Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Important and the Insignificant

One of the aspects of parish ministry is that you get to meet people from all walks of society. In the many years of my ministry I have met some famous people, and I have met very many folks who are of very humble or broken or needy backgrounds.

Sometimes the folks who are most famous know it and expect you to know it too and treat them ‘accordingly’. I have encountered that all too often, and find it distasteful in the extreme.

But others are very different. A few months back someone who is arguably one of the most innovative and creative contributors to contemporary music appeared in St Cuthbert’s. I instantly recognised him… and he seemed genuinely and disarmingly shocked that I should! Similarly, the other day I met one of the ministers of the Scottish Government. He introduced himself and when I said that I knew who he was, he was also surprised that I should have recognised such a ‘lowly minister’ (his words). I instantly liked them both!

How refreshingly different from the ‘’do you know who I am’ attitude of some of the so-called great and famous (and I have met some of them too and not been impressed.)

Perhaps the person who sticks most in my mind form recent encounters is a woman who stays in one of the less salubrious areas of Edinburgh who has teenage and young adult children all dependent on welfare benefits, one of whom is physically unwell and another who has mental illness. This genuine and humble woman came to me in great fear and trembling and with considerable shame and embarrassment to ask for any help I could give towards getting them something for Christmas dinner. She had only £7 left and no prospect for further income for days. It had taken her considerable courage to come and ask…

I think she has made more impression on me than the ‘important’ people… and especially the ‘self-important’ people I have met.

God bless you Jenny and enjoy your Christmas lunch.

Interesting that the Christmas story in Gospels includes the name of many important people; Herod, Quirinius, Augustus. But the most important person and the one whom we still remember and celebrate was the least significant (apparently). Born in an unimportant town in inauspicious circumstances. But his is the name most remembered!

Thank you Jesus that from the very beginning, even at your birth, you were turning our values upside down, the humble were lifted high and the mighty brought down from their thrones. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Mary, Music and Movement

As I have been thinking about Mary and her experience of angels and pregnancy and birth it occurs to me how terrifying it must all have been for one so young, and how extraordinary her acceptance, obedience and faith were. She is a real example of a life lived by faith, of acceptance of God’s will and way, and of catching the breeze (or in her case perhaps the hurricane!) of the Holy Spirit and being ready to move in the Spirit’s flow.

Which reminded me of a conversation I had yesterday in the course of which I recalled a book I read some time ago which likened the Christian life to music and suggested that following Jesus is less like a classical symphony (where all the notes are set out clearly and are to be followed precisely) and more like jazz improvisation (where the basic key and rhythm may be set – although sometimes not even these! – but the within that the musician ventures forth, ‘feeling’ the music, interpreting it, and so forth).

And that is slightly scary!

But it is a picture that makes more sense of my Christian experience than one of rule following and precise ‘black and white’ responses. And it is an image which resonates a little with Jesus’ talk of the Holy Spirit and those who are born of the Spirit being like the wind. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.

Faith as improvisation, following like moving with the rhythm, Mary and all that jazz.

I find these concepts all rather inspiring and liberating…

Friday, 2 December 2011

Appreciating Advent

I love Advent.

I have never kept this a secret! I have always loved Advent. It is the sense of anticipation, the themes of hope, the focus on prayerful waiting, and so much more besides.

Sometimes I fear that the distinctive themes of Advent are in danger of being squeezed out, not only by the insistent commercial pressures of which we all know. For even in the church there can be, during Advent, a sense that Christmas has already arrived. All through December Christmas carol services intrude into the Advent preparations. And – yes – to me it can feel like an intrusion!

I know that this season allows us to connect with many in our communities who may rarely otherwise come around the church. I welcome this opportunity and do not at all resent it.

For me the question is much more one of how we – as a Christian community – hold onto the great Advent themes of hope and preparation in our worship and prayer.

So I am eager that we seek ways to meaningfully observe this wonderful season. How much more wonderful our celebrations of the Season of Incarnation will be if we first enter into the prayerful preparation represented by this Advent Season.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Place to Talk Update

First of all, thank you to all who you who responded by posting here, or on facebook or (more often) by email; I appreciate your responses.

I was putting the possibility of a dialogue/forum ‘out there’ by way of testing the water. Is there a need? Are people wanting an opportunity for dialogue? Could this be a worthwhile venture if we can admit to uncertainties and be open in our dialogue?

Along with some of you who have responded in one form or another, I do believe that there is a need for open and honest dialogue on this issue… and most certainly on other issues too.

Some of you said that you thought I was ‘brave’. I did not feel that at all. As someone who is not gay, who is theologically orthodox, who owes much to and still affirms a great deal of my evangelical heritage and yet who currently ministers in a congregation who seem happy for me to raise these issues without concern or argument (whatever views individuals may take) made me feel that I was in the safest of places to help facilitate discussion.

I was wrong.

So here is my conclusion after careful consideration of the responses I have had, and especially those which for whatever reason were not publically made, but privately offered by email or via personal contact.

Many of you have said (in effect) ‘go for it David!’. Thank you. I appreciate your support. I would not have posted this if I had not been approached by several colleagues, the majority of whom would self-identify as ‘evangelical’, asking if I would facilitate some kind of forum as they were a) unsure that they still took the traditionalist line on this issue and b) were themselves a little wary of putting their heads above the parapet.

The odd thing is that only a few of these people have made any response to my blog (although I sent the link by email to several). I suspect I understand why. But as the aim was to see if there was a ‘market’ for this kind of forum, I feel I must conclude that there is little scope of such dialogue. And this makes me very sad.

