Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Study Group - Week Four

Sex, Drugs And Rock N’Roll

I entered the Sixth Form in the autumn of 1962 and a month after term started the Beatles released their first single, Love Me Do. An enterprising lad, Steve Whitaker, who later worked as a lawyer for the London firm who handled Mick Jagger’s legal affairs, arranged a group in the form room to render this new song at lunchtimes.

We had mastered this and the subsequent Beatles singles, Love Me Do and Please Please Me, when in June of 1963 the Rolling Stones issued their first single Come On, a version of the Chuck Berry song released two years before. Although there had been syncopated popular music in the U.S.A. for some considerable time and this had been heard on the British radio channels, along with the music of Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele, now for the first time fully-fledged rock music was flourishing on our own soil and on a grand scale. A revolution was under way.

I went to university in the autumn of 1965. By now rock music was a flourishing business. A fellow member of a college poetry group happened to be friend of Eric Clapton, who was coming to play in the newly-formed group Cream at a college ball. Eric asked him to find him some pot for when he arrived. He did.

By then my closest friend Pete Everett, later to be a Radio Three producer, sometimes smoked cannabis and I knew people who had taken L.S.D., but it was all part of a small, rather experimental phenomenon. Nobody I knew was, or became, an addict. It was a stylish diversion for those by no means short of cash.

I was at university with fifteen of my school contemporaries. We talked openly about most things. By the time we were twenty, only a small minority had had any significant sexual experience. I wondered then if we were a rarity, but years later I was talking to a very attractive vivacious woman who had been a nurse on a cruise liner in the late fifties and early sixties. She said that not once, to her knowledge, was any female member of the staff the subject of sexual propositioning or the offer of a ‘cruise affair’.

To think of all unmarried young people then as celibate would be absurd, but very many had little or no sexual contact with others and the social structure almost guaranteed that state of affairs for most. Regular sexual activity began with marriage, or not very long before. By the end of the sixties sex, drugs and rock n’rock had made enormous strides. We now live in a world, in this country at least, where most young people feel free to enjoy at will all three, and more, without inhibition of any kind.

Several powerful forces were at work until the ‘sixties, limiting the range of activity of young people in many respects. Most lived at home; most respected their parents, accepted social standards and obeyed the law. The great influence behind society, parents and the law was the Church. Though many rarely went to an act of worship, most viewed the standards and teaching of the Christian Church as a kind of gold standard, an indicator of how a virtuous person should act. In other language, most wished to be, and to be seen as, wholly respectable.

The origin of the Church’s teaching was the life and the sayings of Jesus Christ. His own celibate life was mirrored in the life and teaching of St Paul, who, like his Master, allowed marriage only as a concession to weakness in a faith inseparable from a vision of the approaching end-time. More than this, the New Testament appears to treat pleasure and personal gratification as profoundly undesirable things, largely to be rejected as sources of temptation and the substance of sin. This characteristic, indeed, separates early Christianity from Judaism, which sees all good things enjoyed in a context compatible with the Law as gifts from God.

It is apparent that much of British society no longer holds the classic teaching of the Church as binding or even wise or helpful. Theism is itself diminishing and the idea of an authority external to self is widely rejected. Indeed, close to the heart of the later twentieth-century social and ethical revolution is the notion that one’s mind and body belong entirely to oneself, with no other being having claims upon them.

What characterises this era of sex, drugs and rock n’roll, therefore, is the idea that all sources of pleasure are to be seen simply as recreational tools, there to be taken without inhibition or any sense of guilt as the fortunate source of, in principle, limitless personal gratification. We are, therefore, talking here about hedonism, the placing of personal pleasure above all other considerations.

The problem with such a world-view is, however, that quite different forces are also at work in human life. There is a great need for predictability, loyalty and stability. Many people feel powerful allegiances to others, whether as friends or partners. Children are born and require care and nurture. The elderly and dependent do not just look after themselves. Many people find themselves performing selfless acts without even thinking.

Thus the underlying issue in all matters of personal moral choice is that of the relationship between self and others. The enduring Christian argument must be, that all forms of true hedonism are inherently anti-social because radical considerations of self inevitably drive out every appropriate concern for others.

