"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Giles Fraser: Prophet of our time and for our time.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey - now Lord Carey, retired some years ago. As a general principle I tend to think people who retire from very high profile jobs should keep a very low profile so as not to undermine their successors or their old organisation. Lord Carey has not always always managed to do this and there have been a number of occasions when I have suggested that he get an allotment to keep him occupied in his retirement.

His most recent comments, on the other hand, could not have been more welcome. On Friday he criticized the cathedral's handling of the protest, saying the situation had become a "debacle" that could hurt Christianity's image.

"The inevitable resignation of the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Giles Fraser ..... is a sad day for one of our great national churches. But the departure of this able man, and now the planned reopening of the cathedral, should at least bring to an end the hand-wringing and posturing of the past two weeks. My paramount concern throughout has been that the reputation of Christianity is being damaged by the episode, and, more widely, that the possibility of fruitful and peaceful protest has been brought into disrepute," Lord Carey wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. He went on to say, "For countless others, though, not least in the churches, this was a hopeful sign that peaceful protests could indeed take place at a time when so many civil liberties have been eroded. Furthermore, it demonstrated that the Church is willing to play a sympathetic role in the lives of young people who are drawn to a movement calling for economic justice.

Like many others in the Church, I have a great deal of sympathy for the raw idealism of the protesters. Their contention that the banks have not paid an equitable price for the damage caused, in part, by their reckless lending and profiteering strikes a powerful chord.

One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse health and safety bureaucracy of urban legend. How could the dean and chapter at St Paul’s have let themselves get into such a position?"
(The Daily Telegraph)

What's to disagree with there?

I opened my own newspaper - The Guardian - today to discover a large cartoon depicting the current staff of St. Paul's Cathedral, walking down its steps, lined by riot police and singing (with jazz hands) the words to Al Jolson's "Mammey" ("Mammey, how I love you, how I love you, my Dear Ol' Mammey") Except the word "Mammey" was changed to "Mammon".

On "Have I Got News For You" this week Ian Hislop quipped that the attitude of the staff at St. Paul's had been "Of course we stand with the poor, but the gift shop is losing money."

I've been following this story on the blogs, particularly on the excellent Wounded Bird and felt that enough was being published elsewhere that I had nothing particularly to add but it seems to me that a tide has turned and it has turned very much in favour of Giles Fraser, now technically unemployed. Who would have imagined so many collumn inches and so many profiles in the quality press devoted to Giles Fraser?

I am a great admirer but appreciate that those who are more conservative than I have not found him to their taste. However, such views as "Goodbye Giles Fraser, you won't be missed." (Gavin Drake, Bishop of Lichfield's press officer) are seeming to be not only triumphalist but premature. "Sod your colleagues, eh, Dr. Fraser? The important thing is that you hold on to your reputation as a man of principle." (Toby Young, writing in the Daily Telegraph and blaming Dr. Fraser for single handedly costing the Cathedral hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue) completely misses the point and in doing so makes Giles Fraser's point eloquently.

"I get fitted up as Wat Tyler, but I'm no radical." Dr. Fraser tells the Guardain. In relation to the root cause of the protest outside the Cathedral, he says, "Jesus is very clear that the love of money is the root of all evil ... Jesus wants to point us to a bigger picture of the world than simply shopping." He also noted, "I think there is a very clear question here to be addressed and the reason that the protesters have captured some of the public imagination is because a great many people think that something has gone wrong with the City of London and that the wealth generated by the City does not exist for the benefit of us all ..... As Christians you are called to engage with the world. That's the whole nature of the incarnation." He talked of St. Paul as a tentmaker by profession and noted "If you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus might be born - for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp (but) it is not about my sympathies, or what I believe about the camp. I support the right to protest and in a perfect world we could have negotiated ... the church can not answer peaceful protest with violence ... I can not countenace the idea that this would be about Dale Farm on the steps of the St. Paul's.." Which seems to take us back to Lord Carey and his concern that the reputation of Christianity has been tarnished. There is a certain irony that Dr. Fraser was appointed to St. Paul's, at least in part, to develop ethical thinking within the church.

Can you imagine the headlines and the photos as the police move in to clear the anti-capitalist "We are the 99%" camp? I can and it won't do the CofE - or the wider church any good at all. I am wondering how many times the word "hypocrites" would feature in the coverage.

And yet poll findings suggest that 65% of CofE members feet the church was right to welcome the protesters and now we have the ridiculous situation that the camp remains and the Cathedral, having negotiated to overcome some of its Health and Safety concerns, is once again open to the public.

You couldn't make it up.

