Saturday, 22 September 2012


I wonder what it would have been like to have been around 350 years ago, in 1662.  The seventeenth century has been described as “the decisive century in English history” or a period that could “leave people breathless, even exhausted”, a claim which refers to the many changes which took place in this period.  These changes were largely determined by new social, political and economic factors, particularly the wider use of the written word; the growth of towns; expanding trade; the development of manufacturing industry; and the parliamentary upheaval of the Civil War, 1642-1646, and the later Roundhead Republic, 1649-1660.  Society in the seventeenth century was changing rapidly.  In many ways it was a very different society from our early twenty-first century one, but both share in common this element of significant change. 

At the beginning of the seventeenth century it was still the case that most industry was still undertaken on a domestic basis.  However, that was beginning to change, especially because of the growing importance of coal-mining which gained importance because of the increasing scarcity of timber.  That only could work as a capitalist enterprise and, similarly, iron-mining and foreign trade were coming to the fore.  Other expanding industries included the manufacture of salt and ship-building, but agriculture, including farming, was still the most common occupation for Englishmen.
Socially, class distinctions played a significant role with four main divisions – the peers or the nobility; the gentry, who were the land-owning class; the yeoman, who were the professional and merchant classes; and the common people, this last including perhaps three quarters of the population.  
Politically, the century opened with the accession to the throne of James VI of Scotland in 1603.  As he became James I of England, many looked for changes and Parliament quickly took for itself more powers, specifically over taxation, commercial policy and foreign policy. 
James I’s son, Charles I, succeeded him in 1625.  His reign was a time of war and plague and, for eleven years, Parliament did not meet.  This period of personal government by Charles ended with the calling, on the advice of the Earl of Strafford, of the Parliament, in order that Charles might establish support from the English against the Scots.  However, the “Short Parliament” broke up in anger and disarray after less than three weeks.  The Civil War that followed led eventually to the execution of Charles and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s “Commonwealth” in 1649.
In 1660 the Stuarts were restored to the throne in the person of Charles II.  However, this restoration of the monarchy did not undo all the curbs on its power that had been put in place by Charles I before he left his capital, and so the reigns, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, of Charles II (1660-1674), James II (1685-1689) and William and Mary (1689-1702) were subject to significant parliamentary influence.
It was also a time of religious ferment.  Presbyterians and Independents, sometimes known as Congregationalists, were establishing new ways of church that did not conform to the Church of England.  Quakers and Roman Catholics were also part of this dissenting picture.  And there were many others.  The Puritans sought to purify and reform the church, in particular by abolishing certain ceremonies thought to be remnants from Roman Catholicism, such as the use of the cross at baptism and kneeling at communion.  Many also questioned whether there was any Biblical authority for bishops, preferring the Reformed pattern of church government by elders and synods.  There were many smaller groups, including the Brownists, the Diggers, the Fifth Monarchists and even the Muggletonians – nothing to do with Harry Potter!
On 19th May 1662 Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, demanding that all clergy accept the Prayer Book and submit to royal authority.  The deadline for conforming was St Bartholomew’s Day, 24th August 1662 – but when the time arrived 2029 clergy, lecturers and fellows gave up their jobs, many with the utmost reluctance as it was their livelihood, but conscience would not let them do otherwise. 
Perhaps that is the question for all of us as we think of the impact of those things that happened 350 years ago.  Within the Reformed tradition we think of the impact of non-conformity and dissent and all that has contributed to the life of our nation and of the world down the years.  At the same time, the Anglican tradition celebrates the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer – and all that represents in terms of prayer and spirituality.  350 years ago we went our separate ways.  Today I hope we know that not only can we learn from each other, but we need to. 
Let me suggest three things we can take from all this. 
The first is the importance of considering what are the things from which we should dissent.  What are the things we should disagree with?  Now, in a sense, that doesn’t seem a good line for a preacher.  Why should I be encouraging you to disagree with stuff?  Well, simply because there are lots of things that we ought to disagree with.  Christian Aid tells us clearly that we should disagree with poverty.  That is a stance which I wholeheartedly support.  I disagree with bullying.  I disagree with greed.  I disagree with folk covering up the truth, and we find that happening in all sorts of ways.  I disagree with cheating.  If you were going to make a list of the things that you disagree with, I wonder what you would put on that list.  Think about it – a list of, say, ten things to disagree with. 
Jesus disagreed with people who made a big show of saying their prayers but were not actually concerned with really praying to God.  He told a story about that once.  Two people went to their place of worship to talk to God.  One was very religious, and the other was an outcast from society.  The first stood confidently out at the front.  (He thought he was talking to God, but really he was talking to himself.)  This is what he said: ‘God, I thank you I’m not like other people.  I don’t steal or tell lies. .. I’m not a traitor to my country like that tax collector back there.  I keep to a strict diet, and I give generously to charity.’  The second stood at the back, his head in his hands, groaning pitifully.  All he said was, ‘God, help me.  I’m no good.’  And Jesus commented: I’m telling you it was the second person that went home on good terms with God rather than the first.  Those who put themselves on pedestals fall off them sooner or later, but those who grieve over their faults are honoured by God.   So, think about what you should disagree with.
And then, the second thing, which also links to that story, though in a very different way is to make sure that we do link up with God, and the way that we do that is by prayer.  There are so many ways in which we can talk about prayer.  Calvin, the great reformer, describes prayer as participation in God’s generosity.  I like the description of prayer offered by a Roman Catholic writer, Thomas Green, who says – “The art of praying, as we grow, is really the art of learning to waste time gracefully – to be simply the clay in the hands of the potter.”  And one of my real favourites is the description offered by Richard Foster - “God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are.  In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”  May the marking of the anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer remind us of the importance of prayer in all its forms.
And thirdly, finally, how might we sum everything up.  Let’s just say that, like the Christians of the very early church, and like the Christians of 350 years ago, we are called to be God’s people here and now.  How can we explain that?  Well, Jesus explained it by comparing us to salt and light.  You are like a rich flavouring for adding to the world.  So don’t be like the packet that goes past its sell-by date and has to be thrown out.  … You are like a lighthouse built to make travel safer in a dark world.  Just like the big city whose lights can be seen miles away because it is on high ground, you must be in the right position for your light to be directed to best effect. Or another word picture that Jesus uses is of the leaven or the yeast.  The yeast works its way all through the dough.  We need to get in the middle of the world with that yeasty influence that changes everything.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Dare To Be A Daniel

