Bible Sunday

As always, this sermon was written to be spoken.  Re-reading it, I know it seems clunky in some places.  It’s at times like this I wish I could pop over to see you and read it to you in person.

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Does anyone listen to Desert Island Discs?  I wonder; do they still give you the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible in addition to your book choice?  It used to make absolute sense to me that they would do that.  I mean, who wouldn’t ask for those two books when given the choice of texts to take with you if you were stranded?  But now, I’m not sure that many people would have them at the top of their list.  I did a bit of googling to find what the nation’s favourite books were and of those lists where the choices were ranked, the Bible made it way down into the 40s.  In one list it was beaten by Bridget Jones’ Diary.  Gallup, the pollsters have done lots of work over the decades on Biblical importance in the UK.  Their results are quite shocking. Bear with me – there are a few statistics coming up but I think they’re worth hearing. In the 1940s Gallup said that 90% of British homes possessed a Bible.  In 2010, that figure had fallen to 52%.  The amount of times that book is picked up has also fallen dramatically with fewer than 9% of people saying they read it at least once a week.  21% of people say the Bible has an effect on shaping their lives.  But in 1980, only 29% said it didn’t!  That’s a huge difference.  So, it’s clear that we are living in a time when fewer and fewer people are encountering the primary text of our faith.

Now, I guess we might say that’s not a problem.  For us within these walls, even if we don’t pick up our bibles or engage with the scriptures any other time of the week, we know that when we come here and settle into our pews we will hear the word of God.  We are still getting a balanced diet of scripture and still learning those important messages that God reveals through engaging with His word.  But our own growth, important as it is, isn’t our only task as Christians.  We have a duty and a calling to show Christ to others.  How can we do that if no one except us in our road owns a bible?

I don’t know if you’ve heard the saying “You may be the only Bible someone ever reads”.  It seems to me that in this time and place, that could not be more true.  We are not going to encourage people to read the Bible in any easy way.  We’re a long way from the times when books were hard to come by or reading was the major pass-time.  Most of these lists of books that I talked about earlier are compiled with one aim in mind – to encourage people to read.  They are often entitled “the 100 books you must read before you die” or something equally threatening and apocalyptic.  They acknowledge the fact that people are reading less and printed text is not our main way of gaining information.  Now, we get our information, build our moral and ethical code, from other people.  We read opinions in 140 characters on Twitter, hear soundbites on the radio and, since social media has become so popular, we demand that our soundbite views are heard and respected, even if we haven’t thought them out terribly well.  The place of traditional, handed down wisdom and truth, such as that we as Christians believe we find in the bible, is disappearing.

The books making up the bible were written thousands of years ago.  Those books were selected and put together finally about 1500 years ago.  But God’s revelation did not stop then.  We heard in today’s Gospel reading that Jesus’s words will never pass away.  the Bible will always be a guide, relevant and living.  But today’s text says that there are other signs and revelations.  God’s Word became flesh in Jesus.  He remains with us as a constant revelation.  The Holy Spirit guides us in our lives, proclaiming love as shown through Christ and illuminated in the words of our sacred texts.

Without the texts to point to people where God is active in the world, to give them the story of His saving grace and His desire to bring the whole of creation into reconciled relationship with Him and each other, how can we talk of the Kingdom?

We are the only Bible some people will ever read.  It is through our lives, our example, our connectedness, our joy and our sadness that people will see the story of salvation.  It has to be through our daily interactions that the work of the Holy Spirit, the inclusive radical love of Jesus and the overwhelming grace of the Father can be read.  We are the Bible for so many who will never encounter it another way.  What Gospel are you preaching today?

 

Shall we pray:

Let’s start with a moment to think about the encounters we’ve had in the last week.  Where were the times when we showed God’s love and acted as a living Gospel?   Where were those times when we fell short and presented a picture far from you and lacking in love?
Let’s commit ourselves to being the front cover of the bible for our friends and neighbours, inviting them to take a closer look at the love only God can offer.

