Hope

A friend posted that she did not have much hope but somehow had to get through the night next Tuesday which is the date of the Presidential election in the United States of America. It has to be seen what will happen and this is not about politics but about hope.

It seems to me that there are two meanings of the word ‘hope’ the first is as defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary

to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true

Merriam Webster

Which is all very well but I am not good at it. I am not whether it was my father’s cultivated cynicism, my lousy experience in my first high school or the fact that I am drawn to Urban Mission but somewhere along the way I stopped building up for events. I look forward to things in the sense I am not looking back at them. Yes somethings are good and something are bad but they all need meeting.

If you can meet with Triumph or Disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same

If by Rudyard Kipling

In other words, my attitude is what happens on Tuesday will happen and some how I need to get out of bed the next morning and get on with life whether the outcome is the one I would like or the other. Now that brings me to a second type of hope.

Hope can also be a discipline. Regardless of the outcome I will get out of bed and I will need to act to make the world a better place. I believe that humanity can make the world a better place and the more who work towards it, the better the world will be. Sounds idealistic, but I also acknowledge that I cannot make anyone do this except myself. Mother Theresa is right when she says:


However, my reasoning is not about me being accountable to God, I am but that is not the short term reason for doing them. Rather that my positive choices help others to make positive choices and that God’s intention is in the end for Dame Julian is right.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well

Julian of Norwich 1342-1416

So about making positive choices for myself and others and aligning with God’s will. With that in view, hope is that me trying to help build a better world for everyone. Hope is not a feeling but an active discipline.

There are some codicils, my attempts to build a better world rarely work out but somewhere on the way things do happen, quite often by completely other agencies than I would expect that make good things happen. If you had told me or anyone else in 1985 that by 1995 both the Berlin Wall would have fallen and Apartheid been confined to the history books, we would not have believed you. I did not bring that about

Then there is the long view. There is not a single tyrant in history who has not passed on eventually. I am not sure how the present crop will fall but fall they will. The Transatlantic Slave no longer exists. There are many inequalities that result from it but it no longer exists. Far more children are in education than a century ago and the average person on the planet has a longer life span. Yes, we have challenges including finding ways to level the playing field in international trade, sorting out wealth distribution more fairly and tackling climate change. Yes, the poor will be with us always not least because being poor is often a relative calculation. That does not diminish the gains that have been made.

In this sense Hope is what drives Puddleglum when he says:

One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world that licks your world hollow

C.S. Lewis The Silver Chair

He is choosing to hang onto the greater story of life in the face of the bleakness of the present.

Christmas Chocolate Poll

Chocolates

This is mainly for people who get chocolates from me at Christmas. I am thinking I need to make a smaller selection this year as the normal gannet feeding grounds (IT Services Buildings) are closed due to Coronavirus. This means I actually need to be careful over quantities. Also, I expect to be sending out fewer boxes. I would therefore like to do some recipient feedback. The poll covers those I made last year

This poll is no longer accepting votes

Which cholates should go in the boxes this year (you can vote for upto 6)

Jesus Falls and the Magic of Mastery

Jesus Falls by Dorothy Riley

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (NRSVA)

Confession time; I am a perfectionist. For those that know me and know how hard I drive myself this will come as no surprise. For me, a task is never finished only every abandoned and I have got really good at abandoning tasks when they will do. Few people realise I have to abandon them or I will continue to adapt them in attempts to reach perfection. Actually, I acknowledged it about a year ago when I read Perfectionism is a Spectrum Disorder by the Thesis Whisperer. Like most perfectionists, I have a tendency towards scrupulosity, unlike many Catholics, I seem to get that these sins are not deal breakers with God. That does NOT stop be noticing them.

The problem is that being a perfectionist means that the above Bible verse just plays to all my scrupulous tendencies. Articles such as this one from Ligonier Ministries do nothing to reduce the angst, the stretching, the overdrive. I want to be perfect because God wants me to be perfect and I will bust a gut trying to do so.

Let me take as read God is as in Jesus. We can argue the niceties of that statement elsewhere if we like. Among Catholic devotions are the Stations of the Cross which focuses on Jesus carrying the Cross to his crucifixion. It is a moving practice to carry out particularly in Lent but here I want to focus on one question. Does Jesus do this perfectly? Well, the answer is simply, No. As in the picture above Jesus falls on route. Indeed he does not fall once, he falls three times. This is not the perfection in the normal sense of the word.

