Tuesday 7 November 2006

The rights of children - Whose responsibility?

The proposed constitutional referendum on the rights of children is, as the government has been at pains to point out, not one that should cause division along party political lines. The great majority of right-thinking people will surely have no difficulty in making the constitutional protections for our children more explicit. The real danger that faces this proposed amendment is that it will be too narrow and therefore limited in its impact. There is already not insignificant provision for the rights of children in the Constitution. Article 42.5 states: “In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.”

The only proposed wording for an amendment so far comes from Barnardos, the children’s charity. While it strengthens the existing provision and adds another article which makes the rights of children “paramount” it is still not the substantive change that is required. It will be helpful in prosecuting cases of child abuse and in family law disputes it will give further and much needed protection to children caught in the middle of bitter disputes. This is good news but if it is truly to be a referendum on the rights of all our children then it has to go further and be a lot broader in its remit.

One of the early attacks on this proposed amendment came from John Waters in his Irish Times column (6th November), where he articulated the view that it will facilitate a “transfer of parenting rights from parents to the State”. I do not support his conclusion but I think he is right to draw our attention back to the role of parents in protecting the rights of children. No matter how big the budget, how plentiful the resources or how imaginative the legislation that might be based on any proposed constitutional amendment, the State cannot possibly be ‘parent’ to all the children whose rights are currently being denied. This is not just about the 5,000 children currently in the care of the HSE but about thousands of other children who are neglected by parents who for various reasons have neither the time nor the ability to properly parent their children.

Sadly we only become aware of this issue when it spills out onto the streets and affects our lives as well. An increasingly common manifestation is the senseless vandalism and violence committed by gangs of minors who roam our streets at all hours and in all weathers, and seem to have no respect for other people or their property. They are aware that there is little sanction that can be used against them, particularly when their parents in so many cases deny all responsibility for their children and their actions. This is the gaping hole in the Constitution that does need to be addressed. No parent, whatever the circumstances, should be able to deny that basic responsibility towards their own offspring, and with it a legal accountability for the actions of their children.

But even that is not enough! We also need to ask ourselves why things are the way they are? Why are so many parents failing to parent their children? Why do so many children want to do damage to their neighbours and their neighbourhood? Is it too much of a leap of faith to assume there is a connection? Of some comfort may be the fact that Ireland is not alone in dealing with these issues. Very similar things are happening in other countries but not all countries.

It is almost a cliché now but Ireland has experienced economic growth of a scale and in a timescale unparalleled throughout the world. Only last week the Lotto had to be raised to a guaranteed minimum of Two Million Euro, because One Million is no longer enough! Such has been the rate of change that our value systems are struggling to keep up with our new opportunities and choices. We have largely marginalised the Church and the family is increasingly seen as a curtailment to the freedom and individualism to which we aspire and which society tells us we deserve. In their place we have placed the Gospel of Prosperity which has nothing to offer to those who fall off the consumer express. Where we do show interest in the needs of our children it is more often in terms of the latest computer console or designer clothes. Even in the area of education we are more interested in school league tables which say more about our status-anxiety than the real needs of our children. We live our lives on credit, refusing to accept the inconvenience of waiting for our little luxuries and we worship shallow celebrity while mocking those who forsake material reward for moral integrity. These are the values that we are giving to our children!

Maybe we should be asking another question: Are the children who smash our windows and beat up strangers not merely the product of our own moral and spiritual poverty? Its easy to blame others but we all have a responsibility in building society and community. If the rights of all our children are to be protected then all of us need to ask some serious questions of ourselves. The Constitution is a good place to start but it is only a part of a much bigger picture. Let us hope we have the vision and the courage to do what needs to be done.

Saturday 4 November 2006

Who said we have a choice?

Sermon for Sunday 5th November 2006
Readings: Ruth 1:1-18 & Mark 12:28-34

‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

These most profound words uttered by our Lord come out of a quite mundane situation. Jesus is engaging in the banter and dispute so popular in the Jewish religious tradition. They love throwing six-marker questions and trick questions at each other! It is theological debate in its most raw form – almost like the kind of theology and philosophy that some people discuss over a cup of coffee or over a pint of the black stuff….and yet…in this ordinary setting comes the most profound ‘Summary of the Law’ which to this day is the center of what we Christians are about: Love of God and Love of neighbour.
It sounds quite simple – just two basic principles to remember and we should be pretty good Christians, but of course in practice its not quite that simple.

This tradition of banter and trick questions is still alive in the Jewish tradition and a story is told of a rabbi who asked his class of students: "Which act of charity is higher--giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?"
All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing is logical. They were not disappointed.
"Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing," the rabbi said, "It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.
"Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves satisfying our own desire to help others.
"However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another--perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity--then we are confronting our own basic instincts, and giving nonetheless. Why? Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives.
( Source: David A. Cooper, Entering the Sacred Mountain: A Mystical Odyssey, Bell Tower.)

I love that story because it disturbs me – It really makes me think! It challenges so much of the culture of our day which emphasizes the value of personal choice, of personal integrity and freedom and the necessity for all our acts of goodness to be motivated from within. It is a culture that revolves around our needs, even if those same needs are capable of generating goodness, they are still our needs – our choices and not our obligations. As an example think how slowly we are coming to terms with the necessity to take care of our planet – Why? Because it is an obligation, not a choice! But does that make it bad? Is there something wrong with obligation? Why has it become a dirty word? This is a culture we cannot help but be influenced by, this culture which elevates choice and denigrates obligation, and yet the rabbi reminds us of the importance of surrendering ourselves to the will of another – the will of God! This is something we are obliged to do and this is something that is not comfortable, or safe or private or personal….this is about discipline and obedience…..and we are not very good at it!

Going back to Jesus and summary of the law – Is he not saying exactly the same thing? “To love our neighbour as ourself” To truly do that is a sacrificial act which involves giving up something of ourselves for another – that is not something that comes naturally – that is something that requires the Grace of God and through which God’s love is communicated and shared. Note it is a commandment: “Hear O Israel…You shall” Jesus knows this is a difficult thing!

It’s the kind of love we see in today’s lesson from the book of Ruth where Ruth against all sensible advice and any concern for her own well being pledges herself to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi whatever the future holds: Ruth said,‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die - there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
It could not be any clearer! “MAY THE LORD DO THUS AND SO TO ME”!!!
Ruth is acknowledging the authority of God in her life and in a strange way this authority does not captivate her but sets her spirit free to serve God in and through her service of her Mother-in-law Naomi.

In a world that worships the power and ability of the individual to chip away at the power of God we worship the God who desires to fill us completely with his Love and his Power and so free us from all that prevents us becoming what we have been created for.

