Tuesday, November 25, 2014

He was everybody's "Father Austin"

Just over thirteen years ago (5th November, 2001) the death occurred of Father Austin Day. In thanksgiving for this man whose life led so many to the Lord, I share with you the tribute I gave at High Mass, at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Australia), on the Sunday after he died.

1926 - 2001

This photo of Father Austin was taken 
inside St John's Horsham (Diocese of Ballarat) in 1989 
by the photographer of the Wimmera Mail-Times.

"God's in his heaven, Austin Day's at Christ Church, and all's right in the world."

So it was said for many years by Australian Anglo-Catholics, indicating the crucial role of both Christ Church St Laurence (set right in the midst of the Diocese of Sydney) and Father Austin Day whose ministry of spiritual direction and encouragement sustained the lives of countless priests and lay people right across Australia and beyond our shores. Father Austin, Rector of Christ Church from 1964 to 1996, died last Monday, following a difficult struggle with motor neuron disease.


I first met Father Austin when I was an impressionable teenager from Sydney's working class western suburbs. It was 1968. He had been at Christ Church less than four years, but was already making his own mark on the parish. The thing that struck me was how very cultured he was, how wide were his interests and reading, and at the same time how much he loved the Lord Jesus in a genuine and unfussy way. This was recognised by the evangelical clergy of his acquaintance and it contributed as much to the growing relationship between Christ Church and the Diocese of Sydney as any deliberate attempt at rapprochement.

He was always trying to bring people to Jesus. Just listen to this passage from a sermon he preached in July 1983 about John Henry Newman:

“Newman knew God had called him . . . As he was personally chosen by God, raised up to present catholic truth as it is in Jesus and as it is believed by Anglicans, so are we called today to do just that, as individuals and as the people of Christ Church St Laurence, just as the Jews were specially called of old as a peculiar people for God’s own possession ‘You are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your earth to be his special possession’ (Deuteronomy 7:6).

“Likewise Jesus said to His disciples in His final discourses at the Last Supper, ‘You did not choose me, no, I chose you: and I commissioned you’ (John 16:16.)

“The idea of being chosen by God seems odd and frightening - odd because it smacks of favouritism; frightening because it presents a God who intervenes in our lives and in His world.

“Despite that, the Catholic belief is that we are called and set apart for God’s service in our Baptism, as Newman was; and right on through the whole of our lives, God continues to call us to Himself, not for any merit we possess but because in His providence we are the appropriate persons for particular tasks. God said “It was not because you were more numerous than any other nation that the Lord chose you, for you were the smallest of all nations: it was because the Lord loved you”.

“Furthermore, as God’s call comes to us as particular persons, inevitably it must be a very intimate association that He has with us . . . So Jesus says, “I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (John 15:15).

“With a pious Evangelical family upbringing it is no wonder that Newman had a dramatic sense of being chosen by God for a particular work as priest and prophet. We too as Anglican Catholics today are to follow that close and intimate call of the Saviour; to be the Sons and daughters of God, the friends of Jesus, the child of God . . . AND that is a call to personal holiness (as Newman’s was), to sacrifice and service too, to private prayer, and public worship.”

Father Austin’s deep and personal response to the love of the Lord Jesus sustained him in the wide range of responsibilities that were his as Rector of Christ Church. It was apparent in the healing ministry. He took over his predecessor’s motto, “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and in turn helped countless individuals come to know the forgiveness, love and healing of Jesus in their lives.


Christ Church’s healing ministry had been established by Father John Hope many years before. It was continued and developed by Father Austin, week in and week out. Privately in homes and hospitals, and publicly in the weekly healing services, the prayer of faith, the laying on of hands and the sacrament of anointing were all commonplace. As in the Gospels, the healing ministry was the means by which multitudes found the Saviour’s love to be real. So many without any church background whatsoever discovered the community of faith and love by being brought along to a Christ Church healing service. I’ll never forget the visits to Christ Church of the great Church of England healing lady, Mary Rodgers! On her first Sunday, the healing service began with High Mass at 10.30am and went right through the afternoon. It included Evensong and Benediction, lasting until midnight, with large numbers of parishioners showing faith, love and hospitality to the needy whose coming and going made Christ Church look like a railway station! Father Austin was in his element! Prayer for the sick always played a key role in the evangelistic missions he himself conducted in many parts of the country.

But he also wove that ministry into the “normal fabric” of parish life. Some years before the Mary Rogers visit, the best master of ceremonies in the parish had come down with a very bad virus, and looked as if he would be in bed for all of Holy Week. Father Austin couldn’t bear the thought of the elaborate Holy Week liturgies becoming muddled, so he took the Blessed Sacrament and the healing oil to the M.C.’s house where in response to the prayer of faith and the power of the risen Lord in the Sacraments, the M.C. was marvellously restored to health so as to fulfil his unique ministry in the parish community. Holy Week that year went with even more pizazz than usual!


Father Austin preached simple sermons, generously laced with poetry, and peppered with geographical and artistic allusions. This led some people to imagine that he was a theological lightweight. How wrong they were! In 1977, John Hick, Don Cupit and their friends produced a book of essays entitled, “The Myth of God Incarnate.” These were Church of England clergymen denying the real divinity of Christ. Of course, most of the non-evangelical Australian theological schools had been adapting themselves to reductionist Christologies for some time, with the result that today - to all intents and purposes - their Jesus seems not much more than an intensely good and inspired man. This was certainly not a development of which Father Austin approved. I was at High Mass on that memorable morning shortly after the publication of “The Myth of God Incarnate” when he presented what was really a spirited and tightly argued lecture defending the true Biblical and patristic understanding of Jesus with such depth, scholarship and relevance as to be congratulated the very next day by the evangelical diocesan leaders to whom it had been enthusiastically reported!


