Thursday, 28 March 2013

Why I usually put the word "Protestant" in quotes.

Some of you, when you read one of my posts on ecumenical issues, may wonder why I normally put the word "Protestant" in quotes.

I find the word "Protestant" to be a word which, while still used to describe some Christians, leaves much to be desired where accuracy is concerned.

OK, first of all if we define "Protestant" in the usual manner as referring to "any Christian individual, church, or movement that is neither Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or classical Anglican", we have an idea who we're talking about.

However, this a rather large, and somewhat cumbersome, grouping.  It has three main components (each of which, to make matters even more confusing, can be found in each of the "Protestant" denominations):
  1. There are evangelical "Protestants", who emphasise the authority (and often the literal authority) of the scriptures, who mostly believe that the crucifixion was a substitutionary blood sacrifice, and who (in some cases) believe that God will send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong.  Many evangelicals have very conservative views on matters of gender, sex, and bioethics; and some are closely aligned - in an almost Faustian relationship - with the extreme political right wing in many countries.
  2. There are liberal or progressive "Protestants" for whom none of these beliefs apply, and who find these beliefs appalling.  For this group, the individual conscience is supreme, and many have rejected many of the classical beliefs of Christianity in addition to the appalling things the evangelicals believe.
  3. Then there are mainline, mainstream, or ecumenical "Protestants".  (This is the group I'm part of.)  We also reject the appalling things that the evangelicals believe but we believe a lot more of what classical Christianity believes than the liberals / progressives believe.  Actually our beliefs in many ways are closer to the Catholics, Orthodox, and classical Anglicans than the other two "Protestant" groups, except that (along with both the evangelicals and the liberals / progressives) we're (a) committed to an "open table" at the Eucharist and (b) to clergy who have the choice whether or not to be married; and (along with the liberals / progressives) we're also committed (c) to clergy of either gender.  Many of us are also open to (d) clergy in same-gender relationships.
The fact that the one word "Protestant" refers to three groups that really have very little in common with each other (other than the lack of a formal relationship with Rome, Constantinople, or Canterbury), tells me that the word "Protestant" is of very limited usefulness.  That's why I put it in quotes.

(Note, this post is closely related to two later posts in my blog, A Catholic heart and a "Protestant mind, and A post-"Protestant' future for the church.  Together, these three articles raise what I see as important issues for the future for the churches whose heritage is grounded in the Reformation.)

Monday, 25 March 2013

What's wrong with being "Politically Correct" anyway?

Back in the 1980s or 1990s, some smart-aleck ... let's not mince words ... some smart-arse ultra-conservative intellectual wannabees coined the phrase "politically correct".

Ever since then, anyone with an interest in social justice has needed to watch our language.  If we give too much of an impression that we respect all people a bit "too" equally, we're labelled with the term "politically correct".

I don't care.

I happen to have been born "white", male, Christian, Gentile, "Protestant", Anglo, and hetero.  I'm cool with that; it's who I am.  However, according to some smart-arse ultra-conservative intellectual wannabees, this entitles me to a greater deal of respect than someone who can't tick all of these boxes.

I don't believe that I am entitled to any extra respect than anyone else merely because I happened to have been born "white" ... or male ... or Christian ... or Gentile ... or "Protestant" ... or Anglo ... or hetero.

According to some smart-arse ultra-conservative intellectual wannabees, this belief makes me "politically correct".

I don't really care.  I'd rather be politically correct than arrogant.

In fact, I'll raise the stakes here. ... I'd rather be politically correct than pig-ignorant.

An observation about clergy and their congregations

Has anyone else noticed this about how the opinions of clergy match up with the opinions of their congregations?

Among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, the priest usually has more conservative opinions than the majority of his congregation on religious, social, and politicial issues.

Among classical "Protestants" and among classical Anglicans, the minister/rector/vicar/pastor is usually much less conservative than the majority of her/his congregation on most religious, social, and politicial issues.

Among evangelicals, there is usually a much closer "fit" between the views of the pastor and the views of the congregation.

