stopping the inevitable. But I know it would be fruitless.

In the silence I know that He already knows. It is the same silence as it always was. The resignation to love expressed in a way even He, perhaps, doesn’t fully understand.

My lover dies tomorrow. And sense tells me that we will never again tumble together in the grace of eternity. But our love has never been grounded, confined or defined.

As I sink my eyes into Him… Even the separation of our beings could not stop our love. Time moves nearer to the necessity of a new expression of love. Until then, I will maintain solidarity in silence.

When Christmas greets Easter on Candlemas Day..

As a place for updates or reflections, I accept my blog has been fairly useless until now. Following one update since taking on the role of Pastoral Assistant I’ve been almost entirely silent.. This short update should bring things back up to date, and if you’re a praying sort of person I hope you might say one or two for me after reading it.

Since September my role has been as varied as it has been exhausting. From being present at all the outreach things St. Michael’s does – Book Swap, Film Club, monthly community lunches, etc.. to getting into the local schools, the community hub, representing the Church on a range of local secular, Eccumenical and Anglican organisations and more.

The most important part of the job has been the best training for priesthood, because it essentially sums up what I think priesthood is all about – ‘being there’. The most important moments of the last six months have been the unexpected, the surprising encounters you have when you put yourself at God’s disposal and make yourself available, and He works through you to help people around you.

To keep everything balanced, and so that the busyness doesn’t send me totally insane (only a little bit), the days are all based in the routing of the Offices (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline) and the Daily Mass. The Daily Mass is usually said at the mother Church, All Saints. Working closely with All Saints – but with my St. Michael’s hat on – has taught me much about how many different Churches can be unique individuals, yet part of a wider family within a parish or benefice.

Meanwhile I’ve continued to plod along the discernment pathway to ordination. I was passed on by the Diocesan Assessors in early December, and the Bishop of Tewkesbury (acting as the Bishop of Gloucester) has since met with me, and agreed to sponsor me to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel. I’ll be heading to Ely from 13th-15th April for that.

And finally a word about the coming few months. This Thursday, 5th February, Fr Iain Forbes – my Vicar – will be going into hospital for a heart operation on the 6th. He has been advised (with a relatively positive prognosis) that he will need to rest for at least three months, before returning to the Vicarage.

We have no other active priests currently attached to the parish, and although we should be able to cover most Sunday services and many weekday ones, for a vibrant parish this will be a real blow. My role will largely be to keep the routine of prayer, which acts as the heartbeat of the parish, continuing over the coming months. I’ll be saying the Offices across both Churches (morning at St. Michael’s, evening at All Saints’), and as often as possible weekday Masses will be covered. Where that is not possible the plan is that I will be leading Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament. This is distinctly *not* filling the gap, there is a great difference between that service and a Mass, but where no cover is available it will ensure that there isn’t a gap – and that the Blessed Sacrament continues to exist at the very core of the parish.

With Lent, something both Churches throw themselves into head first, there will be more things than usual happening that need cover – confirmation classes, Lent Lunches, Lent Groups, a Quiet Day, Holy Hours, Stations of the Cross… And a packed Holy Week schedule that ought to carry the tagline ‘If you produce less than two Kleenex boxes worth of tears you get your offering back.’ I hasten to add that I won’t be alone in all this, and many members of the parish are stepping up, filling in, and ensuring that the parish continues to punch above its weight and, above all, provide centres of prayer that touch thousands of lives.

Again, therefore, if you’re a praying person I’d greatly appreciate them for myself, both in this role and my wider vocation, for Fr Iain Forbes and a successful recovery, and for the whole parish. Thank you (and I will try and blog a little more over the coming weeks/months!).

“Now what are we supposed to
do?” – The future of the Church,
as told by Forrest Gump

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[This article contains slight spoilers for Forrest Gump]

Forrest Gump: I had run for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours.

Young Man: Quiet. Quiet… He’s going to say something….

The crowd of followers stops and waits with baited breath

Forrest Gump: I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.

Forrest begins to walk back along the road, the crowd slowly parting – stunned – to let him through

Young Man: Now what are we supposed to do?

