Max Young writes … Can We Be There?

Confusing or what? Things just didn’t make sense. A couple of days ago they’d known where they stood. They’d seen Jesus crucified, then sealed into a tomb, and their world had come to an end. They’d put their trust in Jesus, but now he was gone. The disciples were in mourning but they’d have to get things together again and get on with the rest of their lives. It was sad, but with Jesus dead, the life they knew with him was over.

But, suddenly, things were different and they didn’t understand what was happening. The women had found Jesus’ tomb empty and this had been confirmed by Peter, and then Mary told them she’d seen Jesus risen from the dead! It was incredible. Had his body been removed or stolen? Or was it just possible that Mary was right and he was risen? They didn’t know what to think, and it was very frightening..

Then, later, when they got together behind locked doors, they talked over what had happened and no doubt, debated Mary’s claim to have met Jesus, risen from the dead. Trouble was, she was a woman, and therefore in the men’s eyes her statement was debatable as it would not be allowed in law. Few would have believed her and developed a faith from her witness. Remember there were quite a few followers of Jesus and the room would have been fairly full. So up to the point of realising they had company and seeing Jesus in front of them, they were not believers in the risen Christ.

So, what Mary had claimed was true after all. The Lord was risen! There he was standing among them, talking to them. Their utter despair was turned to hope; despondency transformed into joy. Death had been overcome and replaced by life. Their fear and uncertainty was replaced with a new way of seeing things, there was hope for the future.

But Thomas missed all this – he hadn’t been there, for whatever reasons. When the others told him what had happened, he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe them. Just as with the other disciples, second-hand faith was not for him. He had to see it for himself. Only then would he be convinced and believe.

The next Sunday they got together behind locked doors again, this time with Thomas among their number. Once more the doors were shut, and once more the risen Lord stood among them and spoke to them, “Peace be with you.” Thomas saw, Thomas heard, Thomas believed. “My Lord and my God!” he said. Now Thomas knew for himself that when they met in fellowship on the first day of the week something wonderful and marvellous might happen.

What about us? Are we always in a Church on the first day of the week? Or do we sometimes give in to the temptation to have a Sunday ‘off?’ After all, these days there are plenty of fairly reasonable distractions to tempt our absence – family events, sports matches for the children, DIY that can’t be done in the week. It seems more and more difficult to give church-going the status of a commitment.

And even if we do go to Church every Sunday, now that most of us have wheels, we can go to the Church we find most attractive – its services may be at a more convenient time; it may be one where our children’s friends go; it may be more child-oriented; or may be more to our musical or theological taste, there are any number of reasons. The pull of loyalty to the parish in which we live can be lessened when we have so many alternatives.

Do we do a Thomas and, as it were, go AWOL? Do we miss out on the fellowship of our Parish Church with our actual Christian neighbours? Are we sometimes inclined to have a Sunday without worship?

If we do miss a Sunday we may, like Thomas, miss the day when those attending felt blessed; a day when they were uplifted, energised and encouraged by the prayers and praise; when the Bible readings had a real impact. Could it have been one of those days when the preacher’s words just flowed as though their heart had been set on fire and God’s Word had been spoken – and heard? And was there the feeling in it all that the Risen Lord had been among them bringing his blessing and his peace?

But we’d have missed it! We weren’t there! For whatever reasons, we weren’t there, and so we missed the fellowship and lost the rich blessing.

There are now so many claims upon a Sunday that compete for our attention and time. Can we give priority to our faith, and a commitment to God, and make a habit of meeting with other Christian people within the fellowship of the church so that we may be strengthened and encouraged by one another? Can we, with God’s grace, find the risen Lord among us? We know the Lord is risen – can we be there?

Max Young writes … Some Palm Sunday Thoughts

Looking ahead to Palm Sunday, I wonder what happened to that donkey, or in Matthew’s version, the donkey and colt? In Jesus’s time, such animals were a form of mobile wealth – cash on the hoof – not the kind of thing you’d give away lightly – and yet it was given away. We don’t know whether the owner got it back; that would have been quite difficult with all the extra human traffic in Jerusalem for the festival.

But it’s one of those things about Christian discipleship, frequently mentioned by Jesus, that our relationship with the things we own should change when he comes into our lives. We can’t hold onto him and them equally. Jesus was quite clear when he explained that his disciples were people whose grip on wealth, influence and even on family had been loosened. Perhaps if we haven’t changed our relationship to our possessions then we would have to ask ourselves whether Jesus had really come into our lives.

And what about the crowd who, seeing Jesus on the donkey, saw the parallel with the words they’d heard from their reading of Zechariah. A prophet might appear in our minds as an old man in flowing robes and a long white beard – we might be able to visualise Ian McKellern as Gandalf more easily than we can a prophet like Zechariah. But to the crowd this was the very stuff of life – they had heard his words at home and in the synagogue; words that they were seeing brought to life in front of their very eyes!

