27 February 2018

Lawrence Gray RIP: Address at the Funeral Service, St Wilfrid, Halton, Leeds, on 26th February 2018

Lawrence Gray has been my friend since 1984. “Lawrence” was what his wife, Maureen, called him when he had overstepped her mark. But he was unmistakably himself to us, always the person, the character, that he was: Laurie.

When I was first ordained in Leeds, it was Laurie and Maureen who took me under their wing, made sure I was never lonely as I started out, fed me, and gave me four years of laughter, joy, friendship - and a regard and understanding that I never deserved, but which held me up in good times and bad. I have never been worthy of the welcome I had into that family, and their encouragement then has lived with me to this day. Laurie had been a gifted footballer with a promising career ahead, which he gave up to marry Maureen and raise their large family. He is the hardest worker I ever met; and his dedication to the task in hand, and to what he felt mattered for people, inspired the same in others. He had no respect for those who didn’t measure up, and if you were out of favour, you were out until you proved yourself again. Then you were back in – just!

But he was patient of human nature, too, and understood you had to make your way by trial and error and there was no shame in it, just a determination to win through. And so, if you liked and respected him for who he was, he liked you back. The highest accolade was a torrent of mockery and humour at your expense. A mere “Thank you very much, that was lovely” to Maureen, for yet another huge and delicious meal of Yorkshires, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, swede, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and beef, followed by the guilty pleasure of a Viennetta, was shot straight down with, “You soft-soaping Lancashire bxxxxr, Father.” Or, quoting Billy Connolly, “Another custard cream, Father?”

After work in the Leeds metal and engineering industry (I think it was electroplating and that it badly affected his health and eyesight), Laurie was a much loved conductor on the Leeds buses, always ready with a laugh on the No 2 from the Corn Exchange to Belle Isle and Middleton, I think it was. He would do anything for you; and, as was always the Leeds way, everyone was “love”. When the conductors were phased out, the company was keen to keep him on, and they tried to train him as a driver; but a mix of poor eyesight and not feeling confident it was right for him meant in the end that he took on the management of the uniform stores. When he retired, he gave me his stout leather driver-conductor’s lockable float-and-ticket machine bag, which I still use regularly.

It was at Church that the Laurie I knew was his truest self. He was hugely proud that his eldest son, Paul, was a chorister at Leeds Parish Church; and his own devout churchgoing was serious, devout, loyal, and unstinting. Our Church, St Wilfrid’s, Halton, was (and is) a lively and mixed “village” church in the midst of east Leeds, set on the rise of Selby Road, a “city set on a hill” serving the remains of the old hamlet near the great Temple Newsam House, the post-war owner-occupier houses, the interwar suburban houses and bungalows, the long terrace of Victorian town houses on the ridge, where Laurie and Maureen lived, as did I, and the Halton Moor council housing estate. This was “The Parish that Came Alive” under the visionary Ernie Southcott, an energetic laboratory for his take on the “Parish Communion Movement” of pastoral liturgy that placed the Eucharist at the heart of the life and activity of the parish’s people and their homes. But it was under the steady hand and more traditional approach of Canon Kenneth Stapleton that Laurie drank deep of the Faith, and raised his family in the heart and life of the Church. Laurie on Sunday was no different from any other day, except intense and focused at Church, where he served on the altar, when he was not a sidesman or warden. He used to tell me that it meant everything that there was Christ on the altar, then the priest, then him, then the people in a clear line of connection at communion “without a doubt” (as he would say), no one in Church more than three steps from heaven itself.

What a faith! It took him all through the week, though he never wore a religious heart on his sleeve: “I am not a Christian,” he would say. “One day, perhaps, I can hold myself up and say so, without it all being a facade.” He knew himself. He knew about the falling-outs and the arguments. No pretence, his humour and expressions were so gloriously ripe (though I do not ever remember him swearing - people didn’t much then anyway – at least, I don’t remember him swearing in front of me!). He didn’t suffer fools gladly and could tell you unmistakably why; and if he had been hurt, he could keep a grudge on principle for years. This was a man of complete personal rectitude and integrity, driven to overcome his own odds, yet wise and accepting of others who struggled. He gave himself with without reserve because of love for his family. And because he understood himself, he was compassionate about other people’s needs and shortcomings, the problems they found themselves in and the needs they had to be loved regardless - even if that sometimes meant the hurt of having to leave them be.