I recently watched Forrest Gump for the first time. I’m assuming that most people have seen it, and will already be aware that it’s an excellent film. There are many deep messages hidden within it, and many poignant theological reflections to be found within the words of the archetypal wise fool.

But the moment that struck me the most was the exchange above, which takes place around two thirds of the way into the film. Forrest takes off one day, jumping up from his chair at the family home and begins running back and forth across America. Gradually gaining media coverage, he picks up followers as he goes. Looking back at this period of his life, in his customary understated way, he comments: “Somebody later told me it gave people hope.”

Following three years of this enigmatic leadership, spreading a message of hope in a way no one quite understood, as he turns to face his followers for a final time there is something deeply Christlike about the man with long hair and a beard. And, in the small exchange above, we instantly find ourselves in the middle of Holy Week.

Expecting great words of wisdom, perhaps a call to action, an explanation of why he’s done all this journeying, a reveal of the great social issue they have been been tackling all along… He instead reveals that his time has come to an end, and he’s returning home. Perhaps understandably his disciples are confused – even devastated. Is this the end? Is this the great victory of the Messiah – to go home? Have they been following a fraud, not the Lord? This doesn’t fit in with the plan at all!

“Now what are we supposed to do?”

The natural human instinct is to seek an answer. But whatever end of the Church spectrum we find ourselves on – whether we find a solid answer in the words of the Bible, or a more complex history of revelations as outlined in the historical doctrines of the Church, do we leave space for God to surprise us?

One of my favourite things Pope Francis has said is the following:

“[The New Testament Doctors of Law] did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us. They did not understand this and they closed themselves within that system that was created with the best of intentions and asked Jesus: ‘But, give us a sign’. And they did not understand the many signs that Jesus did give them and which indicated that the time was ripe. Second, they had forgotten that they were a people on a journey. On a path! And when we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know.”

Do we leave ourselves open to be surprised be God? Or do we find too much comfort and security in our ‘way of doing things’ that we miss the deeper message and the call to do something different? We get into the habit of using words like ‘love’ and ‘grace’.. But do we continue to contemplate their meaning, within a wider and altogether more complicated story of redemption?

Perhaps, 2,000 years on, we’re still ashamed of the fact that we don’t actually understand, completely, why He ended His ministry on earth in the way He did, at the time He did. It’s a poignant thought that the climactic ‘Superstar’ number from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ asks that question more clearly than almost any liturgy or well-known prayer. Does even the most enigmatic and mysterious liturgy give us space to ponder what His Passion means? Doctrine and theology hint at answers, and give us enough to find faith, but to claim we understand the Passion would be to claim an understanding of God Himself. We should be bolder and braver in admitting that Church doesn’t provide the answers to life’s big questions. What it does provide is a means of finding those answers, through prayer. A lifetime’s work, but the best use of a lifetime imaginable.

As the Church of England this week reveals yet more reports and plans for the future, part of a neverending process of rejuvenation and reform, whereabouts is God in all of this? Has the Church become so comfortable at what it’s doing that we’re not listening to the surprises God has in store for us now? While we bicker amongst ourselves on this issue or that issue have we closed our minds to the possibility that He will do something surprising and unexpected, something that doesn’t fit in with the plans we’ve prepared, as He did 2,000 years ago? We know where we’ve been – we have libraries full of Church history all over the world – and we make plans for where we’re going – with exciting talk of 2020, 2025, even 2050 and beyond. But we forget to live in the now, we forget to let God into our conversations, and we forget to listen out for Him to surprise us.

As He takes the Church in new and exciting directions, we haven’t even noticed. We’re still debating and deliberating while He’s already opening new avenues of ministry, healing, and ways to find Him. The Church should be the ultimate support for Him in this work, but too often it seems to be a hinderance – because it has stopped watching and praying as He continues to speak.

When we start to live life by prayer – not letting our prayers end as we leave the church building, but letting them feed into all we do and think and say – the most extraordinary and unlikely coincidences open themselves up. Life seems less random. Things make sense, the dots begin to join up, and we can begin to find our place in the constantly surprising ways God interacts with His creation. These opportunities and coincidences are all around us – prayer is about opening our eyes to see them, and having the guts to do something with them.

