Worker Priest

It was in October 1974 that I was ordained a priest “in secular employment” by our former Bishop, Gerald Burch.

It was a bold experiment at that time. A number of interested lay people, competent in their own fields of employment, but without full theological training, were ordained to work (without pay), as ‘honorary assistants’ to the Rectors of their parishes. The particular concern at that time was a shortage of candidates for ordination, and the perennial financial problems of the church, and this was a way of tackling both problems at once.

Seventeen years on, how has it all worked out? Perhaps I can pass on my thoughts and my experiences.

Firstly, it seems to me that an honorary assistant can be of immense help to the regular clergy, simply by being available to help with services, cover in sickness and holidays, and be a useful sounding board to the Rector as to what is going on within the Parish.

Secondly, without the training that the regular clergy have, particularly in pastoral and administrative matters, and without much available time during the working week, it seems to me important that honorary assistants work under supervision. If not, then there will be the danger of the assistant giving an appearance of doing a job that in actual fact is not getting done—and the temptation is for parishes to allow this to happen, because honorary assistants come cheap.

Thirdly, It is very difficult for the priest in secular employment to participate in clergy days and regular clergy activities—every hour out of regular work carries a price, and indeed, may not be available because of the demands of employment, let alone that fact that the day by day activities of the ‘worker priest’ are different from those of the parish clergy. All the more reason that those who supervise his ministry keep him informed on trends and policies in the Diocese. They have to be his eyes and ears from the point of view of the Diocesan administration.

Fourthly, the honorary assistant has an important place in the working world. Rightly or wrongly, there is a status given by ordination in the eyes of the working world that the regular lay person, regardless of training, does not have. The “priest in secular employment” has a chance to minister to the needs of the world as a Deacon in a way that the average parish clergyman does not have. His ‘parish’ is quite often with the needs of his contacts in the workplace—a different kind of ‘parish’ that is a most useful bridge between the church and the everyday world.

It’s a different ministry: cheap, a little bit amateurish, but also, in its own way, very effective, because it operates out where the world is, and not within the fortifications of the consecrated building. It is also incredibly rewarding to the minister himself.

I am impressed, in the Anglican cycle of prayer, at the number of Dioceses where the comments show non-stipendiary clergy to be at work. If the evangelization of the world is our target in the next few years, it’s a technique of ministry that should not be neglected.

– Anglican Messenger, March 1992

The Purpose of the Church

The Feast of the Ascension marks the half-time point in the Church year. Starting in Advent, we have followed the human career of Jesus, Son of God, from Prophecy to Actuality in his birth, from his Baptism, the coming of the Spirit, through temptations and a ministry of healing, teaching and service, to betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. Now He is gone and the continuation of His work is left with His followers, the infant church. Waiting to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for themselves, His followers set out to empower a dispirited group that might otherwise have dispersed unnoticed, into a force that still changes lives and the course of world history, 2,000 years later.

But what is the church, and what is it meant to be doing?

Personally, I find guidance in the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer—that prayer that Jesus provided at the request of his disciples as direction for their lives. It follows the form of Moses’ Ten Commandments, starting with the acknowledgement of God as Father, recognizing that He lives in a spiritual, not a material world. The prayer asks that He be revered, and that the world conform to the community of peace, love and justice already established in the heavens. We pray for satisfaction of our immediate physical needs. Rather than being condemned for our sins, we ask for forgiveness, since we also forgive the shortcomings of others. Finally, in a section corresponding to the final commandment “Thou shalt not covet”, we have a request variously translated “Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the time of trial”, followed by a plea that is most accurately translated, not “Deliver us from evil” but “Deliver us from the Evil One”, recalling the temptations of material satisfaction, political power, and abuse of spiritual abilities that were offered him by Satan in his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.

This view is fortified by the explanatory note added at the end of the prayer by Matthew’s Gospel (6:13): “For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory forever and ever. Amen.” Kingdom, power and glory are precisely what the Tempter asked the man Jesus to take for himself, rather than reserving them for God the Father, to whom they belong.

Jesus has been described as “The man for others”—a life lived exclusively for the glory of God and the welfare of his fellow members of the human race. Nowhere did he use his superhuman gifts for his own convenience. Indeed, it seems that on several occasions, obedience to the Father’s will actually clashed with his desires as a human. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus after being forced to wait two days that might have saved Lazarus from death. He earnestly prayed to be spared his crucifixion, yet refused to ask the Father to intervene by the agency of “twelve legions of angels”. More profoundly, why did the Godhead ever put a snake in the Garden of Eden in the first place to tempt mankind into sin?

