For ten days or so in August, it appeared that Brexit was not the only topic to divide national opinion but whether the decision to install a helter skelter within the Nave of Norwich Cathedral was really a good or a bad idea! Certainly, The Dean, The Very Revd Jane Hedges, appeared to be enjoying herself as she came swishing down the slide accompanied by a number of her Cathedral’s choristers captured on the BBC’s national news, but the wisdom of such a move was soon brought into question by The Right Revd Dr Gavin Ashenden (former chaplain to the Queen), who thought that the whole enterprise ‘smacked of desperation’ as the Cathedral tried to tempt visitors through its doors. He was concerned that the apparent frivolity of the helter skelter detracted from the holiness of the place; the awesome nature of God and the seriously sacrificial nature of the Gospel as demonstrated by Jesus and his death upon the cross. The vast and awesome nature of the Cathedral space with its north and south transepts symbolically representing the cross could and should encourage people to look upwards and prayerfully contemplate the presence of God – if only they weren’t distracted!
Ironically, this inspirational aspect of the building was not lost on the Cathedral staff whose campaign was entitled ‘Seeing it differently’, encouraging people to use their imaginations as they saw the Cathedral from a new perspective engageing with its structure and ‘salvation story’ as they admired its ancient roof bosses which depict the whole Bible story from Genesis to Revelation – all easier to see from the slide’s 40ft high viewing platform.
In response to Gavin Ashenden’s criticism, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University observed that although some would think that the installation of the helter skelter was ‘trendy’ and a somewhat ‘undignified’ attempt to appeal to people in an increasingly secular society, in reality Cathedral attendances are growing and “so this shouldn’t be seen as a desperate attempt to get people in the building”.
So what is it? Well in my view – it is a joyful invitation! It’s a joyful invitation not only to encourage people into the building – but to make them feel welcome and what could be more welcoming than effectively saying ‘here you are – ride this! It’s fun!’ So many people, even Christians, tend to think of God as a great big killjoy and nothing could be further from the truth. God himself knows joy and he wants his people to know joy too. Psalm 104.31 speaks of God as rejoicing in all of his creative works – and what is the pinnacle of his creation? We are! Of course we should naturally respect God and honour his name but we should never, ever forget that God rejoices in us – because in and through Christ he loves us. Of course, being welcomed into the Cathedral is one thing, but if through that one visit, experience or conversation someone finds faith in God and wants to know more about the Cathedral, and it’s worship then how much more glorious and joyful is that! A simple welcome into the Cathedral becomes a joyful invitation into the ‘Kingdom of God’. So, perhaps for a mere ten days the helter skelter in the Nave should be viewed not so much a distraction to heartfelt worship and prayer – but as a warm invitation and proper attraction to it.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may he rejoice in all his works. Psalm 104.31
Long before Donald Trump coined the phrase ‘Fake News’ (dismissing whatever is inconvenient), British politicians were juggling with ‘spin’ and ‘spin doctors’, as certain individuals or political parties tried to get their own political message across in the most favourable way possible, whilst portraying competing projects, events and points of view negatively. ‘Project Fear’ is perhaps one of the most recent and prominent examples of this where politicians favouring a ‘no deal’ Brexit consider the arguments presented by Remainers as scaremongering, whereas those in favour of remaining portray Leavers as chasing after unicorns and duping the public (arguing therefore that many of those who voted to leave didn’t really understand the implications of what was put before them). Naturally, this is seen as patronising twaddle by those who voted ‘leave’. All of this has been magnified by television, social media and the internet to fever pitch. However, the stakes have been significantly raised by Conservative politicians each vying to be the next Prime Minister with many leaning towards a harder or no-deal Brexit in the light of the recent European elections. But this has caused many on the opposition benches and those wanting to remain in the EU to highlight all the more fervently the perils of a no deal Brexit and falling off the so-called ‘cliff edge’.
The problem is of course that we are not homogeneous human beings – we all come to life with our own particular values and perceptions, but in the game of politics, many of our politicians are deliberately selective, trying to promote their own particular viewpoint or party-line to gain some sort of party or personal advantage. It’s therefore very difficult for members of the general public to ‘see the wood for the trees’ and discern the impartial truth. The BBC may try to give us its own ‘reality check’ but many people are still wary of fake news and ‘media spin’ and therefore find it hard to discern fact from fiction. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that people want honest politicians but discerning the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is very hard.