It was Father Austin’s intense devotion to Jesus as his Saviour and Lord that was apparent at High Mass during which he prayed earnestly, reaching out to the Father - as he so often said - in union with the perfect self offering of Jesus. He celebrated (as once used to be said of holy priests) “with great recollection.” The same was true of the Daily Office, weekday Masses, healing prayers and periods of quiet and meditation. For him, all prayer was mystical and deeply personal. He was perfectly relaxed with extempore prayer when ministering to the sick as well as to those who came for spiritual direction. Gently and in a most natural way he would speak to our Father God about the problems experienced or the direction sought, sometimes with the laying on of hands, sometimes just holding hands, or with his hand on the other person’s shoulder; even back in the time when Australian Anglo-Catholics tended to be uncomfortable with anything less formal than collects from a prayer book.


The marriage of the formal and the informal, the concern to integrate spirituality with the rest of life, and the conviction that the Mass and the other sacraments really do bring us God’s grace, all flowed from Father Austin’s incarnational theology. The Incarnation was not just an historical event for him: it was the ongoing mystery of God’s way with us now. It lay at the heart of Christ Church’s worship; it remained the inner principle of the parish’s life; it motivated the welfare ministry of the parish.

But the Mass WAS central, and to make this point, I give you another piece of that same sermon:

“As Anglican Catholics today we perceive God as transcendent and beyond us in majesty ever to be worshipped and adored; and we see Him as coming down from Heaven in the person of Christ, a man among men, but also a tiny helpless Baby to be loved and caressed by the Blessed Virgin Mary and S. Joseph those many years ago; and we know him today, in His world, in the persons of our neighbours and friends, in the poor and needy, in the sick and the imprisoned. But above all we perceive Him by faith in these Holy Mysteries, in the Breaking of the Bread . . . intimately and lovingly.”

Father Austin proceeded to one of his favourite quotes, this time from Bishop Mervyn Stockwood:

“I think of the Mass as a golden cord that begins at Bethlehem, proceeds to Calvary and the Easter Garden, continues through the joys and sufferings of mankind till it reaches the kingdom of God. As it passes over the table I know that I am pegged on to it and that, as I take the broken bread and drink from the Cup, the Lord is in the midst, just as years ago he walked on Easter evening with two disciples along the road to Emmaus, before making himself known in the breaking of the bread.”

To know the risen Jesus was everything to Father Austin. To proclaim the Gospel of God’s love was his passion, and to care for those who came his way was his sacred calling.


Father Austin held a high view of human nature as being in the image of God while at the same time he taught and lived the gospel of redemption in Christ. Sin was a reality to be dealt with. He never compromised on that. His understanding of human sinfulness was far more realistic and gritty than is often found these days in Anglican circles. Yes, the image of God is marred (sometimes, he would say, twisted and almost hopelessly deformed), but, the Creator God and the Redeemer God are one and the same, and through faith and the Sacraments, and the caring ministry of the spirit-filled community gathered at the altar, we enter into the mystery of redeeming love, divine forgiveness, and transformation. “There is always forgiveness”, he would say.

His own daily life was extraordinarily disciplined. At one level he was always on his guard against those weaknesses of his that might get in the way of what God was doing through him. That very much accounted for an old fashioned austerity - even severity - which balanced the other side of his temperament - his infectious love of art, beauty, humour, fine wines, witty company and sumptuous celebration. “There is always forgiveness.” Some people hurt him very deeply, causing him immense pain. He always struggled to overcome that . . . but those same people found him amazingly ready to forgive, even if the re-establishment of trust took longer. He once said about the priesthood that “it’s our job to absorb the pain” and take it to the Lord “who gives us the grace to deal with it.”

In an uncanny way, Father Austin had many of the qualities which the English saw in Cardinal Hume. He was “everybody’s Father Austin” - “my priest” to so many people, inside and outside the Church, and in every walk of life. He was gentle - and indulgent, even - towards the entire range of those who wandered their spiritual and emotional wastelands. Yet he was thoroughly orthodox, and without exception tried to point those whose lives he touched to the Saviour. A phrase from the eulogy at Cardinal Hume’s funeral so marvellously applied to Father Austin “ . . . the Christ-like instinct was to count the lost sheep IN, and never OUT.”

I think back to my time as a Deacon in 1979 when I innocently walked into an argument Father Austin was having with some of the “heavies” who thought that Christ Church was built on great liturgy and fine music. He became more and more agitated and eventually declared with magisterial finality: “We certainly have great liturgy and fine music, but Christ Church is actually built on two things: the preaching of the Gospel, and catholic pastoral care.” That is what he really believed.

It is not surprising that a vast number of young men were influenced by Father Austin to offer themselves for the priesthood. He nurtured us, inspired us, persevered with us, and was always there when we needed him, even decades later.


Much is written in our time about the priest as a “professional” or a “manager.” For Father Austin, being a priest was much more like being an artist. He waited on inspiration; he followed his spiritual “hunches.” He expected to be able to see just where God is already working in the lives of those who came to him. He believed in the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He painted on the broadest of canvasses. Or, in a different image, his parish was an orchestra to be conducted in such a way that all and sundry could use their gifts for the glory of God.