Has anyone else noticed this?

What are your explanations for this?

"Peter's Dream": a hymn

While Peter dreamed, he saw a blanket filled with food:
from most his conscience caused him to abstain.
God’s voice called, “Eat!”; and after Peter’s “No!” replied:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”
 And still Christ calls to us, to all God’s people,
to view God’s world with love, and not disdain;
to celebrate the wonders of God’s universe:
"What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”

Throughout the centuries, the Church has often failed
to put these words to practice, to great pain;
in many ways forgetting God’s clear mandate:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”
And still Christ calls to us, to all God’s people,
to view God’s world with love, and not disdain;
to celebrate the wonders of God’s universe:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”
So now the Church is often seeking to renew
its life together, struggling to obtain
the broader view of life to which Christ calls us:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”
And still Christ calls to us, to all God’s people,
to view God’s world with love, and not disdain;
to celebrate the wonders of God’s universe:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”

And in the future, Christ will still be calling
all Christian folk to share that glad refrain,
sharing God’s love for all life in this universe:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”
And still Christ calls to us, to all God’s people,
to view God’s world with love, and not disdain;
to celebrate the wonders of God’s universe:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call profane!”
Copyright Ó Robert J. Faser, 1999
tune:    Londonderry Air
Some years ago, I had the idea of a series of hymns based on the passages from the Book of Acts read during the season from Easter to Pentecost.  So far, I have written two of these hymns, both to the Irish folk tune Londonderry Air. 

Songs for Singing (2009) has a hymn arrangement for Londonderry Air written by John McRae for this hymn.

Also, hymn arrangements for Londonderry Air can be found in British Methodist hymnbooks for the hymn “I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship …” (no. 238 in Hymns and Psalms), and in John Bell and Graham Maule’s When Grief is Raw, for the hymn “Go, silent friend . . .”.

This hymn is based on the story of Peter’s dream (Acts 10: 9 –16, repeated later in Acts).  Peter's dream is part of the lessons on the fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C of the Ecumenical Lectionary.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”: a sermon for Easter Day (Luke 24:1-12)

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

When I moved to Australia from the United States over thirty years ago now, one thing that amazed me then - and still amazes me now - is that Easter is in the middle of a long weekend here.  With both Good Friday and Easter Monday being public holidays in Australia, Easter is in the middle of what’s often the longest long weekend of the year.    On the other hand, Good Friday and Easter Monday are both working days in the United States.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like long weekends.  I think it’s a great idea to have a four-day weekend sometime in the autumn.  But, personally, I wish the four-day autumn long weekend was on a different weekend than Easter.   Here’s why.

Often, if people go away for the Easter weekend, or if they have visitors, and they want to attend worship some time on the Easter weekend, the easiest time to attend church is on Good Friday, at the beginning of the long weekend, rather than on Easter Day, in the middle of the long weekend.  This creates its own problems. 
·        On Good Friday, the focus is on Jesus’ sufferings and death.  From the perspective of a regular worshipper, the service (appropriately) is solemn, restrained, and austere.   From the perspective of someone who doesn’t attend worship all that much, it may be absolutely depressing. 

·        On Easter Day, today, the focus is on Jesus’ resurrection, his triumph over death.  The tone of the worship (also appropriately) is joyful, hopeful, and exuberant. 

Now, obviously, you get a clearer picture of the Christian faith if you experience the worship on both Good Friday and Easter Day, but (if you have to choose) you really get a better view of what the Christian faith is all about on Easter alone rather than on Good Friday alone.

But, there are many people (both frequent worshippers and infrequent worshippers) whose main exposure to Christian worship this week is on Good Friday, year after year after year.  And that is what creates the problems.  There is already too much of a view in our society
·        that the Christian faith is all something negative;
·        that the Christian faith is all about gloom and doom;
·        that the Christian faith is judgmental;
·        that the Christian faith is just ... well, depressing.

This isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that a few Christians - very few, really - are negative, or judgmental, or into gloom and doom.  It also isn’t helped by the fact that the sort of Christians who are negative, or judgmental, or into gloom and doom are frequently far more vocal in identifying themselves publically as Christians than those of us with a more positive approach to our faith.

