Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some basic questions about redaction of Biblical texts

The Isaiah scroll from the "Dead Sea Scrolls"

Peter J. Leithart - who is always worth reading - has posted a great little piece on the First Things Blog which I want to share with you. Now, “I have no particular dog in this race”, because since my first tertiary level study of the Bible (in 1971) I have had an interest in theories as to how the texts reached their definitive forms. Clearly, processes of redaction are part of the story. BUT - to put it mildly - this is an area in which the theological and philosophical presuppositions of the scholar have a huge capacity to determine or “skew” the results of individual studies. Then, it’s only a step or two down the track to a purportedly peer-reviewed “scholarly consensus” against which other research is measured and then rejected - NOT because such research is of itself lacking in scholarship or logical argument, but because it is not governed by the same presuppositions, which - it turns out -  must be protected at all cost.

It is impossible not to have presuppositions. But, surely - as in real life -, the onus is on the scholar to admit them, and be prepared to defend them. That’s the debate very few seem interested in!  

Anyway, read Leithart’s little piece about the “practicalities” involved in the kinds of redaction theory that almost everyone wants to believe today:


The always-innovative Michael Goulder wonders how and why redactors might have changed the text of Isaiah, as critics believe (Isaiah As Liturgy, 1-2): “Glosses in the margin may be believable for brief phrases like even the King of Assyria, but many of the supposed insertions are of a verse, or several verses. Early manuscripts which survive, like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the papyrus fragments of the New Testament, do not have large margins. Suppose, for example, that one were a redactor and wished to insert the ironic passage on women’s finery in 3.18-23, generally thought to be an insertion. We cannot think that on each occasion the redactor made an incision and sewed in a new piece of skin/papyrus. It seems more likely that such insertions were made when the whole text was recopied. But then scholars give a wide span of dates for these later additions; so there must have been rather frequent recopying. But now we are into a situation which is difficult to make plausible. What sort of public was there for such frequent editions of the book? Did many people want a copy? Were they read privately? Or did one go to consult the temple copy?”

He wonders about authority too.

Is it plausible to think that the High Priest authorized a scribe to recopy, and to make whatever changes he thought the text needed. As Goulder says, “the text was believed to be the Word of God.” He whimsically suggests that there might have been a committee, “a beth-hammidrash from the seventh century.”

Goulder thinks that these problems arise when we think of Isaiah as a writing as opposed to a preaching prophet. Isaiah preached, eventually the core of his preaching was written down, and then his disciples continued to adapt his message over the years after he died. The whole body of Isaianic preaching was committed to a scroll around 400 BC.

I think this reconstruction is also implausible, but along the way Goulder has raised questions that most critics don’t think to ask. When you try to pin down exactly how and why the things that critics said happened to the text happened, it becomes difficult to make a plausible, much less convincing case. The critical reconstruction of Isaiah makes best sense if we assume the luxuries of modern book production and the demands of a modern reading audience. Which is why most critics stay at a fairly high level of abstraction, talking about redactors without ever stopping to ask about parchment, papyrus, pens, and the other tools of the trade.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Can we believe the Gospels?

Peter John Williams received his MA, MPhil and PhD at Cambridge University, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible. He served on the staff of the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge (1997-1998), and then taught Hebrew and Old Testament at the University as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998-2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. Since July 2007 he has been the Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

This lecture looks at the historical reliability of the Gospels in a way that calls into question many contemporary assumptions regarding history and the biblical texts. It is also entertaining!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Today's homily from Pope Francis: John the Baptist - a Model for the Church

Naming of the Baptist, a Fresco by Giusto de’Menabuoi (c. 1320–1391) 
in the Cathedral Baptistery, Padua, Italy. 

Here is the report of the homily Pope Francis gave at this morning’s Mass, taken from the website of VATICAN RADIO:

The church exists for courageously proclaiming -until martyrdom- Christ, to serve and “take nothing for herself”. In his homily at morning Mass on Monday, Pope Francis pointed to St. John the Baptist as model for Church: he didn’t claim the Truth, the Word as his own; he diminished himself so Christ could shine.

June 24th is the Solemnity of the Birth of the Saint, whom the Gospels indicate as the forerunner or precursor of Jesus. Dedicating his homily to him Pope Francis said the Church is called to proclaim the Word of God, even to martyrdom.