Sadly, in later years, changes in Church life and worship left him estranged, and that is a shame; but the belonging in which he had been formed did not leave him: they remained deep within his heart, still sustained through close family bonds, and by friends and neighbours too. These things do not go far away; and nor do we, in God who is understanding of us always.

At the very centre of his service at St Wilfrid’s, something he loved deeply, were young people. He was completely committed to the Scout movement, and took it as seriously as serving in Church. Teaching, leading, inspiring young lads was in his bones, and they loved him for it, because they could see he was giving them everything of himself. He could be stern and demanding, and how they would moan; but it only increased your assurance. You would not want to cross him - not because of his wrath, but because no one would want to disappoint him. He had your back, and young people had no better protector. The walks, the canoes, the camps in the Lakes, the fell-walking with Wainwright and the treks in the Dales: it was unforgettable. He had everything covered and he opened up new worlds and possibilities to anyone willing to go along with him, to learn and play their part too. I also think that up in the dales and fells he felt the awe and wonder giving their dimension to his soul: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” resonated with him. He didn’t say much about these things, but that spoke volumes.

The sheer determination that carried him through life was nowhere better seen than in his unstoppable drive to build a dedicated new scout and guides hut - Laurie was the relentless fund-raiser and the builder too. He charmed the rich, and won the confidence of those with much less that it would all happen and it was worth their unstinting contribution too. It was all on, and no one could fail to be involved. He even got me, of all people, to be the Group Scout Leader, so that he had all the official backing he needed to see it through. And he did.

These recollections are from long ago; but it has been so good to have been in touch all the years since, and continually find that the friendship was always the same, always such a laugh even when life took some hard turns, and always in the midst of the amazing Gray family. He drove them up the wall, and he loved doing it; but they gave us good as they got and loved him all the more back

There are many people with state honours who have not done a fraction of what Laurie did from his heart for young people. It is my deep belief that now he has the greatest honour of all: he knew his own shortcomings well, but now he possesses freedom from them – from everything that holds human beings back in this life from being all they could have been, and from the gift of his heart’s desire: the knowledge at last that he can call himself what his beloved mentor, Canon Stapleton, assured him he would be: a Christian.

Laurie, your journeys here included the No 2 bus to the Corn Exchange and the parish trips with the scouts to climb Ben Lomond. Everywhere you went in your imagination and wonder at creation is now your true homeland. Once you knew you were no more than three steps away from Christ on his altar. Now there are no more steps and He has you to His side. Well done, good and faithful Laurie: you got there, by God's grace. Now may you rest in peace.

22 February 2018

Sermon at the Re-Dedication of the Fynes Clinton Chantry Chapel of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Victory and St John, Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, 22nd February 2018

Every so often in the Holy Land, the archaeological survey uncovers an intriguing find that makes you think, “Of course, that makes sense.” Once I was taken to the museum at Hazor, where there were dozens of little metal and golden animals, each with a minute saddle on it. A remarkable scholar-priest of the Society of the Sacred Mission, Brother Gilbert Sinden, was our guide. He said, “These are golden calves.” He explained that the great story in Exodus (Exodus 32) of the Hebrews melting all their coin and jewellery down to fashion a great model beast, was not so as to worship it in place of the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, but so that they create a situation, a designated place where they could bring God down and make him sit, some throne where they could locate God and hold him to: hence the saddle. You will remember how Moses eventually comes back down from the mountain with the tablets of the Law and is so incensed that he drops the two stones and rushes to destroy the most profound misconception of God. For Moses has been in the ground of the Burning Bush, taken up into the mountain and brought into God’s sphere; he has encountered Him not face to face but face to mystery, face to intriguing, inscrutable but revealing mystery. It is not for us to bring God down to our size, to have Him in a position where we can corner Him, even on a throne. It is for us to be drawn out into Him. “There will come a time,” says the Lord in the Scriptures (John 4), “when people will not worship the Lord in this mountain,” and its wild expanse , “but in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.21-23.) So we have the beginnings of what we recognise as our own tradition. Not a golden representation of a divine being on which God is to be positioned and pinpointed, but a recreation of that desert and mountain top wilderness, the tent of meeting, where God comes to be present among His people - yet found in His ways, not at our behest.

