Prayer belongs in the Home – A Rant

I am regularly hearing the line that goes something like this “we as Nonconformist do not use our churches for private prayer we do that at home” The implication being that Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholics only pray in church buildings. I am needing to call you out on this. It is not true, personal devotion in church does not discourage personal devotion at home. Indeed the two go hand in hand.

Firstly I left the URC recently after over Forty years of attending and having had a deep attachment. Indeed I still keep a role for the URC and at times act on its behalf. I had worshipped in all sorts of URC churches. I have been to evangelical ones and to liberal ones. I have been to ones with Presbyterian heritage and ones with Congregational heritage. I have been to small churches and large churches.

I did pray at home while I was a URC member but the support I got from the local church to do so (excluding my parents’ own practice) was practically nil. I got support to study the bible as a teenager at home although I cannot remember much of that as an adult. I did the TLS course which included a personal year and a social year but that again was not the local church. Encouragement to be involved in social action was widespread, encouragement to join with corporate meetings including prayer meetings happened. Occasionally courses on how to pray. But things that supported private devotion at home was nil, indeed it seemed to be a taboo topic. As if to talk about it makes us automatically hypocritical.

I am now in an Anglo-Catholic church. I meet weekly to pray the rosary with others. This is the prayer meeting that is there. This is where the needs of the church are prayed for, where we pray the church will be guided by God and not led into times of trial. This is where personal prayer requests are shared. However, this is not a coming together for doing our weekly prayer slot. The rosary is the ‘office of the people’. The group teaches people to pray the rosary and then encourages them to pray it at other times. You can pray it up to four times a day. One member prays it at least every day and for me, it is a way to connect in with a worldwide network of prayer when I am highly anxious but I try to pray it at other times weekly as well. All those times are not in church. The church gives away rosaries to anyone interested in praying it with no requirement to come to the rosary group. In other words, the rosary is a pattern of prayer people are encouraged to pray at home.

The other part of the “office of the People” is the Angelus which gives three times of prayer daily, rising, noon and 6:00 pm but takes a couple of minutes. Some Catholic and Anglo-Catholic church will ring the bells for this to remind people.

Let me next take you to my style of prayer, the office. For those who do not know the terminology, this is following a formal pattern of prayer at least once a day but up to seven times. Since I was a teenager this for me has meant at least morning and evening prayer. Now for those who think this means that I have been joining Mattins and Evensong each day, let me assure you that public celebration at this congregation as with most CofE congregations is not a daily occurrence. Just before lockdown, we had evening prayer twice a week and morning prayer once. That had grown over the previous year from just evening prayer once a week and I never made the morning prayer. The vicar however does try to be faithful to his Office and we know this, partly because he will put up a prayer on social from it when he has appreciated it, partly because he mentions when he struggles and partly because he is open about saying the office when we are at church for a long time during the day e.g. over Easter. Other people in the congregation have slowly caught on and are trying the office for size. Plus we have a few like myself who naturally are drawn to the office. It is organic and largely at home but we are aware we are praying with others in so doing.

Add onto this that the vicar has run an Advent course on prayer and then there have been two meditation courses. Also, the vicar will mention occasionally suggested ways of prayer during the sermon. One is simply to invoke the Trinity on rising and going to bed as a way of giving the whole day to God. Plus there are leaflets on prayer at the back of the church for anyone to pick up.

That gives some idea of how prior to the current pandemic private prayer at home was encouraged in an Anglo-Catholic congregation. I now need to deal with how lockdown affected it. There were two issues at lockdown. Firstly to keep contact with the sacramental life of the church primarily with Communion and secondly to develop people’s personal prayer lives at home.

With respect to the Mass two things happened. Firstly the vicar started streaming mass every day! It is do-able but tough on the vicar. The face he was streaming mass meant that we also picked up other streamed services such as the Pope’s exceptional Urbi et Orbi in March. However, the vicar also just before lockdown started encouraging us to think about making spiritual communion. This did two things. One it gave us a way to feel we were not simply watching but participating in the Eucharist. It also pointed us to preparing for Eucharist by reading and meditating on the words of scripture for the day at home. As a result I think many people are actually praying more often at home.