Pope Francis began his homily by addressing best wishes to all who bear the name John. The figure of John the Baptist, the Pope said, is not always easy to understand. “When we think of his life - he observed – we think of a prophet,” a “man who was great and then ends up as a poor man.” Who is John? The Pope said john himself explains: “I am a voice, a voice in the wilderness,” but “it is a voice without the Word, because the Word is not him, it is an Other.” Here then is the mystery of John: “He never takes over the Word,” John “is the one who indicates, who marks”. The “meaning of John’s life - he added - is to indicate another.” Pope Francis then spoke of being struck by the fact that the “Church chooses to mark John’s feast day” at a time when the days are at their longest in the year, when they “have more light.” And John really “was the man of light, he brought light, but it was not his own light, it was a reflected light.” John is “like a moon” and when Jesus began to preach, the light of John “began to decline, to set”. “Voice not Word - the Pope said - light, but not his own”

“John seems to be nothing. That is John’s vocation: he negates himself. And when we contemplate the life of this man, so great, so powerful - all believed that he was the Messiah - when we contemplate this life, how it is nullified to the point of the darkness of a prison, we behold a great mystery. We do not know what John’s last days were like. We do not know. We only know that he was killed, his head was put on a platter, as a great gift from a dancer to an adulteress. I don’t think you can lower yourself much more than this, negate yourself much more. That was the end that John met”.

Pope Francis noted that in prison John experienced doubts, anguish and he called on his disciples to go to Jesus and ask him, “Are you You, or should we expect someone else?”. His life is one of “pain and darkness”. John “was not even spared this”, said the Pope, who added: “the figure of John makes me think so much about the Church”:

“The Church exists to proclaim, to be the voice of a Word, her husband, who is the Word. The Church exists to proclaim this Word until martyrdom. Martyrdom precisely in the hands of the proud, the proudest of the Earth. John could have made himself important, he could have said something about himself. ‘But I never think’, only this: he indicated, he felt himself to be the voice, not the Word. This is John’s secret. Why is John holy and without sin? Because he never, never took a truth as his own. He would not be an ideologue. The man who negated himself so that the Word could come to the fore. And we, as a Church, we can now ask for the grace not to become an ideological Church ... “

The Church, he added, must hear the Word of Jesus and raise her voice, proclaim it boldly. “That - he said - is the Church without ideologies, without a life of its own: the Church which is the mysterium lunae which has light from her Bridegroom and diminish herself so that He may grow”

“This is the model that John offers us today, for us and for the Church. A Church that is always at the service of the Word. A Church that never takes anything for herself. Today in prayer we asked for the grace of joy, we asked the Lord to cheer this Church in her service to the Word, to be the voice of this Word, preach this Word. We ask for the grace, the dignity of John, with no ideas of their own, without a Gospel taken as property, only one Church that indicates the Word, and this even to martyrdom. So be it!“

Friday, June 21, 2013

Coping with Grief 03


We have already observed that when someone close to us dies, many of us, whether we are regular worshippers or just on the fringe of the Church’s life, instinctively reach out to God for his love to renew us and give us the strength we need to deal with our grief. 

The words of the Bible and the ancient prayers of the Church assure us that not only do the dead live on in God’s love, but we ourselves are in his care, whatever twists and turns our journey through this life takes. As we put these two parts of the Faith together we realise that in God’s love the living and the dead are not separated at all.

St Paul wrote to the early Christians that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Jesus (Romans 8:39). It stands to reason, then, that not even death can separate us from those with whom we are bound together in that love.

When we are troubled by GUILT that a relationship has ended before certain things can be put right, we think of that line in the prayer Jesus gave us: “Forgive us our trespasses (sins) as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us.” Our side of the relationship might have ended imperfectly; but it also ended imperfectly on the other side.

Of course we forgive the other person. And in the reality of their ongoing experience of God we know that they forgive us. Indeed, we know that God forgives us. So, with the other parties being kind and understanding towards us in our grief, we need move to the point of forgiving ourselves. 

If, however, our conscience is troubled by a serious sin that we committed against our loved one who has died, then part of our healing will be going to Confessionthat powerful and sacramental meeting with Jesus in which his forgiving love sets us free. If you haven’t been to Confession before, speak to one of the priests, and he will help you prepare. 

What about our ANGER, our sense of injustice that cries out for some kind of explanation, especially if the person who died was young or was crushed by suffering?  What can we do when no one can give a satisfactory answer to our Why? Why? Why?  How do we deal with the idea that can sneak up on us that we have been abandoned by God? 