Lions are scary creatures.  A few weeks ago we, as a family, visited the safari park at Longleat – and we got pretty close to some lions.  When one walked right in front of our car, even with staff nearby and knowing that kind of thing was happening all the time, there was a sense of unease amongst us.

In C S Lewis’s classic book for children, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the lion Aslan gently pads round the edges of the story, appearing at strategic moments to save four lost children from despair and guide them home.  Hearing about him for the first time from a couple of friendly beavers, the children have doubts about whether they are looking forward to meeting him.  ‘Is he quite safe?’ asked one of the girls.  ‘I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’  ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver, ‘if there is anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just silly.’ 

‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.  ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver.  ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.’

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “Preaching Life”, comments on this passage of Lewis’s – “The King is not safe.  The King is sovereign, which means that he is frightening, because his subjects have no control over him.  He does not ask their advice before he acts.  He is no one’s pet.  His rescue of them may be as hair-raising as what he is rescuing them from, but he is good, which means that he can be trusted.  If they will just press through their fear of him, he will save them.  If they will just climb on his back as he tells them to and hang on for dear life, he will carry them home.”

I wonder how Daniel really felt as he walked in to that lions’ den.  And what are the lions’ dens into which we have to walk?  And how do we feel as we do so?  Are we quietly filled with hope or are we scared stiff?  We live in a day when we are called to insure against every remote possibility – and yet God calls us to live lives of risk.

When Tony Benn published a brief volume of autobiography in 2004,  designed to serve as a prelude to his already published eight volumes of diaries, he gate it the title “Dare to be a Daniel”. 