The second was a deliberate attempt to encourage personal private prayer. Two packs went out during the intense period of lockdown with resources for personal prayer. Including such things:

  • as a Divine Mercies Poster, the poster bears the signature “Jesus I trust in you” and is for display;
  • a copy of the parish rosary booklet with a litany specifically written by a member for these times
  • an act of contrition, which was an essential addition for those who avail themselves of the confession and therefore would want a way to do the preparation for confession even when not able avail oneself of it.

The second thing we did on Zoom, after the weekly business church wardens meeting, was to continue the rosary group which immediately increased by one individual who was furloughed. The vicar also in the early days made a practice of saying evening prayer with individuals each evening. This might be from within the congregation or without the congregation. Then the Church Union put up a page with resources for people and parish during the pandemic. Also the weekly newsletter each week encourages us to share something about our personal devotional life whether it is where we pray at home, our favourite hymn, saints who have influenced us or something that brought us joy. In other words, we are encouraged to share something of our devotional life.

Let me be clear this has not been our sole response to the pandemic. The Parish Nurses have been busy in unexpected ways and the church has set up a discretionary fund to help people in financial difficulties, the congregation rings around all members each week, there are coffee and catechism meetings after Sunday Mass by Zoom and there is developing a book club for spiritual reading. We are fortunate that nobody has died within the congregation but we do have members who are shielding and members who suddenly were income less with the lockdown. What I want to make clear is the prominence of personal prayer at home has played both before the pandemic and in the congregation’s response to it.

Yes, we will be pleased to have the ability to open churches for personal prayer. Some of us have been deliberately shaping our walks so we pass by the church as part of our personal devotion. The reason is not the building, so much as that it contains the blessed sacrament. Symbolically the blessed sacrament plays the role that the URC so often uses the Bible for, a sign of what is central to our faith. However, personal prayer in church is not something we do instead of personal prayer at home. To my parish, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The practice of one supports the practice of the other.

My experience would suggest that there is more personal prayer happening in the homes of Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics than URCs simply because we are being supported in doing it. So my challenge for those who claim that “we have homes for personal prayer” is how have you supported your members in doing so during these times?

Another Statistic

This is my mum some twenty years ago holding her grandson. This weekend you would have had her mentioned. Not by name but as one of the many who make up the statistics on those who were positive for Covid-19 and who died from it.

This is not a rant about numbers instead of people, it is about understanding what those statistics tell us. What I put above is factually true but it is not the whole truth.

My mum is around 70 in the picture above and she was 91 when she died. She has had a slow form of dementia which has slowly taken her from us for over a decade. She has been in a good nursing home for about two years because we were no longer able to look after her at home.

In the summer she started falling and was eventually fitted with a pacemaker and then in the early autumn she was admitted to hospital with a chest infection and while there fell and broke her hip. When she came out though she had a hip replacement she had forgotten how to walk and was very frail. The family at this point started a fight to stop further admittances to the hospital.

She was eventually put onto end of life care. We knew a chest infection would kill her. It would not have taken Covid-19 to do that, a common cold would probably have been as successful. In other words she was going to die anyway and we knew it.

Now when we compare ‘flu statistics with Covid-19 statistics we are not comparing like with like. The ‘flu statistics have cases like my mothers taken out, the covid-19 statistics do not. This means that the death rate for Covid-19 is inflated.

Do not get me wrong, not all deaths from Covid-19 are like my mums. That would be to jump from the heights of naivety to the depths of delusion. Some would, like my mum, have died anyway and some would not have died. If this pandemic is sorted by this time next year we will know how many extra deaths there were from Covid-19. However, my mum will not be one of them!

Not an Expoential Curve

Do people want some good news about Covid-19?

Well you will all have seen this scary graph in some form and be told it is exponential

https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/660/cpsprodpb/93EC/production/_111486873_uk_trend_chart_31mar-nc.png

Now the good news is that it is NOT exponential. It is a sigmoid curve,which basically has three stages:

  • an exponential start
  • a linear middle
  • an inverted exponential end (were it flattens to horizontal)

The good news is that I think we have got for the time being into the linear middle bit. This means that we will basically get the same number of new cases and death until something changes.