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he
humble and riding on a donkey
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And so, suddenly, this crowd is shouting the word “Hosanna!” – normally a word kept for their worship at this festival in the hallowed precincts of the Temple – But, with Jesus right in front of them in the street, they simply can’t hold back the word any longer. When Jesus comes to us, today, promises of new life and hope and forgiveness suddenly seem to be a possibility. But, for that to be possible, however, we need to have eyes to see them …

Some people obviously can’t see the new spiritual reality. In fact, they don’t even see Jesus. Instead, like many of the crowd on the first Palm Sunday, they ask, “Who is this?” Clearly they aren’t the ones whose friends or family had been healed by Jesus or whose water had been turned into wine. They are those perpetually on the sidelines, unable, unaware or unwilling, to try to understand the spiritual event on the main stage. They are the girl in the jewellery shop fingering the crosses and asking the shop assistant if they have ‘one with the little bloke on it’. They are the mother I heard telling her daughter some years ago, as I walked past them on a Good Friday march of witness in Filey, that it was something to do with Christmas. They are the ones who, for whatever reason, don’t come to a church to worship with us. They are the ones who need someone to answer the question, “Who is this?”

And who must provide them with the answer? You and I, as Christians have to spread the Good News by our words and actions. If we are successful the question they ask will change to “Who are these?” You may remember me quoting the words of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu,

“It would be fantastic if people not only said of Jesus Christ, “What sort of man is this?” but said of us, his followers,

“What sort of people are they? Their gracious actions, and the language on their lips is of God’s goodness and love. Let us get to know them. There is something extraordinarily normal and wonderful about them.”

George Abell writes … We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”
 (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

Christianity is like an ellipse that has two foci.  One focus is Jesus, our One Lord and Saviour, and the other focus is us (all humanity). These two foci of our holy faith are first, that Jesus took our human flesh, gave his life for us on the Cross, and on the third day rose again. And secondly that we also, because of his resurrection, will share a fully restored resurrection life at the end of our life’s journey.

But there is something very special about this “us” part of our Faith, because in Baptism, in a deeply spiritual yet real way, we actually receive and begin there and then, the precious gift of eternal life; the start of a born-again life-in-Christ (John3:1-17). At Holy Communion, when receiving the sacramental Body and Blood of Jesus, the minister will say words like this: ‘the Body of Christ keep you in eternal life’, and similarly with the sacrament of Christ’s Blood, shed for us.

This last statement of our creed is a kind of blanket declaration covering the entire Christian Hope for all humanity, that this life is not all there is, that death is not the final end; that the substance of our mortal human life and existence, body mind and spirit, individuality and personality, will be changed and transformed into a glorious, perfect, beautiful resurrection life. Our home then will not be a finite creation on a finite planet, but set in a world other than all we know now, the eternal world. There, in heaven, God the Holy Trinity is its direct life and light (Revelation 21:22-23). All this is almost beyond the scope of our present human knowing and imagination, so to help and assure us we have the most precious of all gifts from God, the gift of faith. That gift of faith has been given a solidity and firmness by Divine Revelation all through Old Testament Scripture, and supremely and finally in the New Testament of Christ’s life; in his very presence and teaching amongst us. And his disciples have encapsulated all this for us in the sacred writings; the distillation of all that they had come to believe through the words of Jesus himself and the prompting of his Holy Spirit. Here are key passages relevant for this part of our creed:

“You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:10; Old Testament). “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his compassion never fails” (Lamentations 3:22; O.T. again).

Jesus speaking to Martha after her brother’s death: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus to all his disciples: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you…I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3; see also 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 & 1 John 3:1-2).

St Peter, writing in 1 Peter 1:4-5: “The inheritance to which we are born [meaning Baptism] is one that nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. It is kept for you in heaven, and you, because you put your faith in God, are under the protection of his power”. Jesus again to the disciples: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has give me, but raise it up on the last day…that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:39-40).

In earlier articles on the final Return of Jesus or “the last day” I tried to explain that the things of time and eternity intertwine and overlap as it were. So we have to hold in balance two different but related perceptions or consciousness of life here and now, and life still to come in the hereafter. We speak of our departed loved ones being now in heaven with Jesus; and in the Eternal Dimension that is certainly so. Viewed however from our present space-time world and dimension, the return of Jesus and the full resurrection life of our loved ones is still to come. Christians have long prayed for those who have died using words like this: “Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them: may they rest in peace and rise in glory”. And with prayer like this: With grateful hearts for their life here, their love and gifts and many good memories, we commend them to the infinite mercy and goodness of God knowing ‘that they are held by the everlasting arms of God Our Father’ (Deuteronomy 33:27). Note also Romans 8:38-39, that ‘nothing but nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord’.

