It was a deeply poignant yet beautiful Midnight Mass tonight in St Thomas' Church in Market Rasen. I had indeed had a yearning for one more such communion in the cold and dark and the depths of the symbolism and mystery it reflects - but not for years to come and not like this. The nave altar stood precisely where my parents’ coffins had been just two days before, the mood and singing was subdued by masks and the pandemic, numbers reduced and the liturgy unexuberant. Yet the magic, the miracle, persists - light in the very darkness, glory in the mire and sorrow, enfleshed spirit in our mixed up midst - and eucharistic participation on this, of all occasions, remains so truly special.
It was hard to move away into the night, for the last time to leave the church of my childhood and early formation, to step along the pathway into the marketplace one more time. The main street seemed even more deserted than ever as I made my return - even the wandering drunk had been spirited away. Walking the last part in silent darkness between the two cemeteries for the final time brought back the fullness of so many memories as well as profound emptiness and grief. For in the depths of our factual and metaphorical winters love can be reborn - just as a new dawn broke after the winter solstice on the morning of my parents’ funeral.
T.S.Eliot was partly right. ‘A cold coming’ it has indeed been - ‘just the worst time of year for a journey… the very dead of winter’, even without the Omicron wave and renewed distance and desolation - but we do not need to be ‘glad of another death.’ Birth, life and love happens always - divinity in the vulnerability of our flesh: Incarnation in our dark.
Now this is my kind of Anglican Church - they did say they were ‘inclusive’ on the board but they hardly need to do so with all that gorgeous colour and creativity! Lol These are glimpses of the Festival of Angels in St Wulfram’s Grantham - none of your obvious over-frail tiny frilly fluffy angels either, but each with their own symbolism, including the one with flaming sword, the very posy one with the long wings, and the imposing tall white fluffy one at the door.
Now there’s an idea for some of us to develop in other contexts in other years?
More splendid creativity at Pitt Street from our worship team 😻 And - sad though I am not to share a first Pitt Street Christmas - I’m so delighted that my brilliant wife (Penny Jones) could preside yesterday. That is the first time for her with our community in Pitt Street - and maybe the first time a female cisgender Anglican priest has presided, with full church authority, in a mainstream Christian denomination in the centre of Sydney. ❤️ I think Maude Royden, the founder of the movement for the ordination of women, will have rejoiced in heaven - especially as Pitt Street gave her a pulpit on her famous visit to Australia years ago (see earlier post here).
Hoping one day our good friends in some of the local Anglican and Catholic Churches will share the same blessing - for God’s sake, it was a woman who actually gave birth at Christmas!!
It is just lovely to have a female vicar here in Market Rasen at this time and to think of female priests elsewhere in Australia presiding this year (some for the first time - including some of my former students I dearly love and admire).
#shininglightinSydney #thankGodfortheUnitingChurch #livingAnglicanism #peacetoall
This is probably my favourite view of St Thomas' Church - where I grew up, was confirmed, sang in the choir and was an altar server. Some 800 years old, it has offered sacred community, celebration and comfort through good times and bad (including many plagues, political horrors and upheavals, Reformation, revolutions and renewals, and contemporary changes). It was probably originally named not for the early disciple but after the martyr Thomas a Becket - politically murdered for standing up for (genuine) religious freedom against tyranny. So it knows how to adapt, survive and still provide space for divine flourishing. It will see out COVID-19 and maybe even the latest convulsions of the Church of England - some things are so much deeper than viruses and institutional failings. It has also held and helped grace so many personal family joys and sorrows - for what it ultimately stands for will always prevail 🙂 #ourlittletown
Dare to be indeed. The first time I heard Jack Spong speak was in October 1992 in Methodist Central Hall in London - at the launch of Elizabeth Stuart's then highly controversial landmark LGBT+ prayer book 'Daring to Speak Love's Name: A Gay and Lesbian Prayer Book'. They were historic and testing times. Two weeks later, after our long struggles, the Church of England would finally vote for women's ordination but opposition to queer people was so much more intense. I'd traveled down from Gateshead in England's north east for the occasion, and was one of 300 or so queer people and allies who shared in what was a powerful and moving show of solidarity titled ''Prayer, Protest, Politics: A Celebration of Who We Are and Our Relationships.'' The evening featured an informal blessing of queer relationships, prayers and recitation of a ''Declaration of Coming Out,'' as we danced, cried and hugged together. Helped not least by negative remarks by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, SPCK, the intended publisher, had pulled the plug on the book. Thankfully however, Hamish Hamilton Ltd (part of Penguin) stepped in at the last minute and the book thus defiantly and joyfully came to birth (more on the story here). Whilst other Church leaders ran from the fray, or hid behind kindly but insufficent words, Bishop Spong stood on the stage that evening and shared his own commitment as true ally. Those kinds of actions matter. I'm grateful to him for many other ways in which he helped set people free from fears into new life. As much as as his words, such actions however really stay with me. In his death, as in his life, he continues to ask us, where are you when life and history is to be made and shown? Dare we continue to speak love's name when and where it is needed? #deedsnotwordsalone
For (too) many years, with others, I've coaxed and cajoled. Sadly though, at this transition point, I’m going to have to say it clearly once more - many ‘affirming’ church leaders truly frustrate me and are major problematic parts of the continuing ‘issues’ that churches and wider society have with sexuality & gender Individually some church leaders can be quite kindly in disposition, as well as otherwise gifted, but as a body they are a key element of the (straight) problem we have, alongside the bigots they refuse to face down publicly. It also sometimes feels like they are stuck in a time warp. For two things stand out...