I had already done the switch that ‘to be perfect’ is to be like God not some earthly idea of perfectionism but what I am finding is there is more. The first hint I got of this was Paula Gooder’s article What does Jesus mean when he says ‘be perfect‘. In it she argues that ‘perfect’ is not a good translation but is the best translation we have. Elsewhere in the Bible, the word translated ‘perfect’ is translated ‘mature’ but God being mature is not something that makes any sense.

Then I went and looked at translations of the verse on Biblehub and I noticed something interesting. A number of the more literal translations (NKJV, ERV, YLT) tended to translate it with a future conditional. So now I needed to go back to the Interlinear Bible and an analytic Lexicon, my Greek is limited and rusty). The thing is they are right. This is how we shall be. So it is what we are becoming not what we are to be. Not only that it has the sense of arriving at fullness. Not an easy concept to translate into English.

So we have something somewhere like perfection, completeness, accomplished maturity, ripeness, holiness (thank you St Luke) mayby wholiness and this is not something we are but something we will be. Let me therefore tell you about magic.

Alright, I do not mean magic in the usual sense. When I staying with my Goddaughter’s I once said that magic is real it is just not easy to access. You see magic is what gives the competent the WOW factor. You know the factor, the thing that takes a dance routine from being technically good and makes it spectacular, the thing that makes a professors lecture not just the good giving of information but pulls the students in. The difference between being able to work out what is wrong in a spreadsheet and looking at it for six seconds and knowing where the error is. The ability of someone doing parkour not just to clear a fantastic jump but to make it look easy. The thing is that the difference between the competent and these experts is that the experts have practised until it has become part of who they are! In many cases, the difference is the person has failed more often than the merely competent.

So lets go back to the Bible passage and look slightly wider:

4‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSVA)

Now I think Jesus is saying is keep on loving your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and greet strangers for in practicing doing these you shall become perfect as your father is perfect. In other words, the road to perfection are in the paragraph above. It is not about getting everything absolutely right, but about practicing the love of God in practical ways. Of course we will fail even at that. Humans in a world such as this are bound to fail. There will be the times when we get loving our enemies wrong because we do the wrong thing or the times when our greeting is not heard by the stranger because of the noise of traffic. Even Christ fell carrying the cross. As we are sinful then we will fail because of that, but if we keep on practicing then God has promised that we shall be perfect just like him.

Divine Curiosity or the Scholarly Vocation

Domenico Fetti – Portrait of a Scholar – from Wikimedia Commons

There are two tribes within Christianity who are holding a debate about which is the better way to faith, that of simple trusting faith or that of the struggle of doubt. In a sense, this is talking to this debate but is doing so by picking up an aspect that is overlooked. My faith, which is the one God blessed me with falls into neither camp and can appear to fall in both. My faith is both searching and inquiring without going into doubt.

The first thing I want to say, is there is not one sort of faith that is right and another that is wrong. The form your faith takes is part of your spirituality, it is the shape God has given you and thus part of your call. Whether your faith is a contented trust with no desire to explore further, the desire to spend time in quiet contemplation of the divine, the avid study of the Bible, the desire to seek a world that conforms to God’s justice, a servant spirit that is drives you to serve others, the doubter who wrestles with God, a combination of all or some of these or another form entirely, it is both uniquely yours and also one of the myriad forms that God has made. Do not feel that it is wrong because it is not the same others. All in the end bring us to the same place, the compassionate heart of God.

The second thing to say is this is personal. I am talking of one of the strong strands within my own faith calling. It is not the only strand; I can trace at least two others: a contemplative strand and an activist strand. Indeed the contemplative strand is going to lurk in the background as I write this. These two intertwine in complex patterns within my vocation, the contemplative is surprisingly strong but the scholarly is more developed. So I am going to need to be aware of how this piece is shaped by my experience.

I am re-reading Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli as I thought it might help a friend and then found it was no longer on my bookshelf. I have just finished the chapter on Risky Curiosity which is making me think. My PhD business cards to say “Basically I have been compelled by curiosity” which is a quote by Mary Leakey but sums up my approach to research pretty succinctly sums up my approach to research. It is driven by trying to answer questions that intrigue me. I am not particularly limited by subject or discipline. I find that working with passionate people who are researchers invigorating. This naturally spills over into my faith. So much so that my doctorate is in theology, albeit contextual theology rather than systematic with a focus around ecclesiology and how we do Church. The chapter naturally appeals to me and is confirmatory rather than challenging as other chapters in the book. However, it did not arrive in my reading alone.

