Saturday, 21 December 2013

O Little Town Near Bethlehem

On Thursday 12 December, members of the congregation met to watch a screening of the 2011 Oscar nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras. The film follows the families of the Palestinian village of Bil’in, in the Occupied Territories, as they learn in 2005 that the Israeli governments Separation Wall would run close to the village and deprive them of much of their cultivated land. This land instead would be taken over by Jewish settlers.

An odd film choice for Christmas? Perhaps not, as the movie reveals what the current situation of a modern day Bethlehem is like. The film is shot over five years as the filmmaker works his way through five cameras before they get broken in various ways. Receiving most of our information on this part of the world via the news, this intimate documentary is both shocking and sobering. We become emotionally engaged through the directness of how it is shot. We watch as his children grow up; their first words being ‘army’ and ‘wall’. There are lasting images presented, from the horrific (olive trees on fire and people getting shot) to the hopeful (the planting of new olive trees and a child giving an actual olive branch to a soldier).

Those who watched it found it an eye-opening movie, from the discussion that followed afterwards. All had thoughts on the film and the situation, but when presented with the question ‘What can we do about it?’, all became quiet with uncertainty and an evening about a little town like Bethlehem ended as a silent night.

Richard Feltham 


Monday, 28 October 2013

The changing face of Banking ...

Following the bailout of the Banks in 2008, one of the conditions set by the EU was that both LloydsTSB and RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) are required to divest part of their Retail and Corporate business, to effectively create two new challenger Banks on the High Street – each Bank having significant market share.

A couple of months ago, we saw the launch of the UK’s 7th largest Bank ‘TSB’, a brand that first appeared 200 years ago.  RBS has also recently announced that Corsair consortium - which is backed by Church Commissioners for England and therefore the church's pension fund - had successfully bought a stake in the Williams & Glyn Bank.

The deal is significant as it will give the Church a role in high street banking, it was backed by the Church Commissioners and it is believed to be in attempt to establish an ethical dimension in the group's vision for the small business-focused Bank. Lord Davies, one of the executives has pledged to put lending to small business at its heart, give more funds to the community, cap its bonuses at 100% of annual salary [a pay policy driven by the Church] and to uphold “the highest ethical standards”.  John Maltby the new CEO has been quoted as saying “Williams & Glyn’s will commit to the highest standards of banking ethics and business conduct while providing increased customer choice in the UK Banking market”.

We will not see Williams and Glyn return to the high street until 2015 but it will be interesting to see what influence the Church and John Maltby have in its creation and how different it will be to the Top 5 high street Banks of today.

Emma Mitchell

Emma is a member of the congregation of St John's and works as a management consultant within Financial Services

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


 Sermon – Season of Creation, Energy – Sunday 22nd September 2013.

Energy is one of the marvels of God’s creation.
At a vast cosmic level, there are black holes.
Their extreme energy destroys the remnants of burnt out stars and galaxies.
But in doing that they also create massive energies.
And these spew out the elements which will make new stars, new galaxies.
At the other end of the scale, there are minute structures in each of our body’s cells.
These are called mitochondria, and they are the power houses which convert oxygen to energy and keep us alive.

All three of the readings we have heard this morning utilise energy.
They do it in different ways.
In the Old Testament reading the story reveals God’s glory in fire.
In Jesus’ parable about the 10 bridesmaids, the story issues a warning.
The bridesmaids are divided into 2 groups.
One group is wise - they ensure they have sufficient lamp oil to see them though.
The other group is unwise - that have brought insufficient oil. The warning is: be prepared.

Does this parable and its warning have something to say to us today as we think about energy?
The parable of the 10 bridesmaids is written in the last section of Matthew’s gospel.
Part of the key to understanding its point is found in the first chapters of Matthew
In particular, Jesus’ teaching on Christian attitudes and behaviour in the Sermon on the Mount.
The parable through it warning challenges our attitudes: the Sermon on the Mount allows us to reflect on our response.

