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EXPLORING SPIRITUALITY FOR THE 21st CENTURY Special issue of Modern Believing VOLUME 56 ISSUE 3 2015

October 28, 2016
  • mbI am not too enthusiastic about anything edited by non-realist Anthony Freeman but there are many gems by other contributors, notably Martyn Percy, though his suggestion that this is turning out to be ‘a liberal century’ isn’t borne out by the resurgence of fundamentalism.

Mark Oakley’s piece is a rehash of his book, though it probably came first.

Emma Percy’s article on the spirituality of breastfeeding broke new ground.

An essay on ‘Generation A’ women showed that they weren’t confined to ‘cassock sniffers’.

Brian McClaren is wrong when he suggests that each leg of Hooker’s stool is equal. Scripture is normative.

I had to look up geoaesthesia = the capacity of a plant to perceive and to respond to gravity.


But this is not an address that seeks to pat us on the collective back. It wouldn’t be me, and it wouldn’t be an annual conference, without challenge and some soul-searching. And that is my agenda. To ask, simply, what is the ‘centre’, if anything, of our spirituality? Let me set out what I think it is not. It is not, at its core, embracing modernity, bcause modernity is not always good and right. Nor is our centre a general adoption of tolerance and inclusivity, because some things should not be tolerated or included. Nor is it, generally, a commitment to rational reductionism, because religion is always more than the sum of its parts, and some things — God, epiphanies, conversions, the still small voice and the ‘thick silence’ of God — defy scientific explanations. The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought was not set up to ‘police the sublime’. It was set up to rescue the sublime from fundamentalism.

The parable is stronger and more durable than stories that consist only of arrivals. There can be no homecoming without a leave taking…. A key part of the parable is the father’s initiative in running to the son. Middle Eastern custom would have had the younger son – met on the borders of the village by an elder, and a pot broken over the penitent’s head as a sign of the irreparable damage that had been done —’/Ito the village and to family honour….. Suppose your son or daughter ‘borrowed’ your credit card, and ran up huge debts? You come home from looking after needy relatives only to find the place trashed, and your prodigy nowhere to be seen. You suspect that your son or daughter has decided not to sit their A-levels, after all; but has instead bunked off to the Far East for an early taste of a gap year — or two. When your credit card bill arrives, you have to pay the bill — tens of thousands of pounds — and the bills keep arriving, month by month. Your calls and texts go unanswered. But lo, some two years later, your son or daughter rings up from the airport, and says, ‘Hi, Mum, Dad — I’m home.’ What do you do? You do not, I think, say, ‘we’ll pick you up ­so glad to have you back; we’re organising a lavish party at short notice.’ The neighbours would, for a start, whisper that you were nothing more than a weak, liberal parent. Or that you were mad…. Martin Luther once said that if the Bible only consisted of the parable of the prodigal son, it would be enough…. The father calls the older son ‘baby’ — either as a term of endearment or perhaps as a form of chastisement. But the younger brother is called ‘son’. It is as though the parable asks us all: do want to sulk about the sinners I celebrate with? Or do you want to join in God’s all-inclusive feast? We are all invited; even the ones who in our eyes do not deserve to be. He is mad with love for us all, you know.

There is a very old tradition that says that Judas was the nephew of Caiaphas the High Priest, determined to get rid of Jesus. Judas was persuaded to become a secret agent to plot the downfall of Jesus.

As one modern poet says (Judas Restored, by Ann Lewin, 2010):

My road to hell was paved

With good intentions:

I thought he’d fight, and show them

He was king.

But I was wrong.

I couldn’t live, knowing I had

Betrayed the one I loved. I thought

I’d have to bear that guilt for ever.

But I was wrong again.

No Sabbath rest for him:

He came in awesome power,

Trampled the gates of hell

And conquered Death, taking

All who were trapped in darkness

To live with him in everlasting light.

Purged by another kiss He’s set me free

To love him to eternity.


in Peter De Rosa’s poem, Judas:

Judas, if true love never ceases,

how could you, my friend, have come to this:

to sell me for thirty silver pieces,

betray me with a kiss?

Judas, remember what I taught you:

do not despair while dangling on that rope.

It’s because you sinned that I have sought you;

I came to bring you hope.

Judas, let’s pray and hang together,

you on your halter, I upon my hill.

Dear friend, even if you loved me never,

you know I love you still.

Dorothy Sayers’s poem ‘The Gates of Paradise’ beautifully captures the encounter with Christ in the darkness of hell’s most powerful night. The poem tells of the journey that Judas makes in the hours immediately after his death, across a lonely desert. He meets the two thieves who died with Christ. But, when they learn who he is and of what he is guilty, they refuse to accompany him. Eventually Judas encounters a grey-hooded man who agrees to walk with him to the gates of Hell and beyond:

The second robber went his way,

And Judas walked alone,

Till he was aware of a grey man;

That sat upon a stone,

And the lamp he had in his right hand

Shone brighter than the moon.

