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Charles Royden addresses a secular evening on a Rotary 'Ladies Night'

It is a great privilege to be able to speak to you at Rotary on your ‘Ladies Night’

I am reminded of the man walking along the beach who found a bottle, rubbed it, out popped the obligatory Genie. He was offered a wish to be fulfilled. The man asked was afraid of flying and wanted to visit America so he asked for a bridge to link England to America. The Genie said this was impossible and he must ask for another wish. The man said that he had always found women hard to understand and he wanted the ability to know what made them tick, why they laughed and cried and had those adorable little changes of mind. So he asked for ability to understand women, the Genie said ‘do you want two lanes or three.’

On such a night it must be said that the failure where it exists Ladies is on our part, we have very unsophisticated and under developed circuitry compared to the female of the species.

So to ‘The church and my subject for tonight’ ‘What on earth is going on?’ I want to tell you a bit about me, my experience of the church and where I think we are going and why. It is said that at dinner you should not discuss, sex, religion and politics. So I want tonight to try and get in a bit about homosexuality, divorce, hell and the Taliban, something to upset everyone.

I went to church as a young man and decided when I was 17 that I might offer myself for ordination, this was quite a triumph because I found church immensely boring as I grew up in a very traditional church setting, reciting the canticles etc. But I suppose I wanted to be a part of change which was clearly starting to come along.

So I went away on a course which the Church of England was operating at the time and I remember talking to one of the course leaders who was a nun. She took me to the pub and we had a pint and I remember her saying to me as she held her pint of Boddingtons Bitter with immaculately polished nails, ‘you ought to see life first.’

So this was what I determined to do I went to join the Merseyside Police. And I was there for 5 years. I joined in the Toxteth Riots, on the wining side. I arrested lots of villains and had my nose broken twice in the process. I worked in vice and spent many hours collecting evidence to close down prostitution and brothels. In those days police surveillance involved breaking into people’s loft space from the adjoining property, making a hole in the ceiling and lying down for several hours on the joists looking at events below. I remember many interesting hours observing events in the cubicles of the brothel with the various customers and their particular requirements. I always wondered if this was what the nun had meant when she said that I ought to see life first.

Anyway eventually I went back to the church and talked things over and it was agreed that I should go away for four years study to study theology and be trained to be a priest. This is what is sometimes knows as a ‘Vicar Factory’ it is suggested that it is a process in which you become so holy that you are no earthly good.

After four years I ended up by total coincidence serving for a further four more years of ‘on the job’ training working at a church on a council estate in Merseyside. This was exactly the same Council Estate that I had worked as a Policeman four years previously. People would shake my hand as they came out of church and say things like ‘you knicked me.’

It was a wonderful introduction to ministry to be in a place where you feet had to be very firmly planted on the ground. And I realised there that the church was changing and there was a place for me in it. It was a wonderful experience. The church was a beautiful ancient little village church but it had fallen into complete disrepair and as it was surrounded by a difficult neighbourhood it was almost redundant. But we set about changing it.

Now you probably know that when you try and change a church you suddenly find people become interested in it and want to stop you. They would have done where it not for the fact that we had our own chainsaws and flat backed lorries. One afternoon we chopped all the pews up and sold them on the front of the church, another we pulled out the organ and sent it off with a bunch of gypsies. Sacrilege cried the Victorian Society. But what it did of course was to immediately return the church to the condition in which it had originally been built. It was Victorian vandals who put these things there in the first place. Originally the church had been a centre of community where markets could be held, now with the removal of the clutter the space could be returned to the people. So we brought in play groups, youth clubs, after school clubs. When our first baby was born she was taken to the health authority clinic that was based in the church. Afterwards we could then go the family planning clinic for free contraceptives!
I still remember now the headline in the Liverpool Echo, ‘Church gives Free Condoms.’

Bedford

After four years I felt a call to missionary work and it was then I came to Bedford. My understanding of the church being at the centre of community life, meeting real needs was a vision already shared by my churches and I appreciated being able to work with Putnoe Heights and St Mark’s which had fine buildings for this purpose. If you visit either of those churches you will be amazed at the activity and life which is going on. It was hard at first, some local people said churches should be shut all week and only open on Sundays. Some felt that it was a terrible sin to use the church for Bingo or to play Bridge. When we applied for an entertainment Licence some local politicians saw the chance for personal glory and attacked us, The Beds on Sunday ran a story with the headline ‘Devil Vicar has a ball.’ But we won, because what we were doing was right and the two Church Community Centres are exemplary in their practice and their involvement in community life, open every day and managed in full by volunteers.


The changing face of the church


I have found that the church is able to relevant and when it works with integrity it receives respect. Now that word ‘Respect’ is difficult today. The truth is that every institution is struggling to find respect, for we have none for anybody any more. Perhaps because we know so much about how institutions work and what people are really like we no longer think anybody deserves any.