Our understanding of all this is still partial and incomplete. And always pray in the way that you see it and that helps you most. God understands even if we don’t, and what matters is that we hold on to our core faith in the glorious, final, full resurrection in the life of the world to come; and leave the hows and the whens to God. We should always praise God and pray for our loved ones in the ways described or similar. To forget them would almost be a crime against love.

One day in God’s good time and merciful purpose when our human life here is ended, you and I will indeed be taken to our eternal home by Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). God will clothe us with the fullness of the glorious resurrection body. We will truly share in the ecstatic mystery of the final glorious return of Christ our King. We shall see our beloved Lord face to face in joy forever (1 John 3:2, again). We will share eternal joy too with countless Angels and Saints (Hebrews 12:22-24; etc) and with our loved ones already there. In the next and final article I will try to sum up the whole Nicene Creed.

In praise of God the good Creator and all loving Redeemer, and for the precious gifts of life and faith, and also for this Creed, I would like to close with this Litany of Praise to Jesus:

For his holy Incarnation and victorious Cross:    Blessed be Jesus our Lord and God.
For his triumphant Resurrection and glorious Ascension:  Blessed be Jesus.
For the gift of his Spirit and the holy catholic Church: Blessed be Jesus.
For the gifts of grace in Word, Sacrament and Christian Fellowship:  Blessed be Jesus.
For the triumphs of his Gospel, the lives of his Saints, and yours and mine: Blessed be Jesus.
For joy or for sorrow, in life and in death: Blessed be Jesus.
For the sure hope of eternal glory with him and with each other: Blessed be Jesus.
And from now until the end of the ages:   Blessed be Jesus.
Alleluia. Amen.

George Abell

Max Young writes … Do Christians believe in God?

I once met a Muslim who asked me that question, “Do Christians believe in God?” The reason he asked this question was because the Christians he’d met were ones who only spoke about Jesus, and when they used the word ‘Lord’ it seemed to him they were talking about Jesus only.

Do we have to believe in God to be a Christian? Well, of course we do! It’s at the heart of our faith – Jesus himself said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” You can’t do that, without believing in God, can you? But I wonder, do some of us believe in him without actually knowing or experiencing him? If we’re to know God in, or through, Christ, we have to experience him as, Jesus did, in the down to earth, everyday, business of life.

If you agree with me, then nothing should interest us as Christians more than the religious experience of Jesus. Let’s forget for a moment what he taught and did, but focus on what happened to him, on his experience.

In seven verses (9-15) of the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark pares everything down to give us a powerful story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among us. In those verses he describes events which, are reflected in the experience, the lives, of every one of us, the highs, lows and the humdrum.

There’s the glorious ‘high’ of his baptism in the Jordan, with the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and when he heard the voice of God his Father affirming him in his love.

Can you picture that scene? Can you imagine the joy that must have shown in his face. Presumably his religious experience before his baptism by John must have been relatively normal, but now he was at a phenomenally significant turning point.

Have you ever been to a baptism, when something a little different happens. When God seemed to be there in a special way? Yes, I know, it could be just a psychological reaction on the part of the person being baptised or someone in the baptism party– though what’s wrong with that? But it might be something deeper, what is called a theophany – God showing himself to a human being – mightn’t it? If God is God, and he loves his children, why shouldn’t we accept the possibility of a specially chosen close encounter with him?

Aren’t such ‘highs’ part and parcel of our ongoing experience as we grow in the Christian life? We should thank God for those glimpses, those mountain-top experiences, those wonderful answers to prayer.

But then, after that high came a dreadful ‘low’ – quite literally a desert experience. The idea of God meeting his people in the wilderness runs like a thread through the Old Testament: there’s Moses, awestruck at the burning bush; Israel dwarfed by the desert vastness of  Sinai; dejected Elijah, too, at the ‘mountain of God’. Jesus’ desert experience was, quite explicitly, an experience of Satan, the enemy of God, a time of testing and temptation. And it wasn’t just a brief skirmish; it lasted nearly six weeks. Imagine that! Six weeks is a long time, as any parent knows in the summer holidays! I don’t think that the word torment is an exaggeration for this experience of Jesus.

In preparing people for their baptism, or their child’s, it’s essential to warn them that a spiritual ‘downer’ may happen afterwards. No ‘high’ can last for ever. We teach that the Christian life is an ongoing battle, and that the power of evil is a constant reality. And we need to remember that it was the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism who then “drove him out into the wilderness.” The low times in our spiritual lives aren’t signs that God has gone away and abandoned us. For reasons he alone knows, he sees fit to put us through the mangle – to parallel Jesus’ experience. Yes, it can be wonderful to experience the reality of God in our lives, but it doesn’t always seem that way!