Marina Walker, writing in the Guardain commented "Giles Fraser ... seems to be one of the few people in the Church of England who thinks deeply about how to apply Christian teaching to the real world." I think she is right and what an indictment of the church that is. "The situation cries out for St. Paul's clergy to seize the occasion, fling open the doors and hold more and more debate ... about justice, poverty and responsibility."

I'll leave the last word to News Thump:

St Paul’s chancellor resigns after committing act of tolerance

The chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral is to step down from his post after acting in a way that is supposed to be synonymous with the Christian faith.

Reports suggest that Canon Dr Giles Fraser, who has been sympathetic to the protest camp outside the London landmark, considers his position untenable after mistakenly practising what he preaches.

Dr Fraser, who angered other members of the clergy when he refused to sanction the use of force to remove the protesters, could also face separate allegations of forgiving people.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, said he was optimistic about reopening the cathedral as soon as any signs of clergy displaying the defining characteristics of Christianity were stopped.

“Love, tolerance and forgiveness are all well and good in theory, but they don’t pay the bills,” he insisted.

“We are currently losing £20,000 a day in donations as a result of these protesters.”

“The Church of England’s investments portfolio is currently worth only about £5.3bn, so as you can see, every penny counts.”

Speaking of the protesters, who have occupied the area around St Paul’s for the last 12 days, Reverend Knowles issued further criticism.

“I mean look at them,” he blasted.

“Long hair, beards, sandals, acting all preachy.”

“Who’s going to take any notice of anything they say?”

I note that there has been a further resignation from the staff of the Cathedral on the same grounds as Dr. Fraser. This looks set to run and run.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Presentation Evening at the Knowledge College

“Sir, do we have to copy all that out?”

Not again. How many times do we have to have this argument? I scan the board.

It’s only two sentences.

There is a pause while the individual concerned considers this.

“No. There are three.”

How do you work that out?

“The punctuation marks, of course.”

Show me.

“Well, there are two full stops and a comma.”

I am rendered temporarily speechless, then patiently explain the value of commas and full stops.

It’s still the same amount of writing in the end. As in NOT MUCH. GET A GRIP.

Towards the end of the lesson I note that Aaron (It’s pronounced Arran) - No actually it’s not – is looking set to explode. Aaron lives with a form of Autism and I watch out for him a lot. He is clearly not a happy bunny. I try to work out the reason for his discomfort. He is sitting near to three rather gossipy girls. Surely that isn’t it?

As the rest leave on the bell I ask Aaron to stop back.

I can see you’re not happy Aaron. Is it anything I can help with?

Aaron smoulders. He doesn’t make eye contact.

It’s those screaming harpies. It shouldn’t be allowed.”

Good vocabulary Aaron. Do I take it that you’d like to be moved in the room?

I demand it.”

Then it’s a deal.

Here at the Knowledge College we had our annual presentation evening last week. It is a nice occasion and every Head of Department is able to present effort and achievement awards to children in each year group.

Picture us: all the Heads of Department ranged on the stage in our best suits and frocks with the Head and the Chair of the Governors sitting at a separate table arrayed with shields and cups. We had listened to two of our talented musicians playing the piano and everyone was relaxed as the prize giving began. It was seamless as the youngsters came on stage in groups to receive their prizes, many having gone to a lot of trouble over their appearance, when, all of a sudden the lights went out.

Some good natured cat-calling later it was decided to proceed in the dark as the power was giving no indication that it was prepared to come on again. However there were some logistical issues, not least the steady procession of kids making their way across the stage without tripping over the feet of members of staff: what an ideal opportunity for payback!

“Do you like this kid?” Bill peered at his running order. “I could take him out. No one would know.”

There was a little laughing. It grew in volume. At this point I noticed the Head, his bum inelegantly stuck out towards the audience trying to read the cups and shields by the light of his mobile phone.

Things are really looking up.

Another procession of children stumbled by clutching an assortment of bling with the words of the Head’s stage whisper ringing in their ears. “Take this one. We’ll swap them over in daylight.”

A mysterious figure appeared on stage in an eerie glow. I knew the place was haunted and this one was particularly scary and ugly. But no, it was only one of the Assistant Heads clutching a torch he had liberated from a passing Site Services Operative who was, even as we realised the truth, valiantly struggling to bring light back to this darkened corner of Yorkshire.

Have you ever tried to play with electricity in the dark?


Steve’s hair’s been curly for a week - and he shaves his head!

The event was over and all too soon we were stumbling into the gallery for drinks and nibbles served and coordinated by the redoubtable Mrs. D. and Mrs. P. It was like a fairly grotto with tea lights everywhere and the ambiance of a posh restaurant. A triumph ladies.

