Mary Magdalene – a saint of defiant hope

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We kept the feast of St Mary Magdalene last Sunday. Preparing my sermon on her I was very moved to meditate on her story – not only her story as recorded in the Gospels but also the ‘fake news’ story that has followed her since the Middle Ages in the West up to now. For me, she is very much a saint for our time, a saint of defiant hope. My sermon was partially inspired by this beautiful icon by Br Robert Lentz which for me restores her reputation back to the fierce survivor she is:

Here is the text of my sermon:

Mary Magdalene is a survivor. She is one of the most enigmatic people in the gospels and probably the most enigmatic woman in the gospels – the only woman given a full name in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene is a survivor because we know that Jesus drove seven demons from her. We don’t know what language we would use now to describe what Jesus did for her, but my suspicion is that she came to Jesus deeply troubled – perhaps with a severe mental health problem and that he healed her fully of that. Mary Magdalene as we come to remember her today is also a survivor of a terrible fake news campaign that has raged since the middle ages about her. Many people conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who outrageously anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and dries them with her hair and also with the woman caught in adultery – the woman to whom Jesus gently says ‘go and sin no more’. These two other women are two separate people – not to be confused with Mary Magdalene whom we are celebrating today. Unfortunately because people made these 3 women into 1, Mary Magdalene has always been depicted as a reformed prostitute, she is always depicted in racy bright red robes, her hair flowing, uncovered, and in a posture of repentance.

The truth is, that Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles. The reason she is honoured with being the first to see the resurrected Christ is that Mary stays when everyone else leaves. The disciples, led by Peter all profess at the last supper that they will stay with Jesus come what may, to the death – and they all agree. When it comes to it, though, the name repeated through all four gospels as being there as Jesus is crucified and put in the tomb and rises from the dead is Mary Magdalene.

Mary stays. She is fierce. She has had a hard life, Jesus cast out seven demons from her – who knows how long she’d lived with them or how old she was when Jesus healed her. But perhaps because she’s seen pain and suffering on a scale most people never experience, that is what makes her believe in resurrection. Mary experienced resurrection the first time she met Jesus, Jesus gave her her life back when he cast those demons out of her, it was like she was alive again, resurrected. Perhaps it is this that makes her stay. She’s not only there at the very end for Jesus but from the moment of her healing, she, along with other women who have been healed, fund Jesus’ ministry from their own money. So she was probably a wealthy woman too.

Mary is not afraid to look death in the eye. Mary is not afraid to sit in silence, to sit in her grief. She sets her face like flint (to use a psalmist’s phrase) and waits. Mary Magdalene is a saint of defiant hope.

I wanted to show you this beautiful icon of Mary Magdalene, written by Brother Robert Lentz.

This is how I like to picture her. You will see that Mary is holding and pointing to an egg. This is an ancient story about Mary. The Eastern Orthodox tradition tells us that after the Ascension she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar because of her high social standing. After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain His resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. The egg turned red immediately.

Here in this icon, you can see Mary’s defiant hope in the resurrection. Her role is to point to the resurrected Jesus. Her song is ‘I have seen the Lord’!

Mary Magdalene is a survivor. She stands as the saint of defiant hope. She stands as living proof that resurrection is possible. She stays with Jesus, she never leaves his side: no wonder she wants to cling onto him when she sees him in the garden.

Mary Magdalene is someone I would like to be around. Someone that loves Jesus more than anyone else. Someone who has been ignored, vilified, not believed by the world but who is safe in the knowledge that her dear rabbi Jesus, knows her intimately, knows her name.

‘I have seen the Lord’ is her song. May it be my song, may it be your song, may it be our song. Alleluia! Amen.

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BBC’s #Broken: 5 things it revealed about Christianity and Faith

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I’m sure, like many others, you have been inspired by the Jimmy McGovern series Broken on BBC One over the last few weeks. If you haven’t seen it yet it’s worth trying to still catch up on the iPlayer or getting hold of the DVD which is out now.

Of course, having written a book about the portrayal of priests on the TV, I took a very close interest in this drama! It absolutely exceeded my expectations. In my book I spoke about how we shouldn’t expect too much of television programmes in terms of accurate portrayals of priests because TV is made to entertain and the quiet, faithful, work of ordinary Christians or priests isn’t necessarily interesting or entertaining. I now take that back!

