Friday, November 30, 2007

Tonight's the Night

Tonight's the night when the decision will be taken on the Ambridge pews. I'll let you know!

I am off to an early evening meeting, then I am taking the rest of the evening off before a busy weekend with various events taking place. While St Stephen's, Ambridge decides what to do with the pews, we have our own Church Council meeting on Monday: an important one when we will need to take some important decisions.

And, of course, Sunday is Advent Sunday. It's the start of my favourite time of the year and our Christmas tree arrives (hopefully) on Monday.

I have many requests for baptism at the moment. Everyone tells me it is because they love the Church and want to be part of it. It just so happens that it is the admission procedure time for the Schools. Deliver us from cynicism - or perhaps better - from the need for it.

Have a good weekend!

Monday, November 26, 2007

After the Feast

According to blogger, this will be my 150th post. I know I am not as regular as I should be, or indeed would like to be, but it is an achievement of sorts. Thank you to all who read the blog regularly and thank you to those who have emailed me directly as a result of reading. It is an encouragement to keep going! I must admit I would like to get the odd comment left on the blog itself, but I would am just glad you keep reading!

Archbishop Paul came yesterday and both he and the event were a great success. Planning for it is a bit like planning for a wedding: weeks of preparation and then all too quickly it is all over.

The Church was decorated on the Friday and Saturday and the house and garden prepared. The weather was good and a lot of people came back for lunch. People were very generous in providing food and everyone was able to have as much as they wanted, but there wasn't a lot left over.

Other Vicars and ministers will know what I mean when I say it's a bit strange having so many people in your home. For the Vicarage is your home as a Vicar. However, it is very much your official home in the sense that it is the place where you work and entertain guests as well as where you live. And being sensible about it there are security issues as well as anyone can come in and out and yesterday there were people here for the lunch that I have never seen before!

Anyway, Advent Sunday on Sunday and the run up to Christmas!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Feast of Christ the King

I am getting ready to go to our early morning communion.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the celebration of my church's birthday. Our Archbishop is coming for his first visit to us as Archbishop. After the service, as happens each year, everyone comes back here to the Vicarage for lunch and we are setting up even now. It is always a challenge having over 200 people to your house, but it is a long-standing tradition! We have been working hard all week to make sure everywhere looks good and that it is a good day. In some ways, it is like a wedding: lots to do beforehand, but over so quickly.

And then there is the challenge of putting it all back to normal!

I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

An Apology

I am sorry everyone, I know I should have posted this week, but it's been a tough one.

First, there have been a lot of meetings, and secondly, one or two have not gone too well.

I make it a point on this blog not to talk about individuals, unless I have something nice to say, so I can't say too much. Suffice it to say that Tuesday was not the best night I have ever had. As is typical in the Church, the problem is to do with the buildings - but I think we use what we understand as a means to tackle what we do not.

In the ministry, we have good days and bad days. As ministers, we need to remember that. After all, whichever it is, the other is around the corner.

I would appreciate your prayers.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Eve of the Sabbath

It's Saturday on a weekend of great variety! We have several special services this weekend and are hectically getting ready for our birthday celebration next week, the Feast of Christ the King! After this service, everyone comes back here for lunch - it's quite a logistical challenge.

This year our Archbishop is with us, his first visit with us since becoming Archbishop and a great honour for us. I am really looking forward to it!

These special occasions are a good opportunity to make sure everything looks good and is in full working order - except, of course, it never is. We have repairs going on to the Church and Vicarage and we need more seats than we have for the lunch. In other words, everything is perfectly normal at this stage in the game!

I hope you are all well! Thank you for continuing to visit this blog even though I don't always keep up as much as I would like.

Have a joyful Lord's Day!

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Pleasant Surprise

Sunday was a very special day for me, and I hadn't realized beforehand how special it was going to be.

In the afternoon, the Anglican Church here in Hong Kong had a service to dedicate the new buildings at the Provincial Theological College. This was a major project and a wonderful achievement. A project born out of vision and optimism. Qualities that you do not always associate with the Church!

Our theological college is known as Ming Hua and is served by very committed staff, all of whom give their services freely, without reward. You will know that I think theological training is the key to our future as a Church - wherever we live in the world.

I had hoped, I have to admit, when I first arrived in Hong Kong, 7 years ago, that I might be able to contribute something myself at Ming Hua. It never happened. I do not like pushy people and don't want to be one myself so I just let it go. To cut a long story short: after a chance conversation, at another service a few weeks ago, the Dean of the College, the Very Revd Ian Lam, asked me if I would be willing to tutor at the College in the areas of Christian Ethics and Philosophy of Religion. The question came as something of a surprise.

Readers of this blog will know my answer. 20 years ago, I lectured in Christian Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion at Bedford (follow the label, Personal Journey). They were exciting seminars, not because of anything to do with me, but because of the enthusiasm of the students.

