Two Clergy Conferences

The Oxford Diocesan Clergy Conference at Swanwick on Imagining Faith (24-27 March 2014) was the first clergy conference the diocese have held for 22 years. Yes, the last one was in 1992.

As one of those – increasingly feeling like dinosaurs – who were present 22 years ago, I spent a lot of time this week reflecting on what had changed. And it does, indeed, feel like that was a world away, a different planet altogether.

The greatest difference this time, of course, was the large number of women clergy taking part, including having a wonderful woman bishop – Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch NZ – as a keynote speaker. Back then there were hardly any women present. No women priests, of course, and not that many deacons either. It was a peculiar atmosphere and mood, and rather like the lepers at the gates of Samaria (2 Kings 7), there were many who were saying, “What we are doing is not right.” It was all too clergy-ish, and just, well, MALE. So it was decided not to have any more exclusively clergy conferences, but to run joint conferences of clergy and laity for the diocese. This was the origin of the extraordinary Bognor Conference in 1995(?) and the High Wycombe weekend a few years afterwards.

But I always felt it was a great loss, not to have the opportunity for the clergy to meet together from time to time. It's such a big diocese, and when we only meet in deanery or even archdeaconry meetings, it's very easy to lose sight of the big picture. The Big Picture is a beautiful one, and as Bishop Victoria reminded us, one of immense wealth of resources.

And the joyful mix of male and female clergy meant that everything that was missing in our mostly male clergy gatherings was wonderfully supplied. It made me think, as I so often have before: How can ANYONE still be against women priests and bishops? Whatever the dogmatic reasons anyone could have had against, anyone who has actually experienced the priestly ministry of women must know that it is blessed by God. Real, effective, God's gift. The priestly ministry of women alongside men, is a whole ministry. At last. It's only taken us nearly 2000 years to get here… And so at last it was possible to say at this conference: “What we are doing is right. Very right.”

As ever I come away from this kind of event inspired, excited, enthused, humbled, energised, feeling completely inadequate among such committed and gifted people, yet also hoping and praying and I suppose knowing at some barely guessed at level, that I share some of those gifts and commitment.

The daily worship – Morning and Evening Prayer, Eucharist and Night Prayer – was a glorious pot-pourri of styles, often deeply moving. The music was of a high standard, as well as deeply spiritual and enabling. The organization was superb and apparently relaxed and seamless. The bishops were (are!) welcoming, friendly, human. The speakers were dauntingly intelligent and erudite. As well as Bishop Victoria talking about how her diocese has dealt with and grown through the disaster of the earthquakes, there were Graham Tomlin, giving the Bible studies, Sam Wells on what the Christian faith is, Graham Ward on current trends in culture and society, and our own Bishop John on The State We're In. The workshops – I co-led one of them, on storytelling – were varied and interesting: my only problem with them was, there wasn't enough time to go very deep. We had fun evenings with Paul Kerensa, and, because one of the planned speakers had had to pull out, a shared viewing of the first of Rev. series 3, with panel discussion after.

So now, the work begins. The work of processing, applying, Imagining Faith in our own places and contexts. I'm praying for us all to have an imagination as big as God's, to work towards his Kingdom futures. And that we won't have to wait 22 years for the next time.

Bach’s Cantatas for Sexagesima

So, how am I getting on with what I intended would be this year’s project, of listening to the whole set of John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of Bach’s Cantatas, throughout the Church’s year?

Not as easy as I thought, apparently. It’s partly a matter of time, even to listen to them once. And, to get to know them better, I find I need to listen to them a couple of times.

So, a long car journey or two is a real help. Last week I had to drive to Ely and back, to take part in a BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) examining a group of amazing men and women who are offering for ordained ministry. Two hours plus each way, meant that I was able to listen to the CDs of cantatas for Septuagesima and Sexagesima, at least twice each. Even without the text, I managed to hear and understand a tolerable amount of what was going on.

The texts for Sexagesima are almost identical to those in BCP: Epistle 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9, and Gospel Luke 8:4-15.

Bach bases his treatment of these chiefly on the Parable of the Sower, and the different ways of receiving God’s Word, represented by the four different kinds of soil. In BWV 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, he goes to the words of Isaiah 55: As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and water the earth, making it bring forth fruit, seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so will my word be which proceeds from my mouth; it will not return to me void, but will accomplish what I please, and prosper in the work for which I sent it.