There were those who suggested that this was not the ‘big issue’ and should not be considered as such. I totally agree (which is why – in my blog – the words ‘big issue’ are in inverted commas!) However, from the private approaches and responses I have had I realise it IS a big issue for many... a big issue for gay evangelicals who are afraid to ‘come out’ and a big issue for those who feel they still belong to the evangelical ‘tribe’ and yet question the received wisdom on this particular matter. For them the ‘issue’ is very big indeed. I suspect I would not have been approached by them, had that not been the case. So, while I agree that it OUGHT not be the ‘big issue’, clearly for many it is, and I think those who suggest that I should not get involved in this because it is not the ‘big issue’ are failing to understand what a big issue it actually is for a very large number of people; those who are gay and evangelical and who are afraid, and those who are evangelical and questioning and are confused. My recent experience suggests to me that this is far from a small number, and for them the issue is a very big one indeed.

Others have suggested that I am in a very small minority if I have not yet come to a firm conclusion on this issue. All I can say is that this is entirely contrary to my experience over the last few years. But (and here we get to the heart of the matter) I think that the majority of those who have not made up their minds are afraid to say so. It is safe to do so in private conversation and email exchanges. But – it seems – not so safe to do so in public.

This goes back to some of my previous blogs in which I have noted that I may have been effectively ‘de-tribed’ simply on the strength of my view on this issue (although my views are yet to be settled!) In recent months I have been told more than once that I am a ‘liberal’, which was a surprise to me! I suspect that it is simply on the basis of this issue that such views have been expressed.

So this brings me to the other comments I have received… all of them by email. There have been many affirming emails, and many emails wishing to enter into discussion and explore the issues. But I have been shocked and surprised by the angry and vitriolic emails. I honestly did not think we were still at that stage. And I did not expect such a reaction from within the Church of Scotland.

Having been in receipt of such comments and messages I now understand more fully than ever before why it is that a) my gay sisters and brothers feel so vulnerable in the church at present – and especially those who may have regarded themselves as in some sense ‘evangelical’ and b) why my evangelical friends who are asking questions about what they really believe on this issue are so afraid to put their heads above the parapet.

I am hanging onto the hope and belief that what I have experienced is but a very small and unrepresentative minority of folks and I KNOW that most of my traditionalist friends who may puzzle over my present views and uncertainty are yet full of grace in their comments and arguments. My experience of other comments has served to increase my respect for you guys (and many of you have been good at constantly commenting in public for which I am grateful). I hope you know who you are… I love you!

But in general terms this whole experience has been bruising.

I had hoped that there would be a significant number of those who had personally approached me who might have felt able to respond to the blog (even via the privacy of email)… only a few did. I had not bargained for the responses I did get, and I am not sure I am up for that kind of comment on an ongoing basis.

To those who do not believe this remains a ‘big issue’, let me say that my experience of this last 10 days is that it most certainly is… sad though that may be.

To those who felt unable to respond to my blog but for whom this remains a defining moment, I understand both your present situation and your fear of openly responding... let’s at least keep the door open.

To those who were encouraging, my heartfelt thanks. I would hope that we might yet manage a conversation that would allow for gracious engagement across viewpoints etc. I am genuinely sad that – for me – this does not after all seem like the time.

To those who would have wished to be part of a conversation… it may yet still be possible. I have not finally walked away from this. But it has not been an easy few days.

Meanwhile, I am going to start blogging on other matters…

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A Place to Talk?

Something has happened over these last few days. Or, rather, a series of things have happened.

The first was that a reader of my occasional blogs got in touch and asked to meet. I had not been aware that he had been a reader of my blogs, but he wanted to chat about the ‘big issue’ (yes that big issue... gay relationships and the ministry and so on). And so we met and chatted. Both of us acknowledged that we came from backgrounds that were ‘evangelical’. We further acknowledged that we remained doctrinally ‘orthodox’, affirming without hesitation ‘the Word of God as contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the supreme rule of faith and life’ and affirming the creeds of the church. And yet, on the current big issue… well, we no longer find ourselves firmly in the ‘traditionalist’ camp.

Then on Sunday past one of the members of St Cuthbert’s said ‘You have not blogged recently’. Once again, I had not been aware that she read my blogs. But it spurred me on to re-engage with my blogging!

Finally, a few evenings ago, it was suggested by someone I know well and who has many connections throughout the church that if I were to think of providing a forum for discussion on the issue then it might be helpful. I am not sure I know all that lies behind this comment. I suspect that something had happened to prompt the observation. I can only guess. But perhaps all these incidents suggest that the time has come to do something.

So everyone, here goes…

… I have absolutely no interest in forming yet another pressure group or any association of people who simply wish to promote or reaffirm a pre-existing and fixed view on the question of the ordination of openly gay folks.

But what I would be willing to help facilitate is a forum / conversation / exploration with those who would not instinctively self-identify as theologically ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’, who take a high view of the authority of Scripture, affirm the faith once held by the apostles and enshrined in the catholic creeds, and yet who remain unsure about the ‘traditionalist’ views on THIS issue as espoused by those with whom they might normally otherwise agree. This would be a conversation which might include folks who take ‘traditionalist’ or ‘revisionist’ views on the ‘big issue’ but who are open to exploring with others and to changing their view, and who therefore wish to open up a debate with others in a context of (on the one hand) openness and genuine exploration and (on the other hand) Biblical integrity and creedal orthodoxy.

I realise that the preceding paragraph is extremely convoluted. But I hope you understand why and ‘get my drift’!

Let me know if you think this might be worthwhile. Ignore it (or tell me!) if you think it is a bad idea.... which it may be!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Luggage and Labels

I have told this story before. But perhaps I may be allowed to tell it again via this blog. I suppose it must matter to me.