Was he dictatorial? Not really. To be sure, he expected from his assistant clergy and lay leaders the kind of deference that is normally shown by members of an orchestra to their conductor (and we all know what happens to the music when for whatever reason it isn’t!). So I was not surprised by the pep talk he gave to me about leadership just weeks before I was inducted into my first parish. He actually said that my time had come to conduct an orchestra. I had to realise that no parish priest can do anything unless the other clergy and lay leaders are prepared to defer to him; and they will only defer to him if they know three things: first, that he really loves them; second, that he wants them to discover and use their gifts; and third, that he is able to lead them further into God.

I cannot say how grateful I am to have been influenced so strongly by Father Austin; to have been on the receiving end of both his patience and his rebuke as a teenager (and, indeed, until quite recently!); to have had his guidance in discerning God’s will for my life, to have been supported by him in times of failure and personal turmoil, to have had him preach at my ordination to the Diaconate in Ballarat and to serve him as a Deacon at Christ Church; to have conducted missions with him three times in the bush, to have preached at his 20th anniversary Mass at Christ Church in 1984, to have been launched by him here at All Saints’ Wickham Terrace in 1995 when he preached at my Induction, and to have had him come and stay at length three times since then. I cherish every one of those memories. Each of those different contexts revealed aspects of the character of this multi-dimensional man.


It was sad to see Father Austin decline in health during his brief retirement. It frustrated and annoyed him. But when he realised that he really was dying he determined to use every ounce of his spiritual energy to make the last bit of his life really count for God. Although debilitated, bent over and handicapped with that terrible illness, he continued to preach and to give pastoral and spiritual encouragement to others. He participated regularly in the healing services at St Mary’s Waverley, and loved to go there for Evensong and Benediction. He preached his last sermon at St Luke’s Enmore just one week before his death.

One of Father Austin’s favourite quotes was the expression of St Augustine of Hippo, that “God is the country of the soul.” He applied that to our experience of God now; and he saw our departure from this life as a deepening of that reality rather than an abrupt change. Life here and in the hereafter was the same thing, the boundary having been blurred by our experience of God. So many times at funerals and in the pastoral care of the dying, I heard him share this, and then go on speak in the most natural and reassuring way of the Lord’s victory over death, the deliverance of his people from hell and destruction, and the unity we share at the altar of God with “those whom we love but no longer see.”

In his own poetic way, he would often explain that the Mass is when “the Eucharistic veil is parted” and we are able

“to gaze out on the world of God, the angels, the saints, and our departed brothers and sisters - that great company which no man can number - and join with them in the heavenly worship, centred on the Lord Jesus.”

Father Austin loved the music of Sir Edward Elgar, and he loved the writings of John Henry Newman. Both came together - "almost miraculously" he would say - in Elgar’s setting of the “Dream of Gerontius”, from which the words to “Praise to the Holiest in the height” and “Firmly I believe and truly” are taken.

I want to conclude this morning with some verses from the last section of Newman’s poem to nourish us as we journey through the Month of the Holy Souls, and as we give thanks to God for Father Austin. They are gentle words, encouraging and comforting words; words that Father Austin used very often at funerals, for they represent a deep belief that the love of God that has touched us in this life will continue its healing and sanctifying work in us even after we have died.

The angel says to the soul being made ready to experience the fullness of the glory of God in the beatific vision:

Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.

And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.

Angels, to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest;
And masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.

Father Austin was one of the great priests of God. May he rest in peace.

In September 1984 I had the honour of being invited to preach at a great Mass to mark Father Austin's 20th anniversary as Rector of Christ Church St Laurence. This photo was taken after Mass. L to R: Fr Victor Pringle (now a Roman Catholic Priest in the far west of New South Wales), a young version of me, Father Austin, and Fr Reg Mills, now the Dean of Clergy for the Anglican Catholic Church, Diocese of Australia and New Zealand).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Unitatis Redintegratio 50 years on, the pain of Anglicans, and the Holy Father's encouragement

"The walls of separation do not reach to heaven"

Last Friday saw the public commemoration at the Gregorian University in Rome of the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II decree ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’, the document that marked the start of a new era in the Church’s relationships with Christians of all different denominations. On Thursday, Pope Francis shared with members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity that the search for full Christian unity remains one of his principle daily concerns, and continues to be a priority for the Catholic Church. 

For Anglicans who believe the full Catholic Faith, who yearn for the Church’s unity, and who truly believed back in the 1970s that we would witness the fruition of that miracle in our lifetime, these are such difficult days. Our hearts are torn assunder as our part of the Church persists in putting new obstacles in the way of the unity for which Jesus prayed.

Those of us who remain Anglicans live with that disappointment (trying to offer the pain it gives us to the Father as intercession for unity, joining it to the suffering of Jesus so that it at least becomes redemptive). And even as we adjust the time scale of our dreams to accord with the new reality, we seek a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit to enable us to evangelise, grow our parish communities, and lovingly but firmly defend the fulness of the Faith within our part of the Church. At the same time we are deeply encouraged that the Successor of St Peter loves us, shares the pain of our not being in full communion, and is still prayerfully strengthening his brethren (Luke 22:32). In spite of the new obstacles, he has not given up on us.    

