Taken seriously, Christian spirituality really is extraordinarily queer. This is hidden by widespread modernist narratives and assumptions, both secularist and Christian 'mainstream', and also, still more, biblicist and fundamentalist, Sadly, such restrictive approaches try to squeeze the tremendous historical diversity of scripture, tradition and religious experience into various Procrustean beds of ordered, ideological, understanding. Yet the control of spiritual bodies, like queer bodies, always proves elusive, even to the most subtle and determined of subduers and butchers. History is indeed full of horrendous tortures and amputations inflicted upon such bodies. Ultimately however they can not be wholly suppressed. They break through in ways which are life-giving and surprising, if sometimes highly ambiguous and constrained. Certainly this is true of medieval bodies, not least those of female mystics: perhaps above all represented in Julian, or Juliana, of Norwich. For it is not an accident that the 14th century Julian has been 'rediscovered' in recent decades by those seeking fresh perspectives on spirituality, gender, God, and the renewal of being. In her we are drawn from our tombs of suffering and despair into subversive possibilities of new creation.. Not for nothing is she thus perhaps the greatest of all English spiritual teachers...
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the Pope’s horses and all the Pope’s men (and women),
couldn’t put Humpty together again.
For good and ill, the era we know as the Reformation has hugely shaped us. It involved immense fragmentation: both a breaking down and a breaking open. Like Humpty Dumpty, that which went before had ‘a great fall’ and could not be put together again as it had been. Especially within Christian life, it has thus bequeathed so many features we simply take for granted. Some have lasting value. Others are much more questionable. This includes the very existence of different Christian traditions, in what, from the 19th century, we have termed denominations. This was not, of course, an intended outcome. Indeed, it would have seemed anathema to any Reformer, as well as to the Church of Rome. Yet it is part of our Reformation inheritance. So what do we make of this, for God’s continuing mission? What is worth keeping? How might we move on together?
This reflection is not a traditional potted history. Nor does it seek to draw us into comparisons of our different Christian traditions, never mind reassemble past dynamics and rhetoric. Instead, it outlines briefly both vital differences and also important similarities between that age and our own. In doing so, it identifies a number of negative features which often mar our churches and world. It also suggests a number of positive features which can heal and take us forward. Hopefully, in the contemporary spirit of ‘receptive ecumenism’, these may then provide a basis for assessing which Reformation gifts we will own together and which we will leave behind. What else, we might then ask, do we need for our journey onwards today?...
Occasionally I have a palpable sense of the communion of saints. This week it began in a second-hand bookshop in Sydney's Newtown. Looking up, a book seemed to spring out at me like a blessed shaft of light opening from above. It bore the author's name of Alan Webster, a beloved but sadly departed mentor on my life's journey. Reaching for Reality was a book written late in Alan's life and one of which I was not aware. Sketching people and events which have broken free from deadening routine and oppression, it speaks of vision and change, of the critical need and cost of risk-taking, and of the best of the Anglican spirit Alan embodied - warm, inviting, large hearted, open, culturally and intellectually intelligent, responsive and creative, down-to-earth, intimately concerned with every person and aspect of life, grounded in Julian of Norwich-like 'prayer in struggle', and discovering the transcendent in our earthly dust. As I and my immediate family make many transitions at this time, it is as though Alan again speaks directly to me - be encouraged; don't be afraid to be, bring and suffer change; the mystery of God calls us on...
One of the most misleading sayings in some Christian quarters is that Jesus was born to die. Indeed, so concerned are some to talk about Jesus’ death that they would really like us to put a cross in the nativity scene! Now, of course, the meaning Christians find in the death of Jesus is certainly very important. That is part of why the Easter story is central to Christian Faith. Yet even Good Friday is not ultimately about death. For, as the Bible Society’s lively 2009 campaign expressed it, Jesus. All About Life is the true reality. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel (10.10): ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’. Death is a part of life and life involves a series of little deaths (losses and griefs) as well as physical death. So Jesus showed us how dying well can be done. Yet this was in service of life, which is the real purpose and invitation of God’s creation of us. For God wants us to live! Christmas, the feast of the birth of Jesus, is therefore not merely a beginning and prelude to Easter. It also witnesses powerfully, in its own right, to the heart of the Christian message. In God in Jesus Christ, we find our fullest life, which is eternal love, right here, right now, and for evermore...
This year we will again be delighted to share in our parish the beautiful Advent booklet Prepare: An Advent Reflection (downloadable for free here) which is produced by Anglican Overseas Aid– find out more about its work here.
