Goodbye Biblical Studies. A bloody great loss to RE

‘Simon, Simon, see, Satan sought to sift you like wheat’

This is Nicholas King’s translation of the passage in Luke Chapter 22 when Jesus predicts Simon Peter will betray him. I was studying it today with my Year 11. They’re the last year group to study Luke at GCSE; it’s being phased out with the GCSE reforms. You can still do bits of Mark (a gospel I like – not as much as Luke though) but it’s a bit unsatisfactory, trying to make it all work on the new course. So, with regret, we’re not doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I am really enjoying the new GCSE course, but I am super sad to lose my last link with Biblical Studies. People think it’s boring and unsexy RS. I love sacred texts though. There’s lots of emphasis in the new specs on good knowledge of scripture, but it’s not the same as studying a whole gospel, immersing yourself in the text, and all its richness. I studied this gospel for my own GCSE waaaayyy back in the last century. There’s still stuff to discover. Like today.

‘Simon, Simon, see, Satan sought to sift you like wheat’

‘Why the alliteration?’, I asked today. Is it deliberate? Nicholas King tells us the alliteration comes across even stronger in the original Greek. We check in with the Greek teacher in the class next door – and King is right. It’s the same sound in both languages. Ssssssssssssssssssss
What does it mean?
Then someone shouts out:
‘Ohhhh! It’s a snake!’
‘It’s slithering into my ear’.
‘It’s like the serpent in the garden, hissing in Eve’s ear.’
‘Tempting her’
‘It’s not just in the garden though, it’s everywhere, Jesus heard it in the wilderness. That’s how he knows, he knows what it sounds like’.
‘Three times he heard it, just like Peter will’
‘It’s horrible. I don’t like it. It makes my skin crawl’
‘Why did Jesus talk like the devil to Peter?’
‘Maybe he wanted to show him he knows how it feels to be human?’
‘That frightens me, that he could do that, and know that’
‘And Peter was frightened, when Jesus was taken’
‘Maybe Jesus was frightened too?’

It’s class discussion like that which makes you think they’ve really understood it. Did not our hearts burn within us? Biblical Studies, almost gone now. What a bloody great loss to RE.

The encouragement of light on Candlemas Eve

It’s the last night of Christmas, tomorrow will be Candlemas, the Christianised version of the pagan festival, Imbolc. Apparently the word means ‘in milk’ and is in honour of the Maiden Goddess. It marks the arrival of spring; as the lambs are born the ewe’s milk returns. If you’ve any agricultural equipment or livestock about your person now would be a good time to ask for a blessing for them from the goddess. For Christians it marks when Jesus was presented to God in the Temple. If you live or work around children, now would be a good time to ask for a blessing on them.

For thousands of years people have lit candles on this night, to welcome spring, the coming of the light, and the goddess. It’s a time of hopefulness. The dark days of January are lengthening, if you’re lucky you’ve perhaps left work in daylight at some point recently. It’s been a long wait, but your patience will be rewarded, the light is coming. Those beautiful words from the old man Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus in the Temple echo this feeling, when you wait your whole life for something that you really want:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismissed your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

Imbolc is closely associated with the Celtic-Irish goddess Brigid, goddess of fire, of poetry, and of healing, all things we associate with re-creation in spring. Of course today is the feast of St Bridget….you’ve joined the dots haven’t you… the patron saint of poetry and healing and of Ireland.

So here’s a poem for The Feast of St Bridget, Imbolc and Candlemas Eve night. Light a candle and feel the ‘encouragement of the light’. Wishing you a blessed Candlemas xx

It felt love. Hafiz

Did the rose
Ever open its heart

And give to this world
All its

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its

We all remain

Interfaith conversation in RS: a Two Chairs Exchange approach

Interfaith dialogue is a curious thing. It often has struck me that, all to frequently, what passes for interfaith dialogue is dialogue about anything BUT faith. People of faith might come and talk together, but to keep things nice, and polite, it’s best to talk about the weather, the tea, the children. Anything but faith. Under no circumstances say what you actually believe in!

There’s been a recent furore surrounding the invitation of a Muslim student to come and speak at an Epiphany service in Glasgow Cathedral. It appears from reports that I have read that a young Muslim man was invited to read, and he selected passages from the Qur’an that tell of the birth of Jesus to a young virgin; Jesus is revered as a prophet, but is not ‘the son of God’.

It’s not a secret that Muslims have these beliefs about Jesus. So why did it cause such offence? Muslim man makes statement that is wholly in line with Muslim beliefs. Is this so terrible? Many people’s objection was that these words were uttered in a Christian sacred space, a worship space. That’s what’s offensive they claim. Sometimes I wonder whether some religious people think they need to protect God from hearing anything he wouldn’t like, as if God is a bit fragile. I wonder what God thinks about this? Who’s to say?

