Category Archives: Comment

Into 2021 with God! – Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – 10th January 2021

The authors of our lectionary placed the Old Testament reading alongside the Gospel reading for  10th January 2021 for a reason. They wanted us to see them in parallel.

In both cases God is doing something new.

I am not an expert in classical music, a bit of a Philistine really, but as I thought about these two readings from Genesis and Mark it seemed to me that they could be described as two different movements from the same symphony. I’m told that the classical composers used variations on the same theme to develop their composition and that if you listen carefully to the music you can hear the main theme being repeated. …..

Perhaps you can imagine a heavenly orchestra playing the first 5 verses of Genesis. Dark, brooding music portrays an overwhelming sense of chaos and darkness. I imagine that the composer would use discordant modern themes to convey a sense of disorder. Then over this music comes the main theme of the symphony – quietly at first, starting with flute and piccolo, and gradually engaging the whole orchestra. Like a wind gradually rising from a gentle breeze to a violent gale. God’s mighty wind (his Holy Spirit) sweeps across the universe. God is speaking, and his very words change the universe for ever. “Let there be light” and light appears. God saw that it was good, and Night and Day were born.

God breaks into the history of the universe with a powerful word of creation.

Our second reading comes much later in the same symphony. The main musical themes are now well developed – we=ve heard them over and again throughout the symphony. When John the Baptist appears we return to that same discordant, abrupt and harsh theme that we heard right at the beginning of the symphony. His harsh manner, his odd clothing, his strange habits all seem to echo the chaos and darkness of Genesis. The sound from the orchestra builds and noise of the crowds coming to John for baptism shake the concert hall and then John’s voice can be heard as a sharp solo, perhaps, by the oboe cutting through the surrounding noise.

Then quietly at first the main theme appears again. The theme that represented God at work as Creator gradually supersedes the chaos of the early part of this movement. Jesus has come for baptism. The Word of God, from the beginning of John’s Gospel, is beginning his work. And as Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism the whole orchestra joins the theme – the heavens are rent open, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and God speaks, a strong solo voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

Can you see the common themes in the two passages?

  • The milling crowd, longing for God to act in their lives; and the universe awaiting God’s creative action.
  • The wind of God, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of the deep and the waters of baptism.
  • The word of God bringing creation, “Let there be light”; and the Word of God, Jesus, God’s Son, whose ministry brings redemption.

God’s delight is obvious in both passages. Looking at creation, ‘God saw that it was good’. Looking down on his Son, God said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”.

The theme from each movement of our symphony is the same. God creating his world and God redeeming that same world. All part of the same plan. In our symphony, both represented by the same theme.

And now, early in 2021, we are participating in what the Bible calls the end times, the days between Jesus’ first and second coming. We are participating in what we might call the final movement of the symphony.

In the first movement, God saw that everything was good. What does he see now, at the start of this new year, in Ashton, in our churches, in our families and personal lives? Where are the signs of new creation? Where are the dark, formless voids that still await God’s creative action?

In the later movement God expressed overwhelming pleasure at the baptism of his Son. What things in our world, our town, our churches or in our lives today, give God pleasure?

Where might we begin to hear that same musical theme of God’s intervention here in Ashton-under-Lyne? What do we long that God would do in our town and in our world?

At this moment the pandemic looms increasingly large and we can feel the discordant notes of fear and anger. The discordant music seems to dominate our lives, yet quietly, almost unheard in the chaos of noise that theme of hope is still present quietly picked out again by flute and piccolo bringing a measure of calm in the midst of the noise.

How might the final movement of our symphony be being played out? What should I do? What should we do to participate in God’s work here? Now, in these difficult times? Which of the musical voices are we contributing to? The discordant chaos or the still, small, haunting voice of calm and hope?

Epiphany 2021

Matthew 2: 1-12

In the bleak midwinter  by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the moment when the story of Christ’s birth first becomes a matter for the whole world. Up until the appearance of the Wise Men, the Magi, the story is exclusive. All the main characters are from Palestine. All of them are Jews.

In Matthew 2: 1-12, we hear the story of how, after Jesus was born, some wise men from the East, from beyond the borders of what we now call Palestine and Israel, even from beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, heard that a King had been born. The Gentiles are at this point included in the story.

These wise men wanted to find the King so that they could worship him. They followed a star to Jerusalem and asked some priests there if they knew where to find the King. The priests knew where Jesus was to be born, because they had been told by the prophet Micah, so they told the wise men that they would find the new King in Bethlehem.

The Wise Men saw the star and chose to follow it, otherwise the Star would have been useless. …

So it is with all that God promises us in his Word. We need to respond to the gifts God gives us. We need to continue to grow in faith and commit to following God – and in doing so we make God’s promises our own. We find God to be trustworthy – God is there for us when we need him. This is the journey that each of us is on!

Wise men and women today are still seeking for Jesus. We don’t look for him in Bethlehem, because he is no longer there. He is on his throne in heaven. We don’t need a star to help us find him. We can find him by reading about him in the Bible, by sharing together in the bread and wine of communion, by talking together with others who know him well.

Just as the Wise Men brought gifts to the Christ-child, so Christina Rossetti reminds us that Christian faith is not just about how we receive the gifts and love which God gives, nor is it just about following the best path to the right place. The words of the last verse of her carol remind us that our faith is also about what we bring, about the offering of ourselves, the core of who we are, as a gift to the Christ-child.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist – 27th December 2020

John 20:19-31

On 27th December, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. Born in Bethsaida, he was called while mending his nets to follow Jesus. He became the beloved disciple of Jesus. He wrote the fourth Gospel, three Epistles and the Apocalypse. The first chapter of his Gospel which focuses of the Word made flesh is one of the most read Gospel reading at Christmas time. In his Gospel and in his epistles, he speaks of the divinity of Christ and of the primacy of love. With James, his brother, and Simon Peter, he was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration. At the Last Supper, he leans on the Master’s breast. At the foot of the cross, Jesus entrusts His Mother to his care. John was close to both Jesus and Mary. Towards the end of his life, we know that John was exiled to the island of Patmos under Emperor Domitian.

I have chosen to reflect on a passage from close to the end of John’s Gospel. It might seem strange to be reading an Easter story just after Christmas. It isn’t the passage set for the Feast of St. John. But it is the point at which John’s Gospel reaches its climax.

We’re not told why Thomas wasn’t in the upper room that first Easter evening when Jesus visited his disciples. We could spend time trying to imagine where he was – but we won’t! Suffice to say, he missed the key event, the turning point, the moment that changed defeat into victory. And how did he respond? … In exactly the same way as most of us would have done. … Thomas just could not believe what the others told him.

I doubt any of us would have done under those same circumstances. We say that ‘Seeing is believing’ – but so is sharing in an experience with others. Thomas not only didn’t see what happened, he was left out of the experience that everyone else shared. He was in a lonely place, wanting to believe, wanting to share in everyone else’s happiness, but unable to do so. He’d not been there, he had not seen Jesus.

Thomas’ reactions and feelings are understandable, and as we read the story we can see that Jesus thought so too. He provided a repeat of the same encounter – one in which Thomas could share. He then gently reminded Thomas of his outburst – no indignant rebuke, just words which drew Thomas back to faith. Thomas’ response is one of the clearest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the Bible. Having seen the truth of the resurrection he cannot but exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

The next 3 verses are important, and they are pivotal to St. John’s message:

Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” ….  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

St. John has led his readers through a story – a story which allows those readers to meet Jesus and begin to understand who he is. It’s a journey of discovery, one in which we can identify with the different characters, feel their emotions, struggle with them to understand what Jesus is doing and saying. Thomas’ words are the culmination, the pinnacle of the story – the point where even the strongest of doubters expresses faith. Jesus response is not just for Thomas’ ears, not just for the disciples, but for all who read John’s Gospel in coming generations. “Don’t think,” says Jesus, “that the disciples were in some way special because they saw all these events first hand. Rather, blessed are those who read the stories and encounter Christ through the work of his Spirit in their lives and the lives of those around them.”

“Blessed,” says Jesus, “are all who read this Gospel, who struggle with doubts & come to believe that I am the Son of God.”

St. John’s message for us is that we have not missed out on the party, we can still be part of the events which changed defeat into victory. We too can own the risen Jesus as our Lord.

This is good news – particularly for those of us who struggle with doubt; for those of us who’d like to believe more strongly than we do; for those of us who see other people’s faith, or the joy they seem to experience in their Christian life, and feel that we are somehow missing out.

I think this passage is not just important as the culmination, the climax of St. John’s Gospel. It is important because St. John chooses, at this climactic moment of change, to embrace doubt. He places the strongest words of faith in the mouth of Thomas the doubter.

Everything is different, Jesus was dead and is now alive. Nothing can now be the same. In the story, Thomas struggles to accept this new reality. For so many of us change is difficult to handle, yet it is happening all the time. It is happening right now as we struggle towards a possible post-Covid reality.

We need to continue to engage with the communities around our churches, looking for new ways to serve, new ways to make Christ known and to bring hope where there is despair. We need to accept that the future for the Church of England is one with significantly less stipendiary clergy – perhaps one third less in numbers in only a few years’ time – and we need to imagine new forms of ministry both lay and ordained, new ways of being church. Nothing is the same as it was, nothing will be the same as it was, and we want to shout out the loudest “No! Not now, not ever!”