With so much at stake it’s becoming increasing important that we should trust the politicians who represent us – and honesty is paramount, because it’s honest and transparent politicians who garner the greatest trust and respect. As someone who the Bible describes as being ‘full of grace and truth’(John 1.14)it’s not surprising that Jesus encouraged his disciples to be equally open and honest, advising them not to make promises that they can’t keep but urging them to simply, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5.37). Biblically speaking it’s not just cleanliness which is close to godliness but truthfulness, whereas lies and deceit generate confusion and are much more likely to be destructive. So let us do our best to discern the fact from the fiction, the fake news from reality and when it comes to determining our future, let us call for less political spin and more honesty and truth from our politicians and then vote for those who do so.
He whose walk is blameless … speaks the truth from his heart. Psalm 15.2
It was with a great deal of sadness that millions watched the iconic Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame go up in flames on Monday 15th April 2019 via their televisions, computers and smartphones. It seemed incredible to think that this wonderful cathedral that had taken over 200 years to build was essentially destroyed in a mere 30 minutes. It felt like something out of a movie or a bad dream. Many French citizens were in tears and disbelief as they witnessed this terrible event unfold but huge credit should be paid to the firefighters and others who were trying against the odds to save as many of the priceless art and religious antiquities as they could whilst others were trying to save and preserve the actual building. Yes, France may pride itself on it’s secular education but this tends to hide the fact that over 2/3rds of the population still identify themselves as Christian predominantly Roman Catholic – but equally it has to be said that to the French, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame represents so much more than being simply a place of religious devotion. It represents their nation, their heritage, their architecture, their culture and their wonderful way of life – and so it comes as no surprise that almost immediately President Macron committed himself and the whole of France to rebuilding and restoring the Cathedral.
“So I say this very solemnly to you tonight, we will rebuild this cathedral all together – and it is undoubtedly part of the French destiny …. we will rebuild Notre-Dame.”
Thankfully, in the cold light of day it appeared that despite great damage, the structure was basically sound and donations large and small were coming in from across France and indeed the world for its repair.
But what is it that drives the human spirit to want to commit itself to such projects? For even in our own country, we have historically seen the rebuilding of Coventry and York Cathedrals damaged by fire, as well as Windsor Castle. It seems for all sorts of reasons we have an innate, inbuilt desire to rebuild, capture and preserve these majestic and ‘glorious’ buildings because they represent the triumph of victory over adversity and they speak to our heart and soul – and so we naturally wish the French every success in their efforts to overcome the disaster that has befallen them. There is of course a parallel to be found in the Christian faith, for just as President Macron said, ‘we will rebuild this cathedral all together’, the Christian will be aware that this is precisely the task given to every believer – to help collectively and together to build a Kingdom, a temple, a church, not with actual bricks and stones (because these are transitory and prone to damage and decay) but with ourselves as human ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2.5), joyfully working together in hope and celebrating the victory that Christ has won over sin by his death upon the cross. For the Christian appreciates that it is what is built in Christ’s name for the common good which is the most successful, eternally praiseworthy and enduring.
In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. Ephesians 2.21
THE NATIONS MORALS ARE LIKE ITS TEETH, THE MORE DECAYED THEY ARE THE MORE IT HURTS TO TOUCH THEM” – George Bernard Shaw
At the start of the year many of us made New Year’s resolutions and will do our best to keep them as the year progresses (lose weight; give up smoking; pass a driving test or embark on a new career etc, etc). Sometimes our thoughts are more reflective as we consider our place in the world and the lives of those around us, often culminating is a silent prayer for the world to be more peaceful, kinder and charitable than it was the year before. Sadly it doesn’t seem long before the very next calamity or personal tragedy pops up on our television screens or appears in our newspapers to dampen our New Year optimism. ‘What has the world come to?’ we say; ‘Doesn’t the world have any standards?’; ‘Things weren’t like this when we were young!’
What we are doing is lamenting the passing of standards or a moral code by which people commonly live; a moral backdrop, climate or culture which protects us from the negative excesses of society. And yet to speak about morals makes us feel uneasy. We don’t like it! We don’t like people interfering with the way that we live our lives or questioning our standards, or the way we behave – we just simply don’t like being preached at!
The problem is made all the worse because we don’t know or perhaps can’t agree on what standards are acceptable. This is because we have made relativity a virtue in its own right! There is no such thing as absolute right or wrong, just what is right or wrong for me. We are all like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” who said “When I use a word …. it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. The problem with each person choosing their own set of values as if ‘no one else matters’ is, that ultimately they don’t – each person does their own thing and can’t be held responsible for going their ‘own way’ even if the effect is to hurt or grieve another.
You don’t have to be necessarily rigid or religious to appreciate the need for a common set of values, and yet as a Christian minister I can’t think of any better guide to live by than those found in Scripture, based upon the message of a loving creator who nurtured the understanding that each person ‘made in his image’ was therefore special. So special that through the life, death and ministry of Jesus, God demonstrated his love for the world and encouraged his followers to do the same. Perhaps the answer to the world’s moral malaise (at least in our own small corner) lies not just in what we do but in what we believe. It always, always starts with us.
“ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Mark 12.30-31
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED TRY, TRY AGAIN seems to be the Prime Minister’s mantra as she tries to get her Brexit deal through Parliament – which seems to be a herculian task given the fact that Parliament had already voted against it by 432 votes to 202 – the biggest government defeat ever known. This immediately led to the leader of the opposition tabling a ‘Vote of No Confidence’ which was also roundly defeated. So, the Prime Minister has the ‘confidence of the house’ but not the power to proceed with her proposed deal which had taken her and her government two years to negotiate. Confusion reigns as politicians and the public alike ponder ‘where do we go from here?’
Typically, most people in such a situation would seek a compromise, but unfortunately the problem fundamentally doesn’t really lend itself to one. Like the Brexit referendum of two years ago, we are still left really with the binary choice of ‘do we stay or do we leave?’ Perhaps in reality, the slogan used by Boris Johnson of ‘having one’s cake and eating it’ whilst Foreign Secretary highlights the Achilles heel of our negotiations; one immediately spotted by the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier who was unequivocally opposed to the UK ‘cherry picking’ what it did and didn’t want. Our politicians should have not only recognised the result of the referendum but embraced wholeheartedly the intrinsic nature and logic of it as spelt out by the simple Leave means Leave campaign slogan. Then our negotiators might have made more positive headway in the discussions, but instead the constant desire to keep ‘as close a tie as possible’ with the EU, and find a middle way, has spectacularly backfired and come back to haunt it. Unfortunately, there is now no potential solution (Norway, Canada, rescinding article 50, or a second referendum) which doesn’t severely undercut somebody’s redline or in my personal opinion fundamentally undermine the democratic process.
The King James Version of the Bible rather poignantly states that‘where there is no vision the people perish’(Proverbs 29.18) and we are in danger of seeing this in reality. The sharing of thoughts views and opinions is of course fundamentally important, but without a clear sense of direction, leadership and vision, we will always struggle. Instead of constantly grand-standing on an issue of such national significance, our politicians should humbly come and work together. Those who aren’t in positions of power and authority shouldn’t act as if they were, but positively try to encourage those who do have the power to make the best decision possible – and those with the power and authority should humbly listen to all sides and respect the fact that they are required to act on behalf of the nation.And we who are members of the general public should recognise the referendum result and prayerfully encourage them to do so. That’s democracy!
If my people …. humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven … forgive their sin and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7.14
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent speech to the TUC (Trade Unions Congress) to mark their 150th anniversary was well received by many who saw it as a wonderful example of the Church ‘speaking truth to power’ and standing up for the marginalised and the oppressed – and particularly workers’ rights. It was also heavily criticised by the Tories as being party political and not the sort of behaviour expected from an Archbishop. Indeed, Phillip Davies MP said“Mr Welby should quit his position as the head of the church and join the Labour Party properly if he wishes to comment on issues of government”, suggesting that the Archbishop“ought to consider removing his dog collar and replacing it with a Labour Party rosette”.
It always amazes me the number of times that we hear people (usually politicians) trot out the old adage that ‘Politics and Religion shouldn’t mix’ as if they have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and of course in reality this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. People of all descriptions have every right to challenge the authorities on political matters whenever necessary and Christians are no different. It’s just that their particular understanding of the world is inevitably coloured by their religious faith and perspective – a perspective which sees all people as equally important ‘made in the image of God’ and loved by him. Although nobody would suggest that Christians have a monopoly on moral goodness or social fairness, matters of mutual love and respect, service and justice are biblical themes repeatedly seen in the lives of the prophets, Jesus and the apostles as they sought to transform a broken and sinful world into ‘the Kingdom of God’. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once exclaimed that “I don’t know what Bible people are referring to when they say that politics and religion shouldn’t mix”, because the Bible is full of politics.
The simple fact is that Christians are not motivated to be a thorn in the side of any one political party, but all political parties if their programmes and policies undermine and speak in the face of Christian values and principles, and in truth this is what being a prophet is all about. It’s about bravely speaking God’s truth into the world wherever necessary without fear or favour, appropriately challenging and encouraging it in due portion. Indeed, the Apostle Paul always felt that his task was to preach on ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20.27) and he wouldn’t allow any ‘political’ party or those in authority to prevent him from doing so, for usually the people who make the loudest protest about the mixing of religion and politics are those who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Christian witness and would rather avoid the glare of its inspection.
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6.8