I want to finish with an extract from Frederick Buechner in his book, The Magnificent Defeat:
“The love for equals is a human thing--of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing--the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing--to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.
And then there is the love for the enemy--love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured one’s love for the torturer. This is God's love. It conquers the world.”

Saturday 28 October 2006

Leaving Church

With a title like that you might think that this is something written in response to Richard Dawkins latest tome, The God Delusion, which urges all of us who are members of the Church or other religious institutions to realise the possibility of leaving and preferably to actually do it!

No this most recent book from Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church – A memoir of faith is something altogether different. It may not change your life but it does give the reader a front row seat to watch a life being changed. The book is in many ways an autobiography of faith. In it we learn how the author realises her goal of ordination in the Episcopal church (Anglican), and how through a variety of ministerial experiences, firstly in the urban environment of Atlanta, Georgia and then to rural Clarksville she finds success, fulfilment but ultimately a fatigue and brokenness that forces her to leave everything that she had thought was important. The habits of ordained ministry are however enduring and it is telling that like many a sermon this book is divided into three stages: Finding, Losing & Keeping. It might seem that her move from parochial life to lecturing in a theological seminary is not such a huge leap but as you follow Barbara Brown Taylor’s journey you realise how far she has come and how far removed she is from where she thought she would be. Many people of faith will recognise that feeling but few will communicate it with the clarity and depth that Taylor does. There is much wisdom in this relatively short book and there is much that will resonate strongly with those who have experienced life in the collar and come to appreciate the blessings it brings but also the burdens it invites.

In what prove to be prophetic words a bishop said to her before her ordination: “Think hard before you do this…..as a layperson you can reach out to people who will never set foot inside a church. Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box”.
In describing the burdens of priesthood Taylor remarks that to be a priest is “to wonder sometimes if you are missing the boat altogether, by deferring pleasure in what God has made until you have fixed it up so that it will please God more.” This often self-imposed pressure and the guilt that goes with it is familiar to clergy of all denominations. Taylor with her gift for words sums it up perfectly when she describes the feeling of moving from “servanthood” to “service provider”. She is a victim of her own success – a powerful preacher who attracts congregations of such a scale that at the height of her rural ministry in Clarksville there are four morning services to accommodate the crowds. As she says herself “the best of parish ministry did me in” and the demands of that ministry cut her off from the resources she needed to sustain that same ministry.

There is a wonderful parable in an experience she describes which seems to mark the turning point in her life. One afternoon a bird hits the window on her front porch breaking its neck. Taylor looks at the glass which the bird hit and in it she sees the reflection of mountains and trees and sky. “Poor bird,” she speculates “she had thought all that was ahead of her…….when it was really behind her, in the direction from which she had come.”

Taylor understands pain and manages to find in it lessons for life that make it bearable and meaningful. She deals very insightfully with the current bitter divisions within Anglicanism over sexuality and scriptural interpretation but the division it brought even in her own congregation was significant. She observes that her parish was no different than anywhere else: Whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbour…………human beings never behave more badly towards one another than when they believe they are protecting God. In the words of Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas, “People of the Book risk putting the book above people”. Elaborating on this point Taylor talks of her view of Scripture: “The whole purpose of the Bible is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” Reflecting on fundamentalist biblical literalism Taylor reminds herself and the reader that the history of Christianity is about “beholding what was beyond belief” and that for us today “to confess all that we do not know is at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do know”. This same tension was leading Taylor to the realisation that she “wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business….to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything”

For all her liberalism Taylor has many evangelical traits, not least of which being able to identify the moment when things changed through experiences of divine disclosure. One such is the farewell party where people are throwing one another into the outdoor pool in fun and high spirits. She longs to be one of them, to be thrown in but the respect that goes with the collar seems to prevent anyone pushing her in until someone she describes as “her saviour” pushes her in and she finds herself “bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light…The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.” This strange rebaptism is further interpreted by Taylor in quoting Walter Brueggemann: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you by the Grace of God”

One of the things that Taylor cherishes rediscovering in leaving behind her parochial responsibilities is the Sabbath. She probably strikes a chord here with most clergy for whom the Sabbath is not a day of rest. She goes even further in reflecting that it allowed her to “take a rest from trying to be Jesus too…..to take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead”. She notices also that people treat her differently without the collar, no longer like “the Virgin Mary’s younger sister”! She enjoys her new found freedom to move away from the centre and discover the wilderness and the forbidden places where God is also working but the places that were so far from the centre she previously inhabited that it almost seemed like disloyalty to go there.

But perhaps most significant is her rediscovery of the radical dimension of faith that seemed to have become domesticated in the church setting. She rediscovers the Jesus who made “unauthorised choices” in his love of God, who saw things he was not supposed to see, said things he was not supposed to say and wondered about things he was not supposed to wonder about and when the authorities told him to stop he did not obey them.
This provokes Taylor to wonder whether we need to rediscover the “edge” of faith where most of the stories of our faith happened.

Taylor finds herself increasingly alienated from the muscular Christianity so prevalent in America today and is perplexed at the use of the Cross as a tool of domination and violence instead of salvation. This is where she is at her most controversial for here she confesses her unease with the very symbol of the Cross because of its all too frequent distortion. However she does not give up on it and longs for a universal recognition in the Cross of “the God who suffers for Love instead of punishing the unloving”.

She still treasures her prayer book, hymnal and Bible and turns to them when she needs prayers wiser than her own, songs that she can sing, when to speak is not enough, and the canon of Scripture which in her favorite passages she hears “God speaking directly to [her]” and in those where “God sounds like an alien” she is reminded that God does not belong to her. She describes the Bible as a “field guide” but not a substitute for the field.

Looking at church as institution from the outside in, Taylor observes that “the way many of us are doing church is broken, and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it”. She quotes Reynolds Price a novelist who is in a wheelchair through spinal cancer. In his book “A whole new life” he comments on our failure to acknowledge death, not helped by those who tell us nothing has changed when what we should really be told is “You’re dead. Who are you going to be tomorrow?” Taylor has little sympathy for those who point to church growth as proof of health and well-being: “Where church growth has eclipsed church depth, it is possible to hear very little about the world except as a rival for the human resources needed by the church for her own survival".

Taylor now working in the seminary does not believe God lives there any more than he lives in the Church. God lives in the world and she gives the illustration of a friend of hers in a seminary in Manhattan where instead of inviting people to seminary to learn about God they are invited to learn what God is doing in the city and bring back their reflections to the seminary. This she says is how the churches need to see their mission: “What if people were invited to tell what they already knew of God instead of to learn what they were supposed to believe?.....What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in…"?

In the end Taylor reflects “I will keep faith in God, in God’s faith in me, and in all the companions whom God has given me to help see the world as God sees it-so that together we may realise the divine vision.”
Leaving Church is Good News and will bring hope to many a weary heart.

