Lamp Three: Conversation with other Faiths


Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Trinity 19, Sunday 22nd October 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

I went to see the film ‘Victoria and Abdul’ this week. A film about Victoria’s friendship in the last years of her life with a Muslim called Abdul. The great power of the film lies in its critique of the arrogance and violence of the British Empire. By creating a real friendship and empathy between Queen Victoria and Abdul a link is created between Victoria and the Islamic faith. Where the film fails in my view, is in its air brushing out of any valid Christian spirituality or presence in Queen Victoria’s life. The Church of England gets one mention as part of the colonialist hierarchy, never a source of spiritual comfort. When Abdul is present at Victoria’s deathbed he quotes Rumi but there are no Christians to be seen. The film doesn’t pretend to historical accuracy but to me it is typical of our recent love affair in the West with the spirituality of other faiths.

Today we come to the third of our 7 lamps – Christ at our heart, Health and Healing and today Inter-faith dialogue. We live amidst the diversity of multi-faith East Oxford, this is part of our calling and our vocation as Christians in this place.

At this weeks School Governors meeting the head teacher asked if we could take the phrase ‘Community cohesion’ out of a document. It sounded out of date, community cohesion was, so she said, a Blairite phrase, we changed it to ‘Equal opportunities’. The discussion reminded me of the 90s where a new generation of the Left in Manchester wanted to do away with multi-culturalism and replace it with anti-racist. My only reflection on all this is that community cohesion and Multi-culturalism were attempts to speak about the whole not just to protect the parts. One thing my Christian tradition tells me it that however difficult it is we shouldn’t just speak up for all the different sections of the community we should also try, challenging as it is, to speak to and embrace the whole community.

The secular world view, also so important to this part of Oxford sees Religion as, at best something for the personal consumption of those who like that sort of thing, not part of the discussion about the whole community.

For me the question of what it means to be Christian and yet live in community with Islam here in East Oxford. Dialogue has to be something which we engage in but how can we also proclaim the love that we believe is revealed in Jesus?

This debate between Dialogue and proclamation has been at the heart of Christian disagreement about inter-faith conversations for years, With Conservative Christians focusing on Proclaiming the Gospel and Liberals on dialogue and conversation.

Last year on an inter faith course I had to get a taxi in Birmingham – one of those days when I wish I didn’t go round in a dog collar. The Muslim man who picked me up gave me a 20-minute lecture on Islam. He questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Bible in comparison to the certainty of Islam and the Koran. Unsure how to respond to this deluge which was very much one sided I interrupted “What is the best thing about being a Muslim?” and he spoke for the first time in a more heartfelt way about the Brotherhood and about care for each other including all their brothers in Syria. This man didn’t want a dialogue, he wanted a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversation. I had to step back and engage in a slightly different way. But what the encounter taught me is that, like my evangelical Christian friends, there are many Muslims who want to prove that they are right and I am wrong.

In the Church of England primary school that the taxi man took me to the head told me that they had unashamedly Christian Collective worship in their 90% Muslim school. No provision for Halal either just vegetarian or meat. I still want to say that I am more dialogue than proclamation but I also think this is a ridiculous division. When are we going to realise that multi-faith consciousness is not just a potpourri of everything, it is a willingness to be in conversation with the Other, if you like with the Jesus we find in Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. We are not a hermetically sealed Christian identity, the self is a fluid thing which is touched and influenced by all sorts of spiritual and religious experiences.

But we need to start with the riches of our Christian Tradition. This is where God put us, where we found God or he found us – in the church, even if you’re only holding on by your fingertips!

In the 21st century there has been a move amongst some Christian inter faith thinkers to begin not with texts – ‘my book is better you’re your book’ or ‘lets compare my text with your text’ but to return to the Christian monastic virtues of humility, empathy and hospitality – its an approach which sits well with our position here in Benson’s church on the Cowley Road.

Empathy is explicitly dynamic, it is disempowering and decentring. It is not that empathy is the only answer, all these debates are hugely complex but rather than it begins the process of entering the place of dialogue with other faiths.

Being pro-active in our understanding of this multi-faith community means that we also inform ourselves and become more empathetic to other situations. The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya but hundreds of thousands of them are being displaced. The BBC doesn’t always show us the whole picture. One of the cleaning staff at Paula’s school showed her horrific pictures of Muslims killed in Myanmar. These things might feel like they happen far away but they are having a direct effect on the emotional lives of our next door neighbours. Why aren’t we talking more?