We have the highs, the lows and then we come to what I called the humdrum, a return to normality “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In a word, he got on with the job his Father had given him to do, proclaiming God’s kingdom and gathering followers. The high had been enjoyed; the low had been endured; now it was time for the steady task of service.

As it was for Jesus, God calls his people, us, to work, and we shouldn’t let the highs or lows distract us from that basic fact. Anyone who suggests that the living of our Christian lives should be at a constantly high-octane intensity or excitement, has blinded themselves to both scripture and experience.

After his time in the wilderness, Jesus, this time in the words of Luke, “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The Spirit again! The same Spirit who filled Jesus with exultation at his baptism – the same Spirit who drove him out into the desert – that same Spirit now empowered him for his day to day ministry.

The message couldn’t be clearer. Don’t delight in God only in the highs, when the Spirit is so excitingly obvious. Don’t cry out to God only in the lows, when the Spirit seems depressingly absent. No, expect him to be there also in the ordinary business of life, equipping, guiding, and enabling by the same Spirit. The experience of God can be quite routine. If our spiritual antennae were really sensitive we’d be able to receive this message every waking day, every hour, every minute. “Seven whole days, not one in seven.” Yes, Christians do believe in God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

George Abel writes … We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins

Exploring the Nicene Creed

This brief statement was included in the Creed to emphasize that the Church is a Sacramental Community; so it will be helpful to explore the meaning of this term.

Essentially Sacraments are real and meaningful Signs: signs, or sure indicators of God’s Love and Grace at certain points or needs in our Christian journey. They are often referred to in our Prayer Books as the means of grace. Hence a Sacrament is fundamentally an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ordained and given by Christ himself. Through them we receive the promises of Jesus; sure pledges with firm assurance of his gifts of grace. The whole New Testament sees them in this light, fulfilling also promises made by God in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-29).

There are two major Gospel Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. There are five other rites of the Church often called sacraments, given for particular stages as we grow in Christ, namely: Confirmation, Reconciliation (confession), Holy Orders (making the Church’s ministers for those called), Christian Marriage (for those called) and Anointing (for the sick). Sacraments do not work mechanically like machines (i.e. a certain cause always has a certain effect); or like a tap being turned on. And they have absolutely nothing to do with magic or superstition! They operate, for the want of a better word and are meaningful, only in the context of faith and trust, devotion and humility, love and obedience to the Lord the giver.

Holy Baptism is the foundation Sacrament or basis from which all other Sacraments and grace-giving rites have their origin and find their meaning. Throughout these articles mention has been made how aspects of our holy Faith have tangible concrete expression in the Sacraments.

Thinking about the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus I wrote this: “These are truths that carry also a special meaning, for they point to and assure us of our resurrection in Christ, and of our ascension to be with him one day. For this we have real and certain foretaste now, for the two Gospel Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are explicit outward signs. Baptism confers on the believer the gift of new eternal life. Communion nurtures that gift, nourishing it throughout our lives until we see Christ in heaven and share too his final return in glory”.

Holy Baptism is truly the New Life Sacrament giving life in Christ and with Christ forever, within the family of Christ’s Church. The Creed stresses that it means the absolving and forgiveness of all that has been evil or wrong in the person’s former life. And most importantly the truth that divine forgiveness and healing of heart and conscience are available all through life. For infants it is not some kind of cleansing of an inherited propensity or inclination to sinfulness (once called original sin), but just as for adults the sure guarantee of a life held for ever in the enriching and forgiving Love of our Father. God always gives full pardon and forgiveness when we confess the wrongs we have done, whether in prayer silently at home; or with the Christian family in church when (after the general confession said by all) the minister pronounces the royal words of pardon. And always where we confess humbly, truly and sincerely.

There might however be an occasion, if we are seriously and persistently troubled in mind and conscience when we need the additional counsel support and affirmation that sacramental confession can bring. So never hesitate to make use of it if necessary, for clergy are trained and commissioned to give this particular help and encouragement. Divine forgiveness however given does not come cheaply, for we always make confession to Christ who was crucified for us, whether quietly in prayer at home, or in the pew in church, or privately before God’s priest. Yet it is truly and graciously given for our dear Saviour has paid the price, completely, willingly, lovingly, and for everyone, and forever. That is especially what our Creed wants to hold before us.

