Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Christmas

I am just about to go over for the Christmas Midnight Service.  We had the Christingle and Crib service earlier!  It doesn't come more challenging than that, does it?  I was worried that the sheep (aka Sunday School children) carrying the Christingles were about to do their version of roast mutton!  All are safe, I am happy to say.

I hope that wherever you are and whatever you are doing that you have a very happy Christmas.

Thank you to all who sent good wishes for Christmas.

Love to all.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Let the Fun Begin ...

Well tomorrow is the first of many Christmas and Carol Services for me.  The Christmas trees are in place and the decorations are all up - and I love it!

I think the Christmas tree here at the Vicarage is the best we have had, so all credit to 'Sophie's Christmas Trees' who I bought it from!

I know that there are many Christians who are ambivalent about Christmas, and I am sure we are right to want to present the Christmas message over the next couple of weeks.  We do have to remember, though, that it was us Christians who decided to celebrate our Lord's birth at the time of a pagan festival, so we can't really complain that people just want a good time.

Maybe, while people are relaxed and having a good time, we can invite them to think about what can give long term joy as opposed to short term happiness.  I hope so.

I continue to work on the Christmas Eve sermon.  I am focusing at the moment on this phrase from John 1:

'The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.'

I am not sure I have ever known what it means.  Having spent today with the commentaries, I am even less sure.  All suggestions gratefully received!  Oh, and please don't tell me that it means that Jesus' coming means we will all live happily ever after.  I, for one, am sure that is NOT what it means!

I hope all your own preparations for the Nativity of our Lord are going well.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's Monday morning and a chance to catch up after an especially busy weekend!  A highlight was the Graduation Ceremony and Eucharist at Ming Hua Theological College where I teach Christian Ethics.

Last Sunday at Christ Church was Pledge Sunday, the Sunday when we ask church members to commit themselves and their resources to God for the year ahead.  I was preaching and below is the text of the sermon I preached.  This is produced from the sermon notes and hasn't gone through too much editing.

The epistle for the day was Romans 15:4-13 and I used this as the basis for the sermon.

Pledge Sunday - Sunday, December 5, 2010

Two dates are especially significant in the history of Christ Church: dates, which, I think are of some significance for us as we celebrate Pledge Sunday today.  The first date is September 2, 1933 and the second, October 29, 1938.

September 2, 1933 first.  Many people do not realize that Christ Church has a history that goes back before the Church was founded in Kowloon Tong.  Christ Church is a rebirth of another Church: Saint Peter’s, West Point.  St Peter’s had been built in 1872 as a mission church for seamen.  It was supported in its work by large shipping companies.  Their support for this work stopped in the years after the First World War.  As many of its congregation had moved to the newly developing area of  Kowloon Tong, the decision was made to open a church in Kowloon Tong and close St Peter’s. 

A church house was acquired at 3 Duke Street.  Worship at St Peter’s stopped in August, 1933 and the church house was consecrated by Bishop Hall on Saturday. September 2, 1933.  Worship took place in a large room in the house.  The altar and furnishings were those of St Peter’s.  At this stage, the church was known as the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church.

Secondly, October 29, 1938.  Subsequently, the decision was made to build a church.  The site of the present church was chosen in January, 1936 and, with government assistance, a church was built.  The consecration service was held on October 29, 1938 and the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church became Christ Church.  Our church bell came from St Peter’s and it is rung before every service and at the moment of consecration during the Eucharist.  The bell is a reminder to us of our origins.  In the mission to the Seamen’s Club in TST, the Mariners' Club, there is the Chapel of St Peter: a reminder and a continuation of the work of the former church.

Since then, both Kowloon Tong and Christ Church have been through many changes.  What has not changed has been our commitment to serve Christ here in Kowloon Tong.  That we have been able to do so has been because of the commitment of members of Christ Church over the past 77 years.  Today it is important to pause and say thank you to God for all those who have both pledged their support and honored that pledge in the past. Their faithfulness has enabled us to be here today.

Our epistle this morning describes God as the God of steadfastness and encouragement.  Some versions translate the Greek word for steadfastness as endurance.  Christ Church illustrates this.  Our ministry endured even when Christ Church was taken over by the Japanese army during World War II and used as a stable for their horses.  It has endured during huge physical, geographic, political and economic changes in Hong Kong.  And from this we gain great encouragement.

At this point, doubtless, you are probably expecting me to encourage you to pledge your financial support to Christ Church today so that we can continue this ministry.  And yes, I will do that, of course, but first I want to ask what it is that we are pledging to.

Turning to our epistle again, I would like to read the verses which come before the set passage, that is, the first four verses of Romans 15.  Paul is writing to the Church at Rome, which, like Christ Church at the beginning, did not meet in a church building, but in a house or rather several houses.  These were pioneering Christians and Paul speaks enthusiastically and positively about them.  As is common and understandable, these Christians tended to get on better with some rather than others.  As a result, the Church could be divided roughly into those from a Jewish background and those from a Gentile background.  Again, as is common and understandable, those in one group argued for what they thought was right and how the church should behave, and the other group for what they thought was right.

This is typical, not only in churches, but in any human group or institution.  There are always going to be decisions to be made and problems to be dealt with.  There is nothing wrong with this: it’s just inevitable.  The way that these decisions are normally made is by one side campaigning for what they want, and another for what they want.  We have seen this just this week with the decision about where the World Cup will be held in 2018 and 2022!  You see it in schools, businesses, clubs, even the family.  It’s what democracy is all about!

