It happened every Lent half-term at College. The Principal would call all the married men into his study, saying “You men have been away from your wife and families for six weeks, but when you get home, do remember that it is still Lent and a time to abstain. Do I need to say more?” I suspect he was not heeded all that much!
Likewise, I and my best mate at College was John, and we both cycled together as keen bell-ringers to the nearest monthly Ringers’ Meeting in some country church. Nothing erotic about that you may say, but the Principal had ordered us to not .go out together, on the grounds that it was “not healthy”!
I only recount this as it illustrates how sexual activity became the major sin, as far as one can tell from Early Church history. It could not be claimed to be something about which Jesus was unduly concerned.
Sex gradually became a cardinal sin after the fourth century. It tormented some of the Saints to an obsession and springing from that was the need for priests to be celibate; something that still exists in the Roman Catholic Church and probably is the reason why there was much anguish when Anglican clergy (with wife and children) were allowed to become RC priests with the Ordinariate.
Interesting that in Genesis (1, vv27-28), the newly created man is told to be “fruitful and multiply”. How, without sex?
Early in St. Mark’s Gospel, (2, vv15-17) we find Jesus sat down among a crowd of undesirables, among whom were probably prostitutes, drinking wine and doubtless accompanied by a song or two and much merriment.
You have the classic case (John 8, vv1-11) where the Scribes and Pharisees bring a wretched adulterous woman to be judged and punished (death by stoning). No doubt about her guilt, but Jesus suggests that “He who is sinless should throw the first stone” and convicted by their own consciences, we find just Jesus and the woman alone. “Hath no man condemned thee?” and on her answer “No man, Lord”, He says “Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more”.
Note, Jesus doesn’t say she hasn’t sinned, but He doesn’t condemn her.
The sin in adultery, was the breaking of a solemn undertaking, a betrayal of marriage promises (the same way in which God is portrayed as making a marriage between Himself and the Hebrews, and breaking that covenant and abandoning Jahweh, was a form of adultery).
Yet, what did Jesus decry? Religious hypocrisy, creating Laws that were man-given and not God-given, failing to treat the poor and outcasts with some respect, and (our old friend), Pride.
Lust can be more than simply sex; other tendencies can be a priority where they became an obsession, coming between ourselves and God. Alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts have an unhealthy lust for their addictions.
Nowadays, we talk about “Having Sex”, reducing what can be beautiful between a man and a woman to almost a commodity. That is a sin, because it can be an action which is not an expression of love, but of lust.
Rather we should describe the sexual act as another description, “Making Love”, a physical expression of that commitment, for sex without love is misusing a God-given gift. That is lust.
We have devalued it, and we are spiritually poorer as a result.
One of my grand-daughters disliked the church she usually attended, because the sermons were always about “Sin”, and she thought there was more to preach about than that. Indeed there is, but there would be no Gospel if sin was not an important aspect of being human.
The Gospel is more than that, for if there was no sin, the Cross would not have been needed; no Good News that God offers us the antidote to sin in the life and death of His Son, Jesus Christ..
But, what is sin? It is “self”, where what we want do, is contrary to the behaviour that God has set down, not just in the 10 commandments, which is full of “thou shalt nots”, but in the positive teaching originated in the Old Testament and repeated by Jesus, to “Love God with all your heart, mind soul and strength, and your neighbour as yourself”.
Over the centuries theologians managed to isolate seven variations, that they considered were terribly serious.
Why “seven”? Because seven is a sacred number and they had to fit them in, although they do sound a bit artificial.
Now what are they? Good Question.
Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth.
So let’s begin with what has been described as the “Mummy and Daddy of all sins” and that is PRIDE.
Why is that? Because it was Pride that led Adam’s wife to fall for the serpent’s challenge, suggesting that God was just being awkward, and “Why shouldn’t she try it?”
So she does, and fatally, persuades her husband to do so also.
Pride leads people into all manner of actions, where we want to do what we wish, and see any curb on our decisions as an infringement of our ability to do so, come what may.
The temptation of Eve is something that is mirrored daily in our lives. The Genesis narrative is classic, where there is a temptation and voices (within or without) tell us “Go on, nothing will happen if you do this”; situations where we go along with it, because we don’t want to appear to be a “sissy” because we didn’t want to appear to be soft, or inadequate. So that in some way we shall be diminished.
In my youth (a long time ago!) in the playground, and if something was suggested we might do against school rules, and you held back, it was most hurtful to be called a “Cowardly Custard” (we were less nasty in those halcyon days) but that was sufficient to go on to obey those voices and finish up suffering for it.