The graph of daily rates gives the same story:

Bar chart showing number of cases has gone up by more than 3,000

If you notice while we initially have an almost exponential looking increase over the last five days the increase has been small if not negligible. When that starts dropping we are in the final stages of the pandemic.

The continuous exponential curve is a false model. The population of the UK is large but it is definitely finite. With it being finite the exponential curve cannot continue. The exponential part occurs when the illness is new to a population that has no immunity. So each time a person with the disease comes in contact with someone else with the disease they infect that person who then goes on and infects all the people they meet. After a time, however, they start meeting people who have immunity from having had the disease among the people they meet. These people cannot get the disease again as they have the anti-bodies to fight the disease. This makes the curve change from an exponential to an approximately linear curve. When nearly everyone has had the virus and thus has anti-bodies then you start to get the inverted exponential curve of the end-stage.

Unfortunately, I think in current circumstances I do not think we are going to see the change into the inverted exponential end-stage just yet. I suspect one of three things will happen.

  1. We could see a broadening in the test criteria, this would lead to a jump in the number of positives because we are testing more people than we were before. The curve will become steeper but will remain basically straight
  2. We reduce social distancing too quickly. Basically, we have cut down the population available to the virus by our social distancing measures. As we reduce the social distancing measures we effectively increase the population to include new people who have not had the disease. If we ease restrictions too quickly it will put us straight back into the initial exponential part of the curve. We really do not want to do that until the daily rate of cases identified starts reducing and then we want to do it slowly and stepwise
  3. We remain in the straight piece for a very long time. This is if everything is managed well. We slowly lighten restrictions, allowing some people to go out more but at such a rate that the disease does not really get the chance to go off again.

So one battle won, but this campaign is going to contain many battles and everyone we lose will cost lives.

O for those who want to know what sort of curve it is, there is a variety of possibilities. The most usual one for statisticians is the logistic/logit but you can look at the probit, hyperbolic tangent and the arctangent. You can find a longer list on Wikipedia

Covid-19 Rates for local areas, taking population size into consideration

I got fed up with raw rates such as those given in the Guardian. For one thing, how can you compare the number of people infected in an area with nearly 1.4M (Hampshire) with the number in an area with less than 100K (Hartlepool). It simply does not make sense.

One way to correct this is to divide by the population size which I got from the government projections for 2020. Unfortunately the data, I found, only contained the figures for England. I took the rate per 10k of the population for diagnosis. The choice of per 10k of the population in a local area was made because of the number of positive tests at present if minuscule compared with the total population. It is a measure of population penetration of Covid 19. What I am going to produce below is a graph of the top quintile of local areas measured by the number of positive tests for Covid-19 per 10K of population

The average for London is 4.4 people diagnosed per 10K in the population, but that is heavily influenced by the high rates in Wandsworth, Westminster, Harrow, Brent, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth and Southwark. The median London Borough local area is Islington with 3.9. The rates per 10k for places outside London high : Sheffield (4.1), Wolverhampton (3.9) and Cumbria (3.5).

Now a warning. The positive tests are actually a pretty poor measure of population penetration. We are at present only really testing the very sick who need to come into hospital. This leaves a huge number with symptoms from a mild cough through to severe flu symptoms who are not being tested. If you then add in that Iceland found about 50% of positives had no symptoms then we are not really testing in any pattern that would pick up actual penetration. What is more, the rules for testing, I suspect, differ Health Authority to Health Authority and hospital to hospital, maybe even doctor to doctor.

There is a high rate of Coronavirus infection in seven London Boroughs out of 31 I could identify in the list. However when you compare infection rates over the whole of London you find that there are a few other places apart from London that seem to have a comparable list.

A side note: will all those who went to the Lake District last weekend please note how high it is on the list. You’d have been less likely to get Covid-19 if you had stayed at home.

Lack of Ecumenical Language

This came up recently when I was talking with my parish priest. I am of Reformed heritage, he is a Society Anglican. Wanting a term which did not include URC clergy as well as Anglicans and did not carry the baggage of ‘priest’ so opted for ‘Minister’ and then got caught out on his understanding of who is a minister (anyone who minister within the church) and so made a point about acknowledging the ministry of women. Before you ask we were talking about my background. Now, I have spent a few days trying to find a suitable term.