Thinking about Baptism and the whole sacramental life of the Church, always try to see the Sacraments as real living encounters with Jesus; a meeting of friends, and our very special Friend and Brother. They are encounters with the living God, and with all his true friends in the local and universal family of Christ. They are enriching, warm and uplifting, truly grace-giving, heartfelt and beautiful, personal ‘contacts’. Never forget that your baptism established that relationship with your Saviour, both for this life now and for eternity with him. If you are expecting good news and it comes in a letter or by email or face book you get quite a thrill. If it’s by ‘phone and you hear the voice how much better; but if it comes in person face to face what a greater joy. Always think of Sacraments in that last kind of way. They do bring huge joy and happiness now, and are real foretastes of life with Jesus in heaven.

But why “One Baptism”? It is to assert its supreme importance as the one and only rite of Christian initiation. And as the foundation and key Sacrament, once given it can never be repeated. Infant Baptism is always fully and completely adequate; and wherever possible should be confirmed by the person’s own choice at a suitable age in the Church’s rite of Confirmation. Its ‘oneness’ also links it to the oneness of our Father God and our Lord Jesus Christ; to the one holy Faith also and the very life and nature of the one Church of Christ (Ephesians 4:3). In the early Christian centuries there were many religions with varieties of initiation practices and very complex ceremonies. Following Christ’s clear injunction the Church chose to have just one significant rite of Water Baptism in which the Holy Spirit of God grafts the believer into Christ and his family the Church.

Here is the Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism definition of Holy Baptism: “In my Baptism…. I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven”. There is no better summary. To be a member of Christ is to be joined and grafted to him and his Body the Church; to be the child of God is to be known and loved by him as his son or daughter with an immeasurable degree of personal loving care. To be an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven is to receive here and now active living membership in God’s present and eternal Kingdom. We shall think about this in the next article.

God of glory, whose radiance shines from the face of Christ, grant us such assurance of your mercy and knowledge of your grace, that believing all your promises, and receiving all you give, we may be transformed into the image of your Son; and with grateful hearts share that self same glory: Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from new Baptismal Rite 1998).

Designer Babies: should we play God?

A review of the third talk by the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield in a series of four on “Science & Faith: Big Questions in Faringdon Corn Exchange” 

Nearly 90 people came to Faringdon Corn Exchange on 11th January to hear the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, talk and answer questions about this topical and challenging issue. With a background in Immunology research, Dr Rayfield has been a member of the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) since 2012.

Dr Rayfield started by asking the audience what we understood by the phrase “Designer Baby”. He then took us through a brief review of pertinent medical techniques, including amniocentesis, fetoscopy and Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), that are already in use to diagnose genetic abnormalities causing conditions such as Down’s Syndrome, Thalassaemia and Cystic Fibrosis. PGD is used to screen embryos produced in the laboratory to select those that are free of diseases which are likely to be fatal in infancy, or significantly limit lifespan or quality of life. More controversially, parents may select an embryo with tissue matching a sibling born with a genetic disease to facilitate later tissue donation. Dr Rayfield stressed that these techniques have been developed with the good intention of reducing human suffering. We do not seek to “play God” but rather to “be human in God’s way”.

For some people the foetus is viewed as a person from the moment of fertilization, so they cannot accept a procedure which leads to the creation of “unwanted” foetuses. For others, including Dr Rayfield, our response must be more nuanced since 70% of naturally-conceived embryos fail to implant in the womb. We need to look beyond our initial reaction to decide what respectful and regulated use of unimplanted embryos may be permitted for human benefit. Dr Rayfield suggested that all medical interventions modify our natural bodies and therefore we shouldn’t view our DNA as sacrosanct. He stressed that the HFEA does not permit any laboratory work on embryos beyond 14 days after fertilization, the stage at which recognizable organization of neural tissue is beginning.

Dr Rayfield, as a Church of England Bishop, believes that he should engage in the HFEA licensing process to build bridges and bring a Christian perspective that upholds the unique value of every person, created in the image of God. He sees human cloning as wrong because it denies the uniqueness of the individual. The Bishop said that modifying the genetic make-up of an embryo, currently not generally permitted under UK law, is a more controversial question. The HFEA is allowing research and treatment based on the use of donated mitochondria (the cell’s power supply) to replace faulty mitochondria in the maternal egg. This has been misleadingly described as making “3-parent babies”.

Current research on gene-editing, presently only licensed for treatment of non-reproductive cells, will make it possible to replace faulty genes. The Bishop is concerned about the danger that modifying the human genome may in future be promoted to maintain the UK’s world-leading research status and economic competitiveness, rather than continuing to be governed by strong medical and ethical principles.

For this reviewer, the take-home message was that genetic research is fast outpacing our ability to judge ethical issues. As Bishop Rayfield says, we need to have people involved in the licensing process who will engage in ethical, prayerful decision-making. We should pray that they will be enabled to speak truth to those in authority.

Mark Ritchie

We believe the Holiness and Unity of the Church (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall think first about the Holiness of the Church then its Oneness.

