Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Study Group - Week Five

The Corner Shop

I grew up in a shop on one of the busiest thoroughfares in North Manchester. My father was a newsagent and tobacconist. Though we ourselves were literally on a corner, there were rows of shops on Moston Lane covering the sale of almost every kind of goods then available. We had two tailors, three butchers, three sweetshops, two grocers, two chemist’s shops, a cobblers and a tripe-shop within a hundred yards, Ironmongery, patisserie, greengrocery, television hire and much more were within a five-minute walk. Local people went on the bus into Manchester city to go to the department stores perhaps one Saturday a month.

Whilst I was at secondary school a small supermarket was built a few yards from our premises by putting together two shops. Then Ted Heath abolished Retail Price Maintenance. The Big Boys were in favour and the small shops gradually diminished and failed. We now live in a country where even the supermarkets are in financial trouble and enormous quantities of goods are bought unseen from suppliers who exist only as warehouses operating via the internet. It is precisely these newer operators who are employing cheap labour and offering the workforce poor terms of work. We have travelled far and in several respects have left civilisation only to find ourselves in a desert.

Those mid-twentieth century urban communities not only had shops, they had a good deal of local employment, with factories and workshops intermingled with housing. They had churches and chapels, libraries and many different sorts of clubs and institutes. Billiard halls were still to be found and the Baden Powell organisations had no shortage of members.

If this was the urban picture, the rural one was not dissimilar. Each parish had its own priest; pubs and shops did good business. It would be local people who maintained farm machinery and who cared for hedges and ditches. Plenty of farming was diverse and it was quite possible to profit from keeping a small herd of dairy cattle. Farmers would still regularly be out on foot.

What this pattern of living was much human contact and conversation was guaranteed. An overwhelming proportion of people did most of their business with people they knew, creating a natural foundation of trust. They freely discussed matters of the day as these affected their own lives. There were people around in plenty who could help a neighbour or look after children in an emergency. It was easy to lend and borrow equipment when necessary. Everybody would know many people with trade skills and long experience. There were always some ‘wide boys’ to be found, but everybody knew exactly who they were. Otherwise there was a broad foundation for trust. Security was not a major issue.

If we contrast the picture above with our present-day experience, we see that life has become very different indeed. Electronic communication reigns, especially with the young, much of it descending into ever-greater triviality. Indeed trivial and constant communication has become an addiction for many, at the cost of work and action. Nearly all buying and selling is anonymous and conversations in a queue are rare. Virtually all associative activity has declined and even families rarely eat together at a table. Individuals so often grasp at radical independence of choice and action rather than submit themselves to common family values and activities. Security has become an obsession.

Many aspects of modernity have little in common with the mind of the New Testament. Paul never tires of urging all those virtues which tend towards peace, harmony, trust and collaboration. He talks about the complementarity of gifts and their equality. Early Christians committed themselves to a life together, even sharing their property. The life of Our Lord was largely lived amongst others and for their good. It entirely lacked what we would think of as personal objectives - success, wealth, property, hobbies or interests.

Whilst religious communities attempted to model that perfect Christian life through their rule and customs, ordinary lay people throughout the Middle Ages and into more modern times sought to establish Christian virtues and standards in family and daily life together. They may often have failed, but they tried. It seems to me, that until the post WWII ‘cultural revolution’ British society took quite seriously those values we identify as Christian, whether explicitly or not, and built them into the way we lived. That era has gone.

Some readers may now be thinking that they are listening to a Luddite or another grumpy old man. There is much enthusiasm in many quarters for our new ways of living and without any doubt many good things have emerged and are still emerging from this new era. For some forward-looking Christians, virtual churches are the origin and strength of their faith. The new educational programme at St Chad’s will be located on electronic sources available to visitors via their mobile phones. Some modern churches have parted company with traditional hymns and instrumentation completely. Vestments have been replaced by t-shirts and jeans. Regular weekday groups there sustain a developing and changing Church.

Yet little that the Church has done has offered a serious rational and moral critique of modern living, nor has it offered or tried to establish alternatives. The new world is substantially shaped by media, corporations and the demands of shareholders. We can hope to have little direct impact on those.

Perhaps a large part of our current vocation is to live what we believe more consistently, happily and confidently. Early pagans had to concede how much those who were Christian loved each other. Is that obvious about us? Do we offer to the world enough occasions to share our life as a Church, and with sufficient effort and enthusiasm? I have been much heartened by the recent seasonal parties at the Vicarage organised by Fr. Mark and Emma, bringing together those who have had some brief encounter with the Church into deeper contact. If we cannot influence the Big Boys perhaps we still have the power to be personal, direct, understanding, principled and generous. Who can know what the Holy Spirit may in time accomplish through conversation and friendships?