I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this piece, so do read on.

Here are 5 things that I feel this remarkable drama revealed about Christianity, Priesthood and Faith:

The Nature of the Priesthood

I, along with many others, feel that this series truly captured much of the nature of what it is to be a priest. The self-doubt that comes with being a spiritual leader (Fr Michael, Sean Bean’s character, struggles throughout with feelings of inadequacy to the task) alongside the dilemma of wanting to switch off at the end of a long day just as another person calls on your time. The power of just giving people time and listening to their stories. The dogged persistence in offering pastoral care – sometimes when it’s not initially welcomed. The priest’s role as pointing to the presence of Christ all around us all the time – Fr Michael’s character repeatedly lighting a candle to tell people of this. All of these things are part of what it is to be a priest and there has never been a more nuanced or accurate portrayal of this on the television. Read more about this in this article by Cindy Kent.

The Power of the Eucharist

Every episode involves Fr Michael saying mass and as the series goes on the centrality of the mass/eucharist/holy communion only becomes more clear. The power of the body and blood of Christ offered in love for the whole world is evident throughout. This is true not only for Fr Michael himself, as we see that he struggles with his own sin each time he says mass but also for his congregation for whom many it is a lifeline. Read more about this in my article about Corpus Christi.

The radical nature of Christianity

when-someone-asks-you-what-would-jesus-do-remind-them-24587009Every priest and every church group struggles with the often wide chasm between the institutional church and the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is also touched upon throughout the series. Fr Michael preaches about when righteous anger might be appropriate; he speaks his mind on women in ministry; he questions the spending of hundreds of pounds on confirmation dresses. The series also touches on the child abuse scandals to have hit the church. What shines through, rather wonderfully in my view, is that the teachings and example of Jesus are way more important that the institutional structures of the church. It was a relief to see this portrayed so well in the programme, and that it revealed how tangled and messy it all is.

The value of the Church’s ministry

I recently tweeted about an increase in people training for the priesthood in the Church of England. Someone replied by saying ‘not relevant in the 21st century’. My reply could well have been ‘have you watched Broken?’ If there was any doubt that the church isn’t needed in the 21st century, this series, (perhaps unwittingly) proved otherwise! In an interview, the writer Jimmy McGovern spoke about how the church is needed at key moments of people’s lives such as birth and death. One of the characters in the drama walks into church because she can’t think of where else to go. Often, in my own ministry I am struck that the church offers things that are very difficult to find elsewhere – where do you go if you’ve done something you regret? Where do you go when you want to mark a big event in your life? Where do you go if you want to organise a funeral? Where do you go if you can’t feed your kids? The vast majority of Food Banks (which are also referred to in Broken) are run by Churches. I’m not saying that these things aren’t found in other religions or in some charitable organisations but if you took the church out of the picture altogether it is clear that society would be hugely impoverished. Broken was a great response to that person who told me that priests were irrelevant in the 21st Century. Jimmy McGovern in the same interview referred to the film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and how the main character after doubting the value of his life is shown what the world would look like without him in it. This was one of McGovern’s inspiration for the character of Fr Michael.

The world and faith are not black and white

The series artfully explores a variety of complex moral dilemmas – should I tell the truth, even if it might harm my family? Are my motives pure or am I really doing this for my own benefit? Broken also challenges what ‘success’ looks like. Fr Michael’s congregation is tiny but his impact on the individuals with whom he works is huge. In a world, and, unfortunately sometimes, a church, that prizes numbers and ‘bums on seats’, this was refreshing and revealed that value is not necessarily found in flashy success. A friend of mine went to a course for small churches called ‘a satsuma is not a failed orange’ – this encapsulates something of what Broken showed about Fr Michael’s ‘success’ as a priest. Read more about this in an article by the Bishop of Jarrow.

I’m sure there are many more lessons to be gleaned from this series, it was beautifully filmed and written and went to depths rarely plumbed by television drama. I hope it wins all the awards going!

