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Two Bishops and a Reader

During the Synod of the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar, held at Torrevieja between 30 January and 2 February, we were treated to three evening Eucharists, at which the theme of the Synod was approached in different ways by the preachers.

On Tuesday evening, Bishop Robert Innes began by posing the question: “How does God communicate?” This question can be addressed by examining scripture. There are times when God communicates, or has communicated, directly. There are times when God has communicated through the voice of others: through prophets, for example. The latter seems to be more frequent than the former. Ultimately, God communicates through the Word made flesh – and then through the Holy Spirit.

But still, we have to recognise that God communicates through the voice of others. In our current world, communication can be characterised by 4 Ps: protectionism; populism; polarisation; and post-truth. This muddies the waters when we try to listen for what God may be telling us through the words of others.

The consequence of this is that people become afraid, and fear can be exploited as a means of control. When we are afraid, the reptile brain takes over, and our instincts revert to “fight or flight” mentality. This is why the most common words of introduction of the angels are, “Do not be afraid.” Their message needs to be considered and processed, not reacted to involuntarily.

Bishop Robert’s point was that we see many examples of faith countering fear, because that is a characteristic and consequence of faith. Also, to listen in faith means being more ready to listen than to speak.

The Bishop’s concluding words were: “In this Synod, through our reading of holy scripture, through our fellowship and openness to one another, may the voice of God lead us into truth.” He might well have extrapolated beyond the Synod, to the life of the Church in general.

On Wednesday Bishop Michael Colclough began by asking us: “Are we enjoying our pilgrimage?” Our journeys of life can be – probably should be – pilgrimages. However, the scripture for the day, with David’s implementation of a census that he should not have undertaken, and the rejection of Jesus by his former neighbours, warns us against investing too heavily in conventional measures of progress on our journeys. This is as true of communities and congregations as it is of individuals.

Church registers can expose clergy and congregations to the same temptation that afflicted David – pride and vanity. Facing punishment, and a choice that smacks of a genie’s three wishes, but inn this case consists of a prophet’s three choices, David’s chose to be judged and disciplined by God. Better a judging but forgiving God, who could be trusted, than an untrustworthy humanity.

Bishop Michael noted that on this day, the church uplifted John Bosco and his work with the Salesians. Counting the fruit of his life and vocation – begun in poverty, tribulation and ignorance – could only really be done at its completion. John Bosco’s ministry began in Turin, in the immediate aftermath of the industrial revolution where city slums had sprung up and the way of life was difficult at best. He devoted himself to finding ways of preventing the youth of Turin ending up in prison. His legacy is quite astounding.

This was the impact of one poor shepherd boy on the Salesian order. We should never underestimate the power of even seemingly small initiatives – nor the importance of ministry to youth.

We make these pilgrimages in community. The stiff minds and hard hearts of the neighbours of Jesus and their dampening effect upon his ministry are a reminder of the importance of the congregation. Mutual support for one another in ministry and healing is vital. And, contrary to the attitude of the people of Nazareth, we cannot afford to be locked in the past. The congregation’s job is to sow the seeds of joyful expectation. But even a small voice of dissent can unravel the joy. This is why it is such an important part of Eucharistic worship that we begin with confession to be reconciled to one another, and reinforce this by passing the peace.

Bishop Michael recalled being challenged by a Roman Catholic bishop on our use of scripture: he said, “We’ve taken hold of a stallion and domesticated it into a riding school pony.” Both as a Church and as individuals, we need to give the gospel its full power.

Meanwhile, the rejection of Nazareth foreshadows the rejection of Calvary. As we participate in worship – and in life – we should recall: “The Son of God loves me and gave himself for me.” This is no small thing. We should not lose sight of the deep thankfulness to be drawn out of us; the Eucharist is an act of thanksgiving.

But it is an act of thanksgiving not only for the past sacrifice of Christ, but also for the future hope and promise that he offers us. How seriously do we prepare for this great encounter with Christ? How thankfully do we come for communion?

Quoting Evelyn Underhill’s words of prayer concerning the love that is humble and holy, Bishop Michael reminded us that we don’t come to take communion, but to make communion. We stretch out our hands to offer ourselves to Christ, as Christ offers himself for/to us. Therein lies the mystery of communion and our ultimate hope.

And so, returning to the notion of pilgrimage, we were reminded of John Bunyan’s description of Christian’s joyful and transfiguring entrance into the holy city at the end of A Pilgrim’s Progress, with rapt celebration, adorned with hearts and crowns … and all the bells of heaven rang. This is the welcome into the joy of heaven that we can anticipate. Jesus calls us to live now in joyful expectation of the Holy City, but also remember to live now in close proximity to him.

On Thursday, at the closing Eucharist, Caroline MacFarlane, who is a licensed Reader at Costa del Sol, returned to the theme of pilgrimages and journey – but this time from the point of view of those whose journey brings them to the doors of our churches.

The importance of the welcome offered to those who come to us has often been repeated to and within congregations. For one thing, entry to the Church can be the beginning of a journey of healing – and healing is often something that people seek from the Church.

The job of welcoming in churches is something that belongs to every member. A sensitive and considerate welcome is important. And if our churches get something wrong, our job is not to dwell upon it so that it overwhelms and stifles us, but to do something positive and constructive to improve things.

Caroline mentioned that at one church (not Anglican!) that she had visited during her training, she was subjected to what felt like an interrogation. The welcome cannot be “over the top!” Don’t intimidate those who approach us!

We can seldom know the pain experienced by those who come through our doors, nor their exact need for healing. Christ told his disciples, sent to preach, teach and heal, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” The other side of the coin of welcome is the instruction to shake off dust from the feet if no welcome was forthcoming.

The one who feels unwelcome will know about the dust shaking. God also sees the dust shaking – and judges us for the opportunity to care for one another that was missed.

Quoting Maya Angelou’s words, that: “People will forget what you did … what you said … but not how you made them feel,” Caroline reminded us that our chaplaincies are almost all places with a recurring obligation to offer a caring welcome, allowing for people’s preferences with sensitivity. An old cliché, but true , is that there is no second chance for a first impression.

We are all called to be disciples. We are all called to heal. We can make a priority of making sure that we give the right welcome. Let there be no dust shaking from our chaplaincies.

Taking these three sermons together with the theme of the Synod, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” there emerges a common strand. We are – or can be – a gift to one another – all of us. We all have something to offer by way of word and inspiration – as long as we are open to listening to one another. We tread different pilgrimages through our lives, yet with a common destination, and, if we accept Christ’s ministry, a common goal. Our churches need to be places of welcome for one another, accepting that we are different from one another, and that the welcome may have to be different for different people. All this applies as we look at ourselves and our churches.

But, of course, we live in a world that is outside our doors most of the time. The uncomfortable message of scripture, time and again, is that the word of God may come to us from outside our communities of faith. The pilgrimage that we make may be accompanied by others who seem strange and unfamiliar. The welcome that we offer may need to be extended outside the boundaries of our churches.

Looking at the world around us, and the vast numbers of displaced people – migrants, refugees, asylum seekers – we are challenged to ask ourselves these questions.

What can I hear and learn from these who appear to have nothing to offer but themselves?
What can I do to make someone else’s pilgrimage easier?
What kind of welcome is Christ calling me to offer to those who are outside, different, “other?”

Now, let’s think about asking those questions quite specifically in the context of the world’s refugee crisis. What are our answers?

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