Thursday, 18 July 2019

Trump & Making a Prisoner of Love




'Go back to where you came from!' - Its hard to credit that a sitting US President would speak such hateful words, not just once but repeatedly to four female politicians, all American citizens and all but one born on US soil. It is reasonable to say that anyone who denies the explicit racism in this statement is either deluded or dishonest. It is hateful language and sadly hate appears to have become the default mode of communication for this extraordinary US presidency.

Regrettably Trump's America is not the only place in the World today where hate is all too visible. Look at the tragedy that is the Middle East and the ongoing calamitous wars and the consistent and routine ill-treatment of the vulnerable and again hate is in the driving seat.

Closer to home and while thankfully the recent marching season in Northern Ireland has not been as violent or as disruptive as recent years the mutual hatred manifest in sectarianism is alive and well and there are still some on both sides of this divided community who would rejoice at the painful death of one of the other tribe.

And lest we get complacent here in the Republic, according to a report issued by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties last year, 'Ireland has one of the highest rates of hate crime against people of African background and transgender people in the EU'. That is surely cause for shame.

Hate is thriving and somehow we have to find a way to defeat it. Martin Luther King had a lot to say about engaging with hate but it always came down to Love. These are among his famous remarks on Love and he did walk the talk.  'We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.',  'Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that' & 'Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.'

These are familiar words and will resonate especially with those who have grown up in various faith traditions (not alone Christianity) which speak of the power and centrality of Love. Indeed they are not unfamiliar to secular humanists either - Love is almost universally recognised as a necessary part of that which makes us whole and truly human. Without Love we are as St Paul so famously observed 'a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal'.

We can all, no matter what faith or tradition, contribute to the displacement of hate in this world. Speaking as I do from the Anglican Christian tradition I follow one in Jesus whose whole earthly life was a demonstration of pure Love, and the broadest possible understanding of that Love whereby he defined it in terms of the equivalence of love of neighbour for love of self.
When he was asked to clarify 'who is my neighbour' Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan which declared a love without limits! This Samaritan, a traditional enemy of the Jews demonstrates love of the stranger and love of the enemy, an indiscriminate love which doesn't look for qualification or justification. This man who he saved was half dead, stripped naked, and there is no mention of him speaking so there was no way for the Samaritan to know who or what he was beyond the fact that he was a fellow human being and that alone was enough to provoke his loving response.  This is a far cry from the unashamedly racist sentiments of Donald Trump which continue to enjoy the uncritical support of the vast majority so called 'Evangelical Christians' in the US.

However its not just Trump's Christian supporters that need to ask questions of themselves, For any of us who are of a religious disposition this parable brings little comfort for it is the religious and pious, the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side and leave this man for dead. Why? Because they are not driven by what is loving but rather by what is right according to the law, in this case most probably a concern for ritual purity which would be damaged by association with blood or a potentially dead body.

But times have changed - we have moved on and the Church of today will as Jesus did always do the loving thing.
If only! The greatest tragedy of contemporary Christianity (with few exceptions) is that unlike Jesus we do not preach or live a wide and extravagant love as he did - we do not preach or live  a love that challenges convention and the organised religion of the day - we preach and live a love that upholds the Status Quo - a love that is qualified and doctrinally circumscribed, a love which is rooted in the desire to preserve the purity of the institution. We as Church are the priest and the Levite in the parable. This is nowhere more evident than in the bitter division within almost every Christian church and denomination on the subject of human sexuality. Based on anachronistic interpretations of a paucity of scriptural verses we drawn boundaries around who is in and who is out, whose love is genuine and whose love is acceptable to God. Ironically we try to soften this with phrases such as 'hate the sin but not the sinner' or a declaration that we are welcoming to all, but those who do not conform to our terms soon find that there is a limit to the welcome and so a limit to our love.

What extraordinary arrogance on our part! In drawing any limits on Love we are effectively trying to limit and circumscribe God. Love is of God and is the essence of God and as such is unpredictable and beyond our control. Our attempts to do so are futile but also undermine our ability as churches to be transformative in society. Hate will triumph as long as our love is anything less than unreservedly generous and universal.
While we continue to debate who is worthy and who is not we are not just rendered ineffective but we are part of the problem. We are feeding the hate!

There are many within the churches today who complain about the marginalisation of the churches in modern Ireland. Part of this is most certainly the aftermath of the abuse scandals (which were not unique to Roman Catholicism and were a part of the legacy of the Church of Ireland too) but I believe that today a much bigger factor is the blatant hypocrisy of our churches in failing to follow the example and teaching of Jesus. Part of my work involves interacting with young people in our parish school and in Confirmation preparation and I can say I have never seen a generation with a greater sense of integrity and a passion for justice. They can smell hypocrisy a mile off and if the church is to have any future then we need to get our heads around just what unconditional Love means.

So what is my answer to Donald Trump when he says 'Go back to where you came from' - My answer must be and one which I would claim for every living person (who would wish it) on this planet - 'I will go back to the One who created me and loved me into being and nothing you can do or say can make me less beautiful or less precious in the eyes of God.'