The first thing is to be honest about our anger. Think about the passage from the Book of Lamentations in the Bible we looked at a couple of days ago. People often feel they cannot own up to being angry with God. But, when you think about it, our faith is much more about being honest than it is about being good. After all, an honest person is open to new insights and new ways of relating to God. A person who values their own “goodness” above everything else may actually have a closed mind and be resistant to God’s attempts to draw them further into his love.  

So, we are brutally honest about that anger. We tell God how we feel. We bring before him the questions no one can answer. We tell him how desperate we are for some insight. It may take time, but something will happen, because God really does love us. No-one else can predict what our answer will be, or how we will come to a new place in our relationship with God. But one way or another, we do move through our anger to a deeper awareness of God’s love than we ever thought possible.

In terms of our FEAR, we should think back to the readings in the funeral service which help us face our insecurity and the unpredictability of our death. Those readings affirm death as a natural part of life. 

Even just attending the funeral is a step in the right direction - a beginning - because the service helps us deal with our mortality. It encourages us to face our fear. It renews our trust in God’s promises. Its ancient words and symbols anchor us deeply into God’s love, and we are assured in the Bible that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 


The difficult emotions we experience when someone has died can begin to be resolved by the funeral service, which seeks to nurture our trust in God. This, together with the loving support of others, enables us to face the future.  
But there is more. During a time of bereavement, some people start coming to Mass on Sundays as regular worshippers, even when they have not been brought up in the Church or attended before. This is often a very tentative stepping into the unknown, with many questions and doubts - but so is the rest of life in the early stages of grief. In any case, these people persevere because of that ancient feeling of being drawn by a love they cannot explain in words. Many have found that giving in to their instinct to seek God helps them put their lives back together after losing a loved one. It is a journey of faith and a real adventure! It is coming to know God’s love more deeply through quietness, prayer and meditation, receiving Holy Communion, and sharing in the ongoing life of the Church family.
I want to tell you that our parish is a real community - people of all ages who care for each another. Just belonging helps us feel supported in facing the daily challenges of life. There are big services, and small weekday ones. We even have meetings for prayer and study in people’s homes, not to mention barbecues and other functions at which people get to know each other. And the church building is kept open during the daylight hours for those who just like to sit or kneel in the prayerful silence with a spirit of openness to the Lord. 

We invite you to come and share in our worship. 

If you would like to talk to one of the priests or lay leaders, please contact us. We are here for you. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Coping with Grief 02


We can be so busy with practical details and arrangements between the death of a loved one and the funeral that the full intensity of our grief is held at bay. It is often when the funeral is over and there’s nothing more to do, that we become overwhelmed with loneliness and pain. 

We deal with this in different ways. There are those who contact a friend (or maybe their priest) so as to have someone there with them. Others just want to be left alone. Whichever way we deal with our grief, we should open our wounded and broken hearts to God. 

During a time of great turmoil, the Bible tells us that God said to his people:

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) 

Many people have experienced his presence in that stillness as he lovingly calms the otherwise raging tides of emotion in our hearts and minds.
There is another passage in the Bible that people  find helpful. It was written over 2,500 years ago by a man for whom death and destruction were on every side. His whole world had collapsed around him. Because his lament begins with cries of desperation it is often used as a meditation by those in deep grief:

“My soul is bereft of peace, 
  I have forgotten what happiness is;  
  so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, 
  and my expectation from the Lord.’
“Remember my affliction and my bitterness, 
  the wormwood and the gall!  
  My soul continually thinks of it 
  and is bowed down within me. 
  But this I call to mind, 
  and therefore I have hope:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, 
  his mercies never come to an end;  
  they are new every morning; 
  great is thy faithfulness.
“‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, 
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
  “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, 
  to the soul that seeks him.  
  It is good that one should wait quietly 
  for the salvation of the Lord.”
(Lamentations 3:17-26)

What an amazing reading - one of the many examples of the Bible’s breathtaking honesty when dealing with the turmoil as well as the blessings of human life. It begins where so many of us are when we grieve - look at the gut-wrenching cry at the start of the passage! - , but it finishes with confidence in the wholeness and peace that come from the Lord. 

Actually, soaking ourselves in Scripture as a whole (and not only our favourite “cuddly” bits) is a good way of preparing, not just spiritually, but also emotionally and psychologically, for all that life throws at us. 


A lot has been written over the last few decades about the process of grieving, with the result that some people speak of the various “stages” of grief, as if they are exactly the same for everyone. We know that’s not true. We experience grief in different ways. We also deal with it in our own way and at our own pace.