Certainly, when urged to kiss a girl in the Infants’ Playground at Mount Street Infants’ School, “Go on, no one will know”, authority did “know” and resulted in my being publicly slapped on my wrist in front of all the School!
Pride in individuals is bad enough, but when we rise to the level of National Pride, that’s when confrontation and conflict become literately fatal and, of course, more sinful.
Next week, we’ll talk about “Greed”
8 March 2020
FASTING: If you are giving up things for Lent, do remember that Sunday, being the weekly Feast of the Resurrection is never a “Fast” day, so you can have a sherry (or whatever), before lunch, if you wish.
“You’re ill, man” said the (then Archdeacon, “You must go!”“When?” I asked, “As soon as possible” was the reply).
That worthy gentleman had heard that I was suffering from depression, verging on a nervous breakdown, and this was the cause of his concern.
“I won’t” I said, “I want a year to try and prepare the parish for a new Rector and then I’ll go”. That was in the days when I had a “freehold” and thus could stay on regardless of Archdeacons or anyone else, except the Bishop.
There was little sympathy and I felt as if I was disposable and needed to go without a fuss.
There were so many bits and pieces of jobs that I naturally undertook (as did so many parish priests) and possibly because I didn’t want to feel dispensable and if I didn’t do it, who would?
The Archdeacon departed, with me having promised to leave at the end of a year. It was only when I began to look around the parish that I realised there were tasks that any layman could do (if I could find them) and that did not require an ordained minister.
The truth was that I had (in 1981) six years earlier had a bad year and that was the beginning of a gradual decline.
The depression deepened after attending a clergy meeting where a Cathedral Canon addressed us, saying (and this is what worried me)
“You clergy are very expensive items and you must ensure that you are giving us your moneys-worth”.
I asked myself, “Was I doing all I could, what more could I do?”
All this time, I was struggling, but carried out all my duties and services during this period.
When eventually I left Wootton at the end of 1987, I resolved that I would, in future, only do what needed a priest to do, and the rest had to be the responsibility of the congregation.
I should have read Acts 6, vv1-7: “It is not right that we should leave preaching the word of God to serve tables” and so the disciples appointed seven good men, Deacons to deal with the practical matters such as distributing food, clothing etc. to the needy.
For two years, after retirement, there being numerous retired priests around the area, there was little demand for my services apart from helping at the Cathedral and so, at the Superintendent Methodist minister’s appeal for help, I was enrolled on the Methodist Plan. I studied their set-up, where the running of the chapels was left to the local officials, leaving the Minister to be a spiritual leader, rather than an ecclesiastical dogsbody.
I felt we could learn much from the original Methodist set-up and that Ministers should “minister”, and priests left to be priests and not to be concerned with the day-to-day running of their benefice.
Too often some congregations have behaved as if they were “passengers” on the Church ship, leaving the priest to do all manner of jobs which they could well do.
Sadly, some of the Methodist (Class) system seems to have withered, but if The Church is going to prosper, our people must see themselves, not as “passengers”, but as fellow seamen, leaving the clergy to steer and lead the crew, which is what Methodism did and can still do and we must do also.
When I was asked to rescue 6 little Somerset parishes, I insisted that we drew up a contract that defined exactly what they could expect me to do (being a priest and pastor) and what they, the People of God should do.
It was a “releasing” experience, when I found that I could at last be free, leaving anything that didn’t need a priest to the laity.
You’ll hardly believe this, but when I took charge of my first “living” in 1956, the Parish Quota to the Diocese was £80p.a. the Vicar received no refund of his expenses, such as postage, telephone, etc. and until then the parish contributed nothing to the stipend, which was £550p.a.
The stipend was funded by the interest on Endowments given by wealthy parishioners and so the parish got their priest for free!
Some of these Endowments were substantial and until 1976, no demand was made upon the parish. The dead paid the clergy.
The Clergy all had to pay into a Pension Fund, which when I was a curate (earning £350 p.a.) was another demand upon my slender purse. I fell into arrears during my curacy and the moment I was an incumbent, with an increase in income, the arrears were collected from my first monthly pay.
Then, it was “all change” and two things happened that changed the whole structure of pay.
First, the Church Commissioners (who handle all the clergy pay) had the Accountants to examine the Church of England finances and discovered that the income from these endowments was far smaller than they should be, mainly, because no in-depth study had taken place over the years. Many rented properties of which this comprised most, were still paying the same as they had done many years previously.