We may not see Christ in person literally running ahead of us, leading the way, any more. But as they hymn says: “Shall our hearts forget His promise, ‘I am with you evermore’?”. Perhaps we cannot sit around a campfire and ask the questions burning in our hearts, as we could any other friend, but through prayer we can still ask direct questions, and get just as clear an answer as He would have given us face to face – in just as real a sense. Until the Church rejuvenates her attitude to prayer, which in so many ways has become stale and unimaginative, it will never fully find God’s plan for rejuvenation.

If the liturgy of the Church which has lasted for 2,000 years – especially the Eucharist – is ‘boring’ and doesn’t connect us with God any more, if we don’t want it to be at the very heart of our lives, is this not a problem with us, and not with the liturgy itself? Whatever your opinion on the presence of Christ within the Eucharist, how can joining ourselves with the last meal the Word Made Flesh shared on earth with His friends, an action which allows us to become one body with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, possibly be boring?! If Church is dull then no amount of flashing lights or funky music will rectify that – God is not boring, so if Church is boring it’s obviously not truly reflecting God.

Being a member of a Church should be the most exciting thing imaginable – supporting and listening to each other as we seek to understand God, and to find our place within His plan. But we’ve let it become a club in which members are judged on whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We put ourselves in the ‘right’ camp (or spend our lives worrying that we’re not ‘right’) – and never allow God to correct our misunderstandings.

If we allow our minds and hearts to be opened in prayer, if we trust in God enough to let Him surprise us, maybe we’ll find more unity with our brothers and sisters, maybe we’ll see what God is already doing in the world, maybe we’ll find our place within that plan, and maybe there will be a future for the Church after all.

“Now what are we supposed to do?”


Why don’t we ask?

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Finding Feet

So it’s now been (checks calendar) – blimey – only three weeks since I moved. It feels like a lot longer, in a good way.

I’ve been extremely touched by the welcome I’ve received here from both Churches. Two communities, Woodham and Sheerwater, but one parish with two Churches – All Saints in Woodham and St. Michael’s in Sheerwater.

As you can imagine, much of my time has been spent finding my feet and getting to know people. I imagine that will remain an important part of my ‘job’. I summed up a long answer on my forms for the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (entitled ‘What is priestly ministry?’ – or something like that..) with the answer that it’s about ‘being there’. That’s a very general term to describe the wide variety of ways in which a priest can ‘be there’, and it’s about finding your own role in each community and setting. It’s a privilege I constantly pinch myself about that I’ve got the chance to do that already.

Most days begin with Morning Prayer at St. Michael’s, and at some point during the day there will be a Mass – Wednesday at St. Michaels, the others are at All Saints. These come at different times in different forms, using different liturgy and each being slightly unique. Yet there is a fundamental pattern to the course of a week. It’s very much made me reflect on the way in which sacraments reflect the world around us back into our eyes through God’s light – there’s a regularity and order to the way in which Mass is celebrated, and yet within that regularity there is an abundance of diversity.

Each evening we say Evening Prayer at All Saints. I was recently asked “will Mass and Morning/Evening prayer every day distract you from getting out into the community?”. Far from it. It’s only through that prayer, generally two hours liturgical prayer each day and an abundance of non-liturgical prayer in between, that I have the strength to get out and about in the community. I’m a fairly quiet, dull, chap who would prefer to sit back in the countryside and do very little really. But I open myself up to be ‘transformed in the fire of God’s love for us, and used in His service’.. And here I am. Somewhere totally different, doing totally different things. A couple of times I’ve done a double take and thought “hang on a minute – what am I doing here?!”, but that’s very rare. It feels so natural, it feels so right, and I feel so ‘at home’ here already that I can virtually say I don’t have a doubt God’s here with me.

