Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: March 2017

Why can’t we all just get along?

On a recent course with clergy of all different stripes, I got talking to a very Bible-based Evangelical priest about the recent furore over my predecessor at St Michael’s, Bishop Philip North. You have probably heard that he has turned down the nomination to become Bishop of Sheffield after pressure from campaigners in favour of the ordination of women, which Bishop North opposes as a matter of conscience.

The Evangelical priest told me that in his church, there was no problem with women being priests or deacons as such – but the church would not allow women to speak in public or to teach men. This is because they take very literally St Paul’s admonition in his first letter to the church in Corinth that women “should remain silent in churches,” and a passage in the Letter to Timothy (which may or may not have been written by St Paul) which reads “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”

I must admit that although I know there are churches, even in the Church of England, which think like this, I was actually horrified to hear anyone say it out loud. There is no way I could justify reading the Bible like this myself, without attention to context, and ignoring other parts of the Bible where Paul says, for example, that women should prophecy in church only with their heads covered (implying that they can speak after all), or his insistence that there is in Christ “no man or woman.” Of course, I tried not to show my discomfort. After all, we are trying to hold together as one church a great variety of theological opinion, even when some of it appalls us.

If I am honest, I would prefer a Church of England without those sorts of Evangelicals in it. What I could do, of course, is find plenty of like-minded people and separate off into our own church, cut off from those whose theological positions I find distasteful, spending my time only in the company of people who believe exactly the same things as I do – which is all very well, until we find something else to disagree on, and that church splits again. And there, in a nutshell, you have the history of Protestant denominations.

For us in the Catholic wing of the Church, the question of women’s ordination is not primarily one of biblical authority. This is because we see a greater authority in the Church which Jesus founded and whose bishops decided on what should and should not go into the Bible in the first place – Jesus, of course, never had a “bible.” The Church came first, and the Church, through its bishops, is our authority for interpreting what the Bible means. Without that authority, we could all just read it however we like, and split off into an infinite variety of little churches each of which is absolutely convinced that everyone else is wrong.

The belief in the authority of the Church is why there is such strong feeling among Anglo-Catholics about women’s ordination. On the one hand, you could say that the Church does have the authority to interpret the Bible in a way that allows for women to be ordained. The Bishops of the English church have decided that women can be ordained, and that’s the end of it. But you could also argue that the majority of the Church as a whole – that is, not just our English corner of it, but including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bishops – have made it very clear that women cannot be ordained, and so we have no right to go it alone against that consensus. Those who hold the latter position can say with some justification that the church has innovated and that they just want the space to maintain the older and more widespread tradition.

In our parish, opinions are mixed and we have to choose either to live together or go our separate ways. I think that those of us who affirm women’s ordination do have to accept that those who, like Bishop Philip, oppose it are in the majority, if you take the will of the wider Church as a whole and throughout history. But remembering the horror I felt at my Evangelical companion’s belief, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that many people, especially young ones and those outside the Church, will feel exactly the same horror about Christians who oppose women’s ordination. The whole debate meets with utter incomprehension. Though I do think we all need to try harder to understand one another’s positions, you can see why people unused to the Church’s internal theological debates have taken such offence at Bishop Philip’s position. However, it is quite something else for certain highly theologically educated clergy, who do understand the nuances, to make personal attacks and allege in the press that he is sexist or misogynistic.

I believe that our task as a church is to move away from the modern tendency, exaggerated by social media, to demonize people we do not know because of their conscientiously held opinions which we have insufficiently explored. To do otherwise, and to restrict those who hold what is after all the majority Christian position from being diocesan bishops, betrays a lack of Christian love which our critics will notice and exploit to the full. We have to learn to live with people we do not agree with or even like, and remember that all the time we spend publicly bickering over should sit at his right and left hand, Our Lord is being crucified all around us.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Three questions for Lent

Only a few weeks ago, I witnessed first-hand something of the power of repentance.

There was a young man who could not handle the responsibility of bringing up the son he had unintentionally sired. So set was he on living a carefree life of drink, drugs and parties that he cut himself off from the mother and denied outright that the baby was his, despite the obvious resemblance – for fifteen years. That fifteenth year was the year his son died. He was stabbed to death, in some connection with gang crime. That was what it took for the man to realise what it means to be a father. Hew knew for the first time, in what he saw as the fatal consequence of his irresponsibility, the full weight of his sin. It pushed him to the verge of madness, and in his grief he prayed to God for forgiveness.

“Repentance” in the Bible means a change of heart, and that is what happened to this man. He turned from his dissolute lifestyle to Christ, and now spends his life visiting gaols, borstals, schools and youth clubs trying to alert young men to the consequences of involvement in gangs.

This young man was just one of the speakers at a service for families affected by gang and knife crime held here last month.

It’s easy to write testimony like this off when you’re thinking about it from a distance, sitting behind a computer screen, say. The online sceptic might say that it’s all rather convenient for people who have seriously let other people down to turn and “be saved.” But you would have needed a heart of stone not to be moved that night, when that man spoke in person. The atheist Twitterati say we need to throw away the faith and lead lives based purely on science and analytical philosophy, but I have yet to see someone’s entire life turn around because they read a bit of Locke or Hume. The evidence for people’s lives changed by grace through turning in repentance to Christ, on the other hand, is all around us.