Last Thursday I ended up talking with a friend about our pictures of the divine. Neither of us really has much time for the picture of God as the old man up in the sky who is a loving Grandpa, a sagacious arbiter of our fates and ultimately sovereign. We tend to struggle with words such as light, fire, flames, communion, dance, aurora, plasma, vortex, compassionate, beloved, transcendent, imminent, intimate, personal, furnace. We know we are struggling to put into words our vision. I know many people say God is as in Jesus and that is good as far as it goes. Let me take you to a detail of Michelangelo’s painting of Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel

Detail from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

Now if you look carefully the hands are apart. Talking pictorially I would say Christ is the light that emanated from the point at which God’s hand touched Adam. Christ is both the Beloved of God and the Lover of Adam. It is God who reaches out to humanity not humanity that manages to reach God. Let me leave this image here except to point out that even when I am thinking of Jesus I at times am thinking in terms of light and to point out Jesus is reported as saying “I am the light of the World” (John 8:12).

So when on Friday (28th August 20) was St Augustine’s day and the Office of readings contained the passage

Having convinced myself that I had to return to myself, I penetrated my interior being, with You as my guide. And this I was able to do because You, Lord, succoured me. I entered and I saw, with the eyes of my soul, in one way or another, above the capacity of these same eyes, above my mind, the immutable light; not the ordinary and visible light seen by any man, no matter how intense or clear it might be, being nevertheless incapable of filling all with its magnitude. Rather, it was a completely different light. It was not merely above my mind, like oil over water or like the heavens above the earth. Rather, it was light in the Most High, since this Light made me, and I was at the lowest, as I was made by It. This Light is known by the one that knows the truth.

St Augustine Confessions

Now it came as a bit of a surprise to me but then my brain almost at once started to recall the papers found in the coat of Blaise Pascall

The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November,
the feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half-past ten at night until about half past midnight,

FIRE.
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

Blaise Pascall – Memorial

You will see a surprising similarity between the way two great thinkers describe a spiritual experience. I do not think that they are in any way equivalent. Augustine was a 4th Century Christian Bishop in North Africa. He spent quite a bit of time arguing with Manicheas while Pascal was a 16th Century French philosopher was a Jansenist which could be seen as a Catholic form of Calvinism. Though Pascal, no doubt, knew Augustines work as it was required reading for theologians, I doubt they would have been intellectually in agreement with each other. What they do have is strong enquiring minds.

I have heard a rumour of a third great thinker who had such an experience. The story as I recall it is that towards the end of his life Thomas Aquinas had such a spiritual experience while participating in the Eucharist that he felt that all the rest of his life was wasted. Lets for the moment assume it as plausible. Then we have three great intellects all of whom have an experience of the divine that to them overshadows completely their intellectual endeavours. They know that even at the height of their intellectual work they fail to communicate the essence of the divine and fall into silence or poetry. To put it in a way that is indebted to C.S. Lewis, their experience is similar to children playing at being lion hunters when a real lion turns up. I must admit if these are only children then they are some of the most skilful lion-hunters among us intellectually. Their experience does not nullify the immense value of their work one iota. It still stands as a statement to the rest of us about the nature of the divine. However to them, all abstract thought, even by our standard sublime abstract thought, was dirty dishwater when compared with the eternal spring of living water that is the experience of the divine.

I suspect there are others, in some traditions you do not write this down sort of thing, the mystical experience of the divine is not usually open to the sorts of requirements that the tradition demands. It is notable that Pascal did not publish his and as I said earlier I have not managed to check the story I remember about St Thomas Aquinas. Maybe Eastern Orthodoxy would be more receptive but the Western tradition with its strong rational bias finds these experience often though personally powerful, not valid evidence within the debate. Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal are able to acknowledge them because they are such good rational thinkers. A lesser thinker, which is most of us, will shire away because it would undermine our status as rational thinkers.

Let me change tack for a while and look at the story of Job. I am not looking at Job’s friend, nor making a stab at the theology of suffering that the author proposes. I am wanting to look at Job’s interaction with the Divine. The story is well known. Job, a righteous man, is devastated by Satan acting with God’s permission. His three friends come to comfort him but after a week of silence finish up debating theodicy instead. To his friends only some evil done by Job could justify this action by God towards him However, they are defeated in justifying God’s action to Job who insists on his own righteousness and that he wants to hold God to account. A young man, Elihu, feels the friends have given up too easily and doubles down on Job. Then in chapter thirty-eight God appears in a tempest and starts cross-questioning Job. Job gives in so quickly it is embarrassing; with God present, he pleads ignorance. Faced with the presence of the Almighty Job basically opts for silence. There is always that niggle, that if it had been us rather than Job we would probably have asked more. Eventually, God speaks to the friends instead of Job and where he has been giving an extended account of his actions before God is now succinct and imperious:

 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now, therefore, take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.

