Archives for posts with tag: Cobham

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday in Advent, 10th December 2017

1 Kings 22:1-28, Romans 15:4-13 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=379774448 for the text of the lessons

I went on Friday evening to a church meeting. ‘Tell me something new,’ you will no doubt say. ‘That’s what you do – you’re a Reader, for heaven’s sake!’ True – and moreover, the speaker at the meeting was a vicar. But it’s worth telling you about, I think. The thing which struck me, even before the speaker opened his mouth, was the crowd of people who had come to hear him.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ that belong to the church, there were almost half as many again – I think there were about 70 people there – quite a few of whom I either didn’t recognise at all, or who I knew were people who had some background of going to church but who don’t, so far as I know, belong to any of the local churches now.

The topic was definitely to do with church. It was billed as a curry evening (originally a ‘men’s curry evening’, but I’m glad to say, it got widened out to include ladies too), with a speaker, Revd Dave Tomlinson, from St Luke’s, West Holloway [http://www.saintlukeschurch.org.uk], and his topic was ‘Everyone is Welcome’.

Dave Tomlinson – and he is ‘Dave’, (what with being a Scouser and that), does a ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 called ‘Pause for Thought’, and has written some quite well-known books, for example ‘How to be a Bad Christian’ and ‘The Bad Christian’s Manifesto’ [2012, 2014, Hodder & Stoughton], and now ‘Black Sheep and Prodigals’, which has just been published. He sets himself out to be a vicar for people who don’t think of themselves as religious, people who might say they were, in the new-age phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

What he says is that Christians are, in bare essentials, following a spiritual practice, what he calls ‘a way of approaching life’, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. [Tomlinson D., 2014, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.245]. What they’re not necessarily doing, though, is belonging to a particular church or following particular theologies or rituals. There shouldn’t be, he says, any barriers or ‘qualifications’ required before one can become a Christian.

It certainly seems to be an approach which gets people interested, and indeed, got them in, got them to turn out, on a cold Friday night. In a good sense, it was evangelism – although I think most of those who came would have already called themselves Christians, but not actually coming to church in a number of cases.

In a very real sense, you could say that, in another age, Dave Tomlinson could have been regarded as a prophet. You know, a prophet, meaning someone through whom God speaks. Not in the sense illustrated in our Old Testament lesson, where the king of Israel and the king of Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Jewish people, when they were contemplating trying to take back from the Syrian invaders the town of Ramoth-Gilead, consulted four hundred prophets, who all said that the attack would be successful and they would capture the town.

However, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, rather oddly asked if there was a ‘prophet of the Lord besides’, that they could ask. It implies that the 400 so-called ‘prophets’ that the story mentions, were not real prophets, speaking the words of the one true God, but were rather more in the way of magicians, soothsayers, inspired more by folk superstition than by God. So instead of them, they dug out Micaiah, who was a real prophet, and he warned the kings, correctly, that the attack they planned would end in disaster. They didn’t take any notice.

Dave Tomlinson’s approach is perhaps more in line with our second reading, from St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. He doesn’t specialise in predictions, military or otherwise: instead, he tries to impart truth, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are; Paul and the disciples’ mission to spread the gospel, the good news of Christ, didn’t just go to their fellow-Jews, but also to other groups, to the ‘Gentiles’, the non-Jews – and all, both lots, would be equally welcome to follow Jesus.

It’s a very important message. Today, the second Sunday in Advent, is the day when traditionally the church remembers the prophets: like Micaiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and all those. But it might be good also to celebrate and listen to modern-day prophets, like Dave Tomlinson, because his approach looks to have been very productive, on Friday night’s showing: people actually did bother to turn out and listen to what he said – even people who don’t usually come to church.

The key, according to Revd Dave, is for Christians to be caring – to love their neighbours – and for them not to set much store by superficial distinctions and divisions. I think that there are lessons there for us at St Mary’s too. People have said that we’ve done a good job in moving away from a time when St Mary’s was run as a sort of club, where strangers weren’t really welcomed, to the warm, friendly place we now are. That’s good; but how are we to keep up the momentum and engage with our parish community so that we will still be around as a church to proclaim the Gospel when we relative oldies are long gone?

Dave Tomlinson says he’s not especially bothered by how well ‘qualified’ people are in relation to Jesus Christ. He gives everyone, confirmed or not, Holy Communion if they want it. He doesn’t regard every word in the Bible as literally having been dictated by the Almighty. He is willing to accept anyone, however ‘sinful’ they may have been. Famously, he conducted the gangster Reggie Cray’s funeral, for example.