Here are some interesting clips to watch about the making of the show:

Preaching in season and out of season…what to say after the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

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Today was the first time I’ve had to preach and take note of current events – I think all the other times there has been a major event in the news that my Training Incumbent has been around and so she has taken on the preaching on those occasions. But today, it fell to me to preach (as she is away) and I knew that I couldn’t *not* mention the recent terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Already, when I first checked the gospel reading set for today, this verse jumped out at me:

Matt 9 36

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

And it raised a wry smile initially as this was immediately after the election result was announced.

I had no idea that in the end this would still be the verse I would choose to focus on in my sermon – but for quite a different reason than I originally thought.

Here is a slightly edited version of what I preached this morning:

I don’t know about you but too many times recently I’ve had a bad feeling in my stomach when I’ve woken up to either switch on the radio or check the news on my phone. Recently it’s felt like there has been a tremendous tragedy for us to take in every week. Not least this last week with the terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower in London – made even worse by the fact that it was a preventable tragedy. There is understandably a lot of anger around. An uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach, a mixture of grief and outrage.

In the ancient world, they believed that the centre of the emotions was not the brain or the heart – but the stomach. When you think about it, it makes sense. Our young people have been doing their exams these last few weeks, I can remember the feeling I got just before an exam – it was always in my stomach, a queasy feeling. Or, when you’re thrilled about seeing someone you love, that feeling you might describe as butterflies in your stomach – a lighter feeling of anticipation. Even now, we often say ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this’ or we talk about ‘gut instincts’. In Greek, the language that the New Testament was written in, there is a word, a funny sounding word that is only used a few times, that word is splagchnizomai and it means to be moved from the bowels or for your stomach to flip upside down (as someone rather graphically put it to me!) Our version of the bible translates this word as compassion and we heard it in our Gospel reading this morning:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

Jesus saw the crowds of people coming to him with all manner of needs and he had a reaction in the pit of his stomach. A reaction of compassion, of pity, of love.

Where else in the Gospels is Jesus described as having this reaction? He has this compassion when he sees the widow attending her son’s funeral. Jesus is moved to compassion when he hears two blind men calling out to him for healing. Jesus is moved to compassion for the crowd of 5000 people that have come to hear him speak and have gone without food all day. Interestingly the same word is also used to describe the response of the Good Samaritan when he sees the man lying by the roadside and to describe the response of the father of the Prodigal Son as he sees him at a distance returning home.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ gut reaction of love is that it is always accompanied by action. Jesus has the feeling in the pit of his stomach and then he acts, he heals, he transforms, he feeds.

In the gospel reading we had today, Jesus’ action on having compassion on the crowd of helpless sheep is to send the disciples to them, to do his work of healing and transformation.

Jesus says to the disciples whom he has called by name, ‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and as you go, proclaim the Good News ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. As you go – in other words, set off and while you’re talking about the kingdom, show them what it looks like!

Jesus tells the disciples to ask the Lord to send labourers into the harvest and then promptly reveals to them that they are those labourers! Perhaps we are those labourers!

Compassion means very little without action. The letter of James says ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (James 2)

We might well ask, ‘where is God in all this?’ when we look at the footage of that burning tower. But in the gut reactions of compassion of people of many different backgrounds and religions we can see an outpouring of love and support in churches, mosques and community centres. We saw it in Manchester as homeless men ran into the bombed arena to carry out injured children. We saw it in the Muslim doctors who worked through the night to operate on the injured. We saw it in the response of ordinary people to the attack on London Bridge.

Where there is compassion and action – there is Jesus – working in and through us to bring wholeness and healing.

Jesus looks on us with compassion, he has an angry gut reaction to the injustice in our world and then he rises to act, with healing in his wings.

Let us each find a way to ensure that not only do we have that gut reaction of compassion but that we also demonstrate that love of God in action – reaching out to those around us in need, being a voice for the voiceless, sharing our resources, knowing that as Jesus sends each one of us, he equips us with his Holy Spirit to do his work.

 

Corpus Christi – discovering the power of the mass through TV’s #Broken 

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I’m really enjoying new BBC drama Broken, starring Sean Bean as a Jesuit priest (it’s on the iPlayer if you need to catch up). It’s very similar to the film I, Daniel Blake in that it is an honest portrayal of life in modern Britain – but in this case seen through the ministry of a priest. It’s not easy to watch at all but it is real.

