Jesus may have come that we ‘may have life and life in all its fullness’ (John 10.10b) but Christians frequently do a good job of seeking scarcity and restriction instead! Contemplating the sorry state of religion in many places it is not hard to see some common threads of resistance to Christ’s gospel of Abundance. It is a major reason for the rejection of Christianity among many. For the Church as a whole often clings so powerfully to prioritising reflection on death and sin above life and empowerment. This is particularly disastrous and objectionable for those, like LGBTI+ people, who have been held captive for so long by deathly categories of thought and sinful oppression. Rightly they seek life, and life in all its fullness. Asking for bread from churches however all too often results only in gifts of stone. In some ways individual Christians, and the Church in general, can often therefore appear like Ophelia in Bob Dylan’s famous ‘Desolation Row’:
Ophelia, she's 'neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row...
I've always loved the first of May. Maybe it is the Celtic and European blood in me, or the feminine, or the longing for justice and the appreciation of those who forged the struggle, or the family birthdays which fall this month, or simply the rising sap of life and creation itself - all topped off by those champagne breakfasts I enjoyed on this day in Oxford - but I adore it. Of course it 'works' so much better in the northern hemisphere - 'oh to be in Paris now that Spring is here', as the old song has it? (and indeed I've been blessed to be in that beautiful city of liberty in May on a number of occasions). Yet it is such a gorgeous symbolic celebration of veriditas - greening - in so many senses of the word. It rings for me, sings to me, dances in me: with joy, with hope, with transformation...
Oscar Romero, the great El Salvadorean archbishop and martyr, observed that the task of the Church in every generation is to make of that country’s history a history of salvation. This has always struck me strongly and I’ve been pondering it in relation to ANZAC Day and St George’s Day (the English national day) this week. As a saint, Oscar Romero’s feast day also falls appropriately between those two dates and challenges us to relate our national histories to that of Israel as described in the Bible. What can we learn?...
The English have traditionally been some of the least inclined to celebrate their own identity with a national day . This is due to a number of historical features, including the way in which my native land has been buried in the complications of British, imperial, and other identities. At best, and excepting the national game of football, there is also something 'un-English', distasteful and concerning about nationalistic enthusiasms and wrapping oneself in a flag. In addition, it opens up the huge question of what kinds of England and Englishness are to be valued and affirmed. On this St George's Day, I am therefore reminded of Billy Bragg's song 'Between the Wars' and a whole host of English inspirations to seek:
Not the iron fist but the helping hand
Not a land with a wall around it
but a faith in one another
Not a land of hope and glory
but the green field and the factory floor
Not skies all dark with bombers
but the peace and justice for which the best have always striven
With deep thanks and huge pride in/with all others who have come from, sung and celebrated, prayed, written, worked, embodied and partially created 'other' Englands from those which often prevail.
It was such a joy on this day of Resurrection to meet the recently new born Leo today in the Special Care Baby Unit at the Royal Brisbane & Women's Hospital and to share Easter communion with his wonderful parents. Leo was born prematurely but is thriving with loving care and is a delightful gift to our St Francis College and Milton Anglican community as well as to family and friends. We hold Leo in our prayers and look forward to his coming home. In his beautiful fragility and hopeful promise he already however offers us spiritual insight and connection. Indeed, one of the lovely aspects of his beginnings is the moving Aboriginal artwork at the entry to Special Care. This centres on the kookaburra, a Christ-like symbolic announcer of new creation, and offers ancestral spiritual wisdom. For, in the words of the Aboriginal artist Tracy McGregor:
the kookaburra spreads the news of a new baby created...
the baby will then be part of a spiritual family connection that treasures the ground they walk on, allowing the child to grow with strength and wisdom like their ancestors...
Our youth is now part of our future and they will travel on a journey that will be filled with all the knowledge and guidance that allows them to unite with the land and the people.
This is the magical journey of life.
This morning, on this April Fool's Day, we Milton Anglicans also pondered the laughter of God's Resurrection. Leo is a gorgeous sign of this. No wonder the kookaburra laughs.
In the heat of current political issues, is it possible to find a healing ethic of religious freedom? Might a fresh look at Christian tradition help us with this? The ideological use of notions of 'religious freedom' is certainly hardly new. Judaeo-Christian history is riddled with it and their consequences. Jesus himself was famously condemned, according to John 's Gospel (11.50). since it was argued that it was better for one person to die than for the nation to be destroyed (allegedly). Other faith expressions and Christian 'heretics' have met comparable fates. Meanwhile, in many places, Jews and Christians have experienced, and continue to experience, harassment, persecution, and even outright destruction. Yet the Jewish and Christian traditions are also founded on expansive ideas of liberty, grounded in the very being of God in God-self, and on liberative myths and symbols such as Exodus from slavery, return from Exile, deliverance from sin and evil, and the in-breaking and embodiment of God's reign of justice, peace and love. These have empowered, and continue, to empower people to achieve freedom across the world. Not for nothing then did Martin Luther call his seminal work 'On Christian Freedom'. Its use highlights three typical trajectories western society has explored in relation to 'religious freedom'. Its central message however points us deeper...