It seems, therefore, that a Christian view of human motivation and behaviour accounts for much more of human experience, need and expectation than many today would like to admit. Does that mean that the ‘old’ inherited Christian attitude was wholly correct?

We encounter today many outworkings of the social and moral revolution. All around us are people taking drugs for recreational purposes. Dancing, music film and theatre can be erotic or deal explicitly with sexual themes, People have sexual encounters and live together without marrying. Divorce is very common. Gay relationships are widely accepted as part of society and formally recognised. It goes without saying that most of us will have family members whose lives are part of this new world.

It is almost certainly the case that we will have been disturbed by the behaviour of someone close to us, but equally probable that we will not have openly condemned or rejected them. The Christian face has become more one of understanding and compassion than revulsion and condemnation. Yet we still desperately lack an adequate contemporary rationale of moral assessment.

The New Testament marks highly dangerous territory with a big red flag. At the same time it emphasises our obligations towards God and neighbour. There is, though, no corresponding word about human life as inevitably somewhat exploratory or as a legitimate source of pleasure; no sufficient word about what could form part of good working human relationships. If we compare the Christian faith with, say, Hinduism, it is utterly lacking in any positive account of human sexuality. It seems that we must be engaged in a work still in progress. With our own minds let us play a constructive part in that work.

Fr Alan

Monday, 20 March 2017


We are now embarking upon the third week of Lent. During this season of preparation for the celebrations of Easter, we have the opportunity as individuals and as a community to grow closer to God. To become more aware of our relationship with Him and his active presence in our lives. Lent is an opportunity, a time of prayer, fasting, charity and repentance.

But what exactly is repentance? It can have quite a broad meaning. A feeling of deep regret and sorrow for the things we have done wrong, it may also include a resolve not to continue in that wrongdoing. The  Greek word for repentance is 'metanoia' which translates as conversion of life, a change of heart and a turning around to face God. A spiritual as well as moral conversion.

As well as apologising to God for our sins, we can also ask for his forgiveness and to be reconciled back to Him. The Sacrament of Confession contains all of these elements. In the Anglican church the attitude to Confession is that 'all may, some should, none must'.

With this in mind, Fr Leonard will be available to hear Confessions on Fridays 31st March and 5th April, between 9am and 10am in St Aidan's Chapel. If this time is not suitable, please leave your details with the Church Office and alternative arrangements will be made.

Book Group - What we have we hold

In the first two chapters we reflected on the false values which Mammon offers us and hopefully, with the examples given to us by Christ, we can grow to replace them.

The third chapter examines an underlying attitude towards money that is encouraged by Mammon. The scarcity of a resource, in this case money, compels us to hold tightly to what we have. What we have we hold - what we hold we control. Jesus challenges us to replace this lie with the truth of God - which is about extravagance and abundance!

The Archbishop uses the example of Mary washing Christ's feet with the expensive Nard. (Worth £25,000 in today's money). many in the Book Group initially shared the response of Judas - how could something of such value be used to wash feet, when it could have been used to feed the poor and hungry? Judas was vocalising the inner thoughts of many.

We are reminded that this was an act of love, worship and devotion to Christ.

'You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me' (John 12:8)

Jesus shows us that the action of Mary is in accord with what will soon happen on the cross and beyond, something that will have cosmic significance. Such an act of worship puts God at the centre and in its effect obliterates the deceptions of Mammon.

Judas sees in material terms, cash values, scarcity and fear. Mary represents the economy of God, of 'manna', generosity and abundance. In the world that God has created there is enough to go around. 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Group - Week Three

What We Have We Hold

The Book Group meets again in the Chapel at St Chad's after the Wednesday 10.30am Eucharist. We will discussing Chapter three of the lent book. For details of the book click here.

Wealth can sometimes be a difficult subject to talk about. This is especially so when the discussion involves other people questioning who our wealth really belongs to. 

In this chapter we are challenged to look at what we have. Do we really own it for ourselves? Can we dispose of our wealth as we choose? What does it mean to allow God into the picture and how would this change the deceiving effects of Mammon?