It was 2001 and I was undertaking Study Leave and was spending my 8 weeks investigating the Alternative Worship movement in the UK and writing up my findings.

I travelled to several cities throughout the UK to visit alt.worship communities and to converse with a number of those involved.

One afternoon in York, having just come off a train from London, I repaired to a quiet pub for a pint, to read a bit and write up some of my reflections. A man approached me, “Excuse me, but do you know that someone has stuck a label on your back?” he asked. I had not realised that someone had attached a label to me, and was grateful that the man had pointed it out. I asked him to remove it. He did so, and handed it to me, and it transpired that it was a luggage label that adhered to my back from the baggage I had been lugging around.

I sat down, grateful to have been saved the embarrassment of walking around York with a label on my back, took a sip of my pint and then smiled. For much of my ministry - indeed for much of my Christian life – I had been struggling with ‘labels’ and with the baggage that seemed to come with them. I had been lugging this baggage around with me. Was it now time to ditch it?

Of course, the particular label that I had owned (at least to some extent) was ‘evangelical’. Until the last few years I have self-identified as an evangelical.


In part because I came to faith in that context, and – for me – trusting in Jesus was a very real conversion experience. Prior to that I had been heading on a trajectory (if I may use that word!) which was taking me down increasingly destructive roads (and having met a couple of those who were also on that trajectory in the intervening years, I am all too aware of where I may have been headed!).

The faith I found within the context of evangelicalism was liberating and radical. I felt that I had been ‘born again’. You don’t get much more evangelical than that! I was set on an entirely different (and life-giving) trajectory. How can I do any other than be grateful for the evangelicals who helped me find such a redeeming faith!

But it was more than simply personal experience: it was genuine conviction too. I believed (and I still do) in the Bible as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’, in Jesus Christ as God the Son in and through whom God’s love is revealed and especially in the Cross, in the orthodox Christian faith as passed down through the centuries and especially as embodied in the Creeds; that this faith involves a personal response to the love of God in Christ and that such faith is transformative, and that we are called to proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ.

And yet… and yet… even from my early days of faith I could never completely and wholeheartedly sign up. By the time it got to the late 1990’s I had found what I then thought was a neat way of dealing with it. When people asked if I was an evangelical, I would ask back ‘Is Tony Blair a Socialist’ (this was before we knew the answer was “No”!). My point of course was this, define what you mean by ‘evangelical’ (‘socialist’) and I will tell you. Like ‘socialist’, the word ‘evangelical’ can mean different things and covers a wide spectrum. I knew this to be true, but found that not all that many evangelicals in Scotland seemed to believe it! There was (is) a fairly narrow definition of ‘evangelicalism’ in our nation.

From very early on I had disagreements with other evangelicals. For a start I was attracted to the early charismatic movement which – let it be said – was very different in the early 1970’s from what it became. In these days (difficult as it will be for those who do not recall these times to believe!) charismatics and evangelicals were often in opposing camps. But then the charismatic movement of these days included many Roman Catholics, High Anglicans, ‘social gospellers’, contemplatives etc and was endorsed by the likes of Lord George McLeod who spoke at some of the early gatherings. In the light of all that, no wonder some of my evangelical friends felt ill at ease!

Then there was my love of liturgy and high church ritual. This made several of my evangelical friends decidedly squeamish! And I think they were puzzled that I did not join the Christian Union or the Theological Student’s Fellowship, but instead hung around the Anglican Chaplaincy (with its high church rituals and liberal theology!). But – truth be told – that nurtured my faith more than any of the meetings of the CU or TSF that I attended. But, more, I could never have joined the CU or TSF as I could not honestly sign up to the Basis of Faith. I may acknowledge the importance and significance of the death of Jesus on the Cross (and I do) but why do I need to sign up to ‘the substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God as the sole all-sufficient ground of redemption from the guilt and power of sin, and from its eternal consequences’. I did not and do not believe that this one ‘theory’ of the atonement should or does define the nature of what God has done for us in Jesus.

(Oh, and perhaps it is worth noting that on those occasions when I did attend a CU meeting, none of these nice evangelical Christians ever spoke to me!)

Of course, when in ministry and I began to follow the Christian Year, suggested that care for and action on behalf of the poor and marginalised was an essential part of Christian mission, spoke about ‘peace and justice and the integrity of creation’, and affirmed the role of women in ministry (remember this was the 1980’s!) many of my evangelical friends were alarmed. My two contributions at the first General Assembly I attended as a commissioner were in favour of the abolition of nuclear weapons and the equalisation of ministers’ stipends – neither of these were great ‘evangelical’ causes (and yet I believed and believe that they are Gospel causes!). I was not toeing the party line.

What is worse, I was making new ‘friends’. When I commented to one of my new friends that I was amazed at how well we got on given that he was a ‘liberal’ and I was an ‘evangelical’ he was puzzled and said ‘But you are not an evangelical, David. You preach a gospel of love, not of guilt’. He was not joking… and it made me think.

But still I clung to the label. Partly because I could not (and can not) swallow all of the ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ positions either. I have always said how alone I feel in the church, and I still do. One joke that has run in our household for decades now is that we better not have a party to which we invite all our friends, for they would be shocked to discover who we associate with!

And partly because I still owe a debt to my evangelical friends of almost 40 years ago through whom I discovered a transforming faith in Jesus. And also because I still am a credally orthodox Christian who affirms that the Bible is the supreme rule of faith and life, who longs (and works) to see others discover a transformative faith in Jesus, who believes that proclaiming this faith is a central part of our mission. It also must be said that I remain very unconvinced by the ‘progressive’/’liberal’ stream of Christianity which seems to me to be so woolly and sterile and unlikely to have any impact in contemporary society.