I think that there are two key things to take away from this passage.

First – it’s OK to be honest – don’t pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t, don’t manufacture faith if it isn’t there. We can express our fears and we can express our doubts. In fact expressing our fear and our doubt is often, like it was for Thomas, the first step to faith.

Second – this story of doubt and faith is made the crowning moment of John’s Gospel – the pinnacle – Jesus reaching out to his loyal but doubting and fearful follower, not in anger but in love. Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!” is the point at which John choses to rest his case. He has asked his readers to understand who Jesus is and this story of doubt and faith is the crucial last part of his argument. Honest struggling with change, honest struggling through doubt towards faith is given the highest honour in John’s Gospel.

So, don’t be discouraged if the pace of change or the circumstances we face are a struggle. Don’t be discouraged if believing is a struggle. Be encouraged as you struggle to be faithful in an ever-changing context, when at times everything you hold dear seems threatened. Be encouraged as you struggle to believe, for the story of Thomas makes clear that God loves the open and honest doubter.

Uganda at the end of 19th century and the events leading up to the construction of the Uganda Railway.

It has been some time since I last posted about the Uganda Railway. I have very recently picked up a copy of each of the two volumes of ‘Permanent Way’ written by M.F. Hill in 1949. The first volume [1] is a history of ‘The Uganda Railway’ written in the 1940s when the railway company was known as ‘The Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours’ and published at the end of that decade under the jurisdiction of the new ‘East African Railways and Harbours’ which was formed to formally include the infrastructure in the modern country of Tanzania.

In order to provide the context for the construction of the Uganda Railway, M.F. Hill saw it as imperative in his book to provide a social and economic history of the East African region. It is impossible for me to judge the veracity of what he writes, but it clearly is written from a British Colonial perspective. In addition to covering the strife between the European powers who sought to increase their influence in the Great  Lakes region of the continent of Africa, Hill provides extensive quotes from leading British figures in the region about the Uganda that they knew before the coming of the railway.

It must be acknowledged that the perspective is essentially that of those who were seeking to enhance British influence and eventually to establish Colonial rule, however, it also has to be said that these men (and it was always men) sought, within their own Colonial and paternalistic terms of reference, to be a benign civilizing force. The picture which develops, as one reads M.F. Hill’s book, is, on the one hand, one of competition for influence between Germany, Britain and to some extent, France and Belgium, but on the other hand, a significant and seemingly quite unhealthy competition between three main religious groups, Roman Catholics, Protestants and followers of Islam.

Within the sphere of the Buganda ‘nation’, the influence of the two forms of Christianity was very significant, with adherents to the Muslim faith being a significant minority. The conflict between these groups has to be seen as one of the major influences on the choices made by Colonial emissaries. Yes, there was also an urgent consideration of competition with Germany for control over the Great Lakes region but it is significant that much of the focus of those who were leaders in the development of the British sphere of influence seems to be on the internal tribal conflicts in the region which seemingly were fueled by the rivalry between Protest and Catholic leaders.

Sir Gerald Portal, who led an overland expedition to Uganda in the early months of 1893 at the insistence of the 5th Earl of Rosebery (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the 4th Gladstone administration) commented in a despatch to Lord Rosebury on the situation he discovered on his arrival in Uganda in March 1893, “he emphasised both the evils of the native system of administration and the curse of the religious conflict which largely arose from political causes.” [1: p103]

The decisions being made about the possible/probable construction of ‘The Uganda Railway’  were equally focussed on the possibility of these tribal/faith conflicts flaring up as they were on firmly establishing British interests over-and-against those of Germany.

In this light, it is worth quoting directly from Hill who is himself predominantly quoting Portal:

Portal described Uganda as a ‘whited sepulchre’, and traced the country’s tragic story from the bloody despotism of Mutesa, and the early years of Mwanga’s reign, when the condition of Uganda had been scarcely rivalled by the horrible records of Dahomey.

“The form of government in Uganda,” he wrote, “is nominally a despotic monarchy, and in the days of the late Mutesa it was really so; but his successors, and notably the present King Mwanga, have been unable to maintain either the prestige or the power of the Crown. . . . At the time when I arrived, the whole population of Uganda was divided into three semi-religious parties, two of which acknowledge no authority on the part either of Mwanga or his Council. Uganda is divided into ten provinces, each of which is under the nominal governorship of a chief. Under these governors again are an immense number of minor chiefs, one below the other, in a complicated system of transmitted authority. . . . In theory, at first sight, this organisation would appear to be not a bad one; in practice, it has proved to be the cause of a vast system of oppression and robbery. The unfortunate peasantry are forced to toil for the support and glory of an immense number of useless and idle petty chieftains who would think it beneath their dignity to do a stroke of any sort of work from one end of the year to another. In recent times, even the small chiefs had powers of life and death over the peasants, and although this has been stopped, there can still be no doubt that cruelty and oppression in various forms are rife throughout the provinces. Economically, the present system is as bad a one as could be devised; certain taxes in kind have to be paid to the King from each province; these taxes are levied solely from the lowest classes, but as they have to pass through the hands of a long gradation of chiefs, the amount which ultimately reaches the King does not represent more than a fifth part of what has been paid by the villagers.”

Portal pointed out that this administrative system accounted for the importance attached by the Bishops and the political leaders of the opposing parties to the possession, on their side, of certain chieftainships or provincial governorships. The acceptance by a great chief of the Protestant creed might mean the addition of a thousand fighting men to the Protestant cause, whilst the appointment of a Catholic governor to the command of a province might mean that every chief, sub-chief and villager in the province had to make up his mind quickly between embracing the same faith, or being forthwith turned adrift and deprived of his house, dignity and position.

The miserable history of Uganda during the previous few years had shown how inextricably religion and politics were interwoven. The three great parties, Mohammedans, Catholics and Protestants, were nominally divided only by religious tenets, but in fact they were adverse and jealous political factions, two of which were led, to all intents and purposes, by European missionaries. [1: p103-104]

Portal went on to say:

“That the missionaries, on both sides, are the veritable political leaders of their respective factions there can be no doubt whatever. As regards the Catholics, Mgr. Hirth and the Fathers would probably be the first to admit this to be the case. On the Protestant side, it is not, I believe, admitted, but the fact unfortunately remains. . . . The present state of affairs is that the natives on both sides have acquired the habit of appealing to their respective missionaries on every possible question, whether it be a personal quarrel with one of the opposite faction, an assault case, an eviction from a plantation, a murder, a decree from the King, or a decision or order from Her Majesty’s Commissioner. There has thus grown up a sort of dual or even triple system of government, which adds very seriously to the difficulties of administration. It will from this be readily understood that the race for converts, now being carried on by the Catholics and Protestants in Uganda, is synonymous with a race for political power. To-day the Protestants are the strongest, and the most numerous, party; to-morrow a successful battle might place the Catholics in a dominant position and, in such case, that religion would gain on the second day many thousands of converts, from among those who are now reckoned as belonging to the Protestant party. Catholics and Protestants here seem to look upon each other as natural enemies; no doctrine of toleration, if it has been taught on either side, appears to have been received by the native Christians; the fear of English officers and of the Nubian soldiers at the Fort may keep them from overt acts of hostility towards one another while this control remains here, but as soon as it is withdrawn, the war of extermination will at once be renewed. It is this feeling which, through the introduction of the two forms of Christianity into Uganda, has cost so many hundreds of lives, and has thrown the country fifty years back in its advance towards prosperity. It is deeply to be regretted that the avowedly great influence of missionaries in Uganda is not used to introduce a spirit of tolerance and peace even at the risk of the loss to the party of some political power of a few wealthy chieftainships.” [1: p104]

Hill continues:

The Mohammedan party was weaker in numbers, wealth and arms than either of the two Christian parties. In the event of the withdrawal of British control, the strength of the Mohammedans lay in their power to hold the balance between the two Christian factions. When it became known that the Company proposed to withdraw from Uganda, overtures to the Mohammedans were made, almost simultaneously, by the Catholics and by the Protestants. Portal realised that the Mohammedan influence in Uganda was inevitably doomed. If civil war again broke out, whichever party gained the Mohammedans’ affiance would certainly win the day—and then turn upon and annihilate the allies who had assured their victory. If peace continued, the Mohammedan party would inevitably be wrecked on the same rock which destroyed the power of so many Mussulman states—that of slavery. [1: p104-105]

Mwanga II was kabaka in Buganda from 1884 – 1888 & 1889 – 1897. He died aged 34 or 35 in 1903. There are notes about his reign below the references at the end of this article.

In retrospect it seems as though there is ample evidence in the story told here for a rejection of all religious influence in matters of state/politics. However, the world is not such a simple place. Portal did not regard all the Christian converts in Uganda as animated solely by political or material motives. He knew that only “a proportion of the so-called Catholic and Protestant parties could truly be called Christians, but Christianity had undoubtedly gained a firm hold in the country. Mwanga’s persecutions, [2] a few years previously, had proved that there were a considerable number of sincere-Christians prepared to die for their faith.” [1: p105] In addition, politics is a descriptive term for all interactions between differing groups of people. Where people exist, politics will occur. It is to be sincerely regretted that denominational loyalties in the West were imported into the Great Lakes region of Africa in such a way as to promote conflict rather than tolerance and understanding! The level of trust between the principal Christian denominations was not high in Europe at this same time.