But it’s plain from looking at his church’s website that he doesn’t regard any one style of worship or liturgy as being the be-all and end-all. They do sung Evensong just like us. I think that they might agree with us that there’s a lot to be said for worshipping in a way that is familiar, that we’re used to – and that we think is worthy. If you are forever tut-tutting about banal words or suboptimal rock music instead of sublime harmonies, you’re being led away from bringing yourself to the Almighty and instead getting distracted by earthly trivia.

What we do here is to build on familiar foundations. Many people come here and, even if they haven’t been to church for a long time, may well remember a hymn or some of the liturgy, from their schooldays, or university chapel, perhaps. I think that’s all good.

I think that it’s important also, where newcomers are concerned, to make sure that everyone ‘knows the drill’: when to stand up, when to sit down; is there a collection? Do you have to wear any special clothes? – and so on. (Only I have to dress up!)

This all comes from the idea of being welcoming and inclusive. Of course, Jesus didn’t actually build any churches, so in his eyes, the concept of ‘bums on seats’ in churches wouldn’t have meant much to him. But for us, it is important. If we are going to reach out to people and bring them into our church family, we need to show that we are truly open and inclusive to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’.

Revd Dave Tomlinson was one of the founders of the organisation called ‘Inclusive Church’. Although it was founded as a reaction against the sad events which led to Dr Jeffrey John first being offered to be Bishop of Reading, and then having it taken away because of his sexual orientation as a gay man, Inclusive Church now goes much wider.

Its statement of belief says: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

When a church joins the Inclusive Church network, it is encouraged to put up a sign outside to tell people that, inside, if they come in, they will really be welcome. For someone who feels they are in some way different, perhaps because of race, or sex, or disability, it’s very reassuring to see that there’s a clear offer of hospitality on the outside of the church.You don’t have to ‘risk it’ by going in somewhere where you might not fit in.

Well, you might be wondering about where this church meeting that I went to was; this curry session, addressed by Revd Dave Tomlinson, which attracted so many people including people who’ve drifted away from the church: where was it? It was, as you’ve probably guessed, just down the road, in our sister church, St Andrew’s, in Cobham.

When I was a member of the PCC there, there was a motion for the Church to affiliate to, to join, the Inclusive Church network. I spoke as passionately as I could in favour. Apart from the person who had proposed the motion, I was the only one. The vote was 22 to 2 against. Now that they’ve listened to Dave Tomlinson, I wonder if some of the stalwarts down the road will revisit that decision. Because, you see, I think that the message, the message of Jesus and the prophets, that God welcomes us all, that all are welcome, is still vital. What do you think? Should our PCC think about it, as part of our vision for social engagement? In all humility, I hope so.

Advertisements

Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday after Trinity, 18th June 2017
Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ when he saw the crowds, because they were weak – ‘because they fainted’, and because they had no-one to guide them, no pastor. There was plenty for a pastor to do: ‘The harvest truly is plenteous’ – but there weren’t enough clergy.

 

So he sent out his 12 disciples. It’s interesting to see what the disciples were supposed to do. Jesus had been attracting big crowds. What were they attracted to?

 

We may tend to use hindsight, at least unconsciously, and think that of course people flocked to see and hear Jesus – he was the Son of God, after all. But actually I don’t think that the crowds could necessarily have reached that conclusion at this stage.

 

Maybe if they had been present at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove, and a voice was heard, saying, ‘This is my son, the beloved …’ But more likely they were unaware of this. Surely all those threads would be drawn together by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then it really was clear who He was.

 

Instead, it looks as though the drawing power of Jesus, which he wanted to pass on to his disciples, his students, was a practical ministry, of healing.

He told them, ‘And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

 

On second thoughts, perhaps people did have an inkling who Jesus was. ‘Raise the dead’: what sort of an instruction is that? Obviously the disciples were in on the secret. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.

 

But there is this rather odd instruction from Jesus to stay away from the non-Jews. The disciples were to keep the good news just for Jewish believers. Evidently, things changed, even then. Look at St Paul’s letters. ‘In due time Christ died for the ungodly.’ Not for the chosen people, the Jews. Instead things were completely turned upside-down. Difficult to explain the passage in St Matthew’s gospel here. Maybe it is to emphasise the magnitude of the revolutionary step that Jesus brought in. But St Paul’s letter to the Romans was actually written earlier than the Gospels, so I am inclined to think that the pro-Jewish lines are a late addition.