Perhaps we might also try to influence thinking at an intermediate social level. For instance, most planning permission for new developments is given for the building of new small pockets of suburbia. In Oswestry the Civic Society has been pressing planners for the creation of communities much more like the old urban ones and the most up-to-date developments in mainland Europe, where a wide range of facilities are built into new programmes, making them in every sense more sustainable and enjoyable to live in, rather than places to reach out from.

To conclude; there’s life in the old homo sapiens yet, and our task is to enrich by all means that life in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

Fr. Alan 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Study Group - Week Four

Sex, Drugs And Rock N’Roll

I entered the Sixth Form in the autumn of 1962 and a month after term started the Beatles released their first single, Love Me Do. An enterprising lad, Steve Whitaker, who later worked as a lawyer for the London firm who handled Mick Jagger’s legal affairs, arranged a group in the form room to render this new song at lunchtimes.

We had mastered this and the subsequent Beatles singles, Love Me Do and Please Please Me, when in June of 1963 the Rolling Stones issued their first single Come On, a version of the Chuck Berry song released two years before. Although there had been syncopated popular music in the U.S.A. for some considerable time and this had been heard on the British radio channels, along with the music of Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele, now for the first time fully-fledged rock music was flourishing on our own soil and on a grand scale. A revolution was under way.

I went to university in the autumn of 1965. By now rock music was a flourishing business. A fellow member of a college poetry group happened to be friend of Eric Clapton, who was coming to play in the newly-formed group Cream at a college ball. Eric asked him to find him some pot for when he arrived. He did.

By then my closest friend Pete Everett, later to be a Radio Three producer, sometimes smoked cannabis and I knew people who had taken L.S.D., but it was all part of a small, rather experimental phenomenon. Nobody I knew was, or became, an addict. It was a stylish diversion for those by no means short of cash.

I was at university with fifteen of my school contemporaries. We talked openly about most things. By the time we were twenty, only a small minority had had any significant sexual experience. I wondered then if we were a rarity, but years later I was talking to a very attractive vivacious woman who had been a nurse on a cruise liner in the late fifties and early sixties. She said that not once, to her knowledge, was any female member of the staff the subject of sexual propositioning or the offer of a ‘cruise affair’.

To think of all unmarried young people then as celibate would be absurd, but very many had little or no sexual contact with others and the social structure almost guaranteed that state of affairs for most. Regular sexual activity began with marriage, or not very long before. By the end of the sixties sex, drugs and rock n’rock had made enormous strides. We now live in a world, in this country at least, where most young people feel free to enjoy at will all three, and more, without inhibition of any kind.

Several powerful forces were at work until the ‘sixties, limiting the range of activity of young people in many respects. Most lived at home; most respected their parents, accepted social standards and obeyed the law. The great influence behind society, parents and the law was the Church. Though many rarely went to an act of worship, most viewed the standards and teaching of the Christian Church as a kind of gold standard, an indicator of how a virtuous person should act. In other language, most wished to be, and to be seen as, wholly respectable.

The origin of the Church’s teaching was the life and the sayings of Jesus Christ. His own celibate life was mirrored in the life and teaching of St Paul, who, like his Master, allowed marriage only as a concession to weakness in a faith inseparable from a vision of the approaching end-time. More than this, the New Testament appears to treat pleasure and personal gratification as profoundly undesirable things, largely to be rejected as sources of temptation and the substance of sin. This characteristic, indeed, separates early Christianity from Judaism, which sees all good things enjoyed in a context compatible with the Law as gifts from God.

It is apparent that much of British society no longer holds the classic teaching of the Church as binding or even wise or helpful. Theism is itself diminishing and the idea of an authority external to self is widely rejected. Indeed, close to the heart of the later twentieth-century social and ethical revolution is the notion that one’s mind and body belong entirely to oneself, with no other being having claims upon them.

What characterises this era of sex, drugs and rock n’roll, therefore, is the idea that all sources of pleasure are to be seen simply as recreational tools, there to be taken without inhibition or any sense of guilt as the fortunate source of, in principle, limitless personal gratification. We are, therefore, talking here about hedonism, the placing of personal pleasure above all other considerations.

The problem with such a world-view is, however, that quite different forces are also at work in human life. There is a great need for predictability, loyalty and stability. Many people feel powerful allegiances to others, whether as friends or partners. Children are born and require care and nurture. The elderly and dependent do not just look after themselves. Many people find themselves performing selfless acts without even thinking.

Thus the underlying issue in all matters of personal moral choice is that of the relationship between self and others. The enduring Christian argument must be, that all forms of true hedonism are inherently anti-social because radical considerations of self inevitably drive out every appropriate concern for others.

It seems, therefore, that a Christian view of human motivation and behaviour accounts for much more of human experience, need and expectation than many today would like to admit. Does that mean that the ‘old’ inherited Christian attitude was wholly correct?

