The Prayer Book Platonist

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

What hath Gotham to do with Jerusalem?

A Religious Studies video for KS3 pupils on why Jesus is like Batman. 

Church buildings, Eucharistic participation and pastoral care

Participation in the Eucharist is much more than just receiving Communion: in fact, the whole cosmos takes part in its own way, and even the stones of the church buildings are our brothers. A video contribution to some contemporary Covid debates.

Short Evensong and Homily for Passion Sunday

Audio service sung with the help of children in lockdown from Lichfield Cathedral School.

Today in Mordor…

In the Lord of the Rings, Morder falls on 25th March: the Feast of the Annunciation. Fr Tom Plant explores why in this video.

[Spot the difference/caption competition?]

21 years of silence

A sermon on St Hugh of Lincoln for the Lichfield Cathedral English Saints series

Twenty-one years … of silence.

Twenty-one years a Carthusian monk.

Twenty-one years of absolute austerity, in the hardest, most solitary, ascetic order of the Christian Church, the only religious order that can boast, numquam reformata quod numquam reformanda: never reformed, because never in need of reform. That was S. Hugh’s qualification for elevation to the episcopate. No membership of a talent pool, no “commitment to engagement with a wide variety if worship styles,” no proven track record in implementing effective diocesan outreach initiatives and strategies, but twenty-one years of silence, wilderness, uncompromising prayer.

Perhaps a fruit of those decades of meditation, Hugh chose as a spur to his ministry as Bishop of Lincoln a text which may seem odd for someone who had spent most of their life enclosed in a monastic cell: 2 Corinthians 3.17, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

Liberty?

Ah, well, it’s only the elderly who are at risk…

A core theme of the traditional lectionary Gospel passages throughout Lent is the casting out of sin for the healing of the soul. We heard in Lent 1 about the blind man Our Lord healed as he set out on his journey towards Jerusalem, then in Lent 2 about the Canaanite woman whose daughter was healed by her faith. We were invited with the blind man to open the eyes of our souls, and with the woman to see that the healing Christ offers is for all people, regardless of race, sex or status.

Now, on the Third Sunday of Lent, the Divine Master equates sin with disunity and conflict, the Satanic “kingdom divided;” conversely, his healing signifies unity and solidarity in an undivided heavenly kingdom. 

There are many forces nowadays seeking to divide humanity: people who want to set generation against generation, sex against sex, class against class, race against race – and even, it seems, healthy against sick. There does seem to be an attitude about the Coronavirus pandemic which says that since it only affects the weak and elderly, the rest of us don’t need to worry too much. 

St Chad and your career

A Sermon for Lichfield Cathedral School on its Patronal Festival

St Chad’s Day 2 Feb 2020

Sometimes our careers take an unexpected turn. As a teenager, I was absolutely convinced that I was going to be an Army Officer. Then, finding myself in Japan, I thought I’d come back and take a Masters in International Politics. As an atheist back then, I certainly didn’t think I would ever be a priest (though being a Dungeons and Dragons playing Goth, I did rather admire the black robes). Our careers don’t always go the way we think they will. 

You may still sometimes hear careers described as “vocations”: for my Latinists, this comes from the Latin verb voco, vocare, “to call,” and so it means, literally, a “calling.” So my question for you to ponder on this St Chad’s Day, in the first week of Lent and at the beginning of national careers’ week is, what is your calling – and how does it match up with your career aspirations?

St Chad is another one who’s career did not go as planned. He had been raised as a monk on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne in the North East. Admired for his holiness, he was first made an Abbot, and later Bishop of York, the second most senior bishop in the whole country. But when a new Archbishop of Canterbury came along, because of various intra-church political disputes, questions were raised over whether his consecration as bishop had been valid, and he was ordered to step down. This he did with such humility and obedience that the Archbishop, impressed, made him the first Bishop of Mercia, the old name for the Midlands: and so he came here, and near a fresh spring where he could baptise the natives, he set up the church just over Stowe Pool that now bears his name. So humble that he refused to ride, he walked barefoot around his whole diocese, gently teaching the Christian Way to his people. He died on this day (2 March) in AD 672, and our cathedral was raised where his bones were kept. 

I wonder to what extent Christ, too, being both wholly divine and wholly human, knew the precise details of his calling. The first thing that happens in his public, adult ministry after his baptism is that he goes out into the wilderness for this calling to be put to the test. He is challenged to think through and articulate what it means to be Messiah and Son of God. Ultimately, his intense sense of calling will confound the expectations of even his closest friends, as he does what he knows he must do, all the way to the Cross. 

But notice one thing that Our Lord and the saints have in common: however hard their calling, there is no sign that they resent it. Christ was called to suffer and to die, St Chad to stand down from high office. The sign of a saint is not just obedience to a higher power, but a certain peace and happiness in whatever comes: because their career, their path, their pilgrimage in life, is at one with the calling sown in their innermost heart. 