We are told by C.S. Lewis that Aslan is a wild lion; and so, it is not we who create the conditions for His presence, but He who makes the conditions for ours. Thus in our churches, an altar is set within a house where no being or representation from another dimension is turned off and on - not even hints of the “magical supernatural” that we can grasp on to, but only the sacred patterns of acts and tangible things of this creation in among which our God slips in, and beyond, saying, “Behold the dwelling of God is among men and women!” Here we see not artefacts set up to be our objects of adoration, but Crosses, icons, pictures and images that are signs drawing us out from our own minds into the mind and mystery of the Spirit of God - whose presence, which they indicate and even convey, we have come into. Here we see no golden-calf containment of the whole Divine Existence, but a tabernacle, a tent-of-meeting-us for God on the move - across the desert, by the mountains, into cities and over time and space. Within is nothing more otherworldly than daily bread, to the world a token or memento, but from heaven’s perspective the means time and again (and never permanently locked down by us) that the Lord chooses for his point of entry into our midst, in among the patterns, rites and signs that He has set by grace through our nature in our creation.

Another archaeological wonder lies beneath St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Behind the wall that cuts across Peter’s grave beneath the shrine in the crypt is an old passage along one side of which is a stone row of seats, then a gap where the western end of the grave is cut in two by the wall, and then another stone row. I often wonder if that gap was left, not just to respect the grave, but to place the famous chair now lost to us, the chair on which Peter had once sat to inspire and teach the first church in Rome of the Christ he knew and loved, the chair which it took a generation for his successors to say they would sit on, the chair the idea of which we celebrate today, as the focus of our bond and dream of unity in the Catholic Faith, in but one Church inseparable from the successor of Peter. I wonder.

Yet another archaeological find last year was the foundation of a building with a large room in Nazareth, bearing hints of ancient Christian usage. Was it the synagogue in which Christ had said the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him; or was it the house of an apostle, or even of the Holy Family, where the first Christian disciples had still gathered for ages after, to hear again and again the stories that Jesus told, to honour the Divine Mother and St Joseph, and to praise Our Lord for His saving Cross and Resurrection? We will never know.

Yet here today we find ourselves in the midst of a captivating sacred geography of our own. There to the west is the Holy House of England’s Nazareth, and to its north east the chapel of St John. Within a few steps, then, we find ourselves at the same moment at the Incarnation and in its inevitable outcome at the foot of the Cross. The Mother of God, who speaks her consent to the archangel Gabriel, signals her consent to her Son and Lord, when He gives to her St John the Beloved as her own son too. Within a few steps, we move from the House of the Holy Family in Nazareth to the new Household of Faith that is the domestic church begun that first Good Friday in Jerusalem. From this house of St John, the young disciple who had remained with Mary at the Cross ran to see the emptied Tomb; and then he ran back with news of the resurrection of her Son (John 20.1-10). This sacred space of St John’s Chapel, whose renovation by the Catholic League (whose chapel it has always been) we give thanks for today, is thus fittingly the Chapel of the Holy Cross too - and a Chapel of our Lady of that Cross’s Victory, as well. We stand physically at this moment within the patterns God has set to enter into our lives and existence, to draw us into His presence and its purpose - our salvation. Here we are in among and between the moment of His Incarnation, His death on the Cross, His foundation of the Church to be the Body that brings the presence of His Body into the midst of the world, His resurrection, and the dwelling of God among men and women on earth, and thus the dwelling of men and women in the midst of God in heaven.

But there is one coordinate of the pattern of our sacred geography missing. Where is Peter, who ran with John to the tomb in all this. We hear the Lord’s commission to be the one to feed Christ’s lambs out of love for the Master. And we hear that Peter is to be the very rock on which the household of the Church is to be built. Where is he in this place of sacred interwoven times and patterns?
When Henry Joy Fynes Clinton, who was such an influential supporter of the restoration of the pilgrimage to this Holy House, founded the Catholic League, he set down an imperturbable principle: that the command of Christ “that they all be one” had to face the hard fact that there could be no unity between Christians and their churches that was not a unity of the church in its wholeness. There could be no unity to the exclusion of others, no reconciliation with Christ that allowed for a Church divided. There could be no Catholic unity that countenanced a Church without Peter. His idea was resisted and suspect, as it remains; but it would never go away. In the end, it became the basic purpose of the Anglican-RC dialogue to find how our divided churches could again be one - with integrity - and not without Peter to feed the lambs and to be the rock-foundation to all we say of the hope that lies within us, our hope in the Cross and resurrection of the incarnate Lord who is God among us.