Nevertheless, it is possible to recognise a range of emotions that are frequently experienced by grieving people. These include:

Regret and Guilt
Every human relationship is imperfect. There are no exceptions. There are things we meant to say - kind and appreciative things – that we didn’t get around to saying.

There are also words and actions we meant to undo, take back, or at least make up for, and we didn’t get around to that, either. Death comes along and we have to admit that, for all our good intentions, we failed to do what we knew was right. That’s painful. So is the realisation that we will never be able to change the way death left our relationship.

Sometimes those who grieve are very angry. Anger is a natural response to pain. It is natural to be hurt by the death of a loved one, and it is natural to want to strike out.

We can be angry with the person who has died (“Look at all the problems you have left me to deal with on my own!”)

We can transfer our anger onto those around us, snapping at our family and friends, and being cruel and sarcastic to them.

We can even turn on God, desperately, crying from within, “Why did you do this to me?”

We might feel ashamed of our anger, but we should remember that it is one of the most common emotions experienced during the initial months of bereavement.

It is possible to experience a sense of relief when a loved one dies, especially if they suffered a debilitating illness. This is perfectly understandable.

But we sometimes then feel guilty for experiencing that relief. We forget that we have every right to be grateful for the release from suffering that death can bring.

Two fears are often present when a loved one dies.

The first is fear of our mortality. The death of a loved one reminds us that one day it will be our turn. Most of the time we ignore this reality, but when someone close to us dies we are brought face to face with the fact that a time not of our choosing and under conditions over which we have no control, we, too, will die.

The second is fear of the future, especially when it is a spouse who has died. In marriage two people become “one flesh.” We don’t appreciate how real that union is until half of it dies. Death is like radical surgery. We are left emotionally and physically weaker, only half what we were before.  Widowed, wounded and alone, we gaze down the days and years ahead. They look empty, dark, and frightening.

Click HERE to go to Part 3

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Coping with Grief 01

In the mid 1980s, as a rural parish priest, I tried desperately to find a short, readable and helpful leaflet or booklet for people coping with grief who are - as we sometimes say - on the edge of church life. I visited the church bookshops in Melbourne and Adelaide to no avail. Of course, there were substantial volumes written for clergy and counselling professionals; but nothing for “the average Joe” who is never going to read a book like that.

I was very fortunate that parishioners had relatives in the town of Swan Hill, across the border in Bendigo Diocese, at a time when the parish priest there was the colourful and gifted communicator, Fr Max Bowers. On one of their visits to Swan Hill they brought back a collection of pew sheets and other material compiled by Father Max. Included was his little leaflet on grief. It was just what I was looking for!

In fact, Fr Max gave me permission to use his leaflet as the basis of an article on grief for my parish magazine. Subsequently I made copies of the article for use with bereaved families, and revised it a number of times. Then, during my fifteen years in Brisbane, I wrote and re-wrote the article, both for the parish magazine and also as a leaflet for use in ministry, adding new material each time. Well, for all of the additions and changes in wording, I think that Father Max would still recognize the passages inspired by his original leaflet. But there’s a lot more besides. Indeed, I recently did another serious rewrite. A few weeks ago in the aftermath of a funeral one person to whom I’d given a copy of the leaflet asked me why it isn’t on my blog, as she would like to give friends the URL for them to read it as well.

So, I have decided to publish it here over the next few days. Before long I’ll provide a link to the pdf of the leaflet itself. I hope you find it helpful.

“In the midst of life we are in death.” Those stark words from the old Church of England Prayer Book express only too well how we feel when someone we love dies. 

We are likely to be frightened and emotional - even volatile - especially if the death was unexpected and we are in a state of shock. For the sake of others we try to put on a brave face, while we ourselves feel trapped in a tunnel of darkness, blame, depression, and regret. Sometimes it seems as if we will stay trapped for the rest of our days.

Sooner or later most of us do come out the other end of that dreadful tunnel. We start to see the light again and, though still fragile and hurting on the inside, we tentatively take our first steps into the future. We even discover that working through our grief has made us stronger. 

It’s not so much that we “get over” it, for, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, when we love someone deeply, “the presence of [their] absence is everywhere.” In any case, because grief is born of love, it has a certain holiness, and ought not be indecently hurried. Paradoxically, the grief that makes us feel helpless and crippled can also nourish and affirm our sense of connectedness with the one who has died and all others whom we love. 

Stephanie Ericsson has said, “[Grief] is the ashes from which the phoenix rises . . . It returns life to the living dead.” 