The pearl merchant had to lose all that he already had in order to acquire the pearl. Holding on to what he had would have prevented him from acquiring what was infinitely better.

Some questions to think about:
  • What is your most valuable possession?
  • Are there any circumstances under which you can imagine giving it away?
  • On what things might God be calling you to loosen your grip?
  • How might we overcome a tendency to hold on?
This will hopefully be a valuable discussion. If you can't make it to the group and you are reading the book at home, please feel free to add a comment on this blog.

Study group - Week Three

Not Short Of A Pound

My maternal grandmother, born in 1882, grew up by the River Medlock in Ancoats, Manchester, one of the city’s earliest industrial areas. Local housing consisted almost entirely of small terraced properties. People worked very hard for long hours and were paid low wages. Employment was precarious in this polluted district and ‘getting the sack’ was something everyone feared. As a child Grandma only ever had the simplest of Christmas presents; an apple and an orange in one of her ordinary stockings. Even in later life, when her circumstances were generously secure, she never expected nor sought any kind of luxury.

We now no longer live in that world. In the West everybody aspires to an income which allows the purchase of luxury items and a freedom of choice through spending power which their forebears would have associated with the upper classes, really quite small groups of the wealthy, elite and fortunate.

With these changes we have developed a consumer economy, one that plans for a great deal of retail purchasing activity and encourages the provision of goods and services to meet such an extensive public demand. We live in a world extremely well supplied with cars, white goods, clothes, electronic equipment and games, sports kit and an ever-expanding range of children’s toys. For all this, much money is required and where money is lacking, credit serves instead. Indeed this nation is notorious for its levels of borrowing. If once we were a nation of shopkeepers, we are now a nation of customers and credit-card owners.

Meeting this demand, and, indeed, constantly creating this demand, is a wide range of designers and manufacturers. The really powerful bodies these days, it seems, are not governments or public authorities, but corporations and billionaire business people. It appears that money rules everywhere we look.

It is against this background that the Archbishop of Canterbury has written his recent book, Dethroning Mammon. He argues very successfully that the process of acquisition and ownership, the business of manufacturing items to sell and advertising to accelerate their sales has filled our culture and led to the marginalisation of moral and genuinely creative concerns; most significantly, it has eclipsed the spiritual. Without realising, we have become worshippers of Mammon, mere slaves of objects; worldliness and greed reign everywhere around us. As we rush to buy, God is left outside the store.

There are individual Christian people who have not been drawn into this new world of wealth, but they are not the norm. Those who enter a religious order or volunteer for long periods of service caring for the world’s poor do not predominate. Most of us fit only too naturally into the comforts of the First World. How far does this put us from the vision of the Kingdom of God revealed in Holy Scripture?

Jesus of Nazareth owned nothing but what he stood up in and even that was taken from him without resistance. He expected his followers to abandon everything - and everybody - to be with him in his public work. Even natural and good affection was to count for nothing beside loyalty to God’s work. The background to this hard standard was his teaching that time was very short. The end would come soon, with the fulfilment of all things consequent upon his return in glory. For this short and intense period, all secondary things, all ordinary considerations, must yield absolutely to personal loyalty to himself as the incarnation of God’s will.

Many followed obediently and Acts describes the foundation of  a form of communalism amongst Christians which ruled out personal ownership and secular aspiration. St.Paul appears to have come across this phenomenon in at least some of his churches and he begins by concurring with this ‘mind of urgency and single concern’. He recommends celibacy and utter commitment as the ideal, himself rejecting marriage and family bonds.

His later letters, however, are less clear on this subject and by the end of the first century Christians, whilst still revering the early single-minded ideal, were making provision for family life and faith together, were not normally living communally and were beginning to be more open about the use of the resources they had. The Second Coming had not occurred and daily life had be lived on sustainable and consistent principles which took into full account the whole range of developing Christian moral perceptions.

It became accepted that resources could be privately owned by a Christian, but that with ownership must come a deep duty of care towards others. The question turned from that of divesting oneself of property to making responsible decisions about how a significant part of it could be used for others in need. Whilst devout family life and personal ownership were certainly growing, there also came a move to the desert and a new asceticism; a discipline which lived and celebrated simplicity and single-purpose.