What does holy and holiness really mean? In Old Testament Hebrew the word for ‘holy’ is kadosh; and in New Testament Greek hagios. It simply means ‘separated or set apart’, the same in both Testaments, and is used for God and for his people. In Leviticus 19:2 Moses speaks to the whole Israelite people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. In 1 Peter 1:15 the writer speaks to the Christian assembly: “As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct”; and again in Chapter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

This shows how holy is invariably used in a faith-religious context with strong moral emphasis, and with real everyday relevance and application for the whole of life. It means being set apart and dedicated for a higher wider purpose or ‘consecration’. And the Christian Church is certainly not an exclusive club with a ghetto mentality! Indeed our Lord spoke of his readiness to give himself utterly for his disciples and for all of us and his whole world, when he said: “And for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:19). Some translations have ‘sanctify’ which means the same.

Thinking about the holiness of God as taught in holy Scripture, and supremely as seen in Jesus, we could sum it up like this: God is faultless and unfailing in perfect Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Purity; in Understanding and Wisdom; in glorious Eternal Purpose for all Creation; and above all in Compassion, Justice and Mercy. And there is no malice or evil intent or sin in God.

Such is our Holy God, and we who bear his image and likeness are called and challenged to be holy too. . . nothing less. To put it mildly it’s a very tall order; a tremendous challenge! But the Church of Christ has never hesitated to accept that vocation enshrining it in its Creeds as its sure belief, knowing that the God who calls us never fails to equip us with his grace. It means to become and to be what we truly are, by the grace of justification (put right with God), and sanctification (made holy by God).

This is why the Church speaks of Holy Baptism, Holy Confirmation, Holy Eucharist and Communion, Holy Marriage and Holy Orders (Ordained Ministry); Holy Scripture and Holy forgiveness, freely available for everyone forever. And a Holy Fellowship too, both universal and local, of those who seek to help, support and care for each other, in the loving holiness journey.

There are times of course when ‘Holy Church’ has seemed anything but holy. There are not a few dreadful pages in its history. But there are far more better pages; and such there will always be, for however much you and I let the side down (as we sadly do), our holy God and Saviour never lets us go, leading us on to better holier ways.

When we looked at the meaning of ‘Catholic’ it was necessary to see something also of the Church’s Oneness and Unity. ‘Catholic’ we learnt means holding the true universally received Faith of the Church, the one common biblical Faith of the New Testament – a Faith which by its very nature unites us. ‘Catholic or world-wide’ also means embracing all nations, races, colours; all social groups, ages, abilities; gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the Gospel of Christ and the Christian Family.

So an essential component of the Church’s unity and harmony is its adherence to the Gospel truth, that ‘there is only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Ephesians 4:3). And “of us all” means exactly that – all peoples across all continents, all human families, all shapes and sizes; all made one-in-Christ by Baptism forever. (We shall look at this again later).

The Church is fundamentally One because there is only one God. And so there can only be one sure organization with the mission and task of bringing God’s Creative-Saving Love to all humanity. This, the Christian Church faithfully fulfils by God’s clear guiding Light and divine grace. And though other world faiths may teach much that is good, only faith in Christ Jesus provides the fullness of truth.

The Church’s Unity however, though truly real in its undergirding essence of Baptismal Life is still sadly impaired in various other levels. At Communion, before sharing ‘The Peace’, the president often says: “We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12,13). Indeed we are the Body of Christ whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or whatever. Our prayer and hope should be that this becomes a full complete reality, embracing all the Churches; with sharing of all Ministries and the Sacramental Bread and Cup of the Eucharist; and in worship and prayer, in learning together, and witness and service to others. May this vital ecumenical task grow until we are all truly and wholly visibly One, just as Jesus longed and prayed: according to his will and in his good time across our whole world (John 17:19-23).

The causes of division are many and complex, often purely political or nationalistic. But sadly deficiency in holiness and love, and lack of humility before the whole truth, is also its cause. Too often also, assertions are made by some Churches or groups that only they have got it right; and that too can bring about division! Real holiness, genuine love with patient truth-seeking dialogue, and above all earnest prayer, are the surest ways to bring about the unity we yearn for. And this must apply to all the Churches who look to Christ as head and Lord, and seek to do God’s will for all his peoples.

An act of praise to acknowledge the holiness of God, his Church, and each one of us:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord;
Holy is the Lord God almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
Amen. Alleluia.

George Abell

Wassail! or Cheers! Happy Christmas! or Merry Winterval!

I have been trying to reinstate the word ‘WASSAIL’ (Old English meaning “be healthy”) to replace the meaningless ‘Cheers’, as a greeting, farewell and a toast. Some people also use ‘cheers’ to mean, ‘thankyou’, a word that needs emphasising rather than changing.