So what challenges are there when we switch on the light, the car engine, the cooker or heating?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves some hard questions.

Firstly, do we have an absolute RIGHT to energy?
We certainly need it for the essentials of life – warmth, cooking lighting.
However our right to energy makes claims on others. Some legitimate, some questionable.
For example, our right requires others to extract, process, and supply us with gas, petrol and electricity. In doing so provides employment which for those employed is their right.
But it also makes claims on land – usually belonging to someone else.
Swathes of land for open cast mining and sighting of oil pumps. Fields for wind and solar farms.
This takes away the land-owners right to their land – and is a negative right - unless it is balanced by just compensation.

It is all a matter of justice. A just means of accessing others land and restoring it to use afterwards, as in the case of some oil companies restoring farm land after laying pipes, Justice in the form of financial compensation (as in the case of farmers being paid rent for use of land used for wind turbines and solar panels).

In the gospel, the unwise bridesmaids make a claim on those with sufficient oil – but in a negative way – the unwise girls expect the wise ones to provide for them when the ir oil has run out.

The seemingly harsh refusal by the wise girls to share their oil may come as a surprise, but this emphasises the contrast in the attitudes of the two groups of girls to their energy supplies.

The second hard question challenges our attitude to energy. Do we value energy by ensuring we have enough for essential life, plus a modicum to spare for unexpected events and the future? Or, because it is there on tap, exploit it to the full and expect someone else to help when we run out?
We all have choices. I can choose what car I buy. Do I choose a fuel efficient one, comfortable enough for family use, and for going about town, or a snazzy fast accelerating one or a Chelsea tractor with all mod cons and higher fuel consumption. Which one will conserve energy for me and for the future? Which will place unreasonable demands on my pocket, fuel supplies, emit more co2 and hasten the demise of energy supplies. Would walking or cycling be more ethical for some journeys? At personal level we can all switch off lights in unoccupied rooms, put on a jumper rather than turn the heating up, recycle water and household goods and refuse. However, some things are a communal responsibility and require us to engage with government policies and technological advances. So, as Christian community, taking note of Jesus warnings and teaching – how does the gospel sit with us at St Johns?

Rather than debating the relative efficiencies of various forms of producing energy, should we not first ask some basic ethical questions – we have looked at the question of our right to energy and some ethical pitfalls. We should also question the method of production and who will benefit. Firstly, what method produces the greatest amount of energy for the least harm? This is called the utilitarian approach to ethics and balances benefit against cost. Secondly, if some harm is inevitable, we should also ask how many will benefit . This is called the greater good ethic, and accepts the method is for the greater good despite it having known and sometimes unforeseen harm.

The answers are important for us now in 2013, and will be a legacy for future generations.

It is not all negative. There is much to celebrate in recent developments of cleaner, efficient car engines, the introduction of hybrid and electric cars, and even experimental electric racing cars. We see the increasing use of wind-turbines and solar energy, and the introduction of Biofuels to help conserve petrol.

A recent BBC “Countryfile” programme interviewed people on their responses to wind and solar farms. Some welcomed them as contributing to energy conservation. But others were ready to dismiss them as a blot on the landscape, or for only producing 6% of our energy requirements, forgetting that these technologies are young and need developing.

It would be easy to see the blot rather than the potential. As Christians, we should see these advances as gifts from God, to be encouraged.

Like all parables, the gospel parable challenges our attitudes, makes us reflect, and hopefully provokes a change in attitude. Children are prone to asking hard questions. Rather than asking us where the light comes from when they turn on the switch: in dismissing present strategies for providing for the future, future generations could be asking us why we did so, and why the lights have gone out.

Anthony Pullen

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Season of Creation


For reasons which are easy to understand, we think of water as being universal.

Certainly in our part of the world, water is abundant.