Isn’t it amazing what a woman carries in her handbag on the off chance it might come in handy?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sunday Sermon: Jesus and the Roman Coin

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

You know how you get drawn in to the anecdotes and family stories of people you spend a lot of time with? Friends, colleagues and the like? I’ve shared the same office with three colleagues for a number of years: one Methodist, one Sikh and one Muslim. I was concentrating on some marking (this in itself is unusual what with marking being akin to spiritual death and about the only thing that might cause me take the name of the Lord in vain during a school day) and I half tuned in to this little tale believing I’d missed the start:

“ …. So the boy wanted £100.00 very badly.” (Is this his nephew? I wasn’t really listening.) “He prayed for two weeks but nothing happened. Then he decided to write God a letter requesting £100.00. When the Post Office received the letter addressed simply to God, they didn’t know how to respond so decided to send it to the Prime Minister.” (Now I’m taking notice.) “Mr. Cameron was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed Mr. Osborne to send the boy £5.00. Mr. Cameron thought that this would appear to be a lot of money to a small boy.” (He clearly doesn’t know the children I know.) “The boy was delighted with the £5.00 and immediately sat down to write a thank you note to God that read: "Dear God, Thank you very much for sending me the money. However, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it via the Inland Revenue and, as usual, they deducted too much.”

“What? Is this a true story?” I ask my Methodist friend. (He teaches Geography – enough said.)

The others look at me as if I am mad and there is some rolling of eyes. Not for the first time I had missed – and therefore messed up - a joke.
Ah, the Inland Revenue: of course no one likes paying taxes and this theme is very relevant to today’s Gospel reading.

Take a coin out of your pocket – go on, we’ve not had the collection yet. Look at any of the coins in your pocket and you will see on one side a portrait of the Queen surrounded by an inscription. It’s the same for the coinage of any country and its Head of State. This design reflects the coinage of imperial Rome where the portrait was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviation, included the emperor’s name and his titles.

As our Gospel story begins, we find Jesus again in the Temple teaching, and the stage is set for that Gospel drama where Jesus challenges his opponents by making reference to a Roman coin and in doing so raises for his disciples down the ages the vexed question of the relationship between religion and politics - or church and state if you prefer.

In this Gospel extract, we see members of two opposing first-century religious parties teaming up in an effort to trick Jesus. On one side of this unlikely alliance were the Herodians, Jews who support the local puppet ruler and who basically kept their power by cooperating with the occupying Roman government in the hope that compromise would ensure the survival of the Jewish people under Roman rule. They advocated paying the tax as a way of appeasing their Roman overlords.

On the opposite side of the debate stood the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who rigorously held to the teachings of the law of Moses and the prophets and who believed that compromising with a political power like Rome compromised the very faith of the Jews. The Pharisees, though not advocates of violent revolution, were loyal to Judaism and its God.
The Herodians put political expedience first; the Pharisees put the Jewish faith first.

So, it must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and seeking to trap him with the no-win question which began, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”

Now, you know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so Jesus must have been instantly on his guard. They wanted to force Jesus to side with one group or another: either with the revolutionaries working to drive out the Romans, or with the collaborators who profited from the occupation. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If he responded in favour of the Herodians, agreeing that taxes should be paid to Caesar, he would be seen by the Pharisees and many Jews as being weak on following the laws of Moses and as giving in to the oppressive government which was killing Jews. But if he sided with the Pharisees and agreed that taxes should not be paid to the Roman overlords, he could be accused of treason and he would lose the people’s respect.

Either way Jesus stood to lose. The question was a perfect trap.
Jesus recognizes their malice immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

One of the interesting things about this encounter is that Jesus never actually answers their question.

Someone passes Jesus a Roman coin. That doesn’t sound so odd to us today but the Temple had its own currency: inside the Temple, one of these religious leaders was carrying a coin bearing the head of the Emperor – who claimed to be divine. Such a coin should not have been carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images. And so Jesus trips them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness.

Jesus then gives his famous response. He lifts a tax controversy to a different level, well above the deadlock between revolutionary and collaborator. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” In other words, you can pay him this coin because his name and portrait appear on them so he has a just claim.

“… and give to God the things that are God’s” What belongs to God? Consider! If the emperor claims a coin that bears his image, then certainly God claims whatever bears his image. And what bears the image of God? Of course Pharisees and Herodians are familiar with the Scriptures. They know the Genesis account of how God makes humanity in the divine image. Interestingly, Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened to the coin and I have this picture of Jesus in an act of incredibly powerful symbolism saying “Give to God the things that are God’s” and putting the coin in his own pocket.

Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as …

Such as …

Well, us.

And there’s the problem.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians but his statement just raises more questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God? While I admire Jesus for giving an answer that, according to our text, leaves the questioners from both parties walking away amazed at his wisdom, I walk away from Jesus scratching my head in puzzlement. What kind of answer is this, Jesus? What are you saying by this cryptic response that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's?