In Rome, the Gentile Christians were arguing their case; the Jewish Christians theirs.  Today we would settle such a dispute by taking a vote at the Church Council or a church meeting.  Paul, however, argues for a much more radical way of tackling the issue: ‘We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour.  For Christ did not please himself …’

Paul tells them that instead of trying to get what they want, even what they think to be right, they should instead ask what will build up and strengthen my neighbour: my fellow Christian in the body of Christ.  We do this to follow the example of Christ.  For the Church is not ours, but his, and his way of doing things is different to that of the world.

Paul prays, ‘May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus …’

The Church is to solve any disagreements and make any decisions, not by one side getting its own way, nor even by popular vote, but by a coming together in harmony.  By asking, not what do I think is best, but what is best for the Church and my fellow Christian in it?

Now unity is not the same as unanimity, nor is it the same as uniformity.  We are all different with different likes and dislikes, outlooks and opinions.  This is what enriches our life together.  It is not whether we are different, but how we handle those differences.

Paul tells the Romans: ‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.’  Rather than letting our differences push us apart, we are to use them to bring us together.  We are to welcome and accept one another even if there are times when we don’t particularly like one another!

When people come to Church, they should come to a place where people accept one another and so accept them.  We are not to be a place where people feel judged, but welcomed: everyone is welcome because Christ welcomes everyone.

This is an important reminder to us of what the Church really is.  The Romans met in a house just as our first members did.  ‘We are the body of Christ.’  Not the building or the place where we meet, but us, the people.  We need to get this right first.  Yes, the building matters.  Yes, we value and thank God for it.  But it is not the building that is holy; it is the person sitting next to you: your fellow member of the body of Christ.

But this is not all.  Our harmony, unity and acceptance of one another are not an end in and of itself.  It isn’t so we can feel nice when we are come together on a Sunday or whenever.  Paul does indeed write:  May not the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, but why?  He continues:

‘So that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v6)

And this brings us to what today is about.  Pledge Sunday is not in the first place about money.  First and foremost, today is a challenge to us to pledge that we won’t seek to please ourselves, that we will take Christ as our example and welcome and accept one another so that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ here at Christ Church, Kowloon Tong.

For unless we have this as our goal and pledge, then instead of being the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church, we will simply be the Kowloon Tong Anglican Club.  And there is already a perfectly good Club in Kowloon Tong!

Having made this Pledge to seek together to serve Christ and glorify God, God, of course, also invites us to commit our resources: our time, our abilities, and, yes, our money to make what we have committed ourselves to happen.

As your Vicar, today I want to pay tribute to all those who have given in the past so that we can worship together today.  I want to thank you for all you have given in the past year, and invite you on this Pledge Sunday to go on giving that we may indeed with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Chris.

Our service will include an Act of Commitment, please take it seriously!  We will close our service today with the hymn by Charles Wesley that expresses what it is we are committing ourselves to:

            ‘Ye servants of God, your master proclaim,
            and publish abroad  His wonderful name;
            the name all victorious of Jesus extol:
            His kingdom is glorious and rules over all.’

Amen.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Most people will by now be aware of the publication of a huge amount of 'secret information' on the wikileaks web-site.  Listening to Hillary Clinton describing it as an 'attack on the international community', I was reminded of the words of Lenin:

'It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.'

The reaction of governments, especially western democratic governments, to the leaks has been one of universal condemnation. There seems to be some irony here.  America and Europe have been lecturing the rest of the world for some time now about freedom and democracy, extolling the values of free speech and  a free press.  And yet now the same governments are arguing, in effect, that there are some things it is better in a democracy for the people not to know.  Interesting.

I do not doubt the importance of secrecy and confidentiality in government.  The wikileaks affair does, however, illustrate something that I have been arguing for a long time now and this is that there is a huge difference between democracy and freedom.

Freedom, of course, means different things to different people.  If you are a young single mother living on crime and drug ridden housing estate, freedom is more likely to be about not getting mugged and your child not growing up a drug addict than it is about which distant politician happens to represent you in congress, parliament, or wherever.

If you live in a parliamentary democracy like the UK, for example, you have more chance of a good education and health care if you live in one part of the country to another.  Freedom from illness and freedom to vote are very different types of freedom.

Don't misunderstand me.  I am not saying that democracy is necessarily wrong just that it is not the same as freedom.  How much freedom you have once a government has been elected will depend on a variety of factors.  All governments limit freedom of speech, movement, and knowledge, doubtless with good reason.  The freedom most of us value, though, depends as much, if not more, on how much we earn, where we live, whether we can access adequate healthcare, and if our children can get a good education or even just an education.  Quite simply, democracy is a system for allowing a population some say in who governs them.  No more and no less.  It may or it may not lead to greater freedom.  Hitler, after all, was elected to power.

Why does this matter to Christians?  It matters because, I think, we are in grave danger as the Church of baptizing a system of government as though one system has more right to be called Christian than another.  We have done this in the past, of course.  When Constantine became a Christian and was, eventually, baptized a whole system of power was baptized with him.  We have had Popes who have been secular as well as religious rulers, Holy Roman Emperors, Kings governing by Divine right, classes of people claiming to be born to rule, and Presidents of the United States, all of whose power has been justified by reference to God.  Now we are doing the same with democracy.

By all means argue and campaign for democracy, but please let's stop acting as if it is a divinely sanctioned system of rule inherently superior to and more 'Christian' than all others.



Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas is Coming

It's official we are now in the run up to Christmas!  As I suspect many of you did in your churches yesterday, we lit the first of our Advent Candles on the Advent Wreath, I have begun writing Christmas cards, and the Christmas tree arrives on Thursday.  Readers of this blog will know that I love Christmas and I am really looking forward to it this year with all that goes with it - even the mince pies!  (For my previous comments on Christmas, see under the label Christmas.)