 

In the passage from his Letter to the Romans, St Paul sets out his key idea, his key concept, of how God works: that we are ‘justified by faith’.

 

The idea of being ‘justified’ really means brought back into the family, the family of faith. ‘We have peace with God’. St Paul had an idea that God, or at least his senior angels, needed to be pacified. Man had fallen, in the Garden of Eden, and was no longer perfect in the sight of God.

 

But if one wanted to placate this rather angular, peevish deity, it wasn’t a good idea simply to pile up sacrifices and ignore what was going on outside. You appeased this tough God by placing your trust in him.

 

But – it’s still a bit difficult to see what Jesus was supposed to be preaching about. Absent the Resurrection, what exactly was His message? I think that we can legitimately infer that it was a social gospel. Jesus had compassion on the people he found suffering.

 

Yesterday in the Church’s calendar, we were invited to remember Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, described as ‘social reformers’. This is what one author says about them.

“Born into a Bristol manufacturing family in 1844, Samuel Barnett was educated at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1867 he was ordained to a curacy at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone where he met, and in 1873 married, Henrietta Rowland (born 1851), the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. With a deep practical faith of her own Henrietta was working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill. Later in 1873 the Barnetts moved to London’s East End when Samuel became Vicar of St Jude’s,Whitechapel. They were both deeply affected by the squalid conditions in which their parishioners lived and became much involved in promoting social reform both locally and on the national stage. They sought to ensure that social reform was based on Christian principles and that Christians were actively involved in social reform.

Samuel lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1875. He served on the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and was one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. Henrietta was also involved in various projects of her own, mainly involving education and the welfare of children. She was also a founder of Whitechapel Art Gallery.

In 1906 Samuel was appointed a canon of Westminster and the couple moved to leafy Hampstead.The contrast with Whitechapel inspired Henrietta to create a model suburb in which decent housing, open spaces and recreational amenities would be available to people of modest income.This was the origin of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which developed after 1907.When completed the development featured special housing for the old and disabled, modern schools and new churches.
[R. Atwell, ed., 2004, Celebrating the Saints, Daily Spiritual Readings, Norwich, Canterbury Press, sub June 17th]

 

When we reflect on the terrible tragedy of the fire at the Grenfell House tower block this week, it is truly shaming that, over 100 years after Canon Barnett died, we still have areas of terrible poverty and wholly inadequate housing for poorer people. Canon Barnett lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, the first step towards the provision of council housing, in 1875. In the 1960s the Parker-Morris standards ensured that council houses were built substantially, with adequate minimum sizes for rooms. Unfortunately, in more recent years, these standards have been swept away.

 

Recent governments have abolished security of tenure for council tenants and encouraged the idea that poor people who need council houses are somehow less deserving than people who can afford to buy their homes. It seems incredible now, but as recently as last year, the government refused to make the installation of sprinklers in buildings over a certain height mandatory. Instead, the manufacturers of sprinklers were encouraged to promote their products so as to sell more of them.
Apparently, on Grenfell House, a council block, £8.7m was spent for cosmetic ‘cladding’ partly to improve heat insulation, and partly to improve the look of the block, which is surrounded by ‘mansion blocks’ of expensive private flats. But a sprinkler system, which would have cost a fraction of the bill for cladding, was not installed. And the cladding was of a less fire-resistant type than you could have specified for an outlay of only about £5,000 extra. Not much in a total budget of £8.7m.

 

I think that the Barnetts would be shocked – partly in the way that we are shocked anyway – and partly because the reforms which they did so much to bring about in providing decent living conditions for poorer people, have now been undone.

You might wonder what this, undeniably serious and concerning as it is, has to do with us at our Mattins service. The point about Samuel and Henrietta Barnett is that they were Christians, as we are. As the vicar of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett was ‘in Christ’, reconciled to God, in the way St Paul described. His life had been fundamentally changed.

 

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Corinthians 5:17]

 

Barnett was interested in liturgy too. “‘The Worship Hour’ that he introduced, was an innovative service with readings from modern writers as well as the Bible; service leaflets printed in bright colours to ease the dreariness, clergy unrobed and the church kept rather dark so the poor and dirty would not feel conspicuous”.

