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I have placed a simpler statement for those who visit our St Nicolas’ website to read if they want to. But I just wanted to hang on to my thinking about the theological currents.

 

I would say that the Quaker way is an intrinsic form of spirituality while the Anglican is extrinsic. By extrinsic I am thinking of the way Anglicans ‘perform’ worship and refer to explicit beliefs (as in creeds), relate to our own local and often historic parish churches, and have structures to organize our life with a hierarchy of ministers. The Religious Society of Friends is intrinsically Christian because that is where our roots are. But we are now a diverse group of people positively open to other ways of thinking and religious traditions.  Essentially we are open to new light. True, in many parts of the world outside the UK Quaker Meetings are more Bible-based, worship led by pastors with a sermon and hymns. But the emphasis is still on the intuitive, on ‘that of God’ which we may directly experience. So we value the Meeting for Worship which is simply a time of quiet waiting, people speaking only when they are moved to do so. Then the light may dawn on us, hopefulness. For the Quaker way, I would say, is to have ‘faith in the world’, stressing the priorities of peace-making, equality and sustainable living.

Listening is at the heart of the Quaker way. ‘Holy Communion’ is exactly what we may experience in a Quaker Meeting for Worship, just as more explicitly in the outwardness of the Mass. Good listening has come to seem the key. Listening for ‘God’ is my prayer, trying to listen truly to myself – and realizing how just listening to others is so important (and is what I feel called to now, training for professional qualification as a counsellor).

I think I have become uneasy with an extrinsic approach because it assumes an objective description of spiritual reality apart from ourselves. With an intrinsic approach I feel able to accept that while spirituality just is our deepest and most holistic self-expression it is sufficient to trust wholly to that.

I still have an investment in extrinsic religion of course. I am committed to it on a daily basis as Incumbent at St Nicolas’ and as a priest in the Church of England. The difference now is that I am radically re-imagining the exercise of that ministry through Quaker spectacles, seeing the extrinsic in terms of the intrinsic. My own spiritual practice is eclectic. But I like to start each day reflecting on one of the Quaker ‘Advices & Queries’. I feel most centred in the eucharistic presence, ideally in the Meeting for Worship. Underlying that and, I feel, firmly validating it, is an integrative appreciation of spirituality, i.e. that all the ways it is expressed relate together in a fundamentally complementary way. I would include in that not just Quakerism and Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism, but all the world religions together with non-religious sources of human wisdom. Yet that integrative viewpoint comes through my Quaker perspective.

Fundamentally Quaker openness allows me to be true to the sense of the mystery of God as it has evolved for me now: as of the absolute fullness of life, the creative stream of the Spirit animating all that is, the unconditional love to whom we can trust in an intimately personal way. I am content to accept that we can only know God in terms of how we are able to interpret our experience –  ‘radical immanence’ is the philosophical term. Hence I can feel close to humanists and non-theists.The work of Don Cupitt inspires me, but – crucially – prompts me to be open to the trust in God which he seems implacably closed to. Likewise Jesus I feel we can encounter as a fellow human being – and the theological term for this is ‘Christology from below’ – yet who shines from the gospels and in our imaginations with divine goodness and wisdom. The Bible communicates to us through imagery and metaphor how past generations themselves experienced the mystery of God – and encourages us to stay open to it, to live, as Quakers say, adventurously!

Andrew Norman

Spring 2018

 

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I very much admire Paul Oestreicher, like me a committed Quaker while continuing (in his case, now, for many years) in Anglican ordained ministry. I came across this marvellous passage from a sermon he preached in Coventry Cathedral in 2007 when he had been made a Companion of the Community of the Cross of Nails. For me it captures a key insight for this last Sunday of the church year:

In its wisdom, or possibly its lack of wisdom, our Church has made the last Sunday of the Christian calendar into the Feast of Christ the King …the king of our hearts and minds, if we have the courage to follow him, yes, yes, yes but ruler of this world as most people understand kingship, exercising power over us, no, no, no. Jesus stands and falls alongside the weak, the poor, the rejected, the exploited, the victims of every kind of inhumanity, Jesus, the suffering servant, then and now.