But I also believe that a big part of this is the fact that so many people, if they attend worship at all during this time of year, they see the solemn austerity of Good Friday rather than the exuberant joy of Easter.

So, as we and our broader community encounter the story of Jesus once again at this season, we need to keep in mind the angel’s words to Mary Magdalene and her friends:  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Mary Magdalene and her friends went to Jesus’ tomb to perform the ancient burial rites of the Jewish faith.  On Friday, Jesus’ body was put in the tomb quickly, without ceremony.  The burial needed to be completed before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night.  The burial rites had to wait. 

So, on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath was over, the women went to the tomb so that Jesus’ body could receive the washing, anointing, and embalming that was expected in the culture of the times.  Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb to do the decent thing for the dead body of a friend.  They were surprised to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, but they were still looking for a corpse.  But two strangers, attired (as Luke tells us) “in dazzling clothes”, said to them:   “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”

They went to tell some of the other disciples, some of the men, but - except for Peter - they weren’t really interested in their story.  “...these words seemed to them an idle tale...”  

And, in our culture, there are many “idle tales” floating about.
·        Some of the “idle tales” take the form of gossip; gossip about neighbours or co-workers; gossip about entertainers, sportspeople, politicians, or those vague “celebrities” who are famous just for being famous.  Some gossip is deliberately malicious; some gossip is well-meaning.  All gossip is destructive.

·        Some of the idle tales take the form of racial, ethnic, religious or other stereotypes.  Some people persist in attributing a wide range of faults and vices to all members of any particular group, without exception: to all Jews, to all Muslims, to all Catholics, to all Aborigines, to all Freemasons, to all homosexuals … and so on.

·        Some of the idle tales take the form of conspiracy theories; far-fetched theories that say that widely disparate groups of people have conspired with each other to keep you and I “in the dark” either about historical events or about present realities.  People are prepared to pay good money to hear or to read even the wildest of these conspiracy theories.  Just ask Dan Brown.  Just ask any climate change sceptic, creationist, or holocaust denier.

In our culture, and in many cultures, there are many “idle tales” floating about.

Some of the male disciples thought that Mary and her friends were indulging themselves in an “idle tale”.  Peter, though, ran to the tomb and found it empty.            

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

In our own day, we too are called to look for the presence of the risen Christ in the midst of life, not death.  We often find the risen Christ in the presence of those who may themselves not be aware that he is there.
·        Whenever individuals seriously try to face the difficult ethical decisions of life with integrity, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever families seek to nurture their children as people of honesty, kindness, and generosity, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever communities, divided by fear and prejudice, seek to discover new ways of reconciliation in their common life, it is not “an idle tale”:  the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever nations reject the paths of war to explore new options for peace, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

·        Whenever congregations gather week after week, not to be dazzled by the latest religious gimmickry, but to break open the Word and to bread the bread”:  the risen Christ is there.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

For some, these signs of new life may be viewed cynically as “an idle tale”, but, for us we can see these as signs of the risen Christ.  

Christ is risen, bringing us:
·        life in the face of death; ...
·        ... life despite death; ...
·        ... life in defiance of death.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

"It's like talking to a brick wall.": a sermon for Good Friday

There was an elderly man who lived in Jerusalem all his life.  He was a devout Orthodox Jew.  Every day, since his Bar Mitzvah many years ago, he went to the Wailing Wall to pray.  He did this for eighty-seven years.

On his 100th birthday, he was interviewed by journalists from many newspapers.  They asked him about his daily prayers at the Wailing Wall.  “For what were you praying all these years?”

The old man replied, “I’ve always prayed for the same two things.  I’ve prayed for peace, both here in the Holy Land, and around the world.  And I’ve also prayed that all the races and religions of the world may treat each other with love and respect.”

After a brief, reverent silence, a reporter asked, “And how did you feel making this same prayer day after day at the Wailing Wall?”