The focus on the traditional Advent themes of hope, love, joy and peace is reflected in the work of bodies such as Anglican Overseas Aid in Christian work with our sisters and brothers and partners overseas. Our shared aspiration is that poor communities experience these themes of Advent in their daily lives. The reflections, drawn considerably from Anglican partners overseas, also help us however to understand the Good News of Jesus Christ more fully. The following reflection, from Melanesia, is just one example to help us grow, rejoice and share more deeply in God’s love for us all…
It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
The theme for this year's Reconciliation Week has been particularly fruitful for those of us who are practising Christians. It has provided another positive link between our faith and the journey of healing and justice in our land. For each element of the threefold heading has meaning for both the Christian pathway and that of Australia's many peoples. Indeed it was a delight to preside at baptisms this week in this dual context. For 'Our History' calls us to reflect, and act, upon, the question 'where do we come from?' Neither an individual, nor a nation, can go far without acknowledging and being in proper touch with the bedrock of our lives, whether our historical memory or spiritual 'dreaming' and relationship to God. 'Our Story' similarly calls us to reflect, and act, upon, the question 'what do we belong to?'. This is vital for both individuals and communities. In the Christian case, this involves participation in the 'Jesus Christ', or biblical 'God' Story: in a sense, our Christian 'Dreaming'. Meanwhile, 'Our Future' calls us to reflect, and act, upon the question 'where are we going?' This is vital for purpose and meaning, new life and the realisation of our individual and shared gifts and potential. For Christians, this involves living further into the promise of shalom which God has for us and all his/her children. May all we have thus shared this week strengthen our ancient foundations, our walking together, and life in the Spirit of renewal.
One of the interesting features of criticism raised by some to aspects of 'progressive orthodox' Christian faith is the perceived relationship between love, God and Judaeo-Christian scripture. Progressives can certainly be guilty of simplistic and sentimental thinking, including syllogistic fallacies around such themes. Yet it appears to me that conservative theology sometimes runs the risk of driving a wedge between the God of scripture and healthy, life-giving, human love. In a recent local marriage equality discussion for example, it was somewhat extraordinary to hear a vigorous opponent assert a radical difference between God and human love. In responding to a particular interpretation of 1 John 4.16b - 'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them' - they were right in drawing attention to the wider context of that verse, including the prevenient nature of God's love and primary focus in Christ. However such divine love was precisely embodied in the very human life and love of Jesus, expressing the presence of such love throughout creation, in all kinds of different ways. Part of the religious genius of historic Christian Faith has been the ability to hold these different elements in tension, understanding the creative paradox of i John 4.12 that 'No one has ever seen God; (yet) if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.' Both love, and sin, in my view, are far more complex and mysterious than many 'plain Christian' theologies allow for.
Perhaps part of the contrasting responses of Christians lies in how holy scripture is itself conceived. One young man for example said to me recently that the Bible and Christian Faith were not really about love but about salvation. He is on a genuine journey of exploration into these matters and we had a cordial and mutually illuminating conversation. Yet such a view reflects a very common but restricted framework which some Christians have imposed, and continue to impose, on the Bible. In reality of course such a lively and diverse set of scriptures have many contrasting themes. Salvation is a vital, and perhaps particularly distinctive Christian, one. Surely however salvation is but one way of approaching love, rather than the reverse? For all its misuse over the centuries, what has always 'saved' holy scripture is the longing for, and experience of, God which human beings have found in it. Rather than being the Procrustean structure of a salvation machine, the Bible is witness to the eternal love story of God, humanity and creation, embodied, for Christians, most fully in Jesus Christ.
When some people question me about religion and violence, and especially Islamist related violence, I often think and talk to them about Azim Khamisa, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. A successful international financier and Sufi Muslim, Azim's life was turned upside down when his twenty year old son Tariq was shot and killed, for the price of the pizza he was delivering. Yet, out of the midst of his terrible anguish, an amazing compassion, rather than commitment to vengeance, arose. Azim came to realise, as he puts it, that there were 'victims at both ends of the gun' that killed his son, and this spirit-led understanding drove him to contact the family of his son's killer (whom he then later met and has lobbied for) and to commit his life to sharing the power of forgiveness, particularly among millions of young people vulnerable to gang culture and other pathways to violence. His mission is especially embodied in the Tariq Khamissa Foundation but has also been exercised internationally through books and other communications tools and events of various kinds (including his own website found by clicking here). When I think of the message and example of Jesus, Azim is an amazing contemporary model. A little of his story can be found in this video clip:
I am struck by this week's collect for the end of Advent:
raise up your power and come among us,
and with great might succour us,
that, whereas through our sins and wickedness
we are sore let and hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The language is clearly a modernised form of the 16th century expressions which helped form the historic Book of Common Prayer (BCP). As such, it has the kind of aural resonance that is loved many devotees of the BCP and King James Version of the Bible. For myself, though I am also a little wary of excessive use of what the Iona Community calls 'the language of the living room', such Tudor language can be often be somewhat dated for contemporary prayer and worship. However this prayer also reflects quite well certain aspects of both the character of Anglicanism and its distinctive theological outlooks. To say that, through sin and wickedness, we are 'sore let and hindered' is, for example, in my view, a less destructive view of the human condition than many. It avoids the 'total depravity' approach of Calvinism and other unbalanced conceptions. Yet it affirms the beauty and efficacious necessity of grace. As the last collect in today's main Australian Anglican Prayer Book, it is thus an appropriate lead in to Christmas. For the Incarnation affirms the embodied life of grace in humanity, essential for our redemption, yet celebratory of material existence as a whole. Pain, darkness and struggle are very real - for we are indeed 'sore. let and hindered' and typically in need of speedy help and deliverance - yet we are also participants in divine salvation and vehicles of honour and glory. Such is the miracle of Jesus Christ, born of Mary.
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.