So where do I stand?

I don’t know… and I despair.

However, the present controversies in the Kirk are pushing me towards a decision. Some (not all) of what I have heard from the ‘traditionalist’ camp in the current debate on ‘same-sex relationships and the ministry’ has deeply alarmed me. If I were to continue to self-describe as an ‘evangelical’ I might be associated with that kind of attitude.

What kind of attitude do I mean? Well, the constant use of the phrase ‘Scripture plainly teaches’ would be one example. How can a handful of biblical verses only three of which are in the New Testament, two of which are notoriously obscure in the original Greek be taken as ‘the clear teaching of Scripture’?

What is the ‘plain teaching of Scripture’ on women speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35) or having authority over men (1 Timothy 2: 11-12), or on divorce (Mark 10: 11-12) , or on birth control (Genesis 1: 28 & Genesis 38: 8-10)… and on this last point, if anyone can find me any Scriptural warrant for birth control, I would be interested to hear what it is!

What is ‘plain’ about homosexual behaviour that is not ‘plain’ about these other issues?

Why is it that we can accommodate various views on these issues but not on the homosexual issue? My questions are not simply polemic; I really would like to hear the rationale.

I have read widely and fully on the present issues and – while I am not yet finally settled on my view, I have still have not come across any argument that convinces me that somehow homosexual practice is in a wee category of its own away from these other issues. And that makes me wonder if there is another subconscious agenda operating here…

And so my problem remains. If I continue to self-identify as an evangelical am I associated with those who are unshakeably sure that faithful homosexual relations are sinful (notwithstanding their accommodation of some of these other issues)?

That I do not feel comfortable with…

… but if I cease to identify myself as an evangelical it does feel like I am somehow being excluded against my will….

Friday, 1 July 2011

Trajectories and Tribes: Thoughts on being left out…

Thankfully it only happens very rarely, but it remains excruciatingly embarrassing for both parties.

‘See you tonight then’.


‘At the party’.

‘What party?’

‘At Jenny’s!’

‘Um… I haven’t been invited to any party at Jenny’s’

Cue awkward and embarrassing silence…

In such cases the person excluded or forgotten probably feels more hurt than anything else. I suppose I feel a bit hurt at the moment, but more sad than hurt. And such hurt as I feel is not for me, but for the church and the process of discernment.

As people continue to react and respond to the General Assembly’s debate on the issue of ministers in same-sex relationships, so groups have been gathering to discuss what to do and how to deal with the implications of the ‘trajectory’ that has been adopted. There have been, and there are to be, meetings of ‘evangelicals’ to debate and reflect and pray. I have heard about these from colleagues and from postings on facebook.

But I have not been asked to attend any of them. I am not surprised. I don’t think that I would now be regarded as ‘one of them’. I saw on facebook another colleague ask if he could attend… answer came there none! That said, it is possible that although I was not invited, I could have attended anyway. Maybe I too should have asked. Perhaps I would have been welcomed. But my impression is that these were invitation only events (and if I have this wrong, then I apologise and will ask to attend next time).

But I do think that the likelihood is that I and others have not been invited simply because we do not necessarily or decisively disagree with the chosen trajectory of the General Assembly. In other words, this issue seems to have become for some colleagues the litmus test of orthodoxy. Why has this happened? Why this issue? Who gave to others the right to decide who is or is not an ‘evangelical’, or who is or is not included?

The late Michael Vasey, author of the book ‘Strangers and Friends’ was an Anglican clergyman, a self-identified ‘evangelical’ and openly gay. Several years ago, when I was having a discussion with an ‘evangelical’ colleague in the course of which I was explaining that I was no longer so sure that the church should hold the ‘traditionalist’ position, I mentioned Vasey and suggested that he was an example of an ‘evangelical’ who took a different viewpoint. My friend responded, ‘ah, but he is not really considered an evangelical anymore’. Why was he not? Because he was openly gay and espoused an ‘affirming’ and ‘accepting’ approach! (And – for what it is worth – there are many ‘evangelicals’ who take a revisionist approach. See,,,, and so on and on… but I suspect that many would consider none of these people or groups is truly ‘evangelical’. Why? Because of the stance they take on this issue! Do you see what I am getting at?)

When Roy Clements – the former Baptist minister, conservative evangelical commentator and much admired preacher and speaker at big ’evangelical’ gatherings – announced he was actively gay, the invitations to speak ceased, his books (which were conservative bible commentaries and did not mention homosexuality at all) were withdrawn by ‘evangelical’ publishers, and he was shunned by his former friends.

His articles are worth a read At one point he writes

We have always regarded ourselves most emphatically as “evangelicals”, and our theological position has not changed in anyway. But we have been denounced as “liberals” because we do not accept the purported “evangelical view” on the gay issue. There seems to be a determined attempt, at least by some within the evangelical camp, so to embed a particular view of homosexuality within the evangelical identity that there is no room left for dissenters like us. Indeed, the very existence of “gay evangelicals” has been conspicuously ignored in the entire debate.

I do not wish to get into a discussion at this point on ‘labels’ and what they do or do not mean, nor on the various tribes of Christians within the church. Another day perhaps! Nor am I seeking to self-identify with, or exclude myself from any particular tribe. But it is interesting to note that where once I was included, now I feel myself to be excluded. And while my theological position in general has developed over the years and labels – however unavoidable – now make me feel uncomfortable, I still feel sad that it seems that I and others are not included in conversations, and I suspect this is because we take a different view on this issue. It seems that this has become the touchstone of orthodoxy.