Saturday 30 September 2006

'Whoever is not against us is for us' - More alike than we like to admit!

Sermon for Sunday 1st October 2006
Trinity 16: Gospel: Mark 9:38-50; Epistle: James 5: 13-20

‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’

No doubt when John said those words to Jesus he was expecting praise and affirmation. Here was someone else – not one of the disciples casting out demons in the name of Jesus! How dare he? The cheek of it! And then Jesus responds in a way that nobody could have possibly expected:

‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’

That statement of Jesus has profound implications for how we relate to one another as human-beings. We have a very narrow concept of the embrace of God’s Love and the extent of his mercy. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that to be committed to Jesus means rejecting others who don’t seem to be doing things our way – The Right Way!

That is not to say that we embrace everything we encounter in some wishy washy haze of relativism! No! – There are times we are called to stand against evil whether it be personal or systemic. Yes - Jesus said ‘whoever is not against us is for us’ but that still leaves open that there are those people and forces who are against us and Jesus certainly encountered those forces, but most importantly for us he triumphed over them.

I was like many of you I am sure watching the Late Late show (Irish TV chat show) on Friday night and watched an extraordinary interview with a young woman Janette Byrne who has just published a book called: "If it Were Just Cancer: a Battle for Dignity and Life." Her story of institutional and systemic neglect and failure by our health services can only be described as a battle with evil – if we understand that evil is anything that is against God. The obstacles that the so called system put in her way to recovery and the fact that she had to take a court case to get her chemotherapy which had been cancelled 3 times due to shortage of beds flies in the face of God!

For those of you who didn’t see the interview I am going to read you a short extract from the book where Janette is attending accident and emergency in an attempt to gain access to the hospital where she has been denied admission by consultant due to lack of beds:

“I need to use the bathroom and I don’t know if I am allowed up and about. Still in my flimsy nightdress and nightgown I pad to the toilet in my slippers. No one bats an eyelid. So I carry on my way to the nearest toilet. This is located outside at the casualty exit. I am surprised to see gangs of injured and ill, people staring vacantly, waiting for help. I know from the other side that there is already no room at the inn. My heart gives a pang of pity for the aged and innocent, fear etched on their faces. It reminds me of a scene from one of those old black and white war movies we watched as children. Blood splattered the floor as a bandaged head bleeds through; an old lady sits crying, with pain I suppose; and a girl vomits over and over in a bowl already to small too accommodate her lot.”

That is surely against the will of God and surely something that we need to stand against! And it is no good simply blaming the politicians – this is all our responsibility and it is not good enough to simply pass the buck!

This is something we cannot distance ourselves from and yet like John who tried to distance himself from the ‘imposter’ – as he saw him, we too are inclined to distance ourselves from people and situations that make us feel uncomfortable. It is if you like part of our nature.

Jesus recognizes this and reminds John that we are not all that different from our neighbours who we do down to build ourselves up! ( ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’). We have a current example of this on the political stage. This is not a party political sermon but there is something very sinister going on at the moment and I not talking about the gifts, loans or whatever that our Taoiseach (Prime-minister) received.

There is no doubt that ethical boundaries were crossed albeit it in circumstances of huge personal stress and difficulty at a time of marital breakdown.
But what is actually even more significant is the distancing that is going on by some on a very senior level who are reveling in the opportunity to expose the failures of the most senior politician in the land and who are making some very self-righteous pronouncements which may yet come back to haunt them as indeed they have the Taoiseach.

Listening to public opinion there is no doubt that there is huge division but there is also a huge hypocracy in many who condemn this man and talk about him as if her were another breed never mind a fellow human being. I wonder just how many of us here can hand on heart say that they have declared every cent of their earnings to the taxman – how many people here have never been given a helping hand by a friend – how many people here have never helped a friend in need or done a favour for a friend that perhaps broke a few rules or guidelines?

And so I find it hard to understand that we expect our political and public representatives to be so different than the rest of us. Yes they have huge responsibility and power – yes when they are corrupt the implications are far greater than if you and I cross the boundaries but it is the same for want of a better word ‘sin’ that is in all of us. Why do we want to put such distance between ourselves and the mighty as they fall? Is it because the exposure of their failings makes us more aware of our own failings? And so we distance ourselves from them and try to unload all our shortcomings onto them.

We need to be very sure that that is not what is going on at the moment because if it is then we have fallen into the same trap as John did when he tried to disassociate himself from the man casting out demons in Jesus name who ‘was not following us’!

I know well that we need high standards in high places but we also need high standards in low places if those who exist in the rarified air of the high places are going to get the necessary support that they need in their work. There is a lot of temptation in the high places and we need to remind ourselves constantly that those who hold high office in this world are yes privileged and often enjoy the material benefits of their status, but there also exposed to a greater possibility of evil than we who have the often under-rated privilege to live outside the glare of the ever hungry media.

So what should we do when faced with what we perceive to be the failings of our fellow pilgrims. James has some very sound advice in his Epistle, Chapter 5:

‘The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. …………My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’

This is a powerful reminder of the mercy of God and the possibility for redemption. It also emphasises the need for all of us to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other. That is not what is going on at the moment. Currently we are focussing all our attention on a man like us who has fallen in the same way we do and meanwhile things of a truly evil nature are escaping our notice. We are not called to ignore the failures of another but rather to build one another up so that together we may confront the real evils in this world. Let us remember those words of Jesus – “Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Thursday 7 September 2006

'The Protestant Bus'

The context of this was a dispute whereby a Roman Catholic family demanded access for their children to a VEC (Educational authority) sponsored bus which provided transport to 'Protestant' children to their nearest school, which in this case was Villiers School in Limerick city, a school of joint Anglican/Presbyterian foundation which is also open to children of other denominations and none. However in the case of Roman Catholic children their local school would be deemed to be the local Roman Catholic school. (Only in Ireland as they say! - No wonder we have had such sectarian strife when we seggregate our children from their earliest years, but that is another issue from the one discussed here). The family in question pass a number of other schools in attending Villiers but claimed rights of transport to Villiers on the basis of 'equality'. What follows is an article I submitted to the Irish Times, one of the Irish national newspapers, and which was subsequently printed on their OpEd pages:

Irish Times
Opinion Mon, Sep 04, 06
As a society we must clarify what we mean by 'equality'
Rite and Reason: Confusion and conflict between 'equality' and 'fairness' would not be so likely if those drafting equality legislation were clearer in their intent, writes Canon Stephen Neill.