If Samuel Johnson were around today he might well feel that religion, rather than patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It certainly seems to be an excuse, or self-justification, for all kinds of bad behaviour, as well as a source of strength and inspiration to holiness in others. Not least this is the case in regard to some leading Christian approaches to LGBTI+ people and their vigorous intent on backlash. At times horribly distorting reality, they even hijack 'religious freedom' into its opposite - i.e religious privilege - thereby further diminishing religion's positive features and making life very difficult for those very many Christians who believe and act differently. Indeed, when it comes to the current contentious battle over 'religious freedom', as both a transgender person and a Christian, I consequently frequently find part of who I am dismissed by one contending group or another. When, instead, will we recognise that the real problem are the scoundrels? Just as Samuel Johnson was not attacking patriotism as such, only a false kind of patriotism, so we do well to call out those with 'bad faith', whilst finding a fresh consensus among those genuinely seeking balance of conscience and liberty, whether we are secular or not. ..
Looking into the future is notoriously difficult, as any historian knows. The most we can really do is to be as honest and perspicacious as we can about our past and present and extrapolate as best we can with tempered imagination. Yuval Noah Harari (professor of history at the Hebrew Museum in Jerusalem) does a good job of this in his recent book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow. It is certainly a challenging vista he opens up. Due to the speed and scale of unprecedented change, he argues that homo sapiens as we know ourselves will not exist in a hundred years. This is due to major technological shifts, particularly in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, which threaten to make religion and various forms of humanism redundant. For we appear to be at the beginning of a 'data-religion' age, in which the algorithms and a small number of their elite human 'managers' (in corporations like Google and Facebook) become increasingly dominant. Harari is not unappreciative of the past positive, as well as negative, evolutionary contribution of both religion and humanism. Religion, for example in its Christian form, was a powerful force historically in enabling human development through doctrines such as the 'imago dei' in every being, and in its earlier contributions to enabling technology, society and art. Yet its constructive role is essentially at an end, hastened by its inability to keep up, never mind engage, with today's scientific and technological drivers. Humanism, in whatever form, also appears to be very long in the tooth as an ideological bearer of the future. For example, modern democracy - a central humanist fruit - cannot operate as efficiently or inteiligently as a contemporary algorithm in working out preferences, policies and directions. Intelligence increasingly appears to be separable from consciousness, another religious and humanist core principle. In a world where death (for some) can be further postponed, what then also happens to meaning?
Harari's work asks powerful questions of us. Like his previous dazzling bestseller Sapiens, Homo Deus is a product of great scholarship, crossing many disciplines, and written in lively, vivid language. Its author is no lightweight thinker. Indeed he claims to meditate for two hours a day and goes on extended retreats, whilst, being gay, he says, helps him to question received opinions. “Nothing should be taken for granted,” he has said, “even if everybody believes it.” (see further The Guardian 19 May 2017) It is thus both contemplative as well as intellectually attentive. No doubt, like other 'end of history' books, some of his contentions may be misplaced or over-exaggerated, as well as misused by others. Yet we would do well to reflect upon it, if we are at all serious about building on the fruitful aspects of humanism, in its religious or secular forms. What kind of spirituality and politics do we need in our changing bio-technological and data-intelligent world?
One of the refreshing characteristics of contemporary global Christianity is the recovery of balance in certain aspects of Christian life and thought. Features subjugated by the dominant Western Tradition re-appear to renew and transform. These include welcome affirmations of the God of life, women, children, 'ordinary people' and their lives and work, and the importance of the heart, creation and material existence, the body of Christ as all of us and the living Spirit of God. This is notably seen in many crosses fashioned in less powerful places which do not dwell lugubriously on death, pain and sin (like so much of Western tradition, not least that shaped by the Reformation era's obsession with mortality and finitude) Instead, in the colours and contours of different contexts, we find crosses becoming signs and places of resurrection: trees of life for and by the marginalised. This does not, of course, do away with what is valuable in such Western Tradition. Yet this shift towards an ethic of natality and flourishing is a great blessing for our world, recovering much that was lost. These few pictures in this slideshow (below) are just some: reflecting the dynamism, hope and down-to-earth realities of Latin America and Indigenous Australia: including a girl's cross; a women's cross; a family cross; the body of Christ today cross; and last supper of many nations.
Jim Thompson. our lovable bishop who ordained me deacon in London's East End, used to say that not a week went by without him wondering why he was still in the Church, and yet not a day or two without experiencing something of the amazing gifts which come with being a priest. I thought of this when I was reminded this week of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ordination of women measure in the Church of England's General Synod. Writing in the Church of England Newsletter this week, Emma Percy, Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) in the UK, commented pertinently about the joys then, and the achievements and frustrations since. As she reflects:
It is now 25 years later, almost half of my life, and the young people I work with have never known a Church of England without women priests... (now) part of culture appearing in TV, adverts, novels; both fictional and real examples. Yet, tensions over the role of women still continue in the church... The debates around women bishops meant that the church’s continuing uncertainty about really welcoming women into all orders of ministry was played out for the wider world to see. Sadly, this means that many younger people think the church is out of step with gender equality.
25 years on I rejoice that the church has benefited, and continues to benefit, from the priestly ministry of so many women. I rejoice in the ministry I have been able to have. I hope that we can continue to encourage women to serve in this way and that the Church of England will find ways to truly celebrate the momentous decision made 25 years ago.
Those are memories and reflections with which I concur. It is a mixed bag. Indeed, as my first grandchild comes to be baptised (in Christ Church Gosford) tomorrow, and in the wake of the Australian postal vote on marriage equality, it leaves me pondering: what will be the shape of the Church in another 25 years?...
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.