My personal answer (others may disagree) is that this is a measure of the Godhead’s enormous love and ambition for mankind. In this particular corner of the universe, and over vast stretches of time, a race has been created and empowered, with the mental and moral power not only to know right from wrong, but to receive God’s spirit. Our race has the ability to freely to choose to follow the will and nature of its Creator, caring for God and neighbours, friends and enemies alike, even to death and beyond.

A challenging assignment indeed—one that may well take us far from our “comfortable pews” into a life of fellowship, forgiveness, teaching, healing and, quite likely, betrayal and suffering. We strive to implement the purpose for which the human race has been brought into being—to establish the Kingdom of God “On earth as it is in Heaven”.

– Anglican Messenger, June 2011

Living in Weakness

The more I think about it, the more I marvel at the way Jesus sent his disciples out on their missionary work.

Traditional Christian outreach has usually involved dedicated societies raising funds: language and theological training for those sent out into ‘the field’, and many years of effort in communicating, not only religious teaching, but also the customs, language and government structure of the missionary nation.

The result has not always been one of joy and success. We see this in the reactions we find from Canada’s aboriginals to their experience of residential schools. As one was heard to say: “The missionaries brought us Jesus, and he seemed to be a really nice guy. But then you brought us your Church and your government, and we said ‘Hey, wait a bit.’”

What a difference when Jesus sent out his disciples! No funds. No place to live. Not even a spare change of clothes. All had to be received from the compassion and generosity of those to whom they were sent to minister.

There’s a strange logic in what Jesus was doing. The essence of the Gospel is that we behave towards those in need with the kindness of the Good Samaritan. By approaching strangers in a state of need, the disciples were asking strangers to behave to them in just such a manner. To such people as responded with kindness, the Kingdom of Heaven came very near very quickly. This was not a matter of theology, but of human compassion. In a very little time, we had joy, belief, healing, friendship and success.

Paul describes how he came to preach in Corinth with “weakness and fear and much trembling” (I Corinthians 2:3). Yet that was one of his most successful ministries. He appears to have been suffering severe eye trouble when first he visited the Galatians (Galatians 4:15). I’m sure there’s an example here that we would do well to follow, whether it is in evangelistic work, youth work, or even the ordinary outreach of a Parish. Weakness can be strength.

I wonder if sometimes the Church doesn’t have this courage to be helpless?

– Anglican Messenger, 1998*

True Religion: Job and James

“For everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49)

I am very happy to be with you at your worship this morning at St. Augustine’s while Canon Wilde is absent on church business in Toronto. My name is Martin Hattersley, I am the honorary assistant priest at St. Peter’s church. I am also the father of Catherine Greeve, who died tragically at the beginning of August this year.

Which brings me to our lessons for today, of which mention the story of Job—that rich man who suffered the loss of family, health, wealth and reputation as the result of what seems, at first, like a strange and heartless bargain between God and the Devil. Job’s story is one of a faith put to the test, as is the faith of anyone who sustains a tragedy such as he did: it is a story with a happy ending of restoration, but not until Job had gone through much suffering and pain.

Religion is our way of understanding the Universe in which we live. We need it so that we can live with purpose. If the universe has a purpose and a destination, then we can understand not only the universe, but also ourselves as part of the Eternal Plan. Thus, we find direction and marching orders for our lives by fitting into the place that God seems to have assigned for us.

What we do not always realize however, is that the ‘religion’ we say we believe in is not a simple thing. Rather, it is a pilgrimage towards the development of our character, and the trials and testing that we go through are important stages of the development of the finished product.

Religion as we find it in the Bible is a bargain—a ‘covenant’, or a series of deals, made between each of us and God. We make these bargains as we go through life. Once we find that a relationship to God through prayer is possible, the simplest and most elemental deal is one where we say to God—“God, I’ll follow you if you make it worth my while.” It is the theme of many evangelists who promise healing, wealth, peace of mind and the like, for those who ‘accept Christ’.

