Greggs, the sausage roll nativity and all that jazz

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You have probably seen the recent controversy (perhaps deliberately created) around Greggs the bakers creating an Advent Calendar in which the last window sees the body of the baby Jesus replaced with a sausage roll.

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My first reaction was laughter. Sausage rolls are funny. They do look a bit like a swaddled child too when you squint a bit.

Then I started to think about it a bit and couldn’t help but think of the inappropriateness of a pork based snack being in a scene in Bethlehem with the Jewish Holy Family. Then I also remembered that my Muslim brothers and sisters honour Jesus as holy.

And then I felt uncomfortable. Yes it’s funny initially but the birth of Christ – in lowly circumstances, is at the core of my beliefs as a Christian. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus becoming one of us and the ultimate image of Christmas is of the baby lying in the straw – God with us.

Think of one of your favourite family photos. Now think of it with the most precious person to you in it replaced with in an image of a cheap sausage roll. It’s not very nice is it?

 

There is a lot going on in this little episode with Greggs:

  • crass commercialism – it comes out every Christmas and very recently more and more outlandish advent calendars are de rigueur – without anyone really understanding the point of an advent calendar is anticipation rather than instant gratification!
  • lack of religious literacy – for example, did the people who came up with the idea not realise that Jesus is held in high regard by Muslims?
  • appropriation of iconography – this happens a lot these days with meme making, in some ways the nativity scene is a kind of meme (invented by St Francis)

I think because Christianity is the state religion that this makes Christianity more fair game for ridicule. And let’s face it those of us, particularly in the Church of England, make a virtue of sending ourselves up – just look at my site anglicanmemes.com!

Part of me was kind of pleased that at least the Christian origins of Christmas were evident in this Greggs Advent calendar. Every year I get irritated at having to hunt for ‘religious’ Christmas cards! It’s a bit like the comment made at a conference about the Life of Brian recently where people said that at least when the film came out in the 70s people had enough biblical knowledge to ‘get’ the ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ joke – now it doesn’t even register as a joke in a young audience.

Making foodstuffs based on the Christmas story is not new. In fact, Greggs should have gone for the stollen for the baby Jesus – as stollen cake is supposed to represent the baby Jesus (the marzipan) in his swaddling clothes! The problem with the sausage roll is misappropriation. One concern I have is that when using very familiar Christian iconography (which is designed to be replicated as a meme to help spread the message of the faith) advertisers, because it is the ‘default’ religion in our country don’t ask the question ‘who might this upset?’ in the same way they might if using iconography from another religion. As Rowan Williams once said, we don’t live in a secular country, we live in a country haunted by the memory of religion. That memory, as each year passes, is getting more and more faint, unfortunately – and so we end up with a sausage roll in a manger.

The sad thing is – it’s almost ok. Almost. After all, the only place left for Jesus to be placed is in a feeding trough for animals – it’s not a salubrious beginning – and that is the point and the scandal of the incarnation.

It leaves a progressive Christian like me with a quandary. I don’t want to get outraged – as there are things that are far more worth my anger than this (such as child food poverty in the UK). I don’t want to come across as reactionary or suggest that this means that Christians are being persecuted – this is not persecution at all. I want to show that Christians know how to have a laugh and don’t take themselves too seriously. But at the end of it, I am a Jesus follower. The arrival of the Christ child is the most shattering thing that has ever happened in history, it changed the course of history for ever: God with us. To replace the image of God as a child with a sausage roll is actually quite offensive. But, in the same way as it will help Greggs to flog a few more pastry snacks this Christmas I hope this will get people talking about Jesus and his central role in Christmas more than if they hadn’t done it – maybe all publicity is good publicity in this case?

Don’t worry though. I’m not going to try and crowbar the sausage roll into my Christmas sermon!

 

Here is my round up of articles on this story that are worth a read:

Only a flaky Christian would get annoyed by Greggs’ sausage roll Jesus – 

Four reasons why Christians should be celebrating Greggs’ sausage-roll Jesus – Martin Saunders

Why I am offended by Greggs’ ‘nativity sausage’ – Paul Bickley

 

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Choosing a baptism bible verse – a small change that’s made a big difference

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Back in 2015 I attended a conference in Durham Diocese to discuss baptism practices and theology with colleagues from the Lutheran Church in Northern Germany. An idea which I took from our German friends was to encourage parents and godparents to choose a bible verse for their child’s baptism. We completely overhauled the way we do our baptism preparation (which is a session we run at church and the parents and godparents attend together) and one part was to introduce choosing a verse which is then read out in the service.

We have a list of verses for them to choose from (although we would welcome someone asking for one not on the list):

  1. The Lord bless you and keep you – Numbers 6:24
  2. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. – Proverbs 3:5
  3. Jesus said ‘You are the light of the world’ – Matthew 5:14
  4. Jesus said ‘I am with you always’. – Matthew 28:20
  5. Be kind to one another – Ephesians 4:32
  6. Jesus said ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ – 1 John 3:23
  7. Jesus said ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. – Luke 6:31
  8. I can make it through anything with Jesus – Philippians 4:13
  9. God says: ‘Do not be afraid for I am with you’. – Isaiah 43:5

When we introduced this to the baptism preparation session I was quite sceptical about it, thinking that the families would arbitrarily pick one and then we’d move on. On the contrary, the groups often spend some time debating which verse to choose for their child and regularly ask for a bible so that they can look it up. We now use the verse as the basis for the bible reading in the service and then preach about that – people are also more ready to listen when I say that the family have chosen this verse especially. We make our own baptism certificates and now the chosen verse is printed on there as a reminder to the family.

So this was a simple change we made that has made a big difference to our baptism ministry.

I’ve been reflecting on why this has been such a popular addition to our baptism sessions. I think it taps into the current zeitgeist. Photo-11-10-2017-15-51-38-1024x768It is very popular to have quotations on soft furnishings or on the wall of your home, as my friend Robb points out in an article commenting on these strange candle holders.

It is also very popular to have a tattoo of a quotation. So when I explain to the families that they have a chance to personalise the baptism service by choosing a special verse that will be like a life-motto for their child, they instantly understand what it’s about. It’s a surprisingly easy way to engage people in bible study. Why not give it a try?

This article is hilarious on this current trend for inspirational home furnishings (caution, this article is very cynical!): https://www.buzzfeed.com/joannaborns/inspirational-home-decor.

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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.

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