The old man thought a bit and said, “Sometimes I felt like I was talking to a brick wall.”

And sometimes – in the divine-human encounter – sometimes that feeling is mutual.  I am sure that sometimes God will say the same thing: “Sometimes I felt like I was talking to a brick wall.”

Over the centuries, and to our own day, God keeps asking humanity to practise peace, social justice, and mercy, to regard each other with love and respect.  Sometimes, the result from us is disappointing.  Perhaps God may wish to ask us “What part of ‘Love your neighbour’ don’t you understand?”  I’m sure God must frequently say something like this in regard to us: “Sometimes I felt like I was talking to a brick wall.”

And in the midst of it all God somehow determined, “Right, I’m going in there myself to sort it out.” 

And on this day – this day we ironically call Good Friday – we remember the full extent of God’s self-giving on behalf of humanity.  We remember a self-giving that was the result of God wanting to knock down the brick walls that we put up around our hearts and our minds.

And you would have thought the violence that God – in the person of Jesus - received at the hands of humanity was enough for God to decide to cut humanity out of the will, to leave us to our own devices. 

But it wasn’t enough for God.  Good Friday was not the end of the story.  (The most we can ever say at the end of a sermon or a worship service on Good Friday is “to be continued”.)  After Good Friday, Easter Day soon follows. 

After the pain of Good Friday, we hear the good news of the resurrection morning.  Human violence did not have the last word.  God’s love continues to claim the last word.

Some things do not change.  I’m sure God still says in regard to us: “Sometimes I felt like I was talking to a brick wall.”

But the events of Easter Day have enabled God to knock down the brick walls we put up around our hearts, around, our minds, around our lives.

To be continued …

Sunday, 24 March 2013

"And then the red-headed Scotsman said to the priest ..."

Many classic jokes involve a group of three people:
  • three residents of the British Isles, an Englshman, Irishman, and Scotsman, drinking in a pub;
  • three clergymen, a minister, a priest, and a rabbi, playing golf on Monday morning;
  • three women with different hair colouring, a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead, driving down the highway.

We're never told what happened to the Welshman, Cornishman, imam, or grey-haired lady.

Even though it's a joke, the funny bits are not equally shared.  The minister, Englishman, brunette, and redhead never get the laugh lines.

Some characters are transferable from one joke to another:  the Scotsman and the rabbi, for example; or the Irishman and the blonde.

It all begs the question:  How many blonde, Irish rabbis does it take to change a light globe?  (That, by the way, is the world's first post-modernist joke.  It doesn't have a punchline, but it doesn't need one.)

Monday, 18 March 2013

When did "reform" stop meaning reform"?

Some words change their meanings.  Some even take the opposite meaning to what they once meant.

Take the word "reform", for example.  "Reform" used to mean making something better for most of the people.

For example, governments that were engaged in reform included those led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson in the US; by Clement Attlee in the UK; and by John Curtin, Ben Chifley, and Gough Whitlam here in Australia.  Whatever the failings of these governments, they worked from a motivation to improve the life of ordinary people.  They were reforming goverments.

In recent decades, since the Reagan-Thatcher years in the 1980s, "reform" has changed its meaning.  "Reform" now doesn't mean making life better and fairer for the average person.  "Reform" now means rolling back the social advances of the decades since Roosevelt, Attlee, Curtin & co., making life harder for the average person once again, and easier for the mega-rich.

The far-right politicians, academics, and commentators (the ones I sometimes call "the Ayn Rand Fan Club") have hijacked the word "reform" so that it means something that is the opposite of real reform.

The Ayn Rand Fan Club doesn't hold a copyright on the word "reform".  Let's reclaim the word.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

“The emotionality of Holy Week.”: a sermon for Palm Sunday, 24th March 2013

There is a certain predictability to the emotional roller-coaster that the Christian church experiences during the week that begins today and ends next Sunday.  In fact, there is even an element of bipolarity in the experiences of this week, like a person who is subjected to deep, deep mood swings as part of their daily life.