A good example in the Old Testament is the religion of Jacob. Jacob, dishonest fellow that he was, was on the run from his brother Esau, from whom he had stolen his father’s birthright and blessing. At Bethel, he had a vision from God of a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it into heaven. Impressed by the presence of God, he struck a bargain which must take the prize for economic self-centeredness:

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God…”

When all is said and done, of course, there is no sense at all in coming to God unless, as human beings, we think it is all going to be worthwhile. “He who comes to God,” says the writer of Hebrews, “must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek Him.” So a faith such as that belongs at the beginning—in the babyhood of our religion. It is the attraction that first interests us in the things of God. God, however, needs us to go from babyhood to maturity. So the honeymoon period of this simple faith does not always last. Trials such as those faced by Job will certainly test so simple a faith to the limit!

Jacob, for the sake of finding bread in a time of famine, led his children down into Egypt. The long term result of this was a nation in slavery. That is in fact the end product of Religion Number One. We find ourselves forced to go further, if we are not going to abandon religion entirely.

So we go on to Religion Number Two, if I may call it that, which is the religion of the Law. We restrain our natural greed, which otherwise will lead to a society of dictators and serfs, by rules as to the way in which we treat our neighbours, and they treat us. If we all follow the Law, we won’t get into fights, and we will have a peaceful, law abiding nation, blessed with social justice and economic prosperity. Moses, the Lawgiver, is the deliverer of the children of Israel from oppression. He established the legal framework of peace, godliness and justice in the Ten Commandments. It is the religion of childhood. In St. Paul’s words, ‘the Law is our schoolmaster.’

The covenant here between God and man is that if man keeps God’s laws, man will receive blessings. If man fails to do so, then the later chapters of Deuteronomy give us an ample list of the troubles that will befall. This is just what Job’s friends insisted was the case. “You must have done something wrong, Job, for God to punish you like this. So confess it, and God will make everything all right again.” But the facts of the case don’t fit. Job has not only not done anything wrong—he has been super righteous, and still he suffers calamity. So also, in the history of Israel, experience showed that the law, enforced under the Judges, was not enough to bring peace to Israel. It could not deal with the problem of external enemies, whose iron chariots and organized armies sometimes reduced the Israelite people to a condition of near slavery, no matter how righteous they were. In spite of the brave face put on the situation by many prophets, the truth is that, in the short term, those who broke the Law did better than those who didn’t, and the good guys very often finished last! We have to go further.

Religion Number Three is the next step—political religion. Under this religion, the people are led by a king, ruling in God’s name, and the objective is not so much faithfulness to the Law, as loyalty to the established religion organization. Those who throw down the altars of the false God Baal are good kings, and the people prosper. Those who re-establish the worship of Baal are evil kings, and the kingdom goes to ruin. So, if it happens that the kingdom is conquered, it must be the result of immense and secret disloyalty on the part of Israel’s religious leaders. (Ezekiel 8).

This is the space occupied by Job at the outset of the book, and it is the reason of his continued wish to argue with God. Because of his preconception of what God is like, and his knowledge of his own determination to do the right thing, he cannot understand the horrible things that have happened to him. God’s answer comes in the passage you have heard as our first reading. It comes in the form of a question—“Will you condemn Me, that you may be justified?” Stop complaining that God is not what you thought He was. There is more to God, in fact, than Religion Number Three tells us. We have to go still further.

Religion Number Three is commonest, and perhaps is the most dangerous form of religion to be found in the world. It is the religion of triumphalism, of victorious armies, of nations converted at the edge of the sword. One sees it in the Islamic fundamentalists. One sees it in the fights between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. One sees it in the Inquisition, as well as in the Marxist persecutions of religion. One sees it whenever denominations, sects or cults demand unquestioned obedience from their members, and can see no good in others whether or not they call themselves ‘Christian’. It is an adolescent religion—the religion of the gang and of the peer group. It is a dangerous religion of bloodshed, of murder—all from the best religious motives.

The classic example of such a believer is Saul—the future St. Paul—before his conversion. Well-schooled in the Law and in party spirit, and ‘filled with threatenings and slaughter’, he was the persecutor of the infant church in his zeal for the Law of God. Jesus warned his followers that “The time will come when whoever kills you shall think that he is doing God service.” (John 16:2) Saul, filled with ‘zeal, but not with knowledge’, a loyal member of his church, had made a box that God had to fit into—and if God’s new religion did not fit, then its followers had to be put to death for blasphemy.

