Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Submission to Marriage Commission.

It's incomplete, and I made the deliberate choice not to stuff it with references and quotes. This one comes from the heart:

To Marriage Commission of the General Synod
Anglican Church of Canada

The Rev’d Alastair McCollum
Rector, St John the Divine Anglican Church
1611 Quadra Street, Victoria
V8W 2L5

My response to the questions posited by the Marriage Commission are below.

  • How do you interpret what scripture says about marriage?
What Scripture says about marriage is much more fluid and less easily pinned down than those who advocate for ‘Biblical Marriage’ often proclaim.  We see throughout the Biblical texts multiple models for relationships: monogamous and multiple partner marriage, concubinage, co-habitation, and much more are all endorsed, or simply understood as present as the scriptural texts reflect the cultural norms from which they arise.

What I understand from Scripture is that there is a significantly nuanced understanding of human relationships and that sexual and social relationships are to be based not upon gender, but upon faithfulness. As a reflection of Christ’s faithfulness and dedicated relationship to the Church marriage offers a parable of sacramentality. 

I do believe that faithfulness in a loving relationship is held up as an exclusive relationship.  Marriage is the commitment of two people to one another, in the same way that we see modeled both within and around sexual and non-sexual relationships in the Bible, for instance David and Jonathan, Jesus and Mary of Magdala, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Mary the mother of Jesus. These are often flawed, sometimes strained relationships that offer us pictures of commitment and faithfulness, tenderness and dedication.  Marriage is one aspect of human loving, and scripture gives us many pictures of how that might be lived out
  • How do you understand the theological significance of gender difference in marriage?
Theologically, minimal.  The need of a tribal culture to reproduce in order to survive is the foundation of relationships in scripture and becomes ritualised and normative as the culture develops– in the same way that not eating shellfish in the desert is sensible, life-saving advice that becomes ritualised into food laws that are concerned with obeying God. 
  • Is there a distinction between civil marriage and Christian marriage?
Only in the sense of the legal contract.  With regards to what is happening in marriage the commitment of two people remains the same whatever way it is marked. 

Yet within our Christian culture the making public proclamation of faithfulness to the ekklesia, and the offering of the Church’s “yes” to a couple embarking on this stage of their journey together is a significant statement.  Though marriage in or outside of a church can be understood to be sacramental, the offering of the Church’s imprimatur is a powerful symbolic and affirming act.

In Canada, the Anglican Church has created an artificial distinction between civil and church marriage by refusing to offer marriage to same gender couples. Yet we recognise the loving commitment of such unions by offering blessings to them – it is theologically and socially inconsistent to do so, and such mixed messages should be stopped.

  • The marriage canon describes “the purposes of marriage” as mutual fellowship, support, and comfort; the procreation (if it may be) and nurture of children; and the creation of a relationship in which sexuality may serve personal fulfilment in a community of faithful love. 
What is the theological significance of:

    • companionship in marriage?
It is not good for the man to be alone.  From the beginning of our Hebrew mythology we see how humanity is called to, finds fulfilment in and is drawn to society.  We are made for one another.  Though some are called to celibacy or to the life of a hermit or a contemplative, we are as human beings made fully alive in our relationships with one another.  This images the Triune God who in Godsself is in constant relationship energised by infinite and eternal love.

    • bearing and raising children?
The bearing of children as biological function can, obviously, only be a female endeavour.  Yet if procreation were the end of any Marriage then the Church would not be able to endorse any relationship where one or other partner were infertile, or unable to bear children, or suffering from any disability which prevented childbirth.  More important is the care and nurture of children, however conceived and borne, this is perfectly possible by those in same gender relationships.

    • the relationship between marriage and sexuality?
Sexuality is a part of who we are and unless one has a vocation to celibacy our sexuality is a part of loving, committed relationships, and best expressed within a marriage partnership. At present we are denying many faithful, loving couples this appropriate expression of who they are.  Sex brings depth and meaning to relationships, it can bind people to one another, heal and create intimacy, it is a gift from God – and for those who wish to live in loving, committed, faithful, sexual relationships I believe the Church has a duty to affirm, support and bless this. Whatever their gender or sexual orientation.
  • What is the difference between marriage and the blessing of a relationship?
Marriage is the recognition of a committed relationship, a marriage is blessed either as a separate event or within a marriage ceremony.  Strictly speaking they are the same thing – though being able to offer a full marriage ceremony to same gender couples would mean that we no longer offer a two-tier approach to affirming and celebrating the love of two people.  If we are to be a church that models the kingdom values of inclusion, love and grace then having anything that says ‘we love you, but you are different’ is to exclude and marginalise.  This is a matter of justice, acceptance, grace and inclusion – not just a case of ‘keeping up with society’ but making a statement that we are a radically loving group who affirm the commitment of any two people in love. 