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Mothering Sunday Sermon 2019


What is Mothering Sunday about? Is it simply the Church’s version of Mothers Day – Well no – Mothering Sunday was around long before Mother’s Day even though it is difficult to buy a Mothering Sunday card today but the shops are full of Mother’s Day cards. We still do focus on mothers and women in general on this day in the life of the church but strictly speaking as a festival Mothering Sunday  is not primarily about human mothers but rather Mother Church and has evolved into what it is today over a 500 year period.
During the 16th century, people returned to their Mother Church for a service to be held on the 4th Sunday in Lent. This practice was known as: "a-mothering". Subsequently Mothering Sunday became a day when servants were given a day off to visit their mother church with their family.
Children who were in service were also given a day off on that date so they could visit their families and Mother Church. The children would pick wildflowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. And in time the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.
The readings we use in church today reflect the theme of motherhood with the Old Testament reading coming from the book of Exodus -  the story of Moses where his mother lets him go,  not once but twice so that he may survive – first when she puts in the papyrus basket and the second time when she finally relinquishes him to Pharaoh’s daughter who took him as her own son……Loving and letting go are all part of motherhood – And an even greater pain is foretold in the Gospel from St. Luke where Simeon tells Jesus’ mother Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.
And it is appropriate that we use these readings because the idea of Mother Church is of course derived from our human understanding of mothering.
It is also important that we focus on mothering because the Church over the centuries has lost an appreciation of the importance of the feminine in humanity as women were so often written out of history in the patriarchal culture from which we are only just emerging – and we are not there yet!
When I was training for ordination there were some (women included) in the theological college who at the time believed that while they could be ordained they should never be a rector (never mind a bishop) because a woman should not hold a position of authority and should remain a perpetual curate. Today there are still clergy in the church (mostly men) who believe that to be the case.
          I found this totally shocking when I first encountered it having come to ministry training having already completed an undergraduate degree in Theology and Biblical Studies and one of the optional modules I had taken was Feminist Theology in which I was lectured by our now Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. I am still reminded of the occasion in one of her classes when I declared that I had found the feminine within myself! There was a stunned silence in the class before one of my colleagues burst out laughing and the rest of the class soon followed.  Katherine if I recall was however greatly impressed!
Before you write me off as slightly confused, the context of my declaration was a discussion of the scientific reality that we are all a mixture of what we classically distinguish as male and female – for example both Oestregen and Testosterone are present in the bodies of men and of women albeit in different ratios and therefore some men display what are classically seen as female behaviours and vice versa.
          There is though a serious issue which we need to consider as a Church and that is the way in which we have suppressed the feminine elements of our faith. Yes of course Jesus was a man but God is beyond gender and yet we are content to use language of God which only reflects the lived experience of 50% of humanity.
Right up to the Reformation the figure of Mary was hugely visible and revered throughout the Church, East and West and then with the Reformation and the rise of rationalism and literalism which suppressed the symbolic and the artistic representations of Mary and other saints the feminine dimension within the life of the Protestant churches in particular was hugely reduced.
Richard Rohr the contemporary Catholic theologian comments on this and says quite critically that ‘many Catholics divinised Mary …… have a poor theology of Mary but an excellent psychology: Humans like need and trust our mothers to give us gifts, to nurture us, and always to forgive us, which is what we want from God’.
He goes on to give a very concrete example: ‘I once counted eleven images of Mary in a single Catholic church in Texas cowboy country. I see that as a culture trying unconsciously, and often not very successfully to balance itself out. In the same way Mary gives women in the Catholic church a dominant feminine image to counterbalance all the males parading around up front!’
          But even outside of the explicitly religious there are vestiges in our language of an almost forgotten appreciation of the centrality of the feminine in life. The phrase ‘Mother Earth’ reflect the association with the primary role of the female in Creation and yet that has been effectively suppressed or at best ignored. The Hebrew for Spirit is ruach which is a feminine noun. In Genesis 1:2, the verb for hovered takes on the feminine of the noun. So, Genesis 1:2, the beginning of the Creation narrative could be translated, “the Spirit of God she was hovering over the face of the waters…” In other words God’s creative spirit is depicted as feminine from the very beginning.
Little wonder then that the Church in its earlier years and still in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions has such a strong attachment to the figure of Mary who represents the ongoing presence of the feminine in God’s ongoing creative work in the world. Richard Rohr points out that she is present at key moments in the Gospel story and plays a key role in our faith experience ‘From her first yes to the Angel Gabriel, to the birth itself, to her last yes at the foot of the cross, and her full presence at Pentecost where she is the only woman named at the first outpouring of the Spirit……in Mary we see that God must never be forced on us, and God never comes uninvited……In Mary, humanity has said our eternal yes to God….Far too often the feminine has had to work in secret, behind the scenes, indirectly….We see Mary’s subtlety of grace, patience and humility when she quietly says at the wedding feast of Cana, “They have no wine” and then seems totally assured that Jesus will take it from there. …….While Church and culture have often denied the Divine feminine roles, offices and formal authority, the feminine has continued to exercise incredible power at the cosmic and personal levels. Feminine power is deeply relational and symbolic – and thus transformative – in ways that men cannot control or understand. I suspect that is why we fear it so much.’
And so back to Mothering Sunday – how different would Mother Church, the Church look if we embraced a fuller and more balanced vision of Church and recovered the feminine dimension of our faith which is not just about Women’s Ordination but opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s creativity in our world today. God is still at work in our world today and perhaps a wider vision of that presence will help us to be a more authentic and more effective force for good and for change. On this mothering Sunday we give thanks for our experience of mothering and pray for the wisdom to say yes to it in all its fullness and possibility. Amen.

*In Italics extracts from Richard Rohr's 'The Universal Christ - How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe'

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Sermon for St Patrick’s Day 2019 - A response to the massacre in New Zealand Mosques


