Freedom in Christ: Practising Forgiveness in the Solomons

Cath Duce, a final year ordinand, is currently on placement in the Solomon Islands. This is her most recent post.

The prison in Honiara, otherwise known as the Rove Correctional Centre, is located on the outskirts of the capital. It consists of grey concrete, barbed wire, and layers of metal grid walls separating the incarcerated from the outside world. Four women, a few young people and a very large population of men from across the Solomon Islands are housed there.

The local bus dropped us off outside. I was clutching a water bottle and a Bible, flanked by two CSC Sisters, who visit the prison weekly to do Bible Study. Having spent much of my childhood visiting a prison (due to my father
’s work as prison chaplain), I was interested to experience the ministry of Anglican religious communities to those people behind bars in a developing country. The long walkway up to the prison gates was swarming with prison officers. We gathered outside the main entrance with a Catholic chorus group and a group from the South Seas Evangelical Church where upon Chaplain Fr Jack, an inspiring leader, assigned each of us a prison wing. At 9am the sound of jingling padlocks signalled our welcome and we were herded in like cattle, searched with a metal detector, and directed past wheel barrows of bread loaves waiting to be circulated for breakfast (I couldn’t help but think this was a delicious sight after three days of rice for breakfast at Verana’aso, home to the other Sisters of Melanesia!). My fear slightly rose as we separated off and ushered into a locked shared living space of 30 rather terrifying looking male prisoners where upon all prison officers seemed to disappear from sight. I was completely in the hands of the quiet authority of the sisters. The men came in, one after another, solemn faced, clutching, like me, only their Bible and a glass of water. Each prison wing has an assigned worship leader a prisoner who leads the opening chorus songs. These words are permanently stuck up on the dining room wall.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when everyone began to sing. The tense atmosphere softened. With eyes tightly closed in prayer, the prisoners seemed to enter a new world of freedom with God, singing at the top of their voices: “Oh Lord, how glad I am to be free…” I read the Bible passage Matthew 6:7-15 on the Lord’s Prayer. Then everyone was invited to share how this passage touched them. A few people spoke about forgiveness and how easy it is for us to rush over those words of the Lord’s Prayer. One person said, ‘when you find it hard to forgive someone, it blocks your ability to pray. These prisoners knew their need for God. It was a memorable morning. This Lent I am learning so much from Solomon Islanders about practising forgiveness in small unsung ways. Reconciliation is deep rooted in this culture. Rarely does the sun go down without an apology. This Lent are we able to sing: “Oh Lord, how glad I am to be free…..”? 

This week please pray for

  • The prison ministry of both the Community of the Sisters of the Church and the Sisters of Melanesia, as they faithfully lead Bible Studies every Sunday morning and encourage the men, women and young people behind bars. Please pray for Prison Chaplain Fr Jack.
  • Please pray for the ongoing water situation at Verana’aso. Though the faulty pump has now been fixed there are still issues with the supply. Please pray for a speedy resolution to the problems with the existing bore hole.
  • Pray for Susie and Jonathan from Hilfield Friary, UK as they settle into a three month placement at Hautambu with the Franciscan Brothers.

Leaving Westcott!

Olivia Maxfield-Coote is a final year ordinand on an extended placement in New Zealand this term. She describes her experiences here.

One of the best things about training for Ordination at Westcott House is not being at Westcott House!

When I looked at various institutions a few years ago post BAP, Westcott House stood out because of their support and encouragement to take a term or 2 out of college and out of the country! The opportunity to leave the Cambridge bubble behind and to feel God at work in the wider world; to live alongside people of different cultures and backgrounds and to hear the Good News preached and lived in a variety of contexts has been one of the greatest elements of my training and formation and one of the best experiences of my life. The various placements I have been on have given me the chance to explore and deepen my faith and to develop my theology. I have found that the combination of academic study and time out of college has given me a fantastic start to my Priestly formation; the BTh has provided me with the understanding and vocabulary to be able to articulate and appreciate what I have encountered. And I have been blessed to have been hosted by many wonderful people around the world from which I have learnt so much, and which I endeavour to share with the people I will minister to and serve.

I am currently on placement in Te Manawa o Te Wheke a Māori Diocese of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia with a Parish Priest and Missioner of Waikato- the Rev’d Ngira Simmonds (who I met at the 2008 Lambeth Conference where we were both stewards).
The placement has been rich and varied. I have been fully immersed in Māori culture and the workings of Tikanga Māori, and have also spent time in Tikanga Pakeha.