How do you define career success?

There are people who make money the sole object of their lives who are desperately unhappy. Maybe you’ve met some. And there are people who have turned away from what the everyone else expects them do, looked deep inside themselves, and found that quiet voice “calling” them to what they are made to do. Sometimes that does come with money; sometimes it comes with hardship, trial and testing; but if we get it right, it also comes with peace. 

As my own career, my pilgrimage through life goes on, I am still listening even now, trying to discern where I am meant to be, what I am made to do. My careers advice for you is to look to Our Lord, look to St Chad, listen deeply – and let yourself be called down unexpected paths.

Foundation Day sermon: Aim low!

A cathedral – or a car park?

Which is more beautiful?

I suspect most people will want to say, instinctively, the cathedral: but the habits of modern reason will make them think twice. What they will think they are meant to say is something like, “well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.” Some people might think some or other cathedral is beautiful, some people might find aesthetic charm in a particular car park. Beauty is what we, individually, make of it.

Onto a second question: which of the two is more good?

But that, I suppose, raises a second question: good for what? Clearly, a cathedral is good for praying, a car park for parking cars. But this second question assumes that when I ask what is good, what I am really asking is what is good for some particular thing, or in other words, what is useful. What I might rather mean – and in fact, what I do mean – is which is more good in its own right? But the modern mind is very sceptical of that idea: the idea that there might be some absolute goodness. We tend to assume that what is good or what is evil is a matter of individual conscience, which collectively make up a group decision.

So, behind both of these questions – the questions about beauty and goodness – another question is hiding: and that is the question of truth. Can it ever be absolutely true to say this or that is beautiful, or this or that is good, just because it is; or is the truth of those statements always relative to the individual or the power of the majority decision?

To put it another way, do beauty, goodness, truth exist, or are they merely conventions invented and agreed on by human minds? Do ideas have a reality of their own, or not?

You might think that this is an idle question, one to leave to the philosophers. But you’d be wrong, and the history of the foundation of this school shows us why: why this question mattered then, and why it matters, urgently, today.

Our Cathedral School was founded in a time of war: the Second World War. As we learn in history class, that war was a war of politics with economic causes. But it was also an ideological war: that is, a war of ideas.

This war of ideas had been brewing for centuries. The French Revolution, the industrial revolution and the rise of Communism as much as Fascism were all symptoms of the seductive idea that we humans can redefine the truths of goodness and beauty by the sheer power of will. It was by the democratic will of the people that the Nazis rose to power. It was by the will of the people that millions of Jews, intellectuals, disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals and others were consigned to extermination in the death camps. It was by the will of the people that what was once considered evil was now considered good, and vice versa.

So it was that in the middle of the most technologically sophisticated systematisation of mutual extermination that had ever been seen, on 27 January 1942, this little, rather old-fashioned choir school was founded. Such a small act of defiance! As the march of progress stormed around in jackboots towards a brave near future of eugenics, concentration camps and nuclear bombs, here was a small oasis for a handful of children to live an ordered life, a life conformed the ancient routine and rhythm of Christian prayer, anchored in the stability of the Cross.

A pointless gesture, perhaps? A school won’t win a war. But we are talking today about foundations. And foundations have their strength in being laid low. If you cannot reach high enough to win the war, aim lower, and win a smaller battle. If you cannot save the world’s environment, aim lower, and start at home. If you cannot change society, aim lower, and help one homeless person, one lonely pensioner, one disabled child instead. To go high, you must start low. You cannot build a castle without foundations.

As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches on Monday, and we remember the human cost of people demolishing old foundations, even with antisemitism on the rise in this country today, it might pay us to revisit our foundations. Only you can decide on what foundations you wish to build. But this school is founded on the belief that truth, goodness and beauty are real and lasting, not subject to human whim: and that at the altar of Christ’s sacrifice, we are invited to participate in that reality, as he offers himself to us in self-giving love.

The addiction of evil: Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

I was in a McDonalds a couple of years ago in London, getting a quick cup of coffee in between parish visits, so I was wearing my cassock. Recognising me as a priest, an employee of Middle Eastern provenance started chatting to me. I started to feel uncomfortable when his line of questioning rapidly turned to ‘the Jews,’ and what I thought of them. When I refused to be baited, his conversation turned into a public diatribe. Other McDonalds staff started listening in, and seemed to be going along with what he was saying: which basically amounted to ‘fear of the Jews.’ Fear of the Jews running the media; fear of the Jews running the economy, the banks; fear of the Jews in secret societies manipulating the political order. An ancient fear, stoked for centuries by Christians, but clearly not limited to Christians. A fear shared by much of the Islamic world, and nowadays, even by the secular Left, as we saw in the run-up to last year’s General Election.