Water is fundamental to our lives. We spend the first nine months of our existence immersed in water. We quickly learn that water makes things grow, and that without water nothing grows. Water sustains life and makes life fruitful. We discover that water cleanses like nothing else except perhaps fire. Water washes away dirt and makes things clean.

In fact water is a great blessing. As it falls from the sky and soaks both us and the land, it is like a free gift of God’s grace and generosity. And it is a free gift of God’s grace and generosity.

It is probably not without significance that the writings of the Bible come from a part of the world where water is scarce. In the Bible, and most especially in Jesus’ teaching, water is used again and again as a profound and powerful symbol of God’s blessing.

But for all its power to give life and bless life, this gift from God has a dark side. It is a blessing except when it is denied or corrupted. It is a blessing except when it drowns.

This is more than metaphorical language. These are more than tragic moments in the lives of individuals. This is the stuff of politics and economics. This is a justice issue.

It has been claimed that the State of Israel has from time to time cut off water supplies to Palestinian territories as an act of repression. Whatever the truth of those allegations, futurologists warn us that the wars of the future will not be fought over oil but over access to drinking water.

The debate-of-the-moment in the UK is over fracking – hydraulic fracturing of the earth to produce shale gas. Much of the debate we see in print is about the economic benefits or otherwise. Much of the opposition concerns the effect it might have on the lives of people in surrounding communities. But fracking is a process which – by design – destroys millions of gallons of water.  It combines water with toxic chemicals which render the water contaminated forever.  When we think for a moment of those parts of the world where children still have to walk miles each day to collect the water their families will use that day, we begin to see that the wilful destruction of millions of gallons of water for short term and very local gain is a monstrous injustice.

And water can drown. We have become too flippant about global warming. We make jokes about having warm summers at last. But one of the effects of global warming is that sea levels are rising. Actually it’s not such a problem for us, at least not in the short term. Bangladesh, half of India, whole island communities in the Pacific will drown before we have to think about evacuating Brighton….

As Christian people, we must take seriously this justice issue of water at the same time as we celebrate the blessings it brings.

And we certainly do celebrate it.
Water is the element we use in Baptism, when we celebrate the work of God in a person’s life. It symbolises new birth: we are born as it were out of the waters of Baptism. It symbolises growth and life in our spiritual journey. And even, drawing on the darker side of water, it marks the drowning of all those things which prevent us from being everything which God intended; everything which prevents us from being fully human.

Water is precious. Water is vital.
Water is both a symbolic and an actual gift of God.

Each of us in the UK can celebrate a Sacrament in our own homes by turning on a tap / faucet.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’… The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ … Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? … Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ John 4

8 September 2013

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Earth is the Lord's


“The Earth is the Lord’s” 
Modern Church Annual Conference 15-18 July 2013
a report by Chris Benson

Click on words in blue to go to a relevant webpage

Modern Church (formerly Modern Churchpeople’s Union) is an organisation dedicated to fostering liberal Christianity -open-minded, reflective and enquiring – principally (though not exclusively) within the Church of England. I have been a member for a number of years but this was my first MC conference. Being (relatively) newly-retired enabled me to attend but the theme this year – “The Earth is the Lord’s” – tied in so strongly with the initiatives on environment and sustainability getting under way at St John’s that I would have tried hard to attend even if still working.

It was pretty obvious as I got off the train at Broxbourne who was heading for High Leigh Conference Centre at Hoddesden in Hertfordshire – somehow there is an unmistakeable ‘look’ to MC members! There was not enough room in the minibus provide for all, so with the bags going in the bus, three of us volunteered to undertake the pleasant walk along the river Lea and through the parkland at the back of the conference centre. Given the theme it seemed appropriate to arrive on foot.

Jonathan Clatworthy, General Secretary of MC, began the conference, with the temperature pushing 30°, by welcoming us to “the High Leigh climate change experience,” and introducing our chair, Margaret Barker, who had assembled the speakers, most of whom had, like her, been associated with the ‘floating symposia’ on science, religion and the environment organised by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the eastern Orthodox Church, whose name cropped up frequently and about whom we were to hear very much more the following evening.