Today is the feast of Corpus Christi – a celebration of the gift of Holy Communion. This week’s episode explored issues of truth and lies, guilt and forgiveness. A policeman struggles to do the right thing and in the end chooses to lie (and tells the priest why he’s chosen to lie) but then goes to mass. I thought this short clip here revealed something of the mysterious power of Holy Communion, Corpus Christi:

Transcript:

– Why did you give me communion, Father?

– Why did you come up for it?

– Because I’ve never needed it so much in my life.

– That’s why I gave you it.

 

It is often at those times when life is most desperate that we need not words, but actions, not words but something beyond that. That is what Holy Communion offers to us. As the old Book of Common Prayer service says before the bread and wine is distributed:

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Eucharist.

This year’s Election Manifestos at a glance #ge2017

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Back in 2015 (which feels like no time at all) I created some word clouds of the party manifestos. I’ve done the same again. At the time of writing the Green Party had not yet launched their manifesto – I will update this post when they do. I will not share the UKIP one this time around – their time is done as far as I’m concerned!

I was very struck by the lack of the word ‘Brexit’ in all 3 manifestos given that one of the main reasons Theresa May gave for calling the election was her negotiating position over Brexit. You can see the EU is mentioned but perhaps not as much as you would expect. This is a very crude way of looking at the manifestos but is quite an interesting exercise – I spotted some words in the Conservative manifesto that you might expect to see more in a Labour one and vice versa! It’s also quite telling that only the LibDems used the word ‘spending’.

In my 2015 article I shared some useful tools for choosing who to vote for, this time I will share another that seems particularly useful in the light of our new ‘post-truth’ world!

https://fullfact.org/ – this site fact-checks everything – you can find each of the parties’ manifestos fully fact-checked here. Hopefully this will help you navigate through the claims and counterclaims.

Whatever you do this June, make sure you do use your vote!

 

 

So here are the manifestos represented as word clouds – the larger words are the most commonly used words.

Labour

Labour Manifesto 2017

ConservativesConservative Manifesto 2017

Liberal Democrats

Libdem manifesto 2017

 

Doing theology with a bible in one hand and an iPad in the other – the challenges

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At our curates’ weekend away we considered how the church engages with the world. A number of us gave short talks on a variety of topics such as should we be political in our preaching and how do we deal with the politics of fear and I chose to speak on this one. Here is the text of what I shared.

20170511_171811Is there any difference between doing our theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (as Barth said) and doing our theology with the Bible in one hand and an iPad in the other?

I was chatting to a friend recently about the fact that 20 years ago I used to read a daily newspaper, then about 15 years ago I started to only buy a paper on occasion – quite often if I was going on a journey somewhere and wanted something to read, then since about 5 years ago I have all but stopped buying newspapers – except for occasionally the weekend papers (especially when on holiday). Why is this? Well I don’t know about you but when I read a printed paper these days I think, knew that, yes, know that, read it last week online, know that…it’s all yesterday’s news.

I consume news almost solely through the radio and my phone these days. The problem with my online consumption is it is no longer filtered by one organisation, I am fed news (funny that we talk about ‘feeds’ in social media parlance – as if we are eating information) through a combination of things my friends have shared and things that a faceless algorithm has decided I might like. More and more now on social media – mainly Facebook and Twitter for me – the blurring of the power of the algorithm with what my online networks share is only increasing and it is almost becoming sinister. This is because, of course, the wonderful social media platforms (which I joined in their early infancy) needed eventually to find a way to make money. The way they do that without charging for your use of their platforms is of course via advertising. I read a very disturbing article recently in the Guardian about a company called Cambridge Analytical who were instrumental in the Trump election campaign – they can psychoanalyse people using what they’ve shared on social media and then target vulnerable looking individuals with emotive content and fake news. I’m sure there is some of this going on in the current election. The terrifying thing is that it is so hidden and insidious.

So when I read a news article now online there are a huge number of factors that I have to consider – what is the source, which of my friends shared it or did it come via another route, why did this pop up in my feed, do I need to fact-check this?