Today, on Palm Sunday, we experience a sense of excitement:        the excitement of the cheering crowds that welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

On Thursday evening, we experience a sense of growing crisis:  the growing crisis as Jesus celebrated the Passover feast with his disciples and alarmed them as he spoke of being betrayed and of his body being broken; a growing crisis that intensified when Jesus was betrayed, and handed over to the Roman authorities for trial.

On Friday, the Friday we ironically call “Good Friday”, we experience a sense of grief and a sense of anger: 
·        the grief we experience when anyone dies, particularly when a person dies at far too young an age;
·        the anger we experience when anyone dies violently, particularly when the victim of the violent death is a manifestly good individual;
·        the particular anger we feel in this case when the full force of the Roman Empire – an early example of what we now call a “superpower” – was directed toward destroying an individual whose only crime was proclaiming a vision of God’s reign of peace, love, and reconciliation.  (Obviously, superpowers back them behaved just as badly as superpowers behave today, perhaps even worse.)

And then, on Easter Day, next Sunday, we experience a sense of exuberant joy (but mixed with a note of confusion):
·        the mixture of joy and confusion experienced by Mary Magdalene and her friends as they arrived at the tomb to receive the message that Jesus was alive;
·        the mixture of joy and confusion experienced by two disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road, but only recognised him in the breaking of the bread;
·        the mixture of joy and confusion experienced by us all as we realise that all the events of that dramatic week were profoundly for our benefit.  However actively or however casually any of us may seek to follow in Christ’s path, the events of this week were for our benefit.  Christ’s triumph over death which we will celebrate next Sunday was not just his own private victory.  Christ’s Easter victory was and is on behalf of all humanity.

Next week, when we celebrate Easter, we will join in the celebration of the central event of our faith.  Whether we interpret this Easter reality
·        as literally as many Christians do or
·        as non-literally as many other equally faithful Christians do,
we celebrate that event which, for Christians
·        of all denominations,
·        of all theologies,
·        of all spiritualities,
·        of all temperaments,
has made the most profound difference in how we view our life and our death.

And so, during this week, we have these contrasts in the tone and the emotion of our worship.  Some of these contrasting emotions communicate better to the community than others. 

For example, I believe Easter morning is a far better time than Good Friday to invite a person to church who hasn’t been to church for some time.  By its very nature, a worship service on Good Friday is solemn and sombre.  (It would be dishonest if it wasn’t.)

Because of this, a worship service on Good Friday may have the effect of confirming the cultural prejudices many of your friends, relatives, and neighbours may have as to what it is that goes on in places like this church: 
·        the prejudice held by many people in our community that practicing Christians are obsessed with gloom and doom;
·        the prejudice held by many people in our community that practicing Christians are all intent on spoiling other people’s enjoyment of life. 

On the other hand, Easter Sunday with its joy, its celebration, and its festivity, may help undermine these deep-seated prejudices toward worshippers such as ourselves.

And so we enter into the events of this week, with all their almost bipolar contrasts of emotion. 

To underscore the unity of our events this week, the final hymn for our services today and Good Friday will be a hymn which, while it focuses on the cross, seeks to look past the experience of the crucifixion to the event of the resurrection:  “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim …”.  We’ll end our service today with this hymn.

As well, both today and Good Friday, the last words I’ll speak at the end of the sermon, and the last words I’ll speak at the end of the worship service, will be those words which often end an episode of a television series where the plot will not be resolved until a future episode:  “To be continued …”.

Today, we remember Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds.  By Friday, the cheers of the crowd turned to violence at the hands of the Roman soldiers.  But the story did not end there.  Death could not hold Jesus.  In Jesus’ triumph, we experience hope.

To be continued ….

Chocolate-chip hot cross buns ... how dumb is that? (a somewhat curmudgeonly reflection)

Does anyone else think that chocolate-chip hot cross buns are remarkably silly?