The apparent resolution of the recent dispute in Limerick revolving around a VEC-sponsored transport scheme for "Protestant children" is to be welcomed, but some significant issues remain outstanding. Principal among these is the as yet undisclosed reason for the VEC's ultimate capitulation. Until this policy reversal they were simply implementing existing Department of Education regulations which provide for the free/subsidised transportation of students who live more than three miles from their nearest school. Taking into account the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, the VEC correctly judged that, in the case of Protestant children, the option of transport to their nearest Protestant school was appropriate.
The provision of passes to the Roman Catholic children concerned is generous but not consistent with either the Constitution or Department of Education policy and sets a precedent which is not likely to be ignored by others in similar circumstances.
Many commentators, including the local branch of Republican Sinn Féin, interpreted the dispute in terms of sectarianism and the denial of equality, which may have provoked the VEC into its panic-stricken and ambiguous response.

If this unnecessary confusion is not to be repeated, we need as a society to consider what exactly we mean by "equality". This little word is far from straightforward in its interpretation. Very often we hear people talking about "equality and fairness" as if they were the same thing or at least two sides of the one coin. One only has to look at the latest Cori (Council of Religious of Ireland) report, "Developing a Fairer Ireland", to see examples of this assumed equivalence. Most reasonable people acknowledge the importance of fairness. The question that needs to be asked is whether to be fair to all parties concerned in a dispute means treating them all the same; or, to put it another way, with equality?
The recently-retired American industrialist Dennis Bakke, founder of the multi-national AES energy corporation and strong advocate of employee-centred business practice, thinks not. In his best-selling book Joy at Work, which among others carries Bill Clinton's endorsement, he insists that "fairness or justice means treating everyone differently". To do otherwise ignores the individuality of people and their particular circumstances. He goes even further, suggesting that pay classification systems used by governments and advocated by trade unions are both arbitrary and unfair, benefiting underperformers and insufficiently rewarding star performers. In this context he demonstrates very convincingly that fairness is not necessarily the same as equality and that the two can easily be in conflict with one another.

This confusion and conflict between "equality" and "fairness" would not be so likely if those drafting equality legislation were clearer in their intent. There are two basic approaches to the whole notion of equality legislation. One is "equality of opportunity" and the other is "equality of outcome". The fact that the legislation governing this area is generally referred to as "equal opportunities legislation" is not much help, as almost invariably the success or otherwise of such legislation is judged by its outcome. That might seem perfectly logical and sensible, but to ensure "equality of outcome" involves trespassing on other very dear constitutional rights such as liberty and freedom.

"Equality of opportunity" means ensuring that issues such as nationality, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other similar characteristics should not circumscribe the potential of an individual citizen. As such, "equality of opportunity" is a fair approach and one which respects freedom and individuality. "Equality of outcome" is a different animal entirely; taken to its logical conclusion, it guarantees that everyone gets the same treatment and reward, regardless of their personal contribution. The implications of this are many and for the most part very destructive of society. It undermines the value of personal responsibility and feeds the growing litigation culture, which thrives in a climate where rights are paramount and responsibilities optional. To enforce "equality of outcome" inevitably means compromising "equality of opportunity", as it imposes arbitrary and unjust criteria on individuals and organisations which limit the freedom of those who are supposedly guaranteed "equality of opportunity". In this sense, ironically, equality legislation very often runs the risk of increasing inequality.

The British journalist and novelist Fiona Pitt-Kethley once famously commented in an interview in the Guardian newspaper: "I believe in equality. Bald men should marry bald women." As ludicrous as that sounds, it is no more so than the situation which now pertains following the "Protestant bus" debacle in Limerick. The whole issue of denominational education in Ireland needs urgent reappraisal, not least in the light of the growing religious diversity of Irish society. But as long as it is part of the Irish educational system it needs to be administered in a way that is consistent with the underlying and constitutional values of the State. The recent VEC U-turn in Limerick undermines that aspiration.

Canon Stephen Neill is Rector at Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary

© The Irish Times

Saturday 5 August 2006

Changing our Perspective: Not 'Them & Us' but 'Him'

Sermon for Sunday 6th August 2006
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6: 24-35

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1)

That’s a challenge I think you will agree! And like all challenges there will be many who will fail to respond to the challenge and settle for a simpler and easier life. Its certainly tempting but it is not always the road to fulfilment and true happiness. This following story perhaps illustrates what I am trying to say:
One day a couple by the name of Herman and Mary were riding along in their shiny new car. Mary spoke up and said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this wonderful new car." And Herman just sat there and didn't say anything at all.
As they pulled into the driveway, Herman turned off the motor and they quietly admired their new home. Then Mary said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this new house." And again, Herman just sat there and didn't say anything.
They got out of the car and walked in just as the delivery man finished setting up their new furniture. You know, Herman, said Mary once more, "If it were not for my money, we probably wouldn't have this new carpet and all this new furniture." And once more, Herman didn't say a word.
It happened again as they sat down in their new den and propped their feet up and watched the big screen TV in their new entertainment center. "You know, Herman," said Mary, "if it were not for my money, we probably wouldn't have this huge entertainment center."
And with that, poor Herman had had enough. He turned to Mary and said, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, Honey, but you know if it weren't for your money, I probably wouldn't be here either!" (Maxie Dunnam, Collected Works,2006)
What is it that brings you here? Why do you continue to play an active part in the life of our Church? What is it you are looking for in your Church and do you find it here? These are the sort of questions we need to consider if we are to respond to the challenge before us today and it is a challenge that we must respond to for it addresses the deepest needs of our world at this point in its history – the peace of its peoples – the ability of human beings to reach out to one another in Love and Trust instead of Hate and Fear……or as it is phrased in the Epistle: “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”.
This is a huge challenge – Look at the division around the world and even within our own country on the current war in Israel and the Lebanon. We as Christians are called to bear with one another in love and I believe that that calling is not restricted to the boundaries of our own faith but to all the people of God. And yet we are inclined to take sides over against one another. Overwhelmingly we in Ireland (particularly in Southern Ireland) have tended to side with the Lebanese and the Palestinians. I suspect in no small part due to a perceived analogy between the unhappy historical relationship between Ireland and our nearest neighbour England and the historic Arab Israeli conflict, and perhaps also because of the presence of a large number of Christians in the Arab territories. (Conversely in some Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland it is not uncommon to find Israeli flags flying alongside the Union Jack). Some do side with the Israelis reflecting the historic and strong links between Ireland and Israel and the once large Jewish community in Dublin. I must confess that I tend to come down on the side of the Israelis but I am also conscious that some of the reasons for my own stance are not terribly scientific or logical. At school in Dublin 4 out of 28 students in my class were Jewish and among those were 2 of my closest friends. I remember doing a project in history on the Holocaust with one of my Jewish friends and being deeply moved and disturbed by what I saw and read in preparing for the project. Also as a student I spent a couple of weeks touring around Israel and witnessed first hand in Jerusalem an attempted bombing in a crowded marketplace which was thankfully was intercepted by Israeli soldiers who fired over the heads of the crowd to disperse them as they made their way to apprehend the suspect. This I watched from the city walls above the marketplace and found myself crouching beside a woman who happened to be from Belfast and who commented that it made her feel at home!
Looking back on it I can laugh and smile at the irony of the event and yet it is experiences like that that shape our opinions and our attitudes. As human beings we want to identify with one group or another – and so we are inclined to stick to what we know and perhaps to stick with what we experienced in our formative years. That’s the easy option – it doesn’t involve grappling with our consciences, questioning the very basis for who we are and what we are and even more fundamentally whether we are living up to the potential that is in each one of us.
To respond to this challenge on the other hand allows us to see beyond the horizon of our lives and see new possibilities and new perspectives. And if we are to achieve the goal that is set before us in Ephesians: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” then we have to choose this way.
And once we choose this way there is no going back for otherwise we become nothing more than hypocrites…..This was what David discovered in the lesson we read today. Nathan tells a parable to David in which he David is the villain of the piece. After declaring that the villan should die David is told by Nathan that he is the Villain and in that moment David realises the depth of his sin in taking Bathsheba and having Uriah killed by sending him to the frontline. He now sees what he was blind to before when he gains a new perspective – one which shows him the horror of what he has done. It would have been easier for David never to have had this moment of revelation – he could have gone on in blissful ignorance of his crime but his whole life would have been a failure and he would never have understood the true nature of his calling.
Going back to Ephesians there is much made of the importance of supporting one another, maintaining unity and the image of the Body of Christ is central to the teaching in this passage all of which emphasizes the need for us to be a new community in Christ, a community characterised by Love which overcomes all that gets in the way of our development as the Body of Christ acting in mutual support of one another. This is I think the higher perspective to which we are called, one from which we can see and recognise the face of God in the whole of Creation…..one which does not allow us to pick sides but rather to celebrate the wonderful complexity and richness of the created world. That is what Jesus is about not picking sides but rather drawing the whole diversity of the World to himself. That is what he teaches in todays Gospel from St John Chapter 6: “I am the bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus is not into ‘them and us’ – he is about calling us to rise above the language of ‘them and us’ to a new language, a new vocabulary which is neither about ‘them’ or ‘us’ but ‘HIM’! And it is he who has the power to transcend all our divisions and disputes. This is true not just for international politics but for all our relationships – there are times when we do not have the power of ourselves to overcome the difficulties we find ourselves in. There are times when we need to be lifted out of the dark places even if the bright light hurts our eyes for a little while for ultimately it will show us a new way a new path to the peace that can only be found in Christ.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Sunday 30 July 2006