Job 42:8-7 ESV

What is striking is that last sentence “For you have not spoken of me (God) what is right, as my servant Job has”. Job who has insisted on his righteousness and wanted to call God to account is held by God as speaking righteously whereas the pious words of his friends and Elihu are not right with their seeking to find fault with Job.

Now I am not claiming Job is a scholar, his questioning is driven not by curiousity but by his own suffering. He does, however, have two characteristics that I think mark many scholars: persistence and integrity. His persistence shows in his refusal to accept the friends plausible explanation and his integrity in that he does not allow him self to be classed anything other than righteous regardless of what is convenient for the theodicy of the times.

Now the book of Job is often likened to a play. I am not here to debate it but what we see is someone driven by the need to answer a question to the point where their questing is answered by the Divine. There is a problem if is a play; how do you show the awesome reality of God? That is what I suspect all the chapters of God’s speech is trying to do. It fails to the modern mind. The question is not solved, but Job falls silent before a reality that surpasses the question. This then links back to the earlier experience of Augustine, Pascal and Aquinas. The end of Christian scholarship is not to make God intelligible to humanity but to find oneself caught up in the joyous theophany of the Divine and to know oneself known by that which cannot be known. Those with this vocation seek to know and instead find ourselves known. In other words, the quest inevitably ends in failures but in so doing the scholar is found.

It is worth drawing some codicils and corollaries from this.

First importantly this is not the way to salvation, there is no way to that except through the cross. However, the lived-out nature of the way of the cross is different for different people. Normally it has three steps: obedience, service and devotion. Of these, I would see obedience as the highest. It is in Evangelical speak what is to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The latter two just capture what it is to Love your neighbour and to love God. It is in our ability to Love our neighbour that the process of sanctification is most clearly seen. However, without the devotion or the desire to love God and seeking ways to express it, our obedience becomes rule-keeping and our service duty.

Vocational Pyramid

The form in which I am talking about scholarly vocation is that of devotion. The thing that drives this is our desire for God. I acknowledge that many with this vocation will find that amongst the service part of the vocation is the call to apologetics and to teaching the faithful. I would suggest that those are never the whole of their call in that area. The simple service of their fellows through acts of benevolence is never removed from a Christian. We can never serve Christ truly if we do not serve Christ in the people we encounter.

Equally the revelation here granted is not superior to that granted to those whose devotion is expressed through:

  • service of others
  • faithfulness in public worship
  • evangelical zeal
  • devotional practices
  • contemplation
  • service of the church
  • or other acts driven by the desire for God

However, it should also be clear, that sometimes it is not the right thing to do to seek to stop someone from exploring their faith further. While it can and often does lead to an individual going through a time where their faith feels broken down, the risk of not allowing them to explore this way is for their faith to become sterile as they lose the devotion that powers their faith. The way through the desert is in the scholarly vocation as much as it is in any other but when water is on the other side of the desert then there is no merit in turning back to the stagnant springs you have left behind.

There is a risk as with all styles of devotion that we will mistake the means for the end and fall into idolatry. For a contemplative, that might be the calm the practice brings, for service to the church that might be the Church itself, for those who seek to bring about the kingdom that might be the changes in the way the world is structured. I can go on. For the scholar, it is the knowledge itself that becomes the idol. When the niceness of your theory becomes more important than speaking the truth of the nature of God, then your theory has replaced God. This is regardless of the academic plaudits you can earn for the attractiveness of your theory. In no other vocation does a commitment to speak honestly about the nature of God matter

I hope that in this piece I have argued that the scholarly vocation is a way of devotion to God that it seeks, in the end, God’s self-revelation and when that is granted the experience is on a par with other vocations of desire but a scholar finds themselves known rather than knowing. Arising from this that to seek to stop someone seeking this way is to put their faith at risk but that the big risk is not having their faith destroyed by the new knowledge but instead making the new knowledge an idol in place of God. There are similar idols for all vocational practices but to have no devotional element to your vocational practice is to find that your faith is running dry.

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