Easter has been associated with chocolate for some time, now.   Back when many more people "gave up" various treats for Lent than they do today, chocolate was often high on the "give up for Lent" list.  As a result, when Lent ended at Easter, many people would enjoy a bit of excess in their Easter return to what they gave up for Lent.  In the case of chocolate, this also meant that confectionary companies produced special Easter chocolate items, such as chocolate eggs or chocolate rabbits.  (Eggs, being an ancient symbol of new life, were a part of Easter for centuries.  People would dye hard-boiled eggs for Easter.  Orthodox churches still distribute dyed eggs at the end of their Easter liturgies.  Egg-shaped novelty chocolates were a more recent practice.)

On the other hand, the hot cross bun was an item, not for Easter but for Lent.  It was produced as something sweet but not too luxurious - more like fruit bread than cake in its texture - and thus, very appropriate for Lent.

Once the Easter festival begins (sometime on the Saturday evening of Easter weekend), the austere Lenten hot cross buns should give way to more luxurious sweets (preferably made from the decidely non-Lenten chocolate).

So, liturgically and gastronomically, a chocolate-chip hot cross bun is a mixed metaphor.

On the one hand, it's too luxurious for Lent.

On the other hand, it's not luxurious enough for Easter.

Perhaps that's why chocolate-chip hot cross buns start appearing in the supermarkets during the first week in January, well before the beginning of Lent.  They're the hot cross bun you eat when you're not doing Lent.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Some thoughts on the new Pope

It's been a big day.  We awoke to the news that the Cardinals (not the baseball team, but the senior archbishops) have not only chosen a new pope, but chosen:
  • the first Latin American pope,
  • the first pope to be a member of the Jesuit order,
  • and the first pope to take the name Francis.
There are a number of signs of hope here.
  • The new pope seems to have a genuine concern for social justice and an advocacy for the poor.
  • He seems to have a warm personality, and is said to have a lively spirituality.
  • They say he has a genuine concern for relations between Christians and member of other faiths.
The information that he takes public transport a lot, cooks most of his own meals, and lives in a small apartment (rather than a palatial archbishop's residence) all indicates a commitment to a servant style of ministry.  (I imagine that his minders at the Vatican won't let him continue in this way of life, but I hope he'll at least be allowed to make his own breakfast ... even if just occasionally.)

He's said to be pretty conservative on issues relating to gender, sex, and bioethics.  Still, we can say essentially the same thing about any of the cardinals in this conclave (all of whom were appointed by either John Paul II or by Benedict XVI).  His conservatism, however, seems to be tempered by pastoral compassion (and common sense) in a number of ways, however:
  • He has been quoted as advocating that condoms should be allowed for the sake of preventing sexually-transmitted diseases.
  • He has been an advocate of far greater compassion for people living with HIV/AIDS.
  • He has criticised priests who refuse to baptise the children of unmarried mothers.
I'm sure he won't please everyone all the time.
  • Some of the more liberal or middle-of-the road Catholics will wish he was a bit more flexible on issues of gender, sex, or bioethics.
  • Some of the more religiously conservative Catholics will wish he was a bit less pastoral (and a bit less compassionate) in his conservatism on issues of gender, sex, or bioethics.
  • Some of the more politically conservative Catholics will be annoyed that he wasn't as flexible as they'd like on issues of social justice.
  • Those of us outside the Catholic Church will also develop our own opinions one way or the other, partly from the media, partly from the Catholics we know.
One sign of hope for Francis's papacy is seen in his name.  Taking a name that embraces the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the new pope seems to be embracing a commitment to an accessible, inclusive, and compassionate spirituality.

Even for those of us who aren't Catholic, the Pope has a major role in promoting the well-being of all Christians, of all people of faith, and of all people of good will.  For those of us who pray, let's pray that he's able to do well in this task. 

Pope Francis

A new pope has been chosen ... Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio ... a Jesuit ... Argentinian ... the first non-European-born pope in over 1000 years ... who has chosen the name Francis.

The name is a promising sign, I think.

White smoke ...

Just got the SMS ... Habemus Papam ... no I don't have a direct line, I just signed up for an SMS service for a "white smoke" alert.  Just after 5:00 a.m. Hobart time, looks like early evening Rome time on the TV.

