Fr David's Newsletter Archive
Newsletter for March 2013
Looking at someone else’s holiday snaps provides an opportunity for the exercise of the best of our politeness, concealing a range of emotions from envy to disinterest. I have no desire to bore you with tales of our trip to Rome, though I can assure you that none of them is boring. Neither do I want to generate antipathy in those who were not able to join us. You were all with us in pectore, prayed for at every opportunity. Our pilgrimage to the heart of Christianity was, I have no doubt, one from which the grace of that week extends to the whole of our community.
As S Cyril of Jerusalem writes in this month’s Fathers Talking, we are generally well-disposed to a fellow-traveller. I am personally grateful for that disposition, exemplified in the patience and good humour of my fellow-travellers. The claim of months of planning and organizing might have seemed on occasion to be fictitious in the face of anarchic spontaneity or chaotic idiosyncrasy, but the sometimes circuitous routes and the unscheduled hospital visits proved on reflection more entertainment than ennui.
Here are just two highlights to treasure. Arriving at S Peter’s for the main Sunday Mass, I had ensured that that part of the flock that had tarried over breakfast was appropriately shepherded into the Basilica through the airport-like security. As the shepherd bringing up the rear, I was penned at the rear of the large congregation. It was good to observe that several of us had been called up higher and had seats; some, it would seem, on the front row, out of sight of this shepherd, but under the watchful gaze of a clutch of cardinals, an embarrassment of bishops and a pulchritude of priests! It will remain the source of genuine pride and delight to me, though I do not seek to embarrass him, that Keith Biddle had been invited to read the second lesson, which I knew nothing of until I strained to focus on the distant figure accompanied to the lectern, and heard an unmistakable and clear diction. Imagine! At the centre of the Christian world, at the altar beneath Bernini’s Chair of S Peter, in the offering of the core Christian action of word and sacrament, one of our very own proclaiming the words of the apostle Paul (ironically, to the Romans). Bishop Mark smiled in my direction and mouthed: ‘That was very special’. Keith, as all of us, will rightly cherish that moment. S Bart’s had arrived. Still glowing by association, we were soon part of the swelling crowd that had gathered outside in the square for Pope Benedict’s penultimate Sunday angelus appearance (something even the most organized could not have incorporated into the itinerary months before): a tiny figure, high in the window of the papal apartments, leading us in prayer, enveloped by the gratitude and affection of a 10,000 strong crowd. Powerful stuff indeed.
Wednesday of the week found us at the Church of Saint Bartholomew on the Tiber Island. The inscription above the porch reads in Latin: here lies the body of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle. Here was an omission amongst the churches I have visited in Rome over the years. But what a gem, made all the more significant and special because of our patron. There is occasionally a point in Rome at which relic-fatigue sets in. But not here. The church watchers were most welcoming and accommodating and allowed us up into the sanctuary to kneel at the sarcophagus. Fr Stephen Gallagher of the Shrine at Walsingham (happily among our number) led us in prayer for the parish. Perhaps of all the sites and sights, of all the tales and tribulations of our week on pilgrimage, this was the fulcrum. To journey with each other in close proximity, to spend more time in each other’s company than we might otherwise do, to see one another at best and at breakfast, to deepen our knowledge of some whom we might only just identify by sight on a Sunday morning, such is the stuff of extraordinary pilgrimage. And to find, sandwiched between the painful recollections of the Jewish Ghetto on one bank of the Tiber and the pleasure and vibrancy of Trastevere on the other, an island and a church wherein lies the body of the one whom we honour as the patron of our parish, we have come close to the purpose of pilgrimage, to that touching place where we span both sorrow and joy, where we recognize, love and cherish all pilgrims, those who have gone before us and whose stories we celebrate, and those whom we call fellow-travellers, present at the time or in pectore. It is an obligation and privilege to hold them in our hearts and to thank God for them, for the fresh perspective on the journey that they reveal to us and for their accompanying us on the way.
No. Not ‘them’, but ‘you’.
And thank you.
Newsletter for December 2012
It is a cliché of every preacher at this time of the year that the preparations for Christmass seem to begin earlier and earlier. Shops and advertisements lead the charge sometime in October or at least once the commercial aberration of Hallowe'en is done and dusted.
Around the first week of November as I was minding my own business in the queue at the checkout, I overheard a conversation between two women who were seeking to outdo one another in their preparedness for 'the holidays' (another transatlantic import that I detest). "Well we've had the tree up since the end of September. All I need now is the sausage meat." I shudder to think which part of the tree might be graced by such decoration!