Margaret Barker delivered a formidably scholarly though entertaining talk entitled The Eternal Covenant. Drawing heavily on her enormous knowledge of ancient languages and her specialism of the Jerusalem Temple and the rituals and theology surrounding it, she pointed out that there are several covenants in Bible (with Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.) but over-arching them all is the Eternal Covenant with all creation spoken of by Isaiah (24:4-6). She said that a covenant is not “a deal”, rather a system of bonds, capable of being broken by human sin. She used the analogy of a spider’s web: the web can retain its stability if a few supporting threads are broken, but if too many are broken it will suffer a catastrophic collapse. This is the situation we are in in relation to creation – and scripture spells out the nightmare consequences of this collapse. This sin is brought about through the abuse of knowledge – knowledge without wisdom. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge and not the Tree of Life, Adam rejected God’s life-sustaining wisdom. Knowledge without wisdom brings about the fall of the Tower of Babel and the Flood. The Jerusalem Temple was designed to be a model of creation and sin in the community as seen as polluting not just the Temple but creation itself (in Hebrew, Margaret told us, the words ‘polluted’ and ‘Godless’ sound the same). The Temple rituals were seen as restoring the broken threads of creation (the concept of atonement).

David Shreeve, Environment Consultant to the Archbishops’ Council, spoke on “Nurturing in his Name”, noting some of the hopeful signs that the churches are at last beginning to engage with environmental issues. The Bishop of London has equated care for the environment with love of neighbour. Both Pope Francis and his predecessor have called on Christians to protect the environment. In the USA, the situation is less happy. Evangelical Christians, especially in the south, continue to deny that climate change is happening, but even there attitudes are very slowly changing, mainly due to pressure from younger people.

The next day brought us the really scary stuff. Hylton Murray Philipson first saw trees being destroyed in the Amazon rainforest at the age of 17, and spoke emotionally of the impact it made on him. He reminded us of what was to be one of the main themes of the conference: the interconnectedness of all things. The Amazon rainforest, as well as sequestering a colossal amount of carbon, and being a miraculously abundant natural habitat, also acts as a missive water pump, drawing water from the soil and discharging it as vapour into the atmosphere, benefitting weather around the globe. But this vast natural resource is under constant attack from development. The area of four Hyde Parks is lost every hour. 20% of the entire rainforest, which is – or was – about the size of Europe, and 93% of the forest adjoining the coast, has already been lost to the bulldozers of the unscrupulous and the chainsaws of the plain desperate, who continue to defy environmental legislation to grow soya which ends up being fed to cattle. The unsuitable soil quickly becomes barren and is then abandoned as the growers move on. The indigenous people and activists who stand in their way sometimes pay with their lives, like the American nun Sister Dorothy Stang, murdered in 2005. Meanwhile, carbon levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, passing 400ppm last month. We probably have only two years to stabilise carbon levels, otherwise events are likely to spiral out of control. Hylton showed film illustrating the scale, beauty and biodiversity of the rainforest and also heart-breaking images of its destruction.

There was more bad news from the next speaker, Professor Tom Spencer, a former Tory MEP, though very out of sympathy with some of the policies of the present government. Returning to Margaret Barker’s theme of the bonds of the Eternal Covenant, he foresaw a “civilizational crisis” if these broken bonds are not very quickly restored. By the end of this century, he predicted, three billion [sic] people may die as a result of famine, disease, natural disaster and war attributable to the effects of climate change – and some think the figure may be considerably higher. We are so used to rhetoric of progress that we find it almost impossible to say to our children and grandchildren that this is what lies ahead of them. Standing in the way of action is, firstly, fear – the enormity of the problem so paralyses people that they are unable even to listen to the message, let alone react to it. Secondly, there are the enormous resources being dedicated by commercial interests to obstructing effective action. Meanwhile, political parties, weakened by falling, and therefore less broadly-based, more ideological membership, are less able to rise to the challenge of finding solutions and providing the leadership to carry them through. In these circumstances the churches’ role as storyteller and as bringer of hope is vital.