But getting to that point can be hard work. We all have to do it at some stage of our lives. The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. Instinctively – sometimes after years of overlooking the spiritual side of life – many feel moved to open up to God, and although the pain is still there, and difficult questions about suffering and the apparent injustice of life remain unanswered, we begin to experience the wonder of his healing love and peace. Also, if we are wise, we accept the care and support of our family and friends.


A Christian funeral helps us to begin coping with the death of a loved one. The service itself can be very simple with only a handful of family members present; or it can be a huge celebration with lots of music, hymns, ceremonial - bells and smells! - and a packed church. Instead, it might take place in a crematorium chapel, or even entirely at the grave. 

The service is made up of prayers, Bible readings, a short sermon, and our commendation of the one who has died into God’s loving care. When the funeral takes the form of a Mass, we are also able to receive Holy Communion. 

Christian people tend to experience a mingling of sadness and joy at funerals. Our trust in God’s promises give us hope, but our grief is still real. Some mistakenly think that because we believe in Jesus and his resurrection we shouldn’t be sad at all. But even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:34-36). 

There are four things we do when we gather for a funeral:

1. We proclaim the Good News that the dying and rising of Jesus is his victory over sin and death, which, in his love, he shares with us. As one of the Church’s prayers puts it:

“In him [Jesus] who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. 
The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. 
Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. 
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death 
We gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

2. We honour the person who has died, giving thanks to God for all the signs of his love in their life.

3. We pray for our deceased loved one as they continue to grow in grace, experiencing God’s healing and cleansing in readiness for the full glory of heaven.

4. We give the bereaved the opportunity to share their grief, and we help them by surrounding them with love and prayer. 

A Christian funeral service seeks to do all this at once. It honours rich and poor alike, for in death we are equal. It helps us to anchor deeply into God’s love and to reach the point where we accept the reality of this particular death.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The act of killing: definitions of war crimes and sin

In an important review of a new film, The Act of Killing, Dr Justine Toh, Senior Research Fellow at Sydney’s Centre for Public Christianity, says that removing God completely from our modern discourse on justice will mean that many of our efforts to seek justice will be at best partial and incomplete: 

When confronted by the atrocities he committed in Indonesia in the 1960s, gangster Anwar Congo asks "Have I sinned? I did this to so many people", as he starts to cry. The 's' word jars on the modern ear, writes Justine Toh.

When Joshua Oppenheimer tried to make a film about the survivors of anti-communist purges in 1960s Indonesia no-one would talk to him for fear of reprisal.

Ask the killers themselves, they said. Oppenheimer did, and found ageing mass murderers living fat and happy off the spoils of war having never had to answer for their crimes.

So eager were they to crow about their pasts they agreed to make a film re-enacting their exploits according to Hollywood movie clich├ęs.

The Act of Killing, screening at the Sydney Film Festival, is the result. The documentary explores the stories we tell so that we can live with ourselves and yet also the way those fictions reveal truths we'd rather not face.

That's the journey undergone by Anwar Congo, a central figure of the film who was one of the most feared men of Indonesia's killing fields.

Early on, Anwar takes Oppenheimer up onto a roof to explain how he dispatched his victims. Bludgeoning them to death caused too much mess, he said, and so he devised a cleaner, more efficient technique inspired by the gangster films he loved: strangling them with wire . . . CONTINUE READING

Monday, June 10, 2013

Forward in Faith Looking to the Future - Bishop Jonathan Baker

On 15th April 2013 the Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn was packed for the Commissioning of Dr Colin Podmore as Director of Forward in Faith. I previously reported on this great celebration HERE. Today I share with you the sermon preached that night by the Bishop of Fulham and Chairman of Forward in Faith, the Rt Rev’d Jonathan Baker, published in this month’s New Directions, all of which may be read online or downloaded HERE


‘The content of the Tradition is one and the same,’ wrote St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, at the turn of the third century, ‘for the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those of the Iberians, nor those of the Celts, nor those in the East or Libya or Egypt, nor those established at the centre of the world.’ Perhaps a German-speaking Cornishman might especially appreciate this vision of the universality and catholicity of the Church, of the many languages and peoples of the earth united in the common truth revealed to us by Jesus Christ. And now our friend Colin Podmore comes to Gordon Square – surely established very near the centre of the world – to direct the work of Forward in Faith, and to further its vision, our vision, for unity and truth. Colin, we pray for you in this new work, and we anticipate with relish and with joy the good fruit which your appointment will bear, not just for Forward in Faith but for the whole of the Church of England and indeed the Church Catholic of which she is a part.