The primacy of religious leaders in the politics of the time meant that one of Portal’s first tasks was to seek an accommodation between Bishop Tucker, the Protestant Bishop of East Equatorial Africa and Mgr. Hirth, the Rpam Catholic Bishop of Thereste and Vicar Apostolic of Nyanza. Careful negotiation brought reluctant agreement to the partition of provinces between Catholic and Protestant factions.

On 8th April 1893, 40 Protestant Chiefs signed a statement agreeing to release all their slaves. On 29th May, Mwanga also signed an agreement which accepted British authority. On that same day, Portal left for the coast.

By late 1893, Portal’s health was failing and he made his last report to his masters in London before setting off for the UK himself, where he died very early in 1894. Much of the report had to do with the management of British interests in the Great Lakes region. As [part of that report he strongly recommended the building of a railway from the coast to Kikuyu, not to Lake Victoria Nyanza, but including a significant enhancement of the British fleet on the Lake. That report was considered, after his death, by Parliament in London.

In June 1894, the British government was still hedging its bets and not making a commitment to the construction of a railway, although a decision was taken to declare a Protectorate over Uganda. This move was proclaimed in Uganda in August 1894 and was heartily welcomed. A further Protectorate covering the area from Uganda to the coast was proclaimed in 1896 – the ‘East African Protectorate’.

The Report of the Committee on Railway Communication with Uganda was submitted in April 1895, by the end of June 1895, Lord Rosebery’s Government had fallen and the new Tory administration under Lord Salisbury lost no time in deciding that the railway should be built. It was seen as essential to the life of the Uganda Protectorate. Preliminary expense were granted in the sum of £20,000 in August 1895. And the decision was taken to construct the full length of the railway from the coast at Mombasa to Lake Victoria Nyanza – a distance of 650 miles. Through choosing a reduced gauge and a lighter rail, the cost estimate for the work was set at about £2,700 per mile – a reduction from £3,409 per mile in the early estimates of cost. However in April 1896, a Government committee recommended that the gauge should be increased to one metre and the rail weight restored to that originally recommended – 50lb per yard.

The engineering team arrived in Mombasa in late 1895 but the empowering Act was not to achieve its passage through Parliament until August 1896 with a budget of £3 million.

Earlier posts in my series on the Uganda Railway cover the line and its construction. That story starts with the following article on this site:

https://rogerfarnworth.com/2018/05/09/uganda-railways-part-1

Hill continues with the story of the building of the line. [1: p139-244] Given that this series is meant to be primarily about the Uganda Railway, this article has been something of a diversion.

As I am an Anglican priest it seems worthwhile to me to  return to the religious issues mentioned above. These will, in due course, be the subject of a further article in this series.

To restore the balance in favour of the railway itself. I will finish this post with some images directly associated with the railway which come from the pages of Hill’s book. [1]

Sir George Whitehouse KCB., the first Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Uganda Railway. [1: facing p144]

Rope Inclines on the Eastern face of the Rift Valley during construction in March 1900. [1: facing p179]

Kilindini in 1900. [1: facing p208]

Nairobi Railway Station in 1900. [1: facing p228]

Nairobi in 1900. [1: facing p228]

Uganda Railway – Class G 0-4-2 steam locomotive Nr. 101 and passenger train (Hawthorn 1746/1878). This locomotive was a one-off import from India, ex South Indian Railway. This image was posted recently on a French language site associated with the LRPresse Magazine(s), rather than coming from Hill’s book [3]

British East Africa in 1910. The Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Victoria Nyanza. Also included on the LR Presse forum. [3]

References

  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbry & London, 1949.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mwanga_II_of_Buganda, accessed on 17th December 2020. Part of the text of this Wikipedia page is reproduced in italics below.
  3. https://forum.e-train.fr/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=87849&p=2255445&hilit=Ouganda#p2255445; accessed on 19th December 2020.

Mwanga came to the throne at the age of 16. He increasingly regarded the greatest threat to his rule coming from the Christian missionaries who had gradually penetrated Buganda . His father had played-off the three religions, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, against each other and thus balanced the influence of the European colonial powers that were backing each group in order to extend their reach into Africa. Mwanga II took a much more aggressive approach, expelling missionaries and insisting that Christian converts abandon their faith or face death. A year after becoming king he executed Yusufu Rugarama, Makko Kakumba, and Nuuwa Sserwanga, who had converted to Christianity. On 29th October 1885, he had the incoming archbishop James Hannington assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom.

For Mwanga, the ultimate humiliation was the insolence he received from the (male) pages of his harem when they resisted his sexual advances. According to old tradition the king was the centre of power and authority, and he could dispense with any life as he felt. It was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king. Given those conflicting values Mwanga was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers. Mwanga therefore precipitated a showdown in May 1886 by ordering converts in his court to choose between their new faith and complete obedience to his orders and kingdom.

It is believed that at least 30 Catholic and Protestant neophytes went to their deaths. Twenty-two of the men, who had converted to Catholicism, were burned alive at Namugongo in 1886 and later became known as the Uganda Martyrs. Among those executed were two Christians who held the court position of Master of the Pages, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and Charles Lwanga. They had repeatedly defied the king by rescuing royal pages in their care from sexual exploitation by Mwanga which they believed contrary to Christian teaching.

These murders and Mwanga’s continued resistance alarmed the British, who backed a rebellion by Christian and Muslim groups who supported Mwanga’s half brother and defeated Mwanga at Mengo in 1888. Mwanga’s brother, Kiweewa Nnyonyintono, was elevated to the throne. He lasted exactly one month and was replaced on the throne by another brother, Kabaka Kalema Muguluma. However, Mwanga escaped and negotiated with the British. In exchange for handing over some of his sovereignty to the British East Africa Company, the British changed their backing to Mwanga, who swiftly removed Kalema from the throne in 1889. He later converted to Christianity and was baptised.

Sunday 6th December – Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11

The first Candle on our advent wreath in church spoke of the Patriarchs. The second candle speaks of the Prophets. Both groups witnesses, ahead of time in the Old Testament, to the coming of Jesus. The remaining two outer candles on the wreath represent John and Baptist and Mary.

Our gospel this week and that next week focus on John the Baptist, the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets.

I used to work in the centre of Manchester, and during lunch breaks I’d often wander around Piccadilly Gardens. Frequently I’d be approached by one of the men who lived rough – sleeping on the benches in the Bus Station or in the sunken gardens which were once the basement of a hospital bombed out in the Second World War. Usually I’d be asked for a coin or two to help purchase a meal. Money which, I was near certain, would be spent on alcohol. … Jo, my wife, once told me that when she worked in London and shopped on Oxford Street there was one character that she could rely on meeting. … Trudging up and down, eyes downcast, with a sad look on his face, a rather dishevelled looking man with a scruffy brown overcoat carried a sign “Repent, the end is nigh”. It wasn’t surprising that no one ever stopped him to ask about his message. He seemed rather strange, a person to avoid. Of no relevance to their lives.

This is how I imagine the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist – very similar to this dishevelled tramp, although perhaps with a little more fire in their bellies! . John the Baptist was an unconventional man, living in the desert, with clothes made of camels hair, living on a diet of locusts and wild honey – proclaiming a message of repentance. A seemingly unattractive person – someone to be ignored. Yet John was attracting large crowds and his message was credible. People listened and acted on what he said.

‘Repent’, said John, and people did, in large numbers. He was a success. …

So, what can we learn from John? How come he was so successful?

In John’s day, Israel was a weary people, living under occupation. They’d been so for 400 years – first the Greeks and Persians, and now the Romans. They were right at the bottom, depressed and desperate for any sign of hope. God had promised a Messiah, and in 400 years there had been only imposters claiming the title. God seemed to have gone silent. They lived under pagan occupying forces; they lived in a secular, world with a corrupt king and hypocritical religious leaders.

Yet among the people were those prepared and willing to hear John’s message. People longing for renewal and change, people who knew that there was more to life than the grind of daily living under the burden of an occupying power. People who perhaps were desperate enough to respond to anything – they’d tried everything else, and here was their last hope. Perhaps people, who when they heard John, recognised God’s voice calling to them. Or perhaps they were people who were just dissatisfied with the world around them and wanted something more.

This sounds very familiar? A secular world, full of unbelief? A lack of confidence in authority? Religion on the back foot? Church attendance dropping? Values of society changing – no longer so easily identified with our Christian heritage? God seemingly absent? … Just like today? Well, almost. …. Perhaps the pandemic makes our circumstances different, but the people in Palestine at the time of John the Baptist would have had significant concerns about their health. There were none of the amazing drugs which we can rely on today!

How should we respond? Pack up and go home? That seems to be the easiest option. Let’s retreat back into our churches, do the things we enjoy doing and let the world get on with its own agenda. Unfortunately, in churches across our land that seems to be the temptation. It’s so much easier to stick with what we know than to contemplate radical change.