But what really saddens me is that if we keep gathering to talk and pray in groups of people who share our views, then what results is not discernment, but reinforcement of existing positions.

Can we not talk together with those who take a different view or who do not yet know what view they take?

Can we not listen together, discover together?

Can we stop excluding one another from discussions and try to include one another in these conversations?

I hope so… I really, really hope so.

Monday, 23 May 2011

A Chosen Trajectory - The Assembly decides

Well, it was a tense and intense day at the Assembly, but the Church is now set on a trajectory which MAY lead to the the acceptance and affirmation of gay ministers in stable and committed relationships.

It is strange as - in my heart - I feel both relieved and hopeful - although my mind is still not completely resolved on the matter. Perhaps I still have to travel a little bit yet - but then I have already travelled a long way on this issue...

Conversations with some of my congregation today reveal that they too have been travelling and I was as immensely proud of those to whom I spoke today as I was of the General Assembly. Whatever my unresolved intellectual issues, I found myself turned off by the narrow apparent 'certainties' of the traditionalists.

But - like many others who share the relief and hope I am experiencing - there is a sense of sadness too. Sadness that many will feel very betrayed and bereft at the decision today and will think that somehow the church has moved away from true 'biblical' faith. I profoundly disagree with that perception, but I can understand their pain.

So let's all take a moment to feel their pain too.

And surely none of us - even those who are most committed tot he revisionist position - can feel anything but sorrow that some may chose to leave. I hope and pray that unity might still prevail. But I fear that there may be some - perhaps many - defections. And that is profoundly sad.

And spare a thought too for our sisters and brothers who are gay but who have felt it a matter of Christian faithfulness to struggle to maintain celibacy. No matter our views, these fellow Christians must feel a sense of abandonment and confusion this evening.

And I feel also for those sisters who are ordained ministers and adopt a traditionalist stance on this issue. If there is a split they must be wondering where their 'home' might be in the future.

The journey ahead will continue to be painful and difficult and the outcomes uncertain. Much prayer and considerable grace will be needed in the days to come...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Wine to gladden the human heart

Okay, I admit it. I am in danger of becoming obsessed with wine. But at this stage in the Lenten journey that may not be surprising!

However, it is not Lent or the absence of wine that has been dominating my thoughts. Rather it is the attitude of some Christians to wine – and other alcoholic drinks. I am well aware that attitudes and practice within the Christian community has changed over the last few decades. When I first made a clear decision to follow in the Way of Jesus it was in a context in which drinking alcohol was considered to be inappropriate for Christians. For me that represented a welcome break with some of my underage pre-Christian teenage practice which had involved a fair amount of alcohol indulgence. A clean break was – for me – an important part of beginning the road of discipleship.

Not that I stayed ‘tee-total’. Attitudes in the ‘evangelical’ Christian world were beginning to change and more and more people were drinking on occasion. Not in excess – or anything like it. But wine with a meal or a couple of pints of an evening were considered relatively normal by some of my fellow Christians, while others were still adhering to abstinence, and urging everyone else to do likewise!

That said I entirely respect those who do not drink. I have many friends who (for a variety of reasons) cannot drink, or others who choose not to out of personal Christian conviction. And, of course, I completely understand those who give up alcohol for a season as a spiritual discipline (for example, for Lent!).

When I read the Bible I find that it is almost entirely positive about wine etc, while being negative about drunkenness. And in church history we find that Christian ‘tee-totalism’ is a very recent phenomenon. Of course, there were always those who chose to deny themselves wine and strong drink for reasons for personal choice or spiritual discipline. But by and large the Scriptural witness is positive towards wine (it gladdens our hearts!) but negative towards drunkenness.

And when we come to regard our Protestant tradition pre the 19th / early 20th century obsession with ‘temperance’ then we find that the likes of Luther, Calvin and Knox were not slow to use wine or extol its virtues.

But what has really made we wonder recently is a wedding celebration we attended. It was a lovely event and I am delighted that we were there. However, at the couple’s request there was no alcohol served which was fine as far as I was concerned as a) I was driving and b) it is Lent! But I could not help wondering ‘Why?’ If ever there was a time for wine was it not a wedding? But what was even stranger is that the preacher in his address used the drinking of wine with a meal as an illustration of what he wanted to say. So what was all that about?!?

It took me back several years to a similar event when a relative was getting married and again for reasons of the couple’s choice arising out of their personal Christian commitment, no alcohol was served. But the officiant used the Wedding in Cana of Galilee as his theme and spoke of the wedding turning out like a free day in Oddbins?!? But then no wine to toast the happy couple of celebrate their new life together!

And again I ask, ‘Why?’

If people cannot celebrate a wedding (of all things) with a glass of bubbly, but still hear the preachers speak of water being turned into wine, what on earth is going on? Anyone got a clue?

Easter Day cannot come quickly enough!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Living out the Faith in a Broken World

There has been so much happening in the world recently; all of it highlighting the ‘brokenness’ of the world in which we live.

The earthquake in New Zealand, the even more devastating earthquake in Japan with the tsunami and nuclear crisis to follow, the events in Egypt and other Middle East countries and especially the current crisis in Libya.

All of these things raise serious questions for people of faith. They also provide much ammunition for faith’s detractors!

But such matters are not the main concern of this blog. I do not wish at this point to go into questions of how or why the world is ‘broken’ nor deal with issues of a loving God and natural disasters etc. These I may deal with another time, and many, many others are grappling with these issues.

Anyway, in the face of human tragedy the first response is surely that of concern for, aid to, prayer for and support of those who are suffering. Philosophical discussions and theological responses can come later, if come they must.