  • How do you understand the sacramentality of marriage?
The efficacy of any sacrament is predicated upon the intention of those involved.  We refer to a sacrament, using the language of the prayer book, as “an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace’ but that is an oversimplification of what is a place where the grace of God is made explicit.  Though we believe God to be present in all things and at all times, we mark certain moments of our lives together with a celebration of God’s grace and see sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist being the primary of these – as places in which the presence of God is made manifest through God’s Holy Spirit.
To describe marriage as a sacramental act is to describe the visible love between two people as a reflection of the love of God, where this love is made visible and manifest.  In the teaching of the Church the efficacy of marriage as a sacrament is based upon the intention of the two people entering into the marriage covenant, this (due to prevailing cultural and social mores) has been described as ‘between one man and one woman’ – but this is a definition provided by the Church, and need not be so.  It is faithful, loving commitment that makes this sacrament efficacious, not gender.  It is about time the Church recognised that.

Closing comments:
I believe the offering of marriage, or strictly speaking ‘a Christian Wedding’, to same gender couples is a gospel imperative of inclusion and grace.  Though same gender couples who are married in civil ceremonies are still enacting the sacrament of marriage in their dedication to one another, the Anglican church is at this time called to affirm and support them in their relationships. 

I recognise that our church still has a long way to go in drawing all people to this interpretation of marriage and there are some who deeply hold to a view opposed to this, as such we will struggle if we impose this as a requirement.  Though my conviction says that – as with the ordination of women – we should as a Church decide if this is the will of the Synod and the work of the Holy Spirit and stick with that decision – my pragmatism says that in order to preserve the hope of unity and remain in dialogue we should offer some form of conscience clause.  I would honestly prefer that we didn’t have to, the effort to keep opponents to women’s ordination ‘on board’ in the Church of England (the Church from which I came) has prolonged painful and destructive patterns for twenty years and it would be sad to see this repeated in the Anglican Church of Canada.

I hope that this adds to the dialogue taking place at Synod in the near future. I pray that we will move forward together in working for a radically inclusive church which is open to love in many forms, and that the Church at large will soon move beyond its preoccupation with sex and gender.

Respectfully Submitted,
Alastair McCollum

29th September 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Look Mum, I'm On Telly

No, this never made it to our TV screens, it's a first edit 'grab tape' which was possibly going to turn into a reality TV series, but I left the UK before it went anywhere... It may resurrect in another form...

No copyright infringement intended. I will remove if I am not meant to share this!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Couple of Sermony things

After my wonderings about preaching (What are we doing when we preach?) Karma decided to bite me a la derriere and I found myself having to prepare three sermons for today - Two Eucharists and a funeral address.  Rather than post the two Eucharistic Sermons here I will put them up on New Kid Deep Stuff and you can peruse/read/comment/respond as you wish. The funeral address was for the funeral, won't be putting that one up!

Same set of readings... different groups of people, though some overlap (so I couldn't cheat by using the same sermon twice!}

So here's what I ended up with:

One, thinking on the Gospel reading for today, is concerned with 'Shaking the Dust from our feet'

The other, using the Psalm and Proverbs reading for today is talking around ideas of 'The word, the law and The Word'. And the common (sometimes) artificial contrast betweee 'Law and Grace' in the church - one which isn't a Jewish understanding of 'Law' or 'Commandments' at all...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Religious but not spiritual - a talk....

At our late Spring Church Retreat which took place in Camp Pringle on the beautiful shores of Shawnigan Lake in May I took a workshop/lecture/seminar thing for which I wrote my notes out longhand in a notebook - very oldschool - and it meant that I didn’t have them available to share. At the request of a number of members of the Church and the Quo Vadis group I have transcribed them and offer them here and at St John The Divine Staff Blog for comment and consideration!