I wrote on Foundation Day about how aiming at small goods – little acts of kindness – can build up towards the absolute Good. But it is equally true that small evils can lead to absolute evil, if such a thing exists: and if absolute evil does exist, then the Holocaust is without doubt the closest humanity has ever come to it.

And just as there is a danger of giving up on doing minor good things because the greater Good seems so impossible to achieve, there is a parallel danger of thinking that little evils will never lead to greater evil. Or worse, the belief that greater evils belong to someone else: that we, in the same situation as the people of Nazi Germany, would have acted differently, that we could never have done what “they” did to the Jews.

We live in an age where ‘sin’ and ‘temptation’ are used as advertising devices or the names for nightclubs and chocolates. We take pleasure, even pride, in doing something ‘a little bit naughty.’ The little voice in our heads says, just one more drink, just one more internet video, just one more social media response, and then I’ll stop. It’s OK. Can’t do any harm. Until the one drink becomes five, and a car gets wrapped round a lamppost or a wife beaten. Until three hours later, we’re still hooked to the internet, and our boyfriend or a parent finds out what we’ve been looking it, or the Police take an interest. Until the social media response becomes a blazing argument, a bullying session, an addiction that feeds our depression and drives us to hurt ourselves.

Just one drink. Just one click. Just one joke about someone’s race, or sexuality, or religion. Just “banter.” Just one snide comment about the Jews.

I believe that there was a darker force behind Hitler’s war on the Jews. Their eradication was, for him, an obsession, an addiction, which made him make irrational decisions that cost him politically and militarily. It was a deliberate assault on God’s chosen people and all that they stood for: the eternal, faithful, enduring Law of a loving creator. Hitler failed. The Jews now have an independent state in Israel, and the Judeo-Christian basis of western civilisation has not yet been completely eradicated. But it was ordinary people who helped Hitler get as far as he did. Ordinary people who let small evils pass, until they were powerless to resist the monstrous addiction of a much greater evil. Ordinary people just like you and me.

What should Prince Harry do?

For my Japanese family, culturally formed by the Eastern philosophy of Confucius, the answer is simple: family, nation and community come before self, and Harry’s attempts to ditch his responsibility are just childish escapism.

Western opinion, however, seems to be divided in two. The first is much like the Eastern view I have just outlined. The second is its radical opposite: that seeking your own personal freedom, escaping from the ties of tradition and social expectation, is a fundamental right, and that we should be sympathetic to Harry, who like anyone else had no choice in the family he was born to. The self trumps society.

Both of these Western views derive from different parts of our Christian philosophical inheritance, and are neatly encapsulated in the story of the adolescent Jesus getting lost and found in the Temple, the Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Epiphany in the traditional lectionary. 

First, we need to think back to Christmas, and the extraordinary notion that the Word was made flesh: that is, that the Creator of all time and space, beyond all things visible and invisible, enters creation in the Christ child. When the twelve year-old Jesus is found in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and is “obedient” to them, this is to say that the King of the Universe becomes a subject to ordinary, human parents. To be fully human, Christ has to be a specific person, with the usual constraints of nation, race, family and gender. He does not come as some ‘generic’ human, because that would not be truly human at all. In Christ, God takes the form of a servant, and shows us the paradoxical truth that the fullness of divine freedom which leads to wisdom and eternal life is not, as for the Greek or Roman gods, the exercise of arbitrary power, but acceptance of limitation and constraint, even to the greatest constraint of death. On this reading, following Jesus’s example, Harry should know his place and obey.

But that is only one side of the matter. Because on the other, there is the fact that Jesus went off on his own without his parents. He vanished for three days, symbolic of the time between his death and Resurrection, breaking free from his supposed father to do his real Father’s business in the Temple. To find his true vocation, to teach wisdom to the wise, he had to break away from society. As he would say elsewhere, with echoes of Buddhist thought, to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. So, Harry is right to seek his own personal calling.

It’s slightly simplistic, but you might characterise the first, more “social” reading as broadly Catholic, and the second, “individualistic” reading as more Protestant. So which is right? What should Harry do?

The truth, surely, lies somewhere between the two. Jesus has to have some distance from his family to flourish and to grow, but in the end, he returns to that family. For Harry and for us, too, while we must indeed seek our own personal vocation, our own path, we will not find that in isolation. Our history, traditions, social connections and upbringing belong to us and we to them.

I can only find myself in my relation to other people, past and present; and I will find my own salvation only in the salvation of others.

This week’s Collect might be a fitting one for Prince Harry and for any of us whenever we seek guidance in making difficult decisions:

O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Gospel Reading for the First Sunday after Epiphany: Luke 2:41-52

Now every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.

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