Human Relationships and the Church

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.

Why?

The man born blind

When Jesus met a man born blind ( John, 9:1–12) two issues were addressed. First the man’s blindness. Being blind within his culture he was regarded as bad, a sinner. So were his parents. Neither the man nor his parents had done anything wrong, but the intransigence of humanity was such that it was easier to heal the man than to heal those who were condemning him. Ultimately those condemning him would not let go of their critique. To do so would be to lose face. Though there is a lingering human sense for some people that illness or disability has a human agency, that if, for instance, our children are different it is our fault, science and culture do not generally uphold this point of view. We are born as we are. We are all different from one another and the challenge of Jesus is one of accepting love which bridges difference and loves others, incorporating them into society rather than alienating or condemning them.

Healing a leper

This is further underlined in the instance of a leper coming to Jesus to be healed (Mark 1: 40 – 45). The leper is unwell, but fear of illness had caused society to alienate people with such illness, rather than enabling them to live and be loved within society. So Jesus heals the leper but also points him to the priest who can issue a certificate indicating that he is ‘clean’ and can be reincorporated into society. Jesus’ initial response to the man is to be moved, either with compassion or with anger, depending on the Biblical text which is chosen. There are two and the Greek word in each is different. One suggests compassion, but at a level which is visceral and not the gentler sense which our English might suggest. The other word relates to ‘snorting like a war horse’, it conveys a very aggressive emotion. Neither expression fits an appropriate response to the man himself, or to the illness. It does make sense in relation to the those who would seek to put this man outside of their society on account of something which was not his fault. While some illnesses might carry with them an element of personal responsibility, not all do and even in those that have this component, the sufferer needs to have an awareness of what they are doing in order to avoid the action that is causing the problem and the capacity to alter their practice or context. The bottom line that Jesus demonstrates in these situations is the human possibility of love to incorporate someone different from ourselves and the human responsibility to change our attitude in order that someone else can be whole as they are. The illness and its healing is secondary.

Creation

Arguably in relation to racial difference we are still on a journey of growing understanding. Racism still exists in society, though most societies recognize it as wrong. What is more difficult is eradicating it as we have a deeply ingrained sense of fear, sometimes biologically helpful sometimes culturally learned which makes us fear difference. Increasingly such differences are seen as biologically inherent and make up part of the variety of created life. Indeed, such variety offers a survival premium and hence the emphasis on seed banks and conservation maintaining a varied genetic resource for future generations. So there is a human benefit, aside from any cultural or Biblical injunction at least not to kill, at best to love and care.

Reading the Bible

This moves us to a consideration as to how we read creation stories and particularly phrases such as ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1: 27). When such passages were first spoken or written people were seeking to make sense of the world in which they lived. Arguably they saw men and women. What they saw was an outside manifestation, but also what fitted in the context of their culture. Difference felt threatening. We now know that human beings  have been around for upward of a million years. We now (except in situations where the Biblical text is read independently of context, variety and translation) recognise that the Biblical text we are reading cannot be read as a literal description of what happened at creation. We also see around us people who exhibit a variety of difference in appearance, genetic make-up, cultural history, mental capacity and theological understanding. This latter is manifested, not simply in nuances of interpretation of one collection of scripture, but in a compendium of different faiths, some of which have come and gone and others are still being practised. In that light we might read ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ differently. We now know that there is, for instance, a spectrum of skin and hair colour, genetically determined. We are also increasingly aware that the same is true of our sexuality. I would suggest that this has been so for centuries. Our forebears would recognise ‘strong women’ and ‘gentle men’, though we now know that such descriptions are limited and simplistic. We are all more varied, indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139: 14), than our simple outer appearance would allow. Turning the phrases around, without I think doing disservice to scripture, we might now say male and female and in many other ways (LGBTQ for instance), we have been made. And if that is so, and we are made in God’s image, this variety must be inherently present in the otherness that we name ‘God’.

Human variety and relationship

These reflections give me pause to reflect and the conviction that, while recognising this fascinating and wonderful variety of created humanity, we should have little surprise that Jesus worked so hard, in the terms of his day, to enable people to live with difference and to love one another, to break down walls of alienation. To do this today we need to see all people as created in God’s image, to work together in mutual recognition of our common humanity for our common good what ever our differences.