It all sounds, if anything, quite the opposite of what we in St Mary’s try to preserve and the opposite of how we try to conduct worship. But what is the purpose of worship? Bringing the best of ourselves, using the most beautiful, most meaningful, words before God, and seeking his blessing. But would we countenance turning the lights down – using our state-of-the-art low-voltage LED lighting system – so as to avoid embarrassing ‘the poor and the dirty’?

The Victorian reformers, fired up by their Christian faith, were willing to experiment, and to make their churches accessible and welcoming, welcoming not just to people in nice clothes, but also to the poor people living in the slums of Whitechapel.

I don’t think that the Barnetts would have regarded the service, even said in the fine words of the Prayer Book, as the be-all and end-all. What they sought to do was to draw everyone in, however humble, and worship together. For sure, most of the time their Christian observance would have been conducted in the words of the Prayer Book – and no better way, at least so far as the words were concerned. But the important thing was the social concern that their faith had led them into. They were ‘in Christ’, where God had reconciled them. So they dimmed the lights so as to avoid showing up how scruffy some of the congregation were – not but what these poor people couldn’t help it.

When we had our ‘Vision Day’ last month, one of the major goals which we identified was social concern, practical action for our neighbours, translating our devotion in worship into practical concern, into generous, practical love. What are we all going to do about Grenfell House? Are we going to have a special collection, or maybe each of make a pledge to send some bedding, clothes or food to the Salvation Army, or to the local parish church, St Clement’s, Treadgold Street? Or perhaps by sending some money through the Evening Standard website. Godfrey and I will discuss this with the churchwardens – in the meantime, if you want to give some money now, please write ‘Grenfell House’ on one of our envelopes and put your gift in it. We’ll make sure it goes to one of the funds which have been set up.

Yesterday I said similar things in the sermon which I preached to the Prayer Book Society’s service at the Founders’ Chapel at Charterhouse. Afterwards we had a nice tea in what they call the Saunders Room.

The name of that room where we had tea sparked a thought in me. Do you remember Winnie the Pooh’s house? He ‘lived under the name of Saunders’. It had a sign over the door with the name ‘Saunders’ on it. Perhaps some of the children from Grenfell House would like a teddy bear like Pooh.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima Sunday, also Education Sunday, 16th February 2014
1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37

The Corinthians said, ‘I am of Paul; … I of Apollos ..’ I went to St Paul’s school; I went to Apollos’. Are you a grammar-school boy, like me? Or are you a Cranleighan, a Rugbeian, or a Carthusian, or a Wykehamist? Or did you go to Crouch End Primary, like Tony Hancock? And what difference does it make?

This Sunday is Education Sunday, in churches of all denominations. Today we offer prayer and thanksgiving for everyone in the world of education. In our lessons today, there are two examples of teaching: and teaching is surely a vital part of education, if not the vital part.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, we heard part of the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon there has ever been. In the context of Education Sunday, we should focus on what Jesus said, what his message, his teaching, was. It was to show that, in the kingdom of heaven, simple utilitarianism, do-as-you-would-be-done-by, isn’t enough. If you are a Christian, you must go the extra mile, turn the other cheek. People often say that you don’t need to be a Christian in order to be a moral person, and Jesus wouldn’t disagree. He said he wasn’t there to destroy the law. The point is that he went further. Go the extra mile.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was concerned to stop the early Christians in Corinth squabbling and turning into factions among themselves. One of the dividing lines seems to have been about teaching, not about the content, the syllabus, but about who had been the better teacher, who had taught them Christianity better. Was it St Paul or was it his colleague Apollos?

The argument was a more or less tribal one, and you can see echoes of it today where people identify themselves partly by where they went to school. The idea is that you can recognise particular character traits, strengths and weaknesses, partly at least by knowing which school somebody went to. It clearly does make a difference which school you went to. More prime ministers have been to Eton than to any other school.

Church schools are perceived to be, on the whole, good schools, and there’s often competition for places at the local church school. There’s a very funny episode of the TV comedy ‘Rev’, about the trials and tribulations of a young vicar in an inner-city parish, where the majority of the congregation seems to be there only because they want the vicar to sign a letter to the school, a church school, saying that they are regular attenders. Indeed I gather that our Rector still writes letters to the head teachers of the various church schools locally, to confirm that certain parents are regular church-goers.

To some extent, church schools are controversial. The suggestion is that children are being indoctrinated by going to a Christian school, a school which has an avowedly Christian ethos. What if, the argument goes, the child comes from parents who are not Christians, but are, say, Moslems or Hindus? The answer is that there are provisions for parents belonging to another religion to opt out of Christian assembly or RE.