After an afternoon dedicated to the Modern Church AGM and a celebration of the Eucharist, the evening session was devoted to DVDs portraying Patriarch Bartholomew. He is a remarkable man. The Turkish authorities put considerable difficulties in his way as he ministers to his small Christian flock, mainly in Istanbul, closing his tranquil island seminary, and he faces intimidation and threats from Islamists. But it is his work on the environment which is unique in its scope and vision. He has gathered together 50 scientists and 50 theologians (from all major world faiths) on ships loaned by Greek owners to visit areas of environmental stress, meet those affected, discuss the challenges and seek ways in which the centuries-old rift between science and religion might be healed in the cause of protecting our planet. Sites visited have included a heavily-polluted abandoned chemical plant in Albania, melting glaciers in Greenland, a sewage plant in the Baltic and deforestation in Amazonia. In the Amazon jungle the Patriarch met representatives of indigenous people, who live in harmony with their forest, taking only what they need. For them, any form of pollution such as throwing rubbish into the river is taboo. (Unrecyclable waste is unknown in nature.) “We need each other,” the Patriarch says. “They need our science, we need their traditions.” One of the most moving scenes showed Bartholomew and his fellow faith leaders, heads bowed, being blessed by an Amazonian shaman, and in another we saw representatives of twelve world religions standing together in prayer among the Arctic ice: “May God grant us the wisdom to act in time.”

Next morning began (after worship and breakfast) with a Roman Catholic contribution. The conference chaplain, Fr. Domenic White, described his spiritual experience of nature (a thunderstorm at the age of three) and of music, especially the organ music of Olivier Messiaen and Jehan Alain. He sees the arts as bridging the gap between sacred and secular, and church musicians in particular as having a responsibility to act as a channel between heaven and earth. All this background informs his own composition “Cosmos”, a multi-media work bringing together organ music, African drumming, Gregorian chant, dance, sculpture and projected images in nine dances with titles such as “The Sea Dance,” the Mystery of Time,” “Regeneration” and “The Fire Dance” under the headings “Origins”, “The Rites of Spring” and “Ecstasy,” in celebration of the natural world and its cycles. Fr. Domenic spoke of the monumental task of bringing this work, 12 years in the making, to performance. A film of one of the dances, “Angels” was shown, and deeply impressed all present.

Next up, Dr Alex Evans, senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University gave a notable talk entitled the “The Psychology of atonement and environmental restoration.” He spoke first of his “loss of faith”, in the course of his work with the UN Global panel on Sustainability. He believed he had been seeing world leaders at last moving towards effective global action on the environment, reining in human activity approaching the limits of what the planet can absorb, and sharing carbon emissions more fairly between the developed and underdeveloped worlds. Instead, he saw no leader prepared to look beyond national interest, or even acknowledge that limits to human activity are needed. So, if rational argument and clear evidence don’t persuade people, what will? New forms of governance are needed but it is not yet clear what form they might take. Meanwhile, if the battle is to be won, it is more like to be won in individuals rather than governments. People have to be persuaded not to escape into what he described as “a consumer society suffering from attention deficit disorder.”

Dr Evans returned to the Eternal Covenant, as a means of maintaining peace and harmony in creation, through Wisdom, the feminine aspect of God. The Christian vision of justice and peace for all is way ahead of any current political thinking. The vision may be mystical, but it is “utterly concerned with the here and now.” Jesus came as the great High Priest to restore the broken Covenant bonds, but that role now belongs to us all.