In the context of intimate human relations, the church has tended to fit people into models of relationship rather than enabling people to be affirmed in the relationships for which they were suited. This should in no way diminish our reverence for traditional marriage, but neither should we be fearful of other forms, styles and types of relationship. For some these other relationships will feel like a traditional marriage, and could be named as such, others might be seen in other ways, named by other names. Even the term ‘traditional marriage’ is difficult to pin down as individuals relate faithfully to others in a variety of different ways. No two marriages are the same. What ought to be stressed is that no relationship is acceptable which is one sided or abusive in any way.

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.  

John Wesley – timely words for today…

Words of John Wesley in his sermon on the catholic spirit – original, non-inclusive language of the 1700s – strong inclusive sentiment:

Is thy heart right toward thy neighbour? Dost thou love as thyself, all mankind, without exception? “If you love those only that love you, what thank have ye?” Do you “love your enemies?” Is your soul full of good-will, of tender affection, toward them? Do you love even the enemies of God, the unthankful and unholy? Do your bowels yearn over them? Could you “wish yourself” temporally “accursed” for their sake? And do you show this by “blessing them that curse you, and praying for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you?”

Do you show your love by your works? While you have time as you have opportunity, do you in fact “do good to all men,” neighbours or strangers, friends or enemies, good or bad? Do you do them all the good you can; endeavouring to supply all their wants; assisting them both in body and soul, to the uttermost of your power? – If thou art thus minded, may every Christian say, yea, if thou art but sincerely desirous of it, and following on till thou attain, then “thy heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart.”

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship,” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government to be scriptural and apostolical. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent is better, think so still, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized; and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion. It appears to me, that forms of prayer are of excellent use, particularly in the great congregation. If you judge extemporary prayer to be of more use, act suitable to your own judgement. My sentiment is, that I ought not to forbid water, wherein persons may be baptized; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine, as a memorial of my dying Master: however, if you are not convinced of this act according to the light you have. I have no desire to dispute with you one moment upon any of the preceding heads. Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight “If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand.”

A Cosy Armageddon

When arguments are brewing we don’t notice,
it seems that tension builds with every word,
we say things while not hearing one another,
like children in a playground, quite absurd!

It could have been a cosy Armageddon,
the words had seemed innocuous and bland,
yet hidden in each phrase, each idle sentence
were thoughts designed to undermine each stand.

If we could simply seek a gracious outcome
when others hurt and harass, fault or harm,
a look inspired by love could turn the tables,
could echo hidden need, befriend, disarm.

© Andrew Pratt 3/5/2019

What does singing do to us?

When we sing we embody (in-body) the theology that we have read. We take it in, translate, interpret and transmit. In the process are we, perhaps, formed or changed by the medium? Not pushing the metaphor too far, is it in any way like eating – what we eat becomes part of us, we excrete some of it, and it can nourish or poison…

So what we sing, and even how we sing, becomes important in a way we may not have envisaged before. It is one thing to read a text which remains remote, like looking at a cake and not eating it; it is something altogether different to take the text in and to re-transmit it. That we might do by reading aloud. The sheer physicality of singing, the presence of music, steps everything up a gear. Wesley knew that. That is why hymns were so important. The hymns provided portmanteau scriptures or interpretations, theology or doctrine. These were memorised and could be shared with others. And you can never lose them – which can become a bit of an irritation!

Why do you like this hymn or that? Why do you find some hymns abhorrent? ‘A good sing’ says as much, if not more, about feeling as it does about understanding or literary or musical quality. But Britta Martini wants to push us further by asking what is there in the expression of the music or the structure of a text, key or melody, image or metaphor, that causes a hymn to affect us in this way?

What hymns or songs affect you? And how? And why?

Brexit or how, for a church, it all came tumbling down -almost!

Nearly twenty years ago the members of a church were told that the roof was unsafe and liable to collapse.

What to do? The members had to decide.

A meeting was called. It was an open meeting for anyone who wished to attend and not just limited to members. At least five distinct solutions to the problem were suggested. These ranged from putting the roof back as it had been originally to closing the church and joining with a congregation of another denomination with which they had good relations.

Another meeting was convened for a week’s time and a representative of each scheme agreed to present their idea to this meeting for consideration.

They had to move swiftly, but it was also important to take these different groups along together. The Secretary ensured that everyone was informed at every stage and notes of meetings were posted regularly in the room where the congregation was now gathering.