Living Outside the Box

Sermon for Sunday 30th July 2006 (Trinity 7, Year B)

2 passages to begin – one from each of this Sunday's appointed readings:

“In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11)

“Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” (John 6)

If you sat down all day and all night with the Bible in front of you I don’t think you would find two passages which show more effectively the huge gulf that can exist between rights and responsibilities. In the first passage David is exercising his rights – however repulsive his behaviour he is acting within his rights.
We think of rights as something which protect people from harm or injustice and yet the consequences of David asserting his rights are catastrophic for Uriah as David pursues his lustful desire for Bathsheba.

In the second passage Jesus is exercising his responsibility in feeding the 5 thousand. He doesn’t have to do it. He could have let the crowd go hungry but he doesn’t – He had a right to ignore their plight – after all they should have made provision for themselves – but he doesn’t, he rather embraces his responsibility towards them as fellow human beings made in the image of God.

In the world today we hear a lot about human rights – There is huge concern about the rights of innocent civilians caught up in the current war in Lebanon and Gaza.
We cannot fail to be moved by pictures of children with limbs blown off and faces shattered by bombs and rockets. No matter what our political outlook on this conflict it is abhorrent to see the young and innocent victims of war so horribly maimed. And as we know all too well the failure to protect human rights is nothing new……As long as men and women have breathed on this earth we have constantly failed to acknowledge the essential dignity and sacredness of the human person, no matter what their faith or ethnic background.

Even when we do acknowledge human rights we can be very selective when it comes to their observance – We live in a world filled with people and powers which like David are good at identifying their own rights but not so good about recognising the rights of others. We build our own little self contained worlds within which everyone on the inside is looked after and loved but we are inclined to forget or ignore the implications of our actions for the rest of the world.

Mark Edington a chaplain to Harvard University put it beautifully in a recently published sermon called “Right Angles and Straight Lines”. (See Links below)

In this he describes how we go about constructing our models of Church and Community like we would a house with a carpenter’s square. This simple tool makes sure that all our angles are right angles and that the walls and roof match and fit perfectly. Using this analogy he says that once we have got the perfect structure with all the right angles we are happy. But we lack something – Our house (or our Church or Community) may have walls and a roof that are in perfect proportion to one another but they may simulataneously be in conflict with the surrounding houses (churches and communities). With a carpenter’s square you cannot tell whether the rooms in the house you are building are also square with the world outside the house – God’s world.

Edington looks to the prophet Amos for the missing piece in the puzzle. In Amos Chapter 7 we read the following:
“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;”
The plumbline is the necessary external point of reference that allows us to build our houses (our churches and our communities) in sympathy and harmony with one another. For the Christian that plumbline is Christ and he challenges the integrity of all of the little worlds that we create.
David was operating in a system that allowed him to exercise his rights at the expense of the brave and loyal Uriah the Hittite. As far as David was concerned he was acting with integrity and justice. He was living in a world of right angles and perfect proportion. When we compare what he did to the behaviour of Jesus in feeding the 5,000 we see just how out of synch, how perverted was David’s idea of right and wrong. His is the perfect example of how rights can become the fulfilment of selfish desire and nothing more than that.

The Church has always been wary of the language of rights – perhaps principally for the reason we have been just discussing. They can emphasise the perceived needs of the individual at the expense of the greater good. They can be a charter for the spoilt child mentality. What King David did was simply the behaviour of a spoilt child indulging himself regardless of others.
Rights too have come to be associated with litigation. Daily we read of cases taken by individuals who have no sense of responsibility for themselves never mind anyone else and expect others to reward them for their own carelessness.
Rights also seem to be expressed and exercised at the expense of responsibility and duty. For all these reasons the Church has been very wary of backing the human rights agenda and in some cases in human history has turned its back on and ignored some very genuine cases of human rights abuses. This behaviour cannot be justified by any reading of the Gospel. Jesus cares deeply about every single individual he meets. That is what marks him out – his extraordinary compassion for the individual – his love not just for the ‘idea’ of Creation but the ‘whole’ of Creation. He feels a deep sense of responsibility – stronger than that – A DUTY to all those who are created in God’s image. That is I think the key – when we recognise the other (whoever they are) as a Creation of the God of Love, then we have a responsibility or a duty to them as bearers of the Image of God. It is in that situation that rights can be derived and exercised in such a way that they will not violate the integrity of others.