However, two things are really niggling at me. The first is the nuclear power issue and the second is the world’s response to the Libyan crisis.

With regard to nuclear power, it is perhaps not surprising that following the apparent threat of meltdown in the nuclear power stations hit by earthquake and tsunami, and the release of radiation into the atmosphere (and also it seems into the food chain and the water supply) many people are now saying that we must avoid nuclear power. But I wonder…

In a broken world there are no perfect answers. If we want to have energy we need to generate it, and – to the best of my knowledge – there are only three options: fossil fuels, renewables or nuclear.

With regard to fossil fuels, the evidence for human made global warming resulting from our excessive carbon emissions seems to me to be incontrovertible. I know that there remain many who question it (some because they have an instinctive distrust of ‘experts’, and many because the implications for lifestyle are just too inconvenient to contemplate). It’s a strange thing, but the recent extreme winter conditions have caused some in my hearing to say such things as ‘Well, so much for global warming’, conveniently ignoring that such extreme weather conditions were exactly what was being predicted by climate change scientists two decades ago!

It seems to me that as Christians who believe that we are stewards of creation and that we must honour the Creator by caring for what he has created, we ought to be in the vanguard of action! And even the climate-change doubters amongst Christians are surely still accepting of the view that we cannot simply continue to chuck our rubbish out into the garden of God’s creation whether that rubbish is landfill garbage or atmosphere bound carbon. So increasing our fossil fuel use is hardly an option.

So perhaps renewables are the obvious choice. And I for one agree that we need to dramatically increase our use of these. But they also come with a cost… windmills on hillsides or off coastlines and giant pylons marching across the countryside. And anyway, it is doubtful that renewables alone can provide our energy needs.

These are not easy issues for the environmentally responsible Christian!

So what about nuclear? Has the Japanese tragedy and the impact on their nuclear power stations (which is still unresolved at the time of writing this) entirely undermined the case for nuclear power? Actually, I don’t think so. An earthquake of almost unprecedented proportions and a tsunami following strike nuclear power stations where not all the back up was properly in place. And yet they seem to be on the edge of coping and the radioactive consequences remain relatively low in overall terms. Should that rule out the nuclear option for the UK?

No, it is not ideal. But then what is? How do Christians make decisions on such matters when there is no obvious good and bad, right and wrong?

And then, what about Libya?

Most of us would agree that Gadaffi is not a good bloke. Indeed, he seems to have been a cruel dictator. But how come the West which was so keen to ‘cosy up’ to him in recent years is now suddenly bombing his nation? Where is the right and wrong in this. And if they are imposing a ‘no fly’ zone to protect civilians in Libya why not in some of the other Middle Eastern countries where demonstrators are also being shot at by those loyal to dictatorial regimes?

Perhaps there is a moral case for this intervention. But I just don’t know. What does a Christian do, think, say? What is a Gospel perspective on this? Is it ever right to intervene to overthrow a dictator? What about Hitler? And if Hitler then why not Stalin or Pol Pot? Why Gadaffi now and not earlier? And so on and so on.

And how can we afford to spend all this money on bombs and missiles etc (and it is a HUGE amount of money that is involved) but we can’t afford to keep our relatively inexpensive libraries open? (Or does cutting the deficit not apply when it comes to missiles?)

I don’t have answers to all these questions. I am not sure what I think, which is really my point. As Christians, how do we decide on these complex issues?

And perhaps it all raises the underlying issue; how does a Christian politician or world leaders behave and decide when it comes to these big issues?

Answers on a postcard please to…..?!?

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Lent: Giving up and taking up

I love the rhythms of the Christian year. I think it odd that some people avoid the patterns of the Christian year which I find so helpful in following the Gospel story. In addition, the fact that fellow Christians across the denominations and throughout the world are also on the same journey I find extraordinarily meaningful and moving.

And so I have been giving some thought to Lent which is fast approaching.

I rather wish we (in the C of S) did a bit more with Ash Wednesday. But I am planning a small step in St C's this year with an Ash Wednesday style of liturgy on the evening of the 1st Sunday of Lent. Next year perhaps we will actually move it onto Ash Wednesday!

In this I have been encouraged and inspired by the excellent 'Book of Common Worship' of the Presbyterian Church USA which includes a liturgy for Ash Wednesday which has within it the imposition of ashes. So if a Reformed and Presbyterian Church in America can do it, why can't we?!

So what about giving things up for Lent? Well, I suppose I think it is all rather easy to 'give something up' as if we are renewing failed New Year's resolutions. But it is not a bad practice if it is viewed as a kind of 'little fast' and offered as a spiritual act. So, yes, I am giving something up for Lent in that spirit.

But it would also be good to 'take something up' for Lent... a pattern of prayer, a commitment to support some group or organisation working for peace or justice, a new commitment to environmental action... whatever.

As well as giving something up I am planning to take something up.

Anyone willing/planning to do likewise?

(PS - in the light of my previous post - no need to share either what you are giving up or taking up!! The details are between you and God, it is the principle that I am interested in discussing!!))

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Secrets and Self-promotion

Was Jesus into 'self-promotion'? (eg - the miracles, healings, feeding the 5,000, turning over the temple tables etc). These were hardly 'secret' events were they?

And yet he specifically resisted the 'spectacular' when he was being tempted by the Devil, and he told those whom he had delivered or healed not to tell anyone, then there is the whole issue of the 'Messianic Secret'.

I tend to think that Jesus seemed reluctant about his 'fame' and 'popularity'. But I know I may be reading into the Gospel accounts something of my own personality - for I am instinctively more at ease in the background and not in the limelight (and - yes - I know that will come as a surprise to many!).