I don't know what your favourite moment at Christmas is.  For me, it has to be the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve.  But herein lies a paradox.  I have preached at this service for quite a few years now both here and, previously, in Scotland, but I have never been happy with my sermon.  I don't just mean in the 'we can always do better' sense, rather I am always left feeling that I just didn't quite get there.  The sheer wonder of the occasion seems to demand so much more than certainly I have been able to achieve.

Part of the problem - only part of the problem, mind you - is that by Christmas Eve, I always feel completely drained.  Like having a Ferrari with no petrol in it.  No matter how hard you put your foot on the accelerator nothing is going to happen.  Another part of the problem is simply finding the words to describe the Word, the Word that did not stay a Word, but became flesh and dwelt amongst us.

This year I am going to go back to basics and work through the Christmas Gospel, that is, St John's Prologue to his Gospel in chapter 1 which tells of the Word becoming flesh.  I have read it so many times and preached on it often, but have never really felt that I have got to the heart of what St John is saying.  So to begin with, I am going to try reading and understanding the Prologue again.

Anyway, the sermon preparation for Christmas Eve begins in earnest now.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A New Liturgical Year

I am more than a little embarrassed at how long it has been since I last posted.  It has been so busy this term and the trouble is that once you get out of the habit of posting regularly, it tends to get squeezed out.  But no excuses!  Thank you to those who have been reading older posts and sending comments, you have encouraged me to get back in the saddle.

So what's been happening here?  All the normal things, but rather a lot of them.  We have experienced quite some numerical growth over the past year, which resulted in the largest congregation in our history a few weeks ago.  It is hard to identify any one single reason for this growth, we are, of course, encouraged by it, but it does also pose challenges not least in terms of space.

By far the greatest challenge, though, for me is getting to know the congregation.  How do you get to know so many people in any meaningful way and, more importantly, how do you minister spiritually to them?  Spare a prayer if you are reading this!

Last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King.  I have written about this occasion in the past.  To save you having to look it up: it is also our anniversary celebration.  Christ Church was officially 77 years old.  Our Bishop was with us for the service, a good number of people were confirmed, and we had a Parish lunch back at the Vicarage.  The weather was really kind to us dry, sunny, and not too hot and many came both for the service and the lunch.

I wrote in the last post about different new years.  That was at the start of the academic new year.  This week it is, of course, Advent Sunday and the start of the new Church liturgical year.  I can't believe we are back to Year A and Matthew's Gospel.  It only feels like last year that I bought some new commentaries on Matthew to help preparing sermons in Year A.  From a preaching point of view, my two favourites are Craig Keener's and Ben Witherington's.  I am going to make use of France this time around as well, and will be interested to see what he has to say.  I generally like France, even if he did once turn me down for a job!

I have enjoyed Luke this year, though.  I have found myself regularly turning to Darrell Bock's large two volume commentary and Craig Evans' much shorter volume, which I have found surprisingly helpful given its size. What always strikes me reading Luke's Gospel is how different it feels to Acts.  Obviously, you might say, given the change of location, but it is more than that.  From the moment Acts opens you feel things are different.  I don't mean in a literary way and it's hard to put into words.  It is just a completely different world in every way.  Maybe there is a sermon there in itself.

Thank you again to those who are still interested in this blog.  I make no promises except to say I'll do my best to do better.

Have a great Advent!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A New Year

Well, I hope that you have had a good Summer.  Everything has started up again here as I imagine it has where you are too.  I commented in Church on Sunday on how we have the Church's year beginning at the end of November, the New Year on January 1, Chinese New Year at the end of January, the financial New Year on April 1, but that for me September and the start of the new academic year was, for me, the significant one.

It is partly because of my involvement in education and partly because in the UK where I grew up, September was when the weather seemed to start to change - for the better, as far I was concerned.  Whatever the reason, this new academic year brings some interesting anniversaries for me.

I was inducted as Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong on September 10, 2000 so Friday will mark the tenth anniversary of my time as Vicar here.  I was born in 1955 and so in October I will be celebrating my 55th birthday, and then towards the close of this academic year at the end of June, it will be the 30th anniversary of my ordination.  Quite a few milestones then and obvious cause for reflection, but, hopefully, not too much introspection.  Don't worry I won't go on about it much in these posts or anywhere else for that matter.  However, I thought I might be permitted to at least mention it here!

I also wrote a bit here about my feelings on reaching my 25th anniversary as a priest.  My feelings haven't changed.  My overwhelming emotion as I reach these various milestones is that I wish I had done more and achieved more.

When I was first a curate I found myself taking many funerals.  The hymns were nearly always the same: 'Abide with me' and 'The Lord's my shepherd'.  I wasn't too fond of 'Abide with me' in those days, but over the years it has become one of my favourites.  We don't sing all the verses that Lyte wrote for it nowadays.  One of them, however, seems particularly apt:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

My hope is that the close is a good while off yet and that regrets about the past will spur me on to try to do more, if God spares me, in the years ahead.

Monday, June 28, 2010

It is really wet here today and a rainstorm warning has just been posted.  Heavy rain always brings problems in older buildings such as ours.  We have already discovered a couple of new leaks.  They are a nightmare to get fixed especially in this weather.  I thought it might be fun to post the notes of the sermon on Communion and Confirmation I mentioned in my last post.  They are notes and I have resisted the temptation to edit them too much!

I am pleased to say that after some technical problems, it is possible to hear sermons form my Church again very clearly via the web-site (www.christchurch.com.hk).  Yesterday, I was preaching about the Law, Christian freedom and ethics!