I seem to remember that about 20 years ago Birmingham Council officials decided that, in their multi-cultural city, ‘Christmas’ was a word not to be used. Instead they invented “Winterval”.

What an uproar that caused! Can you just imagine Christmas being, as it were, cancelled? Some, including millions of turkeys and acres of Christmas trees, might welcome the thought, and some people too, of no Christmas Cards, stocking fillers, expensive presents, tinsel and Gift-wrap. But the flip side is that shops would go bankrupt; children would be disappointed that there wouldn’t be a pile of e-gadgets, computer games, robots and drones, piled under the Christmas tree; and tubby white bearded chaps in red coats would face early redundancy.

“Winterval”- how insulting that must have felt to the good Christians of Birmingham! It must also have upset the many Muslims and Hindus who celebrated the holiday as well as their own festivals of Eid and Diwali. In that year Advent in the city of Winterval was a time of controversy.

This year amidst all the hustle and bustle of the preparations I hope that there will be time for us to prepare to meet the child Jesus and to celebrate God’s life-changing, hope-giving intervention in our world.

We can learn from the past – remember the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth – old people with no children – the angel’s message to Zechariah? Zehariah was a good and committed Jew who knew the prophets’ words about a Messiah. But he didn’t know just how important a part he and Elizabeth would play in the arrival of this Messiah.

And here we are in the present. We will all have looked with awe and wonder at the almost miraculous sight of a new-born child – no matter who’s it is. The marvel of such perfection. At that stage it is difficult not to feel God’s presence in the child whom we see as a symbol of hope – a new, pure, unspoilt life with unknown and vast potential. Zechariah knew his child was a unique messenger who would be the one who announced the Messiah at the start of his mission.

Today, Jesus’ Advent is into a world with huge distractions; into a world of massive indifference where people will take a full part in “Winterval”  but, sadly, not in Christmas. We must rejoice in the present and enjoy the sense of anticipation of his arrival and, importantly, communicate to all about us that Jesus was born to save sinners and their souls, not to cause us to flex our credit cards.

As we prepare for the future we need to ensure our birthday celebrations focus on the Christ-child and the wonderfully different future he offers to all. Zechariah used the words of Malachi to describe the gift the Messiah was bringing, he talked about the night – the haunt of darkness, bad dreams, fear and evil – being driven away by the sunrise. Isn’t that a wonderful picture? A picture of what he has done, does still, and will do. The present from Jesus under our tree is one of tender mercy that brings to an end our separation from God.

Although we can enjoy the fun, bright lights, TV repeats, pantos and everything else that “Winterval” brings, we know they won’t last. By New Year’s Eve they will definitely have lost some of their sparkle.

However, Christmas represents the unexpected joy brought about by our unorthodox God reaching down and offering to touch our lives. Try hard to accept his gift, because it will last; we will be forgiven so that we can start again; any darkness will disappear, because the light has come.

There may be some of you who remember the words of King George VI in the first Christmas broadcast of the World War II He was quoting Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of Christ.
That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

Don’t celebrate Winterval,
Celebrate Christmas! Wassail!

Max Young

Fellowship of St Birinus

Firstly I would like to thank Steve and our Churchwardens for nominating me for this Award, and to the all those who travelled to Dorchester for the service.

On Sunday 24thSeptember , a service of Evensong was held in Dorchester Abbey for the Fellowship of St.Birinus, when I was made a Fellow and presented with the award by the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Reverend Colin Fletcher.

The citation states:
‘The Fellowship of St Birinus. To our beloved in Christ We welcome you into the Fellowship of St Birinus Joy Blake With thanksgiving for your service to God and the Parish of All Saints’ Faringdon in recognition of your faithful service as Organist and Choirmaster and for your love and service in all that you do’.

The service of Evensong was a wonderful occasion with the Abbey full, with about four hundred persons, including new Fellows, previous recipients and their supporters.

The service consisted of hymns:
Hymns – ‘Praise to the Lord’ and ‘Father hear the prayer’;
Psalm 145 v1-8 sung by the Abbey choir;
Canticles – Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis,
Anthem – Rutter’s ‘I will sing with the spirit’.

A brief address was given by the Bishop after the presentations of the Awards.

For me the whole service was brought together by the singing of the last hymn ‘Sing of the Lord’s goodness’ – He has been good to me, and the last verse ‘Praise him with your singing, praise him with the trumpet’ – our Church Choir and the Organ at All Saints’.

With many thanks.

JOY BLAKE

We believe in Catholicity of the Church (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall think about the Catholicity of the Church, a term that requires careful analysis, for it is often misunderstood; and “catholic” is understood differently by several Christian denominations.