The lesson of the Book of Job, therefore, is that there is yet a further step to be taken—Religion Number Four—and that it is somehow connected with the mystery of the design of Creation, and with the patient and faithful bearing of undeserved suffering. That is as far as the Old Testament can take us. We only see Religion Number Four fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

The great news of the New Testament is the news of the New Covenant. By it, man accepts the complete forgiveness of God for all his sins, expressed in the love that took Jesus Christ to the cross at the hands of sinful men. The only price is God’s demand that man treat his fellow man in the same way. Jesus puts this new covenant very simply in the Sermon on the Mount, when after teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he says “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Paul, of course, once he realized and repented of the terrible sin he had been guilty of through Religion Number Three, became the apostle who preached Religion Number Four throughout the then known world. Yet it was not all clear sailing. We can see from some of his letters, and even more from the letters of other church leaders of his time, that some of his hearers took the Good News in quite the wrong way. “God is so loving that we don’t have to do anything” was their theme. If God’s free grace is such a wonderful thing, then “Let us sin, that Grace may abound!” In Thessalonica, lazy Christians sponged off their hard working fellows, waiting with religious fervour for the second coming of Christ, until Paul had to say “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat!”

Just because we have a head of knowledge of something even more wonderful than we have had before, does not mean that all we have learned to date has to go out of the window! The problem of preaching to the Gentile church was just that the foundations of commitment, law and loyalty had not always been laid—so the superstructure of the Gospel lacked the support essential to its true understanding.

It was to correct this irresponsibility that we have the letter of James. Possibly the ‘lesser James’ of the twelve apostles, he obviously knew his Sermon on the Mount. For him, religion is not just belief, it is action. “Faith without works is dead!” We must give up the pursuit of riches and worldly goals. We must treat the poor with human consideration, in the church and outside it. We must curb our tongues, avoiding swearing and gossip. We must bear our misfortunes with the same patience that was showed by Job. True religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction, and keep ourselves unspotted from the sins and ambitions of the world.

James put his finger on what can be the greatest barrier to our faith—the eighteen inches that can be such an enormous distance between our head and our heart, and the thirty six inches that can be an even greater distance between our hearts and our hands. If our religion is genuine, it has to go ‘all the way’. Belief is not enough—“the devils believe, and tremble.” By contrast, Job’s action and his sufferings permeated his whole body. So their arguments are seen as empty words. Job’s story and his sufferings come close to the story and sufferings of Christ.

The explanation of it all is simple: suffering is the process by which Christian character is developed. The trial of our faith works patience, and well developed patience makes us perfect, wanting nothing. So James tells us to rejoice when the time of testing comes upon us. It came too, upon Jesus Christ, who “though he was a Son, yet learned obedience from the things that he suffered.” We should “rejoice in that we share Christ’s sufferings,” for it is the character that we develop that we will bear triumphantly into eternal life in heaven.

I hope that our study of Job and James will make us pause and examine ourselves. How far have we come in the pilgrimage of our religion? Have we made any covenant with God at all? Is it simply step one—following our self-will? Or step two—following the rules? Step three—following the organization? Or step four—following Christ, to the Cross if need be? How far is our religion no more than that of our head? Does it reach our hearts? Does it reach our hands? “By their fruits ye shall know them,” said Jesus. What fruits do we show: in our tongues, what they say; in our feet, where they travel; in our hands, what they do?

“Count it all joy when you fall into temptations” says James. He is right. For suffering begets patience. And with patience, the bitter bud of suffering develops into the ripe fruit of character. Truly, in the perfection of the fruit is found the whole purpose of the life of the plant. From the patient bearing of the sufferings of our lives, comes the wholesome fruit of character that one day we will triumphantly bear into life eternal.

– Text of a sermon delivered in September 1988


It seems strange to me that two very different stories should appear in a single issue of the Edmonton Journal.

The first, appearing in the October 28th issue, concerned the publicly announced intention of the Rev. Terry Jones—an evangelical pastor who has aroused great resentment in Muslim circles by deliberately and publicly burning a copy of the Koran—to run for President of the United States.

The second was of a remarkable and possibly revolutionary conference of religious leaders convened by Pope Benedict XVI. Catholics and Christians of other denominations, joined religious leaders of many faiths from all over the world—including Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, a Baha’i, a Zoroastrian, Taoists, Confucians and traditional religions from Africa and America—to dialogue for several days at Assisi, Italy. Aiming to identify some common ground among all these diverse beliefs, the Pope condemned “fanaticism carried out in the name of religion”. He pleaded for “no more violence, no more war, no more terrorism! Never again! In the name of God that, every religion bring justice and peace, forgiveness and life and love to the world”.