  • Cleric – dated, closely related to the word ‘clerk’  as it is an abbreviated form on ‘Clerk in holy orders’ but ‘clerk’  has a totally different meaning within the Reformed tradition, basically meaning committee secretary
  • Presbyter – archaic, so maybe due a revival, but feels as if it requires a theology degree to use
  • Priest – Strongly associated with the more Catholic traditions and while I understand its derivation from the Greek as is Presbyter but also used in those traditions that emphasis the ‘sacrament of the mass’
  • Minister – has far wider interpretations, see opening paragraph, and is strongly Free Church language. ‘Free Church’ is correct, Methodists are not Non-Conformists or Dissenters while Roman Catholics are.
  • Ordained minister – a mouthful and does not work in Reformed settings where they ordain elders. I have refused to tick boxes when they say ‘are you ordained or lay’ within a URC setting. Not just because all the ordained are lay but also because I am ordained (as an elder) but not to the presbyteral ministry.
  • Pastor – is again too general see the problems with ‘minister.
  • Elder – again widely used to cover different groups. Rather like ‘clerk’ in Reformed instances in that, it is used often as a shortening of ‘Teaching Elder’ as opposed to ‘Serving Elder’ who are not in any sense Priests and would not want to be mistaken for one. Actually, many Teaching Elders would not want to be either but would see themselves as filling a similar role to Anglican vicars. The term ‘Elder’ is predominantly used by independent churches and New churches.
  • Vicar or Parson – are too technical terms within CofE

I also recall from my lay training that there is a similar linguistic problem about the Lord’s supper/Eucharist/communion/mass. The course, I was on, was of Scottish origin and therefore had chosen ‘Eucharist’ as a denominationally neutral term. What this means is they had chosen to use the language of the smallest group participating and in Scotland that is the Episcopalian church. In England talking about the Lord’s supper as Eucharist indicated quite strongly ‘Anglican’. The most neutral term I think in England is ‘Communion’ but that is obviously CofS in Scotland.

Then there is the oddity that denominations as a term only really works for Methodists in England. For Roman Catholics and the CofE, there is the claim to be a far wider body than a denomination. They are not part of the Church they embody the Church in the fullest sense. For Roman Catholics that is worldwide and for Anglicans that is within England. On the other hand for classical non-conformists and newer churches, they really do not see the structures as so strong. These are amalgams of convenience for the time being. The structure does not imply the character of the local congregations.

The paragraphs above illustrate the ways the language between Christians of different traditions has not matured enough over the past century to really have got beyond the basic need to talk about terms. I think we are short an agreed language to hold discussions between different traditions. This may not matter if you are not interested in Ecumenism but has deep consequences if you are.

One problem with this is that we get misunderstandings that can damage unity for a lot longer than people can think. For instance, when the URC merged Congregationalists and Presbyterians quite a few of these terms were no sorted out. Particularly no-one looked at the problem of how people talked about ‘tradition’. The English Presbyterians always said ‘As Presbyterians we…’ but the Congregationalists never used the name tag, it was always just ‘We..’ The dropping of the tag is perceived by those influenced by the Presbyterian tradition as a dropping of the identity particularly as the Congregationalist ‘We…’ is far more amorphous as the speaking individual is usually primarily meaning the tradition of their local congregation. It also allowed Congregational tradition to dominate in ways that have led to Presbyterians feeling excluded.

Language matters, the ability to have a broadly agreed language help and yet despite over a hundred years of the current Ecumenical Movement we are still lacking a common language to discuss the central concepts of the church. Perhaps it is time we start to look not just to learn the dialects of other traditions but also to develop a Christian dialect which allows us to talk about the differences we experience.

Twin star Biblical Interpretation

El Greco’s painting of St Peter and St Paul

Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa.  It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading Twin star Biblical Interpretation

The forgotten triad of Effectual Calling or why Justification ain’t complete on its own

I mean how many sermons have you heard on Justification by Faith? I am not really seeking an answer; after all on 500th anniversary of the Reformation this is what the communique released by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics talked about. It is not just them but Methodist, Reformed and Anglicans. However I want to go back to the Shorter Westminster Catechism. In that I read:

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased
by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone,
Q. 34. What is adoption?
A. Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A.Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Q. 36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A. The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.