John the Baptist chose differently, and so did those who listened him. John spoke words that the people needed to hear. Not, perhaps, what they might have wanted to hear. …… “Repent.” Why? Because God’s kingdom is near! There, in John’s message are the first seeds of hope. God seems to be speaking again, just like he did to the prophets of old, speaking with authority once again. Hope was being born again in the hearts and minds of all who listened to John. John was preparing the way for something significant to happen. Something new, something different.

John brought hope, and with it renewed energy and life. Hope that God would act. Hope that, in the words of the placard carried by the tramp in London, hope that the end was nigh. The end, not of the world, but of waiting for God to act. Now, soon, God will act. The people who went out to John in the desert became a people of hope, people with a renewed vision for the coming of the Messiah.

Advent is a season for preparation, for anticipation, for longing; a season of hope; a season to allow ourselves to yearn for things to be right. A season when we can express even our anger to God – anger that the world is not the way it should be, longing that God will do something about it. Advent is a season when we can start to recognise that God has given us his first response to that longing, to that hope; a down-payment, a deposit that we can trust. In the incarnation of Jesus, we have God’s “Yes!” to our cries for help. “Yes, I am with you. … Yes, I have heard you.” … But it is also the season when we acknowledge that we wait for his final answer. We wait in hope for God’s final solution, when everything will be made right.

Advent hope, Christian hope. Hope that is not just ‘pie-in-the-sky’, but hope based on the firm commitment of a deposit made 2000 years ago in the birth of Jesus. Hope that doesn’t just pretend that everything is going to be all right, despite the evidence. But hope which has seen everything and endured everything and still has not despaired, because it trusts God and his promises. Hope which continues to bear fruit in reality, as people’s lives are changed through meeting with God in Jesus; as they encounter Christians who clearly aren’t perfect but whose lives have something deeply attractive about them.

John calls his hears, calls us to renewal, to repentance – to ‘turn round’, to change direction. Not just to tinkering with the edges of our lives, those little personal things that need to change, it’s a call to a complete reorientation of our lives, a call to begin to believe again in God’s love, to turn away from selfish values and to love again as God has loved us – only this kind of all-embracing repentance will begin to demonstrate that hope is more than wishful thinking, that lives can be and are being changed by God’s love. Only through this kind of repentance will we prepare our hearts and the hearts of those around us for the coming of Jesus.

John’s life witnessed to the truth of what he believed. He was sold out to what he proclaimed. He lived his message. Nothing in the way John behaved, not his words nor his actions, left any doubt about where his priorities lay. However strange found him, the one thing that you could not do was accuse John of duplicity. He was whole-heartedly committed to his message. John’s words and actions belonged together. John’s challenge to us is a challenge to integrity – to live day by day the way that we talk at Church on Sunday. To be united with each other, caring for each other, to be seen to be growing in understanding of our faith, to be seen to be loving each other, and to be reaching out with the love of Christ to everyone that we meet in our daily lives. And by so doing, to emulate John who, as our Gospel reading tells us, pointed beyond himself to another, to the one on whom people’s hope can justifiably rest, to Jesus.

How will we make Advent hope more of a reality in our world today? Certainly not by carrying a placard which speaks of impending judgement, nor by mouthing words of faith which are not clearly supported by the lives that we live. Advent hope, real hope, will be seen as a reality by those around us only when they see lives that are sold out to the Gospel.

Advent Sunday 2020

Mark 13: 24-37 – 29th November 2020

It is over 30 years since the fall of many of the Soviet states in Europe.

31 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down!

My brothers-in-law travelled there at the end of 1989 and picked up a souvenir piece of the wall. Pieces of the Berlin wall are still on sale today.

Over the New Year Holiday, the Berlin Wall was being dismantled. … The end of the Berlin Wall was the end of probably the most potent symbol of oppression in Europe in the 20th Century.

It’s disturbing to realise that it all happened over 30 years ago now. Maybe, at that time, you shared my sense of unbelief – ‘Is this really happening?’ It was hard to believe that the world order that I had grown up in – that of a Cold War, stand-off between two superpowers – was seemingly coming to an end. Something that even just months before those amazing events at the end of 1989 seemed impossible.

This same seeming impossibility surrounded the Jewish people in the centuries before Christ. They had been longing for a Messiah – someone who would change the course of history for ever. They were so often disappointed, different men came promising what they could not deliver. No doubt Israel felt the mocking eyes of others as they clung onto this seemingly vain hope of a glorious Messiah. Someone who would bring in Israel’s golden age. Everything pointed against it. Israel was a pawn, a minor league nation caught in the ebb and flow of the politics of the real powers.

In Advent, as Christians, we do at least two things – firstly, we remember, we enter into something of the feelings of the people of Israel as they waited for the coming of their Messiah. We wait with them. … They had to wait 500 years from the first promises made to them. We allow ourselves the month of December – but we wait for the coming of the Christ-child. Unlike them we know for sure that he will come – for we’ve read the story before.

But we are in other ways just like them. For we impose our expectations on him – we know what the Christmas story is all about – we’ve got the story neatly packaged. … We need the story to be constant, unchanging because life is too busy, too pressurised at this time of year. ‘Let’s stick to the routine,’ we say, ‘enjoy the celebrations, and hopefully have time to relax in January!’ Although what those Christmas celebrations will be like in 2020 is still a matter of uncertainty.

If we are not careful – if we don’t make the time to reflect, to listen, to wait – we’ll miss the Christ-child. We’ll not see the miracle of God in human form. Just as most of Israel missed its Messiah, so God’s grace will pass us by. Advent is our time to centre ourselves before Christmas, to focus on the true meaning of the Christmas story, to grasp that God’s Son, the Christ, God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us – Jesus, is coming and he is coming for us, for me.

But we also wait in other ways … for many of us, life is not the way we want it to be and we pray for God’s intervention. It feels at times as though nothing is happening. Times like this are hard. We wait for God to come, and he seems absent. We are a little like the people of Israel awaiting their Messiah.

Advent is not just preparing for Christmas, but about looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus spoke about this our Gospel reading. A difficult passage, because this Second Coming seems for Jesus to be so immediate. And so we, the Church, have our questions – raised at different times with different intensity. Why has it been so long? Has God forgotten us? Is Jesus never coming back? Were we intended to take it literally? Was Jesus mistaken? Is it important to believe in the Second Coming?

And these questions are often mirrored in our experience of daily life as at times God seems to be absent. And our experience of waiting in some way matches that of those nations waiting year after year under the tyranny of Communism. Seemingly without hope – yet in 1989 there was that dramatic change. What was unbelievable, happened. The wall came down, Communist regimes toppled.

Similar but different.

In our daily lives, we hold onto a promise – a promise to be taken on trust. Jesus’ promise to be there for us in the midst of all that life brings our way – Christ will come again.

But, as Christians, we also have something of the reality on deposit. In the meal of Holy Communion we look back to the realities of Christ=s first coming – his death and resurrection. And we also look forward to that heavenly banquet in which we will all share – a meal that Jesus promised to eat with us in his Kingdom.

We can believe that God is with us in our suffering. We can believe that Christ will return. Things that people dream about, do happen, God’s, presence with us is real, and Christ Second Coming is no more impossible than the collapse of the Berlin Wall felt to a divided Europe, a divided Germany. The seemingly impossible is possible with God.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Clergy and Railways!?!

I was asked to give a talk in 2020 to a clergy discussion group on the subject ‘Clergy and Trains’. This group had decided to have its annual outing on The East Lancs Railway and I was to be the after dinner ‘entertainment’! It did not work out, for obvious reasons in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic altered everyone’s plans!

However, as a result of the request,  I began to study what was available online and in the press on this subject and the place it takes in the wide range of interests available to the clergy. … Whether my research counts as original research, I very much doubt. However, you might find what follows of interest!

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the clergy love trains.”  So started an article by Ed Beavan in the Church Times on 15th June 2011, entitled ‘All Steamed Up About Trains’. [1] On the centenary of the birth of the Revd W. V. Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, Ed Beavan asked, in his article in the Church Times, why so many clergy are railway buffs.

The statement, ‘so many clergy are railway buffs’, seems to me to be the kind of statement which becomes more and more true as time goes by. Once we begin to believe that it is true, we then begin to validate our own understanding and our own take on reality.

I know of no independently accredited study of clergy interests which proves that there is a greater preponderance of railway interest among the clergy when compared with other professions. Although there will probably be someone out there to correct me. Nor, I think is there a similar study which compares the range of different  interests held by the clergy and determines the most prevalent.

Model railways (and even railways themselves) are a relative latecomer in the various fields open to clergy to pursue. There are a number of good examples of clergy in previous generations who had interests beyond their own parish, church or flock.