As I come, this Saturday, to give my final lecture as a St Francis College Brisbane staff member, it is poignant to do so on the subject of ‘The Vocation of Anglicanism’. In that light, it is such a delight to find today an Ad Clerum from Bishop David Jenkins - written in 1993, in the white heat of conflict, as the final legal steps for the ordination of women went through Parliament. It is a typical +David description of the Anglican (Church of England) spirit in which I was raised - so far from so much that passes as Anglican in some places today - not least these key points which also sit so happily with the UCA ‘Basis of Union’ ...
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?...
One of my most fascinating distant ancestors (on my mother's side) was William Bartholomew, who was Vicar of Chipping Campden between 1636 and 1660. As such he lived through many of the epic events of 17th century England: remarkably holding his living from the age of the 'Personal Rule' of Charles 1, even in the upheavals of civil war, the Commonwealth and Protectorate, through to the return of the monarchy. So was he like the fabled 'Vicar of Bray', a by-word for holding on to his ecclesiastical office irrespective of principle? Or was there something more at play in his career? The immediate historical records themselves can be confusing. On the one hand, some have portrayed him as an 'ardent Puritan', perhaps on evidence which suggests he was a major player in the suppression of Dover's Games on the Cotswold downs after 1643. Yet he also appears to have been harassed by the Committee of Plundered Ministers and forced to spend 200 pounds of his own money to avoid trouble. Indeed the memorial in Chipping Campden Church records him as a 'fearless advocate (even in the worst of times) of the Royalist cause.' The latter seems the most likely, as, on Charles II's return from exile, he had the honour of preaching the Restoration sermon in Gloucester Cathedral (see front page pic above right), as well as speedily restoring to his parish the Church of England's Prayer Book which had been proscribed. What then went on in his ministry which enabled his stabilitas through such dramatic changes? The answer needs more research (!), which my beloved late aunt Molly began with my parents a few years ago and which I would love to follow through with at some point soon. My historical hunch however is that, like Jesus' words in the story of Mary and Martha, William Bartholomew effectively continued with 'the one thing necessary': waiting on God in Christ even in the toughest circumstances, continuing to read and expound the Scriptures, and exercising a deeply appreciated 'cure of souls' (earning 'the love and praise and admiration of all', according to his church memorial). As such, his life tells us both something about the complexity of English religion in that tumultuous period (much broader, more localised and even less ideological than simplistic history might assume?) and also that the essence of Christian priesthood (lay or ordained) is not defined by obvious externals (such as the presence or otherwise of episcopacy or authorised liturgy, helpful though they may often be). That may point us to the deepest mystery of all.
For several years I have had a copy of Magna Carta on my living room wall. An odd thing this may seem to many. It seemed a waste however to have it rolled up in a cylinder and it is a reminder to me, both of my personal history and origins and also of the continuing challenges to seek and nurture liberty. For I grew up, for most of my childhood and youth, near Lincoln, whose Cathedral owns one of the originals from 2015, now located in a permanent exhibition in Lincoln Castle. I also treasure a visit a few years ago to Runnymede, the site of the Magna Carta agreement, close by to where my sister currently lives. Above all, Magna Carta touches on so many aspects both of my historical interests and political concerns. In this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, it was therefore wonderful yesterday to be able to visit the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition in the British Library.
What most, pleasantly, surprised me in the exhibition were the series of historical documents, books and other artefacts from across the centuries. These were great to see, as well as refreshment to the European part of my soul which, much as I love Australia, sometimes struggles with the lack of appreciation down under of the highly diverse layers of history. Perhaps Europeans can sometimes themselves be trapped in such layers, and ignore the much more than human immensities of life, and such gifts as those of the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth, found in Australia. Yet, for me at least, to delve back into my own inheritance of history is to feel a renewed sense of intimate connection, wonder and empowerment.
The Magna Carta exhibition, as its subtitle suggests, seeks to place Magna Carta in the great traditions - I would say always uncertain struggles - of law and liberty, and their legacy, particularly in Anglo-Saxon shaped countries. Lines of influence are drawn across time: including to English resistance to 17th century tyranny, 18th and 19th century radicalism, American affirmations of liberties, and 20th century declarations of rights (including by the UN and Nelson Mandela). Rather than being a legal instrument of tight principles, it is perhaps best viewed as a continually revered tool against oppression and a potent inspiration to 'maintain the rage'. Unlike other approaches, such as French and Russian, this Anglo-Saxon pathway to liberty looks not so much to radical logic or abstract ideals as to the precedents and pragmatic practices of the past, albeit often mythopoeic visions and creations out of the contexts of later times.
Only three articles of Magna Carta are still UK statutes but it still has the power to shape our past and future. One remaining article is the first in Magna Carta: affirming the liberty of the English Church in the face of monarchical (or, by implication, other) domination. This reflects the work of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, a key force for reconciliation and (limited) justice in 1215. Significantly however, the then Pope disagreed, dismissing Magna Carta to the dustbin of history in his papal bull which followed. Ironically Sir Thomas More did not agree later, appealing to Magna Carta against king and for the papacy. Perhaps Christian leaders, in our own age, would do well to renew that spirit of Magna Carta, whilst seeing its insistence on liberty as something not for a special few but for all, whoever and whatever we are. The barons, like the then king and Pope, of 1215 would have been horrified to see their ideas of liberty so extended. Blind or forgetful to the inspirations and horrors of history though we may often be, we 21st century people really do not have the luxury.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.