When I read / hear things which I have written being incorporated without being attributed or acknowledged into (for example) other people's sermons or General Assembly reports (and I have!) then rather than feeling a sense of outrage, indignation or whatever... I have a sense of quiet pride and smugness that I know it was me who said that! (And I am more than aware that this is an acknowledgement of a great deal of very un-holy pride!). Indeed, in these last sentences I fear I have contradicted my position on this!

I am conscious that my own personality can get in the way of my judgement, my opinions and my perspectives on Jesus in the Gospels. What do I do about that???

Part of all this has been precipitated by my feelings of intense discomfort when colleagues 'self-promote' (imho!!) their ministries, charitable acts, congregations and so on...

is that just me? could be! My personality cannot cope with it. I could not easily promote myself, my charitable acts or my congregation's 'wonderfulness' without extreme discomfort.

I recall a friend saying that the one 'sin' he would never preach about was gambling... simply because it is the one sin to which he was not in the slightest tempted! So forgive me if I seem to question at all the integrity of those whom I (in my doubtful humility!) consider to engage in 'self-promotion'. How easy it is for me - who recoils at the very idea of self promotion (and does so from an unhealthy place I reckon) - to question the motives of others.

But the questions are burning within me.

Is it Christian humility to talk about ourselves and the wonders of our ministries and our congregations in the public domain (internet, facebook, press releases, blogs etc)?

Are our charitable acts meant to be published given what Jesus said about not letting or left hand know what our right hand was doing?

Does Jesus' apparent (in my view) reluctance to encourage publicity sit easily with our constant publicising of our congregations and their successes, triumph's, virtues??

Just asking!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Certainty, doubt and faith.

Who was it who said 'The older I get the more and more sure I become about less and less'? Whoever it was, thank you! I have quoted that on many occasions. I began my Christian walk some 38 years ago, and I started off being pretty certain about most things. As time has gone on I have become much more sure of a few of these things and much less sure about most of them!

Dave Tomlinson (author of 'The Post-Evangelical' and Anglican clergyman) speaks of the need to discover a second naivety (I think he too is quoting someone there!) and I whole-heartedly agree. Once we have gone through the questioning of cherished beliefs, the various doubts and a re-framing of the faith (which many - but not all - seem to do) we need to move to a new engagement with our faith in God and our following of Christ which is 'child-like'. That means being willing to live with questions, not always be looking for 'answers' to everything, but does involve what Dave calls (in his new book) a 're-enchantment' with Christianity.

I do not agree with Dave Tomlinson in every respect, but I like that idea of 're-enchantment'.

I have no problem whatsoever with asking questions, expressing doubts and re-framing doctrines... it has been my own journey. But it saddens me that some who take this route get stuck in a place of cynicism, or assume a smug intellectual superiority, or lose their love for God and their passion for the faith, and who having 'climbed the ladder' from their simplistic earlier faith, effectively pull that ladder up behind them and may prevent others beginning the journey.

So I'll raise a glass of decent red (or an 18 year old malt) to a second naivety and a re-enchantment with Christianity. Cheers!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Wounded Healer?

In my spiritual journey and ministry there have been many people who have greatly influenced and inspired me, but perhaps only a handful whose impact has been such as to fundamentally shape my faith understanding, my theology and my practice of ministry. One day I will no doubt say something about some of these folks, but undoubtedly one of them was the late Reverend Ian Cowie, who was for many years the chaplain of the Christian Fellowship of Healing.

Ian's writings and what he said at several conferences on healing gave me deep insights into the healing ministry, his friendly support and encouragement (and I still have some of his letters - treasured and sometimes re-read) kept me going through some dark times, his patient listening, grace-filled understanding and sensitive prayer upheld me when I was in need.

On several occasions Ian was kind enough to accept my invitation to lead worship and preach in one of my previous churches, often around the theme of healing and usually he and I would share in ministering to those who asked for prayer during or after the service.

Good times, fondly remembered!

Yet this man who was always ready to pray with others for their healing, who would gladly recount answers to prayer and who generally promoted this ministry, was himself profoundly deaf. I often wondered (but never got around to asking) if he had ever asked for healing for his deafness!

I do not understand the mystery of Christian healing. I engage in this ministry out of obedience. I have seen prayer answered in ways that I can only describe as remarkable - even miraculous. More often I have seen prayers unanswered in any obvious way - and I know not why.

But something about Ian Cowie's faithful and effective ministry allied to his obvious and restricting disability for some reason inspires me and encourages me. And perhaps all the more since I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

For whatever reason I have never felt it right or natural to seek prayer for healing for my MS. Perhaps that betrays something of a faith inadequacy in me, I don't know. But whenever I have had doubts about praying for others while I continue to have an incurable (or - at least - an as yet uncured!) condition, I remember Ian Cowie.

This week we were/are to have a special focus on healing ministry in St Cuthbert's. Last night a discussion was planned for the Kirk Session meeting, this Sunday the theme of morning worship is healing and (for the first time) ministry and prayer will be offered following morning service and next Tuesday we are holding a 'seminar' on this ministry... and wouldn't you know it - for the first time in over a year I have been sufficiently unwell these past few days to have to back out of things and take it easy. So the discussion did not occur at the Kirk Session last night, and who knows how I will be come Sunday?

Some might say it is the work of the Devil!

Some might say that God is trying to tell me/us something.

Some might say it is mere coincidence (and these same people might also claim that apparent 'healings' are no more than coincidences!)

Some might say that the decision to have a focus on 'healing' triggered something deep within my psyche which has had a psychosomatic impact!