Couldn't get the ABC on my TV ... went to a commercial station ... after a few minutes I was able to get decent reception on the ABC ... able to avoid the inane chatter of the commercial network.

Swiss Guards moving around ... still no name yet.

Whoever he is ... please pray for him.

While I'm not a Catholic myself, I know that whoever occupies the Chair of Peter has a major impact on the well-being of the whole Christian church, and on the morale of all people of faith and all people of good will.

As I said, whoever he is, please pray for him.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Should Good Friday and Easter Monday remain public holidays?

As we consider almost every public holiday on the Australian calendar, we can find people in the community who experience the day as a holiday from work but who still, in all honesty, can say “This isn’t really my holiday.” 

The most dramatic illustration of this statement is Australia Day. 
  • Most Australians view this day as the beginning of our nation’s life. 
  • In recent decades, many non-Anglo-Celtic Australians have regarded this day as an opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity. 
  • However, for most indigenous Australians, the 26th of January represents the beginning of the catastrophic loss of their continent and the destruction of much of their culture.
There really is no easy way around this fact.

There are other, if less dramatic, illustrations of this statement, as well.
·        Republicans receive a public holiday for the Queen’s Birthday.
·        Pacifists receive a public holiday for ANZAC Day.
·        Political conservatives receive a holiday for Labour Day, along with anyone sympathizing with employers on most industrial relations issues.
·        The various public holidays observed on a state or regional basis for horse races, agricultural shows, and similar events are also public holidays for those who choose to spend the day doing something else.
·        New Year’s Day is received as a public holiday by those who see another day (Chinese New Year, Rosh Hashanah, the First Sunday of Advent, etc.) as a far more meaningful start to their year.

For almost every public holiday in Australia, some Australians can claim “this isn’t really my holiday.”  In this light, the handful of Australian public holidays that are linked either to Christian liturgical observances (Good Friday, Christmas Day) or their aftermath (Boxing Day, Easter Monday) are in very good company.

The issue is further complicated by examining the appeals to Australia’s secular society and Australia’s multifaith culture. 

While Australian society is, in many ways, profoundly secular, so are many nations in Western Europe that have public holidays for Good Friday and Easter Monday.  In contrast, neither Good Friday nor Easter Monday is a public holiday in the flamboyantly religious United States.

Similarly, I believe a growing appreciation of the multifaith dimension of our Australian culture is crucial for our nation’s future.  But in this context, speaking as a person involved in interfaith relations, I am unaware of any proposal by Australians of faiths other than Christianity to delete holidays with a Christian origin from the calendar.  (Such proposals are normally made by people of an aggressively anti-religious orientation, but with a Christian background.)

In considering the question of whether or not Good Friday and Easter Monday remain public holidays, the sole issue I want to address is the level of congruence between the churches’ observances of Holy Week and Easter and the observances of the wider community.  If no real congruence exists, I believe that the churches should seek to voluntarily relinquish these public holidays by requesting governments to move the public holidays on these days to some other occasions.

To look first at the other Christian observance marked by public holidays in this nation, I believe that a high level of congruence exists between the Christian celebration of Christmas and the Christmas celebration of the broader community.  Themes that are never far from the surface in our community’s celebrations at Christmas include hospitality, joyful generosity, and the idea of Christmas as an occasion for human ethical transformation (what I call the “Scrooge motif”).  All these themes are directly relevant to themes found in the proclamation of the Christian faith at Christmas. 

However, I believe that such a congruence of themes is markedly absent between the Christian observances of Holy Week and Easter and the activities of the broader community during the Easter long weekend.   There is really far less common ground between the churches and the broader community at Easter than at Christmas.