At the next meeting each representative was allowed to speak for 10 minutes without interruption to put a case. Five minutes were allowed for questions. There was then a brief time for clarification where this was needed. The meeting then spent a short time in prayer. Everyone was conscious of the need to move to a workable conclusion. Each scheme was voted on in turn by a secret ballot. The votes were counted and recorded. After the vote the option with the least votes was excluded and everyone voted again. The process continued until two options were left and a final vote was taken. The decision had been made that the roof would be replaced, but in a re-designed form to prevent a further collapse.

The transition was not easy. It required listening, understanding, compromise, even empathy. Building works of this scale involve raising money, employment of professionals and a lot of hard work. The church was ultimately re-opened and, although some people felt that the wrong decision had been made they were still there to express their feelings!

And then we have Brexit!

Religious groups at their best might have something to teach us, perhaps?

Hymns for today?…for tomorrow?

A friend asked if I knew any young hymn writers – under forty? I was hard pressed, except for a colleague with his fortieth birthday a month away! And other times I have been greeted with, ‘Oh, I didn’t know any hymn writers were still alive!’ But my friend made the point seriously and went on to say that hymns are becoming a bit like madrigals, written in the past and sung by consenting adults in private. Hymn singing seems to be entering a cloistered, a rather esoteric world. Aside from Songs of Praise, where the provision is pretty limited, or Cup Final day, there is little ‘public’ interest in hymn singing, let alone actual involvement. It is becoming, or has become, the preserve of enthusiasts, even if we count ourselves among them. Within the church itself the menu offered is often limited in content and theologically unadventurous, the language that of another age. For that reason, in many Fresh Expressions of church, hymn singing hasn’t even been entertained, and rightly so. It is no longer apt or appropriate; better left in the museum of so called, ‘inherited church’. Then they are not lost for those who remember hymns over a lifetime and for whom they are a resource of inspiration, theology and comfort. While that is a right thing to do, it is a bit like keeping the church open ‘long enough for me to be buried from it.’ So do hymns have any value or purpose in the foreseeable future? I think so, but for this to be the case our perception of them may need to change markedly.

John Wesley knew that hymns enable us to internalise theological belief and form attitudes, but most of us expect hymns to provide a ‘good sing’, often regardless of language or theology. Sadly, this freezes people into thought forms and language which are archaic and not right for the present day. We might well sing ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’, with its allusion to ‘thousands of new worlds as great as this’, but now we know the potential for the existence of such worlds, our focus on a theology which presumed the need for the salvation of humans on this world alone might just need some adjustment. We have inherited a view that our world is timeless and humanity is dominant. A New Scientist bulletin from 4 January 2019 might cause us to adjust our view. ‘…A new simulation predicts that our galaxy will collide with the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud in about 2.4 billion years, a smashup that will actually make the Milky Way more similar to its galactic counterparts […] it will likely collide with our galaxy in about 2.4 billion years, well before the much larger predicted collision with the Andromeda galaxy more than 5 billion years from now.

So where do we go from here? Let me make just a few suggestions that those who write hymns might try to act on.

Doctrine is imbibed through hymn singing. But however firmly asserted and defended it is, inevitably, always to be regarded as provisional unless a fundamentalist position is taken in relation to revelation and scripture. This being the case our doctrine has to be based on human cultural understanding and expressed in the language of the time. Frequently such language is metaphorical. A metaphor which works in one age or language may not always be transferable to another. As hymns are used to state, reinforce and internalise doctrine it might be expected that the language and metaphors that they employ would evolve from age to age. When a metaphor is no longer working it should be discarded. Part of the role of the hymn poet is, I believe, to explore the use of metaphor in order to express belief with clarity in each succeeding generation.

We need to find music that is timeless, yet accessible. Worship music has tended, historically, to follow the styles and patterns of popular music. For instance, much of the worship song genre of the 1970s mimicked the acoustic guitar led folk music of the 1960s, In consequence hymns never quite catch-up and singing yesterday’s song tune makes us seem more out of touch than singing something from 100 years ago. Nevertheless, the folk song/ballad seems to have been the most resilient format, as illustrated by Vaughan Williams, Sydney Carter, John Bell, Stuart Townend, Nordic and Baltic Protestant Traditions and the rediscovery of shape-note singing in the United States.

I believe that the interaction of words and music has the unique potential to internalise hope. We feel and then live out what we sing. Singing can make you feel good. It can transform your emotional, psychological and, indeed, spiritual state. In a sense we are healed by it. While singing in itself is enjoyable, many people seeking a deeper spiritual experience find this when they sing.

