Friday, 4 December 2020

Be it this Christmastide

     Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

 The Armistice of November 1918 was barely a few weeks old, when Fr Eric Milner-White’s newly composed Bidding Prayer was used for the first time, at a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols for Kings College Cambridge. Based on an arrangement by Bishop Edward Benson for Truro Cathedral, Milner-White, then newly appointed as Dean of Kings, simplified Benson’s scheme, and added the features that are familiar to many today, a mixture of popular congregational Carols and choral pieces, together with the Lessons from Scripture read by various representatives of the Chapel and College, of the University and the Town. Since a first Broadcast by BBC Radio in 1928, the format has been shared well beyond the Chapel walls, and found a home in parish churches and, it seems, almost around the world.

Milner-White had served with great distinction as a Chaplain on the Western Front and in Italy throughout most of the Great War. Popular with his troops, he never quite escaped the suspicions of some in the Chaplaincy hierarchy, not least for his encouragement of prayers for the departed, as he tried to make some sense of the slaughter. His personal courage was never in doubt, and on one occasion, contrary to Regulations, with all other Battalion Officers killed or wounded, he assumed command and lead his men to safety. Perhaps his revisions to the Carols and Lessons were simply a new man wanting to make his mark, perhaps they were intended to make the best of a difficult situation with the resources available in the College; yet put them alongside the Bidding Prayer that is still in use today, and the service became, in the words of one writer, ‘most profoundly conceived, eye with ear together to enact the theme of light.’  

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child;

 We are bidden then, to do more than pray. We are bidden to enter into a spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem, and we are bidden to search the Scriptures, that we may better know the grace and certainty of God’s loving purposes. The Old Testament Scriptures tell again and again the story of God’s generosity, and of human sin, failure and rebellion. It is a process repeated in each and every generation right down to our own day. The disobedience of Adam and Eve, our first parents, is the disobedience etched deep in the very heart of humanity. It is a disobedience that we recognise and face up to at every Mass, and a disobedience that we are particularly encouraged to bring to God in the Sacrament of Confession, for only those who truly know their need of God will find him. Human dignity is the dignity of those made in the image and likeness of God, forgiven and restored in Holy Baptism, and fed with the food of pilgrims, the very Bread of Heaven. Our response to such generosity, as every forgiven sinner knows, is to live as a people of praise and thanksgiving, whatever life may bring.

Many of us will have our favourite Carols, alongside those that grate, especially if we end up hearing or singing them too often. Even the most tinsel-clad enthusiast for Christmas may baulk at hearing ‘Hark the Herald’ yet one more time. The practicalities of what we can and cannot do seem to be constantly changing in response to the Pandemic, but at the time of writing, it seems unlikely that congregations will be singing Carols in church this year. There is a sadness in that, whilst by no means the worst of all that this year has brought, Carols nevertheless are a part of a shared heritage that goes well beyond our church communities. Many are deeply scriptural, and can profitably form a part of our own prayers at home.

 Even, or perhaps especially, in this extraordinary year, Christmas is a time when the world may be a little more ready to hear our story. Fear, anxiety and uncertainty, economic and social upheaval, spiritual and physical exile, the hopes and fears of all the years, are still met in the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Holy Child of Bethlehem. God has not abandoned his Creation, but is born among us, true God and true man. Tidings of comfort and joy, as the carol puts it, bring a consoling message of truth beyond shallow jubilation. Those who behold the Crib, will, with the eyes of faith, behold also the Cross and the empty tomb. ‘His mother Mary kneeling down, unto the Lord did pray,’ so the Carol tells us; may our response too, with the Blessed Mother, be one of praise and adoration.

The Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus hold before us also our own death, and the promise of life eternal. The pandemic has confronted our social orders, particularly in the so-called developed west, with the reminder of the reality and messiness of death, when we no longer have the spiritual resources to face up to it. Miner-White’s words, written out of the slaughter of the Trenches, have been described as the last poem of the Great War; they have a fresh resonance for us now: 

     Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

I wish you all a blessed Christmass, and in the concluding words of Dean Milner-White’s prayer,

     The Almighty God bless us with his grace: Christ give us the joys of everlasting life: and unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all. Amen.