Note that there are three different elements to the process of effectual calling of which justification is just one. When last did you here much talk on Sanctification or Adoption? Yet together they make up together the  Reformed understanding of our Redemption by God. God did not just justify us, nor are we simply justified by faith even if that faith is the faith of God. Let me leave however Justification too one side and look at the other two.

Picture of Rublev's icon of the Trinity
Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

If justification is the formal declaration of freedom from sin, then adoption is giving us a place within the community of God. If you have ever been told that the fourth side of the Rublev’s icon is open as we are invited to participate in the community of the God head, then here is the statement of that same idea within Reformed Doctrine. The call to be sons and daughters of God is not a call simply to acknowledge God as our parent but to understand ourselves as members of the household of God and part of that community.  Alright we can only fully realise at the parousia but at least in expectation it is partly that there will be a foretaste in our current lives. In this sense adoption is a state we exist is not an event.

So onto sanctification which is perhaps the most forgotten part of the whole process.  I can remember a Reformed theologian going on about how many day to day Reformed Christians had fallen for works and I asked him whether what he saw as works were in fact ‘signs of sanctification’ . Firstly sanctification is God working in to “fit us for Heaven”. It is thus not something we do to earn redemption but something we receive because we are redeemed. What is more is it is not something that happens instantly but something that goes on working through out our lives. Traditionally Reformed Christians wishing to discover whether they have been saved or not have looked into their lives to see if they could discern the process of sanctification.  The shunning of evil, production of good works and acts of piety are symptoms of the sanctification. Therefore reason for thanksgiving. Thus Sanctification is a process not unlike what the Orthodox call theosis. It is therefore a process.

Thus in the doctrine of redemption we have three important parts

  •  Justification – event
  • Adoption -state
  • Sanctification – process.

The focus on Justification makes people think that this is a simple act of stepping through a door but it is a door to another country and we have a journey to make there.

Trinitarian meditation

Trinity symbol
Trinity Symbol – links to Patheos on Trinity debate

I compiled the prayer during my morning devotions as I felt the need to focus my mind on the Trinity and the interaction within it. It is closer to poetry than prose, this is deliberate it wants to have a sense of dance behind it. It references various Bible references, theological ideas and other Christian texts. You cannot read straight off my theology from these, they are pebbles that grind against each other in by mind creating different patterns and shapes and I frequently adapt them when using. I am taking out a license not because I think my name is important, if I could assure it would stay anonymous then I would be happy with that, but because it should not have anyone else’s name attached.

Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
the source, foundation and end of all creation
Praise be to the Son
through him, all things were made,
and without him, nothing in creation was formed
Praise be to the Spirit
who hovers over the waters of chaos
and rejoices in brings all creation to its true form
Lord God Creator of All
have mercy on me
one of your creatures
.


Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who in the fullness of time lifted his horn
joined the battle for our salvation
and drank deeply from the cup of suffering
Praise be to the son
who incarnate of the Virgin Mary
was born, lived, taught among us until we crucified him
and yet on the third day having arisen returned to us
Praise be to the Spirit
who pours divine compassion into our hearts
kindling our faith through hope to obedient love
and leads us into all truth
Lord God Saviour of All
have mercy on me
a child of yours.


Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who being truly righteous and
who knowing the deeds, hearts and minds of all
judges all with integrity, compassion and mercy
Praise be to the son
ascended to father
taking human flesh and frailty into the Godhead
who shall come again to judge the living and the dead
Praise to the Spirit
who shows the world is wrong about righteousness
and therefore about sin, judgement and mercy
and pleads from our hearts for us
Lord God Judge of all
have mercy on me
a sinner.


Creative Commons License
Trinity Meditation by Jean M Russell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.jengiejon.info/?p=1030.

Quote – From one of St Augustine’s Sermons

picture of Augustine on Wikipedia
Antonio Rodríguez – Saint Augustine

So now my bretheren, let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil. In the way that travellers are in the habit of singing, sing but keep on walking. What does it mean “keep on walking”? Go onward always – but go onward in goodness, for there are, according to the Apostle, some people who go ever onward from bad to worse. If you are going onward, you are walking; but always go onward in goodness, onward in the right faith, onward in good habits and behaviour. Sing and walk onwards.