Rights are not a secular issue – they are a deeply spiritual one which comes from the recognition of our common inheritance of the Kingdom of God. These are values that the Church must stand for because they offer a way forward that will not trample on the other. As Christians we have a huge privelage and a burden of responsibility in sharing these values with a world which is full of individuals and groups with carpenters squares but lacking the guidance of a plumbline. Without God the idea of responsibility and duty is lost – it becomes merely a choice and one without any ethical dimension. That is the consequence of living in a world made with a carpenter’s square but no plumbline. The most dangerous thing of all is that the Church can retreat into one of those perfectly square houses and pull down the shutters in search of right angles and safe boundaries. That is not our calling – we are called to be out there with Christ as our Guide and his Love as our way.

Saturday 8 July 2006

Advice for Travellers

Sermon for Sunday 9th July 2006
Gospel: Mark 6: 1-13
Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
Some travellers advice from Jesus from today’s Gospel – If you were to give the same advice advice today people might look at you a little strangely!
Whatever about that advice one thing that would be a little less controversial is the observation that travel broadens the mind – Certainly it provides new experiences and information to add to the chaotic clutter that most of us have knocking around inside our skulls.
Last week on holidays I saw something really interesting that made me stop and think!
What was it?
A bin of all things!
I know you are probably saying he got too much sun while he was away and has gone slightly gaga!
But no it was a bin and a very interesting bin at that!

What was interesting was what was on the side of the bin apart from the congealed dripping of various unfinished ice-creams and drinks –
It was an advert for one of the local church communities obviously reaching out to the tourist market. It was called the South Tenerife Christian Fellowship and they had rented out the space on the side of all the bins on the seafront at Los Cristianos to advertise their existence. The advert itself was very cleverly worded – Beside a cartoon picture of an out of breath and heavily perspiring runner was the caption
“Feeling run down?”…..”Then call in for a “Service” and Sunday at 11am and 6pm.”
At first glance you might think this inappropriate – who would want to identify Jesus with somewhere you put your rubbish – somewhere you get rid of the things that are no longer useful to you? And yet it is strangely appropriate as we are reminded by Tim Costello a leading campaigner for social justice and a Baptist pastor who said the following:
“Jesus wasn’t crucified between two candlesticks in a cathedral in a sacred place. He was crucified on the rubbish dump outside the city wall. He was crucified in a cosmopolitan, multicultural place where the inscription above him had to be written in Greek, in Hebrew, and in Latin. He was crucified in a place where soldiers gambled, where smut was talked, and where criminals shrieked in agony as they died.”
When we arrived back from Tenerife on Friday night I was talking to a friend who was saying that he had been reading in one of the Irish papers last week how the Island was getting a reputation for itself as a centre of debauchery! If it is true I am afraid I missed it and would have to go back and look for the evidence. We were obviously staying in the quieter part of the Island and going to all the wrong places! The only vaguely over the top behaviour we noticed was in the wake of some of the World Cup games, especially the English when their hoplessly over-inflated hopes were dashed. However it is certainly a cosmopolitan multicultural place and no doubt there are places where one can indulge in debauchery if so inclined.
It is also a place where much of the suffering of the African Continent is coming to Europe. The Islands are just off North Africa which gives them a very pleasing climate but also makes them a popular destination for refugees who come to Tenerife on a regular basis on makeshift and un-seaworthy boats to find a safer and better life. However many of the boats sink on route and those that do make it are often carrying the bodies of those who have died on route. All this happens a few hundred yards from the tourist beach at Los Cristianos where we were staying and is carefully hidden in as much as is possible by the authorities who obviously fear for its impact on tourism.
It is a place where entertainment and enjoyment are the center of things. It is not the kind of place I could imagine living in but certainly it was a very enjoyable place to unwind.
However, very often people do not just go on holidays to unwind – very often they go to get away from something or even somebody that they have been having problems with.
The sad truth is that you can rarely run away from your problems – they come with you in the luggage and they can be even more debilitating when you do not have the distractions of work and other things to occupy the mind.
And so the ministry that this Christian community was offering was both valuable and necessary. And in using the bins as a point of contact they were not only using a highly public space but they were perhaps also saying that even when you feel useless and redundant God has something for you…….?
I don’t know – maybe I read too much into it but that is what it said to me.
It also highlights a big difference in the mission and ministry of the Church in the world today. In today’s Gospel Jesus has all sorts of salient advice for his disciples as they continue his mission – there is a lot of concrete advice about travelling and lodgings while spreading the Good News. There are also some interesting observations about the difficulties of preaching in familiar territories.
All of this is in the context of a world where the Church comes to the people…..where itinerant preachers like St Paul and others like him are going into new places and new worlds spreading the Good News. What possible relevance can this Gospel have for today we might ask? There are few corners of the Earth that the Gospel has not reached – there are very few places where the Church does not have a tangeable presence! In all our great cities around the world there are huge Cathedrals testifying to the Gospel. In most towns villages there is at least one church and in many a multiplicity. So is this part of the Gospel redundant – Is it irrelevant – Can we/Should we disgard it as an anachronism?
To attempt to get at the answer I want to consider for a moment another image.
This time the location is not so exotic – It is a pub in Dingle (I refuse to call it An Daingean). The pub is called Dick Mack’s and is very popular among locals and tourists alike. The pub is sited opposite the Roman Catholic Church in Dingle and has a very interesting caption on its side gate where the deliveries are made.
The caption is this: “Where is Dick Mack’s? and the answer underneath reads: “Opposite the Church”That is only half the story for there is a second question and answer under the first and it is this:“Where is the Church?” and the answer reads: “Opposite Dick Mack’s”
This to me is almost a parable. The first question and answer represents the place of the church in society until perhaps only a couple of decades ago. Other places are defined in relation to the Church. It is the center of peoples lives.
The second is the situation as we find it today where the Church is defined in relation to a new and rapidly shifting centre or multiplicity of centres.
And so as the centre of society moves so inevitably does the Church and to do that it once again needs to acquire the tools of pilgrimage and mission. Things have actually gone full circle. Christianity started on the periphery and gradually moved to the centre and became the centre – now we once again find ourselves on the periphery and we need to put on our walking shoes again.
Jesus observed in today’s Gospel that “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house”. It just may be that the Church has become too much at home and taken its place in society for granted – has stayed too long in the one place and finds itself compromised by its accommodations to the world. To use another cliché “Familiarity breeds contempt” – It seems to have lost its cutting edge – the challenge that is not just designed to criticise people but to bring out the very best that they can be! That is what God wants for each one of us…..that is what Jesus died for….that we might have life in abundance and if the Church is to communicate that wonderful message then it has to make sure that it is in the places that it needs to be.
And where are those places? – Those places are everywhere, from the darkest and most vile to brightest and most wonderful places. The Good News has the power to penetrate into all situations and we sometimes need a little more confidence in the message we carry. It means going to places that for us are the periphery of our world and places we do not want to go but places that are the centre for some other human beings who are also created in the image and likeness of God.