Today is the First Sunday after Trinity.  The Church’s calendar is rather imbalanced! For the past few months, we have been celebrating all the major festivals of the Church:  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and, last week, Trinity Sunday itself and with them the seasons around then.  Now we have stretched out before us the many Sundays of Trinity.  One poet wrote in a poem:

We have done with dogma and divinity
East(er) and Whitsun past,
The long, long, Sundays after Trinity
Are with us at last.

Before, however, we settle into counting the Sundays of Trinity over the Summer.  I want to delay the count by a week to think today of the meaning of a special day that was celebrated by many Christians on the Thursday just past.  If you lived in places like Brazil or Austria, on Thursday you would have had the day off work, because in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is Latin for the Body of Christ.  As the Church developed its liturgical Calendar for worship, it was obvious that there were going to be special days for celebrating of Lord’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension.  It was not until the middle of the Middle Ages that demand arose for a special day to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is true that on the Thursday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Christians remembered how Jesus ate his last Supper with his disciples.  But we also remember how he washed the disciples’ feet and commanded us to love one another.  What Christians wanted was a day specifically to focus on the sacrament itself.

Not all Christians celebrate Corpus Christi, Roman Catholics do, some Anglicans do, the rest do not.  This perhaps illustrates the division and confusion amongst Christians about the meaning of what we call Holy Communion.  For us the Eucharist (another name for Holy Communion) is the central part of worship each week as it is in many Churches around the world.  For Roman Catholic Christians, the Mass (another name for Holy Communion or the Eucharist) is so important that it is celebrated daily.  Yet even for us who celebrate frequently, it is not always clear either why or what it means.

In the 16th, there was an attempt at Reforming the Church in Europe associated with names such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.  But even these reformers couldn’t agree with each other as to the meaning of Holy Communion.  Luther and Zwingli fell out bitterly over it and the division, sadly, remains today.  Even in the Anglican Church, there are real differences as to the meaning of Holy Communion.

There is not enough time to go into details this morning about the meaning of the Eucharist.  Although can I pause advertise the Lent Bible Studies next year, which I provisionally intend to be on this subject.  I am responding to a suggestion after this year’s Bible Studies!

Basically though, the differences are between those who think that something is actually happening in Communion and those who see it more as a visual aid to help us remember Christ’s death for us.  Roman Catholics, for example, believe that the bread and wine quite really do become the body and blood of Christ.  Many evangelicals think nothing happens at all.

What we can be absolutely certain of is that the last thing Jesus did before he was arrested was to have a meal with his disciples that he commanded them to continue.  It wasn’t the Church who came up with this idea, but our Lord himself.

And while there is much that we do not know about the Early Church, we do know that they took this command of our Lord’s ‘to do this in remembrance of him’ very seriously, so seriously that we also know that in the mid-50s just 20 years or so after our Lord gave the command to his disciples, Christians in Greece were keeping it and celebrating the Eucharist.  And so it continues today. 

We know then that this is something our Lord wanted us to do and that from the beginning it is something that Christians have done.  In the first few centuries of the Church, Christians look it so seriously that they excluded people from receiving Communion who weren’t baptized or in good standing with the Church.  So if someone was a known sinner, they would be excommunicated that is, forbidden communion.  The Roman Catholic Church still continues this practice.

Nowadays, Christians who take the Eucharist very seriously go out of their way to include people pointing out that Jesus himself ate with sinners.  Judas who was to betray Jesus wasn’t excluded from the first communion.

All of which brings me to Anglicans and to our own Church.  Historically, Anglicans have attempted a middle way in all this.  I will talk more about this in Lent next year.  We have sought to avoid extremes.  Anglicans in the past have said that anyone who is confirmed may receive Communion.

Let me pause for a moment to talk about Confirmation.  With the rise of infant baptism in the Church, the need was felt for a way for adults to confirm the faith into which they were baptized as a child.  At Confirmation, the Church confirmed God’s acceptance of that person.  It as at this point that people started receiving Communion.

Nowadays, the Church doesn’t demand Confirmation for a person to receive communion.  The trouble is this has led to confusion over the meaning of Confirmation and over when people can receive Communion.

Here at Christ Church many do not receive communion, but come forward to be blessed instead.  Also here at Christ Church, many have chosen not to be confirmed.  It so happens that we are now looking forward to our Confirmation service in the Autumn.

Now let me be clear.  Here at Christ Church we fully respect everyone’s privacy and right to decide for themselves whether and when they take Communion.  We also respect people’s right to decide for themselves whether they are confirmed or not.  Could I today as we remember Corpus Christi, however, ask this of you?

Please would you if you don’t receive Communion, think about why you don’t.  And if you haven’t been confirmed, could I encourage you to at least consider it.  Classes will be held before hand to help people think it through with no obligation to go through with it if they decide not to.  Communion and Confirmation are important to us and we would like to explain why.

For today I would to conclude simply by saying this.  Being a Christian is hard.  Life itself is hard.  Jesus knew this and gave us a means to find strength and sustenance.  We need physical food and we need spiritual food.  It is this that we believe God provides us at Communion as we receive the body and blood of our Lord.  Please think seriously about it and consider your own participation!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Communion and Confirmation

It is now very much the Summer season here in Hong Kong.  We get many visitors to Christ Church from all over the world and they often ask me how I like living in Hong Kong.  There is no problem answering.  Hong Kong is my home and the place I believe I am called to work and minister.  If, however, I was to be asked the one thing I find hardest to cope with living here, without hesitation I would reply: the heat and humidity of the Summer.  It really does get hot and even a short walk outdoors leaves you dripping wet!  Fortunately, nowadays, we have air-conditioning!  I have no idea how the British who came here in the days before air-conditioning coped, especially when I see pictures of them in very formal dress.