More recently we have seen the creation of academies and free schools: both are types of state school, which are not answerable to the local education authority. In Cobham, a free school has started, and there is competition between that free school and the existing church-based primary schools.

Now the Free School is bidding to expand into becoming a secondary school as well, and there is a big debate about the proposed site of the school off Portsmouth Road, where alongside the school itself a developer wants to build 500 houses – in return for which it will fund the land purchase and the cost of building the new school.

‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.’ What St Paul is saying is that it doesn’t really matter who the teachers were, however excellent they were: the question is, did the lesson take root in the pupils? Did God make that seed grow? Did God make that seed grow? You can have the best teachers, and no doubt the best premises, but you need something more. God must give ‘the increase’.

Of course if we look from a different angle at the support for church schools, you can’t deny that many of the parents, who seek out a church school for their children, are not actually churchgoers themselves. It may be these sort of parents who have been attracted to the new ‘free schools’, which claim to offer good teaching and effective education just like the church schools, but often without any religious affiliation.

I offered the other day to address an assembly at the Cobham Free School, to tell them something about the Foodbank. The teacher whom I spoke to said that, in fact, they don’t have a religious assembly at all. Once a month they do have a gathering which they call ‘worship’, but apparently God is not mentioned there.

I hope they know what they’re doing; because on the face of things it looks as though they are breaking the law, if nothing else. But quite apart from whether or not it’s illegal, is it right, right that children should be brought up in schools which no longer teach them anything about God? The law is very clear that schools must reflect the fact that ‘religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions’. That’s a quote from a circular from the Dept for Education, number 1/94, which makes it clear that all state schools must have a religious act of worship every day.

Perhaps I misunderstood the teacher from the Free School – in a way I hope it did – but it looks to me on the face of things as though, if they’re not actually breaking the law, they’re certainly not keeping to the spirit of it.

I suppose one could have an argument concerning whether or not schools should offer teaching about religion, along the same lines as the debate about the merits or otherwise of infant baptism.

The dividing line between indoctrination and education may be at times rather fine, but I do think that it is at least arguable that English schoolchildren should get to know a bit about what goes on in their parish church, and in the Church as a whole.

Of course, as they mature, children can then decide to what extent they accept the Gospel message and come to belief in their own right. They would then be making the transition which St Paul refers to between eating spiritual baby food and being weaned off it. My worry is that there are too many children in our community who are not even getting spiritual rusks.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 19th January 2014, at St Mary’s
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

In Father Ted, whenever anyone asked Father Jack a question he couldn’t answer, he would say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. What is an ecumenical matter, really? It means a question of the organisation, the οικουμένη, meaning the world, the set-up, of the church. We use the term ‘ecumenism’ to cover the whole question of Christian unity.

At four o’clock this afternoon I will be going – as I hope some of you will too – to the Methodist Church in Cedar Road, for the annual service, arranged by Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In our first lesson today St Paul begins his first letter to the church at Corinth, addressing them all as ‘saints’, ‘saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.’

‘Both theirs and ours’ – their and our what? The modern translations, for example the New English Bible, say, ‘their Lord as well as ours.’ But the Greek says literally that Paul is writing to those who are called together in Corinth, called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, of theirs and of ours.

It perhaps doesn’t make a vast difference, but what it means is that there were different bodies of Christians in different places, even in the earliest days. There was a church at Corinth, and it had some distinctive features.

Well, today I shall go, I shall go back, to the Methodist chapel. I was brought up a Methodist. Both my grandpas and one great-grandpa were Methodist ministers; and indeed I worshipped in the Methodist Church, was a member of the Methodist Church, until 1996. So in some senses, going to the service this afternoon will be like coming home.

But it won’t really be, because the service this afternoon is actually going to be run by another of the churches in Cobham, which uses the Methodist chapel as their base for worship too, and that is Cobham Community Church, which describes itself as a ‘congregation of Bookham Baptist Church’. Although they don’t say so very obviously, they are Baptists.

In Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon there are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformeds, Scottish Presbyterians: six different denominations, just in our little group of villages. This Churches Together area includes about 17,000 people, of whom about 4,000 claim to belong to one or other of the churches here.

I expect that, this afternoon, the worship may be strange – well, strange to me: and, dare I say, not something that I will necessarily find very congenial. But I’m certainly ready to be pleasantly surprised. I should say straightway that going to church is not a matter of entertainment; so to some extent it’s not relevant whether I like the worship or not.