It should not surprise us that Colin has selected texts for this Mass – from the Common Worship ‘Ministry’ readings – of such theological richness and subtlety, which illuminate deeply the mystery of the Church. The Apostle, writing to the faithful in Ephesus (city of magicians) weaves together three great themes: the unity of the one Church in the one Spirit; the identity of the One who now sits in the heavenly places, filling all things with himself, with the Christ who came down to earth; and the intimate connection between this same Christ, descended and ascended again, with the Church which is his Body. 

That part of Ephesians 4 read for the Epistle this evening opens with that Irenaean note: amidst the many languages, cultures, and nations of the world, there is but one faith, received from the one Lord, transmitted by one baptism, all people having one God and Father. And Christ, Christ that Morning Star who came back from the dead, as we sing at the Great Vigil of the Passover of the Lord, has ascended in his humanity to the heavenly places that he might distribute gifts: gifts for the strengthening of the Body of which he is Head. The gifts are many and diverse, but they are given for the sake of unity, they are given that the Church might indeed be a people brought into unity: one Body, one Spirit, one God and Father of all. 


Paramount among the gifts given to the Body is that of the means whereby the Lord’s own teaching may be continued and handed on: the apostolic ministry, the first named in the great symphony of Ephesians 4. The apostolic teaching and the apostolic ministry are alike pastoral in intent: they are given to guard Christ’s faithful from every breeze of teaching and the craftiness of men. But still more importantly, they are given that the Body may display all the more abundantly the highest gift of all, the gift of charity. They are given for the increase and abounding of Love. 

In tonight’s reading from the Gospel of St John, the evangelist draws us more deeply still into the relationship between Christ, the Church and the gift and virtue of charity. Jesus speaks of the intimate union between him and those who would follow him. ‘Abide in me and I in you . . . I am the vine, you are the branches.’ There exists a mysterious and real communion between the vine which is the Lord and the branches which are the disciples, the branches which we are: and that unity, that communion, is Love: the love which unites Father and Son in the interior life of the Godhead. And for St John as for St Paul, these intimate relationships of communion in love, Father with Son and Son with disciples, do not produce a closed system, a steady state, but rather serve to enable the outpouring of grace and love over all creation: go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. 


So as we step back and survey the heights of the mystical ecclesiology of the apostle and the evangelist, without becoming too dizzy and losing our heads, we find a receiving – the receiving of gifts; an entrusting – with teaching and ministry; and a sending out, to bear fruit in love. All of this knits together very well (to borrow the Pauline metaphor) at this Mass when we celebrate a commissioning: a word which has roots in the Latin committere, to entrust – we are trusting our new Director with a gift to be received and a work to be done – but which itself relates of course to the verb mittere, to send, from which we get our word ‘mission.’ Entrusted with gifts, we are sent to bear fruit: that is the basic pattern of Christian service: and it applies as well to a new Director as to any other ministry among the baptized. 

So – and he’s coming to it at last, you might be thinking – what is the gift with which our new Director is to be entrusted, and what is the work he is to be sent to do? How will we know whether it has borne fruit? What might the fruit taste like? Forward in Faith, which I have described before as the Marmite among ecclesiastical organizations, loved and loathed in equal measure, is still a fledgling society, barely twenty years old, and yet which has achieved so much in a short time (and here again we must acknowledge the immense contribution of Colin’s predecessor Stephen Parkinson). It necessarily inhabits a space which is paradoxical, even contradictory; the paradox is not hard to spot. The officers of Forward in Faith, the Council, clerical and lay, and, I trust, every single member share the vision – dare I say it – which we have found in Epistle and Gospel tonight: the unity of the Church, the transmission of the Lord’s own teaching by means of the apostolic ministry, the absolute inescapability of the importance of communion, with the Lord and with one another, in the Christian life. 


So why Marmite, rather than apple pie? Who could disagree with any of this? Well, of course, because alongside these spiritual and ecclesiological ambitions, Forward in Faith is perceived to be a pressure group, and, in the eyes of many, a pressure group with a negative and backward-looking agenda. It is a tragedy, and an astonishing one at that, given a moment’s thought, that we – and here I mean all of us in the Church of England – should have come to this: that faithful Anglicans who are inspired by convictions which the whole of our Church still affirms in her title deeds and carries in her DNA should be perceived by some as disloyal, a fifth column perhaps. No doubt blame – like gifts – can be distributed across the whole Body. 

