Sunday, 18 August 2013

Keeping it real.

There are many tensions involved in having a religious perspective on life. We have to hold many different things in a dynamic tension.
The fact that all is one and creation – including us of course - is all of a piece has to be held in tension with the fact that we are individuals with an independent will and ego.
The belief that God is omnipresent – is through all and in all - has to be held in tension with the fact that in our everyday existence God can feelsvery far off.
For a Christian the invitation to know what God is like through following the example of Jesus has to be held in tension with the prior contention that fundamentally, God is unknowable.
Jesus in his teaching this morning notes correctly that his message of peace and goodwill to all men will paradoxically bring not peace but discord and family breakdown.  He is not saying for one second that this is the purpose of his coming but that it will be the natural and realistic result of his teaching, as some will want to follow and some will not.
Contained within the teaching is another great tension that Christians have to deal with.
Our Christian contention that we are all one massive family sharing the one heavenly father and mother has to be held in tension with our social need for loyalty and support for/from our biological human families.
This tension has always been there.
On the first point, it is true that in any Christian congregation there will be people whose partner sits resolutely at home while the other half comes to church. This is a tricky area and has to be carefully negotiated with the other partner. The issue is usually one of time – and the church like any organisation can be quite a draw on our time.
On the issue of our tension between being part of a biological human family and at the same time all being children in the one big human family that Christianity teaches one has to balance priorities.
How I work out that tension is like this. For societies to not just function but to flourish, I am convinced that we need strong families. Strong families provide the framework for us all to be supported and loved especially children of course.  What form that family takes has been under the microscope and has been changing since at least the 1960’s. I am more than aware of all the changes in attitudes that have taken place.
I accept that as you get older you don’t necessarily get any wiser but I have become more sure over the years that the traditional form of marriage has a primary and very important place in society.
Part of the preface to the marriage ceremony that I say at every wedding is that
“Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community”.  Marriage in the Christian view enriches society and strengthens community.
Pragmatically the family also provides a strong bulwark and safe space for children to be nurtured. This allied to the complementary natures and gifts of a man and woman, we have in my view the best formula I know of for a healthy society.
How does that rest though with Jesus’ teaching on the primary calling to be children of the one heavenly father?
Well the Church of England has always had the reputation of being a pragmatic and realistic church. Too pragmatic and too realistic for many of the other more purist expressions and  denominations of Christians of course.
It is about boundaries I think. Often, families can put an iron barricade around the family – people are either very definitely in or definitely out. Love, support and nurture are reserved exclusively for immediate family to the exclusion of others.
I think a pragmatic Christian response is to soften those boundaries – to change it from being a barrier to a semi-permeable membrane that allows a freer flow of love and support.
It is an expanding of family values rather than a shrinking of them. It is extending all those strengths we associate with our family ties like loyalty, mutual love and support and extending them to others beyond our immediate horizons.
Just as we are called to love others as ourselves so we are called to love the extended family as we love our own. Love here is of course not the pink and fluffy western notion of romantic love, but gritty and realistic support and nurture - even when it is inconvenient – the sort of support that we normally reserve for family members. Going the extra mile for others, not just our own.
More generally, the application of any faith tradition to inform our actual lives is always a matter of negotiation and degree.
The extreme violence in Egypt is actually between varying intensities of Islam - Muslims who have a very different interpretation of how far Islam is to be a part of national life.  Different interpretations in that religious family has led to civil war with the poor Christians caught in the crossfire.
I know that often the church of England is derided as being soft and wishy washy on Christian doctrine and morals but actually I would say we are being true to real life – the world as it actually is.
I think we are unique in the Christian world in that we don’t solely take the Bible as our way of doing theology, nor do we take just tradition as our way of doing theology or even both together, we famously add another ingredient – reason or experience. We hold the Bible, tradition and reason together in a dynamic tension when we deliberate on the way forward. This three legged stool  is our gift to the Christian debate. We respect the Bible and its input, we respect church tradition and its input but we also respect common sense and reason our own lived experience and we let each inform the other and hope the Holy Spirit prompts us to apply the faith in a realistic way..

 It is hard to accommodate religious absolutes onto actual life but all religion is inculturated and we are a specifically English form of the Christian faith and long may it continue. We are at our best, a quiet, reasonable, sometimes contradictory (like life) church trying to find a path through the moral maze of life, helping people to negotiate and integrate faith and life.  

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