A better question might be whether the worship is worthy; whether it is a proper sacrifice of praise: if it is a sacrament, whether it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us’, [The Book of Common Prayer, A Catechism, p.294].

For some reason the first lesson, from 1 Corinthians, set for today in the Lectionary, stops at verse 9, and is just the opening greeting from St Paul’s letter, where he praises the Corinthians, acknowledges them to be saints, and says that they are ‘enriched by the grace of God, so that they come behind in no gift.’ They are not mere runners-up in the the race for gifts.

But if you read on, you immediately get to the passage which is much more commonly used in the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ He goes on to say, ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptised in the name of Paul?’

In other words, Paul started to criticise the fact that even then, the church had factions in it. I’m not sure when a faction becomes a denomination, or indeed, when a faction becomes a schism, but it does seem that, even in the very earliest church, there were differences of opinion about how best to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we have seen, even locally, we have a whole variety of denominations. The denominations stand for different interpretations of the gospel of Christ. Even within the Anglican church, there are a wide variety of shades of opinion about our faith. There are threats of schism, splits in the church, over the question what we should believe about human sexuality, for example.

The African Anglicans, in general, and the North Americans, are diametrically opposed, and we Englishmen try to sit on the fence. And so, each year, we embark on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Dare I say that I don’t think that we are approaching this question of Christian unity in quite the straightforward way that St Paul recommends?

He says, ‘I beseech you that ye all speak the same thing, and that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ But I have to confess that I don’t have the same mind and the same judgement as my friends in the Catholic Church, or my friends in the Cobham Community Church, or in the United Reformed Church. I probably do have the same ‘mind’ as my friends in the Methodist Church, because by and large they believe the same things that we Anglicans do. John and Charles Wesley were Anglican vicars till they died.

Although even saying that, an amber light goes on in my brain, because we Anglicans have such a wide variety of belief: so it might be better to say that the Methodists and some Anglicans share common ground.

Of course, historically, the two biggest splits in the church were those between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches first of all, between Constantinople and Rome, and then between the Protestants and the Catholics. Article XIX of the 39 Articles says,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So said Archbishop Cranmer in 1542. It’s still officially the belief of the Church of England.

It doesn’t sound like we have followed St Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. But I’m bound to say, the question which occurs to me is whether it matters. Never mind, for a minute, the divisions between Christians: think about the divisions between the various religions – or certainly, the so-called religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of them make claims to be the exclusive way to the true God. ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me’ [John 14:6].

The problem is that this whole area is of the highest importance. Nothing could be more important than that we correctly understand, and have the right attitude towards, God, the creator and sustainer of everything. That then leads on to the question, ‘What is true, what is truth?’ Clearly there’s room for a lot of disagreement and different understandings.

In 1834, Thomas Arnold, who became the famous headmaster of Rugby School and was at some time the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College, wrote to the Professor of Moral Philosophy, R.D. Hampden, saying, ‘Your view of the difference between Christian Truth’ – capital C, capital T – ‘and Theological opinion is one which I have long cherished.’ Hampden had said that he made a distinction between religion, or divine revelation on the one hand, and theological opinions on the other, suggesting that Christians were in broad agreement over the first: everyone broadly recognised the basic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but only human interpretations of divine word caused Christians to differ over the second, over theological opinion of what the gospel meant. [Catto, J., ed., 2013, Oriel College, a History: Oxford, OUP, p.336]

But of course, if you say that every word in the Bible is literally true, then there are all sorts of difficulties. You may have to believe that the world was created in 4004 BC, and that Methuselah was over 900 years old, for example. Blood-curdling consequences arise if you follow literally the prescriptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A rebellious child can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18): men can be polygamous. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had several wives: slavery is acceptable (Lev. 25:44-45).

So there is in the Church of England a helpful compromise, according to which our understanding of Christian truth in the Bible can be informed by reason and tradition. But, however reasonable that sounds, not all Christians would agree.

So these days, we tend not to be so exercised about the divisions of the church. The ecumenical movement, things like the World Council of Churches, which had a general assembly recently in South Korea, doesn’t worry so much about trying to merge the various denominations together, but rather there is an understanding that all of us ‘live in more than one place at once’ as Canon John Nurser, of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe, put it recently. [John Nurser, book review, ‘Christian unity reconsidered’, in Church Times, 17th January 2014, p. 23].