We need to step back from a religious debate which sometimes feels sterile or stuck and re-engage in a different way. That’s exactly what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when the Pharisees try to trick him into either being pro Cesar or pro rebellion in the question of paying taxes – he side steps the question. He avoids the binary opposites and affirms a practical position.  Sometimes I need to step back from my own passions, angers and disillusionments in order to really hear what is being said to me.

The great Jesuit Jacques Dupuis claims that: the Christ event does “not exhaust the power of the Word of God who became flesh in Jesus” (p.319 TCTP). The power of the Word of God exists beyond its revelation in Jesus.

Dupuis seems to suggest that people in other religions can be saved, can know God, can have penetrating experiences of the divine. Now this isn’t news to me and it probably isn’t news to you but it does lead us to ask what does it mean to be Christian in this multi-faith context?

And there are people who want us to give answers that are oppositional and divisive, just look at todays Gospel. But when we move powerfully to the depths of our own tradition in prayer and contemplation so that we can inhabit the space of our faith then we can engage openly with the many gifts that other faith have to offer us. Empathy, humility, hospitality are the gifts of the Western Monastic tradition that can guide us. The Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff once wrote:


Lamp Two – Health and Healing (Mental Health Sunday)

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Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Trinity 18, Sunday 15th October 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

Sermon for Mental Health Sunday

Last Sunday we began a conversation looking at 7 lamps, 7 themes about our life together. We have spoken about Jesus as the word of Life who revealed God to us through his death on the cross and his resurrection. This week we turn to our 2nd lamp – health and healing, we are also marking world Mental health day which took place earlier this week. In this city, together with St. Michaels in Summertown, we are one of two Beacon churches seeking to explore how the Christian community can support the promotion of mental health for all and support those living through periods of mental health distress.

On Tuesday we marked world Mental Health day with a wonderful celebration of the Arts and crafts, a day when people from all over the city came to the Benson hall to demonstrate our solidarity with all dealing with mental health issues. Organised by Alice and her team is was a wonderful picture of what the community of the church can achieve with and alongside the wider community of people beyond these walls. In many ways the warmth, the humour, the caring and the camaraderie of the day reflected what we might believe to be a true understanding of what the community of the church might look like. The Beatitudes, which we have just heard, in a similar way, give us a little snapshot of what Christian community might look like. They sometimes speak to people like a kind of social justice manifesto but they are far more than this, they give us a picture of what Jesus is like, and call us into a deeper communion, to be a community which explores what it means to care for our neighbour, to be alongside those in distress. And further down the path they might help those in the midst of mental health issues to imagine what recovery might look like, what healing might look like and what it means to be on a common journey of discovery.

It seems to me that one of the great discoveries of recent times has been that mental health issues are a part of everyday life. Many people have known this truth for years, but now more and more people are coming to accept it: in any one year about 1 in 4 people will experience at least one diagnosable mental health issue and by 2030 the World Health Organisation forecasts that depression will be the single leading cause of the global burden of disease. But there is still a huge stigma around mental health and speaking about it, as we are doing today, is one way to challenge this stigma.

There are so many things I could talk about but one thing we wanted to focus on is hearing from the real experiences of people, so I want to begin with some quotes from the diary of someone experiencing what is called ‘clinical depression’. What this person writes is not a manual of what to do or what to think, it is the record of how someone felt, what they thought and, like the beatitudes, it’s a text which can help to point us towards being better neighbours, better listeners:

“When you feel bad you feel sad towards others and it reflects in them…cheerful because cheerful, glum because glum

And then the next day:

Not looking forward to the day

Thinking of the future a lot…(Bleak)

Not feeling better

Went shopping

Everyone miserable

Didn’t eat lunch

Now had some cereal

Feeling depressed

How long will this last

Don’t love myself

Don’t feel anyone really cares much

Don’t want hospital treatment – I am a survivor

Others say they are but this is real survival

Have written to say I can’t come this evening

I do hope they understand

Getting through this patch is all I need to do

Must stop repeating myself – my memory is not as good as it was. Can’t remember what I’ve written.

Many people suffer depression, its understanding it that needs to be seen and the more people understand that it is a problem the better…

I have experienced deep depression and thank God if it improves with age. I am not to blame for much of what goes on in my head. What is it that keeps me ticking over?