What are the implications of such a position? First, surely, that Jesus’s words “No one comes to the Father but me” (John 14:6) are not to be interpreted that all who do not sign on some Christian dotted line are condemned to ‘hell fire’. Rather, that religious paths inclining their followers towards love, forgiveness and non-violence for the sake of the Creator, have already brought some believers of other faiths “not far from the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 12.34). Not that we cannot all go further. Not that Christians do not have apologies to make for the insensitive and triumphal approach they have often shown in the past (and often still do in the present) towards other faiths, but that other sincere faiths need not be dismissed as worthless and their values and practices disparaged.

In truth, human conduct as we observe it and indulge in it in this world, divides very simply into three parts. One is to sacrifice others for the good of oneself. Another is to sacrifice oneself for the good of others, as Jesus did, and asks us to do. Religions (counting materialism and many “isms” as forms of religion) can go either way. A third, common to many religions, combines the two, so that sacrifices are made, but only in favour of one’s fellow religionists—the Pharisee approach. The great advance made by Jesus, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is that this sacrificial behaviour can extend beyond one’s family, friends and acquaintances to all of God’s creatures in need. (Luke 10:25-37). Not all religions have reached this point, and many secular “isms” certainly have not.

It is very easy, viewing the state of the church and ‘our unhappy divisions’, to think that people not of our denomination, or at least not of Christian belief, are lost in heathenism. What we ignore is that when it comes to Christ-like behaviour, there are other religions both in Canada and the world, which also acknowledge the supremacy of a Creator, by whatever name known, and a moral obligation to help and live in peace with one’s fellow humans. For many of these, the seriousness with which they address their religion, including such practices as regular worship, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and service to their community, is as devoted as in the typical Anglican congregation, and possibly more so. Often the “glorious liberty of the Children of God” is missing from many such—but I suspect it is missing from the lives of many so-called Christians also. It is good for our humility to recognize that others not of our faith subscribe, at least in part, to values we would recognize as Christian. We are all pilgrims on the road to the Heavenly City, and most of us still have quite a distance still to go.

Congratulations then to Pope Benedict for having had the courage to open up a dialogue on a very important subject. One hopes it will be more fruitful than the approach of Pastor Jones!

– Anglican Messenger, December 2011


Some things I never notice until someone points them out to me.

In this case, it’s the story of the Fall—or rather, the Falls—in the first chapters of the Bible.

We’re all familiar with the tale of how Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. What hadn’t come home to me is the fact that this is only one of three tales of sin and punishment in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

First, of course, there is this familiar story of Adam and Eve and the serpent—how humans lost Paradise through their disobedience. But the second is how the “sons of God” took wives of the children of men, in the time before the Flood, incurring two punishments—one that man’s lifespan was restricted, the other, that the world, filled with violence, would be destroyed by a flood. The third is the story of the Tower of Babel. Men, striving to reach heaven by their own efforts, were scattered and confused in their language with their great work unfinished—a confusion, indeed, that lasts to the present day.

Adam and Eve are the symbols of personal failure and disobedience in the face of temptation. The “sons of God” would seem to be angelic powers inferior to God, who chose to defy their Creator by leading humankind astray. We meet them again in Psalm 82, where God (not Satan, as John Milton might have thought), “takes his place in the Divine council”, calls these powers to account for the world’s injustices, and sentences them to “die like any mortal”. The Tower of Babel is more familiar to us—man, doing his best to reach God through works rather than grace, ends up in utter confusion with the work unfinished.

Probably many sermons could be drawn from this beginning. What interests me is how these different stories connect with the different types of churches we meet in the modern world. It reminds me of the tale of the blind men who grasped different parts of the elephant, and each one thought he was talking about a completely different animal.

We have evangelicals in this world whose religion is concentrated on personal sin and its consequences, the problem of Adam and Eve, and often have little patience for the ‘social gospel’ and ‘holy roller’ types of Christian.

We have mainline churches, like the Anglican, with a rich heritage of interest in good government, social issues, correct worship, sound theology, disciplined church organization, and moral behaviour. They strive to avoid the problems of the Tower of Babel, but are often critical of what they see as ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘enthusiasm’.

Then we have the Pentecostals, mystics, charismatics and faith healers, afire with a direct experience of the Christ’s ability to conquer the evil powers of the spiritual world. Compared with such “signs and wonders”, they tend to see mainline and evangelical churches as stodgy, rule bound, and ‘dead’.