For myself, I don’t think being religiously thin skinned is a good thing at all. I think if one’s own convictions are to have any meaning at all, then it should be possible to remain steeped in those convictions whilst remaining humble and tolerant of others. I think it should be possible to hear a different viewpoint and accept it for what it is; something different.

In my RS classroom I’ve been thinking a lot about how different faiths can understand each other. I’ve been working with students using principles from Dr James Hodkinson’s (Warwick University) Two Chairs Exchange. The Two Chairs concept has emerged from his research into the ideals found in the history of European art, literature and thinking. The Two Chairs image, which serves as a key visual for the whole project, (see above) depicts two stone chairs, hewn from the same rock, yet positioned opposite one another. They are separate, yet they are connected. The chairs invite two individuals or two faiths to talk with one another, exploring each other’s view-points without abandoning their own core beliefs. Of course, my RS classroom is a learning space not a worship space, so I’m not quite so at risk of causing offence. But there’s still sometimes a fear of declaring one’s convictions in a classroom, both for teachers and students. Before embarking on his project I’d always been against revealing my own beliefs in the classroom. Today, I broke a 20 year rule, and I decided to be more honest with my pupils in my GCSE class. I was glad of it. I think it empowered them to be honest about their beliefs in return.

I’ve been encouraging my students to use their imaginations to tell ‘the other person’s story’, to conceive of themselves as the other, and let their conversations about religion flow. There’s been lots of talk in RE circles about religious literacy, and indeed what on earth religious literacy might actually mean. I think it’s a very simple (but not necessarily easy) idea. I think religious literacy means being able to have a conversation about religion. To participate in conversation we need, of course, knowledge. We need the right vocabulary. But once we have the words to use and we understand their meaning, we need something else. We need to listen with an open heart and allow the other person space to speak before it’s our turn to respond. It’s interesting what comes up when you have a conversation.

Dr James Hodkinson is running lots of Two Chairs Exchange events around the country this year. He has an exhibition that will be touring schools, galleries and places of worship.

We’ll be running an RS GCSE study day at Warwick on 2 March.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the project, get in touch.

I am supposed to live

Antipodeans are almost sitting pretty. There’s a couple of hours to go for the rest of us, but if you just sit quietly you should be alright. Because, if you’re reading this you’ve survived 2016. Well done! There was a sticky moment of pneumonia in January when I honestly thought I wouldn’t, but here I am. I feel like my confidence and sense of self has taken a massive shaking, but I am still here. I’ve said this quite a few times; I think the take home message of the year is that if you survived, it means that you are supposed to live.

Question is, how am I supposed to live? What does it mean to live fully? Is there a guide? A blueprint? I explain to my A Level RS students that some people believe we are made in the image of God, but we need to grow more into his likeness. God is simple. God fulfils perfectly what it is to be God. So to be like God we have to work out what we are meant to be and live that as fully as possible. I have to become more myself. I have to live fully.

Someone asked me in October when I had last met God. For an RE teacher I found this an extraordinarily hard question to answer. I haven’t met God. The question barely even makes sense to me. However, when I thought about it, my answer was that God (or The Good, or however you want to think of it) appears in people. Sometimes the person you need arrives, just when you need them, saying the right things, making the right face. That’s the moment of revelation, when someone helps you realise you are supposed to live and maybe even shows you how you might go about doing just that. And in living fully, you becomes a means of revelation to others.

Here’s Rainer Maria Rilke. This is from his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (translated by Barrows and Macy)

“You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
the darkness of each endless fall,
the shimmering light of each ascent.

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.

But you take pleasure in the faces
of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
who grip you for survival.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.”

Ha! I’m not dead yet! I am supposed to live. Happy New Year.

Alone in an empty church

I popped into a church in town at lunchtime today. I had some stuff on my mind and needed some quiet and some headspace and time to process. It was quite an old church, although drastically modernised. What was interesting though was that there was a massive drum kit that dominated the sanctuary. Which itself looked more like a stage. I wanted to find somewhere quiet to sit, and looked for the lady chapel as the obvious place. It was kind of there, but was unloved and there was nowhere to sit. No candles, no holy paraphernalia, nothing like that. All the seating in this church faced the stage, and the chairs seemed nailed down. Hmm. So I sat near the lady chapel, but awkwardly at the wrong angle. Then I noticed a sign that this was the designated area for people that wanted to be prayed with. Gosh. I was quite alone, yet shut my eyes quickly and intently, in case someone should and think I needed prayer ministry. It’s an odd idea to me. Being prayed with. I know lots of people like it, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. To me, being prayed with sounds a bit like going to the dentist, but with an earnest believer that wants to drill into your soul instead of your teeth. Thankfully no one came. I enjoyed the quiet, but eventually I felt a bit lost in there, that great big empty concert hall. It’s one of the most popular churches in the town. People like their religion like this I think. Like a concert. I reckon it’s a fun and vibrant place to worship. And if you want to pray, someone will help you, almost do it for you. So you don’t have to. Or if you don’t know how to. I can see that there’s an awful lot that’s attractive about that. Christianity has such rich and diverse traditions of worship and practice. Horses for courses. Nonetheless this church just felt very empty when I was alone.