Heavenly Father

You give us your word, recorded by faithful people over generations, to teach us.  You gave us your Son, to fulfil your word and bring your Kingdom to earth.  And you give us your Holy Spirit to guide us and to enable us to see your will revealed afresh for each generation.  Help us to take our place in the story of salvation, giving more people a glimpse of you and of your Kingdom where all are loved by their Creator, and all have a place by your side.

Amen.

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The Wedding Banquet

Matthew 22:1-14

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Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time there was a great leader who lived in a great white house on a great hill.  This man had so much power that he could decide whether the world would be destroyed.  He was always right.  Always right.  And anyone who dared suggest that he wasn’t was a liar and a spreader of fake news.  He loved people to come to his house and to admire him, his beautiful family and to bow down in awe at his power.  But not everyone recognised how wonderful this humble man was.  Some people even said they didn’t want to come to his wonderful parties.  But this just showed that these people were unworthy and so their invitation was withdrawn …

I’ve never been known for my subtlety. Now, I know some of you have probably heard this morning’s Gospel reading and sermons about it once or twice before.  And you will probably have heard the banquet described as heaven and the king as God.  But doesn’t the king in today’s parable sound much more like some of our megalomaniac world leaders than he does like God as revealed through Jesus?  Today I have a challenge for you.  I want you to look at it a different way.

The parable is delivered to the Pharisees who are questioning Jesus’ authority.  Directly before this point in Matthew’s Gospel we have had the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  When the Pharisees are asked in that parable how the landowner should have dealt with the tenants, they say that he “should put them to a miserable death”.  And this is what we see in this parable.  The king is merciless.  This sounds like a big showy occasion.  When people aren’t prepared to come and celebrate with him (or is it to celebrate him?) he gets the hump.  He calls them unworthy.  he sounds like a petulant child.  And then he goes and sends his troops out to kill them and burn the city down.  This is the way the Pharisees would have had the landowner act.  This is not the way Jesus tells us that God acts.  The clue comes in the translation of some of the first words of the parable.  We heard them this morning as “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to  …”   But there is an alternative translation.  In technical terms, the Greek used here is a passive tense, so it’s actually more accurately “the kingdom of heaven has been compared to …”  So, what if Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “you have believed that this is what the kingdom is like: a kingdom where worthiness is tested and there is retribution, where outside appearances are more important than whether you are good or bad.  But I’m here to tell you that it’s different.  What would that mean to our relationship with God?

The very next chapter of Matthew sees Jesus completely tearing apart the Pharisees.  He calls them out for demanding honour, being concerned with the outward appearance of their religious activities and for being hypocritical in not following what they teach.   This is where that behaviour leads.  If the Kingdom of Heaven was one the Pharisees would recognise it would be full of people who care more about outward appearances rather than a heart that was ready to worship.  The people in the banqueting hall today may be dressed in fine clothes ready to enjoy the party, but they don’t even know the king.

What happens to the one who is not dressed properly, who refuses to play the political game?  He is turned out – rejected.

You see, God doesn’t care about what we do for show.  He cares about our hearts.  He cares that we know Him.  Our love for God comes from a knowledge of Him, not because He has offered us the finest things.  Yes, the benefits of the heavenly banquet are more wonderful than we can imagine, but if we are only showing up for the party, we have it wrong.   We love God because He loves us and because not loving Him leaves a gap in our lives which can’t be filled with earthly finery and showiness.   God calls us to the banquet because he loves us.  His love doesn’t depend on whether we are ‘worthy’, because, believe me, if it did, we’d all be thrown out to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  No.  We don’t have to earn his love by being the best at praying or by giving the most.  We have His love and, unlike the Pharisees, our response is to love in return.  It is a great honour to be invited to the wedding banquet.  Because our King is a King who invites us because He loves us, rather than because he needs to be adored, we are truly honoured.  And adoration and loving service is our natural response.

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Consider the Lillies (Luke 12:16-30)

Today’s sermon seems to have ended up being a rather different style form my usual.  I have no idea why that happened, but it went well with the Parish Church congregation which seemed to have more visitors than usual this morning.  I guess sometimes, you just have to go with it and trust. 