The tenor and bass recitative is interspersed with an almost jolly litany which includes the distinctly non-PC sentiment: And from the Turk’s and the Papist’s cruel murder and blaspheming, raging and fury, fatherlike protect us.
Hear us, dear Lord! The contrast between the gravity of the words and the levity of the tune sounds to post-modern ears like some kind of irony – or am I imagining it? We have similar sentiments in some of our BCP texts, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard them set to this kind of music.

The following soprano aria, Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort; (My soul’s true treasure is God’s Word) expresses a real, heart-felt devotion, to the words of scripture.

BWV 181, Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (1724), also begins with a strikingly flighty bass aria about the ‘frivolous flibbertigibbets’ (or light-minded flutter-spirits?) who by their carelessness collude with Belial and his children in robbing God’s Word of its power. They are the ones who cause the seed of the word to fall on the hard ground of the path, where like the birds of the air, the devil snatches it away from the heart of those who will not hear it. I wonder what the pious Lutheran congregation in Bach’s church made of this? Was their organist and choir director having a laugh at their expense? Perhaps suggesting that, for all their wig-wearing solemnity, they were no better than those frivolous flibbertigibbets themselves?

BWV 126, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (1725) begins with what seems like a more serious tone, as if some of those worthy Bürgers had taken him aside the previous year and said, “Look here, Herr Bach – let’s have no more of this nonsense about flibbertigibbets – we want to hear serious music in church!” But even then, Bach’s high spirits will out in the bass aria Stürze zu Boden, schwülstige Stolze! – Dash bombastic pride to the ground! It makes the mortification of our fleshly sins sound positively lively and fun, certainly not a miserable pastime but something to delight in, like children chopping down nettles, or a householder taking a really ruthless line on decluttering a room and throwing out almost everything. Or is he thinking of his haughty Bürgers again? Hmm.

Next week (if I get around to it) Quinquagesima, then a break: we give up Cantatas for Lent. Or alternatively, we use Lent to catch up or get ahead with some of the other Sundays, or maybe study the Passions or Easter music?

Exceeding Righteousness

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has quite a good press really. Lots of people who are very far from being practising Christians regard it as being evidence for the belief that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Sadly, that doesn’t always (often?) lead them to follow these teachings. It’s easy to see that if more people did actually live by them, most of the world’s problems would simply go away. But I don’t know whether Christians have been all that much better at following these teachings. In fact I seem to remember that the Scofield Reference Bible (a very influential study bible among evangelicals even today) has a note explaining that since the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to actually put into practice, it must be Jesus’ teaching about how people will live after the Second Coming has taken place and he has established his kingdom. If this is actually what it says (and I haven’t just imagined it) it’s a disastrous example of how Christians misread and misunderstand even the most important of scriptures.

It’s true that we struggle with the Sermon on the Mount – but so we should, and we’re going to struggle with it a bit more this morning.

It seems to me that the passage we have for this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 5.21-37) can be read as a kind of exposition or unpacking of what Jesus tells his disciples in v.20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, his disciples will have felt crushed at this point. Oh! whoa! what chance have we got then? Because the scribes and the Pharisees were the. most. righteous. people. ever. They were the ones everyone looked up to, regarded as an example of godly living, were sure they could never aspire to. Well, the scribes and the Pharisees thought that as well, and had succeeded in getting everyone else to think it. And that, probably, was the problem.

Because what follows is Jesus explaining the Law and its teachings in such a way (remember, he’s said that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law; not a stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished) that he completely undermines much (most?) of what the religious teachers stood for, and shows that their so-called righteousness is really nothing of the kind, it’s not what God has in mind at all. This is the thing about so much of what religious people mean by righteousness: it’s based on a very legalistic kind of religion, which puts external conformity way ahead of the heart of the matter.

Here’s what I mean. Legalistic religion is all about knowing, and telling other people, how to be righteous. You must do this; you must not do that. And perhaps even more importantly: you don’t need to do that; doing this will suffice for you to make the grade. So, if the Law says Thou shalt not kill, it will be sufficient if you haven’t actually terminated someone’s life. If it says Thou shalt not bear false witness, it will be OK to lie anywhere else, as long as you don’t lie in court.