Clergy with interests in Science

In Palaeontology, most early fossil workers were gentleman scientists and members of the clergy, who self‐funded their studies in this new and exciting field. [2]

Wikipedia lists Catholic Clergy who have made significant contributions to Science, [3] and there are many from other denominations too. Examples from across the spectrum of Clergy allegiance to denominations, include:

Roger Bacon – a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empiricism. [7]

Nicolaus Copernicus – a Renaissance-era mathematician, astronomer, and Catholic clergyman who formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at its centre. [4]

Gregor Mendel – a scientist, Augustinian friar and abbot of St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno, Margraviate of Moravia. He gained posthumous recognition as the founder of the modern science of genetics. [5]

Georges Lemaître – a Belgian Catholic priest, mathematician, astronomer, and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain. He was the first to identify that the recession of nearby galaxies can be explained by a theory of an expanding universe. [6]

John Michell – an English natural philosopher and clergyman provided pioneering insights iin astronomy, geology, optics, and gravitation. He was the first person known to: propose the existence of black holes; suggest that earthquakes traveled in (seismic) waves; explain how to manufacture an artificial magnet; and, recognise that double stars were a product of mutual gravitation …. [9]

The extensive Wikipedia list is merely a snapshot of a longer list which extends down to the present day. There have been many people who have combined their scientific eminence with a role as a member of the clergy. A prime example is Revd. John Polkinghorne, [10] Other in the contemporary age include Revd. Arthur Peacocke, the first director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the first director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. [16] Others include: Canon Eric Jenkins, [17]; Revd. John Chalmers, moderator of the Church of Scotland and who has been involved with Church of Scotland projects such as Society Religion and Technology, [18] and Grasping the Nettle. [19]

There is also today, a society for priest-scientists. The Society of Ordained Scientists is a society within the Anglican Communion.  The organisation was founded at the University of Oxford by  Arthur Peacocke following the establishment of several other similar societies in the 1970s, in order to advance the field of religion and science. [11][15]

Other interests are also shared by clergy and the religious.

One particularly engaging study of clergy interests and proclivities was produced recently by Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, “A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Even Practising.” [12]

Waterstones comment: “Judge not, lest ye be judged. This timeless wisdom has guided the Anglican Church for hundreds of years, fostering a certain tolerance of eccentricity among its members. Good thing, too!” [13] Given my interests in blogging, railways and model railways, I have no alternative but to echo the sentiment. … “Yes, it is a good thing too!”

Butler-Gallie regales us with “eye-popping tales of lunacy, debauchery and depravity … he has done a splendid job presenting a smorgasbord of most peculiar parsons.” [14]

Among many other things, he tells us of a variety of different eccentrics who somehow found themselves within the ranks of the clergy. Examples include Revd Robert Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow who was the first to institute a church Harvest Festival, but who at one time also used to dress as a mermaid. There was also an erstwhile Rector of Carrington whose fear of photography meant that he led services from behind a screen and who during a very long ministry built the largest folly ever constructed within these shores. Butler-Gallie goes on the describe a pantheon of eccentrics, nutty professors, bon viveurs, prodigal sons and rogues, all of whom appear to have somehow ended up either with their own parish or in the position of senior clergy. [12]

My current curate, while definitely not being an eccentric, has been an avid player of computer games, he plays regularly in a variety of different local bands, and he has taken up roller-blading. One Franciscan friar, Brother Gabriel, spends his spare time at a Bloomington, Indiana, Skate Park several times a week after participating in evening Mass and prayers. [8] 

This article is, in no way, a formal survey of clergy interests, and all these examples are, of course, very obviously anecdotal.

So, are there any grounds for believing that an interest in railways is more typical of the clergy than these other things?

I suspect not.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be a good number of clergy who are interested in both full-scale and model railways.

Clergy with an interest in Railways.

Font to Footplate – Teddy Boston’s autobiography completed while he was in hospital just before he died at the age of 61. [48]

Butler-Gallie directs our attention to one Revd. Teddy Boston. [12: p19-22] who was for 26 years Rector of Cadeby and Vicar of Sutton Cheney, in Leicestershire, (1960 – 1986). He built a light railway in the grounds of the Rectory at Cadeby. It was U-shaped, with a total length of 110 yards. He opened the line to passengers in 1963 [20] and named the line, “Cadeby Light Railway.”

Wikipedia tells us that Boston, “was a close friend of the Rev. W. V. Awdry OBE, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, a kindred spirit with whom he shared many railway holidays. In Small Railway Engines (1967), Awdry relies on a trip the two made together to the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, and they appear in the book as ‘the Fat Clergyman’ (Boston) and ‘the Thin Clergyman’ (Awdry). [21]

The Rev Wilbert Awdry “controlling” Thomas on the Ffarquhar Branch in Railway Modeller, December 1959. [21]

Wilbert Awdry is perhaps the best know clergy railway fanatic across the world. The ‘Thomas’ franchise is still very popular on the 2020s and Covid-permitting brings in significant revenue for Heritage Railway organisations each year. Awdry himself wrote 26 books in “the Railway Series”. His son Christopher went on to publish a further 16 books between 1983 and 2011. The series has also spawned a number of related books and a significant number of TV/Video/DVD programmes in English. [22] and in many other languages. [23]

Another star in this firmament was Revd. Peter Denny who for many years was a regular feature in the Model Railway Press. [24] He was known alongside others for being at the forefront of the development of the hobby after the Second World War. He was known for modelling which exceeded the expectation of the times for realism. He innovated in the management of his model railway and the timetabling of train movements. His layout Buckingham went through a number of incarnations as it developed in size. There are a variety of books written about his modelling achievements [25] and he is still feted online as well. [26] His layout is described by Tony Wright as, “one of the most important layouts in the hobby’s history since WW2.” [27]

Rt. Revd Eric Treacy MBE was an English railway photographer and Anglican bishop. He was Suffragan Bishop of Pontefract and then Bishop of Wakefield (1968-1976). his passion outside of office was railway photography. The Treacy Collection of 12,000 photographs forms part of the National Railway Museum’s archive of over 1.4 million images. His published works were almost entirely railway photograph albums. [28] 

After a major, 11-year, £600,000 overhaul by volunteers on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which was completed in 2010, you would have found 70 clergy in the carriages behind the newly named locomotive, ‘Eric Treacy’ on it inaugural run. The then Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt. Revd. Stephen Platten, held a re-dedication service for the train at Pickering Station on 27th August 2010. He was joined by Rt. Revd. Dr David Hope, former Archbishop of York, and Stephen Sorby, of the National Railway Chaplaincy. [32]

Revd Richard Patten, in the late 1960s, bought his own full-size steam locomotive, 73050, and so began the restoration of the Nene Valley Railway near Peterborough. [35]

An interest in railways is something that a number of clergy own up to when talking about themselves. For example:

The Revd. Timothy L’Estrange, MA, DipMin, FRSA, Vicar of North Acton and Surrogate: Spent his spare time as a first aider with the St John Ambulance Brigade, and pursuing a life-long interest in railways, especially the narrow gauge. His parish Reader also expresses an interest in dabbling ‘in the ancient art of railway modelling’. [33]

The Restless Rector, who is not keen to divulge his identity, wrote in his blog of his love of trains. In 2009, he said: “My own theory is that railways are all about order and communication. For some clergy the stress of parish life, and the number of awkward people that one sometimes has to deal with, can be forgotten about in the ordered environment of a model railway. Here you are in complete control, with no-one to answer back or contradict. Yes, trains sometimes get derailed, but no-one gets hurt. Some model railway enthusiasts run their trains to a strict timetable – another layer of order and control. But running a railway can be a very social activity. In real life trains are passed from the control of one signalbox to another with great care. Nowadays this is all computerised, but it used to be by a series of bell codes and telephones.” [34]

He goes on to ask: “Is there anything theological or biblical in all of this? I’m not sure, but maybe building and running a model railway reflects something of the creativeness of God, and his fatherly care.” [34] … In addition, he suggests that because railways are about communication – travel to a destination, the news and the post – then interest in railways may be found more often in the evangelical wing of the church where, “a high priority is put on taking the good news to new places.” [34]

His final comment is perhaps quite Anglican. Talking of his interest in railways, he says: “it’s just something I’ve grown up with and embraced for myself – rather like my faith I suppose.” [34]

In my own experience, interest in railways is relatively evenly spread between clergy colleagues and a particular churchpersonship does not seem to increase the likelihood of that interest. The ecumenical nature of railway interests is illustrated by two clerics invovled with the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. …

Fr. Eddie Creamer (RPSI). [39]

Revd. Canon John McKegney (RPSI) [39]

Fr. Eddie Creamer, a part-time prison chaplain, aged 77, talked in 2017, when he had already been a member of the RPSI for nearly 40 years, of his fascination with trains from his childhood. He goes on to explain that, “When [he] was working in the Philippines [he] joined the RPSI just to get their magazine sent to [him], but when [he] returned to Ireland [he] came to Whitehead to take a few photographs of the trains. I asked if they needed anyone to help them and they haven’t let me go. And now I’m here once a week. I find it very relaxing.” [39]

In 2017, the Chair of the RPSI was Revd. Canon John McKegney, a retired Church of Ireland rector. In 2017, he had been involved with the RPSI for over half-a-century. [39]

Railways and Religion

The interaction between the church and the railways goes right back to the very early days of what was then a new mode of transport. Revd. Michael Ainsworth points out that “the coming of the railways in the 19th century excited deep passions among churchmen, as many novels of the time illustrate. … For some the speed, the smoke, the ‘blot on the landscape’, were unnatural and diabolical – particularly when Sunday trains broke the sabbath commandment. The vast church of St Bartholomew, Brighton was built on a commanding site, and allegedly on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark, as a witness to those travelling down for ‘dirty weekends’.” [29]

He goes on to say: “Clergy joined with landowners in resisting encroachment. (They had limited success – note, for example, how the line curves round Sacred Trinity Church in Salford.)But others hailed railways as a godsend and a sign of divinely-blessed progress (despite blighting the urban landscape). … By the latter part of the century, they had certainly revolutionised episcopal ministry. The late 19th-century renewal of enthusiasm for confirmation would not have been possible without the railways. For example, of James Fraser, Bishop of Manchester 1870-85, it was written he spent the week travelling through his diocese, so that there were few days in which he was not somewhere on the railways.” [29]

So, why are a number of clergy interested in railways?