So when we take Barth’s dictum about doing theology with the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other it has a whole load of other layers when we replace the newspaper with a phone or tablet. When reading a newspaper the experience is fairly one dimensional. You read the article, think about it a bit, and then move on. The old fashioned way to deal with it if you felt particularly strongly, was to write a letter to the editor expressing your views. That process would take a few days. With an iPad the experience is much more three-dimensional. If you’re on Facebook those little reaction buttons are tantalising, almost without reading the full article they’re begging for a click – will you ‘like’ this or click the ‘wow’ button or the ‘angry’ button, go on, do it, click it! Then the next stage is to write a comment underneath it and then you very quickly get sucked in to the undercurrent of the comments feed – someone replies to your comment or you respond to someone else’s and before you know it it’s midnight and you have an early start in the morning. Then the next phase is to write your own rant or blogpost about the topic in question and the comment cycle continues. This can all happen within one minute of seeing the article appear in your feed.

Here are some guidelines I have formulated to ask myself when trying to do theology with my bible in one hand and a phone in the other:

  • Are most of the news articles I read from a single source or a single political perspective? Am I aware of this?
  • Who paid for this article?
  • What are my emotion levels like as I read this – has it been written to press particular buttons?
  • Do I need to do some more reading around?
  • Do I need to slow my reactions down? Think before you share/comment/react.
  • Do not comment or react to the article unless you have read it in full.
  • When commenting, why not use the THINK acronym, is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind?

Alternatively, to turn this on its head, what about the benefits of doing theology with a bible and newspaper in hand:

  • You have time and space to reflect and consider carefully
  • If you want to make a response, you need to find pen and paper and put your thoughts down in an orderly fashion as a letter
  • Then you need to wait to see if you get a response back – perhaps up to a week

Surely the best theology is done through prayer and reflection, not from quick fire, gut responses? So my challenge to myself (and maybe to you) is to build in reflection time and prayer time into my engagement with current affairs. I need to press pause more. Perhaps I need to react less, so that I can hear that still, small voice of calm.

My tips on managing your personal Facebook account – how to hide certain things from certain people!

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Having a Facebook account as a clergy person and also as anyone else who works closely with the public is fraught with all sorts of etiquette and safety problems. I have a lot of teacher friends on Facebook that have recently changed their name to a nickname so that they can’t be easily found by parents wanting to cause trouble. Many clergy struggle with getting friend requests from parishioners – it feels mean to say ‘no’ to a friend request but we clergy also have a private life that we don’t necessarily want to share with everyone in church. Lots of people have different ways of dealing with this, here is what some people I know do:

  • Don’t be on Facebook at all
  • Never accept a friend request from a parishioner
  • Create two Facebook profiles – one for the vicar and one for the person behind closed doors

The problem with these, for me at least, is that you miss out from sharing what’s going on at church with a wide group of people (although I would of course recommend you have a Facebook page for your church). Also, Facebook can be a place where you can offer pastoral support and maybe only even find out that someone is struggling because they’ve posted something on Facebook (but said they were fine at the church door on Sunday). Running two profiles is quite fiddly and there is always the potential for mixing them up – although I know some people who find this the best way to deal with these dilemmas.

My solution is to use Friend Lists.

I have created a list of Friends that are people that I’m willing to be friends with on Facebook but with whom I don’t share everything. This way I can post things I’m happy for people to know about – such as a coffee morning at church, and hide things like a picture of me and my husband at an anniversary meal.

To create a new list:
  1. Go to Home when logged in to Facebook.
  2. Click Friend Lists under Explore on the left side of your News Feed.
  3. Click Create List.
  4. Enter a name for your list and the names of friends you’d like to add. Keep in mind you can add or remove friends from your lists at any time.
  5. Click Create.

Once you have done that, when you create a new post in Facebook, you can select the audience the post is to be shared with:

facebook friends list

So in this image above I have set this post to Friends except – the list called ‘Church Restricted’. So anyone on that list wouldn’t see that umpteenth post about how brilliant Game of Thrones was last night!

If you’re unsure if this has worked once you’ve set it up, you can at any time see what your Facebook profile looks like to the general public or to a specific person by clicking  on your profile page next to where it says ‘view activity log’ and then clicking on ‘view as’:

Facebook view as

Then it will take you to this page and you can view as the Public or as a specific person.

facebook view as public

This is really useful and helps you to see if you might have over-shared! You can always go back and remove particular posts – just click on the tiny v in the top right of any post to edit or remove a post or to change the audience:

Facebook edit