But Jesus isn’t having any of this dishonesty, this cheating with God – which is what it actually is. The Sermon on the Mount undermines these pretences by going to the heart of what God really desires. Jesus wants to talk not just about what the Law is, what it says, but what it’s for. And I would say the whole purpose, aim of the Law, is to enable human flourishing. It is all about shalom, the total peace and well-being and common-wealth that is God’s will for humanity, in fact for the whole creation. So, it’s not enough not to have murdered anyone. We also need to deal with the root cause in the human heart: which is anger, despising your neighbour, thinking that they are of so little worth that you can call them fool, or spit on them, or abuse them, or discriminate against them, or mistreat them in some way. It’s not enough not to have actually committed adultery: we must deal with the lust in our hearts which looks at another person not as a person at all, but as an object for our physical pleasure or gratification. It’s not enough to observe all the proper legal forms when you want to divorce your wife (and in those days men could do that, on pretty trivial pretexts): you shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Don’t even think about it, I think Jesus is saying – remember what marriage is, what it’s for. It’s not enough not to swear falsely: you shouldn’t need to be swearing at all, your speech should be so true, so transparently honest, that it doesn’t need any So help me Gods, or whatever. So all the time, when Jesus is saying, You’ve heard that it was said… but I say to you… he’s not undermining or revising the Law. He is saying: The teachers of the Law have misrepresented what it means; and what I’m telling you, is what it’s really for.

So. How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? With the Church we love tearing itself to pieces in arguments about gay marriage, and women bishops, and looking more and more stupid and irrelevant to people outside – wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had said something about these things. Sadly he didn’t. So I don’t know what the answer to that question is: How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? I don’t know, and I’m getting too tired of the argument, and the people who are doing it. Because so many of them seem to want to portray themselves as the righteous ones, and their opponents as the opposite. It reminds me of a novella that I had to study at university, Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist. I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it, except for the description of this central character, in the very first sentence: On the banks of the River Havel there lived, about the middle of the 16th century, a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, who was at the same time one of the most righteous, and one of the most [entsetzlich] [terrible, dreadful, horrific, inhuman] men of his time. His passion for justice, righteousness, was so overwhelmingly huge, that it led him to commit the most terrible atrocities, causing death, destruction and mayhem to the whole country.

It’s not a bad description of people who adhere to any extreme form of religion or morality, whether it’s bombing abortion clinics and killing people who work there in the name of the right to life; or killing women for sexual transgressions, even if the transgressions in question is having been raped. Of course, the squabbles about gay marriage and women bishops aren’t exactly in the same league, but there’s a tang of the same tendency. We are right, and we know we are right, and we don’t care how much damage our rightness causes to those who disagree with us.

Let’s step back and say, It’s time to stop looking at what we think the rules are and what they say, and think about what they are for. If they contribute to shalom, the flourishing of human beings and creation, then OK. If they prevent that flourishing, perhaps it’s time to let go of our interpretation of the rules, and change it, or the rules. I haven’t been keen on the idea of gay marriage. In fact when I was first ordained I would have taken the evangelical line that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s it. As if we could say to a gay person: You may think you are attracted to someone of the same sex, and your life will be enriched by being with them, but you’re mistaken. What you need is to marry a nice girl (or boy) instead. But what I’ve been hearing for years from the gay people I listen to (and how brave are they, to speak about it at all!) is that their sexual orientation is a deep part of their identity, it’s how they experience that God has created them – not a wilful choice, not any kind of choice. And a permanent, faithful, stable union with a partner – what we call marriage if it is between a man and a woman – will save them from loneliness and desperate promiscuity. In other words, help them to flourish. Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities to flourish, as men and women who want to share their lives?

I’d say the case for women bishops is even clearer. Not that I welcomed the thought of women bishops either, at first – but then I’m not all that keen on male bishops (don’t tell Bishop John). The supposed arguments against, from scripture and tradition, are frankly unconvincing, while the effect of not having women in leadership positions serves to perpetuate the subjection of women to the rank of second-class human beings, which has so often been the way not just in the church (actually, I think the Church can point to some shining exceptions) but in so many societies to this day. Giving proper scope for the wonderful gifts of women in ministry, releasing those gifts in the church, not only helps those women to flourish, but helps the whole church to flourish.

You might disagree with how I’ve applied what I think Jesus’ approach to the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is. I’d have to accept that, because it’s part of what I described as our continuing struggle with understanding, and living out, these teachings. But what I would encourage us all to so is keep on with that questioning and struggling. The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the idea that we are called to live as children of God, our heavenly Father, and that relationship undermines, or trumps, all other human loyalties or obediences. Let us pray.