So a ‘harder’ and an ‘easier’ form of Christian living developed and these persisted through the Middle Ages in parallel. The Reformation brought a new and considerable range of responses to the question of money and possessions. One result was the founding of lay communities in the United States like the Amish, who re-established something of the original lay communalism. In the United States also, a movement has developed which links worldly success very closely with God’s favour. The relationship between possessions and faith seems to have the character of a shifting kaleidoscope image, where the same components spin and turn into new configurations.

Where, then, ought we to stand? There can be no doubt that the general observations of Archbishop Welby are correct. We have bowed down to Mammon far too often. Yet it is not evident that we should abandon the modern achievements in health and welfare, for instance, which are difficult to detach from the economic activity of ‘developed’ countries. At the same time, the policies of these same countries may well be a factor in diminishing the well-being of other peoples. Are we at all able to make meaningful moral choices here?Would we be better off without electronics or sophisticated transport? What would the world’s now enormous population do if it did not work, produce and consume? Could we and should we try to influence the economy of the world or our country politically? What happens if we withdraw form exercising such influence, even in our vote?

What is certain is that we are called to love God and love our neighbour. Whatever resources we have should be used generously for these priorities. As to the larger picture, intention and outcome are often quite remote from each other. Could there ever be a Christian economic policy? What would a fully Christian view of money, possessions and power look like? Perhaps those in the group who know more about economics might be able to help us? Or should we ask those who have little?

Fr. Alan

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Book Group - What We Measure We Value

In this chapter we are asked to pay attention to what we consider to be valuable and how this may be tied to those things we can see and measure, particularly in financial terms.

We have just received the budget for the coming year, and can see how the value of the country is judged by it's GDP (Gross Domestic Product), our financial prospects and how each of us contributes directly to the economy of this country. All this can be measured, but what value do we put to things we can’t measure? Those who give voluntary service are estimated to save the country billions each year, but are not valued on any measurable scale. The Archbishop states the ignoring of the non-remunerated or voluntary sector has enormous and disastrous consequences, in the devaluing of individuals, breakdown of communities and on love and creative lives.

The problem with materialism.....this prioritising of the tangible and measurable is not that it exists, but that it dominates and controls. It shouts so loudly that it overrides other things of greater value. This is deeply embedded in all life.

What examples come to mind where the noise of mammon drowns out the things that really matter?  E.g. relationships, community, perhaps also in the church.

Looking at your life, what  things give you most joy and happiness, and which are tangible and which are immeasurable?

Justin challenges us to take seriously the power mammon has over our lives, and our responsibility of making god’s dream of a transformed world just a little more possible.

Some personal observations.......what kind of country do we want to present to the world........what do I want to be remembered for.............what are the most important things in my life..........how do I respond to outsiders who seem to endanger what I value..........refugees, a burden or opportunity? Nationalism or internationalism? How can we as the church place more value on immeasurable things?

How do we begin this task?

What might god be calling me to value more?

What might god be calling me to value less?