The aforementioned ‘getting out into the community’ takes place mainly in Sheerwater, and outside of personal formation that’s really what I’m here for. There’s a huge amount to learn about the community, and I’ve observed that it’s outsiders coming in and making assumptions that has caused some troubles of the past. I’m therefore taking it slowly, getting to know people, and finding my place. That ranges from ‘being there’ at the various ‘open events’ (BookSwap, drop in for coffee, Film Club, etc..) to running a course on how to use iPads at the local community hub. My DBS clearance has come through, so that opens new possibilities and doors as well.

That’s really an introduction to what I’m doing here. But that’s really been what the last few weeks have been about. This Sunday is my ‘official’ welcome, with a Community Lunch at which we’re expecting 48 attendants. In a way that’s when I’ll stop being so much the ‘newbie’ and hopefully others will start being able to ask me questions, rather than it always being the other way around.

I feel like I should sign off with something a little more lighthearted, or on another topic, but I’m writing from my sickbed with a sore throat that has virtually made me lose my voice and I can’t think of anything. This is the first opportunity I’ve had all week to write this, so that gives some idea of how busy things are..!

Instead I’ll sign off with the prayer at the end of Psalm 143 in some of Common Worship:

Jesus our companion,

when we are driven to despair,

help us, through the friends and strangers

we encounter on our path,

to know you as our refuge,

our way, our truth and our life.

To every person I meet on the journey, and for every prayer said for me, thank you.

Who recieves communion?

I was recently asked on Twitter whether I thought people need to be baptised before they receive communion. I was going into a meeting at the time, and an hour later I had more than 25 notifications from the small but interesting exchange that had followed.

It’s been buzzing around my head a lot recently, so I thought I’d throw together my tuppence-worth here.

Generally I would encourage people to wait for confirmation before receiving communion – or, otherwise, to make a special event of a first communion. I know that’s quite an unusual view across all traditions now, and I understand many of the reasons against it. I understand that it can alienate children, or adults who are exploring faith, that it incorrectly projects the image that some people are ‘ready’ for it (when in reality none of us are), and I’m acutely aware that merging confirmation and first communion can deaden the effect of both. So why would I encourage waiting? Mainly as a way to illustrate the mystery, the importance, the dignity and the privilege of communion. All liturgy is fragile – stretch it too far in any direction and the heart can be so easily lost. We can easily become hung up on liturgy, lectionaries and tradition – but, at the other end of the scale, we can also undersell God, chucking the baby out with the bathwater, if we play too much with a common piece of liturgy.

I don’t hold onto this ‘rule’ of waiting before confirmation too hard. It’s not an essential, it’s just something I’d personally encourage. Maybe if I spent a lot of time in a Church where young children receiving communion was a regular occurrence I might change. But if someone takes the bread but not the wine – because they’re very young and don’t like the idea of drinking wine – that seems a little worrying to me. It’s not that they’re not mature enough per se (as I have said, none of us are ready) – but ten years down the line I wonder how special communion will seem to them? More and more Anglicans perceive the Eucharistic Prayer, and the act of receiving the elements, as little more than a symbol of unity in Christ and each other. Real Presence, or even just the acknowledgement that something is actually going on at the altar, seems to be going out of fashion. I say again – liturgy is fragile, and mass is the most fragile of all. It must be preserved with dignity and reverence, or it could too easily become just another piece of worship. Take that too far and we lose the privilege of guarding the most sacred and powerful act we have – saying mass. We therefore surround it with acts and symbols, from vestments and incense to the altar linens and the washing of hands (depending on your tradition), in order to keep it alive. The act of waiting until I was 14 for confirmation/communion has stuck with me, and was important in forming my understanding of how important the Eucharist is. I recently spoke to someone who had just been confirmed. They had been receiving communion since they were a young child, but the parish priest suggested they abstain from the elements in the six month leadup to confirmation. They were rejoicing in that advice, saying it had made a deep impact on them.

To return to the original question, receiving communion before baptism, there I have even less room for manoeuvre. Part of baptism is entry into the family of the Church. If you haven’t yet made that commitment, or had it made on your behalf, it must surely damage the ability of a communicant to be part of the ‘one body’? Rather than being linked to each other communally each communicant would just happen to be eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ at the same time, in a hypothetical situation where none of the communicants have been baptised. It loses the deep significance of the baptised members of one body joining together to receive the Sacraments.