Listening to Music

Whenever I try and listen seriously to music, I feel like I'm a colour-blind person trying to understand fine art. It's not so much that I just don't know how it works, as that I feel I'm missing some vital faculty. It could be because I never learned how to make music. Which always seems a bit strange to me, when music was so important to my dad, who sang well and was certainly able to pick out a melody on the piano, at least. But perhaps he tried to find out if there was a germ of musical interest in me, and realised early on that I was the musical equivalent of colour-blind, and just gave me up as a bad job.

So a project like trying to listen to the complete set of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantatas, from the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, was always going to be a bit of a challenge. I feel like that lady walking through the fields in gloves, missing so much and so much. Or maybe it's like a baby with its mittens tied on so that it can't get its hands dirty. (Or perhaps it has its mittens tied round its ears!)

Reading JEG's book Music in the Castle of Heaven is fascinating because even though I'm understanding so little of it, it's still opening windows onto wonderful things I can just begin to see the outlines of. But apart from these glimpses, most of what I'm able to do is relate to the German – which I can understand well – and the theology. What was Bach trying to do with the themes of the Sunday? Why did he choose to tackle them in this way? Are there aspects of the Lutheran (and sometimes frankly somewhat pietistic) spirituality, which can feed us in our own walk with God?

The Gospel for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is John 2.1-11: the miracle at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine. In German there's the pun between weinen (cry, or weep) and Wein (wine). I'd never thought of that before. Jesus is the one who turns our sorrow into dancing, by turning the water of our weeping into the wine of our celebrating.

 

Have you found Jesus?

The correct answer, if anyone asks you that question, is of course, “I didn’t know he was lost.”

But according to Luke’s Gospel, chapter 2, there was a time when Jesus was lost. His parents Mary and Joseph had taken him up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, as was their custom. Jesus was 12 years old: the age for his Bar Mitzvah, when he would enter into a new, adult participation in the covenant between God and his people. At the end of the feast, the parents set off to return home, thinking Jesus was somewhere else in the group of travellers; but he had stayed behind in Jerusalem. When they finally realised he was missing, and went back anxiously looking for him, they eventually found him calmly sitting in the temple, listening to the religious teachers and asking them questions, like any zealous apprentice rabbi.

The two cantatas Bach composed for the First Sunday after Epiphany, in 1724 and 1725, draw their inspiration from this Gospel passage. The Lutheran lectionary of Bach’s day, like the Communion lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer, appoints as the readings for the day Romans 12.1-5, and Luke 2.41-end. So no hint of the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, which most of us have had to celebrate today? (And where did that come from, anyway? – Question expecting no answer – According to Wikipedia it is a pretty new-fangled invention of the Church of Rome.)

BWV 154 Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren imagines the Christian soul in the place of Mary: My dearest Jesus is lost. This is our condition when our human sinfulness has separated us from God, and the movements of the cantata express a longing to be reunited, and a prayer: Jesus, let yourself be found by me; don’t let my sins be a thick cloud in which you hide yourself from me; show yourself to me again!

The bass arioso gives Jesus’ answer from Luke 2.49: Didn’t you know that I must be in the place that belongs to my Father?

By leaving Jesus behind and going off on their own way, in pursuit of their own agenda, Mary and Joseph were like any of us who wander away from Jesus. The only recourse is to turn around (repent) and go back till we find him where we should expect him to be: in his Father’s place. When the soul hears his Friend and Saviour’s voice, and returns to him, then: Yay! My Jesus is found! My trouble is past, I will never leave you again.

BWV 124 Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (1725) is built around the same chorale which Bach had used at the end of the previous year’s Epiphany 1 cantata. It’s an upbeat, almost rollicking piece, expressing the exuberant joy of that decision: I will not give up on Jesus! The reason? Because he gave himself for me, and as long as there’s a drop of blood in my veins, Jesus alone will be my life, my all. There’s not the least sense of glumness or mortification about the duet aria’s appeal to the heart: Be quick, and detach yourself from the things of this world. You’ll find your true fulfilment and satisfaction in heaven.

One of the points Gardiner makes so strongly, is that the image we have of Bach as a boring old 18th century Lutheran in a powdered wig, doesn’t do anything like justice to the passion of his faith in Christ, and the joy of the God-intoxicated believer.