Written for the Christmas 2020 Edition of Together, Newspaper of the catholic Societies of the Church of England. 


Wednesday, 28 October 2020

November: Holy Saints and Holy Souls

Celebrating the Feasts and Commemorations of November can be both poignant and troubling. The first days bring both the joyous confidence of All Saints Day, and the commemoration of the Faithful Departed on All Souls Day. Remembrance-tide adds significance to that mix, even before we approach the Feast of Christ the King, bringing the Church’s Year to its completion. God willing, the cycle begins again on Advent Sunday, with sombre warnings of time moving inexorably on. November is about connections, our connection in faith to those who have gone before, and to those whose examples, and prayers, encourage us still.

 This month we address our mortality, whether at the Cenotaph, or in hearing the ever-growing list of names remembered at All Souls, and at our requiem masses. Our mortality is challenged by the Advent call of judgment, and of the consequence that judgment brings to each and every one of us. But our weak and sinful mortality can nevertheless rejoice – rejoice in Christ’s ultimate sovereignty and kingship, and rejoice also in the hope of the calling of the Saints. The celebrations of both All Saints and All Souls remind us of the blessings of being connected to God, of being baptized into his family the Church. The commemorations of Remembrance remind us of the horrific price when we lose that connection from God and from our neighbour. Then, as a new church year looms into sight, we realize that Advent spells out hope and warning in equal measure as we pray, ‘Stir up O Lord, the wills of your faithful people.’

In a world ever more confusing and chaotic, seemingly ever more violent, I pray that as you journey through November, and into the season of Advent, you will stay connected – connected both to God, and to his Church.

You may like to make this Prayer of St Francis of Assisi your own during this month:

 Lord, make us to walk in your Way:

‘Where there is love and wisdom,
there is neither fear nor ignorance;

where there is patience and humility,
there is neither anger nor annoyance;

where there is poverty and joy,
there is neither greed nor avarice;

where there is peace and contemplation,
there is neither care nor restlessness;

where there is the fear of God to guard the dwelling,
there no enemy can enter;

where there is mercy and prudence,
there is neither excess nor harshness’;
this we know through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

To Love God and to Love your Neighbour: Matthew 22.34-46

 Matthew 22.34-46

The Summary of the Law is one of the four texts traditionally given to new Christians, especially those preparing for Baptism or Confirmation. Alongside the Lord’s Prayer, the Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed, Our Lord’s response to the questioner’s asking, which is the greatest commandment of the Law, is worth knowing by heart, and using regularly in prayer and meditation. To love God and to love your neighbour as yourself to the best of your ability, are two phrases from the Old Testament that sum up how to live faithfully in the ways of the most high. Jesus’ response to the attempts of the Pharisees to entrap him is rather to invite them to recall the heart of the Law and the Prophets. We are nearing the end of St Matthew’s description of a series of public disputations between Jesus and the leading religious groups and philosophers of the day, but not before he asks the Pharisees a question himself. Whose Son is the Messiah? Quoting Psalm 110 back at them, Jesus shows that the Messiah is much more than a simply human figure, the Son of David. The Gospel will go on to show us, in the death and resurrection of Christ, that he really is the Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Mary.



Friday, 16 October 2020

Whose Side are you on? : Matthew 22.15-22

 Matthew 22.15-22

Whose side are you on? The Pharisees openly try to trap Jesus, allying themselves for this purpose with the Herodians, with whom they would otherwise have strong disagreements. Should we pay taxes to Caesar, that is, to the Roman Emperor, they ask. The party of Herod, the puppet king, were in favour of Roman rule under which they exercised their own power. The Pharisees saw that as an abomination, and an offence against God. Jesus asks for a denarius, a small silver coin, sometimes translated as a penny. The coin bears the head of Caesar, together with his name. Although we cannot be sure which Caesar, the imprint of his name would include a claim to universal domination, and to a god-like status, unacceptable to many of his listeners, and unacceptable to Christians. Jesus evades the trap. and points us to a higher calling. The word translated as to pay, or to give back, is better read as to render, a much stronger term. What really matters is giving to God what truly and rightly belongs to God, our worship, and our very lives, in love and service through his body, the Church.