The end of September? Such investment of tune and money indicates to me a deep attachment to Christmass even if the 'reason for the season' is now almost completely obscured or wilfully ignored. Calls for the abolition of any religious content at the end of December are encouragingly still met with opposition.
Trying to explain ourselves and proclaim the message of the Gospel in our own generation is a task that might seem overwhelmingly difficult. At the end of a month which has witnessed less than favourable national and local coverage of Church news, and reprimands from the Archbishop of Canterbury, political leaders and media that the Church of England is out of step with contemporary society and that we have a lot of explaining to do, the temptation is to retreat into a rarefied, esoteric, introspective ghetto.
Yet the antipathy towards the institution of the Church is at odds with the clear spiritual desire and instinct of those who remain well disposed to the story of Christmass even if it has not developed beyond the sentimental or schmaltzy.
We need once more to connect with that longing. We need to listen to the stories of those to whom we seek to minister - of every age and disposition - and to connect them with the narrative of God's intervention in their lives through the person of Jesus Christ. We need to speak to them not from a position of certainty, arrogance or superiority, but from the honest acceptance of our own need, confusion and fallibility.
The Advent lectionary invites us to reflect not superficially on the great truth of God's redeeming work but on the people who were themselves part of the story of preparing the way of the Lord.
The people of Israel, chosen by God to be light for the nations, had been buffeted and bruised by generations of antipathy, aggression and self-absorption. The story of their journey from slavery to liberation and blessing, from settlement to displacement and ennui would hardly seem to fit them for being entrusted with the extraordinary grace of the Incarnation. But in the 'scandal of particularity', it is not their readiness measured by a standard of fitness, but their connectedness to the full sweep of God's engagement with his creation that makes them the locus of his supremest intervention.
Elizabeth, Zachariah and their son John were hardly the kind of people that would be marked out as distinguished contributors to the story of salvation. Zachariah, somewhat arrogant in his convictions, would be struck dumb for dismissing the angel's fanciful promise. Elizabeth, an elderly barren countrywoman, would need the visit of the Mother of the Lord to anticipate and experience the momentousness of her contribution to the narrative. John the Baptist was the kind of vituperative preacher more likely to drive people away than coax them into the coming kingdom.
Mary, unmarried, pregnant teenager, was guaranteed to be a source of scandal, gossip and ostracism, but for the inspired, generous and humble acceptance of her husband-to-be.
These are the people we are invited to reflect on in the season of Advent, not the made-over figures of romanticised invention, but the gritty, real, ill-prepared material that God chooses to use.
In recounting the narrative of God's involvement with them , we are re-absorbing his involvement with us through Jesus Christ. We are being prepared to meet him, and to engage appropriately and effectively with those who long for a celebration of Christmass that enlivens them and reconnects them to the story of God's love for them and for us whatever our state of readiness or fitness.
May God bless us all this Christmass with joy, and with fresh understanding of our part in the narrative of his love.
Newsletter for September 2012
The Archdeacon of Chichester won’t mind me telling you that he wrote after our patronal festival weekend to say how glad he was to have played such a full part in it and how encouraged he was by life at S Bartholomew’s.
One of the churchwardens told me that he thought that with the approach of a complete year in harness, I had now seen the fullest picture of what S Bartholomew’s has to offer. So, I mused, only retirement to look forward to!
I tell every visitor who stands looking in wonder at the building of which we are the stewards that I am equally struck daily by its awesome majesty. And yet it remains a beautiful shell until it is hallowed and brought to life by the daily offering of prayer, by the stillness and security of the refuge it provides, and by the dignity of its liturgy and music. Nothing is more life-enhancing than the direction of self and gift to the worship of God.
In the course of my ministry I have worked in churches dedicated to All Saints - so not one in particular - and to Our Lady under various titles - but every church in our tradition claims part with her. With the exception of S Mary Magdalene (in Paddington), to whom I developed a special devotion even though fellow priests chuckled at the association of reputations, I am now bound to a particular follower of Jesus Christ. Archdeacon Ian’s sermon reminded us how little we know of someone of such significance in the apostolic age. But his contribution to the life of the early church endures - readiness to accept the call of Jesus; witness to the Resurrection and Ascension; gathering in prayer in expectation of the Spirit; sent out to live and proclaim, without counting the cost to himself.