In fact, the original working title was 'The Weetabix Years' , a title suggested by Tony Benn's son, Joshua, whose idea it was to write the book at all.  The reasoning was that this title would reflect a happy family at breakfast.  And Benn wrote to the chairman of Weetabix asking if the product might be used in the title.  Sir Richard George, the said chairman, replied that he was perfectly happy for that usage, but he felt that he ought to point out that Weetabix was not available when Tony Benn was born.  And so it was back to the drawing board and back to a phrase that his Dad had often used to give him advice: 'Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone.'  Benn's choice of title says a lot about the roots of his radicalism, which he has always attributed more to the Bible than to Marxism.

It actually seems remarkable that, in the increasingly post-Christian ethos of British public life and politics, Daniel’s name should still be so used, and understood, but it is.  This Hebrew hero, who stood as a minority of one at the court of pagan kings and yet turned the fortunes of the empire around; this political operator who was also a person of prayer; this wise and tactful prophet who dreamed of a different future for God’s people: there is something about this man.

Daniel remains one of the most influential figures in the Biblical record.  Generations of Jews and Christians have been moved and influenced by his story, empowered and inspired by his example.  Yet it’s still true that a Daniel attitude is all too rare in the contemporary church.

The courage and power to swim against the tide of majority opinion; to recognise and resist the idols of our context and culture .... Maintaining belief whilst living in Babylon – singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, being ready to go into the lions’ den – is a deeply challenging concept.  Daniel’s context is very different from ours, and yet I believe his example and experience can speak very directly to us. 

Thursday, 13 September 2012

I Am What I Am

As part of the opening ceremony for the Paralympics, Beverley Knight sang the song from the musical ‘La Cage aux Folles’ – ‘I am what I am; I don’t want praise; I don’t want pity.  I bang my own drum, some think it’s noise – I think it’s pretty.  And so what if I love each sparkle and each bangle?  Why not try to see things from a different angle?  Your life is a sham – do you, can you shout out I am what I am?  I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses.  I deal my own deck, sometimes the aces, sometimes the deuces.  It’s one life and there is no return and no deposit, one life so it’s time to open up your closet.  Life’s not worth a dam till you can shout out I am what I am, I am what I am.  I am I am good.  I am I am strong.  I am I am somebody.  I am I do belong.  I am I do belong.  I am I am useful.  I am I am true.  I am I am worthy.  I am as good as you.  I am as good as you.  I am I am good.  I am I am strong.  I am I am somebody.  I am I do belong.’

One of our problems, I think, is that, too often, we aspire to be someone else.  There is nothing wrong with aspiring to greater things – if that is what we are called to do, if that is where we are called to aim.  But God never calls us to be someone else.  God calls us to be ourselves.  Way back on my 21st birthday my four siblings, all younger than me, gave me a birthday card which I still have in my study at home.  It depicts Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame.  There is a speech bubble, and Charlie says, ‘There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.’  I am not convinced that they recognised my great potential at that point, but there’s a truth, as well as a challenge, in the statement.  I am what I am.  There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.

I see Daniel as someone who recognised the truth of both those statements, and so I see Daniel as a messenger of hope.  The book of Daniel opens with the people not in a good place.  And so there might well be some connections to be made.  There are many ways in which we might see ourselves as not in a good place.  We look at an international society that remains beset by war.  We look at a nation facing challenging economic problems.  We look at a church which many argue to be in terminal decline – though I am not convinced of that. 

Daniel and his mates had been carted off into exile.  There was every reason why they might abandon hope.  Not only were they in a strange place, but they have been chosen to serve the conquering king who has taken them away.  But there are compensations, or so it seems.  They are given the opportunities of enjoying the cuisine provided by the king.  They are to be regularly wined and dined, the aim being that this will put them in good condition to serve the king well.  But Daniel and his friends don’t want to be contaminated by the royal largesse.  They ask to be excused, but the person charged with overseeing this programme is a bit reluctant to risk ending up with four of his protegies at less than their best.  Daniel assures him that won’t happen and asks for what one commentator describes as “trial by vegetables”.  And it all works out – at the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who had lived on to food from the king. 

The story is about where you put your confidence.  They had the chance of food fit for a king, but they didn’t need it.  Daniel kept his eye on God.  It was from God that he drew his hope.  There is a big lesson there. 

But where are we in this story?  What are the luxury items – the good food and fine wines – that we need to turn away from?  What are the  vegetables, the ordinary things, that will not only sustain us, but sustain us well?  Where do we put our hope?