Religious but not Spiritual
The trend to call oneself “spiritual but not religious” has reached epic proportions,  and so has the response within the community of faith which is the Church.  One book, by Lillian Daniel, is entitled When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Good Enough and expresses her frustration at what is, in her understanding, an epidemic of ‘self-made, self-centred, self-absorbed religion, passed off as an innovative spiritual approach’.  As she writes she talks of the need for the checks and balance of a community of faith seeking together, wrestling with the meaning within our scripture and our church life, and an acknowledgement of our part in a story beyond ourselves.  She deconstructs the whole phenomena of ‘spiritual but not religious’ with, admittedly, a fair amount of snark which I hope it’s Ok to reproduce some of it here:
p5  - a conversation on a plane:
“he found himself spending his Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading The New York Times, or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. This was his religion today, he explained. “I worship nature, I see myself in the trees and in the butterflies. I am one with the great outdoors. I find good there. And I realised that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.”
he dumped the news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something that would shock a mild-mannered minister never before exposed to ides so brave and different and daring. But of course, to me, none of this was different in the least.”
or pp.6, 7
 “Have you ever notice that these people’s children are always theological geniuses? They amaze their parents with their wisdom. What are the odds? I presume it is because, like most children, they are parroting back their parents’ values. So the children also see God in nature, but because they are children and have bigger eyes, large heads, and high voices, they generally do so on much cuter ways. “I think there will be doggies and birdies and candy in heaven.” Awww…..
But let’s take that a little further, junior.  Will there he sharks and snakes in heave too? Ewww. How about blood-sucking vampire bats? Now that’ll keep you up at night, junior theologian.
These kids teaching their parents with homespun aphorisms, are actually being poorly service. If they went to Sunday school they could ask about bats and scorpions in heaven. They could ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick. They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go deeper.”
or p 9
“Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain emails about sweet friends? Who are you , cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and the physically fit? Who are you, God the spiritual but not religious? Who are you, God the lucky, chief priest of the religion of gratitude? Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me?”
Strong stuff.
Another commentator, one who I heard at a conference for the Retreat Association of Gt Britain, spoke of some people being ‘Religious but not Spiritual’ – constructing a self-made religion, but rarely encountering the true depths of spirituality as shared by those through the ages who have met God within the community of faith and its discipline.