The Easter long weekend affects a number of practical issues of church life for Holy Week and Easter. 
·        The existence of the Easter long weekend means that, for many congregations, Easter Day is a very low-key occasion.  The non-frequent worshippers who make a point of attending services on Easter Day often do not make up for the numbers of regular worshippers who are elsewhere.  Because of the Easter long weekend, there are many regular worshippers who rarely attend worship in their own congregations on Easter Day.
·        As well, the structure of the Easter long weekend often means that many non-frequent worshippers are more apt to turn up at their local church for the solemn and sombre observances on Good Friday (before travelling to the place where they’ll be weekending) than for the more joyful celebrations of Easter Day (while they’re away).   This may have the effect of providing a skewed view of the Christian faith among those for whom this is their sole visit to church in an average year, as well as reinforcing in their minds the popular cultural stereotype of practicing Christians as being very gloomy people.
·        The practice of some congregations (usually within the “evangelical” range of the Christian spectrum) who hold a premature “Easter” celebration on Good Friday is, in my opinion, no help here.  Such a practice lacks liturgical and theological integrity by glossing over the pain of Good Friday.

In many ways, I envy my Eastern Orthodox colleagues who can, in most years, lead their congregations in the celebrations of Easter without the distraction and the competition of the longest long weekend of the year.

My own preference is that the Good Friday and Easter Monday public holidays be replaced by an autumn long weekend, with the date of the weekend to be set in consultation with state and territory Departments of Education in terms of their preference for the break between the first and second terms of the school year.  Such an autumn long week end may coincide with Easter (on the date celebrated by western Christians) in some years, but not others.  Similarly, it may also coincide with Orthodox Easter, or with Passover, in some years, but not others.

I personally believe that the Christian churches of Australia have nothing to lose – and potentially much to gain – if Good Friday (along with Easter Monday) was no longer a public holiday. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

"Family Service": Is there something better to call it?

Many churches have a worship service, usually existing alongside their more traditional services, that has a primary focus on making worship "child-friendly", so that children are enabled to participate in worship and find the church to be an inviting and welcoming community.  As well, this service is generally of a more casual nature, compared with the congregation's other services, so as to appeal to those who prefer to worship in a more casual context.

As I said, many churches have these services, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes at some other level of frequency.

The question is "What do we call these services?"

Many Catholic parishes I know call these services "Children's Liturgies".  This, in my opinion, is an honest and accurate term to use.  These are worship services designed for children, with the purpose of enabling children to worship.

However, in some other denominations, many prefer not to refer to such services as being for children, knowing that some adults who prefer a more casual style of worship also choose to attend these services. 
  • Some adults who choose to attend these services do so to encourage the children and their families in their faith. 
  • Other adults who choose to attend these services do so because they feel the content of a service orientated toward children may be less challenging and confronting than the content of a service oriented toward adults.
But, even if some adults choose to attend these services, they are normally planned with children in mind.

In the Uniting Church, these services are sometimes called "All-Age Worship".  This, in my opinion, is not a very accurate thing to call these services.  They're not really designed for all ages, only for all ages up to early adolescence, even if some adults choose to attend them. 

Many churches call these services "Family Services".  This has it's own problems.  In recent years, "family" has become a very politicised word. 
  • Some politicians and religious leaders use the word "family" in a very rigid, moralistic way, so that not all families qualify to be considered as being "the family". 
  • Some politicians and religious leaders speak of "family values" in such a way as to indicate that they do not value all families equally, i.e.  that they value a family involving a married, heterosexual couple and their children far more highly than they value a family involving an unmarried couple, a same-gender couple, a "blended" family, a single parent with children, or a couple with no children.
For some people in the wider community, whenever a church uses the word "family", there's always  the suspicion that the word is being used in the rigid, politicised way.  So some see a sign advertising a "family service" to be an invitation to a gathering celebrating politicised "family values", even when this may be far from the intention of the planners.

As well, the phrase "family service" may be seen by some as referring to a gathering that is only for children and their parents, so that some may think "I have no children, so this service isn't really intended for me."

Here's a modest proposal:   If your church has a service like this, let's keep it simple, honest, and unconfusing.  Rather than a "Family Service" or "All-Age Worship", call it a "Casual Service".  This describes most of these services very well.  It doesn't invite any unnecessary confusion.  Nothing is really lost by calling your "Family Service" a "Casual Service".  Possibly, much can be gained.