What does St. Patrick's Day mean to you? Is it about the parades, the green beer and a nice long weekend?  Is it about our Patron Saint and the stories told about him and attributed to him, some of them true perhaps and more of them legends? Is it about the history of Christianity on this Island? Or is it an opportunity to celebrate our Irishness, our culture, our identity and indeed identities plural because it is not so easy to define what it means to be Irish today? 
When I was growing up Irish identity was assumed to be Catholic and Nationalist and we Protestants were a small minority who kept our heads down but now we are part of an increasingly diverse Ireland which is uncomfortable with identifying with any religious tradition and if anything has come to define itself in terms of its plurality and openness to difference. I think this is a good thing but we still have our moments - times when we get sucked back into that them and us way of thinking.
          Like many people on this island I watched with disbelief the shambolic behaviour of the British parliament last week in dealing with the ongoing Brexit issue and I was provoked to post some very negative satirical material on social media which to the neutral observer might be deemed anti British. It is a fine line that is very easy to cross when defending ones own nation becomes an attack on another and I think in hindsight I probably crossed that line - and that is not a good thing. Celebrating or even protecting our own national identity should not necessitate attacking or undermining another! 
          Today we live in a world where a very strident and aggressive nationalism is on the rise and is characterised by demonization of various minority or marginalised groups.  It is a politics of hate and makes no apology for that.
Sadly it was part of the narrative that brought about the result of the Brexit referendum which was fuelled by the politics of fear and hate concerning immigrants and refugees. It is also to be witnessed in the domestic and foreign policy of the United States under their current president who cannot bring himself to condemn Nazi intimidation in his own country and has created an entirely false narrative equating immigrants with terrorism when virtually all such incidents on US soil have been perpetrated by white US indigenous nationals.
          Just a few days ago we saw the outworking of this mindset in the New Zealand massacre by Brenton Tarrant who in his manifesto praised Donald Trump as a 'symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose'.
          If all of this is sounding too political for the pulpit let me assure you this is not about party politics - but the kind of politics that Jesus himself was concerned with - Jesus was probably crucified because of his politics. The Gospel when you take it seriously and try and implement it in the world is a very political instrument.
          So how do we respond as Church to this? - Many people have said that 'Thoughts and Prayers' are not enough and that we need to be proactive - not just salving the wounds but addressing the very roots of the problem. One response to the New Zealand massacre published in the Guardian was an article by Masuma Rahim who said this:
........it’s not just Muslims who are losing their lives at the hands of far-right nationalism. It’s Jews and Sikhs and black people. Because when fascism comes to call, it usually doesn’t care what shade of “different” you are. All it knows is that you are different, and it does not like you for it.
My fury and my pain is not lessened when a Jewish person is killed, or when a Hindu person is killed. We share a common humanity and that is sufficient for us to feel rage and pain. ............ It’s time to make a stand. Defend our rights......... Use your position to send a clear message that hatred has no place in society. .......Too many have died. More will die if you fail to act. History will judge you for it.
I want to pick up on one of the phrases that Masuma Rahim used and that was 'common humanity' which straight away resonated with me as I am currently reading a wonderful book which is all about embracing a more generous worldview and faith that focuses on those things that unite us rather than divide us as peoples and nations. In this book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr makes the comment that 'Frankly, Jesus came to show us how to be human much more than how to be spiritual, and the process still seems to be in its early stages'.
Well that is certainly an understatement - we have a lot of work to do on our humanity when these atrocities can be committed in our name and in the name of faith and we must do all in our power to stop the Gospel ever being used to condone, hatred, exclusion and persecution.
In this same book Richard Rohr identifies some specific issues with the way that Christianity has evolved which is at best not helpful in the current crisis and at worst may actually fan the flames of hatred. Much of these failings are truths that we have forgotten but which were part of our faith tradition from the very beginning.
He calls for a recovery of an 'incarnational worldview' which is 'the profound recognition of the presence of the divine in literally everything and every one'.
'Without a sense of the inherent sacredness of the world....we struggle to see God in our own reality, let alone respect reality, protect it or love it. The consequences of this ignorance are all around us, seen in the way we have exploited and damaged our fellow human beings, the dear animals, the web of growing things, the land, the waters and the very air.'
 He also points out that we have narrowed the remit of the Gospel and ignored some key Scriptures such as  the prologue of St John's Gospel which makes it clear that Christ has existed from the beginning of history - Christ as he puts it is not Jesus last name:
 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ............... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,  full of grace and truth.
And yet despite this proclamation of the universal nature of the Incarnation our faith became a competitive theology with various parochial theories of salvation instead of a universal cosmology inside of which all can live with an inherent dignity......As a rule we were more interested in the superiority of our own tribe, group or nation than we were in the wholeness of creation.
This is where it gets uncomfortable because this is exactly the theology which feeds and legitimises the kind of tribal zenophobic nationalism that is so destructive in our world today and it is not authentic Christianity.
Rather says Rohr: 'Authentic God experience always expands your seeing and never constricts it....In God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more. The more you transcend your small ego, the more you can include. And Jesus says: 'Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it does it will bear much fruit.'
I said earlier that much of our failings are about truths we have forgotten - If proof were needed just listen to the words of this extract from the Breastplate, attributed to St. Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord
.

In a world scarred by fear and hatred, distrust and disillusionment let us embrace and proclaim, as did St. Patrick  a more generous Christ who alone can reconcile and heal our brokenness.  Amen.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Sermon for Sunday 20th January 2019 - 2nd Sunday after Epiphany


Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mother, "Why is the bride dressed in white?" "Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life," her mother tried to explain, keeping it simple. The child thought about this for a moment, then said, "So why's the groom wearing black?"

The groom in today’s Gospel reading John 2:1-11)  may not have been wearing black but he was probably having a dark moment when the wine ran out at his own wedding but thanks to Jesus all is well and the celebrations continue and he even gets the credit for saving the best wine till last!  Shaky start or not it all ends on a happy note when a scarcity becomes an abundance.
And this is not just a story about Jesus performing what some would describe as magic trick – No, the text tells us that this is a sign, the first of his signs which revealed his glory and brought people to faith in him.

And its not an isolated incident either – it is in fact reflective of the generosity and mercy of God in providing for us in our times of need.
The Old Testament reading  from Isaiah (62:1-5) is very similar in its structure – It begins in the wake of pain and shattered dreams in the wake of the Babylonian Exile and the return to the site of destruction that was Jerusalem – In the midst of acknowledging this pain the Prophet promises a new reality, a new hope on the horizon:
The nations shall see your vindication,
   and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
   that the mouth of the Lord will give. 

And then in language that is echoed in the Gospel reading we hear this description of the new relationship between God and his people:
For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder* marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you.