Yesterday, I was preaching on Communion and Confirmation.  It was Corpus Christi last Thursday and we are planning a Confirmation service for the Autumn.  One of the biggest issues for me before officially becoming an Anglican was the issue of infant baptism.  For years I struggled with the question of whether it was legitimate to baptize babies or not.  So much baptismal theology simply doesn't work when applied to infants.  In the end, I decided that historically the Church had baptised babies and that it shouldn't be an issue to keep me from being ordained an Anglican priest.

As I have wrestled with the issue in the years since ordination, while I have come to believe that it is valid to baptize babies, Biblically valid, paradoxically, I still don't think that what the Bible says about baptism can be applied to the baptism of infants.  To put it simply: adult baptism is not the same as infant baptism.  I don't think there can be any getting away from the fact that in the New Testament baptism is a choice made by the person being baptized, something that by definition isn't true when a baby is baptized.

It is to get over this that Churches such as my own have a Service of Confirmation when a person previously baptized can confirm for themselves the vows made on their behalf at baptism and when the Church can confirm God's acceptance of them.  The practical, pastoral problem here for me is that I can't persuade people to come to Confirmation.

To an extent this is a problem of our own making.  It used to be the case in Anglicanism that we would only admit to Communion those who had been confirmed.  There was then some incentive to be confirmed, although it is also true that we never saw many of those who were confirmed after they had been confirmed.  It was treated as a passing out parade.  Anyway, we decided as Anglicans, rightly in my opinion, that baptism was sufficient in order to receive Communion and so we now encourage anyone who has been baptized, whatever their age, to be receive Communion.

This means that many simply don't feel the need to go through Confirmation.  They confirm their faith each week by being part of the worshipping community and taking Communion.  The question then is, does it matter if people don't get confirmed?  It certainly matters to some in my Church who still think that Communion should only be given to the confirmed.  However, as I point out to them, that is now no longer an option. It also matters to Bishops for whom confirmation is one way of underlining their authority given that it is the Bishop who must confirm.  The actual answer, however, is, I think, yes and no!

Yes, it matters precisely because, as I said at the beginning of this post, infant baptism is not Biblical baptism.  It is perfectly valid on its own terms, but, in the New Testament, Christian faith requires a commitment - a public commitment at that.  Confirmation, then, provides a means to make up for what is lacking in infant baptism.  Indeed, it could be argued that Confirmation is New Testament baptism without the water.

But no, there is nothing to say that this is the only means for making the public commitment that the New Testament requires.  If a person has made a decisive decision to turn to Christ in faith and repentance and is open about that in their life and witness, it is very hard to see why Confirmation should be a requirement.  Of course, this doesn't mean it can't be encouraged by the Church as a way of demonstrating that commitment liturgically.

It does mean that it is quite difficult to persuade people to join the Confirmation Service we are planning in the Autumn!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Having written about politics yesterday and in this the day of the General Election in the UK and as I look over my polling card for a totally pointless election in Hong Kong on May 16, I thought I would post an interview with one of the politicians I most admire in the world.

I don't always agree with her, but I always feel she knows more than me or most people anyway, and I would trust her as a person whatever her politics.  So sad she doesn't want to rule anywhere.  Here is a very recent interview with her.

BTW: anyone who can help me meet her let me know.

Condoleezza, respect!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArUKdqzLJYs

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

I have had a bit of a holiday from blogging for the past month.  Easter went well and we are now turning our attention at Christ Church to Ascension Day and Pentecost when there is quite a bit going on.

I was at Ming Hua, our theological college, yesterday, where the subjects under discussion were the Christian attitude to those in authority and to war.  Living in Hong Kong and coming from the UK, gives different perspectives on these issues.  The UK is, after all, at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and is going through a general election as I write.  While in Hong Kong, there is much argument and debate about attempts to change the way the Chief Executive is chosen here.  How involved, then, in politics should the Christian be and what should be our attitude to the various political issues of our day?

There are, I think, two extreme positions.  On the one hand, there are those who think that Christians, or at least the Church, should not be involved in politics at all.  As politics is about how the society in which we live is governed and organized, this seems to be an impossible position for anyone who takes the Bible seriously to adopt.  However, on the other hand, there are those who engage in politics wholeheartedly and think the Church should do the same, but whose approach is no different to anyone else involved in politics.  You wouldn't know they were Christians in other words.

What both these positions have in common, ironically, is that effectively they both leave God out of the picture. The first thinks that belief in God and involvement in politics don't mix.  The other keeps belief in God and political involvement separate.  If we see this world as God's world and if we believe we should love our neighbour as ourselves, it is hard to see how we can keep either God or ourselves out of politics.

But our starting-point, our ideology and presuppositions will be very different to those of the non-Christian, even if we end up voting with those who don't believe what we believe.  The Christian will never forget that this age is transient, under the judgement of God, and that all human endeavour, even at its best, is tainted with sin.  We will never, then, be able to give ourselves completely to any human political system or philosophy.

This is something that Christians in the west especially need to hear for there is the somewhat strange notion amongst some western Christians that freedom in a political sense and democracy are one and the same thing.  Consequently, if the Christian supports freedom, they should also support democracy.  I have often said I feel more free in Beijing than I do in London.  I can walk the streets of Beijing without fear of attack, for example, in a way I can't walk the streets of London.