In the end, what many commentators do seem to say is that Religion is an essentially human construct which seeks to offer a discipline and accountability to oneself and to one another in our spiritual journey.  It may be misused, or become weighed down with expectation, tradition, bias – even bigotry and an unhealthy approach to life and faith.  But religion itself is not the be all and end all. It is a means to bind us together in faith and to share our journey.
When we use the term religion we are often talking about the constructs of a faith – the institutions and traditions (whether passed on to us, or self-made) – and Spirituality is that encounter with the Divine that comes from being attentive to what we might call our ‘soul space’.  Spirituality does involve discipline, and indeed accountability to oneself and to others, though much of our prayer may take place alone, there is also a calling to listen, to learn and to grow in community.
In Christian terms – it’s not just for, nor is it just about ‘me’.
Spirituality should make demands on us. Taking time for the Spirit, being open to the ‘other’, being prayerful, listening for God, working for justice,  and both stilling ourselves and taking action are disciplines.  These are all spiritual demands, and part of that which binds us together in faith to and with one another, those beyond our immediate faith community, to the dirty, and the unlovely, and the unloved. In fact there is some debate about the origin of the word religion, but many commentators think it’s a form of the  latin ‘Religio’ which may well derives from ‘legire’ – to bind. Religion at its best binds us to one another, to God, to our shared story of faith.
So, with Lilian Daniel I, though I have sympathy with many who declare themselves SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) I disagree with the terminology, I also think that it’s something of a cop-out, avoidance of the discipline of faith, a consumer based ‘does it give me what I want’ rather than ‘does it give me what I need, even if I don’t like it’.
But, guess what?
We do it in the Church too.
We construct our religious practice so often to serve ourselves. We keep our faith to one day a week, expressing our busy-ness, our own voyage of self-discovery, our love of nature/sunsets/bunnies/finding God in the garden (preferably with gin & tonic in hand – or is that just me?)
We find ourselves Religious but not Spiritual!
We do not nurture, care for, nourish our soul space. By which we so often do not intentionally  nurturer our faith,  our spiritual formation, our discipleship, our practise of following, seeking, growing.
Now, if that sounds grumpy, it’s because I cannot overemphasise how valuable, life giving, world changing and transformative such intentional practice can be.  Yes, we should take ‘me time’ and garden, relax, do tv, chill. Sometimes a “G n’ T’ is a good thing.  But to enter into an adult faith, a spiritual journey, takes some effort, some time, some work.
The principles of such a discipline, and discipline is of course the root of the word disciple – which is what we in the church, the body of Christ, are. We are the gathering, the ekklesia, of disciples of Christ – the principles of such a discipline are, I believe;
  • Soul Care
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Openness to challenging our current thinking
  • Openness to the divine
So here are some suggestions of how we might address our spiritual life, individually and in community – to add depth to our personal and communal journey:
Read: Spiritual writers and stories, new and old, beyond our comfort zone.  Novels, poetry, prose.
Listen: to speakers, podcasts, talks. But also music – with an ear and heart open to God,
Silence: learn to take time and space in silence. We fill our lives with so many distractions, or allow ourselves to be carried away in a tide of activity. Be intentional about not having a life which is ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (MacBeth, Act V, Scene 5)
Practice of Prayer: Try new ways of praying; centring prayer, Contemplation, Lectio Divina, Meditation, Mantras, Poetry and Music prayer (both experiencing and creating).  Explore prayer, preferably with a Spiritual Director/Soul Friend/companion/guide.
Meet: to worship, pray, talk – other than Sundays. There are lots of groups within our own Church community at St John the Divine, but also at Christ Church Cathedral, First Metropolitan, Grace Lutheran and beyond.  There are inter-faith groups and meditation groups, social action groups – all ways of exploring and putting into action a living and vibrant faith.
One way, perhaps helpful, can be to think in terms of what have  been traditionally called ‘Spiritual Disciplines’
For an easy and enjoyable read on the subject I recommend John Ortberg’sThe Life You’ve Always Wanted’ (terrible title, sounds like a self-help book, but the content is excellent!).  Ortberg looks at ancient practice in new ways, exploring the tradition of monastics and others over many centuries within a contemporary framework.  There is no definitive list of ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ but they include practices such as:
  • Celebration
  • Slowing
  • Prayer
  • Servanthood
  • Confession
  • Secrecy
  • Scriptural reflection/meditation
                                                 and much more.
Some would describe the careful and intentional attempt to practise these disciplines, indeed any attempt to pay attention to our spiritual life, formation and growth, as best served by seeking to follow a ‘rule of life’ such as comes from the monastic movement.
This isn’t a bad way to consider how to focus on and grow in our faith.  It is certainly the foundation of what is known as the ‘new monastic’ movement – one source of helpful information, and some inspiration, on this is the book ‘Cave, Refectory, Road’ by Ian Adams, which talks of the dynamic of a rule of life lived out in our everyday walk of faith.  Here in Victoria we have an example of an ‘Intentional Christian Community’ in the form of the Emmaus Community, who invite everyone to join in their daily rhythm of prayer and worship.

But this is a discipline – and that is something that does, again, need work. Not that we do it alone, as we seek the guidance and strength of the Spirit, the Wisdom, of God on this path.  If we are followers, disciples, people of discipline – we are following the example of Jesus who took his spiritual life very seriously indeed and it filled and fired his own life and ministry.
Ultimately, where both ‘SBNR’ and ‘RBNS’ falls down is that neither really make the demands that making ourselves spiritual discipline; intentionally, in community, does.
We are encouraged to explore faith in community:
  • That we might learn and grow together
  • That we might be encouraged
  • That we might be held accountable for our spiritual life and action
  • That we might work together to change the world
My own statement of where I believe we are being called:
  • We are being called, in our community at St John The Divine and throughout the Church, to be attentive to our Spiritual path.
  • We are being called to maturity – or as Darmuid O’ Murchu says – an adult faith
  • We are being called to transformation
  • We are being called to take responsibility for one another’s growth in faith and for the life of the Church
  • We are being challenged to explore the heritage of our faith
And I believe we have the most fantastic opportunity for crafting our ‘Soul Space’ in the current church – there is a vitality and life which we can call on, ways and means of learning and exploring which haven’t been available to previous generations. In St John the Divine we have resources, including some amazing people, which offer us opportunity to learn and grow and be stimulated and challenged and inspired.  This is an exciting time to be a part of any Church, but particularly so in this, our spiritual home of St John the Divine.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What are we doing when we preach?