Revd. Michael Ainsworth again: “It has often been said that the reason why some clergy – probably male rather than female – and others, including church musicians, are keen on railways is because they are reassuringly ‘closed systems’, and Awdry’s setting of his railways on the Isle of Sodor confirms this. Lines and boundaries are set, detailed timetables can be pored over, structures are clear: a joy for those who run model railways in their attics for their own pleasure, or larger versions in their gardens to raise funds. … This joy is less pronounced now that the real railways have been franchised and fragmented. Responsibility for trains, track, signalling, stations and all else is dispersed among many bodies – providing more benefit to lawyers than to passengers …‘customers’.” [29]

The Rt Revd Michael Bourke comments about 19th Century Clergy in the Church Times Letters page in July 2011, that, “Many feared the pace of change, and some religious conservatives denounced the new world, including trains, as the work of the devil. In that context, clerical railway fever (across churchmanship divides) signified an affirmation of modernity. Both railwaymen and churchmen (mostly men in both cases) were re-engineering the nation with their networks of new lines and junctions, new parishes, church schools, and forms of spirituality.” [30]

He goes on to say: “For broad churchmen, the railways spelled enlightened progress; for Evangelicals, the new emphasis on punctuality embodied the Protestant work ethic; and for Catholics, the shared wisdom and co-operation of engineers, locomotive crews, and signalmen represented the mystery of a dedicated priesthood. No wonder the great stations were compared with cathedrals! … Clergy’s instinctive sympathy with this world led to support for the people who ran it, in what amounted to early forms of industrial mission.” [30]

He continues, in his letter, to draw parallels with “a similar clerical enthusiasm for the brave new world of computers.” [30]

It seems that, in the early days of the railways, at least, a clergyperson’s attitude to the newfangled railways said something significant, and provided one uniting factor in the midst of clerical division. However, this is not enough to justify a modern clergy interest in the railways.

Rev Clifford Owen was longing eagerly for his retirement at the age of 70. He was delighted to be surprised by his retirement gift from his last parish in Brugge and Oostende in Belgium: a 5 year membership of the Nene Valley Railway. He describes his joy at the gift and goes on to describe some of the pleasures of being involved with the life of that heritage line near Peterborough and particularly the connection he discovered with his grandfather through undertaking a job that his grandfather would have undertaken 70 years previously. [31]

Revd Preb Mike Kneen.

Revd. Alan Newman. [41]

Revd. Preb. Mike Kneen who retired as Rector of Leominster in September 2020 has had a lifelong interest in steam locomotives. His farewell statement on the Leominster Priory Website says nothing of this interest but it is accompanied by a picture of him as an Engine Driver on the Severn Valley Railway – a pastime which he enjoyed throughout his ministry.

The former vicar of Christchurch, Bradford on Avon, Revd. Alan Newman was another significant railway photographer who became part of the photographic triumvirate of himself, Ivo Peters and Norman Lockett, and he was friendly with two other notable railway clerics that we have already encountered above: the Rev. W Awdry and the Rev Teddy Boston. His story is told by Colin Maggs in a book published by Amberley Press. [40]

Newman was born and brought up in Bath near to the Great Western Railway, which sparked a lifelong interest in steam trains in particular. He took extensive trips throughout the country, hoping to see a train of every class in Britain, recording his finds as detailed notes supported by photographs. [41]

David Self in the Church Times in January 2008 asked the same question as this article: ‘What draws clerics to railways?’ [35] It is worth quoting parts of that piece here.

Self says: “In the 1950s, most enthusiasts were merely trainspotters. Folklore suggests that a few clerics could always then be found on the ends of platforms at Crewe, York, and (for some mysterious reason) Worcester Shrub Hill.” [35]

He continues: “There was nothing comic in the ’50s about being interested in trains. Boys wanted to become engine-drivers. In the 1952 Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt, it was perfectly natural that the leading light in the village’s attempts to preserve its branch line should be the parson, the Revd Samuel Weech. Over the next ten years, however, the railway enthusiast became a figure of fun: a gormless, spotty loner, obsessed by numbers and timetables, and always clutching Biro and notebook.” [35]

In research reported in ‘Trends in Cognitive Sciences’ in June 2002, [42] there was an attempt to define trainspotters as people with a form of Asperger syndrome, as they had a strong desire to order the world. In 2001, the National Autistic Society conducted research among children with autism to explore their frequent attraction to Thomas the Tank Engine. “Among the survey’s findings was the way that many children with autism regard Thomas much as others cherish a comfort blanket. They seem to appreciate the clear plot lines of the stories, the predictability of the characterisation, and the fact that, if something goes wrong, it will be put right by the conclusion. They also seem[ed] fascinated by the engines’ faces.” [35]

David Self says that, “this is not to draw cheap parallels or to make bad jokes about clerics and those with autism or Asperger syndrome. Even so, it is possible to see both ecclesiastical and psychological reasons why watching trains should appeal especially to those in ministry.” [35]

To the cognoscenti … railways are predictable. For every delay, there is a cause. It is a world of facts and realities, a world where (with luck) it is possible to see all — even if it is only every locomotive of a given type. It is the perfect antidote to the often more nebulous realm of theology.” [35]

Similarly, for the clerical railway modeller, the layout in the loft presents an opportunity to create a parallel world, where everything runs to order, and at times and in ways you dictate — unlike normal parish life.” [35]

It was David Self’s article that pointed me to an American website (www.steamingpriest.com) that revels something of the breadth of interest among Roman Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and Rabbis in ‘playing trains’. [36] On that website, as well as seeing something of the scope of his hobby, we are introduced by Fr. Fanelli to his interest in live steam modelling. His interest in railway modelling developed throughout his ministry from first, N scale, through to large scale, live steam models. [37] 

David Self reminds us that the former Chancellor Dennis Healey once stressed the importance of a politician’s hinterland — an interest in areas other than politics. Winston Churchhill had his painting, Ted Heath had his sailing and music, and John Major his cricket, and Gordon Brown, an interest in soccer. Lord Healey enjoyed photography and literature. Self says that, “Such interests are not just a means of escape or relaxation, important as these may be. They are evidence of a rounded personality.” [35]

That idea of a ‘hinterland’ to describe interests outside of ‘work’ is useful when thinking of clergy interests. David Self suggests that a ‘hinterland’ of interests outside of the theological and ecclesiastical is essential for clergy, “not just for their own sanity, but to help them relate more easily to the world outside the Church. It can also contribute to developing an inner calm. For some, their hinterland will be their family. For others, it will be cricket — a world where, for a few hours, you are isolated on the pitch and unable to be got at. Many have found a similar escape at the end of a station platform.” [35]

There is more to an interest in railways than trainspotting but I think that Self’s conclusion to his article is apposite to all interest in railways: “Why mock such happiness? Trainspotting must be one of the most harmless and inexpensive hobbies. It can be pursued alone or with friends, and is surprisingly democratic. Your profession (or lack of one) is irrelevant: it is the trains that matter.” [35]

Although Nicholas Whittaker‘s book, “Platform Souls” is purportedly about trainspotting, it acknowledges a wider interest in the realm of railways and, unsurprisingly, within its pages we also encounter the clergy.

He describes an open day at a railway depot. “Hauling myself up into the cab of E3003 . . . I bump into my first clergyman. He is semi-disguised in trainers and jeans, but his tweedy jacket and dog collar are a dead giveaway. Perched in the driver’s seat, he . . . whistles high-speed fantasies through his teeth.” [38: p221-222]

Whittaker manages to capture some of the factors that seem inexorably to draw some individuals to the railway. “Trainspotting: here was a real boy’s hobby with its own gaberdine camaraderie. It was dirty and mechanical, proudly masculine and solid, yet at the same time … romantic and educational.” [38: p19]

He talks of a time when as a young boy he first managed to slip unnoticed through a small door in the side of one of Burton-on-Trent MPD’s two roundhouses: “In that moment, you slipped from a fresh-smalling open-air into a strange sepulchral atmosphere, silent but for the his of escaping steam. This was the first time I’d been so close to a railway engine and, without a station platform to bring me level, I stood feeling small and awed by the scale of it.” [38: p23]

One ‘interesting’ footnote is the range of society stars that could be seen while standing at the end of a station platform but of even greater significance to a young Nicholas Whittaker, was the possibility that you might encounter one of the dignitaries of the railway interest establishment such as Cecil J. Allen or C. Hamilton-Ellis. In the light of the purpose of this article, it is worth recording that Whittaker goes on to say: “The one we all wanted to meet was… Eric Treacy, Bishop of Wakefield. We knew that, for some reason, railways attracted the clergy, but a bishop was something special!” [38: p43]

My own interest in railways and railway modelling stems, I believe, from a childhood fascination with trains and from a pre-ordination career in civil engineering. My interest in railways is pretty eclectic, but I accept that for many people it will be perceived as a niche interest.