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I used to love going for walks in the park this time of year when we lived in London.   The park we were closest to had lots of squirrels.  I mean, it seemed like absolutely hundreds.  I love the way squirrels move.  They scuttle and stop, scuttle and stop.  They seem to have a purpose and they keep stopping to check that they are on track.  They are determined and conscientious.  But they always seem a little bit anxious, a little bit on edge.  Now, of course, this time of year their major purpose is finding food to store up for the long winter.  And they are very good at it.  So good that they tend to store more than they need and some of the nuts and acorns they collect will end up growing into new trees.  I wonder what Jesus would have made of squirrels.  It sounds like he wouldn’t have been quite as enamoured by them as I am!  Unlike the ravens they do store up food by burying it.  You could even say that they sow.

I wonder if the squirrels would simply say that the ravens are lazy?  I imagine them sitting around in their drays chatting about the other animals and talking about how “those ravens, never do a stroke of work, and yet they expect it all to be handed to them on a plate … or a bin lid, at least.  We work blooming hard for what we have.  And what do they do?  They just take.  You never see a hungry raven, do you?”.  You see, Jesus’ message here sounds pretty odd.  I think we’re much more like squirrels.  We have this purpose in life.  To provide for ourselves, and then not even to stop then.  We keep going.  Not actually recognising that we already have more than enough.  We squirrel wealth away.  We worry that if we don’t, we won’t have enough to get us through.  We keep an eye on what we have.  We try not to get into debt, and if we do, we try to get out of it as soon as possible.

And all of that is entirely sensible.  Surely, Jesus can’t be saying that we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves?  If we read this one way, it can sound very restrictive.  It can sound like we are being told to empty our bank accounts, give it all to the poor and to rely totally on God for our everyday needs.  You know, I believe that if we did do that and if we were faithful enough to completely and utterly trust God so that we could dedicate our lives to nothing but serving Him, He would provide.  There are enough stories about people doing exactly that.  But could you?  As much as I love God, as much as I trust Him, could I?

Are we being called to a life of poverty?  Or are we being called to a life of simplicity?  Let’s look at the Gospel again.  The rich fool.  He gains more and more wealth and he finds himself with a problem.  How does he store it?  This overly abundant harvest causes him concern.  He has to find a solution.  But the solution he finds does him no good.

Then we have the ravens.  The ravens don’t accumulate wealth, but they are not starving. Remember, the squirrels told us that earlier!  They have enough.  They are not, in any way, poor.  They are provided for and just get on with doing what they have to do to be ravens.  The flowers are not dressed in rags.  They have everything they need.  In fact, they have more than they need.  The difference between them, the rich fool and the squirrels is that they are not worried about it.

We fall too easily into the trap of becoming squirrels.  We work harder and harder.  We focus on our goal, and so often, our goal has nothing to do with living a life of sufficiency … but of living a life of more.  We are not satisfied with enough.  But having more than enough traps us.  We need to work out where to store our acorns.  We worry what will happen if interest rates go down or property values fall.  I used to work in estate agency in the mid 90s.  I sold houses during the property crash.  Yes, people lost lots of money.  But the number of people who were moving from one house to another who were hugely upset if we had to drop their price was astounding.  So often, I just couldn’t get people to understand that if their house price had gone down, so had the price of the house they would buy.  All they could see was the number, not the value.  In simplistic terms, they were just swapping one home for another.   But, when it comes to our investments, our stored up wealth, all we seem to able to do is worry.

Anxiety is so prevalent in our societies.  But being anxious about things doesn’t change them.  So let’s just switch the anxiety off!  Oh, I wish it was so easy.  But this is the thing.  We worry about how we will provide.  We give ourselves deadlines and demands.  We tell ourselves that if we do x we will get y.  Our life becomes based on all sorts of conditions, if x then y.  Then we worry that we can’t manage x and so y will fail.  But God isn’t a God of if … then.  I heard someone say recently that God is the God of because … because God made us, He loves us completely.  Because God loves us completely, He knows us better than we know ourselves.  Because He knows us better than we know ourselves, He knows exactly what we need.  Because He knows what we need, He will provide that … Because He made us and He loves us.  Because He is a God of grace, not a God of conditions.  We don’t need to be squirrels.  We just need to be His precious children.