The street is such a mean place to be even if you are well…I have this constant fear feeling that things get worse if you let them. We all have it in us to make things better…

And a little later he writes after reading a book or going on a course:

“Change how you feel by changing the way you think.

positive thoughts…”

There is always a temptation when we hear someone’s thoughts or opinions that we should interrogate them, work out exactly what they mean, make suggestions about what they need to do.

One of the most important things I learnt on the Mental Health First Aid course I went on a couple of weeks back was to listen and communicate non-judgmentally. One of the videos we were shown on the course was of Pat Deegan. Pat was diagnosed with schizophrenia but the worst of it for her was being told that she won’t ever recover. She said the diagnosis was given to her in a way which seemed to diminish her humanity. The fact the she had friends, skills, degrees all seemed to disappear before this diagnosis, it felt like she was being told to retire from life, to give up.

Pat decided, I will become Dr Deegan and I will change mental health and this became for her a survivors mission – although she was careful not to say to her doctors “God has called me to change mental health in this country”, but it became for her a vision around which to organise her recovery. We need meaning, purpose, a need to move – we can’t build a recovery around a vacuum. Recovery is about changing our lives not changing our biochemistry. Communities like this one can become a place where meaning and purpose are celebrated and recovery affirmed.

But we need to be careful talking about recovery too easily, the way some Christians talk about resurrection as if the cross never happened. It is so important to grasp that recovery is a journey not a destination. Recovery needs to be holistic – its about all of us, body, mind and spirit. And, centrally it is not about returning to where we were before as if nothing has happened. Lastly it needs planned support – this community can act as part of that support – not in a professional sense, we are not health professionals, but in the human sense of being neighbours, listeners, encouragers, people on the Way.

There are still some striking statistics about mental health. 75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment. Suicide is the most common cause of death of men aged 20-49. These are frightening figures but they also translate into the everyday lives of people we know and people we love. 16 people a day take their own life in the UK – I am trying to learn a new language, a kinder language, we can’t say commit suicide anymore because a crime has not been committed. Being careful about how we speak, recognising how we speak and having the humility to be corrected is the beginning of a journey into a greater understanding of mental health and well being. Since the Grenfell tower disaster 16 people have tried to take their lives as a result of the effects of that night – suicide is about mental illness but it is inextricably linked to real events, real people and real situations.

It seems to me that part of the Christian response – if we can talk of such a thing – to periods of mental distress, is about being with people on a journey as God came to us in Jesus, about a radical inclusivity which we see reflected in Jesus, and maybe more challengingly the attempt to speak of hope in the face of great sadness and distress. Dignity and respect are at the heart of this whole process.

We never know who we are talking to and the first calling is always to listening. I met a couple who live locally on Friday who were filming in church and we got talking. It turned out their son has a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I listened as she talked about him, in fact it was his 18th birthday that day. They knew that for years he has been desperate to get a Tattoo and as his 18th came near they were nervous about what he wanted, how large it was going to be. But on Friday he said mum I just one two words on my arm – Be yourself.

Listening, being alongside, encouraging, it is so much more about being than doing, in order that people can be themselves. We mustn’t be glib about recovery but we are still a hopeful people, and part of recovery for all people is the recognition that life changes us sometimes in painful and diminishing ways but that life after such experiences can be a deeper reality, and bring with it a profound sense of what it means to be human. This community here on the Cowley road is called to be a place of human flourishing. Not a finished product but people who are part of a continuing process of healing which we are never finished with in this life. A people who know the meaning of Jesus’ words: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.



What Are the Seven Lamps? Lamp One

Sermon preached at St Mary and St John, Trinity 17 (Sunday 8th October), by Fr Phil Ritchie

I want to start a conversation with you about our shared life as the church in this place. And I want this conversation to begin with 7 sermons, 7 reflections from me about the ways in which we seek to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ in this place. The overarching theme of these sermons is: Christ at our heart. And I know some of you may feel that this is a daring or rather an awkward choice of preposition. Shouldn’t Jesus be in rather than at. For me, Christ at our heart is both about a place of meeting or encounter with Christ but also that sense of Christ journeying with us.

The 7 lamps that we have had restored at SMJ hang on the way to the altar, and they represent for us 7 themes – themes of both affirmation and challenge.

On the bookmarks in front of you you have the 7 lamps in 7 words but let me just list all 7: Lamp 1 is Christ at our Heart through Worship, Prayer and Contemplation. Lamp 2 is Sharing the Good News of Jesus. Lamp 3 is Hospitality and Fellowship. Lamp 4 is Discipleship and Exploring Christianity Lamp 5 is Care for Others and for Creation Lamp 6 is Health and Healing – and in fact that is the lamp we will cover next week on Mental Health Sunday. Lamp 7 is Interfaith: Dialogue and Proclamation.