And just like the Gospel where scarcity becomes abundance we hear these words:

   All mortal flesh shall take refuge
      under the shadow of your wings.
  They shall be satisfied with the abundance of your house; •
   they shall drink from the river of your delights.

This is a God who is present in the lows as well as the highs of life – This is a God who reminds his people that he is with them and has not abandoned them.

And how is God present to us – well one of the ways is in the gifts that we have been given. Today’s Epistle (1 Cor 12:1-11) deals with just that in the context of the Corinthian Church where there had been some tension between the members over rivalry as to who had the best gifts.
Paul says this:  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Very clearly he is saying that these gifts are not about feeding our own egos but building up the Church, the body of Christ. These gifts are complementary and not to be seen as a hierarchy of gifts but given individually to the members for the sake of the whole – and everybody has got one – nobody is left out – the abundance of gifts belong to all and so the generosity and Grace of God is experienced in community primarily.
Being a follower of Jesus is not about solo runs!

We need the gifts of our sisters and brothers in Christ to thrive both individually and as community, as Church. And that is especially important when things go wrong, sometimes when things go terribly and horribly wrong – that we are not alone – that God has called us both individually but also as a people to follow him.

And so back to that Gospel and as we have already noted it is about the generosity of God’s provision for his people but in this case the abundance of that generosity is quite extraordinary. 6 * 20 or 30 gallon water jars filled with wine amounts to as much as 1000 bottles of wine!!  That is totally over the top – there must have been some very sore heads in Cana of Galilee after that wedding.
But in saying that, God’s love for us and his provision for us is way over the top – more than we can ever earn or fully appreciate. Some of the best attempts at expressing it have been in some of the great hymns of our tradition such as Amazing Grace – the title says it all and How Great thou art which opens with the line: O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder!

But its not only about the extent of God’s Grace – it is also about its eternal quality – it doesn’t come to an end – there is always more – there is always grounds for hope and for renewal.  After the miracle at Cana the steward comes to the bridegroom and says:
‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’

We are called to be a people who never give up hoping – who never stop expecting that God is going to do something wonderful in our lives  - it is not a life without hurt and pain – there will be valleys as well as mountain tops but that does not need to undermine our capacity to experience God’s presence throughout some of the most difficult patches of our lives.


I personally find great hope and inspiration in the writing of a Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner who wrote what is almost universally recognised as the greatest book on living with grief in modern times. It is called ‘When bad things happen to good people’, written in response to the death of his young son from a rare illness, and this passage is I think especially relevant:
QUOTE:

It is that reality that gives me hope – it is that reality that has helped me through the darker times in my life – God for me isn’t a God who comes to the rescue when it all falls apart but God is there too when it is falling apart and as long as I or we or you can discern that presence there is a tomorrow and there is the possibility to begin again, to hope again. The best wine is yet to be served.

Last Tuesday was Martin Luther King Day and I can think of no better words than his to speak of that Hope – These were his last words delivered in a sermon in Mason Temple Church in Memphis Tennessee on the eve of his assassination:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead.
But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Amen.



Friday, 9 November 2018

Celebrating a bigger vision of being Irish






 I attended an event today that moved me deeply and filled me with a sense of gratitude that I live in a country which is able to embrace an ever increasing diversity of understanding of what it is to be Irish.
The event was a World War 1 Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice and it took place in the Salesian College in Celbridge and was organised by the staff and students of the college under the leadership of Kieran McManamon.
The centre piece of the event was the unveiling of a memorial stone in a newly set aside memorial garden to all those from the Celbridge area, regardless of religious affiliation who died during the 1st World War. Wreaths were laid by members of the Irish Army and Airforce and a senior British Army officer who was representing the British Ambassador. Also present was the Deputy Head of Mission of the Belgian Embassy and a representative of the French embassy, who along with a representative of the Royal British Legion and students from the school  also laid wreaths. Following this a service took place in the School Gymnasium. This was led by Fr Seamus Madigan (Head Chaplain of the Irish Defence Forces).
The service was beautifully put together and included some of the most famous war poetry which was inspired by the 1st World War. The names of all those on the memorial were read out along with their regiments and also a list of others who while not from Celbridge were associated in any way with the staff and students of the school. I was very moved that my own Great Grand Father, Charles Arthur Cox  who died in the final weeks of the war was included in the list. I never knew him of course but found myself tearing up at his name being celebrated 100 years later in a context and setting he could never have dreamed were possible. (The account of his death is included below).*
The music which accompanied the commemoration was also very moving and included pieces by both staff and students including a haunting rendition by two of the teachers of ‘Christmas 1915’ which tells the story of the Christmas Day football match between the English and German trenches where for a brief interval amongst all the carnage there was peace, albeit short lived.
The service ended with the National Anthem and I can honestly say I have never been so proud of my country as I was today – We have come a long way and it is only right that we finally acknowledge our debt to those who gave their tomorrow for our today.


*Charles Arthur Cox, Royal Engineers, Scottish Regiment.
He died only weeks before the end of the war and is referred to in the official account below as Spr Cox:
During the night of 12/13 October 1918, 416th Field Company completed a floating bridge across the Sensée Canal, which allowed two companies of 1/2nd Londons to cross. At 05.15 one of these companies attacked under a covering barrage and surprised Aubigny-au-Bac, taking many German prisoners but the Germans counter-attacked the following morning, and the companies were withdrawn at dusk. That night a fresh patrol went across the footbridge, despite the Germans being within hand grenade range. The bridge broke, and Cpl James McPhie and Spr Cox, of 416th Fd Co jumped into the water to hold it together. McPhie and his men then set about repairing the bridge after daybreak, while under fire. McPhie and Cox were both mortally wounded, but the bridge held and the bridgehead was maintained until after 56th Division had been relieved by 4th Canadian Division on 14 October. Corporal McPhie was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The division then participated in the Battle of the Sambre and finally the Passage of the Grande Honnelle, before the war was ended by the Armistice with Germany.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Sermon for Sunday 7th October 2018 - The Church after Me Too?