On the Vatican Radio website, Philippa Hitchen reports:

In a letter given to participants during a meeting at Santa Marta, the Pope notes that the Vatican II teaching, contained in ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’, as well as the other two ecclesiological texts ‘Lumen Gentium’ and ‘Orientalium Ecclesiarum’ has been fully embraced. Earlier hostility and indifference that caused such deep wounds between Christians, the Pope says, have given way to a process of healing that allows us to welcome others as brothers and sisters, united in our common baptism.

This changed mentality, he says, must penetrate ever more deeply into the theological teachings and pastoral practise of dioceses, institutes of consecrated life, associations and ecclesial movements. At the same time, he adds, this anniversary offers an opportunity to give thanks to God that we can now appreciate all that is good and true within the life of the different Christian communities.

Pope Francis thanks all those who, over the past half century, have pioneered this process of reconciliation and he mentions the important role that ecumenical translations of the Bible have played in developing closer cooperation among Christians.

But as we give thanks, the Pope says, we must also recognise continuing divisions and new ethical issues which are complicating our journey towards unity in Christ. Rather than being resigned to the difficulties, he says, we must continue to trust in God who plants seeds of love in the hearts of all Christians.

Finally the Pope calls for a renewed commitment to spiritual ecumenism and to the rediscovery of shared Christian martyrdom. Spiritual ecumenism, he says, is that global network of communal moments of prayer, united gestures of charity and shared reflections on the web which circulate like oxygen, contributing to the growth of understanding, respect and mutual esteem. Ecumenism of the martyrs, he notes, continues today wherever our brothers and sisters sacrifice their lives for their faith, since those who persecute Christ’s followers make no distinction between the different Christian confessions.

In my many encounters or correspondence with other Christians, Pope Francis concludes, I see a strong desire to walk and pray together, to know and love the Lord and to work together in the service of the weak and suffering. On this common journey, he says, I am convinced that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can learn from each other and grow into the communion which already unites us.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Christ the King - a beautiful Litany

Lord Jesus Christ,
reigning in the glory of heaven,
living in the hearts of your people,
and truly present before us in this Blessed Sacrament,
we come before you in adoration and love.
We thank you for making us your people
and drawing us into your love.
We thank you for all the blessings
and the strength you give us
as we make our pilgrim way through this world
to the heavenly country.

v. Lord Jesus, our Eternal King,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, most Merciful King,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who came among us in great humility,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who offers us healing and new life,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who rose glorious from the dead,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, our Eucharistic King,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, the King foretold by the prophets,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, King of Heaven and earth,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, in whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, we are one,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose Kingdom is not from this world,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who will come upon the clouds of Heaven with Power and Great Glory,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose Throne of Grace we are to approach with confidence,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who, hanging on the cross, gave your Mother, Mary, to be our Mother also,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who heals us of division and disunity,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, wounded by our indifference,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who sends the Holy Angels to protect us,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, before whom every knee shall bow,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose reign will never end,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose kindness toward us is steadfast, and whose faithfulness endures forever,
R. Reign in our hearts. ​

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the living God,
we hail you as our King. ​
Through you all things came to be;
in you all things will reach their destiny. 
You are the image of your Father,
the richness of his grace,
his free gift to us of life and love. ​
You love us with an everlasting love.
You share with us your mission
to bring the Good News to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives,
to set the downtrodden free. ​
Lord Jesus Christ,
we hail you as our King;
use us to bring your life, your love,
and the glorious freedom of the children of God
to all with whom we share our lives;
for you live and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rabbi Sacks on "the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization" - at Pope Francis' "Complementarity" colloquium - worth reading.

Among many speeches on Monday (17th November, 2014) at the Vatican, following Pope Francis’ address to the Humanum colloquium on complementarity, representing scholars from 23 countries and from a range of faith traditions, that of Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was the one that brought the audience of 300 in the synod hall to a standing ovation. Here it is. (The YouTube clip is a video of the highlights).

I want this morning to begin our conversation by one way of telling the story of the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world. There are of course many ways of telling the story, and this is just one. But to me it is a story of seven key moments, each of them surprising and unexpected.

The first, according to a report in the press on 20th October of this year, took place in a lake in Scotland 385 million years ago. It was then, according to this new discovery, that two fish came together to perform the first instance of sexual reproduction known to science. Until then all life had propagated itself asexually, by cell division, budding, fragmentation or parthenogenesis, all of which are far simpler and more economical than the division of life into male and female, each with a different role in creating and sustaining life.

When we consider, even in the animal kingdom, how much effort and energy the coming together of male and female takes, in terms of displays, courtship rituals, rivalries and violence, it is astonishing that sexual reproduction ever happened at all. Biologists are still not quite sure why it did. Some say to offer protection against parasites, or immunities against disease. Others say it’s simply that the meeting of opposites generates diversity. But one way or another, the fish in Scotland discovered something new and beautiful that’s been copied ever since by virtually all advanced forms of life. Life begins when male and female meet and embrace.

The second unexpected development was the unique challenge posed to Homo sapiens by two factors: we stood upright, which constricted the female pelvis, and we had bigger brains – a 300 per cent increase – which meant larger heads. The result was that human babies had to be born more prematurely than any other species, and so needed parental protection for much longer. This made parenting more demanding among humans than any other species, the work of two people rather than one.