We encounter today many outworkings of the social and moral revolution. All around us are people taking drugs for recreational purposes. Dancing, music film and theatre can be erotic or deal explicitly with sexual themes, People have sexual encounters and live together without marrying. Divorce is very common. Gay relationships are widely accepted as part of society and formally recognised. It goes without saying that most of us will have family members whose lives are part of this new world.

It is almost certainly the case that we will have been disturbed by the behaviour of someone close to us, but equally probable that we will not have openly condemned or rejected them. The Christian face has become more one of understanding and compassion than revulsion and condemnation. Yet we still desperately lack an adequate contemporary rationale of moral assessment.

The New Testament marks highly dangerous territory with a big red flag. At the same time it emphasises our obligations towards God and neighbour. There is, though, no corresponding word about human life as inevitably somewhat exploratory or as a legitimate source of pleasure; no sufficient word about what could form part of good working human relationships. If we compare the Christian faith with, say, Hinduism, it is utterly lacking in any positive account of human sexuality. It seems that we must be engaged in a work still in progress. With our own minds let us play a constructive part in that work.

Fr Alan

Monday, 20 March 2017


We are now embarking upon the third week of Lent. During this season of preparation for the celebrations of Easter, we have the opportunity as individuals and as a community to grow closer to God. To become more aware of our relationship with Him and his active presence in our lives. Lent is an opportunity, a time of prayer, fasting, charity and repentance.

But what exactly is repentance? It can have quite a broad meaning. A feeling of deep regret and sorrow for the things we have done wrong, it may also include a resolve not to continue in that wrongdoing. The  Greek word for repentance is 'metanoia' which translates as conversion of life, a change of heart and a turning around to face God. A spiritual as well as moral conversion.

As well as apologising to God for our sins, we can also ask for his forgiveness and to be reconciled back to Him. The Sacrament of Confession contains all of these elements. In the Anglican church the attitude to Confession is that 'all may, some should, none must'.

With this in mind, Fr Leonard will be available to hear Confessions on Fridays 31st March and 5th April, between 9am and 10am in St Aidan's Chapel. If this time is not suitable, please leave your details with the Church Office and alternative arrangements will be made.

Book Group - What we have we hold

In the first two chapters we reflected on the false values which Mammon offers us and hopefully, with the examples given to us by Christ, we can grow to replace them.

The third chapter examines an underlying attitude towards money that is encouraged by Mammon. The scarcity of a resource, in this case money, compels us to hold tightly to what we have. What we have we hold - what we hold we control. Jesus challenges us to replace this lie with the truth of God - which is about extravagance and abundance!

The Archbishop uses the example of Mary washing Christ's feet with the expensive Nard. (Worth £25,000 in today's money). many in the Book Group initially shared the response of Judas - how could something of such value be used to wash feet, when it could have been used to feed the poor and hungry? Judas was vocalising the inner thoughts of many.

We are reminded that this was an act of love, worship and devotion to Christ.

'You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me' (John 12:8)

Jesus shows us that the action of Mary is in accord with what will soon happen on the cross and beyond, something that will have cosmic significance. Such an act of worship puts God at the centre and in its effect obliterates the deceptions of Mammon.

Judas sees in material terms, cash values, scarcity and fear. Mary represents the economy of God, of 'manna', generosity and abundance. In the world that God has created there is enough to go around. 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Group - Week Three

What We Have We Hold

The Book Group meets again in the Chapel at St Chad's after the Wednesday 10.30am Eucharist. We will discussing Chapter three of the lent book. For details of the book click here.

Wealth can sometimes be a difficult subject to talk about. This is especially so when the discussion involves other people questioning who our wealth really belongs to. 

In this chapter we are challenged to look at what we have. Do we really own it for ourselves? Can we dispose of our wealth as we choose? What does it mean to allow God into the picture and how would this change the deceiving effects of Mammon?

The pearl merchant had to lose all that he already had in order to acquire the pearl. Holding on to what he had would have prevented him from acquiring what was infinitely better.

Some questions to think about:
  • What is your most valuable possession?
  • Are there any circumstances under which you can imagine giving it away?
  • On what things might God be calling you to loosen your grip?
  • How might we overcome a tendency to hold on?
This will hopefully be a valuable discussion. If you can't make it to the group and you are reading the book at home, please feel free to add a comment on this blog.

Study group - Week Three

Not Short Of A Pound

My maternal grandmother, born in 1882, grew up by the River Medlock in Ancoats, Manchester, one of the city’s earliest industrial areas. Local housing consisted almost entirely of small terraced properties. People worked very hard for long hours and were paid low wages. Employment was precarious in this polluted district and ‘getting the sack’ was something everyone feared. As a child Grandma only ever had the simplest of Christmas presents; an apple and an orange in one of her ordinary stockings. Even in later life, when her circumstances were generously secure, she never expected nor sought any kind of luxury.