Saturday 24 June 2006

Into the Abyss?

Sermon for Sunday 25th June 2006
Gospel: Mark 4:35-41
‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
Can you imagine how rebuked the disciples must have felt when Jesus spoke those words? – They must have really stung! Jesus does not attempt to hide his frustration, his disappointment, his incredulity. The disciples are at sea in more ways than one! They are lacking in that essential gift that is Confidence – Confidence in Christ. Throughout the New Testament it is a phrase that occurs frequently, whether in 2nd Timothy, Hebrews, the letters of John – it is seen as a mark of the early Christian, a characteristic of their faith – confidence in the one whose name they proclaim…confidence in the person of Jesus Christ.
This story is but one of many where the disciples show again and again their lack of confidence in the one whom they follow. Right up to the Cross and beyond we see this crisis of confidence as a constant in their discipleship.
But that was then – this is now: Where do we see ourselves in that story? Would we be with Jesus despairing at the lack of faith of the disciples or would we be cowering below decks – fearing for our lives?
I suspect that a lot of the time and despite 2000 years of Christian history we would spend a lot of time below decks fearing the worst – hoping the storms would go away.
We are not that different than the disciples – We lack confidence – we demonstrate that in the way that we witness to the world and what is more our lack of confidence is becoming increasingly obvious to the World. We Christians are failing to inspire people with a confidence in Christ and that is something that ought to really worry us because that means that we are not engaging properly with the world in which we find ourselves. We need to remember that our faith is one of Incarnation – Word made Flesh - and that has implications.
In another age the Church was the centre of society – It was the powerbase (for better or worse) – It was the centre of community – of learning – of education – of medicine – it worked hand in glove with kings and governments. Everybody came to the Church for something or other – because the Church had power.
That is no more – those days are gone (and incidentally perhaps not such a bad thing) but the problem is that as Church we have not woken up to the fact that we are no longer the centre of the Universe – the centre of peoples lives! We still expect the world to come knocking on our door! Any recent surveys in church attendance will show that increasingly people are not knocking on our church doors – the Church is increasingly marginal in their lives and does not seem to be a part of the new world in which they find themselves.
And how do we respond? – We sit scratching our heads – trying to dream up strategies that will make church more attractive – we seek to make it more relevant – to find new ways to bring people back to Church (and if we are really honest with ourselves ‘Back to God’). There are a couple of problems with this approach – the first is that nobody’s listening or watching (or at least not the people we want to reach) – We are outside of their field of vision! The second problem is that we assume that the Church is where we are and that it is they who need to come to us! And of course we have a lot of arguments on our side – the Church as we know it has a long history – a great tradition and a historic witness to Christ through the ages. But as I said before the World has moved on and now we find ourselves in a lonely place where only occasionally we are intersecting with the wider society and the World.
So where do we go from here? The answer is in the question, and the answer is that we need to GO – go out – go into new places – uncharted waters (like the disciples in todays Gospel) but with confidence in the presence of Christ always with us. Indeed if we go back to the beginning – to Mark Chapter 1 (only a few chapters before today’s Gospel) we hear Jesus calling his first disciples.
And what was the call? Come on over to my place? Make yourselves comfortable – set up camp and everyone will come to you? NO – The call was this: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”
I must say that the older translation “fishers of men” while not PC sounded a lot better, but in fact the more modern rendering of that verse makes it clear that we are called to action that is ongoing – we are not called only to be, but to act, and of course that action is made even more explicit in Mark Chapter 16: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation”
We are not very confident in the face of such a charge or a challenge – Like the disciples we want to know where we are and we don’t like going into uncharted territory – much better to stay in familiar waters and wait for everyone to come to us. Part of the problem is that we misunderstand God’s relationship to us. We want a roadmap for life – something that will tell us what to do at every turn when in fact what God gives us is not that, but in fact something far greater: His Presence. That is what he gave to the disciples in Christ on the lake that day – his presence – not a course to avoid the storm or a forecast that would have stopped them encountering the storm but a presence that will hold them and help them through the storm. God knows that that is what we need – he knows that we as Church are a mixed bag - he knows that the Church is made up of sick people – hypocrites – dysfunctional – inconsistent and weak people and yes even that word which I confess to having a difficulty with sinners! We try very hard to make the Church the community (or a club) of the perfect and the righteous and in so doing turn many away who feel unworthy or ashamed to come to us, but God knows what we really are. He knows that we need his presence – that we are far from perfect and that even if he gave us a map we would probably read it upside down anyway and end up even more lost. It’s a bit like stopping somebody and asking for directions – They can respond in 2 ways: 1 – tell you the way or 2 – go with you on the journey. I believe that God does the latter.
So we too are called to go on a journey with Christ. We have a choice we can follow or we can find somewhere comfortable along the road and make it our home. That is what the Church has done since time immemorial but its not working anymore!
People are pushing out the boundaries – People are going into uncharted territories in search of new realities and indeed in search of meaning – WHY? Because they can! – Because the World in which we life offers possibilities and potentialities our parents could never have dreamed of! And the Church for the most part is not going on that journey – it has decided to stay at basecamp! Centuries of tradition have given us too much to loose! And yet if we read today’s Epistle from 2nd Corinthians there is that wonderful phrase; “Having nothing and yet possessing everything” . Perhaps we really do have too much to loose. We want to be possessors when in fact we are being called to be seekers and followers…..and like all who go on a long journey it is easier in the long run to travel light. We lack that basic confidence that is the mark of the disciple – a confidence in the presence of Christ in our midst. That was the recurring problem for the first followers of Jesus and that is our problem too. We don’t like uncharted waters…. And when we loose confidence in Christ we put our confidence instead into institutions like Churches which of themselves have no life except that which Christ breathes into them. It is a difficult truth to swallow but Church if it ever was is no longer a static entity but a fluid reality more like a river in which many of our people are being carried along. Can we let go of enough to join them on that journey – can we really embrace that vision of “having nothing and yet possessing everything”? I leave you with that question. I’m not sure I know the answer yet but I know it is something that we will have to face up to if we are to fulfil our calling to “proclaim the good news to the whole creation”.

Thursday 27 April 2006

Who gave God redundancy?