This young and disturbing Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, in whom some people, like us, glimpse God, God the otherwise unknowable mystery, this Jesus rejected power, wealth and influence and left us , astonishingly, as emancipated and free, free to make of the gift of life what we will, for good and ill. We do plenty of both. Yes, the prophets and saints and martyrs, Christian, and of every other faith and none, have given us a vision of what the good life is like, the hidden Kingdom that Jesus personifies. He preached it, he lived it and he lives it still, the risen Lord, risen in our hearts, but – and this we must never forget – not the triumphant victor over those who killed him. He did not return to humiliate Pilate and the Chief Priests. He appeared mysteriously only to those who loved him.

The crowned monarch over this world? Forget it … forget it, whatever some of the hymn writers might have done to give us false comfort. The King of the Jews was written in irony over the dying Jesus by his enemies. The irony was not a mistake. As men and women understand the term, ruling the world or even Israel as many had hoped was not his chosen role. Our God does not reign, is not responsible for the humiliation and rape of women down the ages, the Christian persecution of the Jewish people, the degradation of the people of Darfur, our murder of thousands of Iraqis…the list in all the yesterdays of history until now is endless. But just as real is the compassion and love of those who heal, of those who feed the hungry, tend the sacred earth, of those who teach, of those who care for friend and foe alike, of those who make peace. Jesus suffers with the world’s victims and rejoices with those who share God’s love with others.

Radical Immanence

I’m intrigued to discover the work of French philosopher François Laruelle. He suggests that all forms of philosophy rest on a prior decision, but remain blind to that decision. The ‘decision’ that Laruelle is concerned with is a supposed splitting of the world in order to grasp the world philosophically, e.g. subject/object. Laruelle suggests that the decision itself will not be grasped without introducing a further division.

So, instead Laruelle introduces ‘non philosophy’ as a resisting of any initial decisions and consequent splitting. That can then lead into an awareness of ‘radical immanence’, i.e. with no need to make up separations between the world and any other principles or force.

At least, I think that’s the initial gist of what Laruelle is saying – but I’ve only just started this exciting new exploration!

 

 

Thursday 5th October 2017. A well presented and stimulating study morning for the clergy of Guildford Diocese with Bishop Jo Bailey Wells of Dorking.

Her theme was that innovation best evolves from within tradition and not in discontinuity.

A questioner asked how we can identify the bedrock of tradition, so that ‘this much cannot ever change’? Jo said that she took that to be “the deposit of Scripture”. But why take the Judeo-Christian narrative as complete and sufficient when other religions have completely different narratives? Are not all of them, including our own, thoroughly culture-specific, each one as beautiful and truthful (and limited) as the others? Why not refer simply to our wondering capacity for deepening awareness of ‘all that is’ as the bedrock to spiritual living?

As a Quaker I now value silent waiting above all forms of prayer and worship – opening to all fullness – though only having first learnt to value the systematic reading of Scripture. I’ve found how the Anglican Daily Office can form a virtual spiritual reality to allow access and find a way where the Inward Light shines. At first I wondered if the Quaker distrust of all outward forms of worship meant I should simply abandon saying the Office. Then I discovered how the regular outward praying of psalms and prayers can create the space for inward receptivity – just as the Scripture & patristic readings form a visionary map allowing one to recognise a place to ‘be’. So I now find it good to keep five full minutes of silence at the heart of each Office morning and evening – deeply enriching and nourishing, just like my daily enjoyment of music and reading of poetry .

We do surely need some form of thought-map, a world we can envisage and which makes sense, in the landscape of which we can orientate ourselves in the otherwise utterly open plain of silence, and if we are to see how to get from A to B in the bewildering rush of constant process. 