Rev Chris

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Study Group - Week Two

Me And You
The first impression you will have had of this session is that its title is unfortunate. How many times were you corrected by adults and teachers when young for putting yourself first? We begin this way today because the discourteous reversed order of the title represents the truth about much human behaviour; we do very often put ourselves first.
Whilst society and schools were still suffused with Christian spiritual and moral teaching, even those not convinced by Christian standards were obliged to accept their general authority and would break this code certain that they would meet much opposition. Sunday School teachers instilled the principle of JOY: Jesus, Others, Yourself. Few dared argue.
In a society now quite distant from the mind of the New Testament, no such constraint operates. Asking secondary school students questions about the desirability of selfless behaviour, I have often had the reply, ‘Why should I. What’s in it for me?’. It would appear that for many, personal advantage reigns as the supreme good.
I drive into Shrewsbury along the A5. The single-carriageway section is limited to 60 mph. The last time I came in before this morning I was overtaken at a dangerous point by a car travelling at no less than 80 mph. Was the driver a doctor on the way to an accident? Almost certainly it was a selfish and thoughtless individual whose trivial desire to go fast was very likely to cause such an an accident. Taken in its true, full, social context, such behaviour is deeply dangerous to others and therefore unambiguously immoral. Not many speeding drivers see a problem in what they are doing, except in the matter of avoiding apprehension. They are, nevertheless, by any serious standard, immoral in their actions.
To move to a more sensitive and disputed issue, we might compare the number of elderly people consigned against their true wishes to residential care where two or three generations ago relatives would automatically have looked after them at home. Now many younger relatives insist on ‘having their own lives’. Being legitimately and respectably selfish is also quite a strong modern theme.
A well-known television advertisement from a firm operating here in this county showed a mother seated in a car outside a school eating her child’s lunch because she simply felt like doing so. 
In all these cases we are distant from the standards the Gospel and we can multiply examples of similar behaviour only too easily.
I imagine that we have all felt anger, frustration and despair in the face of this new fashionable immorality. Sometimes we persist in fury; sometimes we wonder if we should ‘move with the times’ and not be so observant, rigid or judgemental. Are we just hopelessly out of date and out of touch with where human life now is?
Yet the unease will not go away quite so simply. In our innermost selves we know that the life of Our Lord was directed towards the fulfilling the will of his Father and ours. He was always ‘The Man For Others’ He was the agent and spokesman for the Kingdom of God, whose standards are those of transcendent virtue, not practical compromise nor easy capitulation. He paid for all this with his blood, at the hands of people who, by comparison, had decidedly low standards.
Where, then, might we begin to find our way in this new world where many seem to think life consists simply of everyone looking after themselves?
One way of describing the world of self-care is to call it natural. Indeed, it is natural. When a baby cries because it is hungry it is making a bid for survival. When a tribe in a remote part of the world drives a neighbouring tribe away with weapons from its crops or pasture it is simply securing the survival of its own people. Human beings have within them a powerful and only partly-conscious drive towards survival; much of what they are naturally moved to do throughout their lives is connected with survival. To be sure of success, we naturally read survival not just as sufficiency, but as supremacy. There is a great urge to win, which shows in a controlled way in sport and in a barbaric way in spitefulness, exclusion, theft or brawling.
From the point of view of nature alone, such a pattern of behaviour is not remarkable, nor is it entirely reprehensible. Without an element of such drive all of us would be dead from starvation just hours after birth. What Christians would say, is that such an urge, especially in its uncreative excess, is not the summit of human life, but the power of destruction. It undermines and paralyses the best intentions of God in creation. 
There is something much better in store for us, which we call selflessness, service, care and love. This Divine Way goes beyond the natural and takes us quite simply into the realm of the supernatural - above nature and into the world of grace. Nature, or a modicum of it, is absolutely necessary, but it can never be an ideal or an end.
It is, however, rare just to stumble into the world of grace by accident. Given by God himself to human beings, women and men touched by his gracious standard not only live by it but hand it on to family, friends, neighbours and fellow workers - often unconsciously.
God is at work extending his Kingdom by all good means, but the power of nature’s independence is great and often temporarily overwhelms his gracious influence. 
This conflict has been described as a battle with the devil or a struggle between good and evil. Words are less significant than reality; whether we think in terms of this language or not, we nevertheless observe the existence of child abuse, ISIL murders, industries steadily destroying the very fabric of the world and good people passed over in employment as the result of carefully-implanted lies by those who wish to be promoted. Effective evil arises from nature without bounds and the only answer to evil is the continuous grace of God.
It seems to me that we are especially called in today’s world, a world in many ways similar to that which conservatives during the English Civil War called ‘These Troublous Times’, to live by the Gospel, not by the world. It will cost us dearly.
If anyone is inclined to doubt the analysis above, then it is worth reading verses 42 to 58 of the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians. Ordered by Cranmer to be read at every funeral service, it tells us just as much about life as it does about death and resurrection. 
Let us not grow weary and let us never fall into censoriousness and condemnation rather than be bearers of God’s grace!
Fr Alan