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

How ever did I miss this when it was actually happening back in 2000? John Eliot Gardiner’s inspired, possibly totally mad, idea of taking the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists on a kind of world tour, performing each one of Bach’s cantatas on the day for which it was originally composed to be part of the liturgy? A lot of the venues were in places associated with Bach’s life: Weimar, Arnstadt, Eisenach, of course Leipzig; but also in 12 other countries, ending in New York at the end of the year.

1 year, 59 concerts, 282 musicians, 50 cities, 13 countries, 198 cantatas performed, over 40 concerts recorded, says their website.

Well, actually, I do know why I missed it. Back in 2000, I wasn’t all that interested in Bach’s choral music. It was the instrumental and orchestral stuff I loved: concertos, cello suites, well-tempered claviers.

What’s happened since then? Well, not least has been the amazing experience of having a new director of music who has been energetically sharing his own love of choral music with the congregation. He once (only once, so far) even had me singing bass in ‘In Manus Tuas’ at Compline in Holy Week. But it has made me much more aware of the existence and the possibilities of choral church music. Then, when I went to Hamburg for the Kirchentag in May,I shared in a scratch singing of Bach chorales in a hall with hundreds of Germans. Divided into SATB sections of the seating, we were each given a score – or one was projected on the screens at the front – and told to go for it. You don’t have to be able to sight read, or have perfect pitch, to be carried along by hundreds of enthusiastic German singers. It was glorious, and made me want to sing more, or learn how to do it – somehow, some time.

Then in the autumn came John Eliot Gardiner’s TV programme, Bach – A Passionate Life; and that was soon followed (what a strange coincidence!) by the publication of his portrait of Bach entitled Music in the Castle of Heaven. I coveted it and put it on my wishlist and Alison bought it for me for Christmas, and I’ve been reading it since then. There’s a lot of technical detail I don’t completely understand, but it doesn’t matter: the man’s knowledge and passion sweep you up and carry you along in spite of yourself.

He spends much more time talking about Bach’s choral works, the cantatas and the passions, than anything else. That’s how I started listening to them, and discovered the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. So my musical project for this year, and maybe next, is to try to listen to all Bach’s cantatas week by week. So, coming up next, the cantatas for Epiphany 1:

BWV 154 Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren
BWV 124 Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

Goodbye 2013

So it’s goodbye to the old year. And as so often, we see it out at the Flat, with no internet access (except a paltry bit via smartphone without a very strong network signal – so no chance of actually uploading a blog post until we go home on 2 January…)

It’s been a funny old year. I turned 64. (Will you still need me, will you still feed me?) I travelled abroad three times, which must be unheard of in any previous year: to Hamburg for Kirchentag in May, to North Carolina in August for the Network of Biblical Storytellers Scholars’ Seminar and Festival Gathering, and to Prague in October for a week’s holiday with Alison.

Alison’s youngest sister Gill died in August, completely suddenly and unexpectedly, aged 53. As I reflect on my life which has always seemed ridiculously fortunate and sheltered, and in which I have always craved meaning among the highest goods, I can think of very few things that seem completely senseless. Gill’s death is one of them, however. Her funeral brought the whole family unusually together, which was good. But better, would have been from a better cause.

And then in December, Esther and David presented us with a fifth granddaughter, named (eventually!) Elspeth Jean Brandon. She was born on 5 December, which would have been my old mum’s 93rd birthday, so it’s lovely that she bears mum’s name as her middle name.

And what has the year been like, in terms of discipleship, spiritual growth, the walk with God, or however we might call it? How can you measure progress, if what you have been called to is “a long obedience in the same direction”? (Eugene Peterson’s lovely phrase.)

The most significant thing in the life of the church at Marston was our appointment of a new organist with energy and ambition, who has successfully brought the choir on to achievements most of them never dreamed of. The music has been wonderful, culminating in a Christmas season (which isn’t yet over! until 2 February) which was exciting, inspiring, yet also somehow strangely serene – and I’m not sure whether that is about a kind of ‘flatness’ of emotion, or instead an arrival at some state of blessed repose.

Meanwhile Alison and I both became cursillistas after attending Cursillo weekends at Ely: Alison in May and myself in November. This signals, or is part of, a (re)new(ed) intention to deepen our prayer, walk more closely with God, and a desire to encourage a passionate spirituality within the congregation. We are planning to share during 2014 some of the ideas for Christian life coming from the Community of Aidan and Hilda, a contemporary application of some of the themes of Celtic spirituality.