‘Come hither, come hither, thou darkling man,

And bear me company,

This lamp I hold will give us light,

Enough for thee and me.’

When the two reach the gates of Hell and are greeted by Satan, the grey-hooded man is revealed to be none other than Jesus.

Satan looked out from Hades gate,

His hand upon the key,

‘Good souls, before I let you in, First tell me who ye be.’

‘We be two men that tlied of late

And come to keep Hell’s tryst,

This is Judas Iscariot,

And I am Jesus Christ …’

Noting that on Good Friday and after the death of Jesus, all the disciples dispersed and ran away, one modern poet, Norma Farber (‘Compassion’), asks where we might find Mary, the mother of Jesus on that day? She writes this:

In Mary’s house the mourners gather. Sorrow pierces them like a nail. Where’s Mary herself meanwhile? Gone to comfort Judas’s mother.

John Chrysostom once said that when you read the Bible you shouldn’t fixate on a word here or a phrase there but instead you should always try and read the love between the lines.

We now know that pelicans secrete food in their feathers and peck these titbits out. Yet, the popular myth of the bird feeding her children with her blood resonated for medieval believers with the language Jesus used about feeding his people with his body and blood. Christ is like a mother bird who gives of her own body and blood to nurture her chicks. She feeds them not with dead flesh but live blood. The language of the Eucharist was embodied and it spoke of fleshly feeding.

Breastfeeding is not detached. This seems an obvious statement. You can only breastfeed in a relationship; it needs two and those two become for a while intimately attached. In Paul’s phrase above, it is ‘a giving of our very selves’. There is a tendency in Christian theology to prize detachment and sacrificial giving that seeks no reward. This has unhelpfully morphed into the idea that genuine Christian giving should not be, in any way, personally rewarding. It should be self-less. This alongside an ascetic that sees detachment form this world as a sign of spiritual maturity can lead to an imagery around service which seriously undervalues the relationship and the rewarding nature of giving and receiving care. Much giving, much service, like breastfeeding requires a focus on the needs o the other through attachment rather than detachment. We give out o our selves and we need to have selves from which to give. We are called to get involved.

To speak of communal silence as something that attends to creaturely complexity and invites interruption is slightly counter-intuitive. Consider, for example, the well-known (and very ancient) hymn: ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence / and in fear and trembling stand; / ponder nothing earthly-minded, / for, with blessing in His hand, / Christ our God to earth descendeth / our full homage to demand’.5 At first reading, this sounds like an injunction to keep silence as a way of separating oneself from ‘the world’, from whatever is fleshly and earthly and mortal — entering a different time and space. So, is silence in worship perhaps about ‘putting cares aside’, ‘leaving behind’ the everyday — and, negatively, about quietism, the neglect of ordinary or everyday or worldly concerns? I think this is only the case if we forget that the hymn is about incarnation. This is a celebration not of escaping the world but of finding God at the heart of the world — holding everything together, engendering new forms of connection. Silence with the incarnation at its centre is not unworldly; and giving ‘full homage’ to the incarnate one is not about forgetting everything that belongs to the world and to time, but rather finding a transformed relation to the world and to time…. Translated by Gerald Moultrie from the fourth-century Liturgy of St James, where it precedes the consecration of the Eucharistic elements. Developments in the use of silence in Eucharistic liturgies (particularly in the Eastern Church) during this period can be directly linked to developments in Christology post-Nicaea. See Charles Harris, ‘Liturgical Silence’, in W. K. Lowther Clarke (ed.), Liturgy and Worship (London: SCM Press, 1932), p. 778.

In keeping silence in worship, I suggest, people waste time rather as the woman who anointed Jesus wasted ointment. And, like her, they are open to the criticism that they are not using their time most effectively to meet all manner of needs ‘out there’. One possible answer might be found in Jesus’ (often puzzling) response to those who challenge the woman — ‘you always have the poor with you’.

Might it be the case that we are always tempted to dismiss ‘the poor’ — or any situation of suffering or of conflict — as a problem to be fixed and hence disposed of as quickly as possible? Is the kind of ‘ethics’ that presents itself as solutions to a set of problems an attempt to avoid the intractable, the non-fixable and the stubbornly present — always in need, always ‘with you’, uncomfortably refusing to stay ‘out there’ but (once we begin to pay attention) readily apparent ‘in here’? If so, might one of the consequences of taking silence in worship seriously be a refusal to define ethics primarily in terms of the fixing of problems? To pay attention is to refuse to turn the ‘object’ of attention into an ‘object’ of any other kind. Suffering compels and deserves attention, but the giving of attention is no guarantee that the suffering will go away. Silent worship subverts all searches for the quick fix — all those responses to the things that trouble us that are really about getting rid of our own `troubledness’ rather than about attending to the real problem.

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