Hence the very rare phenomenon among mammals, of pair bonding, unlike other species where the male contribution tends to end with the act of impregnation. Among most primates, fathers don’t even recognise their children let alone care for them. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom motherhood is almost universal but fatherhood is rare. So what emerged along with the human person was the union of the biological mother and father to care for their child. Thus far nature, but then came culture, and the third surprise.

It seems that among hunter gatherers, pair bonding was the norm. Then came agriculture, and economic surplus, and cities and civilisation, and for the first time sharp inequalities began to emerge between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The great ziggurats of Mesopotamia and pyramids of ancient Egypt, with their broad base and narrow top, were monumental statements in stone of a hierarchical society in which the few had power over the many. And the most obvious expression of power among alpha males whether human or primate, is to dominate access to fertile women and thus maximise the handing on of your genes to the next generation. Hence polygamy, which exists in 95 per cent of mammal species and 75 per cent of cultures known to anthropology. Polygamy is the ultimate expression of inequality because it means that many males never get the chance to have a wife and child. And sexual envy has been, throughout history, among animals as well as humans, a prime driver of violence.

That is what makes the first chapter of Genesis so revolutionary with its statement that every human being, regardless of class, colour, culture or creed, is in the image and likeness of God himself. We know that in the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.

From this it follows that we each have an equal right to form a marriage and have children, which is why, regardless of how we read the story of Adam and Eve – and there are differences between Jewish and Christian readings – the norm presupposed by that story is: one woman, one man. Or as the Bible itself says: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.

And there is a deep connection between monotheism and monogamy, just as there is, in the opposite direction, between idolatry and adultery. Monotheism and monogamy are about the all-embracing relationship between I and Thou, myself and one other, be it a human, or the divine, Other.
What makes the emergence of monogamy unusual is that it is normally the case that the values of a society are those imposed on it by the ruling class. And the ruling class in any hierarchical society stands to gain from promiscuity and polygamy, both of which multiply the chances of my genes being handed on to the next generation. From monogamy the rich and powerful lose and the poor and powerless gain. So the return of monogamy goes against the normal grain of social change and was a real triumph for the equal dignity of all. Every bride and every groom are royalty; every home a palace when furnished with love.

The fourth remarkable development was the way this transformed the moral life. We’ve all become familiar with the work of evolutionary biologists using computer simulations and the iterated prisoners’ dilemma to explain why reciprocal altruism exists among all social animals. We behave to others as we would wish them to behave to us, and we respond to them as they respond to us. As C S Lewis pointed out in his book The Abolition of Man, reciprocity is the Golden Rule shared by all the great civilizations.

What was new and remarkable in the Hebrew Bible was the idea that love, not just fairness, is the driving principle of the moral life. Three loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And, repeated no less than 36 times in the Mosaic books, “Love the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.” Or to put it another way: just as God created the natural world in love and forgiveness, so we are charged with creating the social world in love and forgiveness. And that love is a flame lit in marriage and the family. Morality is the love between husband and wife, parent and child, extended outward to the world.

The fifth development shaped the entire structure of Jewish experience. In ancient Israel an originally secular form of agreement, called a covenant, was taken and transformed into a new way of thinking about the relationship between God and humanity, in the case of Noah, and between God and a people in the case of Abraham and later the Israelites at Mount Sinai. A covenant is like a marriage. It is a mutual pledge of loyalty and trust between two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, to work together to achieve together what neither can achieve alone. And there is one thing even God cannot achieve alone, which is to live within the human heart. That needs us.

So the Hebrew word emunah, wrongly translated as faith, really means faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, steadfastness, not walking away even when the going gets tough, trusting the other and honouring the other’s trust in us. What covenant did, and we see this in almost all the prophets, was to understand the relationship between us and God in terms of the relationship between bride and groom, wife and husband. Love thus became not only the basis of morality but also of theology. In Judaism faith is a marriage. Rarely was this more beautifully stated than by Hosea when he said in the name of God:

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.

Jewish men say those words every weekday morning as we wind the strap of our tefillin around our finger like a wedding ring. Each morning we renew our marriage with God.

This led to a sixth and quite subtle idea that truth, beauty, goodness, and life itself, do not exist in any one person or entity but in the “between,” what Martin Buber called Das Zwischenmenschliche, the interpersonal, the counterpoint of speaking and listening, giving and receiving. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature, the vehicle of truth is conversation. In revelation God speaks and asks us to listen. In prayer we speak and ask God to listen. There is never only one voice. In the Bible the prophets argue with God. In the Talmud rabbis argue with one another. In fact I sometimes think the reason God chose the Jewish people was because He loves a good argument. Judaism is a conversation scored for many voices, never more passionately than in the Song of Songs, a duet between a woman and a man, the beloved and her lover, that Rabbi Akiva called the holy of holies of religious literature.

The prophet Malachi calls the male priest the guardian of the law of truth. The book of Proverbs says of the woman of worth that “the law of lovingkindness is on her tongue.” It is that conversation between male and female voices, between truth and love, justice and mercy, law and forgiveness, that frames the spiritual life. In biblical times each Jew had to give a half shekel to the Temple to remind us that we are only half. There are some cultures that teach that we are nothing. There are others that teach that we are everything. The Jewish view is that we are half and we need to open ourselves to another if we are to become whole.