We now no longer live in that world. In the West everybody aspires to an income which allows the purchase of luxury items and a freedom of choice through spending power which their forebears would have associated with the upper classes, really quite small groups of the wealthy, elite and fortunate.

With these changes we have developed a consumer economy, one that plans for a great deal of retail purchasing activity and encourages the provision of goods and services to meet such an extensive public demand. We live in a world extremely well supplied with cars, white goods, clothes, electronic equipment and games, sports kit and an ever-expanding range of children’s toys. For all this, much money is required and where money is lacking, credit serves instead. Indeed this nation is notorious for its levels of borrowing. If once we were a nation of shopkeepers, we are now a nation of customers and credit-card owners.

Meeting this demand, and, indeed, constantly creating this demand, is a wide range of designers and manufacturers. The really powerful bodies these days, it seems, are not governments or public authorities, but corporations and billionaire business people. It appears that money rules everywhere we look.

It is against this background that the Archbishop of Canterbury has written his recent book, Dethroning Mammon. He argues very successfully that the process of acquisition and ownership, the business of manufacturing items to sell and advertising to accelerate their sales has filled our culture and led to the marginalisation of moral and genuinely creative concerns; most significantly, it has eclipsed the spiritual. Without realising, we have become worshippers of Mammon, mere slaves of objects; worldliness and greed reign everywhere around us. As we rush to buy, God is left outside the store.

There are individual Christian people who have not been drawn into this new world of wealth, but they are not the norm. Those who enter a religious order or volunteer for long periods of service caring for the world’s poor do not predominate. Most of us fit only too naturally into the comforts of the First World. How far does this put us from the vision of the Kingdom of God revealed in Holy Scripture?

Jesus of Nazareth owned nothing but what he stood up in and even that was taken from him without resistance. He expected his followers to abandon everything - and everybody - to be with him in his public work. Even natural and good affection was to count for nothing beside loyalty to God’s work. The background to this hard standard was his teaching that time was very short. The end would come soon, with the fulfilment of all things consequent upon his return in glory. For this short and intense period, all secondary things, all ordinary considerations, must yield absolutely to personal loyalty to himself as the incarnation of God’s will.

Many followed obediently and Acts describes the foundation of  a form of communalism amongst Christians which ruled out personal ownership and secular aspiration. St.Paul appears to have come across this phenomenon in at least some of his churches and he begins by concurring with this ‘mind of urgency and single concern’. He recommends celibacy and utter commitment as the ideal, himself rejecting marriage and family bonds.

His later letters, however, are less clear on this subject and by the end of the first century Christians, whilst still revering the early single-minded ideal, were making provision for family life and faith together, were not normally living communally and were beginning to be more open about the use of the resources they had. The Second Coming had not occurred and daily life had be lived on sustainable and consistent principles which took into full account the whole range of developing Christian moral perceptions.

It became accepted that resources could be privately owned by a Christian, but that with ownership must come a deep duty of care towards others. The question turned from that of divesting oneself of property to making responsible decisions about how a significant part of it could be used for others in need. Whilst devout family life and personal ownership were certainly growing, there also came a move to the desert and a new asceticism; a discipline which lived and celebrated simplicity and single-purpose.

So a ‘harder’ and an ‘easier’ form of Christian living developed and these persisted through the Middle Ages in parallel. The Reformation brought a new and considerable range of responses to the question of money and possessions. One result was the founding of lay communities in the United States like the Amish, who re-established something of the original lay communalism. In the United States also, a movement has developed which links worldly success very closely with God’s favour. The relationship between possessions and faith seems to have the character of a shifting kaleidoscope image, where the same components spin and turn into new configurations.

Where, then, ought we to stand? There can be no doubt that the general observations of Archbishop Welby are correct. We have bowed down to Mammon far too often. Yet it is not evident that we should abandon the modern achievements in health and welfare, for instance, which are difficult to detach from the economic activity of ‘developed’ countries. At the same time, the policies of these same countries may well be a factor in diminishing the well-being of other peoples. Are we at all able to make meaningful moral choices here?Would we be better off without electronics or sophisticated transport? What would the world’s now enormous population do if it did not work, produce and consume? Could we and should we try to influence the economy of the world or our country politically? What happens if we withdraw form exercising such influence, even in our vote?

What is certain is that we are called to love God and love our neighbour. Whatever resources we have should be used generously for these priorities. As to the larger picture, intention and outcome are often quite remote from each other. Could there ever be a Christian economic policy? What would a fully Christian view of money, possessions and power look like? Perhaps those in the group who know more about economics might be able to help us? Or should we ask those who have little?

Fr. Alan