Thursday, 8 October 2020

October's Pastoral Letter

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will prevail  (Proverbs 19.21)

Both of our Church Councils met during September for the first time in many months, the previously scheduled meetings having been lost to the lockdown. I asked both Councils to review the last 6 months since March, and to ask the question in particular, what could we have done better? Consideration was given as to how the worshipping life of our Churches had been maintained, both online and in person, and before and after our Buildings were re-opened. We discussed how we had been encouraged to pray at home, how we had maintained links and communicated with each other, and how pastoral care was offered in very difficult circumstances. It was particularly good to hear how levels of giving for both of our churches have been maintained; for which, a hearty thank you, especially at a time when other sources of income have dried up.

Trying to look forward to the next few months, and to the planning we may be able to do for social events and, for instance, for Christmass services is a challenge, especially given uncertainties over how the rule of six may operate at the time of writing.  It is clear that public worship will continue in our churches, as they are regarded as ‘covid-secure’. Annual Meetings may take place under similar distancing requirements, whilst it seems that social events and coffee mornings are not permitted at this stage.

I am most grateful for the hard work that has gone into re-opening our Churches, and to co-operating with all that is now required of us. Worship does of course feel quite different, with no singing, although both live and recorded music has returned, with no sharing of the Peace, Holy Communion given in one kind only, and briefer services, even shorter sermons! Post Mass coffee cannot take place and post Mass chat must now happen in distanced ways in car park or church-yard, whilst respecting our household bubbles. Yet the Mass is being offered, God is glorified, and prayer continues, for the benefit of all.

I know that some are still shielding, and others are not yet ready, or not able to return to Church. We miss you, and we pray for you. I know that the introduction of mandatory face-coverings has been a blow to some, and, like many churches it seems, our attendance numbers have dropped since that Government decision. It is my responsibility, along with our Church Wardens, on behalf of the Church Councils, to simply remind you of the regulations. If you have an exemption from wearing a face-covering, you will not be asked to prove it. If you simply feel that you do not want to attend Church whilst wearing a face-covering, I understand, but you are missed, and it would be lovely to see you on an occasion, even if you don’t feel you can be there every Sunday. We want to stay safe in order that everyone feels safe, and we also have very little room for manoeuvre because of the powers that be!

May we continue to pray for our Parishes and for all who look to our Churches, for all in need, for the lonely and isolated, for those struggling with mental health issues, and for an end to this plague.

May God’s Peace be with you,

Father David



Wednesday, 7 October 2020

The Great Feast: Matthew 22.1-14

 Matthew 22.1-14

There are two parables in today’s Gospel. First of all, we hear of a king who sends out his servants with invitations for a great feast. The invitation is refused, some are too occupied with the affairs of life, others react violently, provoking a similar response by the king. The invitations are then readdressed to those ‘at the crossroads’, that is, to anyone whom the servants can find, and the hall is filled with guests. Feasting and celebration are recurrent themes and symbols of God’s blessing in the scriptures. Yet here the second story brings us up short. The King observes the guests, and notices one without a wedding garment, whose fate is not to share in a great feast, but the bondage of darkness. These are strange stories, that St Matthew presents with an element of shock treatment, for our response to the invitation requires the spiritual attitude of the robe of righteousness. As St Benedict writes in his Rule, just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Halifax Courier: Thursday 3rd September

One of the most difficult elements of our experience of the last few months has been being unable to celebrate. It is part of our human nature to want to mark significant events, whether a birthday or a graduation, a holiday or the 75th anniversary of VE Day. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden or access to a shared community space, then you might have been able to improvise something within the rules, but I have lost count of the number of conversations that I’ve had with folk coming to terms with the necessary changes of plans. Disappointments and frustrations are all a part of the human lot, but seem to have been writ larger than ever this year.

Our Churches were unable to celebrate Easter, proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, as we would have wished to do so. We’ve had to cancel or postpone Christenings and Weddings, although fortunately those events can now happen again. As a priest who tries to be visible, out and about in my Parishes, I’ve given away many crosses, rosaries and prayer cards as people have stopped me and asked for prayer, and I’ve had to learn a few new skills, such as standing on a wall next to a very busy road blessing a family through their front window.

 As human beings we can, and will, find a way forward, for even in the darkest of times, God walks with us. Because of his love, there is always much to celebrate.