Like Archdeacon Douglas I am hugely encouraged by life at S Bartholomew’s. With respect to the Churchwarden, I have only just begun to explore the rewards of belonging here. And with such a patron in such a place, there is plenty yet to be inspired by, to emulate, and to enjoy.
Newsletter for July 2012
The end of June and the beginning of July are taken up with the annual round of ordinations and First Masses. It was not always so.Trinity-tide, Michaelmas and the old Feast of S Thomas were once the preferred times for ordinations, corresponding with the now neglected Ember days. The association of ordinations with the Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul (29th June) reminds us of the vocation of the two Princes of the Apostles - to guard and nurture the community of the faithful and to lead the mission of the Church in the world.
Attending an ordination recalls me to the solemn vows and undertakings that I made 22 years ago. It's all very scary, not least because the passage of time does not automatically endow the wisdom and competence of faithfulness. Professions select those who have the skill-set and gifts to fulfill a particular role within an organisation.The church selects those who have only the potential and who are willing to submit to the'needful gifts of grace'.There is no guarantee that either will come to fruition over the course of ministerial life. Structures of clergy deployment, accountability and professional development (not of themselves necessarily unwelcome) have regrettably encouraged a careerist tendency into the life of the Body of Christ. Despite Human Resources Departments, application forms, CV and interview technique training, the Church does not have a career ladder for the ambitious - at least not one that rises. Pope John XXIII (I think) said that 'the greatest day in the life of pope is the day of his baptism'. The highest vocation of the human being is to be incorporated into the life of Jesus Christ.The real wealth of the church, as S Lawrence demonstrated to the Prefect of Rome, comprises those whom Christ has called to be his own -some play their full part in the life of the Church, many others have yet to be enfolded within the community of the faithful. A priest is called to wait at table, to muck out, to polish the silver, to empty the bins and to sweep the steps of the church (not always metaphorically) so that those whom Christ loves can enter in. Such is the vocation to guard, to nurture and to lead in mission.
Pray for your priests and for more priests so that the household of the Lord can function effectively.
Newsletter for June 2012
Sundays after Pentecost, Sundays after Trinity, Ordinary Time - the space between Trinity Sunday and Advent Sunday. At this stage in the year there is something appealing about it being Ordinary Time. And this year in particular, when the celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee and the build up to the London Olympics are conspiring to make this year anything but ordinary, I long for a bit of ordinariness.
In Church, the Summer months are never ordinary in the sense of plain and uninteresting. This the very period when all that we have celebrated in the previous months - the Advent, the Incarnation, the Temptation, the Death, the Resurrection, the Coming of the Spirit - this is the period when we are given the space to allow those recollections of the past to be seen to be and become the foundation of our present. Not that the Calendar is a chronological museum trip. In tracing the events of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we are not simply passing time in retrospection.
We are inviting ‘the salvation event’, the story of God’s dealings with his people, to be interweaved with our story. The narrative of God’s supreme intervention in human affairs only makes sense when the narrative of our ordinary lives is recognized as belonging within the story.
The Ordinary Sundays of the year - the Sundays between Trinity and Advent - must leave us exposed. We cannot shelter in the comfortable distance of history. It is ordinary in that here is where we belong - in the present, encountering God, not second-hand, but, with the experience and the memoirs of the apostles to assist us, to trace our own response to the love revealed in Jesus Christ.
It is not for nothing that this long season is marked in Church by the colour green, often understood to suggest growth. If we have allowed the full spectrum of Love’s colours - the purples, the golds, the reds - to hold our gaze, then here in ordinary begins another chapter in the story of Love’s endless endeavour to help me grow in my love for him.
Newsletter for May 2012
There is a story of a new Bishop in East Anglia being asked how he intended to lead the people of his Diocese. He replied that he would find out where they were going and walk in front of them.
The announcement of a new Bishop of Chichester will cause some to be unnecessarily anxious. They will assume that the new Bishop does not match their expectations. They might believe that the Bishop's track record exacerbates their own perceived marginalisation. There will be others for whom the appointment of Bishop Martin will be a cause of rejoicing and perhaps a modicum of misplaced triumphalism. They might think, wrongly, that his pedigree gives them reason to relax, perhaps even to become complacent.