Relationships between churches might improve a lot if we all realized that a complete religion needs every one of the above elements to be taken into account. For, as the poet concludes in the poem about the wise men and the elephant:

Each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!

– Anglican Messenger, April 1999

The Role of the Choir

The reading set for today in the Eucharistic Lectionary comes from the book Ecclesiastes. This is a book attributed to Israel’s great king, Solomon. Solomon in his day was one of the most powerful rulers on earth—the most powerful king that Israel had ever had had, or would have. He was noted for his wisdom, and wrote books on natural history, and collections of proverbs and wise sayings. He was famous for his riches, coming from gold mines in the Horn of Africa, in quantities that even the Minister of Finance of a modern country would envy. He had a harem of a thousand of the world’s most beautiful women. Few men have had so much to boast about by way of achievement in life. Yet at the end of it all, he sees that he will be laid to rest in the grave, as will the meanest of his subjects. What do all of his achievements and luxuries mean? “Vanity” he says: “It’s all vanity and emptiness”.

Our passage encourages us to enjoy life while we can—while we are still young, and while we still have power to enjoy it—before blindness and deafness take away our faculties, and our bodies become too frail to function. But we are to know that the day will come when all of our earthly joys and successes will be taken away from us.

Solomon belongs to the Old Testament, and in the light of the Resurrection of Christ, we who are followers of Christ can take a more optimistic view of the value of all that we do on earth. Nevertheless, in an age where we are surrounded by materialism, it is not a bad thing for us to be reminded so forcefully that the rewards that this world offers are transient and valueless to us as in the end we all become subject to old age, sickness and death.

Some things, however, can be accumulated on earth which can be treasures for us in heaven. There are the ultimate spiritual treasures of truth, beauty and goodness, that belong not only in this world, but in the next. And among these, there is no doubt from the Scripture record that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place for music—music which on the one hand is so strictly a mathematical demonstration of relationships of harmony or dissonance between numbers, and on the other, a force which can stir our very deepest emotions. A church choir should be a very real link to the congregation between earth and heaven.

A choir is, in fact, a very lovely demonstration of what a Christian society is. There are a number of points about this that are worth thinking about.

One is that it is made up of very ordinary people, identified not so much by who they are, but by the task they take on themselves to do. Christianity, too, is a matter of commitment, not birth!

Secondly, there is that wonderful thing called the ‘choir effect’. When a number of people sing together, even if their voices are not first rate and they are not singing exactly on pitch, the mechanism of our hearing tends (within limits!) to translate this rather into a greater richness of sound. So the ordinary voice, by taking its place in the group, becomes extraordinary.

Thirdly, the talents we share make a result far greater than any of us could achieve alone. Some of us sing Soprano, some Alto, some Tenor, some Bass. Few of us sing particularly well off our usual line—none of us can sing more than one line at a time. So the sound that comes from a choir is fuller than any one of us can perform alone, yet it needs the contribution of each one of us to achieve its effect, blending into the whole. Heaven, too, it seems to me, is a place of harmony, not unison. It is our diverse gifts, coordinated to serve a common purpose, that makes the harmonious whole.

Lastly, there is that wonderful spirit, a kind of communion, that exists between members as each one of us fulfills his or her part in showing forth some great truth, like a jewel, in a ‘setting’ of musical beauty. There is something in that, and I imagine most of us have experienced it at some time or another, that speaks of heaven itself.

So far, however, I have only dwelt on the musical aspect of the choir. Before I finish, I would like you to think also a little about the other role you fulfill—sitting and standing at the front of the church as very visible leaders in worship.

The Sanctuary of a church, particularly a church with rather theatrical architecture as this one is, is a stage upon which the drama of the Lord’s Supper is acted out—repeatedly. The priest takes the part of Christ: the servers, choir and other helpers represent the angels and the heavenly host. The congregation are the disciples.

In the Holy Communion, through our worship, we are adding an extra dimension to people’s lives. We take the ‘things’ of our ordinary life, and add a time dimension to them, so that we see life dynamically, in terms of development, rather than statically, as a collection of material objects. That bread is not just something that we have picked up on a bakery shelf. We understand that it was once cast into the ground as a seed, was blessed by sun and rain and grew into an ear of wheat. At the proper time, its growth was stopped as it was cut and harvested, combined with other ears as it was milled into flour and baked. Now, it has sacrificed its identity and its future, to give life to mankind. Take—bless—break—give: the elements of the Communion service.