After all, sex and suffering are a powerful combination!

Two of the main themes of these subjects.

Anyway, what moved me on Sunday was that the Dean had included me on the list of the Faculty of Ming Hua College, even though, as of yet, I haven't given a lecture or held a seminar. He probably does not know how much this gesture means to me. I just hope I don't let him down.

The service itself was conducted by our Archbishop, the Most Reverend Paul Kwong. Our Archbishop has just been awarded his doctorate (a real one, that he has earned) and is gracing (!) us by celebrating and preaching at our birthday celebration on the occasion of the Feast of Christ the King. I happen to know he is extremely busy this particular weekend, but he has never waivered in his commitment to come.

I hope the Church in Hong Kong appreciate how blessed they are to have an Archbishop who manages to combine a deep spiritual devotion with wisdom and learning. It's almost like being Anglican again!

I am not always positive about the way the Church behaves, but let credit be given where credit is due and especially to our Archbishop, who has a real vision for the Church in Hong Kong. May God give us more leaders like him!

Please pray for Archbishop Paul! It is not an easy task that faces him in the years ahead.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 3)

I am determined to do better at posting than I have in the past so here is the next in the series about lessons I have learned and specifically lessons about the Bible!

We are getting ready for Remembrance Sunday here at the moment. I always find sermons hard for this particular Sunday. I don't want to do the usual platitudes and I do want to respect the dead. I am just going to do what I normally try to do and stick to the set readings.

Liturgical Churches have some advantages!

Have a good Sunday.

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 3)

From the 1970s onwards, evangelical scholarship went from seeing its role as defending the status of the Bible as the Word of God against the attacks of liberals to interpreting and explaining the original meaning of the Bible in its historical and social context.

I personally have found much that has emerged as a result extremely helpful. I have many Biblical commentaries written by evangelicals that I particularly value. Indeed the resources that specifically evangelical scholarship has made available to the preacher and the wider church are invaluable. Furthermore, those scholars who have been prepared to combine scholarship with a wider ministry in the church have performed an invaluable service in helping Christians become more knowledgeable and informed about the Bible and their faith.

There are problems, however, and I would like to have a go here in explaining what I think they are.

Alongside the stress on the need for the Bible to be understood in its original context, seeing, that is, that it was originally written, not for us now, but for them then, has gone an increasing emphasis on the difficulties of taking a text from the past and applying it to today. The old approach was that once you had understood what a passage originally meant, you then just applied it directly to today without too much bother. Once you understood its meaning, everything else would follow.

Increasingly, the realisation of how different life was then has called into question the extent to which it can be applied to today. So even if you were able to grasp what it was, for example, that Paul was saying to the Romans doesn’t mean that you would know what he would have said had he been writing today or what God is saying to us through it today. Simply because that was what was said then, doesn’t mean it would be what God want said now. And this before you even begin to get into the whole issue of the philosophy of hermeneutics where even the possibility of understanding what an ancient text meant is called in to question.

The problem is made all the worse by the way even evangelical scholars cannot agree on what the text originally meant in the first place so that there are, for example, multiple versions of the ‘historical’ Jesus and many different interpretations of Paul. I don’t think there is any need for me to spell them out! If you cannot apply the Bible today unless you have understood what it meant then, our failure to be able to agree what it meant then, despite all the resources at our disposal, has severely called in to question any attempt to apply it now.

Ironically, evangelicals have achieved what the liberals failed to do. Liberal scholarship for much of the twentieth century called into question the authority of the Bible. This was defended by evangelicals, who used their scholarship to refute such charges. Evangelicals came to engage in academic scholarship because they believed in the Bible as the Word of God and wanted to use all the tools of scholarship to understand it. However, because they have been unable to understand it, or at least agree on an understanding of it, they have unwittingly undermined the authority of the Bible on a practical level. How can a text be authoritative if you do not know what it meant?

Theoretically, we may still believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but we have become so confused in our understanding of it that it is no longer possible for us to hear it as the Word of God.

At the root of the problem, I would suggest, is the way much academic Biblical interpretation takes place in the context of an academic environment rather than a worshipping Church. Bible Study is being done, not to build up believers, but to impress other scholars. This puts pressure on the scholar to be novel, original, and clever. Furthermore, the emphasis on getting PhDs with their requirement for originality, awarded as they are by the scholarly community, imposes an alien set of criteria on the Biblical interpreter.

Might it be that these words of St Paul are of some relevance here:

‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)

Not only is much Biblical scholarship being undertaken away from the praying, worshipping life of the Church, it is being conducted in academic communities within secular universities whose values and beliefs are not only different to those of Christians, but are diametrically opposed to them.

Studying and interpreting the Bible is, or should be, a spiritual exercise, which is not about the gaining of a PhD, impressing other academics, or getting published, but about understanding the gifts of God and serving the Church. If along the way we get our degrees, impress other academics, or get published - all well and good, but surely this should not be the motivation for what we are doing?