The truth is that the new Bishop will be a Father in God to the whole Diocese. The causes for rejoicing are that he has a demonstrable commitment to the Gospel, to its contemporary and fresh expression particularly in culture and the arts, to its imperative to be preached and taught to everyone and in every circumstance and for Christians to be formed with confidence and compassion in the image of Christ. From my own knowledge of Bishop Martin, the only cause for anxiety should be amongst the clergy, of all traditions, who will rightly be held to a high standard of accountability for the exercise of their pastoral responsibility and for their own discipleship. I know that we are to receive a Father in God whose companionship and leadership is rooted in and directed to the fullest expression of that love which is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Yes, the demands of that love are challenging and subverting. But there is no cause for grumbling or complacency. Our priority is not to consolidate our own position or define ourselves over and against those whose insight differs from ours. Our only priority is to work all the harder for the evangelisation of the people whose lives we are privileged to share. We are called to become more fully immersed in the love which has been revealed to us, and with which we have been entrusted. God calls us to journey deeper into that mystery and for the sake of our parishes and communities to give it the freshest expression.
That is where we are going. I am sure Bishop Martin will be front and centre.
Newsletter for April 2012
I suppose, on reflection, that arriving at S Bartholomew’s in December could not have been arranged more fittingly. Having been plunged into the wonder and beauty of the Christmas celebrations (not least witnessing the construction of the crib), there has been little time to ‘stand and stare’. Holy Week and Easter are set to consume waking hours. The Incarnation and the Passion and Resurrection are our core business. These core doctrines of our faith, of which the Mass is the actualization, are the source and summit of God’s binding himself to us in an everlasting covenant. Throughout Lent, we have traced the development of God’s dealings with his people - his gratuitous, lavish and undiminished love, defined, shaped and refined not by response or deserving, but simply by a divine self-restricting imperative to hold the whole of creation in an eternal embrace. God’s interventions through the Biblical narrative lead inexorably to the singularity of self-emptying in the person of Jesus Christ. In his Resurrection, the love of God made visible in Christ explodes in a big bang of re-creative energy and potentiality. God’s future breaks in to our present.
Nothing can equal or challenge such a foundation to our lives - as individuals or as a community. The faith that we share might not alter the ‘what’ of our lives but it changes the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of all that we experience. To respond to the ‘inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ’ is to immerse ourselves in the love that cannot be overcome even by death. It is to meet the assaults of everyday life, of pain, or of grief, with the confidence that they cannot destroy us. It is to meet the challenge of change and aggressive confrontation of cherished understandings with a commitment not to our constructs but to God’s faithfulness to us, in the certainty that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Rom.8:28). This then is the real foundation for the rest of the year, indeed for the rest of life.
May God bless our Easter celebrations, refreshing the source of faith he has given us that we may work towards the summit of its fulfillment.
Newsletter for March 2012
Angels and Demons
The Deanery is doing it. The Wagner Group is doing it. This month the PCC will be doing it - considering a new Mission Action Plan. It’s the kind of agenda that might occasion yawns and cynical grumblings. But the process of thinking through the strengths and weaknesses of a parish community and putting together a framework for the development of our life together is something that can focus our efforts constructively in the service of the kingdom.
I am usually the first in the queue when it comes to being cynical about another initiative. And all too frequently, the adoption by the Church of business models of practice is a pale imitation and inappropriate to the very nature of the Church as the Body of Christ, as a community. No family operates in such a way. But as a relatively large family, we need from time to time to reflect on the things we do well and to commit to improving the areas of our life that are less reflective of our belonging to Christ. We need to name our angels and our demons.
Lent is the time when as individuals we try to crowd out the distractions in our spiritual journey. We seek to regain control of ourselves as members of Christ, to confront the demons of our complacency, our dilatoriness, our inattentiveness, and by naming them to remove their power. Such is the scriptural insight of the temptation account, which we read at the beginning of Lent, and such is the insight of the healing narratives, where those powers that bring suffering and disability are robbed of their hold on the people who encounter Christ.
But it is also important to name your angels. In a Church community it is far too easy to take for granted the gifts and contributions of each member. So many of those gifts are not spectacular or enrapturing but they are invaluable. In a church like S Bart’s, the day to day management of the building, its visitors, its liturgy, its corporate life, its hidden life of prayer, does not just happen. It takes countless acts of generosity and commitment for the show to go on. The identification of such angelic powers can only serve to strengthen them and to encourage new and complementary commitments.
So I commend to you (not just the members of the PCC) the process of Mission Action Planning, and I hope we can find ways in which to engage the greater part of our community. This will not be to complete a task that can be set aside and filed –job done – a dry bureaucratic exercise to satisfy Deanery or Diocesan authorities, but it will be to identify and nurture the best that is in us as a Church community, to encourage further manifestations of involvement and to crowd out those things that stand in the way of our being what God would have us be.