Democracy is a voting system for deciding who should govern us.  It is not the same as freedom nor does it guarantee it.  It may be a good system, but to absolutize it is as wrong as it was in the past to absolutize the divine right of Kings.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

It's Easter Saturday and we are getting ready for tomorrow.  This is the last in the series on God.  I think this is a good day for it.  Happy Easter everyone!

6. The Question of God: The Answer is Christ

In what we have been saying about God so far, the assumption has been that it is within the Christian faith that the answer to the question of God is to be found.  This seems to rule out any contribution that other religions may want to make.  In these relativist days, however, to suggest that there might be only one way, one truth, and one life to follow, if you are to come to God is considered arrogant and bigoted.  In what follows, I will attempt to explain what I think our attitude to other religions should be and, at the same time, bring our series on the question of God to a close.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that individual members of other religions are often good, kind people whose commitment to their faith is every bit as sincere as is that of Christians to theirs.  Indeed, the commitment of some members of other religions puts Christians to shame.  Furthermore, the contribution that some people of other faiths make to the general well-being of human beings leaves many Christians far behind.

Secondly, we also need to acknowledge that Christians, past and present, have, on many occasions, got things horribly wrong.  On an individual level, we have not followed the example and teachings of Christ; our lives have not witnessed to him; and we have frequently been guilty of hypocrisy and sin.  On a corporate level, the Church has much of which to repent.  The Church has to accept guilt for its instigation of, involvement in, and complicity with injustice, exploitation, violence, and a general inhumanity.  Our behaviour, at times, towards those of a different religious belief to our own cannot be defended.  And should not be.

Thirdly, though, we ought, perhaps, to make a distinction between the Christian religion and the revelation of God in Christ.  Religion is what we human beings do.  Sometimes, we will get it right and our religion will be a faithful enactment of the teaching of Christ.  It will express our obedience to and worship of our Lord.  On other occasions, it will be entirely neutral, neither good or bad in itself, but capable of becoming either.  On still other occasions, we will get it entirely wrong, and rather than the Christian religion being something good or even just neutral, it will become something bad, even demonic, reflecting our continuing sinfulness, rather than our obedience to God.  On most occasions, it will be a blend of all three.

So, as an example of the good, we might cite the bravery and sacrifice of the early Christian martyrs, who stood firm against paganism and persecution at the cost of their lives as they proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.  As an example of something neutral, we might cite synodical government (or any form of Church government for that matter).  There is nothing wrong with it in itself.  At times, it might be a useful way to enable the Church to serve God.  At others, it might prove a complete waste of time and a barrier to the Holy Spirit.  As an example of something wrong, we might cite the systematic persecution and torture of one group of Christians by another at the time of the reformation.

To say that the truth is to be found in Christ is not the same as saying that the truth is to be found in Christ’s disciples.  It should be.  Sometimes it is.  Often it is not.

Fourthly, however, no matter how much we may recognize and acknowledge our failure and sinfulness, both individually and corporately, as Christians, we cannot compromise on what God himself has revealed to us in Christ.  For the Christian, what God has spoken to us in Christ is an absolute standard and completely normative in matters of faith and practice.  No matter how much we may go wrong in the process, our aim as Christians must be to be faithful to Christ both in what we believe and in how we live.

God is to be found in Christ and in Christ alone.  This was a central tenet in the preaching of the Apostles and the Early Church Fathers.  The Apostle Peter, when speaking to the Jewish authorities, says:

‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’  (Acts 4:12)

It follows, then, that because God has revealed certain things to us in Christ, we cannot believe other things that contradict this revelation.  For example, we cannot believe that Christ rose from the dead and agree with Muslims, who do not.  We cannot believe in a God who is personal with whom we can communicate and agree with Buddhists, who do not.  We cannot believe in one God who alone is worthy of worship and agree with Hindus, who do not.

Some of the most basic Christian beliefs are absolutely incompatible with the beliefs of other religions.  We might agree on some things, but that does not alter the fact that we disagree on much more.  We might be able to work together in some areas, but that must not be at the cost of revealed truth.  If we claim to be Christians and recite the creed each Sunday, then, for good or ill, we are also saying, like it or not, that the other religions cannot be right, no matter how good or nice individual members of them may be.  In this respect, we need, humbly, to have the confidence to believe what our faith teaches us to believe.

When we declare our faith every Sunday in the Creed, we are declaring faith in one God and one Lord.  It is an inevitable consequence of this that there is one truth and that that truth is to be found in Christ.

But why all this emphasis on Christ?  It is because the question of God is ultimately not solved primarily by argument, debate, and discussion, necessary though they are.  And we do not find God by a consideration of the evidence, important though it is to examine it.  The answer to the question of whether there is a God is to be found in Christ.  Personally, we come to know this God for ourselves as we encounter him in and through Christ.  This is an encounter that everyone can have, and which everyone must have, if they are to answer the question of God for themselves.

We are about to celebrate Easter.  Easter tells us that God took pity on us, that he had mercy on our ignorance and our inability to find him on our own by our own efforts, and that he came instead to find us and show himself to us.  When we look at Christ, we are looking at God.  Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, said to him:
            ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’
Jesus reply to him says everything that needs to be said:
            ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’  (John 14:8-9)

May each one of us find for ourselves the answer to the question of God in the only place that it can be found - in Christ. 