We who have been drawn into the presence of God in this place on the feast of St. Peter’s Chair bear witness that we have been walked among by the Lord, who was incarnate at the house in Nazareth, who claimed His victory on the Cross, and who burst with news of resurrection into the house where Mary lived with John, giving new life and meaning on the brightest day to those who had stood by Him in the darkest hour. We walk thus in turn at this moment in many places in time and space - the place of the Annunciation to Mary is the place of Christ’s annunciation of Himself to us; the foot of the Cross is our place, too; and the Tomb emptied in expectation of ascension to heaven is our own natural habitat. And sustaining it all is the rock, the apostle Peter, who guides the Church in history to return constantly to the Lord, as the sheep that listen to His voice, the lambs to be fed and loved by Him into the kingdom.

On this day we find our place in the divine pattern - there is Mary; over there is John; and on Peter we are standing. But above all, it is the Lord who is present among us, for behold the dwelling of God is with us!

11 February 2018

We Sheep and Goats: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgement, at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, Meatfare Sunday, 11 February 2018

The goats in today’s Gospel make you think immediately of how sharp the distinction is between being good and being bad. No grey areas; just right and wrong; and we can’t be the ones in the wrong! Thus we identify ourselves as the good sheep of the Good Shepherd, the Christlike lambs, and the others as the accursed scapegoats (Matthew 25.31-46).

Hearing Jesus’ list, most of us will be mentally checking off our attitudes and actions – “Was I so absorbed in myself that I was failing in compassion and generosity?” Others will congratulate themselves on being kind to the poor who deserve it, but tough on those who “have only themselves to blame”. I reckon, too, that there are whole swaths of Christians saying to themselves, “God is on our side, not the side of heretics and schismatics, or immoral people. First they must repent, and return. Then we will help them.” Most Christian Churches have people who think like this; let us avoid this easy and unspiritual trap.

Still others will realise that Christ is not reeling off a list of things to complete in order to be worthy of Him. Instead, he is talking about acts of humanity that, if they are genuinely godly, just come like second nature to us. He does not want us to collect good deeds like badges of virtue; and He certainly does not want us to do them as a favour to Him - regardless of the favour needed from us by the people before our very eyes. Many of us will feel guilty about our shortcomings and selfishness. But God wants us do all these things not out of shame or duty, but out of sheer love for being just naturally part of His Kingdom. So a change of heart is what today’s Gospel asks of us: “Yes” to repentance from heartless attitudes; “Yes” to compassion for sinners, because we are sinners ourselves no different; “Yes” to growth in honest goodness, so that virtue within - and generosity with the gifts God has given us – arise not from what we do, but from who we are becoming in the great scheme of God’s Kingdom, as it constantly draws up close to the people in the world. To become like that, would it not be magnificent? Well, it already is, and it is how we are being remade, even now, to be fitting for the purposes of the Kingdom, and bringing it closer.

So it is in the midst of the process of becoming - even now - what we are not yet, that we see what Jesus is really laying before us. It is the same as the question over Caesar’s currency in the Temple (Matthew 22.15-22), the wise and the unprepared virgins at the wedding (Matthew 25.1-13), and the sower’s wheat and tares (Matthew 13.1-23): the answer is not the obvious explanation, and He is making you think it through more profoundly, with just a little more self-awareness than is comfortable for us. The contrast between sheep and goats is not between them and us: but the irony of two similar things that are both true of us. Both lists are things we do and won’t do. We are sheep and goat alike. If we condemn the others, we condemn ourselves. If we count ourselves into the Kingdom, we have no ground to show people the door to the other way.