The church has been struggling to try and find its place in a society where respect for all institutions is under attack and they have diminishing power.

The church is always changing, evolving and trying to make sure that it is making sense to the world in which it lives. A little while ago the church was out of step. When we sing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ we no longer sing the verse which goes-

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high or lowly
And ordered their estate


We realise that this is inappropriate, God does not want some to poor and lowly at all. Jesus actually said that was wrong. So change is not a bad thing Change is not a bad thing. If we as individuals do not change in life then we are not growing. Our bodies grow up, so do our minds. So it is too with the church. We know that God has taught us much over the last 2000 years since the Bible was written, he is till teaching us now. The more we learn, the more change, the more we will be serving God faithfully in the generations to come.


Change in our understanding – The Bible


The place where Christians turn for inspiration and guidance has always been the Bible. But there has been a change in approach to the Bible and a more grown up way of reading it. The Old Testament was a Book for the Jew and much of it became irrelevant when a new religion was started following a man called Jesus.

But even the New Testament has had to be read carefully, for example in the New Testament it expects that we should have slaves. Now much as that might sound like a refreshing idea when you have a mound of ironing, we have had to ask ourselves to what extent is the Bible to be obeyed. We believe that it is a special book, which speaks about the way that God deals with people, but God did not write it. It is a book written by ordinary men, men who got angry with each other, had prejudices and were human beings of their time. So we have to try and reinterpret the Bible and let it live again for today. I want to illustrate the problems in relations to some topical subjects which show how radically the church is changing its views.

Sunday Trading


One of the biggest defeats which was inflicted upon the Thatcher government came because of a backlash over proposed Sunday Trading legislation. Christians were upset that there was to be extended trading on the Sabbath.

This is a dangerous thing for Christians to fight over. First of all the Sabbath is a Saturday not a Sunday. Moreover the Jewish penalty for breaking the commandment demanded by Moses was death by stoning. Unless Christians were going to be prepared to line up outside Homebase with a crate of stones, they were on rocky ground.
You cannot pull bits out of the Bible which you like without thinking what you are doing.

Sometimes when we read the Bible we are guilty of a lack of common sense.

For example take the words of Jesus, ‘If your hand causes you to sin cut it off….’

There have been some sad people in the church who have actually taken these words literally and cut off parts, which have been prone to leading them astray. It brings tears to the eyes.

How many of you when driving along the road have said to the children arguing on the back seat, ‘Right cut it out or I will put you in the boot’
You don’t mean that you will put them in the boot, most of you, mean that they had better cool it. It is a figure of speech, it is not literal. . Why do people find it impossible that Jesus could use language to make effect?

So too the writings of the apostle Paul are good stuff, but they do not automatically have enduring authority over us. They dealt well with the problems of the first century but they cannot be simply applied indiscriminately to us today.

The Bible is not a fixed rule book written for all time to be brought out and used like a manual written to help you understand a machine. It is perhaps more like a flight manual for an aeroplane teaching us some of the controls to navigate our way through a changing environment. We make choices, we keep some stuff and we try to make sense of stuff which is nevertheless totally out of date.

So we as a church are having to think through carefully much of what we have taken for granted for years. For example in its time the church has been against whole groups of people and the justification for this was to be found in a misunderstanding of the Bible.

Women


For years the Church of England refused to ordain women, partly because of what the Apostle Paul said about women keeping quiet in church. It was said that if we ordained women priests in the Church of England the church would go belly up. But then we did a few years ago ordain women priests. We realised that Paul did not tell women to keep quiet, he told the women in Corinth to keep quiet. We have not yet allowed women to be ordained Bishops, but the position is morally, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt and so it must eventually come.

Obedience to Governments

So too when Paul said rulers are ordained by God, he was not speaking with regard to whether or not we obey rulers like the Taliban, he was speaking in a society where there was no opportunity to vote in a democratic election.

Take the idea of Hell


Christianity has been credited with the feel bad factor. The church created a place for itself between people and God and became a sort of fixer with the divine. The church was like a heavenly immigration service, it handed out passports to the deserving.

Richard Holloway the Bishop of Edinburgh called this the
‘theology of the crushed testicles’.
This was where the church gained ultimate respect.

The traditional theology of hell sees God like a Nazi commandant ordering people to be burned alive in ovens The Christ of the Gospels is one who goes and searches for the sheep which is lost and forcibly taking it back home on his shoulders, whether it wants to be found or not.