Finally, I am very worried about the trend only to employ professional academics in theological colleges training people for the ministry. This may seem an unfair criticism, but the job descriptions I have seen call for people with PhDs, who have published academically, rather than people who have been engaged in interpreting and applying the Bible in the context of mission and ministry. It is worth remembering that Paul wrote Romans, not while a teacher in a college as an article for the Journal of New Testament Studies, but while as a missionary in order to teach other Christians.

My contention is simple. By concentrating on the historical study of the Bible and doing that in the context of the academy, we have lost sight of the Bible as a spiritual gift to the Church. The goal of all Bible Study should be to understand the Bible, and to do that we do indeed need to study the Bible in its original context, but the reason we do that is so we can hear God speak to us today. If we fail to hear God as a result of our study, we have failed in our study.

It is time to reclaim the Bible as a gift to the church so that we can have a Gospel to proclaim to the world.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Archers and the Ambridge Pews - Update

The Archers, a BBC radio soap in the UK and worldwide on the internet, about a fictional family in England continues with the issue of whether the pews should be removed from the local parish Church, as the Vicar wishes, or be kept as many in the local community feel.

It's quite funny as this is a real issue in many UK parish churches and the programme gets the arguments on either side exactly right. This may suggest that the script-writers are being scrupulously fair. Well not exactly. It is interesting which characters they have chosen to voice the different arguments. I would suggest that the characters that have been chosen to support removal are the characters that the audience is generally most sympathetic to.

Whatever, the issue has been taken up by a number of real-life societies, and it is provoking debate. The Victorian Society, for example, has a campaign to save the Ambridge pews. Ambridge is the fictional village where the Archers and their friends live. I am going to follow the debate on this blog as it is the sort of issue that people really care about and reveals much about how we think of the Church.

I will try to be fair, but I may as well declare that, at this stage in the plot, I am on the side of keeping the pews!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Deadly Affair

I have just returned from having taken a funeral. It was unusually early: 8.00am. I always worry about being late for funerals or missing them for some reason. I actually dreamt last night that I had forgotten it and woke in a panic trying to work out what to do. It was some time before I realised it was only 5.00am and I had been dreaming. I know clergy who have forgotten they had a funeral and for them it has been a real nightmare!

Funerals here are very different to how they are in the UK. The funeral parlours are quite crude and brash and there is little sense of dignity. There are also all sorts of traditional customs attached to the funeral that take a while to get used to as a westerner.

One thing that happens here a lot, and which used to happen in the UK, but does so rarely now, is that people go the night before to view the body. Often the coffin will be left open for the service and the congregation will be invited during the service to walk round the coffin as a mark of last respect. Frequently, I am asked to be there when the body is put into the coffin. It can be quite strange, especially when you did not know the deceased. Strange, that is, that the first time you meet someone is when they are dead!

Death is not something I am good at. I can cope with other people's - I have to - but the death of others brings you up against the fact of your own. I have never understood those Christians who make light of death. I hate, HATE, that Henry Scott-Holland piece about death being 'nothing at all'. 'What is death but a negligible accident?' the poem asks. If death is nothing at all, a mere negligible accident, why did Christ have to die? And why was God raising him from the dead such a big thing? And why must Christ now reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet? The last enemy, still to be destroyed, says Paul is death.

Don't misunderstand me, I believe that the love of God is stronger than death, but death is still horrible. I don't want to die, but I accept it as inevitable fact of life, a consequence of sin, and something that will destroy me and all that I am. I will not slip away, I will be consumed by a powerful enemy. And I for one will 'not go gentle into that good night', but will indeed 'rage, rage against the dying of the light'. I know it will take a miracle to save and bring me back, what the Bible calls salvation and resurrection. At death, I will trust myself to him, trembling and afraid, but hopeful that 'he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day'.

Tonight, it is the Diocesan Synod. I often quote the saying, 'No-one on their death bed wishes they had spent more time in the office.' On my death bed, I am sure I won't wish I had spent more time at Synod meetings!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 2)

As I sit here, I have a group of workmen above me drilling and digging up part of the roof of the Vicarage. The roofs were redone a few years ago. During the rainy season some leaks appeared. Fortunately they are not serious and we still have a warranty for them. Now that the dry season has begun, they are being repaired. It is noisy, though. So if today's blog is not as clear as it should be, please blame the workmen.

The weather here is lovely at the moment. Not too humid, sunny, and warm without being hot. Someone said to me when I first came to Hong Kong that every summer they decided they could not take the heat any more and would leave. Then the 'winter' came and they decided it was worth staying another year - especially when they saw what the weather was like back in the UK! I know what they meant - at least about the heat. I do not like hot weather. The climate in Aberdeen in Scotland was perfect for me, even in winter, and I battle with the heat and humidity here. Sometimes, in the summer months, I feel that all energy has deserted me!