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Battle of Britain 2017

Oh dear.  I’ve really not been a very good blogger lately.  I have months worth of sermons in my computer folder which I just haven’t posted for you.  Here’s the test of how good a Christian you are, dear reader (there’s me making assumptions!);  Can you forgive me?

Anyway, here is my offering from Sunday 17th September.  For context, I’m padre to our local Air Cadet squadron as well as being the curate in a number of churches.  One of our churches frequently hosts large civic services.  Battle of Britain Sunday is an annual commemoration at which we welcome the Royal Air Force Association, the Air Training Corps, the Mayor, MP and other important local dignitaries, alongside our usual congregation and the tourists who are welcome to join in with worship any time.  I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to lead this service for the past two years.

It’s always a challenge preaching to such a varied congregation.  This time I decided that I would address my remarks mainly to the Cadets.  So, here it is:

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All things happen in their time. There is a time for everything. That’s the message we heard in the reading from our Mayor. And today is our time to be thankful for the sacrifices of the airmen, the support crews, the emergency crews, the families waiting. 77 years ago was their time to stand up for freedom. For some, it was their time to die. For some it was their time to mourn. For some, the time to rejoice … I know, cadets, that you have heard the stories of the Battle of Britain. I know you’ve been told why this is our time to commemorate and be thankful for the bravery shown all those years ago. I know you’ve heard why it’s important that we remember. But is remembering enough?

What is the Battle of Britain to you? Is it something from the history books? Is it something you hear and think, it’s a wonderful story of bravery, determination and faith. Is it a great example of how fighting for what we believe is right can win freedom? Of course, it’s all those things. But I want to suggest that it’s not history. If we look at the Battle of Britain as history, we lose something very important. History is a thing of the past.

As soon as we assign the name ‘history’ to a fact, it becomes something disconnected from us. And it loses some of its reality. It becomes a story. It is ‘his story’ a story belonging to someone else, not our’s. Look around you. There are people in this building today for whom the Battle of Britain is in living memory. And the freedoms won is not a thing of the past. We are living in a free land because that was made possible. And long after the Battle of Britain ceases to be in living memory, those freedoms will still be ours. This is not ‘his story’. It is our story. The freedom to live in a land where all are welcomed. A land where justice is recognised. This is not history. If it was history then those freedoms would be in the past. If it was history, those freedoms would belong to someone else. But they don’t. They belong to us, here and now.

And if it was history, those battles would be over. I wish I could say that they were. But we look around at the world and we see threats to our freedom. We see people wanting to shut others out, to cut down the freedom of others. We see people who want to control others and will curb the freedom of others for their own ends.

But here’s the good news. The Battle of Britain was fought by many nationalities, different religions, different social backgrounds and different ages. They came together to fight for right. I’m looking out here now at exactly that. So many different types of people in this church this morning who want the best for us all. We can fight for what is right in this world. You can fight for what is right. Even if you feel small and unprepared. Flight Sgt W read that amazing passage that talked of the breastplate of truth, the belt of righteousness, the shield of faith … Many of the airmen would have carried very strong faith into battle with them. A faith in a God who wanted truth, justice and peace to win out against evil. Whether your faith is in a named God, or a force greater than yourself, or even just in doing what is right, you need to carry that faith in front of you as your shield. You need to have truth protecting your heart and you need to have righteousness around you, keeping you together, that sense of knowing what is morally right and living up to it.

Cadets, never let anyone tell you that you can’t fight for what is right. Never let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about when you tell them about justice, respect and equality. Never let anyone tell you you’re not old enough or you’ll understand when you’re grown up. I want to tell you something very important now. Make no mistake, you are NOT the leaders of the future. You are NOT the future of this country. You are this country NOW. You are capable of leading NOW. You have every capability and every right to make this country … and this world … the best possible version of itself. Every time you have the courage to stand up for right, every time you challenge injustice, you are leading us, in our story, the story of the Battle of Britain and the story of the future. You are leading us into a future of peace and justice. We need you.
I pray that you will see your place in your story … our story … and that God will give you the strength and courage to realise your potential, for your sake, for my sake, for the world and for the Kingdom of God.

