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CONGRATULATIONS to our newly Confirmed, pictured here, tonight, with Bishop Robert Atwell of Stockport. A lovelier group of people one couldn’t wish to meet and I’m proud of them all
PENTECOST is a great day to engage with a group of wonderful, gifted people preparing for Confirmation. We’ve 11 candidates this year and amongst the many present day gifts, hopes and aspirations represented in the group are languages / interpreting, veterinary surgery, counselling, law, physiotherapy, university teaching, mothering, good family life and friendship.
Each candidate is a delight in his or her own right and the Life and gifts of God’s Spirit are individually and uniquely tailored in, upon and for each of them – as for each and every living person. Confirmation will honour, affirm and confirm the unique gifts in each, and – perhaps most especially – the gift of faith, of confidence and trust in this wonderful Life’s provision. As God once revealed God’s name to Moses as “I AM” so, sharing in the same “family name”, each of this year’s candidates will continue to go and to grow in the strength of that familial relationship: “I am ….” and “I am ….” and “I am ….”.
And this morning we celebrated the sacrament of Holy Baptism in the context of the Eucharistic celebration – joyfully acknowledging connection with another young Christian, and hers with us. And we further celebrated my colleague Fr David’s 45 years of service as a deacon, and 44 years as a priest. Added to that we celebrated the life and vibrant witness of Christ’s Church across 2000+ years, and our own blessed vocations within the universal family of the God who made and sustains each and every one of us.
I AM smiles upon us, calling us to ever deeper greatness, compassion, grace and love. I AM smiles upon us, calling us in the power of the Spirit to more and more Christ-like-ness, to more and more Anointed-like-ness. I AM smiles upon us, calling us to be gracious and loving and compassionate with ourselves – so that we’re built up in strength and in confidence to be all these things and more for others. I AM smiles upon us, calling us to open our hearts and souls and minds and bodies in loving and compassionate prayer and concern for brutalised people in Syria, in Stockport, and in many places all over the world. I AM smiles upon us, summoning us to care for the sick and the sorrowing.
I AM smiles upon us, gifting all human persons with unique blessings that may be put to good and creative use, contributing immeasurably to the sum total of faith and hope and love and healing hugs and peals of laughter in a beautiful, but in places torn and damaged world; in our spectacularly beautiful, but in places torn and damaged hearts. I AM smiles upon us, and at Pentecost, fifty days after the Feast Day of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, we are, most decidedly and assuredly, celebrating anointed LIFE.
I am alive and thriving in the Life and Love of I AM. And I am profoundly thankful.
I’M OFF TO A DAY CONFERENCE on “Catholic Evangelism” tomorrow. I’m not wholly sure whether it’s going to be about Catholic Evangelism (capital C, capital E) or catholic evangelism (small c, small e), and I’m rather hoping for the latter … hoping, that is to say, for a catholic evangelism that really is about good news (evangelism) universally applied (catholic), ie, for everybody – no matter their “faith tradition” or lack thereof – everywhere.
I’ve spent a very great deal of my life passionately pondering what exactly constitutes good news, and in particular why having some sort of acknowledged relationship to / with the Source of our lives might matter – to individuals, to communities, to nations, to our world, to the whole created order – some of these whole and healthy, some desperately broken, hurting, and in need of that Divine touch that brings healing. And I’m consistently finding that old definitions of what it means to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Christian, or shades in between all of these, don’t fit all sizes any more, if they ever did.
Christ everywhere …
What constitutes Good News in a ‘catholic’, pluralistic world? Where is an / our anointed Christ to be found? (as I’m sure such a Christ is indeed to be found, anywhere in the world, and across the world’s faith traditions). And the questions are so important to me because as a Christian priest, seeking always to live and learn – to be a disciple – after the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth, I have observed that some kinds of Catholic, some kinds of Protestant, and some kinds of “Christian” plainly do not represent very good news for many people at all. So catholic evangelism must be something quite different, something much more open, something prepared always to be held to account as to the reach of what it purports to be good news. Catholic evangelism will not, I think, be too prescriptive.