But, having said all this, I openly acknowledge that these are ‘human’ rules, and God’s ways are not our ways. Were someone to ask if they should receive communion before confirmation I would suggest they wait, explain why and encourage them to decide what’s right for them. Were someone to ask if they should receive communion before baptism I would strongly encourage them not to, explain why, and urge them to wait. But even then, it’s their choice. Were I a priest it would have to be an extremely exceptional situation before I refused someone a Sacrament. If someone is there, hands outstretch, ready to know God in any Sacrament I would never, ever, assume to tell them otherwise. Most Canon Laws, and other ecclesiastical rules, are merely human ways of keeping order. Without rules there would be chaos, but once we start claiming that they are God’s unchangeable rules we’ve usually overstepped the mark.

For a range of reasons I am staunchly against lay presidency at the Eucharist. I would never contemplate saying mass as a layperson – it would seem an impossibility, let alone grossly controversial. And I’d be very concerned about a priest presiding without wearing some form of robes. And yet, if the world were ending and I was trapped in a room with only bread, wine, Common Worship (or something similar), and a couple of willing communicants then yes – I would say mass. Ordained or not, robes or not. And yes I think Christ would probably be as present in that room as He is in any Eucharistic celebration.

I believe there are very few rules that God sets down for all eternity. Instead He guides us in the creation and management of our own human rules, suitable to our own situation and circumstances. These encourage order, and are all designed as a way of ultimately turning us towards Him. So do I think God will be furious with anyone receiving communion before baptism? No. Do I think He would prefer people to be baptised before they receive communion? Yes. But will there be occasions when He has lead someone to meet Him in communion before they are baptised? Yes.

Make of all that what you will. I’d be fascinated to hear any views or comments.

The firsts and the lasts…

With a fortnight to go before I move (Thursday 4th..) I felt it was about time I wrote again on my blog. I can’t imagine who’s reading with any interest… But I’m so touched by the lovely feedback I’ve had on previous posts.

This has been a bizarre month – a very different way of living. It’s been a month full of lasts and firsts. Usually I’m planning events and projects several months in advance, and there’s been none of that – planning extends no further than the immediate move on September 4th, getting things together and hoping I won’t forget to buy anything really essential in advance (I remembered to put toilet roll on the list last night). Although there are hints and ideas forming about what I’ll be doing in Sheerwater, it’s quite a blank canvas and very much a role I have to mould myself, with guidance of course. Whatever I end up doing day-to-day it will be busy, varied and no doubt challenging.

At times August has been quiet, none of my usual rushing from one meeting to another in the village – I’ve had my last PCC meeting, Village Hall meeting, etc.. I have my last Panto meeting the evening before I leave. But there have still been lots of little projects to finish off, which has ended up taking up a lot of time. I’ve also been busy sewing my cassock.. The test version made from floral fabric is complete and the black cotton gabardine has been cut out and is ready to sew together as I write.

Most emotional perhaps are the ‘last’ services I’m celebrating as a member of St. Cyr’s Church. I’ve been a member of the Church for my whole life, and all my big faith moments have been played through that building and the people who make up the family there. Although I’ll return occasionally of course, as a member of the congregation there I’ve been to my last BCP Evensong, I’ve had my last service sat in the pews, and this Sunday is my last service there – where I’ll have the honour of acting as Deacon again. Only God knows the future, and I may well end up being turned down by BAP (the Bishop’s Advisory Panel) and returning, penniless, with my tail between my legs.. But I’ll cross that bridge if and when!

Although I’m around the following Sunday, we only have Matins on a 5th Sunday and I did want my last service here to be Eucharistic – so I’ll be heading to Gloucester Cathedral that day instead. Again, a place with a lot of meaning and a family I feel a part of – albeit on the very outer fringes. It will feel like both a ‘sendoff’ from the Diocese to spend my last Sunday there, but also a sign of the possible future (all the DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands) meetings take place in a room with a window looking straight out onto the Cathedral… As if you need reminding what you’re talking about!).

