The 70 Year Faith
For most of us, it is all we have ever known; the Queen on the throne. To have any real memories of George VI, you will need to be at least 80. It is a period that has seen remarkable changes both nationally and internationally; for many of us, the 1950s seems another world with the Second World War still fresh in the memory. The Queen has been the symbol of the nation through good and bad; both good and bad in the life of the nation but also in her own life.
The coronation in 1953 was fundamentally a religious service with connections to enthronement services described in the Old Testament. Like a priest at ordination, the Queen was marked with oil as sign that she was called and set apart by God for her role. Like a priest, she made promises before God. Even in 1953, I doubt many people paid much attention to this; the country had long before effectively left the church of “all gas and gaiters” (Under 60s, Google this…) behind. But one person did take seriously the anointing and the vows made before God and that was the Queen herself. Almost alone of our national figures, she speaks openly about her faith as a Christian, whilst at the same time respecting the beliefs and convictions of those around her. Her faith underpins her life and she is open about this.
One of my favourite hobby horses is how, as a society, by rejecting organised religion, we are in danger of turning our backs on something that is actually part of our very nature, our spiritual life. That isn’t really about whether we believe in God or not, it goes instead to the heart of how we live our lives, what our values are, how we relate to other people and the world. It seems to me that many people have lost the language to talk about this and they are diminished as a result. By contrast, this 96 year old woman remains at the heart of the nation because she has not lost that language. Long may she reign as an example to us and to our political leaders.
Rev David Poyner
What do we Seek?
Why do we seek God? Assuming that if you are reading this, you have at least some interest in the question… Those of a certain age may know a song released by Heaven 17 in 1981; it was all the rage when I was a student and has the lines “Come and join the fun on the way to heaven, Come and talk to God on the party line. If you can’t be bothered, we don’t need you; We’re going to live for a very long time”. It was an ironic commentary on what can seem to be a common attitude amongst some people of faith; a motivation that is ultimately rooted in self-centredness. I recall a former local vicar, whose favourite line in a sermon was to warn all his hearers that they faced “a lost eternity” if they did not believe. I am uncomfortable with an approach that on the one hand threatens hellfire and damnation and on the other, is just another way of looking after ourselves. This seems at odds with so much of Jesus’s teaching, who commanded us to love one another because God first loves us. In a recent book (“Humbler faith, bigger God”), one my favourite theologians, The Rev Dr Sam Wells, has addressed this issue in a way that speaks to me.
“If we seek God because we want heaven, we don’t deserve God. If we want God because we want to avoid Hell, we’re headed for Hell. But if we desire God because we want nothing other than to be in utter relationship with the source, origin and purpose of the universe and if we trust the God who came in flesh and died emptied of all but love and rose, because in the end love is stronger than death and will never ultimately be separated from us-if that’s what it’s all about, all about for ever, for us- then God will give us that relationship for ever”.
Rev David Poyner
Even a Genocidal Enemy has Humanity
Jesus, a Jew, told his followers to love their enemies. What happens when your feel your enemies are committing war crimes? Some challenging words from Peter Pomerantsev, a Ukrainian-born journalist, quoted in the Church Times, 29th April 2022, who writes from a Jewish perspective, drawing on collective memory of genocide against Jews from before Jesus’s day to the Second World War.
“Many Ukrainians I speak to worry that the war will brutalise them, that they risk becoming so full of hate it will eat them up inside. There’s a passage [in the Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Old Testament] describing how when the angels wanted to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptian army, God stopped them. How could they sing when His creations were dying? Even a genocidal enemy has some humanity. But if I’m honest, I celebrate every incinerated Russian tank. I tried to think about the soldiers inside them at the start of the war but I lost that moral battle by week two. At breakfast…. I suddenly find myself weeping over boiled eggs and coffee. That’s how you recognise Ukrainians these days, they’re the ones crying in public for no apparent reason. Like [President] Zelensky, I may be angry at God, but religion helps; the ever-returning catalogue of mass murder imprinted in Judaism puts this current evil into a context of pain and ultimate resilience”.
Rev David Poyner
I have never really had much interest in what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their home; I suppose I share in a common liberal consensus. However, Christiana Emba, a columnist for the Washington Post, in a recent book, “Rethinking Sex, A Provocation”, has challenged the view that consensual sex is purely a private matter. More exactly she argues that even when the activity is consensual, it is not always good for individuals or society. The ethics of sexual intercourse has been largely forgotten, leading to a corrosive morality where it is regarded as simply a matter for personal gratification, with no consideration of what might be the effect might be on others. The long-term effect this has on society may not be good. Interestingly, a recent survey of UK sexual habits has shown a sharp decline in “one-night stands” during Covid. A social commentator who was interviewed as part of the report suggested this was not just due to lock-down; there was a longer-term decline in frequent, casual, sexual encounters. People now craved lasting relationships, not just a string of casual encounters without any commitment.
The early church placed significant emphasis on sexual morality, seeing it as more than something to be indulged purely for self-gratification. It recognised its importance in forming and shaping personal relationships which are pivotal for a healthy society. I am not about to start lecturing anyone on what they may or may not do in their private life, but it does seem to me that a renewed recognition of the importance of love in sexual relationships can only be welcomed and is entirely consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.
Rev David Poyner
Daddy’s Hat Concert
I have just helped to host my first Daddy’s Hat concert, at Billingsley on St George’s Day. A group of local musicians come to a church, to provide an hours worth of music; at the end, a hat is passed round and the collection is used to cover expenses. Normally I will get between 2 and 5 people for the 8am eucharist (yes, some people do prefer the early start), perhaps 10 or 12 for the monthly evening service. For the concert, we had 23 people, including 2 children; 24 if you count the dog. Now, most were not from Billingsley, despite me doing a leaflet drop and advertising it on Facebook. And this was not anything like a traditional service. I did sneak in a prayer for St George and we gave a spirited rendition of “When a knight won his spurs”, taking some of us back to our schooldays. But “Leaving on a jet plane” and various numbers from musicals are not usually associated with church; guitarist Sam’s original song “The bronze age” celebrated pre-Christian culture. So why did I come away thinking the Holy Spirit was moving in the church? Our gathering was not religious, but it was spiritual. The music touched our emotions, in a setting made holy by 900 years of prayer. In fact, perhaps nearer 4000 years of prayer, for a ritually deposited bronze age axe has been found just a few hundred yards from the church. And it was again Sam, the guitarist, who sang about when a crack appears, light can shine in.
We live in an age when a majority do not identify with any recognised religion, but we are hard-wired to be spiritual beings. God is no less real just because people do not believe in him/her. The Holy Spirit still hovers over the face of waters, the face of the planet, the faces of all people. My job as a priest is to give people the eyes, the language, the hearts to recognise and respond to this. I am not particularly bothered what they want to call the Spirit; I am certainly not bothered where they come from. On St George’s Day, the music in Billingsley Church opened a crack and The Light shone in.
(On Saturday 28th May, the next Daddy’s Hat concert will be at Glazeley, at 3pm)
Rev David Poyner