It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’…. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’
These verses and the rest of the passage from Genesis from which they are taken are foundational to the Judaeo-Christian tradition but are also among the most controversial and dangerous passages in Scripture!
I am sure there are some of you in this church today who wince at the implication of this passage. Reading it through 21st century eyes it does appear to suggest that women are derivative of and so lesser than men. It seems to be all about the man and when re read that passage we bring our own context to it.
And that context is one that has changed radically over 2000 years and indeed at an accelerated rate over the last couple of years with the rise of the ‘Me Too’ movement which has created space for women to name the casual and repetitive abuse inflicted on women by men in what is still a very patriarchal society and world. 
That is all too obvious when you listen to the vitriol directed at Dr Christine Blasey Ford by those who refuse to take seriously the issue of sexual abuse in the context of the current Supreme Court appointment procedure in the US – Whether Judge Kavanaugh is guilty or not, the treatment of Dr Ford in some circles shows a deep seated misogyny in the highest echelons of political life
There are so many ways in which we consciously or unconsciously denigrate women – Its not just about sexual harassment & assault in the work place or even rape but also the continuing objectification of women in media and in the extreme form in the world of increasingly pervasive pornography where our young people are learning about sexuality in a very distorted and unrealistic context where women especially are subject to being treated as mere commodities.
And then there is that often hidden world of domestic violence which in my ministry I have had my eyes opened to on more occasions than I could have ever imagined.
And finally look at the levels of fatal violence towards women by men – this past summer especially within the greater Dublin area has been exceptionally grim in that respect.

All of these abuses from the mildest to the most extreme spring from the one source and that is the denigration of the status of women – making them lesser persons and at its extreme non-persons.
That is not the Christian teaching and nor is it the way of Jesus who again and again defied the culture of the day in treating women as equals. He was never afraid to converse with women – he spoke to women with tenderness and respect and on occasion he was not beyond chastising his disciples while acknowledging the wisdom and faith of women over and above his male disciples.
Remember the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet from Luke 7:
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. 
Clearly Jesus did not consider women inferior and yet the Church has through its history often treated women exceptionally badly and in some cases still does. And it could be argued that that passage from Genesis is part of the reason and part of the problem.
It is also an obstacle for some people – women and men – in coming to faith and so it a passage we need to look at and take ownership of. 
We can’t just read this passage on a Sunday morning and say nothing about it – I have done so previously but things have changed and once you become aware of a problem you can’t ignore it!
If someone who has perhaps been in an abusive relationship or been experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace came into our church today (maybe such a person is here) and hears that passage – what do they hear? Do they find comfort or is it rubbing salt in their open wounds?
Those are the kind of questions we have to ask and the questions that arise when we treat a text that was written likely 2600 years ago during the Babylonian exile as contemporary social science and history.
Genesis is both poetic and full of rich symbolism and meaning but we ironically textually abuse it when we read it as a contemporary text.
The first question we must ask ourselves is what is the context and the answer is Creation and the interrelationships of the various members of Creation with one another and God, so it fundamentally not about power but about relationship. The only power involved is in God’s hands. God saw all that he had made and it was very good.
The Jesuit scholar Dennis Hamm who is emphatic that this passage is not about the hierarchy of men over women says this:

Please attend to the plot of the story! The other creatures were not enough for the Human - Adam needs an equal, a real companion made of the same stuff…..
This is a story about how men and women were made for each other, not about who's got the power. The rib business is also a way of celebrating how the marital union—becoming ‘one flesh’—is a kind of recovery of a union that was meant to be from the beginning of humanity's creation.


We are so literalist and simplistic in our reading of Scripture that we miss the richness of the figurative and symbolic language of Genesis that was never meant to be read literally and we impoverish ourselves and distort our faith when we do so.
Considering the position that Jesus took in his relationships and meetings with women of all backgrounds this seems to me a better way to read this difficult scripture and one which might help us to reclaim the real tradition of our faith.
A tradition which is not about the power struggle between women and men but rather mutual need and mutual dependence where both can flourish and grow.
          If we accept that women and men are truly equal in God’s eyes and that both together express the fullness of humanity then not only is the abuse of women blasphemous but it is also undermining of the dignity of men as it is of woman. Every one of us here, male or female was nurtured in our mother’s womb and an essential part of our humanity comes from that early and formative experience of pure love, the first relationship of our human lives.
          So back to Genesis – These are our Scriptures, they are our story and we are responsible for the way in which they are presented to the world – When they become an excuse for the oppression of any group within humanity and we do nothing then we too are tainted with that distortion.
I will finish with an extract from the Christian Aid Report: ‘Of the same flesh: Exploring a theology of Gender’ (2014)
It said this:
‘Christians believe that our being made ‘male and female’ is a gift of God, and should be experienced as joy for humankind. When gender becomes a weapon of oppression then something is badly wrong.’
Something is badly wrong and we are part of the solution.
Amen.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

GAFCON 2018 - NO LOVE! - NO REALLY NO 'LOVE'!

I’ve just been re-reading the final statement from GAFCON 2018 ‘Letter to the Churches’ and something occurred to me - There is no love in it - and by that I mean that in a document which extends to 8 A4 pages and 2,782 words including the glossary there is not one single instance of the word ‘LOVE’ in it!
To be sure I wasn’t mistaken I downloaded the letter into my word processor and searched for ‘love’ and the message came back ‘word not found’. There is of course predictably plenty of ‘sin’, ‘hell’, ‘judgement’ and frequent references to ‘sex’ ‘sexuality’ homosexuality’ etc. In short lots of sex but no love!
That said I cannot even begin to comprehend how any organization that claims to be rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ can produce such a comprehensive and lengthy rallying call to the churches and fail to mention LOVE! I will not insult any who read this as to why this is not just a fundamental omission but is in fact indicative of a movement that has set aside the heart of the Gospel and threatens to undermine the witness of Anglican Christianity which has always based its breadth and generosity on that of Jesus Christ rooted in God’s Love.
With Saint Paul surely any affirmation and call to faith must be explicitly about LOVE.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal 1 Cor:13:1


Thursday, 25 January 2018

Good Friday Alcohol Ban Lifted - A Good Decision

I welcome the decision to rescind the Good Friday licensing laws. As a priest of the Church of Ireland I am convinced that no religion should have its devotional practices enshrined in secular law! I am all for the protection of freedom to practice a particular faith, but not to the extent that sanction is imposed on those of other dispositions. I think in time this judgment will come to be seen as a positive step both for people of religious affiliation and society at large. We are not children and as mature citizens we do not need the State telling us we can't have a drink in a pub on Good Friday.