Thursday, April 01, 2010

5. The Question of God: The Problem of Which God

Church leaders have expressed concern recently at the extent to which people are turning from Christianity to new age religion, astrology, and the like.  It should come as no surprise.  For years now, the church has gone soft on traditional Christian belief.  It has encouraged people to reinterpret Christian theology and to bring it up to date.  If we do not seem to believe in our faith, it is no wonder that society at large should decide not believe in it either.  All that our attempts to make Christianity relevant have done is to drive people back to what used to be believed before Christianity ever came on the scene.  It is rather ironic that young people should see pagan beliefs as more relevant to them than Christianity.  So much for the desire to be modern.

The problem, though, is a real one.  There can be little doubt that religion is back on the agenda.  Interest in spirituality is high, but the choice of faiths and the variety of spiritualities on offer is bewildering.  When it comes to religion, we are faced with a religious supermarket.  It is perhaps no surprise that people are adopting a pick ‘n’ mix approach to religion.  A bit of Christianity, a helping of Buddhism, a smattering of astrology and - hey presto!- instant religion.

It was not always so in Britain.  It was always the case that the world was full of different religions.  There have always been many competing religions, and Christianity has always had to struggle to be heard on the world stage.  It was once the case, however, that the average believer in the pew could choose to ignore the existence of other religions.  Living in Britain in the 19th century, you were unlikely to encounter any other religion besides Christianity.  This is emphatically not the case today.

Firstly, we see and hear of other religions on our televisions and radios; we read of them in books, newspapers, and magazines.  The world has become a global village, and all of us are increasingly aware of what is happening in other parts of it.  We are conscious today of a variety of religions.

Secondly, immigration has seen the arrival in Britain itself of other world religions.  We do not have to go to the Indian sub-continent to meet Hindus or to the Middle East to meet Muslims, members of these and other religions as well are now British citizens, living and practising their faith in most major British cities.  To drive through some cities, in the 1990’s, is to see not only the church and cathedral, but also the temple and mosque.

The question, then, is a real one.  Which god?  Which faith?  And, why my god?  And, why my faith?  Christians have to determine their attitude to other religions more so today than ever.  Broadly, one of three basic types of approach can be adopted.  All we can do here is summarize them.

Firstly, there is the pluralist approach.  This sees all religions as, in principle, equally valid.  Each religion in its own way expresses the human search for God and represents what has been discovered about God.  On this approach, no one religion can be said to have all the truth.  Consequently, our task is not to convert, but to listen.  We, as Christians, certainly have things that we can share with members of other faiths, but we have things to learn from them as well.  Inter-faith dialogue, joint services, and a search for common ground characterise this approach.

Secondly, there is the inclusivist approach.  This is probably the most common approach amongst Christians at the moment.  On this approach, the Christian faith is seen as the most complete revelation of God.  But that does not mean that we should completely disregard other religions.  They may not be in as full a possession of the truth as us, their understanding may be partial, but what they have is valid in as far as it goes.  We still want members of other religions to come to faith in Christ, but we recognize what is of value in their religion.  They may not have as much as us, but that does not mean that they have nothing.

Thirdly, there is the exclusivist approach.  Nowadays, this seems bigoted and intolerant, but, traditionally, it has been the approach of the Church to other religions.  On this approach, Christianity is the only true faith.  All other religions are in error.  They may be honourable attempts to discover God (equally, they may not be), but in any case, they are still wrong.  Anything that is true in another religion is true only inasmuch as it agrees with Christianity.  So there is nothing Christians can learn about God that they cannot learn from their own faith.  Our task, then, is not to listen to members of other religions, it is to convert them.

What are we to say about all this?  More than can be said here!  The following are brief observations.  Firstly, as Christians we can safely reject the first approach.  To say that all religions are equally valid goes against so much Christian teaching as to render it incompatible with Christian faith.  Furthermore, to argue, as some who take this approach would, that all religions are essentially saying the same thing is not only wrong, it is silly!  The different world religions do not agree with one another.  Indeed, they frequently contradict each other.  The person who thinks that all religions are the same does not know much about religion.

Secondly, Christians have to avoid intolerance.  There is no place in the Church for bigotry.  We must recognize the sincerity of those whose beliefs and practices are different to our own.  We also have to recognize with shame that many members of other religions live better lives than we do.

Thirdly, though, the issue is not whether Muslims, for example, are sincere or whether Hindus live good lives.  The issue is one of truth.  We live in an age which hates the idea of truth.  Everything is relative.  We do not like to think that there is one truth.  We prefer to think that there are many different ways each one right for the person who chooses to take it.  We want to allow different beliefs and alternative lifestyles.  As Christians, we have tended to follow the spirit of the age and have gone, instead, for a faith that emphasizes feelings and individual fulfilment.  What matters is what matters to me.  What is true is what is true for me.  But that is not Christianity.  What is true is what God says is true, irrespective of whether I experience it, feel it, or believe it.

The Bible stresses the importance of truth.  Jesus said: ‘you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).  Christians believe that God has revealed the truth in Christ.  Christians make many mistakes, they fail often, but that does not alter the truth of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is it just me ...

My first Bible was the King James Version.  It is still the version that comes to mind whenever I think of a passage.  So, initially, I was quite excited to learn that celebrations were being planned for the 400th anniversary of its publication next year.  Excitement, however, turned to incredulity and then, I have to say, something bordering on anger, when I went on a website dedicated to the celebration. (www.2011trust.org)

Here they have Richard Dawkins - a militant atheist, no less - extolling the KJV!

One of the biggest struggles I have had in the past has been with those who think that Church services should be in Shakespearian English.   Many who argue thus - not all, I accept - are more concerned with a cultural elitism than with hearing the Word of God.  Richard Dawkins sums it up in a phrase:  'The Bible doesn't have to be tied to religion.'

This website in its very promotion and celebration of the KJV has demonstrated why we can't any longer use it in public worship.  We simply cannot be identified with this sort of snobbery.