 

9th Sunday after Trinity : 13th August 2017 : Matthew 14:22-33 : Address at Guildford United Reformed Church

We’ve expected a lot of our Children & Families Worker – not perhaps to the extent of wanting her to walk on water, but not far off! For in both churches we ought to recognise that our human resources are very modest. And while there are certainly plenty of children and families in our local community the pressures in society, the way we live now, don’t exactly make it easy to engage and nurture a new generation of active committed church members. Yet we’ve hoped that our Children & Families Worker could make possible some exciting children’s ministry – please – and she has! So, maybe the first thing we would want to say this morning is a huge thankyou to Emma for all that she has achieved. Establishing MESSY CHURCH – incredible. Sustaining Sunday Club and Children’s Church activities on Sunday mornings – just so encouraging. Café Play and GURCKINS during the week – dependably, utterly reliably opening up, getting things ready, setting the scene, welcoming parents, carers and children, making the coffee and providing the cakes – not dominating, but meeting the needs. Being a key player in our monthly Family Services and Family Church – gently steering in the right directions, helping to take the load. These are quietly fantastic achievements, and if we stand back and reflect on our context, we can begin to realise just what ‘miracles’ Emma has worked – almost walking on water! So, thankyou for all this Emma, and plenty more which I could spend the rest of the morning listing.

 

We can imagine Jesus looking across the water to the boat, saying to Peter ‘Come’ – ‘come on, you can do it’ – and he does, he begins to believe it’s possible with Jesus and he walks. Together with Emma our two churches have had sufficient encouragement to take a few steps and have begun to sense that with Jesus it might be possible. But we can also imagine the expression on the face of Jesus when Peter begins to sink. The smile as he reaches out and catches hold of him. This story has a dreamlike quality – like when I was a child I used to have a delicious dream of flying through the air like Peter Pan. It’s certainly a story which conveys a deep truth – that however stormy the conditions we find ourselves in we can trust to that total love we see personified in Jesus. But Jesus is a man with his feet firmly on the ground. He’s flesh and blood. He eats and drinks. He lives in the real world, and therefore, surely, did not have unrealistic expectations of his disciples? And while Emma has achieved an enormous amount we never expected her to be Superwoman (well, at times, we probably did, but we know we shouldn’t have done!). And part of the excellent foundation work she has done in the life of both churches is to establish the attitude of having realistic expectations of what we might achieve in our children’s ministry. We shall long remember – hopefully – how she’s always said that Rome wasn’t built in a day, how, deciding on a course of action, we just have to believe in it, and keep at it, results perhaps not coming for a long while – and that’s OK. Thankyou for that Emma, we know you’re right, we just have to be reminded.

 

And also there’s always been a quiet spirituality underpinning all that Emma’s led with us. So a few Sundays ago she was publicising the Children’s Holiday Club at the end of the Sunday Mass at St Nicolas’, asking for active helpers, but carefully adding that those who couldn’t please could they pray day by day for the Holiday Club. She’s consistently reminded us that this is a work we are doing ‘with Jesus’.

 

So, now looking ahead, we must not lose that, nor the importance of having realistic expectations, patience – and discerning where the energy is in our churches life together, just like Emma herself has been such a dynamo of energy. Oh, yes, though, what we might just note this morning – also, is that Emma has, I think, been quite good at setting aside a bit of time for herself. To recover, rebalance, retain some sanity! Quietly off home when no longer needed. A glass of wine or two after MESSY CHURCH I’ve always hoped! Sensible holidays and even a Sabbatical. That’s really good – good role modelling from Emma as to how we need to be as churches. We’re too good at making each other – that’s the diminishing core members of our churches – just work ever harder and faster, faster and harder, pedalling furiously. I don’t know about the URC but at St Nicolas’ we do try to honour the ‘seven marks of a healthy church’ – yes? The seventh of which is: ‘Does a few things and does them well’. Oh that we may honour that one! And remember what Jesus was actually doing that night – making for somewhere he could find some peace and quiet. Simply that.