Many including myself will aim to abstain from alcohol during this Lent, but that is my decision and it is none of my business if others prefer to do otherwise.  Those for whom this observance is important might find it all the more meaningful when it is a matter of choice not law, and calls on them to witness in the face of the prevailing culture. After all Jesus was counter-cultural so why do we Christians want our faith assimilated into the secular order?

In the context of this issue many people have repeatedly raised very valid concerns about the centrality of alcohol in Irish life and its particular association with sport. Others have pointed out that Good Friday is one of the few days in the year when pub owners and staff are guaranteed a day off with their families.
These are valid concerns but we should not use Good Friday as a flag of convenience to deal with them. If we are going to deal with the Nation’s alcoholism lets be honest and open about it and not use religion as a Trojan Horse. To do so belittles both religious faith and our democracy.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Abortion debate - Ongoing thoughts and why I support 'Repeal the 8th'


I am a husband, a father and a Pro-Choice clergyman of the Church of Ireland – I say that without qualification or exception. When it comes to the subject of abortion I am unambiguously supportive of a Woman’s right to choose. It wasn’t always this way! This has been a journey for me and it is only in recent years that I would so describe myself. For most of my life I would have considered my position fairly middle of the road. I had a fairly restrictive view on the right to choose and would only have seen it as an option in the case of rape, unviable pregnancy or a threat to the life or health of the mother.

But I have moved and while I have no regrets it is not always an easy place to be. To declare yourself ‘pro-choice’ is in the eyes of some to self-identify as a heartless baby-killer who has no regard for the life of the unborn. This could not be farther from the truth but there are some who stop listening as soon as they hear the phrase ‘pro-choice’ and issue their summary judgement and sadly very often accompany it with a large dose of personal invective.

I imagine that the people I want to talk to have already tuned out but on the off chance let me say a little about what it means for me to declare myself ‘pro-choice’.

I don’t like negative declarations of identity but sometimes it is important to say what you are against as well as what you stand for, so let me start with the negatives:

I am not in favour of abortion on demand

I am not in favour of abortion as a form of contraception

I am not in favour of abortion as a form of genetic selection (This is particularly personal to me as the parent of a young adult with special needs who some might have opted not to carry full term if they had known the likely outcome of the pregnancy)

And now to the positives:

I am in favour of prioritising the life of a mother over and above that of a fetus that has the potential to become a living breathing human being but has not and may not achieve that potential. (I do not therefore believe in the equal right of the fetus and the mother to life). Part of being a human is making difficult choices and this is I believe one of those choices that has to be made. To refuse to make such choices is a denial of the complexity of life.

I believe that if I am to take seriously the priority of the life of the mother I must take into account all the circumstances of her life and to respect the decision she makes as to the continuance or the termination of a pregnancy.

I believe that as a man I am genetically limited in the judgement I can make as to how any woman should respond to an unwanted pregnancy. I can only speculate as to how different this debate might be if we men had to undergo the experience of pregnancy and childbirth

I believe that the doctor patient relationship is paramount and that there are too many amateurs including churchmen like myself interfering in a domain where we do not have competence

I believe that there is a basic dishonesty at the heart of the abortion debate in that we already have abortion in Ireland but we choose to export women on a lonely and dangerous journey so that we can maintain our ‘righteousness’

I believe as a Christian (and I know that here I am probably loosing some of you) that a woman’s role in childbearing and childbirth is a co-creative role and that her yes matters – The Virgin Mary herself said yes to the child that was within her but what if she had said no? If her assent was truly voluntary then she could surely have said no but she chose otherwise – but she still chose!
The choice of a woman to host a pregnancy is not in my opinion a once off event but a continuing process in which her assent is required at every stage – Anything less defines a woman as a mere vessel and that it seems to me is abusive of the integrity of her humanity.

I believe that I have to fundamentally trust women with the integrity of their own bodies and to respect their judgement even when I may be uncomfortable with the outcome. Anything less than this absolute trust is enslaving of their basic humanity and integrity and ultimately undermines mine as a child of a woman who chose to say 'yes'.

That is why despite the fact that I am not ‘pro-abortion’ I am unashamedly ‘pro-choice’ – It is not about me, but the women who have to deal with all the pain, joy and complexity of pregnancy and childbirth – They are the beginning and the end of this issue and their choice must be respected and supported.


Sunday, 22 October 2017

Sermon for Sunday 22nd October 2017 - God's Provision Not Direct Provision!