But despite all the changes it’s not sadness I feel, because it all feels ‘right’. Among all the lasts there are plenty of firsts too – first time giving Communion from the Reserve, first time visiting my new flat, first time meeting many new and interesting people and (perhaps scariest of all actually) first time wearing all black clothing… I was aiming for Dane from ‘The Thorn Birds’:

 

“It’s the only way I know to show God how much I love him.”

 

But I probably end up channelling Carmen Ghia from ‘The Producers’:

 

“Listen you broken-down old queen. He was drunk. He was hot. You got lucky. Don’t ever call here again!”

 

Anyway, that’s quite enough to be getting on with. Thank you for reading this far, and if you did feel able to spare me a prayer in the next fortnight I’d be very grateful.

Remembering to Breathe…

So this is a blog post I should have written ages ago… But the last month has held so much. This is an ‘update post’ with all the latest that God’s been doing in my life…

The big news is that I have finalised my Pastoral Assistant placement. I was kindly offered quite a number of interviews, and eventually got them down to two – both of which I was, to my surprise, offered. After much deliberation and prayer I finally made my choice while sat in the Lady Chapel at Guildford Cathedral (a place, incidentally, well – well – worth a visit).

From September I will be the Pastoral Assistant in the parish of St. Michael’s and All Angels, Sheerwater – near to Woking and Guildford. This is currently a combined parish with All Saints, Woodham – but with some extensive redevelopment planned in Sheerwater the Diocese have made moves to create a single parish.

I’ll be living on the estate, getting stuck in and hopefully becoming a part of the fantastic community there. It’s going to be a huge change from the sort of parish I’ve always lived in, with many new challenges to face, but it’s a true privilege to be invited into the area and to have a role to play.

Meanwhile I will still be continuing to explore vocation to ordained ministry through Gloucester Diocese. It will give me a good excuse to return home from time to time, it seemed a needless shame to split from Gloucester, and the people in the Diocese – both those within Church House and the clergy and laypeople around – are simply wonderful. As well as that, if I were to be ordained anywhere in the world I could only chose Gloucester Cathedral. As the scene of so many life changing moments, and a pretty constant friend, it could only be there.

Meetings with the DDO continue, and I’m extremely grateful for all the prayers offered for me in the lead up to them, and at any other time. It’s helpful far beyond any words I could express on a blog. To my surprise my last meeting felt particularly positive, and the process has been sped up by three months. I’m therefore, if the current plans work out, seeing the Diocesan Assesors in October, the Bishop (the Bishop of Tewkesbury, who will be acting Bishop of Gloucester by then) in January and attending BAP in March. There are some huge ifs and buts in that – as always I let God set the pace – but that’s the ‘pencilled in’ plan!

And so my day to day life now includes the very occasional bit of paid website design work, but mostly winding down my old commitments in the community here, meeting people and visiting places, reading an inordinate amount of books, and trying to fit in a sometimes dizzying amount of prayer. It’s also a privilege to ‘shadow’ my parish priest a few times a month, distributing the Chalice at the local residential and nursing homes, I was able to lead the Mothers’ Union Quarterly Service, and the deeply moving experience of deaconing at the Parish Eucharist on a few Sundays, which felt appropriate for a number of reasons. To simply pour the wine into the chalice and lay out the wafers, and be behind the rail during the Eucharistic Prayer.. It brings home just what an honour this role would be.

Since my last blog post I was also fortunate enough to spend a week with Trinity, Cheltenham – a fascinating experience at a completely different Church to my own. It was a challenging experience in many ways, but extremely helpful and I’m grateful to everyone there for the time they so willingly gave to explain what they do and answer my questions. I also spent a fascinating weekend in York, at the Inclusive Church Annual Lecture and getting to meet quite a number of people at Synod over the following two days. Again, a deeply challenging weekend at times – learning what being an Ambassador for a broken Church really entails – but a chance to meet and spend time with absolutely fantastic people dedicated to God, and to moving His Church ever closer to Him.

That’s enough for now anyway… Thank you so very much again for the continued messages of support and prayer, if you want to get in touch with me please feel free to drop me an email or prod me on Twitter!