Wootton was particularly fortunate, for in 1087 when the parish was founded by the DeLisle family it included most of the land in the parish, plus rents from other parts of the Island. Until 1976 I used to receive rent (£26 p.a.) for two fields in CHALE GREEN!
These were sold and under a formula, 5% of the Income from the capital sum received (£44,000) when they were sold to build the Spanners Close group of social housing, my stipend rocketed. Because of previous sales, my stipend when I went there as Rector was already £1800 p.a. against the minimum sum of £1000 p.a.
This was obviously unfair, and the Endowment income was shared between the poorer parishes, and although I was over paid, they kindly didn’t cut my pay until Inflation took over and the “minimum” steadily increased until we reach clergy pay that is twenty times that of the £1,000 p.a. in 1976!
Second, the unwise decision to overhaul the Pension Scheme for it was decided that we needn’t contribute to our pensions any longer and the future pension would be allied to the Diocesan Minimum and to be a Final Salary sum of two-thirds of the going rate.
At £1,000 p.a., the pension would be £660 p.a.
That was fine, but as the stipends have steadily risen over the years, because of inflation to a level no one could have forecast, so have the pensions, and although with the decrease in the future number of pensioners (the dark angel is removing us) this demand will not be quite so great.
The “Final Salary” proviso (guaranteed to all those previously in the Pension Scheme) and the removal of clergy contributions brings us to the stage when we need to ask “Can we sustain the cost of our church buildings and at the same time pay huge sums in our Parish Share to pay stipends?” With falling congregation numbers and continuing inflation, who is going to maintain them?
Alison and I discussed this recently and despite representations to the Diocese, this is the “Elephant in the room”, for with mainly older people contributing and young families mostly unable to set aside the sums required . . . where do we go from here?
In 1958 as a young priest, but Vicar of Holy Trinity, Taunton, I found myself part of a Mission team; the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt. Revd. Cuthbert Bardsley had decided to launch a district-wide Mission for outreach in the whole Croydon area.
No small undertaking for it was heavily populated with a mainly commuter clientele.
Our team comprised me, John (my training vicar as leader) and Alfred, vicar of a newly formed parish, and we were assigned to the parish of St. George’s, Shirley, with a fairly modern, “middle of the road” scheme of worship.
Each of us had a particular role; John was the Mission Preacher, Alfred to apply himself to the younger folk (mainly Scouts and Guides), and I was to deal with the music.
Lasting a week, a Mission service every evening, plus parish visiting by the team which was soul-destroying because being a commuter area, most were away in the City during the day.
The Evening Service was well attended, John preached and all seemed to go well, and we came away, feeling that we had made some impact.
One young ‘teen-ager, David was enthusiastic and accompanied me on the visiting, and spoke about the dullness of the worship there, hoping that it might give the parish a new start.
A few weeks came a sad letter from David where he said: “You may not be surprised to know that after you had departed, some newcomers joined us, but after a couple of Sundays they were seen no more. Everything (he said) has gone back to where it was before, nothing has changed and strangely no one seems particularly disturbed at that”.
For a Mission of that type (and since then, I have been involved in four such ventures) and the underlying problem at Shirley, was that they had not prepared sufficiently, ensuring that what they were inviting people to, would be positive, possibly exciting and challenging and offering a spiritual dimension. In other words, the seed fell on unprepared soil and so nothing took root.
It was clear in discussions with the congregation that a fair number were anxious for change, but we as missioners felt that the parish priest wasn’t wildly enthusiastic for change, nor were the older members. Yet, the truth is as a wise parish priest at All Saints, Ryde said to me years ago, “If you get the worship right, you’ll get the rest right” and in my experience that is true.
Worship has to enable us to meet God as reality; what one theologian called the “numinous”, confronting the majesty and mystery of the Divine.
Our worship ought to express that “awe-fullness” of God, which means that not only does it convey His “approachability” “Where we cry, “Abba, Father”, but not forgetting His Majesty.
The rise of the Ultra-Evangelical churches with their large congregations fill us with envy, but there is another side to this.
A diet of long sermons, repetitive choruses, and no structured worship cannot satisfy everyone. There is little scope for congregational participation and if we study Christian and Jewish worship, from the beginning there was a desire to demonstrate the majesty of the Father by the music, the robes of the leaders and the whole reverential approach.
If it is not a positive experience, newcomers won’t come again.
We need to evaluate our own worship. Do you find it satisfying, uplifting, giving you a sense of peace and purpose; Joyful to start a new week?
If it doesn’t, what would improve its impact on you?