Choral singing, though not church choral singing, is increasing in prominence in the United Kingdom. It has become a popular form of recreation for many. It would be perverse if the church, at this point, abandoned corporate singing, which can act as a means of re-creation. But for this to work both poets and particularly composers, need to hear what people like to sing and to work together creatively.

We need to re-examine sung words of Hebrew scripture. We love to sing praise, yet at least a third of the Psalms give voice to lament. If a stranger lets you down it is irritating. If a good friend lets you down you might complain. How much more if you feel God who is, to use a favourite phrase of some contemporary writers, your ‘strong tower’ fails you? Yet we are so often fed words which suggest that when bad things happen this is all part of ‘God’s plan’. If a child is drowned in the Mediterranean escaping from the horrors of bloody warfare is part of that big plan this is not a God I want to worship. To suggest that this is the God we see in Christ is, frankly, blasphemous. Returning to the Psalms will deepen our faith, so that we too will believe deeply enough in God to cry out of our forsakenness when things go wrong, charging God with apparent absence. Jean Calvin, the reformer saw this as strength of faith rather than denial or doubt. It takes our image of a loving God seriously.

Hymns can make theology and build hope. But this is dangerous. Walter Bruggemann in his book Prophetic Imagination suggests that the poetry of the Hebrew prophets enabled them to find hope while in exile when logic said there was none. A salient passage is Ezekiel 37, which marked the turning point for those in exile. The key was in the creativity of poetry. Sung poetry can turn that revelation into embodied hope. At best, hymns can transform our attitudes and expectations when our backs are against the wall. That may be through a reiteration of past experience. Equally it can be through the presentation of a new perspective that suddenly becomes a realistic proposition on which we can base our hope – a fresh revelation. Dead bones can live!

We need to see hymns as an evolving genre. They are never going to be a static form. For many in contemporary society faith makes no sense. Perhaps circumstance or experience leads them to this point. For others there is the sheer illogicality of believing in something intangible, metaphysical. Theologians address such issues in one of three ways. They stay with tradition, they allow tradition to evolve gradually, or they recognise that more radical reconstruction is needed. The works of John Hick, Don Cupitt and John Shelby Spong come into this latter category. Hymn writers rarely move beyond the second position. To do so feels unsafe. Yet Fred Pratt Green could write, ‘When our confidence is shaken/in beliefs we thought secure’ and allow the suggestion that ‘God is active in the tensions of a faith not yet mature’. Arguably, where God is concerned we never can have the full picture, we are never fully mature. We need to be open to the fact that faith, in Sydney Carter’s words, is framed by a creed which can never be fixed or final. All is open to challenge and change: all faith statements, of their nature, must be provisional. People find that either liberating, or threatening, perhaps even heretical. If it is accepted, our hymn text writing may push against the limits of our faith and may even break through them framing new insights, offering new hope.

The role of the hymn poet today ought to be at the cutting edge of Christian thought, working out of a particular context in time and place, seeking to elaborate a theology that holds together faith, while making sense of experience. By faith I do not mean belief. This is more akin to the Greek pistis, trust. And by experience I am not limiting this to simple, personal experience, but including all that we know corporately as human beings, our total sum of knowledge. The opportunity to learn more about the cosmos seems boundless. How much more is there to learn about God?

If all of this is so, then it is incumbent on those who write, compose, choose and sing songs and hymns to ensure that they are as effective as possible. They require us to apply the greatest literary and musical skills that we have in providing a vehicle for theological exploration, expression and development. Those who are responsible for liturgical standards and theological orthodoxy ought, no less, to be open to the evolving nature of hymnody. This will make it a requirement that those who work in these fields are aware of theological, scientific, cosmological, social and literary progress and have the facility to adapt and allow their writing to be informed by these other areas of knowledge. Unless this is allowed, even the most inspired hymns will be suffocated by those who seek to control or constrain their use. The vehicle will become simply a museum piece used by enthusiasts. It is my belief that should this be the case, the church will suffer immeasurably as a consequence, unless it is able to replace the hymn with another medium equal to fulfilling its function. At present I see none.

I am convinced that hymns are still useful; still a lively and relevant component of Christian liturgy, which may yet have a place in revitalising Christian faith and practice in the twenty-first century.

God gender neutral say Justin Welby – hardly news!

www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2018/nov/21/not-in-his-name-god-is-gender-neutral-says-archbishop-of-canterbury

Not in His name: God is gender-neutral, says Archbishop of Canterbury – hardly new. Whoever thought human language was competent to describe or name that which we have called ‘God’?