 

So thankyou Emma for doing and being all this for us. Keep on likewise in your new job. And let’s try to keep to mark number seven in our church life, folks. It’s easy to say it, but not necessarily so easy to do it. Which is why it’s been so good to have in Emma a colleague who has walked the walk. You know that good saying: to walk the walk – and how it goes on: and talk the talk.

 

But there’s a bit more:

Walk the walk

Talk the talk

Talk the walk

And walk the talk

Emma has talked the walk – but she has also walked the talk, that is, she has persistently said the right things and consistently done them!

 

Next week in the Children’s Holiday Club we shall be enjoying the theme of pirates, so walking the talk and walking on water comes together in that. Because you know what pirates do when they attack and take over a ship? They make the captain walk the plank! While on holiday I’ve been enjoying re-reading my Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in preparation for next week.  ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – /Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!’ and the terrible stories of Billy Bones. But in our church life we don’t tyrannise, and it’s not for us to commit any form of violence, however subtle. Our God is a god of love and tenderness, who wants us to practise the art of the possible, and to be gentle with each other, and towards those we are here to serve. So, Emma, we wish you well – as now we hope to live up to the good ways you have set us on as we walk with the Lord who does ever lead us all onwards.

6th Sunday after Trinity : 23rd July 2017 : Matthew 13:31-33 &36-43

The more observant will have noticed an unusual flag flying over the church for the last few days. It was the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Not, on reflection, perhaps the best way to have done this, but it was there to help us focus our attention on the Chinese writer and political activist, Liu Xiaobo, who has just died. His life is a story of good and bad. The gospel today is a parable of good and bad existing together in this world. Liu Xiaobo was born in the northern Chinese province of Jilin in 1955. Coming after the Cultural Revolution he was one of the first generation of Chinese students to go to university after they’d reopened. So that was good. There he studied Chinese literature, and then went on to become a successful writer and public intellectual. In 1989 Liu was lecturing in New York, but the spring of that year was when the pro-democracy protests broke out in China. Up to that point Liu had shown little interest in politics, but what was happening back home deeply concerned him. He decided to return and to go immediately to Tiananmen Square. There he played a central role, leading a hunger strike as the military crackdown came on 4th June when hundreds, probably thousands, of lives were lost. For Liu this was the moment of his awakening to be a lifelong activist and champion of democracy. In 2008 he wrote what he called ‘Charter 08’ in which he called for an end to one-party rule in China. Bu this was completely unacceptable to the authorities. Liu was arrested and given an eleven year jail sentence. Hidden away in prison he was not forgotten, and in 2010 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: for ‘his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China’. Liu had developed what he called a “no enemies” philosophy, and he believed in looking to overcome “forceful tyranny”, as he named it, by the means of non-violent resistance. Which is why it’s important to be remembering him in a Christian church. At the award ceremony his absence was represented by an empty chair. And seven years into his sentence, just back this past May, Liu was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. So, given the circumstances the authorities were petitioned to allow him to choose his own medical treatment overseas, but this was denied up to the end which came all too quickly.

 

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has paid tribute to Liu as “a courageous fighter for civil rights and freedom of opinion”. He’d spent almost ¼ of his life behind bars. And the US secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said he mourned the loss of a man who had dedicated “his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty”. So that’s the incredible good which had been able to grow through him as in the field of the parable – and so might we give thanks for Liu here today as one of ‘the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’. While the weeds, well, that might make us think of the repressiveness to which Liu was so opposed. Those terrible days in Tiananmen Square. And now the way the Chinese authorities seem to be handling it. Boris Johnson spoke out and said he thought that Liu should have been allowed to go for medical treatment. “This was wrong”, he stated, “and I now urge them to lift all restrictions on his widow, Liu Xia.” Because, ever since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia has lived under heavy surveillance and almost total isolation. A government spokesman has said that, No she was free, and that she was just being protected while she grieved. But the American human rights lawyer, Jared Genser, who represented her and her late husband, he said: “We have lost touch with her … I’m incredibly concerned about her health and welfare.” [The Guardian 15th July] and he reckons understandably that the authorities might be reluctant to release her in case she becomes a figurehead of resistance. “She is an extraordinarily able and determined person”, he said, “too potent a symbol”.