Remembrance Sunday Sermon

Walking a Tightrope

Come and join me, up here on this tightrope. Because that’s what it feels like, on Remembrance Sunday, that we’re walking a tightrope, trying to balance the different themes that we want to embrace in our service.

On the one hand: a 100% longing for peace, a detestation of war, a cry to God that war may cease to be known upon earth. On the other hand: a remembrance of all those who have died in war, including those who served in the armed forces, whose lives and deaths we want to honour and give thanks for.

Those who pray above all for peace, are sometimes anxious that too great an emphasis on the courage and sacrifice of those who fought, may somehow be understood as glorifying war, making the possibility of peace more remote. Those who want to remember the courage and sacrifice are afraid, that if we emphasise peace too much, we devalue the sacrifice of those who died, and somehow suggest that their deaths were in vain.

And of course we don’t want to fall off in either of those directions. We want to give full weight to both – as long as that weight is a balance, rather than one that makes us fall off.

So first: Peace. Surely there can’t be any doubt that God’s real desire is peace. No matter how much war there is in the Bible, as nations contend with each other, and the little nation of God’s people struggles for survival – that’s just the reality of history , the ultimate aim and promise, is that there will be peace when God’s rule and God’s law are fully known.

Micah 4.1-4
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

Isaiah 9.5-7
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

We believe that the Prince of Peace has come, Jesus is that Prince of Peace, bringing the possibility of reconciliation between human beings and God, or rather showing that God has given himself, made the final sacrifice of himself, in order to reconcile us to himself. His grace, his undeserved love, reaching out to us, you and me, Be reconciled, let’s make it up, stop fighting against me, and against all the good there could be in the world, all the blessing that there could be for the whole of creation. Stop fighting, be reconciled. But we know how far the world is from hearing that message and believing it; the work of mission has only just begun; even people who call themselves Christians have not yet learned to live as God invites us to live.

And then, remembering the dead. My niece has recently been posting on the internet some pictures of her grandfather, my dad, taken during the Second World War. He’s in uniform, smiling, with comrades, sometimes sporting a funny little moustache that looks like the first one I tried to grow, in South Africa, the Middle East, Italy. He’s 21 or 22 years old. (Anyone here?) Well, Dad survived the War (else I wouldn’t be here!) But when we read out the names of those who didn’t, let’s bear in mind that many of them were even younger. They were boys, young men, sent into battle by their country and its leaders. Some of them may have been those who joined up with great excitement and enthusiasm to experience a great adventure. Some of them may have been called up when their turn came, and been terrified. We’ve learned a bit about how terrible conditions were in the trenches of the Western Front, and the terror and seeming hopelessness of going ‘over the top’. Yet they did their duty. And though historians and others still argue about the justice of various wars, we want to honour those young men and what they did; and all those who have fought and died in subsequent wars: Second World War, Korea, Northern Ireland, Falklands, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan. That willingness to do their duty, to serve their country, to face the danger, is still a thing to honour.

But let’s not be coy about this. We often talk about how they gave their lives, to cushion or conceal the truth. I don’t suppose any of them wanted to die. Their lives were taken from them, often by appalling violence and with appalling cruelty and pain. And that’s true also of all the other casualties of war, the civilians and the non-combatants, which is why we also remember them today: the names we shall read out stand for those many more thousands, millions of victims.

As we seek to do this, let me share some statistics to bring this up to date. Remembrance Sunday isn’t just about remembering what we call the Great War, but all the later and still current ones. According to Wikipedia, List of ongoing armed conflicts, there are currently 12 armed conflicts causing 1000+ deaths per year, and 30? fewer than 1000 deaths – ‘or unknown’. Most of those don’t really involve us, perhaps, but what about this? During the past half-century, Britain has fought more foreign wars than any other country. During Tony Blair’s premiership, he sent British troops into battle five times in six years. And since the end of WW2, British troops have been killed in action every single year except one (1968) So commemoration is just as important as ever. And as we commemorate, we remember this further statistic: Of today’s ‘war dead’, only 1 in 10 is a soldier. 90% of the victims of war nowadays are civilians, and half of them are children. Isn’t this why war has to stop? Why we need to pray and work all the harder towards that end?