As we go on with the service, we see this same process, the process of life itself, reflected in the life and sacrifice of Jesus, and his resurrection and future coming, all of which we bring to mind.

Finally, we ourselves take part in the process. We extend our hands over the altar rail—symbolically reaching into the Kingdom of Heaven—and take back the ordinary bread and wine of ordinary life, transformed now into an image of the body and blood of Christ, to be our life and strength as we go back to live His life in the world.

All of us have a part to play in bringing this new life to the church. The priest plays the part of Christ, but the choir, too, in the setting of the sanctuary, is there to be a reminder of the fellowship of the Saints that lies for us in the world to come. Hence your robes, and the anthems that you sing. You are part of this process of lifting the congregation from earth to heaven.

To get back to Ecclesiastes—yes, we’re getting older and some of us feel that we’re beginning to lose it: yes, the glories and achievements of this world are vanity and emptiness. But there is that something more, the life beyond for which this life is no more than a beginning. And to convey that as beautifully as it can to the church, both to eyes and ears, is the responsibility of the choir.

– Text of a sermon delivered in September 1991

The Religious Right

It concerns me very much that I repeatedly run into people who assume their views are ‘Christian’ because they can find verses to support them in the Bible.

On subjects like the discipline of children, capital punishment for criminals, ostracism of adulterers and homosexuals, for instance, these people have developed a punitive and bloodthirsty religion based on the Old Testament, which they call ‘Christianity’ as if it had come from the lips of Jesus himself.

What came from Jesus’s lips, of course, was something very different. On bringing up children, for instance, he said: “Suffer little children to come unto me … for of such is the Kingdom of God.” On crime and punishment “I say unto you, that you resist not evil, but to him that taketh thy coat, give thy cloak also … Love your enemies … Pray for them that despitefully use you.” On sexual sins, his words to the offender in John 8 were: “Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more.”

The Old Testament is, of course, the foundation on which Christ based his teachings. But that does not mean that the Old Testament is the same thing as Christianity—else we would all be in danger of ‘hell fire’ if we failed to eat Kosher food, or wore blended cotton and polyester in our clothing.

My particular concern is the attitude many so called ‘Christians’ (I call them the “Alberta Report” variety) have towards those in prison, which basically seems to be to try and make life as unpleasant for them as possible. Crowded living quarters, no funds for toiletries, take away their colour TV, cut down on their chance of parole, and so their opportunity to re-enter the community with guidance to keep out of trouble in the future … The list goes on.

Don’t pretend that Christ ever ordered this behaviour towards sinners… But He did have some very harsh words to say to the ‘religious right’ of his own day—the Scribes and the Pharisees.

Makes you think, doesn’t it!

– Anglican Messenger, 1997

Begotten Again

Now that I have retired from the practice of Law, I have less chance to meet those who used to be my daily acquaintances. So it was a real pleasure the other day to run into my former associate, Dennis Edney, as both of us were shopping for groceries in the aisles of Sobey’s, Hawkestone.

Dennis, who deserves a medal for his devotion to the principles of justice and fair play, was recently back from Guantanamo Bay, where he had had a chance, long denied, to meet with his client, Omar Khadr. Omar, as a child soldier, had been arrested and imprisoned several years ago, after allegedly throwing a grenade at a U.S. soldier who was storming his compound, causing the latter’s death.

Since then, he had been kept for years in solitary confinement at Guantanamo, subject to repeated questioning, and humiliating abuse that fell very little short of torture. All this attempted to be justified by a military tribunal which appeared to wish to ignore the Geneva Convention, the convention on the treatment of child soldiers, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the regular procedures of the Common Law.

What appalled Edney in particular was that these abuses were perpetrated by clean cut American servicemen, all of whom (like 60% of the American population) claiming to be ‘born again’ Christians.

As a clergyman, this business of being ‘born again’ really worries me. It seems to give a license to anyone who has followed a particular religious formula to live thereafter any way he or she pleases, filled with a marvelous sense of self-righteousness and superiority over the ‘unsaved’ populations of the rest of the world.