 

So we have the good and the bad all mixed up together in this untidy field which is our world. We may well ask: why does God allow it? Maybe part of the answer is that actually it’s often very difficult to separate the weeds from the good plants. Which are the weeds and what’s the good in our world – is the bad really so bad? Having displayed the Chinese flag might prompt us now to pray for the state authorities – and perhaps to see all this from their perspective – in terms of the bigger picture, perhaps, quite nuanced and complex? Though their US lawyer, he’s urging world leaders now to speak up for Liu, and for his wife, and says that a failure to do so would be to send Beijing the message that it’s now open season: “Just do whatever you like. The world will look the other way”. Will the world’s leaders let the good push through? Let’s hope so.

 

Good and bad in this messy world. God knows what will become of us. But let me end, as we fly the red flag of China, by remembering a rather good development recently. So Donald Trump announced that America would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. While the Chinese government was saying: we “will stay committed to upholding and promoting the global governance on climate change, and take an active part in the multilateral process on climate change.”[Hua Chunying, foreign ministry spokesperson] Bad and good. The Chinese president is promoting a $900bn global investment initiative, known as the ‘Belt and Road’ project, to open up markets across Asia and Europe for Chinese-made solar panels and wind turbines, and they’re also now working on establishing a national carbon trading platform.

 

Looking for what’s good in our world, as we should do as Christians, then we have to recognise which are the weeds – but, believing in the good husbandry of God, we needn’t  feel so easily overwhelmed by them – even though good and bad will always be mixed up together. As the parable ends: ‘Let anyone with ears listen!’

 

 

 

Andrew Norman

For the interview as published in the Guildford Dragon, June 2017:

http://www.guildford-dragon.com

Dragon Interview: Rector Of St Nicolas’ Church Questions His Own Beliefs

We expect clergymen to be honest and in this interview Andrew Norman, rector of Guildford’s St Nicolas’ Church, which has been considered to be of the Anglo Catholic tradition, is painfully so as he discusses his own faith and how his beliefs have developed over time, culminating in the big question, “Do I believe in God?”…

The interview was provoked by an article he wrote in the St Nicolas parish magazine Signpost, which is republished here to give the interview proper context:

By Andrew Norman

May is Mary’s month at St Nicolas’ Church. These days I think of Mary as an ordinary Jewish girl, growing up to be a woman vulnerable both to the strictures of traditional society which was itself also suffering Roman occupation, and in the confusion of her own personal circumstances. Certainly she experienced the pain and bloodiness both of childbirth and then 30 years later, in the execution of her son.

Do I believe in the virgin birth (the belief that Jesus was born before Mary and Joseph had sex because she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit)? I believe in it as a beautiful poetic expression of the deep truth that God was at work in Jesus all the way through. But I view that belief as related to a past cultural context.

These days we wouldn’t imagine virginity to be a better state for God to work with than the fulfilment of any of the various kinds of personal relationships we allow for now. Seeing Mary like that encourages me to see Jesus in the same way as a fellow human being also related to a past cultural context.

But I wouldn’t want to say that is all he was. He was a great spiritual teacher – and with a more radical message then we care to admit – but whenever I read the gospels I am always left wondering how exactly he did relate to God. So I carry on saying the creed with great reverence, because I certainly can’t put it any better myself. Credo? And do I believe in ‘God’?

More and more I feel the need simply to sit in silence and to let be the mystery of all that is – and then to go on trusting wholly to unconditional love.

Following is the interview conducted by Martin Giles

Your article is a very honest expression of your beliefs. What has been the reaction from your parishioners?

I don’t know what people thought about it. What worries me is that some feel they are not allowed to be honest about their questions. Paul Tillich (German American theologian 1886-1965) said, ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith’. Surely the essential spirit of all religion is to be true to our human wondering?