Mothers’ Union Homily -Parable of the Widow & the Unjust Judge

A homily to be preached at the Mothers’ Union service at St. George’s, Upper Cam on Tuesday 15th July 2014. Based on Luke 18: 1-8, scroll to the bottom of this post to read the parable.

Could you tell a story in six words or less? It might seem impossible, how can you fit a whole plot into one short sentence? But Trevor Peacock, the actor who plays Jim Trott in the Vicar of Dibley, suggested the story: “Go west, old man, go west”.

If the mark of a successful writer is to pack as much meaning into as few words as possible, while still keeping the story simple and easy to follow, Jesus is a masterful storyteller. In this parable He certainly doesn’t go into any unnecessary detail, just think how little He tells us about the central character. We don’t know anything about the woman other than that she is a widow, and is seeking justice against her opponent. We don’t know the situation, we don’t know who the opponent is, and we can’t decide for ourselves whether she’s justified or not. Jesus doesn’t want us to be distracted – He gets straight to the point.

Still, I rather love the widow and the image of her constantly bothering the judge. My Bible suggests an alternative translation at one point and has the judge saying: “I will grant her justice, so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face.”, which I think I prefer because it suggests real, passionate fire for justice in her heart – so much so that the judge doesn’t think it can be contained.

And her persistence pays off – the judge is so fed up, and perhaps slightly frightened, of her that he defies the odds and grants justice. And maybe that would seem like the moral of the story – that we mustn’t be scared to stand up for what we believe in, and that justice will find those who are persistent in their fight for it.

It rather surprises me that this isn’t one of Jesus’ better known parables. 2000 years on it’s still a very modern story, the image of one unlikely hero taking on a powerful adversary is the subject of countless books and films.

But, of course, in the books and films this is the ending and the simple moral message – the idea that one person can make a difference. But Jesus wants us to think further than that. He doesn’t let the story end there – He says “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”.

If it’s possible that an unjust judge will do the right thing if a good person bothers them enough, just think how much our loving God will do when we bother him. I recently sent a message to some friends to pray for me before an important meeting, and a few minutes later one of them replied with a text message that simply read: “God bothering for you.” [blog note: thank you @ric_the_vic https://twitter.com/ric_the_vic/status/486640344512339968].

And in a way, that is what prayer is. Every second of every minute of every day God is receiving petitions from people across the globe. Of course, that’s the idea behind the Mother’s Union ‘Wave of Prayer’ at midday each day, the combined voices of thousands of people asking: “Grant me justice against my opponent.”. But in the case of the Mothers’ Union the opponent is not an individual or group, but the very sorrows of poverty, the bereaved, and those in need. And the recipient of the pleas of the Mothers’ Union is not an unjust judge, but our loving God. If this one, lowly widow could be granted justice by a hard-hearted man, think what Mothers’ Union is achieving through its prayers.

And yet, even when He’s already packed so much meaning into such a short, simple story, Jesus still leaves us with one last question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”. I’m sure we’ve all seen the effects of prayer at work, and God has promised us so much, and yet we still lack faith, we still question the way God works, and we still wonder why an all-loving God doesn’t just grant an end to suffering once and for all.

But if we give up on God and stop seeking justice through him, if we doubt his love of justice and think we can achieve more on our own, we lose the greatest ally we have in our fight for what’s right. God might not grant justice overnight, or even in the way we expect, but He will grant justice – and quickly once we’ve asked for it.

 

Luke 18:1-8

The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.

3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”

4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,

5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’

6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.

7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Exploring Vocation

I’ve started this blog, and written this post, because I want people to understand why I’m going down this particular route – in my own words.

But first, a quick bit of background – when I left 6th form in 2009 acting was the only profession I had in my heart, and it had been for ten years. However when I attended auditions at drama schools I quickly realised none of them was the right place for me. It wasn’t even the career for me. Almost overnight I changed the whole plan for my life. One morning I drew back the curtains and realised what my calling was – the village community I had grown up in. I started designing websites, and offering other technical support, as a means of paying my way and remaining at home to be a part of the village and community, everything from the PCC and Village Hall to the annual Pantomime.