He concluded by predicting that a “crisis moment,” such as those spoken of symbolically in the apocalyptic texts in the Bible, is approaching, bringing opportunities for atonement and renewal. At such a moment, our Judaeo-Christian roots, symbols and stories have an important resonance for a society struggling to find myths to carry it through what are likely to be very turbulent times. The Church needs to stop obsessing about women bishops and gay priests and return to preaching the Eternal Covenant thorough the myths, stories and rituals surrounding it.

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman’s session had the somewhat prolix title “The Earth Charter: A holistic approach to 'restoring the covenant' -a case study on Friern Barnet Community Library,” but was really more of a workshop to digest and feedback conference’s response thus far. The Earth Charter is a “declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century… centrally concerned with the transition to sustainable ways of living and sustainable human development.” It has been put together by politicians, theologians, indigenous peoples, lawyers and scientists from around the world. Though not a religious document as such, it speaks of the humility, sacredness and interconnectedness, and draws heavily on faith traditions.

The evening brought some relaxation as conference members entertained each other with a variety of “party pieces” – songs, poems and humour.

The opening session of the final morning comprised a talk by the Revd Helen Hutchinson, Diocesan Environmental Officer for the St Albans Diocese, with the provocative title “Melting ice caps, disappearing mangrove swamps and vanishing bees: how do these events play in Stocking Pelham?”

The problem, she said, is that although people are generally quite well-informed about environmental problems they do not connect them with their own individual lifestyle. Change must come from below, and churches need to be a prophetic voice in their own communities. “Think global, act local” is the message. In St Albans Diocese a mission programme aims to bring this about by transforming communities. An award scheme, “Living Lightly,” enables parishes to engage with sustainability through practical action such as buying green energy, insulating churches and halls, managing churchyards to be wildlife-friendly, and supporting local farmers. Initiatives include a “Walk to Church Sunday,” retreat days in the “forest cathedral” at Whipsnade, and special liturgies for festivals such as Lammas tide and Apple Day. Here, Celtic and Eastern Orthodox spirituality is proving valuable. Some ideas may seem “New-Agey,” but, as Helen pointed out, “New Age is our brand.”

As a case study, Helen talked about the setting up of an apiary in the churchyard at Leighton Buzzard (appropriately!), the hives being duly blessed. The project has developed friendships and fellowship, and is now branching out into schools. Part of the grant will be used to buy bee suits for young people. The need to reconnect young people with nature and enable them to discover the sacred and numinous in the natural world is urgent.

The final session gave us all a chance to reflect on what we had heard throughout the conference through an exercise (in groups) to summarise a characteristically Biblical view of creation and translate that into ideas for a harvest festival service. These included showing a Youtubeclip of the rainforest accompanied by the Vivaldi Gloria shown to us earlier by Hylton Murray Philipson, asking every member of the congregation to bring a fruit or vegetable to hold in church (to overcome the effect of tinned offerings of distancing us from the source of our food), and, most radically, “decorating” the church with black bin bags of unrecyclable rubbish, to be brought up to the altar as an act of penitence! The value of the Benedicite canticle was underlined by several groups.

So the conference ended, and I departed, grateful for the excellent hospitality of High Leigh, the walks in the fields and woods behind it in the cool of the early morning, and much stimulating and enjoyable company. My final thoughts? Firstly, a negative one: apprehension. It does seem very possible that we will fail (indeed we may already have failed) to take enough action in time to prevent our world suffering catastrophic climate change. That may not impact much on people like myself born in the 1950s, but it is likely to impact on my children and almost certainly my
grandchildren. What sort of a world they might inherit can be a terrifying thought. But there is hope, provided principally by the extraordinary people still doing all they can to prevent the worst happening. And there is hope too in the churches, providing the communities, the places, the stories and the rituals which will be essential if human beings are to face the crisis and come out the other side with their humanity intact.

The conference themes of the Eternal Covenant, the interconnectedness of all things, “think global, act local” all provided much encouragement and inspiration as I headed for home (by public transport, of course).