All this led to the seventh outcome, that in Judaism the home and the family became the central setting of the life of faith. In the only verse in the Hebrew Bible to explain why God chose Abraham, He says: “I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” Abraham was chosen not to rule an empire, command an army, perform miracles or deliver prophecies, but simply to be a parent.

In one of the most famous lines in Judaism, which we say every day and night, Moses commands, “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house or when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” Parents are to be educators, education is the conversation between the generations, and the first school is the home.

So Jews became an intensely family oriented people, and it was this that saved us from tragedy. After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, Jews were scattered throughout the world, everywhere a minority, everywhere without rights, suffering some of the worst persecutions ever known by a people and yet Jews survived because they never lost three things: their sense of family, their sense of community and their faith.

And they were renewed every week especially on Shabbat, the day of rest when we give our marriages and families what they most need and are most starved of in the contemporary world, namely time. I once produced a television documentary for the BBC on the state of family life in Britain, and I took the person who was then Britain’s leading expert on child care, Penelope Leach, to a Jewish primary school on a Friday morning.

There she saw the children enacting in advance what they would see that evening around the family table. There were the five year old mother and father blessing the five year old children with the five year old grandparents looking on. She was fascinated by this whole institution, and she asked the children what they most enjoyed about the Sabbath. One five year old boy turned to her and said, “It’s the only night of the week when daddy doesn’t have to rush off.” As we walked away from the school when the filming was over she turned to me and said, “Chief Rabbi, that Sabbath of yours is saving their parents’ marriages.”

So that is one way of telling the story, a Jewish way, beginning with the birth of sexual reproduction, then the unique demands of human parenting, then the eventual triumph of monogamy as a fundamental statement of human equality, followed by the way marriage shaped our vision of the moral and religious life as based on love and covenant and faithfulness, even to the point of thinking of truth as a conversation between lover and beloved. Marriage and the family are where faith finds its home and where the Divine Presence lives in the love between husband and wife, parent and child.

What then has changed? Here’s one way of putting it. I wrote a book a few years ago about religion and science and I summarised the difference between them in two sentences. “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” And that’s a way of thinking about culture also. Does it put things together or does it take things apart?

What made the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.

For a whole variety of reasons, some to do with medical developments like birth control, in vitro fertilisation and other genetic interventions, some to do with moral change like the idea that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others, some to do with a transfer of responsibilities from the individual to the state, and other and more profound changes in the culture of the West, almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.

The result is that in Britain in 2012, 47.5 per cent of children were born outside marriage, expected to become a majority in 2016. Fewer people are marrying, those who are, are marrying later, and 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Nor is cohabitation a substitute for marriage. The average length of cohabitation in Britain and the United States is less than two years. The result is a sharp increase among young people of eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, stress related syndromes, depression and actual and attempted suicides. The collapse of marriage has created a new form of poverty concentrated among single parent families, and of these, the main burden is born by women, who in 2011 headed 92 per cent of single parent households. In Britain today more than a million children will grow up with no contact whatsoever with their fathers.

This is creating a divide within societies the like of which has not been seen since Disraeli spoke of “two nations” a century and a half ago. Those who are privileged to grow up in stable loving association with the two people who brought them into being will, on average, be healthier physically and emotionally. They will do better at school and at work. They will have more successful relationships, be happier and live longer. And yes, there are many exceptions. But the injustice of it all cries out to heaven. It will go down in history as one of the tragic instances of what Friedrich Hayek called “the fatal conceit” that somehow we know better than the wisdom of the ages, and can defy the lessons of biology and history.

No one surely wants to go back to the narrow prejudices of the past. This week, in Britain, a new film opens, telling the story of one of the great minds of the twentieth century, Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who laid the philosophical foundations of computing and artificial intelligence, and helped win the war by breaking the German naval code Enigma. After the war, Turing was arrested and tried for homosexual behaviour, underwent chemically induced castration, and died at the age of 41 by cyanide poisoning, thought by many to have committed suicide. That is a world to which we should never return.

But our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanising institution in history. The family, man, woman, and child, is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love. It is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group. It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization. For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders.

Since this is a religious gathering, let me, if I may, end with a piece of biblical exegesis. The story of the first family, the first man and woman in the garden of Eden, is not generally regarded as a success. Whether or not we believe in original sin, it did not end happily. After many years of studying the text I want to suggest a different reading.

The story ends with three verses that seem to have no connection with one another. No sequence. No logic. In Genesis 3: 19 God says to the man: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Then in the next verse we read: “The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all life.” And in the next, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”

What is the connection here? Why did God telling the man that he was mortal lead him to give his wife a new name? And why did that act seem to change God’s attitude to both of them, so that He performed an act of tenderness, by making them clothes, almost as if He had partially forgiven them? Let me also add that the Hebrew word for “skin” is almost indistinguishable from the Hebrew word for “light,” so that Rabbi Meir, the great sage of the early second century, read the text as saying that God made for them “garments of light.” What did he mean?

If we read the text carefully, we see that until now the first man had given his wife a purely generic name. He called her ishah, woman. Recall what he said when he first saw her: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for she was taken from man.” For him she was a type, not a person. He gave her a noun, not a name. What is more he defines her as a derivative of himself: something taken from man. She is not yet for him someone other, a person in her own right. She is merely a kind of reflection of himself.