And in 7 words: Pray Share Belong Grow Care Heal Converse

There’s not going to be a test! I mean I can’t remember them all at once, but there they are!

And the first lamp is the one that is already lit, the lamp that represents Christ who we meet in the sacrament, in the scriptures, in prayer and in each other.

At the heart of our life together and at the heart of this building both in its shape and it numerous examples around the church, is the cross of Christ. So we begin with the cross, as a church which ‘must stand over against its surrounding culture and environment and see God revealed in weakness and god-forsakeness, in darkness and negation. And we believe that we are saved by the cross. To save comes I’m told from the Hebrew Jasha (Yey – sha) (with the noun Jeshua, saviour) and its root meaning is roomy, broad, its opposite being oppressed or hemmed in. The cross and resurrection is a victory over death, a liberation but a liberation only achieved through the experience of desolation and pain. In his encounter with Death and darkness, with the abyss Christ brings us the light and the life of God.

So to be Christian is first and foremost to be a follower of the crucified. We are not just remembering a past event or even imitating that event – this sharing in the passion and death of Christ – as we do around this altar -, is – in Bonhoeffer’s words – ‘a participation in the powerlessness of God in the world’. ‘To be a Christian is to be part of a passion centred community, the Church is ‘the people under the cross’.

There’s a wonderful passage at the beginning of the 1st letter of John which I have included on the pew sheet. Reading it seems to sum up much of what we are called to do. In many ways the passage is a reflection of the Prologue to John’s Gospel but whereas in John’s Gospel there is a definite emphasis on the Divine Word – in the beginning was the Word – here the key phrase is the word of life, this life was revealed and we have seen it and testify to it.

All of our life together flows from this, the desire for health and healing that we will look at next week on Mental Health Sunday, the care for others and creation, the hospitality and fellowship. The love of community, of social justice, of serving those in need flows from our crucified and risen Lord.

John of the Cross writes:

‘In giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his only Word – he has no other – he has spoken it all to us, once and for all, in this only Word, he has no more to say’.

We live in a society that is hungry for the new, for the instant, for fresh excitement and gratification so it is sometimes difficult for us to live faithfully within a Christian tradition which can seem life denying, narrow, dogmatic, brittle or lacking sustenance. We can cope with the fullness but not the emptiness, the speech but not the silence.

Faithfulness, fidelity, trust in the Word of Life revealed to us in Jesus is no easy path to walk. Sometimes talk about God – theology – has seemed to be about a great concern with the proper order of things, as if we might finally arrive at a point where the universe made sense, a rational divine economy – 2+2=4 More recently theology has had to deal with the post modern concern with the end of meaning, the contention that the search for meaning is a waste of time. But what Jesus Christ calls us back to is a recognition of our creatureliness, that our understanding is stinted, broken, partial but that through Jesus’s death and resurrection we are offered salvation, the opportunity to be part of a redeemed creation.

I am saved, I will be saved or I am being saved – however we package it, the root of what we are about is sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why we come here. We seek to be alongside people as they explore what it means to know, love and follow Jesus. A deepening of our relationship with Jesus brings us to discipleship, a call which is both individual and collective.

Much of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been concerned with creating a new community and with drawing people into this. It’s a community made up of undesirables, nuisances and nobodies, the socially marginalised, the shamed and the stigmatised. The greatest thing about the falling numbers, the slow demise of the church of England in this country has been the opportunity for us to return the crucified Christ, to return to the hope of resurrection.

It can sometimes feel like there are two kinds of churches, those who focus on the cross and those who focus on the incarnation, God coming to be with us in human form. The Cross churches saying its about the transcendent God out there who through Jesus reveals himself to us and the incarnation churches saying its about God’s solidarity with us, God coming to help us . But the reality is that you can’t have one without the other. God does come to be with us in Jesus but through the death and resurrection he also reveals to us the divine nature, a transcendent truth about what it is to be human, to be God’s creatures.

As a teenager I jumped easily from the birth of Jesus to his resurrection but the authentically Christian path runs through the cross. The resurrection that we proclaim is not a new story, it is the story of THE cross, a story about redemption, about being saved, about being made new but a story that passes through darkness and desolation, in order to draw near to the mystery of our salvation. Amen.