Back in the mists of time, sometime around May, I was at the exceptional Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis. A five day feast of speakers, worship and making new friends that I enjoyed and felt very refreshed by.  The purpose, to talk about preaching, and to have great examples of preachers and to consider how our preaching can be improved and be stimulating and engaging.
A full Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (from Festival Flickr Stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/lutherseminary/sets/72157644910650154/)

We did a lot of how, I didn't pick up a lot of 'why?'.  It seemed to taken as a given that we accepted the importance of and the reasons for preaching.  It wasn't the nature of the conference.  But as I consider the possibility of taking on a course of Study - a Doctorate of Ministry in Preaching - the question of the nature and purpose of preaching is at the forefront of my thinking at the moment,

Let's start with me, though, as it is kind of obvious but needs to be said - I love preaching,  More accurately, I love the discipline of preaching, the need to break open scripture, pray through it, consider it, struggle with it and relate it to the lives of faith that I believe our discipleship of Christ calls us to.  For me, preaching is not an academic exercise, but a faithful one.  I share my own understandings (and those of others) in relating our faith and worshipping life together to our everyday walk with Christ.

In this I am assisted, inspired, and challenged by a weekly gathering called 'The Sermon Circle' - a group open to all of between five and thirteen of us that meets on the Thursdays at 10am before the Sunday I am preaching on.  We also meet on the weeks I am not preaching, and the group meets when I am unable to be there, because of the value in sharing our thoughts (and sometimes pooling our ignorance) together as we are confronted by the readings for the coming Sunday.  This is a pretty raw form of Bible Study, with each voice having it's value and it gets me away from ever feeling I might be a 'religious expert' - there's too much wisdom in the room for that!

This Sermon Circle, along with the encouragement and thoughtful response of the people of St John the Divine, Victoria - my current (and future) spiritual home - has been the liberation of my own preaching and I have felt much more than in previous situations that what I am sharing from the pulpit (or the nave) is from, for and connected to the community I serve as Parish Priest.  But that still doesn't start to answer the question - "Why preach?" or the adjunct "What is it for?"

The question is brought into sharp relief when we consider how peculiar and even anachronistic the idea of a person standing up in front of a relatively large group of people and speaking to (or at best with, and at worst, at) them.  In this world of 140 Character updates, interactive, hi-tech, graphic heavy expression - where (apparently) the average transient attention span is now down to 8 seconds and the average length of sustained selective attention is probably limited to about 10 minutes (up to forty for an engaged task) Thanks Wikipedia for the figures - interesting summary article here - just in case your attention is waning and you need a distraction...

So, what are we preachers (or homiletes) doing in sharing words for a certain amount of time, usually between 13 and 17 minutes in my case, it seems...(sermons here to prove it)?

Well, here's the start of my thoughts.  There may be more to come, though as is usually the way with blogging that may be years down the road!

I believe that with a faith rooted in scripture, no matter how we may express that, or how we approach it - from a more literal or conservative interpretative framework, or a more metaphorical or liberal one - we have a responsibility to engage with the text. Not just to read it, but to consider it's meaning, to join in the stories, to consider how they meet with us and where we are today.  There is a place for having someone lead us in that - preaching is ONE (but by no means the only) way in which we can do that.

And if we are to take the roots of our faith seriously, there is some value in making - consciously or unconsciously - the statement that we are going to talk about these things for a while. Or we are going to listen as someone shares their interpretation - not as an expression of superiority or control, though preaching is used that way.  In the same way that as priest I see my worship leading as facilitating the worship of the community, I see my role as preacher as facilitating an involvement with scripture and with the realities of faith - part of a process, not the whole of it.  A place I have been liberated to take by the Church which supports me in my role as their servant and minister.

I am also convinced that there is a calling to be counter-cultural in this!  To say that there are things worth paying attention to, and to give time to them. By this I don't mean the preacher him or herself - though a good preacher is a joy to listen to and to engage with.  I mean the idea that we feel the need to apply our faith, to get to grips with our story passed down over generations and over many centuries - to explain and explore, to recognise our part in a greater story and a greater community of faith and not just to create a faith in our own image, that idea is worth putting some effort into.

I do believe there are lots of ways in which we can think of making our preaching more engaging. I am sure there are ways in which we can facilitate a common learning together, within our acts of worship and beyond, that are creative and imaginative. I am committed to, and love using, Social Media to share, explore, consider, debate.  But after all this time (I have been ordained for 18 years) I am convinced that there is still a place for preaching, and a role for those of us who take the strands of faith and tie a few together to add to the tapestry.

But I am open to discussion.  And not always right. Feel free to comment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Yes, I preach

To keep things moving on the blog, here's the sermon from Sunday.  I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of preaching lately - but such lofty thoughts will need to wait....