Sermon 2 for Sunday 22nd October 2017
"My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" - Our Lesson reading from Exodus Chapter 33 this morning - The Lord is speaking to Moses and reassuring him of his ongoing commitment to his people who are wandering refugees in that in between place where there is no sense of home or security or safety.
          I wasn't actually going to preach on the Old Testament today but something happened to me yesterday that changed all that.  I wasn't expecting it - but it happened and it rendered what I had prepared to say today completely superficial and shallow and I had no choice but to start again.
          I was attending a conference called RUBICON (click here for more info) organised by the Rector of Rathmines and Harolds Cross Rob Jones and Greg Fromholtz who is the coordinator of our diocesan young adults ministry. The venue was The Sugar Club on Leeson Street.  It was a very varied and stimulating programme which featured among other things a panel discussion on the Refugee Crisis and Direct Provision in Ireland - Among the contributors to the panel were representatives of Oxfam, Christian Aid,  Jesuit Refugee services and the Department of Justice.
However, and with no disrespect to the other panellists the most moving and powerful contribution came from Thiru Guru a refugee from Sri Lanka who shared his heartbreaking story with us both in a compelling narrative and also in poetry which quite honestly reduced many of us (myself included) to tears. The most tragic part of his story was that his pain didn't end when he got to our shores but that it had only begun as he got sucked into the inhumane and soul-destroying reality of Direct Provision which robs people of any sense of purpose and their lives of any meaning. He talked of a barbaric regime where supervisors in these centres told the refugees that they were lucky to have shelter and food and met dissent with a transfer to another centre where they knew nobody and had to begin again. He could not work - he could not choose or cook his own food - he had no space that was his own
- he was in a room with a Christian, a Hindu, a Bhuddist and a Muslim and no account was taken of their various religious needs  and he was still dealing with grief and trauma that he had experienced before he arrived in Ireland. He was a professional - a prominent journalist and as the years went by and forbidden to work his skills declined and he could no longer even spell properly. In a poem which he had written himself he talked about himself as a bird that had forgotten how to fly. Direct Provision had robbed him of who he was and what he could contribute to our world.
          And it wasn't just him - he talked of the men he shared a room with year after year and how they were good men who wanted the best for their families but as time went on they changed - they were changed by the hell that they were living in and became bad men - fighting, turning to drugs and crime - their lives destroyed - no going back. 
          In the same panel discussion the representative from the Dept of Justice who seemed to be a genuinely good person trying to do the right thing (against all odds) still introduced herself with the disclaimer that she had no role in making the policy on Direct provision - She knew that we have created a system of cruel and continuing dehumanisation and we all share responsibility as citizens of this state. There is no future in the blame game - It is time to put an end to this barbaric policy.
          Many have said it and after yesterday I am convinced that it is true  that Direct Provision will be seen by generations to come as the Magdalene Laundries of our time, and maybe even worse. It is hard to convey just how horrific Thiru Guru's account was - but out of all the hurt that we as a nation had added to he was able to respond with the most beautiful and yet heartbreaking poetry in which he spoke of his sense of loss and bereavement which was to our shame only added to by his experience in this land of ours.
Later on in the day we listened to an inteview with Ellie Kisyombe, an incredibly passionate and engaging young woman who is an activist and the founder of Our Table, a community-driven, non-profit project aiming to highlight the need to end Direct Provision in Ireland.  Their goal is to facilitate change through conversation over food. Their pop-up café in Temple Bar is a first step towards a permanent Our Table restaurant. It provides paid employment, training and links to future employment for people previously in Direct Provision, as well as information for those still living within the system.  Elie is a refugee from Malawi where her family were involved in politics at the highest level and was forced to flee when her father and uncle were assassinated.
She became an activist and by her own admission was full of anger but somehow managed to change this into a force for good despite the additional abuse of living for almost a decade in direct provision. She is determined to build a successful business on this island and I believe that she will succeed but  she also points out that if our current Taoiseach's father was treated as badly as she has been by our nation then it is unlikely that Leo Varadaker would be our Taoiseach - It was not a party political statement but rather an observation as to how we welcome the stranger in our midst. Ireland of the welcomes it seems is a dim and distant memory and that should matter to us as Church who follow one who welcomed all to himself.
These Refugees are the modern day children of Israel - of all faiths and none but from our perspective surely all children of God. We are called to be more than spectators in this - We are called to be present to these people in real and genuine acts of welcome so that they too can experience God's care and protection and make those words of our lord to Moses a present reality:
"My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest"
The current Refugee Crisis is the greatest challenge our church and our country  faces in the present age. Our Lord himself was incarnate in this world as a refugee - If we cannot respond in a meaningful way to the current refugee situation in our world then we may very well forfeit the right to call ourselves Christian - It doesn't get any more serious than that! That is where we are today - how will we respond?




Saturday, 29 April 2017

The National Maternity Hospital controversy

The current controversy surrounding the new National Maternity Hospital bewilders me. There is no denying that the current facilities at Holles Street are severely compromised by a site and a building that is not fit for purpose. The argument for co-location is utterly compelling and makes complete sense in terms of a vision for holistic care for women and babies at a critical and vulnerable time in terms of their health and wellbeing. On first appraisal the site at St. Vincents seems to be a great fit and added to that the provision of a site at no cost to the taxpayer is a hard offer to reject but reject it we must!

For me this is not about clerical abuse reparation or the perceived potential for the Sisters of Charity to gain financially from ownership of the proposed new hospital. Despite all the widely acknowledged abuse that took place in ecclesiastical communities and institutions (including my own Church of Ireland) I do believe that this country owes a huge debt to the religious who provided hospital care and health provision at a time when the State was not equipped to do so. It is all too easy to focus on the horror stories and ignore the vast majority of cases where the religious provided exceptional and exemplary care.

However times change and that is especially the case in terms of maternity care and services. I have no difficulty with the notion of a Catholic maternity hospital which provides services in accordance with Catholic moral teaching or indeed a hospital under Protestant governance which does likewise but when it comes to the 'National Maternity Hospital' then it is surely reasonable to expect that such a hospital would not be subject to the specific and by their very nature exclusive requirements of any one religious or sectional interest group.
We have had numerous assurances that regardless of ownership and membership of the board of the new hospital, the Sisters of Charity will not stand in the way of practices that are in direct contravention of Catholic moral teaching such as IVF and sterilisation. As to the future prospect of legalised abortion there is no explicit assurance but it is surely totally fanciful to expect a Catholic hospital to allow such procedures to take place on its campus. As others have already noted it would be a world's first were it to happen!