Among other things I have: attended various events and services on different Maraes and in different Churches; I have spent time with 6 Bishops and 2 Archbishops; attended two tangis (funerals but which last for days and are not like anything we do in England!); been to a Clergy summer school; went for a tour of rural ministry in the East Coast; celebrated the 200 year anniversary of Samuel Marsden’s arrival at Hauraki; attended the birthday celebrations for Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, the founder of the the Rātana Church (a Māori religion and pan-tribal political movement which began in the early 20th-century); and have been shown around many areas of beauty and historical significance to the Māori people.

I am so grateful for this wonderful experience. I feel enriched by my time here and so blessed to have the privilege of spending time with, and worshipping alongside my sisters and brothers on the other side of the world. Thank you God. Thank you Aoteraroa. And thank you Westcott House for encouraging me to leave!

Glimpses of Heaven

Sermon preached at the Community Eucharist
All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane
Dr Elizabeth Phillips, Tutor in Theology and Ethics
12 February 2015

May I speak in the name of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glimpses of heaven . . . Both of our readings tell startling stories in which the curtains of heaven are opened ever so slightly and a glimpse of heavenly transcendence rushes into earth, momentarily lifting witnesses out of their normal existence, then departing just as quickly as it came.

Elisha witnesses a glimpse of heaven in the ascension of Elijah. As he watches, heaven appears on earth for a brief moment as a fiery chariot and a rushing whirlwind. Elijah is swept up, and he disappears along with the glimpse of heaven.

The disciples witness a glimpse of heaven in the transfiguration of Jesus. As they look on, heaven appears on earth as a transforming cloud. For a brief moment, the disciples see Jesus as if in heaven, clothed in dazzling garments and surrounded by those who have gone before. Then suddenly the cloud, the prophets, and the glimpse of heaven are gone.

These two stories become bound up with one another in Christian scripture, as Elijah appears with the transfigured Jesus. And as they descend the mountain, the disciples ask Jesus, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first? – meaning before the messianic age. In some ways each of these two stories is unique in the role it plays in the history of Israel and the narration of the life of Christ. However, these stories by no means stand alone as unique glimpses of heavenly transcendence. Whether in the form of visitations or visions, such glimpses of heaven play consistently central roles in biblical narratives: angels visit Abraham, a burning bush confronts Moses, Isaiah sees God enthroned in the Temple, Ezekiel sees dry bones becoming people, a sheet holding animals descends from heaven before Peter, a blinding light converts Saul, and John receives a whole book’s worth of heavenly revelations.

But how do these glimpses of a heavenly, transcendent realm shape the ways humans live in the world? Are earthly lives enriched or impoverished by heavenly visions and visitations? Many people, both atheists and Christians, believe that narratives in which humans glimpse heaven unfit us for life on earth.

For some of these heaven-sceptics, the main concern is living life to the full. People cannot fully live in the here and now when they are deluded with visions of a great beyond where they will someday find their future home, and people should not be encouraged to locate what is ultimately good outside of this world and outside of the time in which we live, where it is always out of reach.

For other heaven-sceptics, the main concern is oppression. Heavenly transcendence has often been used by Christians to encourage the patient endurance of oppression here and now because we have these glimpses of a realm in which suffering will end. Thus visions of a utopian realm which we will join in the future only serve to perpetuate the injustices of the present.

For still other heaven-sceptics, the main concern is moral dualism, us-and-them mentalities of right and wrong. Narratives of the coming-close of a time and place where good and evil are utterly clear allow people to identify themselves with the good, and to identify their enemies with evil, which will be defeated.

The heaven-sceptics make some good points, and their scepticism arises from ways in which narratives of glimpses of heaven have been used in genuinely terrible ways. But we can listen to these cautions against misuse without agreeing that glimpses of heaven on earth will and must always be used in these ways. How might these glimpses of heaven equip us for, instead of distracting us from, faithful living in the here and now?

To answer this, I think we need to turn to the very glimpses of heaven which heaven-sceptics often find most objectionable: the apocalyptic. Apocalyptic visions, seen most clearly in the bible in the books of Daniel and Revelation, are those in which a heavenly figure reveals to a human a glimpse of realities which are future and transcendent, yet which are directly related to here and now. These texts were written in and for oppressed and persecuted communities who needed reassurance beyond all visible circumstances that God was still in control of human history, and who needed resources for questioning the power claims of their oppressors. Their visions often included the future, dramatic toppling of those oppressive powers. They functioned to jolt people momentarily out of perceptions which seemed inescapable so that they could see that their circumstances were not final inevitabilities nor ultimate realities. Persecuted Jews and Christians were given, through these glimpses of heaven, the ability to stand before their oppressors and say, ‘You do not determine the unfolding of human history, and our destiny does not rest in your hands.’