Feast of life for all
Catholic evangelism will offer the “feast of life” to people in the “highways and byways” won’t it? Catholic evangelists, personal and corporate, will have dismantled their drawbridges. Catholic evangelism will be less concerned (although not wholly unconcerned) with the Faith of our Fathers and hugely more concerned with Faith Being Received Today. When I’ve asked adults over the past thirty years whether they’d like to come to confirmation classes, so that they can be presented to the bishop, confirmed, and thereafter receive Holy Communion many have politely declined. When I’ve offered the Sacrament of Holy Communion “no questions asked” it has been the case, more frequently than I can count, that the recipient has ended up doing the asking, seeking to confirm a present and acknowledged reality – satisfied hunger – in their lives.
And I remember that Jesus was ever ready to go the extra mile for children, too. “Do not try to stop them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”. Catholic evangelists will work hard at becoming more, well … catholic – so that they’re more plainly seen to be, well … “Christian” or “Anointed”. Catholic evangelists will be interested in marginalised multi-tasking-capable women, tax collectors, prodigal sons, unimaginative but very opinionated men, quieter and more imaginative men, too, and in lost sheep. Catholic evangelism won’t chastise the lost sheep for having left the fold in order to “explore”, still less tell the poor creature that God forbids it. Instead truly catholic evangelists (like Jesus of Nazareth) will make the fold larger so that there’s the space for MORE sheep to engage in the business of exploration, to engage, that is to say, in their God-given Life!
The Sound of Silence
One of the biggest growth areas in our parish (liberal Catholic with blurry edges – a bit like my paintings!) – has been a call to shared and silent meditation in the parish church – arriving and departing in companionable silence. No coffee or handing out electoral roll forms afterwards. And numbers in excess of many a church’s entire Sunday congregation have responded to a call – we believe a Divine call – to dwell for a space, together in the “house for the Church”, to wait upon the Word that touches life in silence. (The Word – not words. There’s not “even” a Bible reading). It’s life-changing, say many participants. It’s the only occasion in my month when I’m really and deeply aware of the heartbeat of God, the pulse of life, say others. This silence, this “that’s not very Catholic” but absolutely catholic encounter is breathing into our common life new elements of what it means to bear good news in our lives today, what it means, first and foremost to BE the Body of Christ now on earth, what it means to be religious in the original sense of the word (religare) – reconnected, re-membered. Restored to what we’ve forgotten.
Old assumptions yield
So whether tomorrow proves to be slanted more to Catholic Evangelism, or to catholic evangelism, I hope we’ll be asking the same question – What is Good News? – at least sometimes. Because, remembering Louis MacNeice’s Mutations again:
… old assumptions yield to new sensations.
The Stranger in the Wings is waiting for his cue.
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation …
ON THE FEAST OF ST PATRICK, forty years ago today, I was presented by my parish priest, Warwick Ariel Jones, for Confirmation by Gerald Alexander Ellison, Lord Bishop of Chester, at St Mark, Claughton. I remember the occasion clearly, can recall fellow candidates, Sunday School lessons, training as an altar server, chorister and lector, and some of the Confirmation preparation sessions – if not quite all of the content!
I remember the encouragement from my parents, grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, headmaster and school-teachers – on “your special day”. I remember the little party afterwards and the wonderful scent of the brand new, boxed, black leather-bound copy of The New English Bible that was the gift of my parents. And I realise, forty years on, plain as a pike-staff, that the debt we owe to those who have mothered us in the faith is quite simply incalculable.
My then bishop and his successor, my parish priest and many of the fellow pilgrims of my youth, are now in the nearer and deeper presence of the Fount and Source of all of our lives. Little did I know on St Patrick’s Day in 1972 that eucharistic worship ever after would bring me into conscious awareness of the continuing presence in my life of all such saints.
I’m not sure I fully understood in 1972 what Resurrection really means – and I know in 2012 that higher, deeper, broader and wider understanding is yet to be revealed. Nevertheless I’ve lived enough resurrection to know that our Easter celebration is precisely about all that I’ve been recalling.