If you were to read my blog you would find that I have a particular interest in Secondary French railways and tramways, many of which fell into disuse soon after the Second World War but whose routes can still be followed through the French countryside by car and bicycle. Jo and I have done just that in a variety of contexts in Southern France on regular Autumn visits. [45][46]

You will find that I have developed a childhood interest in the 3ft Gauge railways of Ireland into a series of narratives following the routes of those old lines which disappeared in the early second-half of the 20th Century. [44]

You will see that one seminal moment for me was travelling on the ‘Lunatic Express’ in East Africa, and you can, if you wish, follow a full journey along the line from Mombasa to Kampala and beyond. [43]

You will, I hope, be delighted to follow the story of the building of an N-Gauge model railway in the vicarage loft. [47] At times these interests have been all-consuming, they certainly have allowed me to escape from times when ministry has been particularly stressful.

A few pictures of my own layout in the vicarage loft bring the main narrative of this article to a close. The layout focuses on the railways in and around the city of Hereford. Sadly, the ‘day job’ has meant little progress on the layout in the past few years. as retirement beckons there will be a significant effort involved in deconstructing what has been built  …Building the Baseboards!Laying the track!Hand-made, card Coaling Stage – Hereford MPDHereford, Barrscourt Station Footbridge under construction.Hereford, Barrscourt Railway Station in its location on the layout.The station approach, showing the footbridge in position.One of Hereford Station’s two signal boxes also of a card construction. Beyond are the two large goods sheds which framed the station approach from the North – these are also of card constriction. The view from the station yard across the allotments to Aylestone Hill.The view across the station yard to Aylestone Hill and bridge.Aylestone Hill Signal Box and carriage sidings.

Conclusion

It seems that whether a cleric’s interest in railways comes from a past outside the church, or is borne in the midst of theological formation, it has some significant things going for it. In particular, like many other interests, it forms an alternative world to the world of work.

I’m not sure that, ultimately, any further justification is required.

References

  1. Ed Bevan; All Steamed Up About Trains; Church Times, 15th June 2011; https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2011/17-june/features/all-steamed-up-about-trains, accessed on 9th February 2020.
  2. Russell J. Garwood, Imran A. Rahman, Mark D. Sutton; From Clergy to Computers; Geology Today, Volume 26, Issue 3, 2010; p96-100; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2451.2010.00753.x, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Catholic_clergy_scientists, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaus_Copernicus, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregor_Mendel, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lemaître, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Bacon, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  8. https://www.osvnews.com/2019/04/07/what-clergy-and-religious-do-in-their-spare-time, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Michell, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Polkinghorne, accessed on 5th November 2020.
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_Ordained_Scientists, accessed on 6th November 2020.
  12. Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie; A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Even Practising; Oneworld Publications, London, 2018.
  13. https://www.waterstones.com/book/a-field-guide-to-the-english-clergy/the-revd-fergus-butler-gallie/9781786074416, accessed on 6th November 2020.
  14. Sebastian Shakespeare; The Daily Mail, 2018.
  15. https://ordsci.org, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  16. https://ordsci.org/history, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  17. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2007/9-february/news/uk/canon-eric-neil-jenkins, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  18. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/speak-out/science-and-technology, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  19. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news-and-events/news/2016/moderator-why-i-support-grasping-the-nettle, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Boston, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  21. http://www.pegnsean.net/~railwayseries/awdryobit.htm, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_in_The_Railway_Series#Thomas_the_Tank_Engine, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  23. https://ttte.fandom.com/wiki/Other_Languages, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  24. For example: Peter Denny; The Railway Modeller Magazine July and August 1958.
  25. For example: Peter Denny; Peter Denny’s Buckingham Branch Lines: 1945-1967 Pt. 1; Peter Denny’s Buckingham Branch Lines: 1967-1993 Pt. 2; Wild Swan, Oxfordshire; 1993, 1994
  26. For example: https://highlandmiscellany.com/tag/peter-denny, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  27. Tony Wright – https://www.world-of-railways.co.uk/model-railways/famous-model-train-layouts-and-their-creators–part-1, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  28. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Treacy, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  29. Revd. Michael Ainsworth; Thoughts on railways, clergy, religion and the law; in Law & Religion UK, 17 April 2015; https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/04/18/thoughts-on-railways-clergy-religion-and-the-law, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  30. Rt. Revd. Michael Bourke; https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2011/8-july/comment/letters-to-the-editor/clergy-who-fall-in-love-with-railways-article-was-on-the-right-track, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  31. Rev Clifford Owen; Retired Clergy Don’t Run Out Of Steam; Diocese of Europe; https://europe.anglican.org/main/latest-news/post/994-retired-clergy-donat-run-out-of-steam, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  32. Clergy carrying train tribute to former railway fan vicar; The Northern Echo, 2010; https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/local/northyorkshire/8358957.clergy-carrying-train-tribute-former-railway-fan-vicar, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  33. https://sites.google.com/site/stgabrielacton/our-priests, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  34. http://coulsdonrectory.blogspot.com/2009/06/clergy-and-trains.html, accessed on 7th November 2020.
  35. David Self; What draws clerics to railways?; Church Times , 30th January 2008; https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2008/1-february/comment/what-draws-clerics-to-railways, accessed on 8th November 2020.
  36. https://www.steamingpriest.com, accessed on 8th November 2020.
  37. https://www.steamingpriest.com/about/fathers-rr-story, accessed on 8th November 2020.
  38. Nicholas Whittaker; Platform Souls; Orion, London, 1995 (Revised Edition, 2015).
  39. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/life/features/love-of-railways-sent-clerics-off-on-a-totally-new-track-36257796.html, accessed on 8th November 2020.
  40. https://www.amberley-books.com/discover-books/transport-industry/railways/the-life-of-a-steam-railway-photographer.html, accessed on 8th November 2020.
  41. https://www.wiltshiretimes.co.uk/news/5072513.with-god-and-gwr, accessed on 8th November 2020.
  42. Simon Baron-Cohen; The extreme male brain theory of autism; in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 6, Issue 6, 1st June 2002, p248-254.
  43. https://rogerfarnworth.com/category/railways-blog/uganda-and-kenya-railways.
  44. https://rogerfarnworth.com/category/railways-blog/ireland.
  45. https://rogerfarnworth.com/category/railways-blog/railways-and-tramways-around-nice.
  46. https://rogerfarnworth.com/category/railways-blog/railways-and-tramways-of-south-western-france.
  47. https://rogerfarnworth.com/category/railways-blog/model-railway.
  48. Revd. E. R. Boston & P.D. Nicholson; Font to Footplate; Line One Publications, 1986.

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Remembrance Sunday

On Sunday 8th November, Remembrance Sunday, all our churches would usually have been full of people remembering, along with millions around our world, the many women and men who have given their lives in the different conflicts of the past 110 and more years.  People who either by choice, or through compulsion, risked their lives in the pursuit of peace and justice.  We owe our freedom to many such people who have stood up against tyranny and oppression – to people who risked everything, laying themselves on the line.

Things are very different this year! We enter another national lockdown because of Coronavirus on Thursday 5th November and our churches will now only be open for private prayer for the next few weeks.

But we will all remember. …. Some will be able to attend church on 8th November, others will want to remain at home. We have sent out Remembrance Sunday prayer cards to people who usually attend our churches or who receive mailings. The prayers included here are specifically for Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. As you use them, you might want to have a poppy to hand.

As I said in our Parish magazine this month:

Our remembering will … include the memories of those who have served on the battlefield or in conflict zones around our world will no doubt justifiably tell and re-tell stories of valour and bravery. For those who served, >remembering= will also bring to the front of the mind stories of those who did not return. Remembering brings to the surface the naked fear of conflict, the pain of loss and a real sense of comradeship.

 But remembering is so very important to us all, not just on Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day, but in all areas of our lives. Remembering leads to us telling our stories. Both as individuals and communities. And as we tell our story, we reaffirm our roots, and we define who we are. We put our own lives in context. For today=s world, where we define ourselves not so much by where we come from as by our networks of friends and acquaintances can so easily become a rootless place where we do not know who we really are.

Our shared memories are our key to understanding ourselves. And our collective memory needs to be sustained by hearing the stories of our past. By hearing from those who went out from us here to serve in different arenas in our world. These stories, these people are so much a part of who we are here … today. They contribute to our history, they strengthen our community spirit.

Our stories are important. Remembering is vital. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to the conflicts with which we have been involved as a nation. Failure to engage with and learn from our past is the height of modern arrogance. We have to hear again the stories of conflict, of bravery, of pain and loss. And we need to allow those stories, … that remembering, to change us now. It must inform our thinking about the future, it must be allowed to change our wills and our actions.