The reason we and all those involved must reject this proposal is about integrity, and integrity matters! The State cannot with integrity hand over  a new 'National Maternity Hospital' to a body that cannot possibly with any integrity sign off on the provision of services that are in direct contradiction with its own absolute ethical rules (not guidelines but rules) but are simultaneously legal in the State.

Similarly the Catholic Church should not be expected to compromise on its core teachings, even with the noble intention of providing a much needed co-located facility for women and babies. With the best will in the world it is a bad fit and the likelihood is that it will only become more difficult with the almost inevitable increased legalisation of abortion which a 'National Maternity Hospital' will and should provide regardless of religious opinion. If the Catholic Church is to maintain its absolute opposition to abortion then it can surely have no association (no matter how tenuous) with a facility which provides such services.

We need a new National Maternity Hospital but this current proposal is beyond rescuing or rehabilitation - Time to move on!

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Patrick's Day Sermon - Thoughts on Anger and Injustice in the wake of Tuam

Sermon for St. Patrick's Day 2017 - Christ Church Celbridge

We are a strange and mixed up people! A land from which so many great Christian missionaries set forth to spread the Good News - a land whose patron Saint Patrick we celebrate today, and who is the most popular Saint on the planet and who is the reason for all the festivities around St. Patrick's Day which have made it increasingly a worldwide event.

We are also a people in whose history and heritage the Christian faith
is interwoven to the point that it is inseparable and indistinguishable from that history and heritage. It is part of who we are, the fabric of our being,  and even those who do not share that faith today have been shaped and formed by its influence through the ages.

And yet despite all of that (and especially here in the Republic) we are becoming a people who despise that faith and the Church which proclaimed it. It has come to a head in recent weeks with the horror of the Tuam revelations but it has only been a catalyst for a process that was already well underway.

Speaking on the announcement of the Commission of Investigation on the Tuam Mother and Baby Home last week one of our own local TDs in Kildare, Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats launched a wide ranging and scathing attack on the role of the Church in Irish society and said among other things that "we have got to take the Church from our schools, from our hospitals and medical care and from our politics.....
......These are relics of a bygone era and if Tuam has shown us anything it is this – the State must take responsibility for its citizens and the Church has no legitimacy in the healthcare or education of those citizens.”

I think this was an appalling attack, laden with lazy generalisations on a whole swathe of people including priests, nuns, religious orders and members of the majority church and indeed by implication all the churches on this island who with rare exception are working faithfully and with integrity in a multitude of areas providing compassionate and generous service to society. In many if not most cases they are subsidising, supporting and filling the gaps in provision by State services which are stretched to breaking-point and beyond!

There is no doubt that there is an increasing hostility towards
religious involvement in public life and it is also clear that it is
the Roman Catholic Church that is bearing the brunt of this but as Brothers and Sisters in Christ this is about us as well. As sisters and brothers in Christ their pain is our pain.

I can only speak from my own experience but as one who attended a variety of schools of every denomination my happiest experience was in the co-ed Roman Catholic convent in Mayo (yes such things exist) where I had the privilege of being educated by a beautiful body of religious women
whose sense of vocation and care for their students was palpable and
which left a deep and lasting impression on me. They supported me in
my vocation and when I was ordained they filled a pew in Christ Church Cathedral. 
I think too of another community of  nuns in North Tipperary who governed the special needs school my son attended and who when he was at death's door thousands of miles from home kept vigil in prayer and kept a candle lit on their altar until the word came that he was going to make it against all odds.
They were and are good people who do not deserve to be written off and they and their whole life's work described as 'relics of a bygone era'.

I could equally say the same of my current colleagues in the Roman
Catholic priesthood in this parish and indeed in my previous parishes
who are among some of the most dedicated and generous Christian people I know. They work tirelessly for and on behalf of the whole community and if they were to withdraw overnight as our local representative seems to be suggesting it would leave a void that no government could fill.

None of this is to deny the terrible things that happened in Tuam and
other places, some of them under Protestant management lest we get too comfortable. There is though a real danger that we blame the Church and the churches for all ills (and yes the churches including our own have really difficult questions to answer) but let us not fail to acknowledge that the Church of times past did not exist in a vacuum but was part of a wider society which also contained a certain amount of systemic cruelty which we would not tolerate today but is part of our heritage. When we pin it all on the institution of the Church we are perhaps subconsciously depersonalising it, letting ourselves off the hook and creating a distance between us and those terrible events.

        There is a lot of hurt, pain and anger being expressed at the moment but there is also a need for healing and that is our vocation as Church. It is not easy but we need to hang in there even when we are despised - That was after all the example of our Lord and that was the message of the Gospel that St Patrick brought to these shores - he too persevered against all kinds of obstacles and like us was part of a Church that is not perfect but yet I believe still has a positive contribution to make in the lives of all the people on this Island. 
May we be a Church that lives up to the example of St Patrick and may we together serve our Lord in ways that bring healing and hope to Creation.

Amen.

Note: I think it is important for me to acknowledge that in mentioning Catherine Murphy TD in this sermon to also acknowledge that she was not the only one to lash out at the churches in such an indiscriminate manner but her words were particularly strong and to my mind unjust. 
Perhaps they were spoken in anger and I can certainly identify with that - When the clerical sex abuse scandals began to break some years ago I responded very publicly in anger and said some very intemperate and unfair things about my fellow priests and religious in the Roman Catholic Church - so much so that I felt compelled to make a formal retraction in the local paper because I had caused real hurt to really good people - There is a real danger when we respond to such devastating events (and none more so than when children are involved) that we undermine the very people who may be a part of the healing process - All of us in all the churches are deeply aware that there are some who committed vile acts under the veil of trust but what hope is there if those terrible sins of the past condemn for evermore those who seek to minister God's love to the world today? 
Gone are the days (and thankfully so) when the Church and the State were so closely intertwined that this country was almost a theocracy but perhaps a Church, more humble and with less authority can actually be an effective agent of healing and transformation for at least some of those who are hurting in our world today.