In the religion of the Hebrew Temple, sheep and goats were both sacrificial animals, so one is not pure and the other unclean. They are both offerings that avail for reconciling human beings to God. But the most famous Lamb and the most famous goat were not sacrifices for sin at all. The Paschal Lamb was a slain innocent, and his blood brought protection and blessing; but it was not a sacrifice for sin. Moreover, while the Scapegoat was chosen each year to take away the sins of the world, he was never slain or sacrificed. The High Priest, in the Name of the Lord Most High whose very presence he represented, would assume upon himself the sins of all the people - and then touch the Goat to transfer their sins onto it instead. The animal laden with sin thus became impure; it could not be offered as a sacrifice. It was sent into the wilderness. It was not banished and rejected: it was relied upon, to take the guilt far away, never to come back on us. Only then could a pure atonement sacrifice be offered. (Leviticus 16.10, 15)

In other words, the significance of the goats in Our Lord’s striking story and the symbolism of the sheep are inseparable. Christ, who will come to be the Judge of us all, looks on the whole of us, not just the presentable bits, or the side we would like Him to find. He wants to see the blemishes, the shortcomings, the deliberate wickedness that in the former dispensation no sacrifice could guarantee to take away - the side that our forebears cast onto the back of a goat to get rid of. In the new dispensation, St John the Baptist revealed that this unacceptable side of us would no longer be packed off, beyond redemption. From then on no Scapegoat, but only the Lamb of God Himself, would take away the sins of the world (John 1.29). Nothing about us need be lost, nothing of us would lie beyond redemption, everything could be turned round, the totality of us could become acceptable (Romans 12.1), and find forgiveness.

For it is in contrast with the shadows in us, the facets that are so starkly true of us, that the light at work in us is seen outshining all else, and bringing it out of darkness into His own marvellous light (I Peter 2.9). St John the Theologian told us of a light shining in the darkness that the darkness did not overwhelm. He said that that it was the light of our life - “The Light of all Humans” (John 1.4). Christ spoke of Himself as the Light of the World - not so much shining down on it, but illuminating what He intended human living to be from within (John 8.12) – like a city set on a hill, or a light shining from out under a bucket (Matthew 5.14-15), or bridesmaids lighting the path at night for the bridegroom on his way to meet his bride (Matthew 25.1-13). It is all hints, glints, gleams that Christ has seen the whole of us; and, from within, it is His Light that is overwhelming our darkness, it is His light that is becoming ever more the life of us, as we become in turn the lights of the world.

St Paul, talking today of fasting (I Corinthians 8.8-13; 9.1-2), says something intriguing: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” I rather think that this is the point of our discussion of the sheep, which the Good Shepherd knows through and through (John 10.14), and the goats – all that we do, how we act, good and evil, shedding light or casting shadow, what we believe and how we think. For, as St Paul realises, it all comes down to the question he himself faced on the road to Damascus: “Who am I, what am I in relation to this One Person, Jesus Christ? Is He everything that is the Truth of all that I mean about God? Is He the Truth of everything of what it is to be human?” For we see just as we are seen, and we recognise just as we are recognised (I Corinthians 13.12). Or, as the old man of the country explained to the priest, who enquired why he came to Church when there was no service, for hours every day: “I looks at Him, and He looks at me.” I draw Him into me, to make my darkness into His light, so I will be drawn into Him. I can look nowhere else, nothing accounts for anything, unless it is Christ.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey used to say, when people asked him what God, the Infinite, the Transcendent, the Almighty was like, “In Him there is no unChristlikeness at all.” Our point of union with God is the same. It is not about our being special lambs at the expense of rejected goats; for the Judgment is not about condemnation, but identifying where to shine the visible Image of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15 ff.), where to stitch the reconciling of all things, making peace by the blood of the Cross. “One you were alienated and did evil deeds,” says Paul, “but now you are presented holy and blameless, if you continue steadfast in faith.” (Colossians 1.21-22)

So the Judgement upon us is this: that God sees the whole person, good and bad. Nevertheless, our being sheep and goat alike, we look back not one way to the dark and another way to the light, but to none other than Christ. In the face of this Person, we see ourselves as we are seen. We see that the Light which is the very life of us insists that what is true of God is true of us too: “In you and me, there is to be no unChristlikeness at all.” Thus Divine Judgement is both true and awesome in its blessedness and its inescapable sentence upon us with the insistent demand that will never be lifted from: “You are the Light of the World!” (Matthew 5.14)