Of course, we like to think, or we hope and pray, that all the actions our troops are involved in at this time are peace-keeping, or peace-making, operations. If our involvement in that war succeeds in helping make a country a safer, better place for its people, is that worth the cost in lives and material resources? If we could leave Afghanistan in a condition of true peace, shalom, in which they might be free from the power of religious fanatics who shoot teenage girls in the head for wanting to go to school? Who murder women teachers, because educated women present too great a threat to the men with the guns? It’s heartbreaking that this has proved to be an unwinnable war; that we have to walk away from it with no certainty that they will have that peace. Iraq is an even more tragic example, in which it has become clear that the intelligence that took us to war was just wrong. And now part of the delayed cost of getting rid of a (let’s admit it) particularly nasty tyrant, apart from the lives lost and the financial cost, is the threatened extinction of Christianity in many of those middle and near eastern countries. Iraq, Syria, Egypt – all used to have important and ancient Christian churches, even though they were minorities. But now those Christians are facing such persecution and attack that many are leaving or giving up. There is the real and tragic possibility that they may cease to exist within our lifetime. How much is the West’s willingness to go to war with those countries responsible for that outcome?

What all this recent history should encourage us to do is ask the question: Is there a better way? Is there a better way than war, or force of arms, to resolve international differences? Exponents of the just war theory say that war should only ever be a last resort. It seems to me that we have been too quick, in the last quarter-century, to resort to that last resort. It should be a last resort which, increasingly, we never go to. For the sake of those war dead, nearly half of them children. For the sake of the millions of other war victims who aren’t dead, just bereaved, forced to become displaced or stateless persons who have lost every material thing they ever had. Isn’t all that suffering far far too high a price to pay for any victory, or more often no victory at all?

Let me finish with this piece, written by Bill, a Second World War veteran.

The Veteran’s Lament

So here we stand again. A year has passed.
Once more our sorrow turns to millions killed.

What have we learned?
What do you say to us, dear soldier
from your eternal silence?

Do you implore us to improve our killing efficiency,
to make bigger and better bombs,
condemning millions more to your sad fate?

Do you cheer us on in our blindness?
How many thousands have we added to your number, this past year?
No – I hear you plead now. I hear you cry to us across the years:

‘Weep not for me but for those yet unborn.
Go! – save your own children from my fate
Go! – thank me, by walking away today
to reject the futility, the waste, and the lie
that you have repeated over and over
even as you stand
for where do your billions go,
if not to ensure far more will know the hell I knew?
It is too late for me.
I have no voice but yours,
please – speak for me.
So, when you stand here again,
when this next year has passed,
come here in certainty
that you have taken some small step
along a different road…’

Bill, World War Two veteran

Legends of the Fall

Yes, the boring truth about my mishap in Prague is that I tripped up a very small step, fell flat on my face, cut my face on the rim of my glasses, and ended up with two stitches and an interesting black eye.

But hey, this is Storyteller’s World, and each day that passes reveals any number of alternative versions and tellings of the story. Here are some of the possibilities:

1. The Gritty Urban Realism Story
I was mugged. A group of local skinheads mistook me for an elderly (the cheek of it!) foreign tourist, and assumed (wrongly, as it happens) that I would have lots of dosh in my wallet, which they relieved me of. In an alternative but equally untrue version of this story, I took six of them on single-handed and they fled without my wallet, and with injuries much worse than my own.

2. The Romantic Middle European Historical Story
As above, but substitute brigands or highwaymen for skinheads, and riding in a coach for walking the streets of Prague.

3. The Judgement of God Story
The reason I didn’t see the step that laid me low, is that I was in too much of a hurry to get in to the bank – whose step it was – to get cash out of the ATM. This was the disciplinary chastisement for being so intent on the possession of earthly treasure.

4. The Freudian Story
There is no such thing as an accident. The reason I dived on my face was my subconscious self-hatred for my pride, vanity, avarice, advancing years, selfishness, or . Or my desire to show off, gain sympathy, make myself or my Prague visit appear more interesting, get to see the inside of a Czech hospital,

5. The Hieromachy Story
A friend in Church Stretton said he’d heard that I’d been in a fight: ‘vicars fighting’ as he put it. Which vicars were fighting? and why? Here is another fruitful seam of story-mining. Perhaps I was dismayed by the Anglican Church in Prague omitting ‘filioque’ from the Nicene Creed, and stood up against the church leadership there, on behalf of the Western Church. More blood has been shed for much less… But it may have been a different cause of contention altogether.

6. The Inebriation Story
(Kindly suggested by a clergy colleague) Too much brandy? No, this man could not be drunk, it was only 10 o’clock in the morning.

Interested in other versions or stories? Let me know what you think, or if you’ve got any better ideas.