So no one from your congregation has commented on the article?

Some have commented, but I am not expecting to see in their hearts exactly what they think about the issues. We may react to each other, but I try to respect the otherness of the other.

You imply that a belief in a literal virgin birth is not critical for you. Is that the case?

Respectfully wondering about the virgin birth is what’s critical for me. Why have Christians wanted to believe this? Is there sometimes more truth in what we call fiction than in supposed facts? Jesus himself taught through telling stories or parables. I do not want to reject the tradition of the virgin birth, but to suggest that it is more than a plain literal statement.

You write, “These days we wouldn’t imagine virginity to be a better state for God to work with than the fulfilment of any of the various kinds of personal relationships we allow for now.” This implies acceptance of the fact that many loving relationships are of different kinds. Is this what you mean?

Well, we don’t think that virginity is what makes a person good or ‘pure’ do we? Personally I relate to the image of Mary as a thoroughly female, menstruating, strong, passionate, woman trusting in the goodness of God in a situation of total vulnerability, rather than as a remote, ethereal maiden. I believe in a God who is unconditional love and who therefore affirms us all throughout the whole LGBT range of good, loving relationships.

Does it show that you have personally changed your views on the subject and do you agree that such a statement would have been impossible for the rector of St Nicolas’ to write until quite recently?

Throughout the time I have been privileged to serve as the minister at St Nicolas’ – 24 years now – my views have changed about many of the ways to express our faith – notoriously in coming to accept and welcome the full inclusion of women in ministry! Surely faith which shows no movement is dead? Our 21st-century world needs a radical approach to faith, through constantly referring to its deep roots.

Doesn’t it also show that even fundamental beliefs can be subject to fashion and the social climate? If so, does that devalue them?

I feel that what does devalue fundamental beliefs is when we retreat into nostalgia, ‘wasn’t it nice when everyone believe… so and so’? Surely, religion which is not allowed to engage with the contemporary social environment turns into an unreal mode of escapism?

Generally, is our moral judgement on an inexorable upward trend over time, assisted by our greater material comfort and scientific knowledge or can you foresee a time when some values currently held, for instance on LGBT equality, might again be questioned by the majority?

Clearly some aspects of life as we experience it are improving – like the acceptance of LGBT relationships and many features remain fixed such as war and terrorism and some seem to get worse. So I do not see any generalised answer to this question about our moral judgement as possible. But I do not believe humankind can be saved on its own.

What are the fundamental beliefs necessary to be a Christian? Is it still that Christ was the Son of God, and a man and God, and his literal resurrection?

I do not know. It depends what others mean by ‘a Christian’. What does it mean to others to call Jesus ‘Son of God’? I do not understand faith to do with matters of plain description, for example ‘resurrection’. It’s all evocative and makes me, to use that key term, wonder.

Your last two sentences are: “And do I believe in ‘God’? More and more I feel the need simply to sit in silence and to let be the mystery of all that is – and then go on trusting wholly to unconditional love.” It sounds like even you doubt your belief in God sometimes. What do you mean by these two sentences?

Members of St Nicolas’ know that somehow I have grown within our catholic ethos into the simplicity of now becoming a Quaker. Actually, I would claim to believe, or hope to trust in, God more and not less, as the core of my personal creed has become: ‘in all the flow of life to trust to unconditional love as ‘God’. I now find the richness of our catholic spirituality affirmed in the simplicity of Quaker silence – yes, a paradox, but a stream of daily refreshment. And what that means I guess I will find out as life goes on.

When you are meditating, how do you envisage God? Is it enough for you that he is a mysterious force for good, for love that requires no further definition?

I do not meditate. In the Quaker way, I would say, ‘I wait on the silence’ – and then I trust to any illuminating of the heart and mind which may come and hope to follow its leadings. Whatever I can envisage is not ‘God’. For me, I think, if it is that ‘God is love’, well, I simply trust in the personal choice to take unconditional love as my God – if you see what I mean?