The Transfiguration, of course, is a very different sort of glimpse of heaven. Where the apocalyptic texts mainly functioned in relation to contemporary political powers, this glimpse of heaven primarily functioned in relation to contemporary discussions of the identity of Jesus. Yet we see a similar function in both: the glimpse of heaven is a jolt which can shake people out of their status quo perceptions and open up possibilities for seeing what is ultimate in new ways. The Transfiguration was a glimpse of heaven which opened up the possibility of seeing a reality which the disciples had just barely begun to dare to imagine: that Jesus was the son of God.

In all the synoptic gospels, the Transfiguration is framed by the same series of events: Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to die, and that if they want to follow him they have to follow him to the cross; Jesus, Peter, James and John climb a mountain together where Jesus is transfigured; they go down from the mountain and find the other disciples incapable of casting a demon out of a little boy, whom a frustrated Jesus readily heals; the disciples are amazed by Jesus and he immediately tells them again that he is going to suffer and die. Even though these stories come long before the passion narratives, through these declarations of Jesus, the Transfiguration is framed by the passion.

Taken out of this context, the Transfiguration seems to be, straightforwardly, a decisive revelation of the divinity of Jesus. And it is certainly that. Through this glimpse of heaven, Peter, James and John have their eyes opened anew to the reality of Jesus as the son of God. The placement of the Transfiguration in the gospels, as well as the liturgical marking of the Transfiguration immediately before Lent, can also open our eyes anew, as it gives us the opportunity to see how the divinity of Jesus and his passion are inseparable from one another.

Jesus told his disciples, ‘I am going to suffer and die, and you must be willing to suffer and die with me.’ They thought, ‘Hmm. That’s odd. Whatever could he mean?’ A thundering voice out of heaven says, ‘This is my beloved son. Listen to him!’ And Jesus says, ‘I am going to suffer and die.’ We cannot understand how God has come near to us in Jesus apart from his suffering and death.

We have little glimpses of heaven before us just now. There is an inscription in the South Aisle from Revelation: ‘I beheld and lo a great multitude which no man could number of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues stood before the throne and before the Lamb clothed with white robes and palms in their hands and cried with a loud voice saying, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.” Alleluia. Alleluia.’

There is a glimpse of heaven which jolts us out of our routine perceptions: all peoples of the world gathered in worship around – of all things – a slaughtered and enthroned lamb. Slaughtered and enthroned. Passion and divinity interpreting one another. The one who is worthy, the one who gathers us, the one who was transfigured, the one who is ascended and glorified is the one who bears even in his resurrected, glorified body the marks of his suffering and death – as we see in the little glimpse of heaven depicted here above us, where the enthroned Christ reaches out to us with wounded hands.

As a community we find ourselves now in a fairly profound moment of uncertainty. I find that this time every year tends to be one of personal uncertainty for many of us, which seems to arise because it is both an odd moment in the academic year, as well as a time when we feel the toll taken on us by the months of winter’s darkness. And this year we have particular reasons to feel uncertain and unsettled. Who will our new principal be? What will happen to ministerial education in the Church of England? What is our role in the whole host of sweeping changes currently under debate?

Because of these unsettled uncertainties, I am thankful that Lent begins next week. I find Lent to be the most clarifying season of the Christian year, and I wonder if that is because it is the season in which the divinity and the passion of Christ most clearly interpret one another, and we are invited to understand ourselves anew in light of both his divinity and his passion in profound ways.

And so my prayer for us during Lent is for glimpses of heaven. These may not be such dramatic ones; Elijah may not be involved. But I pray that they may jolt us out of our status quo perceptions of one another, of our community here, of our church, of ‘leadership’, so that we may see all these things anew in the light of the mutually interpreting divinity and passion of Jesus Christ. And that in this light we may be reorientated and equipped anew for the lives we are called to live in this world, here and now.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The questions are what matters

Sermon preached at the Community Eucharist
All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane
The Revd Dr James Grenfell, Director for Mission Engagement, Us
5th February 2015

The questions are what matters argues Samuel Packiam, the Director of the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad in India. And he maintains that it is the quality of those questions that are particularly prized in Indian theology rather than the answers. To illustrate this he tells the story of a tutor at a theological college, about to set out on a journey, who summoned three of the ordinands to him. To the first, he said, ‘I am going on a journey, here are five questions for you to consider in my absence.’ To the second ordinand he gave two questions, and to the third he gave one question.