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Spy Wednesday – Judas: My story

This was delivered at St Stephen’s Church in Windsor at the Wednesday Holy Week service.  We tend to use a reflection rather than a sermon for this simple Eucharistic service.  

As always, but especially in this format, it loses something by being read rather than hearing it spoken.

I never thought it would end like this. Three years. It’s gone so quickly, but it feels like I’ve known him forever. Did he know? He seems to know everything. And yet he seems to know so little. I can’t explain it well. You see, he’s like no one else. And yet he seems so ordinary. Everything about him is an impossible paradox. And he’s turning me into the same. I love him. I truly do. With everything that I am. And yet I do this. I sold him for thirty pieces of silver. More money than I could ever have imagined owning. But that’s not his price. Nothing could pay his worth. It’s my price. I sold my honour. I sold myself.

I thought it would end in triumph. I thought that together we would see glory. We seemed to have the same ideas. He was here to bring us, the chosen people, to freedom. We’ve suffered so much. Generation after generation. The chosen people have been the oppressed people. He was supposed to change that. He was supposed to set the oppressed free. I worked so hard. But he seemed more concerned with those who didn’t even follow him. Children! Children, apparently, are more in tune with God than those who have spent years studying and striving for holiness. The lame and blind who have never worked and rely on the charity of good people. And women! He put so much at risk for women. Talking to them in public, listening to their opinions, teaching them and encouraging them to talk to others.

I thought we would see God’s power enacted through him. I thought the powerful would be brought low. I thought the Romans would be defeated. That’s how freedom comes. By release from the oppressor. But he has even been kind to them. A centurion, for goodness’ sake! Instead of bringing things to order, the order we have been waiting for, he turns everything upside down.

Everything is upside down. This money can change my life. I’ve been saving bits that have ‘slipped out’ of the purse for a while. But now I have enough to make a real difference. And yet even that seems somehow in doubt. He was in the house of those women and the man he raised from the dead, and he seemed to have no regard for money and what money can do. I said the perfume should have been sold. “Think of the poor who could have been fed”, I said. That should have jolted him. His beloved poor. But no. Even that didn’t make any difference. It was almost like he thought the money couldn’t help them. So what could?

Despite myself, I think I understand. Love. So much is about love. Mary’s love was more important than the money. Love is more important than law. Love is more important than earthly power. It is love that heals. It is love that frees the oppressed. And so here is another paradox. It is love that will betray him. My love, which is so little compared to his. I will betray him with a kiss. How, then, will I be free?

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The Resurrection Explained with a Teabag

Yes.  you read that right.  I have today explained the resurrection to a bunch of seven year olds using a tea bag.  I stole the idea from a  number of places and put bits together.  After a few requests on Twitter and Facebook to share what on earth I am talking about, I decided to put together this post.  Now, I don’t normally share my assembly scripts.  It’s not that I’m trying to keep things to myself.  It’s just that I don’t feel that my ideas are really worth sharing.  So please be kind.  This idea might not work in your context.  You will certainly be able to find infinitely better ways of using it and make a much better assembly or lesson from it than I did.  Please do!  And then let me know what you did to improve it so that the next time I use this idea (because I recycle ALL my ideas) I can take it up a notch.

Firstly you need to get yourself a tea bag.  One of the types with a string and tag on the end.  This type of thing:

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Talk about the label – We give ourselves lots of labels in life and we accept lots of labels that other people put on us:  Teacher, mum, blonde, fat, tall … But none of those labels on their own can fully describe who we are.  Jesus had lots of labels too (maybe get the children to give some of those e.g. rabbi, shepherd, Son of God etc).  But he wasn’t interested in labels.  He wasn’t going to be the person people expected him to be such a s the King they wanted with a crown and political power.  So he threw the labels away.  Take off the label and scrunch it up.

The string – We tie ourselves to so many things in life that we don’t need to such as money, power, possessions, needing to be better than other people.  All these things tie us up in knots.  We don’t need them.  Take off the string and put it to one side with the scrunched up label.

The Tea –  carefully open up one end of the tea bag and empty the tea out onto a saucer.