Now that the temperatures are in the low twenties rather than the high thirties, I feel human again! I just hope my work rate improves accordingly! This week, I have the Diocesan Synod to attend, which just goes to show that every silver lining has a cloud!

I hope your week is not too cloudy or too cold.

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 2)

London Bible College, where I went to study after sixth form, was committed to evangelical scholarship and to engaging with modern theologians. I don’t think I am being unfair in saying that much evangelical scholarship at this time was defensive, that is, much time was spent in showing why liberal scholarship was wrong and why the Bible could be trusted. This is not necessarily a criticism. Some scholarship did seem more about trying to show why the Bible could not be trusted than about a serious engagement with the text.

The trouble was that it was about two sides attacking and defending positions, which had been taken on theological grounds. It did not always lead to a greater understanding of what the Bible actually said.

There was, though, a discernible shift taking place. Evangelicals were beginning to use the tools that scholarship gave us to understand the Bible in its own historical context. They were studying the Bible and engaging in academic research, not simply to be able to refute the liberals, but to interpret the Bible on its own terms. At London Bible College, this approach was best typified for me by Max Turner, Douglas de Lacey, and Tony Lane. Attending their lectures and listening to them, I came out of the defensive camp, and saw the value of studying the Bible historically. I found my study stimulating, liberating, and exciting. I have written in previous blogs about the effect this all had on me so I will not repeat myself here!

Suffice it to say that by the time I had completed my degree, I was convinced of the need to read and understand the Bible in context, asking what the original writers meant and intended by what they wrote, and how it would have been understood by the first readers. This sort of approach seemed so natural and obvious. It involved work, hard work, but it was work that was required by the nature of the Bible itself. This was how God had chosen to communicate his word: through people who lived and wrote at a particular time in a particular place.

The only way then to hear the Word of God now, to know what the text means for us now, was by understanding what it meant then.

This point is vital. Academic study of the Bible wasn’t academic. We – I – wasn’t doing this just out of historical interest, but because we believed that this was the way to hear God speaking now. This was what God wanted us to do. Studying to learn about the background to a passage, to put it in context, was a prerequisite for applying the text today. Such study was important for all Christians, it was of even greater importance for those who interpreted the text Sunday by Sunday in the pulpit.

Consequently, when I left Bible College, there could be no question of leaving studying the Bible behind, and I went on to study for a masters degree in Biblical Studies. Again, the motivation wasn’t simply to get another degree, but to understand the Word of God and so be better at applying it and preaching it. I know that I was not alone in feeling like this. There was a real flowering of evangelical scholarship at this time. Out of this desire to understand the Word of God as God had given it and out of this period came evangelical scholars such as N T Wright, Don Carson, Ben Witherington, and many more, whose writings have been very influential both within evangelicalism and outside of it.

Evangelicals were no longer a small group defending the Bible in private; they had won the right to be heard within the scholarly community itself. Their scholarship stood up to critical scrutiny, and they were able to set the agenda as well as follow it and react to it.

Evangelicals now take all this for granted. Of course, we must engage in academic and scholarly study of the Bible. Of course, we must read the Bible historically and in context. It wasn’t taken for granted 30 or so years ago and those evangelicals who engaged in scholarly study were often accused of selling out!

So when I entered the ministry thanks to my background in the House Church Movement and evangelicalism and out of my time at Bible College, I was convinced:

1. that the Bible is the Word of God and is as relevant today as the day God inspired it.

2. that to understand that Word and to be able to preach and apply it, it must first be understood and interpreted in its original and historical context.

These two convictions have stayed with me, even when I have failed to live up to them. I am as convinced of them today as ever I have been. It is because of them that I try to continue my study, keep abreast of scholarship, and invest in a personal library as a resource for preaching. There have been great gains as a result of our engagement in scholarly study.

However, as I will try to explain next time, I also believe there have been losses and that in stressing the second, we have come in danger of losing sight of the first.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

All Saints Sunday

It's 7.30am on Sunday and I am about to go over to Church to take our early morning Communion service. Last Sunday, I was in the UK, which partially explains my absence from the blog recently!

At 10.00am, we have a confirmation service and our Bishop will be with us for it. Just four people this year being confirmed. I don't know how other Anglicans find it, but I find it hard to find people who want to be confirmed. Nowadays we stress baptism more and see it as the entry rite into the Church. Rightly in my view.

In the past, we used make people wait until confirmation before they could take communion, now we don't. Inevitably then, people don't always feel much need for confirmation. Does it matter? At one level, I suppose it doesn't. Nevertheless, my baptist background has left me with the feeling that it is still important to make an adult profession of faith. Anyway, best wishes to those being confirmed here this morning!

Have a good Sunday!