Ecumenism now works in trying to reconcile the churches, not only one with another, but also with the challenges outside. So the World Council of Churches was united in its resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the oppression of poor people in Latin America. More recently, the World Council has become concerned with reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation. We can all agree that we must respect God’s creation: but we may not agree on the details of how we go around it, because we are ‘differently situated’. [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women]

It’s easy to talk about drawing a distinction between divine revelation and theological opinion; but ultimately everything comes to us the lens of our human experience. We are all different; we all have different experience. Therefore even our understanding of religious truth is likely to be different.

Actually, St Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth may be capable of a rather more mundane explanation, namely, that he thought that they had forgotten that the Gospel came from Jesus Christ, from God, and not from Paul and Apollos, or the various other preachers. Remember, said St Paul: the preachers were preaching the Gospel of Jesus; they weren’t themselves divine.

Thomas Arnold’s distinction between Christian Truth and theological opinion may not be a final answer, but I think that it is still quite a useful way for us to look at our friends in the other churches. There is a core of belief which Christians all share. But the theological interpretation of that belief, of course, goes in all sorts of different ways. We should, I suggest, not try to change each other, but simply respect each other’s differences. After all, those of us, who have experienced mergers at work, know that mergers and takeovers are very rarely an unmixed blessing.

I do hope that you will join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock. We will join with our fellow Christians from Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott, to worship God together. It will be different from what we are used to. But that’s all right.

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday before Advent, 17th November 2013
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 – Famines and Pestilences

‘Then he said unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.’ [Luke 21]

It might make sense for me to preach about this picture of the end of the world which Jesus paints for the disciples. You might think that I would go on to talk about the damage which Hurricane Haiyan has done in the Philippines, and all the other various natural disasters which suddenly seem to be happening. Is it a sign that the world is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of man’s careless use of the earth’s resources, so producing global warming?

I don’t think that I can be that definite. I think there’s a very high probability that, whatever I might try to say in relation to whether or not Jesus’ words here in St Luke’s Gospel actually do refer to disasters such as the one which has struck the Philippines, I think there’s a very high likelihood that I will turn out to be wrong. We are indeed horrified by what has happened in the Philippines, but it seems to me that Jesus’ message in relation to it is not that this is in some way evidence of the end of the world coming about, but rather that we must treat the people affected with as much compassion as we can muster, both through our governments and as individuals.

Both here in St Mary’s and at St Andrew’s today, there are collections for the Disasters Emergency Committee, and I do hope that you will give generously. There is a basket at the back as you go out.

But honestly, I don’t think there’s very much which I can usefully say about the end of the world, at least based on this passage in St Luke’s Gospel. From the earliest times, Christians thought that the end of the world was just round the corner. St Paul himself even counselled against getting married, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (7:8), if people could possibly avoid it, because everything was about to come to an end. But it didn’t, and it hasn’t. We still have a working planet, which sustains more and more people all the time, and which provides enough riches to feed everyone, even today, if only food were fairly distributed.

No, what I’m interested in this morning are indeed some of St Paul’s words, in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, which was our first lesson. ‘For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Is St Paul saying something here which is relevant today in the context of the Welfare State? I hope you won’t groan inwardly, but I am going to say a few words about our new Cobham Area Foodbank.

The Foodbank will indeed, in some instances, feed people who are not working. As a matter of trite reality, people who are out of work may well not have enough money with which to buy food, as well as paying for rent, heat and all the other incidentals of life, on the £150-odd a week, or £600 a month, that unemployment benefit provides.

I am one of the team who have come together under the auspices of Churches Together to create a food bank in this area. Although it is now an independent charity in its own right, Cobham Area Foodbank was created by the local churches. It is affiliated to the network created by an organisation callee the Trussell Trust, which is a Christian foundation in Salisbury, which has been setting up food banks for the last 15 years.

In the last three years, there has been a vast increase in the number of food banks which are operating. There are over 400 food banks in the UK today. In the year from April 2012, 370,000 people in the UK came to food banks for food, which was 170% increase on the previous year.

Since then, since April this year so far, 355,000 people have come to food banks, including 40-odd thousand who have been fed in the prosperous south-east. In other words, the numbers needing to turn to a food bank have doubled again. We don’t expect that Cobham is going to be any different. The Oasis Childcare Trust is already, among its other good works, providing a hot meal once a week for fifteen families, and they tell us that in fact they could do this for double that number if they had the resources.