Finding something to reverence

Found this Buddhist saying for my meditation this morning:

“Reverence and gentleness, contentment and gratitude; that is a supreme blessing” (Sutta-Nipata 2,4)

Reverence is the really interesting one here I think. I think it’s a concept it’s easy to shy away from. It sounds dauntingly over religious. It feels like an inappropriate word in a secular world, an unnecessary, outdated, directionless, irrelevant bit of piety. Kissing relics, weird stuff like that springs to mind. So, can you be a normal, not weird person, and show reverence? In Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot writes: “The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second something to reverence”. George Eliot is notable for her humanism of course, but she never lost her fascination with religion. Was this fascination something that arose merely because she was a product of her time? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly much easier to be a humanist in 21st century Britain, and easier still to eschew any connection to religion. That’s not a criticism, it’s just an observation. Yet I suspect George Eliot might still be interested in religion if she was alive now. Can you show reverence without religion? Yes of course. However, religion offers a model for practising reverence that anyone can utilise. And I suppose religion serves as a reminder that reverence is important, and not actually that weird. I think reverence is about fixing your mind completely, with total focus and single minded purpose on how amazing (overused word but fair enough in this context I think) and wonderful something or someone is, and just concentrating on that for a bit. I don’t think that’s weird; I think it’s great!

The new GCSE RS specs all have special emphasis on how religious people practise their faith. I think it’s essential that we get to grips with the importance of devotion for religious believers, because it goes a long way to explaining and understanding the essence of religion. Reverence for and devotion to holy things (by which we mean things that are we believe to be somehow different, things that are set apart from ordinary life) affects a person’s whole life. There’s a lot of chat in the RS world right now about religious literacy. It’s not always clear what we mean by this. I think it means being able to participate in a conversation about religion. Talking about reverence and devotion is a critical part of that conversation and our students need the grammar and vocabulary to participate fully in the conversation.

Even religious people seem at bit embarrassed by reverence sometimes. At my nephew’s First Holy Communion a few weeks ago even the lovely priest apologised for choosing a devotional hymn and then talking specifically about devotion, rather than practical action and work….but it was what he really wanted to talk about because it’s really important. I agree. How can you love if you cannot practise devotion; how can love have any goal, direction or purpose if you have nothing to reverence?
St Paul puts it better :
“whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Personally, I think George Eliot has it the wrong way around. We need to find something to reverence first, and then we can love. Think about what true, and lovely – then act.

The Buddha tells us that developing reverence will bring us a blessing. Maybe this implies I should treat not just others but also myself with reverence. Now there’s a thought…

Je suis catholique

Je suis catholique

I find that quite hard to write because I’ve been so enraged with the Catholic Church of late. I find it impossible to reconcile myself with staying in an organisation that harbours paedophiles , and despite all the hand wringing in recent years I’m still not sure the powers that be really get it, and the harm that it’s caused. I find the vehement anti abortion stance in the face of all reason and compassion intolerable. I find the ostracising of gay and lesbian people just appalling. And it’s outrageous to me that women still do not have access to priestly ministry in the church in the 21st century.

But I am Catholic; it’s in my veins.

In large part that’s down to the Eucharist. I find Sunday Mass in my parish church beyond stressful, given the dreadful scandal that rocked my parish. I can’t bear to be part of that at all. I just can’t go. It’s too much. But I still feel drawn to the Eucharist, and that’s usually at a quiet weekday mass in a random church when I think no ones looking. We went to weekday mass a lot when I was a kid. It’s a niche crowd. Sometimes there were only a tiny handful there. I remember I went once with my dad, and there was just us, the priest and a coffin. An old man who had died alone, without friends or relatives and his funeral got snuck into weekday mass. Even though we didn’t know who he was we quietly remembered him.

This is what weekday mass is like. Quiet, unshowy remembering. There’s no frills and it’s usually quite short. And the focus is so obviously entirely on the Eucharist it’s a lovely thing.

Ah. Eucharist. Ostensibly nonsense. Bread and wine as body and blood, no really. You’re kidding?

I love the Eucharist because it offers us a model for transformation. Essentially we don’t offer bread and wine, not really; instead we offer ourselves. We are ordinary people who sometimes screw up, and Eucharist shows us redemption is possible, and we can become something extraordinary. But can bread become more than bread? Yes, I think it’s possible.
Conrad Aiken’s poem expresses a version of this idea beautifully, and, I think, serves as a poignant and fitting tribute to Fr Jacques Hamel:

“Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, beloved,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart that you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,
—They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.”

Eucharist offers us a vision that it might even be possible to overcome an experience violence and terror, and still hold fast to your values of love and compassion. That would take a real miracle. That would be the miracle of the Eucharist, and yet I think it’s possible. That’s my faith. Je suis catholique.