Forward in Faith will continue to speak the truth in love about those issues which exercise us, because of their impact, as we see it, on the unity and apostolicity of the Church: we ask to be heard with an equal love; we further ask that, difficult as our message is for some – including some whose presence we are so delighted by here this evening – we are judged by the best motives and intentions which can be construed from our understanding of the common faith which unites us all in Christ and which we are all called together to proclaim. If that is by way of appeal to brothers and sisters in Christ who will not agree with us about everything, then let me conclude with another to officers and members of Forward in Faith which now begins a new phase in its young life. Let us never give anyone the excuse to suggest that we are simply another churchy pressure group. If that is how we present ourselves, then the world will take no notice of us and our brothers and sisters in Christ will not listen. At every turn, we must abide in love. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you.’ The Lord of the Church speaks these words to every disciple, not just those with whom we happen to agree. Can we live by that, as we seek, guided by our new Director, to prosper the work of Forward in Faith for a new generation?  


This packed church – and how grateful we are to Fr Smith for his hospitality – reveals this evening an awesome spectacle: the People of God of every age, women and men, priests and people, led in worship by the Bishops of our even newer Society, with which Forward in Faith has already pledged itself to work very closely. It does not feel, if I may be so bold, like the meeting of a pressure group, but rather the joyful – and remember St John’s promise of joy given in tonight’s Gospel – assembly of the saints of God; or those on their way to be saints. (Some have further to travel than others.) The questions which I, the Vice-Chairman, the other Fr Smith, and brother bishops, will put to Colin in a few moments point to the most positive programme for our life together. I will not rehearse them now, but listen carefully when the time comes, and take to heart all that is spoken. 

I spoke a moment ago of the paradox of where Forward in Faith sits in the life of the Church: deeply committed to the widest, most inclusive vision of unity and catholicity, that the world may believe and all come to Christ; yet having to defend what is – on ‘home territory’ at least – a minority position and even perceived as sectarian. It is then a huge challenge to Colin and to all of us to keep going, to keep going joyfully, and to keep on in love. The path is rocky, the stones are sharp. Toes are stubbed and feet bleed. Yet in the Scriptures we have heard tonight, there is the promise that all for which we long, hope and pray, has already come to pass: there is one body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. The apostle does not use the conditional but the indicative. God grant each one of us, and the whole Church, grace to work to uncover and reveal, and never to distort and obscure, that which God himself has given.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

When prayer is a struggle

We are all grateful when prayer lifts our hearts and souls, when we have times of spiritual refreshing, when we experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a real and powerful anointing, when the sense of the Lord’s presence brings joy, comfort, healing and strength. 

That can happen when we are deeply moved in worship with our church family; it can happen when we are alone in prayer. The Scriptures clearly teach that God gives us times of spiritual refreshing. In those times we should linger gratefully, just as we would if we had been trekking through a desert and came upon a beautiful oasis. We should drink. We should rest. We should allow ourselves to celebrate exuberantly. We should make the most of it. We should thank the Lord and intentionally use the blessings of the oasis to strengthen ourselves in case a drought-stricken wasteland lies ahead. That’s the rhythm of life; and it’s very often the rhythm of the spiritual life, too. 

We must be honest enough to admit that we have times when God seems a million miles away, and we cannot explain why. Our prayers, to use T.S. Eliot's expression, feel like “dead letters.” Then there are times when we have to deal with tragedy and undeserved suffering in our lives or in the lives of those we love. Even as Christians - especially as Christians - we try in vain to work out why life is so unfair, so unjust. Where is God in all the pain? Why didn’t he help? We search for answers and can't find any. Like the Psalmist we go through stages of being very angry with God. On top of all that, many struggle with cycles of ordinary depression and fear. It’s no wonder that sometimes we don’t even want to pray! 

We have to remind ourselves that the heroes in the Bible, as well as the great Saints and spiritual guides down through the centuries went through these same times of struggle and frustration in prayer, not to mention pain and suffering far more intense than what most of us will ever have to experience. Actually, the remarkable thing about Christian history is that the hard bits haven’t been edited out of the story! But from the writings of these men and women we know that whatever the problems are - physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual - God’s love can and will win through, eventually. Our part is to persevere and hang on in naked faith, surrendering to God and allowing the mystery of his love to do its healing work in us. That’s how we grow. We shouldn’t give up just because we find it difficult. 

We WILL have problems and struggles. Our relationship with God is a bumpy road some of the time. So it’s a good idea for us to ask those who have been on the journey a little longer for support. Seeing our priest is a good start. We should speak to him about our joys as well as our sorrows. He might suggest that we meet with him from time to time, or with another priest, pastor, religious brother or sister, or a lay person who has special gifts in the ministry of “spiritual direction” (even if that's not the term they use). Confiding in a such a person on a regular basis can help us begin to understand what God is doing in our life.