Now, I do not wish to simply (still less rudely) dismiss any of these views. They are all possible (well - in some form at any rate!) But I don't know that I buy into any of them.

When I think of Ian Cowie, I think of a wounded healer and I am struck by the fact that I was always far more likely to approach him for prayer, ministry, counsel, advice than many others who seemed to be robustly well, healthy and 'have it all together'! And I never came away from him without feeling that I had been touched in some way by God's Spirit.

And then there is Paul's 'thorn in the flesh'!

Perhaps it is not a bad thing for those who minister to be at some level 'broken' people... and I manage to be that in very many respects!

As the Lord said to Paul 'My grace is sufficient... my power is made perfect in weakness'

Friday, 14 January 2011

Ritual and rich worship

OK... confession time (not that any of this will be a surprise to many of you!)...

... I love 'high' liturgical worship. In terms of worship, coming to St Cuthbert's has been a wonderful experience. I know of no other C of S congregation where worship is so 'high' (there may be others out there, but I have not come across them). Truth be told, when I have a Sunday off I will naturally gravitate to an Episcopal Church rather than another C of S. And this is not recent. Jane and I have tended towards Piscy Churches since we were students.

I am not saying that there is not a place for contemporary styles of worship (and I have done my fair share of that and appreciated it and promoted it.... about which more in another post sometime I reckon!). Nor am I in any sense advocating starchy, stuffy formality and rigidity.

But worship where there are processions and organs and choirs and candles and responses etc I find much more engaging than worship delivered from 'up front' by a minister, preacher, 'worship leader', praise band etc etc.

But it is even more fundamental than that. It is to do with worship that is rooted in the ancient traditions of the church, where the creeds of the centuries are recited, and the liturgical patterns that have sustained Christian worshippers for two millennia still inform worship patterns and forms today.

For me there is something in all this that speaks of the awesome greatness of God... of his transcendence and glory.

This is not to do with music styles (and in St C's we use the full breadth of CH4 and more besides in terms of Taize and Iona stuff and I do not take undue issue with Kendrick or Townsend - except sometimes! But we do sing them!)

It is not to do with being 'formal' or 'prescribed'.

For me, it has to do with worship that reflects the greatness and glory of God and which stands in the tradition of the church catholic.

But one thing intrigues me... in St C's folks turn east to recite the Creed (fine with me), we have candles (great as far as I am concerned), there are even one or two people who can be seen crossing themselves (no... really!) none of which things are in any sense at all problems for me. But one would be hard-pushed to say that these were 'biblical' (which is not to suggest that they are UNbiblical!

But I suspect that many - even in St C's - would draw the line at incense... which is really odd as it IS biblical!

Can anyone explain?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Dawn-Treader: The Wonder of Narnia

I am not sure exactly what age I was when I read my first Narnia book, but I reckon I was around 8 or 9. I am still reading them. Although C S Lewis claimed that he did not intend them to be overtly Christian nor strictly allegorical, there is no doubt (as he himself admits) that there are very obvious Christian themes and spiritual insights evident in the books. Indeed, when viewing the works in retrospect, Lewis was happy to point out the parallels; even if (as he claims) he may not have set out to create them.

All this is very controversial in some circles, as are Lewis’s supposed sexism and racism in the Chronicles of Narnia. However, despite my socially liberal views and my continual defence of many aspects of what some sneeringly refer to as ‘political correctness’ (I sometimes feel tempted to refer to these folks just as sneeringly as unreconstructed reactionaries and see how that feels!) I do not hold with these criticisms of the Narnia novels. They were written in a particular era by a single, middle-aged man whose social views were deeply rooted in Victorian and Edwardian culture. Get over it! They are set in an historical context.

I would be horrified should any writer today be explicitly advocating the social views that are implicit in Lewis’s works. But they must be judged in the context of a 1950s England (and I do mean England!) which had a nostalgic longing for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It does not take much to understand why such a longing was present during that particular decade. If the First World War had shaken society, exposed the futility of warfare, caused many to question faith and undermined the liberal dream, then the Second World War had only reinforced all that and – even more – set off a tide of social change which was remarkably swift and continues to this day. Even those who welcomed the changes were taken aback by the rapidity of them and the uncertainty as to where they would lead. Nostalgia is as natural refuge for many in the 50’s as ‘liberation’ and ‘hedonism’ were in the 20’s and early 30’s in Europe.

And so – while critical of many of Lewis’s social and theological views – I remain inspired and fascinated by the Chronicles of Narnia which are, as children’s books, much superior in my opinion to his science fiction trilogy. No, it is not great literature in the way that Tolkien’s epic ‘Lord of the Rings’ is; not even the literary equal of the more accessible ‘The Hobbit’. And yet something of the magic of Narnia has hooked me. (And – yes – the ‘magic’ is also controversial amongst fundamentalist Christians!)

‘The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”’ is possibly my favourite Narnia novel, dealing as it does with issues of spiritual life, maturing in faith and following your call etc etc.

And now having gone to see the film I found myself just as inspired and moved by the film as by the book, even if the film departs from and condenses aspects of the novel.

Above all I have been reminded that the Christian life is a great adventure that has many dangers on the way, will involve struggles and almost certainly some failures, and is made in the company of some rather odd and even undesirable companions!

And yet what a goal we have before us; our sharing in the mission of God for the release and renewal of society, humanity and the earth, and ultimately of entering into Aslan’s country.

Reepicheep reminds us that this is not all there is and even the brave battles we fight here for truth, justice and peace, are fulfilled, bettered and completed in another place, into which we will yet enter.

Love it!