Our approaching Easter celebration is about Life – that of Jesus of Nazareth, and that of each and every member of our humankind – your life and mine. Easter is about the reality of our being eternally drawn, every one of us who live – or who ever lived – in this world, home to the fullness of the Heart of Love from Whom we came, and in Whom we live now and forever.
Confirmation, by The Right Reverend Gerald Alexander Ellison, Lord Bishop of Chester
St Mark Claughton, St Patrick’s Day, Friday 17 March 1972
this photograph made on Sunday 19 March 1972 by Churchwarden Miss Joan Gray
LtoR back: Alan Morris, Phyllis Kell, Helen Whitehead, The Reverend Warwick Ariel Jones, Elaine Peers, Julie Barker, Paul Fryer, front: Simon Marsh, Paul Cooper & Peter Lloyd
The black bound (New English) Bible my parents gave me on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1972, bears the Bishop’s signature, and that of Warwick Ariel Jones my then parish priest, together with a text that soon became inscribed on my heart – one which I’ve shared with other confirmands since -
Therefore my beloved, stand firm, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labours in him shall never be in vain. 1 Corinthians 15.58
There’s not been a St Patrick’s Day since 1972 when I haven’t thanked God for the Confirmation received that night.
DEAN COLIN SLEE’S words, ‘I am surprisingly un-scared’, spoken not long before he died, have been going round and round in my head. I’m enormously glad that he was able to say that; glad, too, that Fred Caudwell, at whose funeral I’ve just had the privilege of presiding, was also ‘surprisingly un-scared’ when I prayed with him at the close of his time in this world. Both men were thankful. And both understood that they had cause for thanksgiving rather than fear. The lives of both men were essays in the art and gift of an all embracing hospitality. A Dean, and (actually) a Samaritan.
Last night, thanks to the hospitality of the priest and people of St Anne’s, Sale, I joyfully presented three splendid candidates for Confirmation to Bishop Robert Atwell of Stockport. My friend Fr Julian Heaton presented a further twelve. And we were delighted that Bishop Robert chose as his text for the evening the biblical “do not be afraid” – which appears, one for every day of the year, 365 times. Delighted – because having confirmed their decision to “shine as lights in the world” 15 disciples continue today, maybe slightly less anxiously, along a road that leads all of us, some day, to the same place, the same Heart. Delighted – because, in the meantime, the primary business of the Church has to be intimately tied up with the question “why are you afraid?”.
May the day dawn when every man, woman and child made “in the image of God” is able to say, thankfully and with confidence, ‘I am surprisingly un-scared’.
CONFIRMATION PREP tonight. I love it. I never tire of the life-stories that have led people through the years to deep and abiding faith … life itself being the “cost” or the “toll” along the way, for each and every candidate.
I was confirmed by Dr Gerald Ellison on St Patrick’s Day 1972 and it thrills my heart that the “Welcome Home” that the Church afforded me all those years ago is still – in one form of words or another – part of the “testimony” of those who seek Confirmation in my parish today.
“Welcome Home”. These were the unmistakeable words echoing in my heart the first time I entered the city of Jerusalem, quietly praying the Prayer Book translation of Psalm 122. These are the words that the late Ida Pratt used to speak whenever I, then the Vicar of Ringway, returned to the parish from a holiday. These are the words with which I endeavour to welcome any and all who find themselves “home” in Bramhall Parish Church today.
And these are the words that each and every member of our humankind may hear whenever she or he is still enough to allow the Divine Life to pray in and through us: still enough, and silent enough to hear God confirm and say …
A THOROUGHLY ENJOYABLE AWAY FIXTURE tonight for deanery Confirmation at St Mary, Stockport. Bishop Robert Atwell preached encouragingly and affirmingly, I don’t think I’ve heard a better intro to a Confirmation sermon – a brief reading from the Introduction to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything …
Welcome … I am delighted that you could make it … In fact I suspect it was a little tougher than you realise … (page17)
A man in his seventies and teenagers baptised alongside each other, 24 confirmed, great music, rousing hymn-singing, a coming together of old friends and new ones across parish and deanery boundaries … an affirming and a confirming of the faith of the Church and not just of our parish church. I think I’ll be looking out for deanery Confirmations in the future.