Human beings like the idea of hell, it appeals to our sense of prejudice and anger. Jesus was a man of his day, he used language of his day. The problem is that we have failed to allow for this Jesus uses the word Gehenna for Hell. This was originally the word used for the Valley of Hinnom on the South side of Jerusalem. The place became the city’s refuse dump. It was a place where the fire never went out and the worm did not die. In the common mind it became a metaphor for the place for sinners after death. We cannot expect that Jesus was giving us an explanation of life after death, he was using the current world view of his hearers.

Jesus used the language and culture of his day. He used stories that people new and twisted them around to enable people to see things differently. Jesus did not expect us to freeze frame one particular time in the earth’s history with its own peculiar moral confusions and give it eternal significance.

There is a part of me which wants to be selective and say that God only likes certain types of people. Christianity has been guilty of condemning those who do not conform to a hell where they can know the error of their ways. But the truth is that God does not share our desire to punishment. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 who go straight. This kind of mercy and forgiveness that we see in a God who dies is quite overwhelming, how can we be untouched. There was the concept not long ago and it still surfaces that we frighten people into heaven, tell them that they are going to burn if they don’t repent and join the church.
But Jesus doesn’t shout down from the cross
‘now you change or the same thing will happen to you’
he prayed instead at that time for forgiveness and acceptance to God. Jesus prayed that even those who crucified him would be forgiven, not go to a strange place called Hell.

Homosexuality


The church is currently going through the business of trying to understand its view on Homosexuality. In Leviticus 20:13 it tells us

"'If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.’

It has been said that the definition of normal sex is ‘what I like doing’. So this statement has always been very is comforting to heterosexuals. They have used it to be nasty to the minority. We have always had a tendency to create God in our own image, if we were triangular shaped we would say that God had three sides. Of course we are not but we are suspicious of people who are not like us, we are quite nasty and unforgiving, we are intolerant and think people who do wrong ought to be wacked.

But you cannot use the Bible in this way. In Lev 19:26 it also says
‘Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it. "'Do not practice divination or sorcery. Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.’

Leviticus is one of the most dreadful and prejudiced writings ever imagined Leviticus 21:16 says
The LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron: 'For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.

It had a purpose in its day but we realise that we have to move on


Divorce


We have as church had to start rethinking old prejudices about such things as divorce, the Church of England was founded because of one but we have never felt comfortable with it since. So the church is trying to think through what to do about divorce. For years the Church of England refused to allow remarriage, now individual Vicars are making their own decisions. The Synod for this Diocese recently made a very positive statement about needing to provide for remarriage after divorce.

Many will say that the church has weakened marriage. In trying to meet the needs of people who have been through marriage difficulties the church is not saying that marriage is unimportant, but it is saying that we have to understand that whereas we would like all marriages to be made in heaven they are not - and sometimes they go wrong. When they do we have to pick up the pieces and allow people to move on. Even Jesus allowed divorce to take place, why should we be stricter than Jesus.

Moreover it is not easy to see current marriage practice in the Bible anyway. Jacob had two wives, Lamech had wives, Esau had wives, David had wives-indeed he only had to feel cold and he called for new virgin, Abraham, the great father of the Church gave his wife for another man to have sex with and had a child with a female servant.

The church has to be very careful which bits of the Bible it uses to justify the status quo. We have to be open to change and to understanding when marriages break down.


So what can we be sure about?

Change, change change. So in the midst of change and uncertainty what can we be sure about?

One of the types of miracles that characterised Jesus ministry were those of provision. Jesus took a little wine and created an excess of not ordinary wine but wonderful wine. He took a few small loaves and created a meal for thousands.

Human beings like us resent God’s generosity towards others. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus healed and provided for people, because so often he provided for the wrong people, people like sinners, prostitutes, beggars. Why didn’t he save his miracles for the nice people?

It was all about generosity, what theologians call grace. God is generous. His love, his acceptance, his forgiveness, is generous. It pours out and it isn’t metered, you don’t have to worry if it will go round, or that some of it is being wasted on the wrong people, unappreciative people, undeserving people.

Don’t worry. None of it is deserved, it’s all a gift and it isn’t going to run out. We see in the life of Jesus a God who is gracious, generous and loves to give. We find it hard to accept generosity, we much prefer that there were rules and requirements, because then we could follow them and we would have earned our salvation, it would be ours by right, not a gift, I would be in control.

The church often thinks like this, tries to put a meter, a dispenser on God’s grace. You will be saved, loved by God, if you do the following and depending on our tradition we say, ‘go to mass, believe in the infallibility of the Bible, accept the authority of the pastor, speak in tongues and show signs of having received the Spirit in some approved way, been to Toronto.

We do not cannot earn God's grace, it is poured out upon us abundantly, upon the righteous the unrighteous, the sinner and the saint, ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’. Jesus cuts across the rules of the church, undermines any claim to authority, and he says to us all ‘Just come’'