Here is another quote from the website:

Professor Dawkins was asked why he wanted to participate in the initiative. "You can't appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible", he replied, "people don't know that proverbial phrases which make echoes in their minds come from this Bible. We are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture and not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian".

Unbelievable!
Holy Week is proceeding apace!  Hard to believe that tomorrow is Maundy Thursday.  Below I post the next in the series about God.  I will post the remainder over the next few days.  You may remember me writing that these were a series I did for Lent some time ago, but they are still what I would want to say on the subject now!

4. The Question of God: The Evidence of Revelation

In our thinking about God, I have been arguing that there is evidence all around us for his existence.  But many people do not see it or do not respond to it.  This raises the question of how people are to come to believe in God.  This question at once brings us to the heart of the problem.  The  assumption in much of the discussion about believing in God seems to be that it is us who have to do the work, that it is up to us to find God.

This assumption lies behind a lot of religious thinking both outside the church and in it.  In contemporary religious studies, religion is often portrayed as human beings’ search for God and for meaning in their lives.  The different religions in the world, then, are to be explained as the different stories of our quest for something beyond us.  Alternatively, from a Christian standpoint, people will be urged to believe in God, to think about the importance of faith, to consider the arguments, to see their need and to act.  This sort of understanding can result in a presentation of the Christian faith that is based on what we can discover about God.  It can also begin to seem that if we make the effort to think through the arguments, experiment and engage with religion then, eventually, we will find God.  God is there and it is up to us to find him.

From a Biblical point of view, this is not at all satisfactory.  First of all, it is not God who is lost, we are.  Secondly, spiritually, we lack the means to come to God.  Thirdly, even if the evidence were as bright as bright could be, we would not be able to see it because spiritually we are blind.  The theologian who has done most in the twentieth century to remind the church of this is Karl Barth (1886-1968).

Barth was born at Basel.  After studying theology at the universities of Bern, Berlin, Tubingen, and Marburg, he became a Reformed minister in Switzerland.  It was while pastoring a church in Switzerland that he wrote a commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  It was to establish him as one of the major theologians of the twentieth century.  He was to become a professor at several German universities until, after conflict with Hitler, he was dismissed by Hitler in 1935, and became professor of theology at Basel until 1962.  Pope Pius XII described him as the greatest theologian since St Thomas Aquinas.

Barth rejected all theology that put the emphasis on human beings and what they did, and stressed, instead, what God has done and still does through revelation.  God, for Barth, is utterly transcendent and wholly other.  Stressing the sinfulness of human beings, he pointed out that men and women had failed to find God because of their sin, and so God, in the person of Christ had come to us, had sought us out, and had unconditionally welcomed us into a relationship with himself.  In the Gospels, after all, it is the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, not the lost sheep who seek the shepherd.  In Christ, then, God reveals himself making it possible for people to believe in him.
 
And that said Barth is still how it is.  We do not now find God, not even in Christ, by our own reasoning and efforts.  It is not that God made the truth known in Christ, and it is now up to us to find it.  It is still necessary for God to reveal himself to each one of us separately.  This he does through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, God calls each of us to himself and makes it possible for us to come to know him.  Left to ourselves we would only ever stumble around in the dark.

But what are the consequences of this for our examination of the evidence?  We have been arguing that there is evidence for God.  Well yes, indeed there is.  We, however, have chosen not to see it and now have become unable to see it.  St Paul describes human beings as being spiritually blind and therefore unable to see the light of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Does this mean, then, that considering the evidence is a wasted effort?  No, just not enough.  It is right to show people that there are good grounds for believing in God, but more is needed.  We must ask God to open people’s eyes to see the truth of the evidence.  We must ask God to draw people to himself through the message we proclaim.  Jesus said that no-one can come to him unless drawn by the Father who sent him (John 6:44).

So where does this leave human reason?  Firstly, it means that reason alone will never and can never bring people to God.  We need a spiritual renewal if we are to be able to enter into a relationship with God.  Secondly,  human reason is in any case limited because we as human beings are limited.  There are limits to what we can know and understand.  This is not a message that we like to hear.  We are encouraged to think that there are no limits to human understanding.  Sadly, the very fact that we are mortal, confined to a body and given over to death, with a brain that cannot absorb everything shows that there are limits.  When it comes to God, we are never going to have the mental capacities necessary to understand him fully.

Thirdly, however, there is a vast difference between saying, as I have been, that we cannot find God through reason and saying that belief in God is unreasonable.  Simply because something does not seem to make sense to us, does not mean that it does not make sense.  Furthermore, once we have come to faith, we are in a position to see and understand more than before.  Indeed, it should be an absolute priority for every Christian to grow in their understanding of God.

Someone who is very helpful when it comes to understanding the relationship between faith and reason is St Anselm (1033-1109).  Anselm was born in Italy.  At the age of 26, he entered the Benedictine monastery at Bec in Normandy.  Shortly after, in 1063, he became the prior of the monastery.  He was prior for about 15 years and then became the abbot.  In 1093, he became the archbishop of Canterbury.  Anselm believed that it was revelation, not reason or experience, that gives us the content of the Christian faith, but the believer can then seek, by the use of his or her reason, to understand more fully what he or she believes.  By examining the Christian faith in this way, we can come to see how rational it really is. 

In a famous passage Anselm wrote:

‘I am not trying, Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for my understanding is not up to that.  But I long in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I am not seeking to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For this too I believe: that unless I believe I shall not understand.’  (Prosologion 1)

May God grant us the faith to believe so that we too may understand.