After some time the tutor returned and summoned the ordinands to him once again. The first ordinand said, ‘I have thought about the questions you gave me. They were difficult but I have thought hard about them. I do not have the answers but you gave me five questions and look, I now have five more.’ ‘Well done, my good and faithful ordinand,’ said the tutor, ‘enter into the joy and blessings of your college.’ The second ordinand then presented herself, ‘You gave me two questions which I have struggled with,’ she said, ‘and now, look, I have two more.’ She too was commended by the tutor for her efforts. Finally, the third ordinand came to his tutor looking slightly sheepish. He said, ‘I knew you to be a demanding tutor and I knew that the question you gave me was a difficult one. I buried the question and chose to ignore it, her it is back again, it is yours.’ ‘You lazy ordinand, said the tutor and then calling the others said, ‘take him, bind him, throw him to the church, let them make him a bishop!’

A theology that knows how to treasure questions is but one example of the many gifts that the Church in India has for us here. In an interfaith context in Hyderabad in which Christians are a small minority, Samuel Packiam has come up with his own five key questions: Where do I place God amongst other gods? Where do I place Christ amongst other saviours? Where do I set the bible amongst other scriptures? Where do I put my church amongst other places of worship? Where do I put the Kingdom of God amongst other kingdoms? It is this kind of reflection with such rich, generative questions that is an important corrective to the highly pragmatic culture of our present church life. You can’t imagine the Church of South India coming up with the Green Report.

This sense of questioning wonder about creation is characteristic of the wisdom tradition in the Scriptures and it is the wisdom tradition that lies behind both of our readings this evening. The eighth chapter of Proverbs describes wisdom, personified as female, delighting both in God and humanity, collaborating with God in the work of creation. In the prologue to the fourth gospel, we find an immensely right description of Jesus as the Logos, the Word of God which draws amply upon the wisdom tradition.

There are two features of the wisdom tradition that I think are particularly important. The first is its conviction of the need to look deeply and attentively into the detail of God’s creation, trusting that the truth about God will be found there. The second characteristic of the wisdom tradition is related to the first and it is wisdom’s willingness to look outside of its religious or cultural tradition in order to find truth. So, for instance, those who compiled the book of Proverbs drew upon the rich traditions of wisdom sayings in the ancient Near East and indeed the eighth chapter bears some striking similarities to the Egyptian work, the Instructions of Amenemopet. In a similar vein the author of the fourth gospel draws upon traditions of Hellenistic philosophy and gnostic thought to enrich our understanding of the significance of Christ.

The United Society, formerly USPG, is the oldest Anglican mission agency and for over 300 years now has been working with churches throughout the Anglican Communion in the service of their wider communities. Part of the role of the Society is to enable the wisdom and riches of the global church to be received and understood in Britain. And so to that end we find opportunities for lay and ordained people of all ages to serve as volunteers for between two and twelve months with our international church partners. This is not an opportunity to inflict upon other the ‘benefit’ of their skills and expertise but instead an opportunity to treasure wisdom. Spending time with the church in a very different context provides the chance to learn from a different culture and to acquire a valuable perspective on our own. In other words, learning to look intently, and generous, at all of God’s creation. And like the good Ordinands in the parable, our volunteers frequently return with more questions than they went with.

One of the striking changes in the Church of England since the 1990s has been the growth in the importance of mission. But what has been equally striking has been the narrowing of the definition of mission which is now frequently viewed in exclusively local, parochial terms and is tightly bound up with institutional self-preservation. I’ve served as a parish priest in inner city and outer housing estate ministry and I know and understand those pressures. But our churches and those who lead them are called to reflect more than a collective anxiety and frenetic activity of a church struggling to recover confidence in its role and position in society.

To be deeply and authentically catholic is not merely about the preference for a certain kind of liturgical tradition, nor identification with a particular group within the church, nor even the adherence to an understanding of spirituality. Etymologically, and ultimately, catholicity mean understanding the universal dimension of our faith – that our vocation, discipleship, ethics, prayer, worship, and lives of service are shaped by our identity as members of the body of Christ, which is a global body.

The wisdom tradition teaches us and our church an attentive and generous view of our world and a capacity to treasure questions. It’s a tradition which finds expression in the United Society’s work of connecting people across the Anglican Communion. It’s a tradition which takes us to a far richer place than the narrow confines of Mission Action Planning. So, whatever talent pool you might find yourself in, be confident in the wisdom tradition, allow it to teach you to be authentically catholic, and to delight in the questions and where they might lead you.