Repentance is for sinners, and the greater the sin, the more powerful the repentance. Our Lord said that he came not for the well, but for the sick. It is not just Christians who know this basic truth, either. The Buddhist monk Shinran wrote that if the good man should be saved, how much more the evil man.
Where we tend to fall short in the modern world, though, is that we are far readier to see other people’s sins than our own. The example I have given of the young man who abandoned his family is obvious. But Lent is not about other people’s sins. As Jesus said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Let me be blunt: if you believe, as most of the world seems to, that nothing at all is your fault, that you have no sin in you, then you are living a lie, will never know the joy of repentance and cannot even start on the spiritual journey of a renewed heart in Christ. So Lent is the time when Christians go completely against the self-congratulating and self-justifying orthodoxy of the modern age and look honestly in the mirror.

To this end, we might this Lent ask ourselves the three questions which the Devil puts to Jesus in the wilderness.

First, the stones and the bread. What is our bread? What keeps us going? If the only thing that gets us up in the morning is, say, seeking entertainment, the next fix, the next tidbit of gossip, picking and choosing clothes or food, shopping, or even work – if those are the priority in our life – then we are chewing on worthless stones in the vain hope that God will turn them to bread. He will not. He has given us the Living Bread of his Word, the Word he made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and gives us afresh in the words of Scripture and in the the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. So first, repent by making the true bread your priority.

Second, the Devil takes Jesus to the roof of the temple. what do we trust? What do we think is going to catch us if we fall? Perhaps we think we can make our own security out of sheer will or hard work, so that we do not need God. Or even if we do believe in God, there is a temptation to believe in him only when things are going well. To say, “I believe in God only as long as X, or Y, or Z does not happen to me” is to put God to the test. It is putting conditions on our belief when he offers us unconditional love. If ever you suffer this affliction (as many of us do sometimes), take up your Bible and read the Book of Job. If we believe in a God who is nailed to a Cross, we are foolish to expect a life of easy reward and no suffering. That mindset has to be changed if we want to know the truth of God, rather than setting him up as a daddy in the sky who gives us treats for being good. Again, repentance, changing of the heart and mind – this time to trust in God.

Third, the Devil tempts Jesus to worship him. To what do we really bend the knee? Most of us have idols that we set up from time to time where God really belongs. It may take exploration and a great deal of honesty to own up to ourselves about what really matters most in our lives. If it is not God, then there is more repentance do be done. And what is more, Jesus says that we are not only to worship God alone but to serve God alone. If we are serving to get our names on the rota or the board and look important, but don’t turn up on time (or at all) and so pile up more work on our Christian brothers and sisters, we are not serving God. We are serving ourselves, at best giving God a nice “tip” so generously offered from our precious time. All that we have and all that we are belong to him, and repentance helps us to see that truth.

So pray for the grace to know yourself more clearly, to see yourself more honestly. Repentance is the very first step on the road to knowing God truly, in all his unconditional forgiveness and love – and it will change your life.  
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Ash Wednesday

Give, pray, and fast are Our Lord’s clear instructions in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18) – but with an important caveat. Give, pray, and fast, but not to draw attention to yourself, not because you want a reward.
There are plenty of people in our church who give very generously, some of money, some of time, some of both. It’s worth remembering at this point that you may not know who they are, so if you are occasionally quick to criticise people who work behind the scenes, perhaps you might pause for thought. We all give something, and the onus on us in Lent is not to ask what other people are giving, but what more we can give ourselves. 

Prayer does not need to be done with great exuberance, arm-waving and rolling round in the aisles to prove to everyone how holy you are, but it does need to be done. And so Lent is not the only time we focus on prayer, but a reminder to put our entire prayer life back into order for the longer term. I have spoken before about the Anglican pattern of regular Mass, the Office of daily morning and evening prayer, and private prayer (“MOP” for short). The first, you can do here; there are resources for the second online; and the third, we can think more deeply about in Lent. As a start, I would strongly suggest keeping some sort of prayer diary with the names of people or organisations or causes you want to pray for (1) every day, (2) weekly and (3) monthly – then spend a few minutes each day on your knees praying for them.

Of the three, fasting is probably the most forgotten these days. Let’s be clear from the start that this is not just a “Roman Catholic thing.” Our own Book of Common Prayer very clearly marks days of abstinence, and Archbishop Cranmer was keen to encourage them. For those who are physically fit enough to do so, certainly Ash Wednesday and Good Friday should be kept as fasts, focussing your mind on Christ’s sacrifice by eating only one full meal in the day, and having one or two very light meals to keep you going if you must. You might also consider giving up something, such as meat, on Fridays throughout Lent, and further on in the year – the Ash is not just for Wednesday. 

None of this – giving, praying or fasting – is going to earn you a place in heaven. Our Lord has already done that for us on the Cross. What it is, however, is an expression of our gratitude to Him for His Sacrifice, and a way of staying ever mindful of it so that we can respond to his love and change our lives for the better: for God hates nothing that he has made and gives perfect remission and forgiveness to who are truly penitent of their sins. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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