In the area behind the fire station in Cobham there is very high unemployment among the 18-30 year olds. I recall that the Envisage project found levels of unemployment around 25%. In our area there is a huge gap between those who are well-off, who are on the whole very well-off, and those who are not, who are in some cases destitute. We are in the Borough of Elmbridge, which, on some criteria, is supposed to be the second richest borough in the country, after Kensington and Chelsea.

Cobham Area Foodbank will be the third food bank in the Borough of Elmbridge, when it opens on 13th December. Instead of relying on St Paul’s rather fierce statement to the Thessalonians – which I think was really aimed at those in the church community, perhaps in particular the ministry team – I would prefer that we looked for our Bible text in relation to people who have to use the Foodbank in the sentences which precede the offertory in the Communion service: ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (From the first letter of John, chapter 3.)

The fact is that there are needy people, even here in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, for whom there is now often a choice between paying the rent and having something to eat. The Foodbank network has established that, in Britain today, there are 13m people who are living below the official poverty line. The reasons why people have used a food bank – which are known, because everyone who gets food from a food bank has to provide some information – included the following:

Delay in paying benefits – 30% of the people;
Low income – by itself, just not earning enough to be able to afford to live – nearly 20%;
Changes in the benefit system – 11.5%;
Getting into debt – 9%;
Unemployment is actually only 5.5%.
Being homeless – just under 5%;
Being refused a crisis loan – 3.5%;
Domestic violence – 2.7%.
Sickness – 2.2%. How come somebody who is ill does not have enough to eat?
Delayed wages; wages paid late – just under 1%.

Note how low the figure is for unemployment. Even if we accepted what St Paul said, in fact there are very few people coming to the food banks and asking for food, because they are unemployed.

The system is tough. The food bank system set up by the Trussell Trust, which we will operate, is designed to provide emergency relief only, for three days at a time. The food provided will be non-perishables, effectively the sort of thing which we give at Harvest Festival time. In Cobham we are very fortunate in that Sainsbury’s Local on the High Street have agreed to provide bread, which will be freely available to the clients of the Foodbank.

But basically the system is designed to provide only three food parcels to last three days at a time in any period of six months. It is not designed to provide long-term sustenance, because the Welfare State is supposed to provide a safety net. We will know whether that is still true once we start operations in the middle of December.

However, I can tell you that, here at St Mary’s, you have been the most pro-active of all the congregations in Churches Together locally, because you have already started to collect food, and indeed Arnie Gabbott, who is your representative on the Foodbank organising team, has provided, at the back by the font, the prototype of a very smart green bin, which will be in all the churches soon, for people to put their food contributions in.

From this week, food will be collected each week by the Foodbank van and taken to a warehouse on the outskirts of Leatherhead: please do keep on putting food in the church bin here.

People must obtain a voucher in order to get food for the Foodbank. They can’t just turn up and demand food. Vouchers will be available from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, from Oasis Childcare, from the Cobham Children’s Centre, from the schools in the area, from the doctors’ surgeries, from all the ministers in the churches and from the social services and housing benefit offices – and, we hope, from the Jobcentre.

The Foodbank will open initially once a week, on Fridays, at Friday lunchtime, and we aim to extend to a second day of opening, probably on a Monday, once everything is working. The recent meeting which we had for volunteers who want to work in the Foodbank brought in over 50 people, and there has been wonderful generosity shown in giving money for the launch and sustaining of the Foodbank operation. So I am confident that we will be able to provide an effective service.

But it will need continuing support. As well as giving out food, there will be members of the team at the distribution centre – which will be at the Methodist Church in Cedar Rd – who will be trained to listen to the clients carefully and sympathetically, and then to provide ‘signposts’ to possible ways to make their situation better. And last, in the Foodbank there will always be somebody who will be willing to pray with a client who felt that they needed to bring their situation to God in prayer.

I know when you read the newspaper today, you very often read that if people are poor, it is because they are in some way feckless. But I have to say that, the nearer we get to the sharp end, trying to alleviate poverty on our doorstep, the less I believe in that. The churches nationally have done research into the causes of poverty today, and found that less than 2% of people are out of work for more than a year. It is natural for people to want to work, and they do. The problem is that there are too many jobs which pay the minimum wage, or possibly even less – which is the situation with so-called zero-hours contracts, where somebody is contracted to work for a particular employer – can’t work for anybody else – but that employer does not commit to give him a set number of hours of work – and they are paid by the hour. So they could be unable to claim benefit (because they are employed), but not earning any money.

The people of the Philippines, and the poor people of Cobham, both need your prayers – and your gifts. Please be generous.