 For in today’s world, we are all called to take new & different risks. To act for justice, for peace in society, in the world around us. To work for racial justice, to fight discrimination, to engage with injustice in whatever form it might arise.”

We have the promise of God in Christ: “Work,” says Jesus, “for the coming of God’s kingdom and I will be with you always.” God does not leave us alone to face new challenges, to risk our lives in the cause of his Kingdom. He promises always to be with us. So let us covenant again, as people of different races, ages, interests, appearances, and with different views, choose to live together in harmony, to work within our own communities, groups and congregations, for peace, justice and understanding.

Prayers

A prayer of commemoration for the fallen

Father of all, remember your holy promise, and look with love on all your people, living and departed.

On this day we especially ask that you would hold forever all who have suffered during war, those who returned scarred by warfare, those who waited anxiously at home, and those who returned wounded, and disillusioned; those who mourned, and those communities that were diminished and suffered loss.

Remember too those who acted with kindly compassion, those who bravely risked their own lives for their comrades, and those who in the aftermath of war, worked tirelessly for a more peaceful world.

And as you remember them, remember us, O Lord; grant us peace in our time and a longing for the day when people of every language, race, and nation will be brought into the unity of Christ’s kingdom. This we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A prayer for World peace
O God of the nations,
as we look to that day when you will gather people
from north and south, east and west,
into the unity of your peaceable Kingdom,
guide with your just and gentle wisdom all who take counsel
for the nations of the world,
that all your people may spend their days in security, freedom, and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Prayers with poppies – suitable for children, as well as adults!

All you need for this simple prayer is a poppy.

Look at your poppy. Poppies are bright and cheerful flowers: give thanks to God for the lives of those who have died in war, remembering all the joy they brought to families and friends, and all the good things they did for their home and their country.

Then look at the red petals: red reminds us of danger and harm. Ask God to be close to those who are still facing danger each day, to give courage to the armed forces, and compassion to all who help others.

Place your whole hand over the poppy: poppies are also fragile and need to be handled gently. God cares for those who are hurting and those who are sad. Ask God to comfort all who are grieving the loss of someone they love.

Finally place a finger on the centre of the poppy: ask God to help you play your part in working for peace in the world.

 

All Saints’ Day – Matthew 5:1-12 & Revelation 7: 9-17

The reading from Revelation set for All Saints’ Day paints a vivid picture of the future – looking forward, imagining an ultimate destination for all of the saints, for all of us.

The technical term for the book of Revelation is that it is ‘eschatological.’ Eschatology is the study of the last things. Under its umbrella in Christian thinking we could place the coming of God’s Kingdom, the return of Christ, immortality and eternal life, judgement, heaven and hell – perhaps too, what we might understand by ‘Christian hope’. The passage in Revelation is a vision of what the future might hold.

The book of Revelation is written to a church suffering persecution. That church found the imagery of Revelation dramatic and hope-giving. Words of hope spoken to people in the midst of suffering.

The author is encouraging their first hearers to believe that there is something more than the difficult things they are currently experiencing. That ultimately, the faithful will have a place in a new heaven and a new earth. The author hopes that such knowledge will change their listeners understanding of the present.

We are now entering the time in the Christian year when our eyes are turned to look forward. Where the Gospel and our other readings look ahead – not just to the Incarnation – the first coming of Christ – but to Christ’s return. We will hear words on Jesus’ lips that promise his return, parables that encourage us to be ready for that return. A return that has not taken place and which, at times, it seems might never take place.

It is true that all that the Gospels promise us has not yet been fulfilled. The death and resurrection of Christ are at the heart of our faith. Jesus has inaugurated his Kingdom here on earth. But we know that everything that the Kingdom stands for seems as far away today as it must have done in Jesus’ day.

As we listen to Jesus words over the coming weeks, we will hear him emphasising that we are living in what we might call ‘in-between times’. As Jesus speaks, he seems to say, “My death and resurrection will inaugurate the Kingdom, but its final fruition is dependent on my return.”

He wants his listeners to know that their lives are lived within an on-going flow of history which reflects the purposes of God, a history which will come to an end in God’s good time. He wants them, and us, to realise that while we cannot know the time and place – God will bring all things to a final conclusion.

We live in the ‘now and not yet’ of God’s salvation history; looking forward with real hope to a time when history will finally be resolved, when Christ will come again. But living now with the reality of a world of complications, of joy and sadness, of hope and disappointment; a world where God is seen most clearly in the lives of those who love and serve him – even when serving God brings persecution and trouble. And so, John, in his epistle, says:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

We are being transformed, made new, through our experiences in this life. Day by day, God is working that transformation in us. Our Gospel reading gives a shape to the transformed lives we are to live as God’s saints here in the present:

“Blessed,” says Jesus, “are those who are aware of the poverty of their own spirit – who realise just how easily good motives turn to bad. Blessed are those who mourn over their own weakness. Blessed are those who choose a path of meekness rather than power and self-aggrandisement. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Blessed are all these because in doing so they will be changed, they will be renewed. The very characteristics that they long for, they will have. Blessed they will be, as they are merciful to others, as the purity of their motives and their heart becomes clear. Blessed they will be as they become courageous peacemakers.”

“Most blessed will they be,” says Jesus, “when they share something of my sufferings.” For through those sufferings they will be transformed and truly be the salt of the earth, lights in the darkness of a world which is longing for the acceptance and the love of God.

Matthew 21: 23-32 – True obedience.

You’ll have noticed two different parts to the Gospel reading set in the lectionary for 27th September 2020. ……

The first, a challenge to Jesus’ authority coming from Jesus’ religious enemies – the chief priests and elders. Jesus confronts some of the highest-ranking, most powerful authorities within Judaism. These chief priests and elders, members of a “scribal elite” class, played important, visible roles in the life of their community and in particular within their religion. Jesus’ catches them out in their duplicity. They are more worried about how they look in front of the crowd than they are about what was true and just and right.

The second, a story about two sons who vacillate between obedience and disobedience to their father. Listening to this second story about the two sons — one who verbally refuses his father’s command to work in a vineyard but later changes his mind and obeys, and another who agrees to toil in the vineyard but does not keep his promise — we might be tempted to moralize it. We may assume its message is simply “Actions speak louder than words!” or “Don’t be such a hypocrite!” or “Obey your father!”

In Jesus’ day, it probably was seen differently. For to refuse your father’s demand made in public would be to shame him and yourself, so you’d say ‘Yes’ even if you had no intention of obeying him. Public face was everything. Jesus challenges this assumption and his listeners pick up on the challenge. Of course, say the chief priests and elders, the one who initially said ‘No’ was the one who did the will of his father. The culturally appropriate behaviour of the son who said ‘Yes’ did not produce obedience to the father. It was the son who started off behaving in a way that shamed him and his father who was ultimately obedient.

So, says Jesus, to the chief priests and elders who have joined the crowd listening to him. You’re the ones who talk publicly about faith and about obedience to God’s will, but you fail to follow through on those public statements when it comes to the crunch.

John the Baptist came preaching and teaching, his message was from God, but it wasn’t you, the religious people, who listened to him, it was the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts. It was the ones whom you condemn, who listened and who acted on John’s words and whose lives were changed through their obedience.

Being religious gives you a standing, a place of honour, in your community but when it comes to the crunch, that place of honour matters more to you than obedience to God’s will!

So, if John the Baptist was the focus of debate in our Gospel reading; if John provided the catalyst to challenge religious dogma and to bring about change; if John’s message drew new people to faith, but left the religious people standing watching on the side lines. What might be this Gospel’s challenge to us, the religious people of our day?

Where might God be at work in ways that we who are religious struggle to comprehend?

Because, if God is active or discoverable in the efforts of someone like John, a wild-eyed long-haired prophet who sets up camp in the wilderness calling for a new world to come into being, a world marked by justice, changed lives, and a recognition that God intends for more than just things staying as they are …… then perhaps people who care about religious language, symbols, practices, and truth should be curious people, bent on keeping their eyes open for new ways in which God might be made known, or ways in which the God’s purposes might be expressed.

We have that responsibility to our wider world – to work for justice, fairness and peace, and to meet human need. … But where might God be asking us to be at work in our own towns, communities and parishes, and in what ways might we act obediently to the Father here?  How might those of us who have said ‘Yes’ to God, be people who come through on our commitment.

Many Churches have Mission Action Plans or equivalents which highlight many things that local parish communities see as the way in which they can make  that ‘Yes’ become real. Does your church have one? If so, are you familiar with what it says? Perhaps, if not, you could ask your church leaders for a copy, explore what it says and perhaps offer to assist with the implementation of the Plan,

Alternatively, you might read the Plan and feel that it needs to change to reflect the circumstances of your own local community at the time you read it.If so, you might want to offer to participate in a review of the Plan.

Or, if your Church has not thought about these issues in the past and as a result has no Plan, You might even want to help to develop one.

But it is not just what our parishes/churches do that constitutes our ‘Yes’ to God. There will be more than this, there will also be things outside the activities of our parish where you see God at work and where a ‘Yes’ to following God will need to become real for you in obedience to God’s will. There may be a community activity which you can participate in, or a gap in necessary provision within your community which you might seek to fulfil as part of your discipleship as a follower of Jesus.

What is God asking of you/us today?