Party conferences are guaranteed to provide headlines. They are the shop window of any political body. It is at such occasions that politicians often choose to promote their most popular and populist policies. Tax cuts are always a winner, and so it was hardly a surprise that the radical proposals unveiled at the recent PD conference attracted more than a little attention. Everyone likes good news and this was really good news. So good that in all the fuss something much more radical got in under the radar.

In her leader’s address to conference Mary Harney made the following statement: “This party remains rooted in the belief that social progress and economic success go together. They’re one and the same.”
Unless I missed it nobody seems to have batted an eyelid! There was a time when such a statement would have been immediately challenged from a variety of quarters, principally the churches who would have responded very negatively to the suggestion that the quality of any society could be determined by economic prosperity alone. Indeed many others who would be otherwise unsympathetic to the role of religion in society would equally question the ability of democracy & capitalism alone to create or maintain a society of shared values, traditions, institutions and interests. It is not often that I find myself looking to Papal encyclicals for guidance but I did come across this in the writings of the late Pope John Paul II. He observed in his encyclical: ‘Centesimus Annus’, “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” ]Centesimus Annus – para 46] Value systems are not the preserve of religion alone but they are a very important dimension of most religious traditions and so it is all the more surprising that this statement caused not even a stir!

The churches were in fact creating a stir in recent weeks but it was about something else altogether. The ecumenical Mass in Drogheda where Fr Iggy O’Donovan and Rev’d Mike Graham concelebrated caused the official hierarchy in both traditions a certain amount of embarrassment as they tried to walk a tightrope between censuring the two disobedient clergy and acknowledging the hugely positive public reaction to this act of Christian generosity and reconciliation. Regrettably, both Archbishops seem to have fallen off the tightrope and having nursed their wounds walked firmly in the direction of censorship. The ongoing debate has filled hundreds of column inches and seems to have become increasingly focussed on the internal divisions within Christendom and the theological justification for these divisions. This is all very interesting but it only serves to make an already cynical society more cynical about the Church and it’s self obsessed behaviour, pushing it further out onto the margins of relevance.
Sadly the Church seems to have, in part at least, accepted this arrangement and spends more and more time on internal relationships and disputes and less and less on the meaningful and challenging encounter with society. That is perhaps why Mary Harney’s shallow definition of society went unchallenged?

Within our own tradition of Anglicanism we have spent the last four years tearing ourselves apart, apparently over the issue of human sexuality and the acceptability of homosexual people holding positions of leadership within the Church. This is of course an important issue with repercussions beyond the Church, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the debate is no longer about homosexuality but rather about who has the Truth and how best preserve it from corruption. In the midst of such a struggle it is very hard for the Church to say anything meaningful or helpful to the World. This sort of behaviour is repeated again and again as Christians of various traditions in a concern for purity and the Truth attempt to isolate themselves from any possibility of contamination. The current Presbyterian Moderator has refused in these last few weeks to attend an ecumenical service because of the presence of Roman Catholics at the service. Another nail in the coffin of dialogue between religion and society! Little wonder then that Mary Harney ignores the transcendent side of life when its chief protagonists do such a poor job of representing it!

Despite all the baggage that the Church has accumulated over the years there are still glimmers of hope! The Church is thankfully becoming aware that it is missing the point when it allows itself to get so distracted by internal division and debate. There is an increasingly vocal constituency within all Christian traditions crying out for the Church to rediscover its role in society. There is also a realisation that there is a hunger for the transcendent dimension of life and its associated values.

Having already quoted the Pope it might be instructive to see how the media of the Roman Catholic Church sees the current situation. A quick perusal of the Roman Catholic religious press in the last couple of weeks is very enlightening. The Irish Catholic (20th April) reports a survey in the UK where “an overwhelming majority of people in Britain believe that Christian values are good for their country and should be maintained.” While only a third of those surveyed believed in heaven and even less in the importance of the Bible, well over seventy percent said that Christian values remained valid and that Christianity should continue to be taught in schools! The same edition of the paper carries a report on a recent statement by Father Gerry O’Hanlon, head of the Jesuits in Ireland, where he identifies a growing realisation in modern society that we cannot get by without “a religious input”. We seem to have no answers he says for the problems of drug and alcohol abuse, gun crime, suicide, failures in the health service and road deaths. In all these issues he points to a lack of ‘vision’ and ‘soul’ which cannot be provided by pure secularism. Another Roman Catholic newspaper, the Universe (April 23rd) carries the results of a study in America that reveals that regular churchgoers live considerably longer than those without a spiritual discipline, sometimes as much as three years longer!

It seems that the Church does have a role to play after all and that there are still those prepared to listen to a Church which can rediscover its authentic voice and again communicate with integrity its message to the world.

It is all too easy to criticize politicians and it has become a national sport on this Island to scapegoat them for every failure and disappointment in our lives. Mary Harney’s sentiments reflect not so much the failure on her part to appreciate the deeper things of life but our part as Christian leaders to share the message with the World. Again looking to our brothers and sisters in Christ I have seldom heard it so well expressed as it was by Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick in a recent address entitled “What it is to be a Catholic now”. In these enlightened times we can happily acknowledge that his address could equally well have been entitled “What it is to be a Christian now”. Discussing this very issue of the Church’s relationship with society he says this:
“The complexity of modern life is both a challenge and an opportunity to recognise God’s presence. ……… No Christian before our time has been involved in multi-national companies, the Internet, the advances of technology, growing urbanisation, globalisation, multi-culturalism; none of these have existed in the same way before. The danger is that large sections of the lives even of believers remain untouched by the Gospel. In many cases individual Christians – still less groups of Christians – have not thought and prayed and talked about what the presence of Christ in these areas might mean. But if that is the case, does this not mean cooperating with the notion that God has only a limited place in our lives and that in large tracts of life God is not relevant? If that is so, there is no use complaining about how secular the world has become and how deaf to deeper values. If that is so, we are creating and maintaining a hidden culture which excludes God and also excludes our deeper selves.”

Bishop Murray has clearly identified the challenge – It is up to those of us who claim to be Christian to respond and restore the vital dialogue between faith and the whole of life.

Monday 20 March 2006

You Ain't Jesus, Preacher!

This from Reallivepreacher
For those of us who just don't know when we've reached the limit of our abilities - Or perhaps to put it another way: It's ok to screw up!

Thursday 23 February 2006

The Persistence of Faith

This is the title of a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which I have just finished reading/devouring. The subtitle is "Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age" and this is exactly what it is about.
In addressing subjects such as the state of the Family, Pluralism, Fundamentalism and the breakdown of Community it is exceptionally topical - all the more so when you consider it was written almost 20 years ago! This is one man who can really read the signs of the times - Get it now! - read it! It'll get you thinking. Buy from Amazon