As long as the man thought he was immortal, he ultimately needed no one else. But now he knew he was mortal. He would one day die and return to dust. There was only one way in which something of him would live on after his death. That would be if he had a child. But he could not have a child on his own. For that he needed his wife. She alone could give birth. She alone could mitigate his mortality. And not because she was like him but precisely because she was unlike him. At that moment she ceased to be, for him, a type, and became a person in her own right. And a person has a proper name. That is what he gave her: the name Chavah, “Eve,” meaning, “giver of life.”

At that moment, as they were about to leave Eden and face the world as we know it, a place of darkness, Adam gave his wife the first gift of love, a personal name. And at that moment, God responded to them both in love, and made them garments to clothe their nakedness, or as Rabbi Meir put it, “garments of light.”

And so it has been ever since, that when a man and woman turn to one another in a bond of faithfulness, God robes them in garments of light, and we come as close as we will ever get to God himself, bringing new life into being, turning the prose of biology into the poetry of the human spirit, redeeming the darkness of the world by the radiance of love.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A little man meets a big God - Pope Francis on Zacchaeus

I was deeply moved by the Mass Readings this morning. They represent a kind of wake-up call to us as we head towards the celebration of Christ the King on Sunday, and then get into Advent. So, I was curious to read Pope Francis’ homily. I looked up the Vatican Radio website to see what he had said, and found this great challenge:

Conversion is a grace, “it is a visit from God” said Pope Francis at Tuesday morning Mass in Casa Santa Marta. The Pope based his reflections on the Readings of the Day taken from Revelation Chapter 3 and the Gospel according to St. Luke on the encounter  Jesus and Zacchaeus the tax collector. 

In the first reading, he noted, the Lord asks Christians in Laodicea to convert because they have become “lukewarm”. They live a “comfortable spirituality”. They think: “I do what I can, but I am at peace and do not want to be disturbed with strange things”. Pope Francis noted that people who “live well think nothing is missing: I go to Mass on Sundays, I pray a few times, I feel good, I am in God’s grace, I’m rich” and “I do not need anything, I’m fine.” This “state of mind - he warned - is a state of sin, feeling spiritually comfortable is a state of sin”. The Lord has harsh words for people like this, he says: “Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth”. Despite this, the Lord gives them some advice, he tells them to “dress themselves” because “ comfortable Christians are naked”.

Then, he added, “there is a second call” to “those who live by appearances, Christians of appearances.” These believe they are alive but they are dead. And the Lord asks them to be vigilant. “Appearances - the Pope said - are these Christians shroud: they are dead.” And the Lord “calls them to conversion”.

“Am I one of these Christians of appearances? Am I alive inside, do I have a spiritual life? Do I hear the Holy Spirit, do I listen to the Holy Spirit, do I  move forward, or ...? But, if everything looks good, I have nothing to reproach myself about: I have a good family, people do not gossip about me, I have everything I need, I married in church ...I am ‘in the grace of God’, I am alright. Appearances! Christians of appearance ... they are dead! Instead [we must] seek something alive within ourselves, and with memory and vigilance, reinvigorate this so we can move forward. Convert: from appearances to reality. From being neither hot nor cold to fervour”.

The third call to conversion is with Zacchaeus, “the chief tax collector, and rich.” “He is corrupt - the Pope said – he was working for foreigners, for the Romans, he betrayed his homeland”: 

“He was just like many leaders we know: corrupt. Those who, instead of serving the people, exploit the people to serve themselves. There are some like this, in the world. And people did not want him. Yes, he wasn’t lukewarm; He was not dead. He was in a state of putrefaction. He was corrupt. But he felt something inside: this healer, this prophet who people say speaks so well, I would like to see him, out of curiosity. The Holy Spirit is clever, eh! He sowed the seed of curiosity, and so in order to seem him this man even does something a little ‘ridiculous. Think of an important leader, who is also corrupt, a leader of leaders – he was the chief - climb a tree to watch a procession: Just think of it. How ridiculous!”.

Zacchaeus, he said, “had no shame.” He wanted to see him and “ the Holy Spirit was working in him”. Then “the Word of God came into the heart and with the Word, the joy.” “Those of comfort and those of appearance – he said - had forgotten what joy was; this corrupt man immediately gets it”, “his heart changes, he converts”. So Zacchaeus promises to give back four times what he has stolen:

“When conversion touches pockets, it’s a certainty. Christians in heart? Yes, everyone is. Christians by blood? All of us. However, Christians with pockets, very few.  But, conversion ... and here, it arrived straight away: the authentic word. He converted. But faced with this word, the words of the others, those who did not want conversion, who did not want to convert: ‘Seeing this, they grumbled: ‘He has gone to the house of a sinner!’: He has dirtied himself, he has lost his purity. He must purify himself because he entered the house of a sinner”.

Pope Francis reiterated that these are “the three calls to conversion” that Jesus himself makes to “the lukewarm, the comfortable, to those of appearance, to those who think they are rich but are poor, who have nothing, who are dead”.  The Word of God, “is able to change everything”, but “we don’t always have the courage to believe in the Word of God, to receive that Word that heals us within”. In the last weeks of the Liturgical Year, the Church wants us all to “think very, very seriously about our conversion, so that we can move forward on the path of our Christian life”. It tells us to “remember the Word of God, appeals to our memory, to custody it, to be vigilant, and also to obey the Word of God, so that we can begin a new life, converted”.

(Emer McCarthy)

Monday, November 10, 2014

C. S. Lewis on the Reasonableness of Christian Faith (Video of Alister McGrath's Westminster Abbey lecture)

Telling the Truth through Rational Argument: C. S. Lewis on the Reasonableness of Christian Faith from Alister McGrath on Vimeo.