It is right to pay the emperor taxes using coins with his image. But it is an even greater responsibility to give God what bears his image, namely oneself.

Certainly Christians down the ages have disagreed about what Jesus is saying here, and their different interpretations have led to very different understandings of how the Christian faith and politics should or shouldn't mix.

Was Jesus suggesting, as some have argued, that we as people of faith live in two separate worlds, two separate political realms, the realm ruled by Caesar and the realm ruled by God, and that we are to go through life recognizing the divides between the two and doing our best to keep them separate? Such thinking has led some Christians to argue that topics related to politics have no place in the pulpits of Christian churches.

When political authority tries to muzzle the church on political matters and when the church acquiesces, the very prophetic witness that lies at the heart of the ministries of Jesus and the prophets is always in danger of being silenced or compromised. You may remember the contoversy that the publication of the report “Faith in the City” caused in the 1980s. An unnamed Conservative Cabinet Minister was reported as dismissing the report, before it was published, as "pure Marxist theology" and another claimed the report proved that the Anglican Church was governed by a "load of Communist clerics". Margaret Thatcher famously decried the Church's comments. The spin then was, as always, the church should stick to spiritual matters and stay out of politics.

Only recently the Archbishop of Canturbury has been accused of “meddling in politcs” by a government which had not taken kindly to being told “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” But, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "When people tell me the Bible is not about politics, I ask myself, do they read the same Bible as I do?"

Back to the gospel: I don't think Jesus was answering the question those two political parties were asking him that day. I think he was telling them that they were asking the wrong question.

The real question is: "What does it mean to be a true follower of the God revealed in Jesus Christ? To be one who belongs to God heart, soul, mind and strength. And what would it mean if you allowed that identity to shape everything you do in the political arena?"

This drama does not answer all questions about what it means to be both a citizen in society and a Christian. It does not resolve every dilemma about obedience and resistance. But it does make clear what moral inquiry must take first place: Do I give myself to God? Am I in right relationship to God?

If the answer to these last two questions is “yes,” then perhaps I can live justly in my other relationships, complex and challenging though they may be. If the answer is “no,” if I have somehow defrauded God, then everything else in my life will be out of line, and whatever my good intentions, I cannot live justly with others.

Certainly there are limits such an identity would place upon us in the political arena. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means that we cannot go along with policies that we believe to be against the will of God. We must speak out against them, as Jesus and the prophets consistently did in their own day. Lying in order to provoke war, torturing people in the name of national security, turning a deaf ear to the cries of asylum seekers and refugees, these things are not of God, and I see no way we can justify them in his name.

Nor can we go into the polling station, only looking out for our own self interests. The real question for Christians is not: what's in this election for me? The real question for Christians is: what is in this election for all of God's children, and especially for the least of these, those for whom Christ had special compassion.

We also seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” The God of Jesus has a claim on all of life. So if God demands all of life, what is left to render unto Caesar?


Get rich quick scam

I started the day with Yr 7 yesterday. I like Yr 7 very much. They are eleven and they make me laugh.

"Sir, I'm ever so sorry but I've lost my pen. Could you lend me one?"

Now, anticipating that kids would, from time to time, lose a pen or have their pen run out on them, I have been buying packs of biros. (There are always also, of course, the willfully penless.)

I can do better than that. I can sell you one for 10p. Brand new and never been used. Guaranteed to last quite a while.

Lexie looks doubtful until I show her the pen. It is a basic plastic biro but the plastic is silver.

I can see her mind working. The turning cogs reveal the thought process which include the words "shiny" and "pretty".

"Can I buy two?"

Certainly. It's always good to have a spare.

"Sir, can I buy one too?"

"And me?"

"Sir can you change a pound? Never mind I'll have 10."

"Can I get one for my mum?"

Word travels fast.

"Sir, have you got any of those silver pens?"

The boys in Yr 9 think they look futuristic and a bit space-agey. My bottom set Yr 11 just think they are cool.

"I've not had a pen all year so far." confides one. "But I like this."

"Yeah, its a bit like mirror." my Barbie look-alike observes.

As I watch her peering at it and preening her hair, I ponder how she intends to put on more lippy using a metalic silver biro as a mirror. She succeeds admirably.

As I walk to the car park at the end of the day I realise I am listing to the left.

I am richer by £4.20. Mainly in 10p pieces.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The joy of multiculturalism

I was in the staff room on Friday morning waiting for the briefing to begin. As usual I was sitting with Jagtar, Wayne and Martin. The conversation got around to eating out. Remembering my birthday meal I told the others:

I'm going for a curry tonight.

"Me too." said Martin.

"And me." said Wayne.

As one man we turned to look at Jagtar.

"I'm off out for fish and chips."