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This tea looks like dirt.  When God created us, he made us pure and clean.  When we do things wrong (sin) it takes us away from that and adds dirt into our lives which make us very different from who we were created to be.  You might want to put the tea into a glass of warm water so that you can use that as an extra demonstration of how sin changes us.  I did this, but I’m not sure it was absolutely necessary.  Jesus dying on the cross meant that he took all those wrong things, sins, from us.  He can take it all away and we have the chance to start again completely empty of sin.

Once the tea bag is empty you can open up the other end and open it out into a tube.  The tube can now stand on end on a saucer.  Because Jesus took our sins away, we can stand confidently in front of God.  Because he was raised to new life, he lives with us and helps us to keep turning back again to him and shine as a light to God in the world.

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Now you set fire to the tea bag!

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Don’t panic!  It will burn pretty vigorously and may burn quite low down.  Some tea bags burn better than others so experiment with different types.  Eventually, the tea bag will rise up into the air.  Cue lots of Ooohs and Aaaahs.

Because Jesus refused to accept labels he gave us permission to see ourselves as more than the labels people put on us.  We don’t need to tie ourselves to things which the rest of the world seems to think are important and we are given the chance to be emptied of all the things that separate us from God.  Because of Jesus we can shine as a light in the world for God’s glory and, because Jesus was raised from the dead and lives forever, we also live a resurrected life and will join him in heaven.  

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First thoughts on Bishop Philip’s statement

https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/03/statement-from-the-bishop-of-burnley,-the-rt-revd-philip-north.aspx

This is not good news.

I follow Bishop Philip North on Twitter because I like what he has to say and I believe he is a very gifted bishop.  Would I have welcomed his appointment if he had been invited to become the bishop of my diocese?  Well, I’m not sure I’d be heading up the team to plan the welcome party.

I don’t honestly know how I would feel if I was told that a FiF bishop would be my diocesan. I’m sure I would feel very worried. I think that, what ever assurances he made, I would always be conscious that he didn’t accept my orders. I’m confident that I would feel valued as a person and servant of Christ, but being a priest is much more than what I think I am. It’s WHO I am. Having someone in pastoral charge who doesn’t believe that I’m who I am would feel very strange to say the least.

As we are in a church which holds these two positions on women in ministry in tension, I don’t believe we should be barring people from the episcopate because they hold a particular theological line. That wouldn’t make sense. But, in the spirit of mutual flourishing, we must make sure that all are allowed to flourish in the Anglican Church. That doesn’t just mean those with ‘traditional’ views. It must mean all of us. Maybe we should have the option of alternative episcopal oversight for parishes within a FiF diocese who cannot agree with their bishop’s position on the ordination of women.  Mutual flourishing often feels like a stick to be beaten with rather than a safety net within which to hold my deep seated belief about who I was created to be.

We have been living with ‘mutual flourishing’ now for some time.  As a phrase representing a way of being, it has evolved with the circumstances and the context in which it finds itself operating.  In the early days of this existence it was often theoretical.  Then it became a shield for some.  Now we have seen how it can leave others vulnerable and how it can even be used as a weapon.  The model we have fallen into is not working.  It is not ‘mutual’ and bad behaviour seems to be the dreadful consequence … from both sides.

So, back to my initial statement that I don’t believe that Bishop Philip stepping down from his nomination is good news. It is not good news at all. If he had reflected and decided that now was not the time for him to be taking this role, and if he had felt that, without a way to make sure that all felt they were being properly cared for, his acceptance was inappropriate, then that would be one thing. But that is not what has happened here.

Regardless of whether he could or could not care fully and appropriately for all in the diocese of Sheffield, he has stepped down because he felt he was bullied. How can that be a good representation of the Gospel?  Bishop Philip refers to “highly individualised” attacks.  What on earth do we think we are we doing that we make someone feel this way?  In what possible sense can it be right that we attack someone in this way and claim we are doing it from a theological position?  If our theology leads us to attack a person or a group of people, then our theology needs a good hard looking at.

I hope that, as a church, we will take time to reflect on what has happened here and what it says about how we can live in love with those we disagree with.  Maybe it will give us new energy to look at what ‘mutual flourishing’ really means and whether it really ever can be mutual.  If not, then we need to find a new way to be.  But I hope and pray that it can be the catalyst to real dialogue.

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