Wise words of Leo.

Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1622-1685), 
in the Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Tuscan born aristocratic Pope St Leo 1 (400?—461)lived and ministered during the darkest phase of the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire. To grasp the significance of this we must remember that Christians had generally come to believe the empire to be a God-given means of spreading of the Faith, and many thought that if Rome fell, the world would end soon after.

Leo may not have been in Rome during the siege (408) and the sacking of the city in 410 by Alaric I, the king of the Visigoths, but he was there as Pope in 452, when Attila and his Huns, who had crossed the Rhine in 451, invaded Italy. Leo famously met the invaders near Florence and persuaded them to withdraw, demonstrating to the people his “fatherood” of  Rome. Indeed, he considered one of the roles of his office as Pope was that of bringing stability in the chaos confronting the Western Church. (Leo was less successful with Gaiseric the Vandal, who sacked Rome in 455, though some say that the devastation of the city would have been even worse if it had not been for Leo’s influence.)

It would be a pity if Leo were remembered on this his feast day simply for his bravery and administrative skill, or for the developments in the way in which the ministry of Peter came to be exercised. He was primarily a champion of orthodox teaching, emphasising the victory of Jesus (in the cosmic sense, and - no less - in our lives) through the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection in a time of darkness and gloom. He preached the Faith he lived.

True and willing humility

When the brightness of a new star had led three wise men to worship Jesus, they did not see him ruling over demons, not raising the dead, not restoring sight to the blind or mobility to the lame or speech to the dumb, nor in any action of divine power. They saw him, rather, as a Child - silent, at rest, placed in the care of his Mother - in a situation where there appeared no indication of power.

From this lowliness, however, a great miracle was presented. Consequently, the mere sight of that Sacred Infancy to which God the Son of God had adapted himself was bringing to their eyes a preaching that would be imparted to their ears. What the sound of his voice was not yet presenting, the activity of sight was teaching them. 

For the entire victory of the Saviour, the one that overcame the devil and the world, began in humility and ended in humility. Its appointed time began under persecution and ended under persecution. Neither the endurance of suffering was lacking to the child, nor the gentleness of a child to the one who would suffer. For, the Only-Begotten Son of God undertook by a single inclination of his majesty both the will to be born as a human being and the ability to be killed by human beings.

Almighty God, therefore, made our extremely bad situation good” through his unique lowliness and “destroyed death” along with the author “of death.” He did not refuse anything that his persecutors brought down on him. In obedience to the Father, he bore the cruelties of violent men with the meekest docility. 

How humble we ought to be, then, how patient, we who, when we meet with any distress, never undergo anything we do not deserve! “Who will boast that they have a pure heart or that they are clean from sin?” (Prov. 20,9). Blessed John says, “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1Jn. 1, 8)

Who will be found so free from guilt that they have not in themselves anything for justice to condemn or mercy to forgive? Consequently, dearly beloved, the whole learning of Christian wisdom consists not in abundance of words, not in cleverness at disputing, not in desire for praise and glory, but in a true and willing humility. 

This is what the Lord Jesus Christ chose and taught from within the womb of his Mother right up to his torment on the cross - by enduring everything with fortitude. When the disciples, as the Evangelist says, arguing among themselves as to “which one of them would be greater in the kingdom of heaven, [Jesus] called a little child and stood him in their midst and said: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you change yourselves and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever, therefore, humble themselves like this child will be the greater in the kingdom of heaven.”

Christ loves the Childhood that he first took up in both soul and body. Christ loves childhood, the teacher of humility, the rule of innocence, the image of gentleness. Christ loves childhood, to which he directs the characters of older people, to which he brings back old age. Those whom he would raise up to an eternal kingdom he disposes to follow his own example.”

- St Leo the Great, Sermon 37, Epiphany, 2 - 3.

Contemplating the Lord’s passion 

True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity.

The earth - our earthly nature - should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer. The rock - the hearts of unbelievers - should burst asunder. The dead, imprisoned in the tombs of their mortality, should come forth, the massive stones now ripped apart. Foreshadowings of the future resurrection should appear in the holy city, the Church of God: what is to happen to our bodies should now take place in our hearts.

No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ. His prayer brought benefit to the multitude that raged against him. How much more does it bring to those who turn to him in repentance.

Ignorance has been destroyed, obstinacy has been overcome. The sacred blood of Christ has quenched the flaming sword that barred access to the tree of life. The age-old night of sin has given place to the true light.

The Christian people are invited to share the riches of paradise. All who have been reborn have the way open before them to return to their native land, from which they had been exiled. Unless indeed they close off for themselves the path that could be opened before the faith of a thief.

The business of this life should not preoccupy us with its anxiety and pride, so that we no longer strive with all the love of our heart to be like our Redeemer, and to follow his example. Everything that he did or suffered was for our salvation: he wanted his body to share the goodness of its head.

First of all, in taking our human nature while remaining God, so that the Word became man, he left no member of the human race, the unbeliever excepted, without a share in his mercy. Who does not share a common nature with Christ if he has welcomed Christ, who took our nature, and is reborn in the Spirit through whom Christ was conceived?

Again, who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave?

It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of a human nature and the fullness of the godhead.

The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven. 

- St Leo the Great, Sermon 15, De passione Domine, 3-4.