The basic meaning of ‘catholic’ is simply universal or world-wide, or wholeness. It is not a biblical expression and was introduced in the very early Christian centuries as the Church grew and developed. As explained in earlier articles the Nicene Creed was formed to clarify the Church’s true and essential beliefs about God and his Christ at a time of serious debate and disagreement. Hence the use of ‘catholic’ in the Creed was to stress the received New Testament Faith the true Faith – the whole Faith as established from the beginning, and universally held across all local churches by practically all Christian leaders and people. So when in various places disputes and disagreements over some elements of that Faith occurred, Church leaders appealed to the Catholic Faith” to settle controversies. They looked to the beliefs and teachings that from the first days were held in common; the Faith entrusted to the Apostles and enshrined in Holy Scripture (Jude verse 3).  Our Anglican formularies refer to the catholic creeds because these were clearly defined statements of Faith held from the very first days, drawn up by Christian leaders from all worldwide local churches (i.e. truly Ecumenical Councils); thus representing all the People of God. I will now quote part of an official statement of how we who are Anglicans understand our Church.

“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation”. Hence we Anglicans affirm our real, true and full belonging to the world-wide Church of Christ, and that we are catholic. We acknowledge of course that there are other Churches also truly and fully part of this large international Christian Family but do not specify them.

As Anglicans we have always claimed and will continue to assert our genuine legitimate authenticity; our full rightful place in the universal Church of God. We affirm strongly the absolute validity of our Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, our Gospel Sacraments with the God-given graces of sanctification, our fullness of saving truth, and the right to teach with authority the Faith revealed in Holy Scripture. Our basis is Ephesians 4:3 “There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all”. And as I wrote in a previous article, “the Church is apostolic”, and we as Anglicans are also most certainly apostolic.

We should also note that the large (Eastern) “Orthodox Churches” equally claim to be authentic Churches of Christ; indeed fully true, without any variation from the original teachings of Christ, and the way he meant his Church to develop and grow. Hence these strongly traditional Churches consistently use the meaningful title Orthodox.

Furthermore, other Christian Churches also rightly claim to be truly part of the One Church of God, having strong New Testament faith, full baptismal and sacramental life, ministry and teaching, witness and service.

The very large Roman Catholic Church however actually claims uniquely to be The Catholic Church, asserting that it alone has complete sacramental fullness, truth and teaching authority with its ministry and appointed head. Some consider it has given the term catholic an emphasis beyond that of its initial meaning and usage. From the Reformation period onwards the Roman Catholic Church has shown an exclusivist attitude towards the reforming Churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican etc), regarding them as partial or deficient Churches. However, since the huge changes made by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the essential baptismal and Christian foundation of all these Churches has been fully acknowledged.

Praise God, in these better ecumenical times, despite still some differing understandings of some aspects of our Faith, most Churches do work together in a host of good ways, often worshipping together also. In Faringdon there is real closeness now between all Churches, with common projects like the Mustard Seed, the Family Centre, Summer Holiday Clubs, Clergy Fraternals, etc; regular times too of joint worship, prayer and study.

Our earnest hope and prayer must be that this will grow and flourish until we are all truly and wholly visibly one as Jesus longed and prayed, according to his will, and in his good time, and for all his people everywhere (John 17:19-23). Steady progress is being made, especially between Anglicans and Methodists; or with United Churches (as in Faringdon), and some other Churches. We pray that it will continue embracing all the Churches of Christ.

Although in popular parlance many folk do refer to the Roman Catholic Church as “The Catholic Church” (and certainly Roman Catholics almost invariably do so), many Anglicans will always use the full title. Formal Anglican documents, and all official discussions with the Roman Catholic Church always do. This is not to make for argument or point scoring but to say again that we as Anglicans are also catholic! If we are not, there is no point in reciting that part of the Creed with its strong affirmation on ‘catholicity’.

The Anglican Communion and its Churches have of course many differing emphases, usually called ‘churchmanship’; evangelical, Anglo-catholic, modernist, radical, liberal, etc. All these make for a rich diversity almost unique amongst the Churches of the Christian world. And this surely is a sign of strength, for our real unity in essential truths with wide harmonious diversity, is also part of what ‘catholic’ ought to mean. Unity in essential truths of faith does not mean or require absolute uniformity of worship, theological emphases, local practice or organization.

“In all essentials unity, in unessentials freedom and diversity, and in all things love” was a slogan frequently used in the Church’s early and later centuries. It should be our slogan and aim too as we seek to follow our One Lord and help build his Catholic Church. And above all we must remember that ‘catholic, world-wide or universal’ also means embracing all nations; all races, colours, social groups, ages, abilities, gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the universal Gospel of Christ and the universal Christian Family. (Galatians 3:27-28).

Praise and glory be to our common Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

George Abell