Even when praying is NOT difficult for us - when we feel as if we are living in bliss at the oasis - it's a good idea to have someone like that from whom we can learn.

I now share with you one of the best no-nonsense passages about our varied experience of prayer. It is from the little book Rule For a New Brother, written by by Dutch Blessed Sacrament Father, H. Van Der Looy. Rule For a New Brother was given to me in 1974, and it has been a mainstay of my life ever since. Subsequent editions have a foreword by Henri Nouwen. It’s well worth purchasing HERE.

“The Lord Jesus himself will teach you
how you should pray.

“He is the creative word
which you may receive 
in the silence of your heart
and the fruitful soil of your life.  
Listen attentively to what he will say;

“Be swift to carry out
what he will ask of you.

“You have been promised his Spirit
who will bear your poor little efforts
before the throne of grace;  
and into the intimacy of the Living God . . .

“Your prayer will take countless forms
because it is the echo of your life,
and a reflection of the inexhaustible light
in which God dwells . . .

“You want to seek God with all your life.
And love him with all your heart.
But you would be wrong
If you thought you could reach him.
Your arms are too short; your eyes are too dim;
Your heart and understanding too small.

“To seek God means first of all
to let yourself be found by him.
He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
He is the God of Jesus Christ.
He is your God,
not because he is yours
but because you are his.

“Your prayer is therefore not so much a duty
as a privilege;
a gift rather than a problem
or the result of your own efforts.

“So don’t tire yourself out 
looking for beautiful thoughts or words, 
but stay attentive before God 
in humility and expectation, 
in desire and purity of heart 
full of joy and hope. 

“Your prayer will take countless forms. 
because it is the echo of your life, 
and a reflection of the inexhaustible light 
in which God dwells. 

“Sometimes you will taste and see 
how good the Lord is.
Be glad then, and give him all honour,
because his goodness to you has no measure.

“Sometimes you will be dry and joyless
like parched land or an empty well.

“But your thirst and helplessness 
will be your best prayer
if you accept them with patience
and embrace them lovingly.

“Sometimes your prayer will be an experience
of the infinite distance
that separates you from God;
sometimes your being and his fullness
will flow into each other.

“Sometimes you will be able to pray
only with your body and hands and eyes;
sometimes your prayer will move
beyond words and images;
sometimes you will be able
to leave everything behind you
to concentrate on God and his Word.

“Sometimes you will be able to do nothing else
but take your whole life and everything in you
and bring them to God

“Every hour has its own possibilities
of genuine prayer.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

New Texas Bible converts "you" to "y'all" when translating the plural

Now I’ve seen everything! There is a new app called “Texas Bible” which replaces “you” with “y’all” in English bible translations wherever the original language used a second-person plural. 

John Dyer, its creator, explains:

As a preteen on my first visit out of the South, I remember hearing giggles from some people on the New York Subway whenever I spoke. Since I grew up in a large city, I knew that I didn’t have a traditional Texas twang, so it took me a while to realize what was so funny – my use of the word “Y’all” to refer to a group of friends.

Fast forward 20 years, and just about any time I teach from the Scriptures I have to point out a place where the English Bible says “you,” but the original Hebrew or Greek indicates you plural rather than you singular. This means the original author was addressing to a group of people, but a modern English reader can’t detect this because in common English we use “you” for both singular (“you are awesome”) and plural (“you are a team”). This often leads modern readers to think “you” refers to him or her as an individual, when in fact it refers to the community of faith.

Here in Texas (and in the Southern US more generally), I tell my audience that we have a perfect equivalent to the original Greek/Hebrew second person plural: “y’all” the contraction of “you all.” This of course always gets me a good laugh. And this is not unique to the Southern US – many other areas of the English speaking world also have spoken forms of you plural such as “you guys,” “yinz,” and “you lot.”

A few weeks ago, I decided to see how many times this happens. It turns out there are at least 4,720 verses (2,698 in the Hebrew Bible and 2,022 in the Greek) with you plural translated as English “you” which could lead a reader to think it is directed at him or her personally rather than the Church as a community.

So I initially set out to develop a plugin for a Bible software project that would convert all “You plurals” to “Y’all” for my Bible project. I liked it so much I decided to create a Google Chrome extension that does the same thing for some popular Bible websites (,,