It was over Easter that I began to see where the problem lay. The Greek word (‘gennao’) sometimes translated as ‘born’ can also be translated as ‘begotten’ as it is, for instance, in the first chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Being born comes from a different but related root (‘geno’), from which we derive such words as ‘genesis’, ‘gene’, ‘genealogy’, and ‘genetics’. ‘Begetting’ happens when a father impregnates a mother. Birth, though, takes time. There’s nine months to wait while cells divide and a new body is put together in the womb before it can take place. During that time, the unborn child assembles organs of sight, of digestion, lungs to breathe with, arms and legs to move with, all of which are needed for life after birth, but have no practical use whatever until then.

Spiritual development to me seems to be analogous. The seed of faith is sown in the human mind, and gradually a spiritual body takes shape. Abilities develop within us which really are of little personal use to us for our life on earth—prayer, worship, charity, spiritual insight, and so on. That is why people ‘whose portion of life is in this world’ usually have little place in their lives for church or religion, or if they do, have this only for its social aspect. But after our threescore years and ten or whatever other length of life is allocated to us on earth, we are going to be born into another, spiritual, world, and these various attributes become essential. That then is the time when our ‘new birth’ takes place.

St. Paul reproved the Corinthians for their self-satisfaction in their highly dysfunctional church. He prayed for the Ephesians that they might be “filled with all the fullness of God”. So he tells the Philippians “I have not yet reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal, to win the prize which is God’s call to the life above, in Christ Jesus.”

Not a bad thought for any of us!

– Anglican Messenger, 2008*

Afflicting the Comfortable

John Wesley described his task as a preacher as “To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

We are certainly familiar with the Gospel of comfort for the afflicted—the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the sick, lives transformed by the message of the Good News of God’s love. Saint Peter, leader of the early church, was deeply conscious of how he had utterly failed and denied his master, in spite of all his boasting, yet Jesus had still trusted him to ‘feed his sheep’, and he is only one of many failures to whom God has given a second chance to become leaders in his Kingdom.

But ‘afflict the comfortable’—what is the idea of this? How do we square this with the idea of a loving God?

There is no doubt as to who the ‘comfortable’ were in Jesus’s day—they were the religious leaders, the Pharisees. We are told they were ‘lovers of money’, ‘whited sepulchres’—looking good on the outside, but on the inside, ‘full of dead men’s bones’. They were hypocrites, ‘for a pretence making long prayers’. They loved ‘salutations in the marketplaces’ and ostentatious religious dress. They were ‘of their father, the devil’, and from very early on in Jesus’s ministry, sought to have his followers excommunicated, and Jesus himself killed. They were people who sought the best of both worlds—to be God’s favourites, while at the same time enjoying wealth, power and glory in the world in which they lived. What a contrast with the Son of Man, who “made himself of no reputation” and “had nowhere to lay his head.”

The problem of the Pharisee is that his religion is one of a bargain with God. He ‘fasts twice a week’ and ‘gives tithes of all he possesses.’ For all this trouble and sacrifice, he expects God to do him favours in return—health, wealth and reputation. He has no place for those who have failed—the tax collectors and other sinners. His self-satisfaction knows no bounds.

Jesus deals with such people by setting the standards of his Kingdom so high that even the Pharisee will fall short. “Except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” A lustful glance in the wrong direction means that one should pluck out one’s eye. A harsh word to one’s brother makes one liable to judgment. To neglect the poor at your gate leads to thy fires of Hell. The young ruler who claimed to have kept the Ten Commandments “from his youth up” is told to “sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” He goes away sorrowing—Jesus’s price is too high.

But this is Jesus’s precise point. The Pharisee, as much as the publican, is one who “has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He, too, is in need of God’s forgiveness. In contrast to the woman of the streets, who bathed his feet with her tears, he is forgiven little, and loves little. It is the fact that his investment in ‘being good’ gives no return in Jesus’s estimation that makes him hate Jesus to the point of death.

St. Paul on the road to the Damascus, was a Pharisee who ‘saw the light.’ More than once in his epistles, Paul lists the qualifications he had to be a super righteous Pharisee, and pointed out that to him this was so much garbage, for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as the Christ. But Pharisees of this kind are indeed rare.

Jesus warned his disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees”—this ‘holier than thou’ attitude that can creep into a church, so that instead of being a fellowship of redeemed sinners, it is a selective club that keeps out the very outcasts that the Son of God came to save. It strikes me that, as we face the issues of morality that are so troubling to the church at this time, we have to make sure that, while removing the speck in our brother’s eye, we don’t miss the log that is in our own!

– Anglican Messenger, November 2004