June 15th 2013 is the day that changed my life. I was visiting Gloucester Cathedral with a friend, it wasn’t a religious trip but an architectural one. For those who aren’t aware, I attended the Cathedral school from the age of 11 onwards. We had daily ‘Chapel’ services in the Cathedral, so I know it well – it’s like an old friend. I know the smells, sights, lights, people and essence of the place.

That day it was different. The very air was different. The moment I walked in I felt it. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like someone was standing behind me the entire time. Over lunch my friend asked if I had ever considered being ordained. Quite a few people have asked me that, now I look back, but as far as I’m concerned you have to be called to such a role – and I hadn’t felt called. But in that moment I knew what the sense in the Cathedral had been. I wanted to say “no”, but in that moment I knew the true calling of my life and couldn’t say the word.

And so a quick message for any neighbours who might be reading this. As I’ve said, I have felt deeply called to be a part of the village community. I had imagined I would remain within it for the rest of my life. However my calling now is to full-time ministry, deployable wherever God and the Church see fit to send me. I have gained so, so much from my time in the village. I hope from the bottom of my heart that I have given something back as well. It is incredibly sad to think of leaving, there is so much I will miss and so many people I feel attached to. But this feels completely the right thing to do, and I put full trust in God that He will guide the community very smoothly without me…! I am hoping to spend a year somewhere completely different, as a Lay Pastoral Assistant, as part of the discernment process.

The ‘discernment process’, the long period between being called and being approved for training, is tiring and often painful. Every potential ordinand has their own individual difficulties to face – and the prospect of being ordained forces me to ask some difficult questions and to be open about very private aspects of my life.

Through any sadness, and the occasional darker moments of pain, the last year has given me two great things – a much deeper connection with God is one. I face a crossroad, and I can choose to go down my own path, doing what I want, but if I do then I have to believe my own willpower can drown out God’s calling. And there’s no way I’m that strong. The other road, God’s path, will require an enormous amount from me. There’s no way I’m that strong either, but at least if I follow that path I go with the promise of Christ ringing in my ears: “I am with you always.” As long as I can keep a good relationship with Him, God will give me whatever strength I need.

In the course of a recent conversation someone used the phrase: “you want to be ordained…”. I struggled with that, and after much reflection have to answer (in a very Anglican way) “yes and no”. It’s not the path I might have chosen for myself. And yet the thought of being turned down, the prospect of not being approved for training and ordination, leaves a great sickening feeling within me because I do want to be ordained, with all my heart, mind and soul. God loves me, and I love God. As in any mutually loving relationship I want to please my other half. I simply want whatever God wants.

The other great privilege of the last year has been the opportunity to meet and get to know some incredible people. The Church is the body of Christ. But it’s a human expression of the body of Christ, and humans are fallible. Being an ambassador for the Church means representing an institution that is often – or often appears to be – deeply ‘un-Christian’. But I have met so, so many dedicated people on my journey so far – people in whom the light of Christ shines, from whom loves pours out. Many of them will probably read this post. Few of them will recognise themselves in that description. That’s humility. For every occasion when the Church gets something wrong there are thousands of unsung heroes quietly leading the life God has set them, making a fantastic impression on the world. It’s long been my belief that if you leave the world a less loving place than you found it you’re getting Christianity wrong. It’s a privilege to meet so many people who are getting Christianity right.

So I end on a very positive note. For any talk of pain or worries, I’m well aware of the many wonderful opportunities and privileges that would be open to me were I to be approved. When people get in touch privately and ask for guidance or prayer, when you have the opportunity to help people connect with God, or when you’re just in a position to see someone’s faith grow… Words cannot express what that means, it’s the true work of the Church and the idea I could play a more intensive role within the Church is the definition of humbling.

I’ll occasionally be blogging as I go, it seems a good way of keeping people up to date with my journey and a place to occasionally throw out thoughts that are buzzing around my head. Thank you for reading this post, for your time and your interest. And thank you to all those who have supported me to this point, in whatever way. If you’re a praying person I’d deeply appreciate it if you’d perhaps hold me before God occasionally – it’s like a burst of energy whenever people do. The last year has been an incredible journey, and it’s only just begun.

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