Is ‘none’ really a thing?

This is my sermon for Pembroke College Chapel, 29th May 2016.
It is based on 1 Kings 8.22-23,41-43, 
Psalm 96.1-9, & Luke 7.1-10.
See also this excellent post by Stephen Cherry, and this Guardian article responding to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

If you’ve been keeping any kind of eye on the media recently, you will probably have seen something about the church – and religion generally – being in freefall, with more people now self-identifying as being of ‘no religion’ than as belonging all of the Christian denominations put together.

You can do all sorts of things with surveys – and much depends on what, exactly, is being asked, how the question is phrased, what options are given, and so on. There are certainly various narratives out there that ‘religion’ causes conflict, that ‘spirituality’ is what we share as human beings; that ‘religion’ demands adherence either to things that are impossible to believe, or to norms of behaviour that we no longer believe represent the fullness of human flourishing, while ‘spirituality’ allows each person to find within themselves the path that leads them to becoming who they want to be.

Meanwhile, however, a lot more people are, in fact, coming to church than British Social Attitudes survey would suggest. They may not be coming as part of a regular Sunday morning committed congregation, whatever that means, but they are coming: 200,000 people a year attend a Church of England christening service, and many more may brush up against ‘religion’ at a wedding or funeral. They visit cathedrals and parish churches (when the door is left unlocked).  Chapels, churches and Cathedrals have, in many cases, a several-hundred-year long track record of standing firm through the changes and chances of the life of local families, of whole communities, and indeed of the nation itself. There is something here that taps into a sense of connectedness with the past (think of the massive increase in interest in tracing family history).  When people speak of a ‘thin’ place, this is often what they mean. These are places that allow us to brush up against something bigger than any of us, and nothing in the survey suggests that this is on the wane. These places say, God is here. Not somewhere out there, but here, among his people.

There is something of this in our reading from 1 Kings. Solomon built the Temple, because he wanted a place where the Ark of the Covenant could have a permanent home, as a powerful symbol of God’s presence with his people, and his blessing upon them.

But the trouble with building temples – or churches, or chapels or cathedrals, for that matter – is that they usually have walls. And walls mean you know whether you are on the inside or the outside. If God is here, then there is a danger in inferring that God is only here. There is a danger that the particular signs of God’s presence, be they a temple, an ark, or a chapel, become so particular that they lose their identity as a sign of something universal.

My children, when they were little, helped me think this one through. They used to take great delight in asking me, at length, ‘If God is everywhere, is God in this dirty coffee cup? Is God in this sofa cushion? Is God in this mud on my trainers?’  And so on. Eventually, in desperation, I said to them, ‘No, it’s the other way round. God is not ‘in’ these things. These things are ‘in’ God, because the whole of creation is ‘in God’.  And some of the things that there are in the world are ‘in’ God in such a particular and remarkable way that they allow us to glimpse something of who God is.’ Astonishingly, the explanation worked.  But the conversation stayed with me.

If God is not in the chapel or the Temple, but the chapel and the Temple are both in God, then it is hardly surprising that what the Social Attitude Survey reveals by its silence is the massive extent to which God is at work in all the other things that are, by virtue of their createdness, also ‘in God’, even though they don’t have the label ‘religion’ on them.  For God is, I believe, not only present but active in the whole of creation, and most certainly in the minds and hearts and souls of those who ticked ‘none’ on the survey.  At the simplest level, people pray. My experience has been that there is a heck of a lot of prayer going on outside the church walls – and no survey can ever measure how that works and why it still happens if we’re all supposed to be turning secular.  People pray, and God hears.

This is what Solomon almost understands when he prays in our reading, that the prayers of the foreigner will be heard just as the prayers of the chosen people are heard. This is a moment – an early moment – in a gradual shift in theology, from ‘my family’s God’ through ‘my tribe’s God’ to ‘my nation’s God’ (who is undoubtedly better and bigger than your nation’s God, by the way) all the way through to The God – the end result of this shift is technically known as monotheism.

Once we are aware of God as The God we lose our proprietary claims. It is no accident that the ‘growth’ of God, for want of a better way of putting it, from one tribal God among many to out and out monotheism went hand in hand with a renewed growth in appreciation for the natural world. If God is The Lord, rather than just A Lord then this must be the one who created everything, really everything, the whole universe. So the Bible starts to present to us world of sea monsters and stars and planets and leviathans and distant peoples, all of which become crucial for understanding our own place in God’s affections and purposes.

Universalism, as Solomon almost states it, demands, then, a level of humility that the People of God have often struggled with, it is fair to say, over the last few thousand years. It is a level of humility that says, along with the Centurion in our gospel reading, ‘I am not worthy’ while at the same time declaring with all its might that ‘I am worthy’, but only because we are all worthy. Even the outsider, even the sick slave, even the foreigner who might come and pray in our holy place.

What is going on here is the acknowledgement that if the whole of creation is in God, then there can be no outside. So there can be no outsiders. Because none are uniquely worthy, all are worthy. Equally so. Universalism becomes then not a cop out, but a demanding, difficult process of working towards that unity and equality that is at the heart of our acknowledgement of who God is. What we need most at the moment is a global community that transcends self-interest and tribalism, and seeks instead the restoration of humanity, and indeed of the whole of creation, the very creation that the psalmist hears praising the God of everything.

So, when we talk of ‘spirituality’ (with or without religion) we must be sure that we do not dismiss it lightly; that we are talking about something that goes deeper than subjective feelings, deeper than self-fulfilment or self-expression.  It has to hear and respond to the charge that, in Mandela’s words, to be free, we must not merely cast off our own chains, but also live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. It must draw deeply from the rich traditions that we have inherited, learn from that history’s mistakes, and renew its accountability now and in the future to the creation in which we have a particular role and vocation.  This is a fully engaged*, ethical, demanding, accountable spirituality that the world – and the church – needs more than anything. Call it spirituality, call it religion, call it ‘none’, but know that the world needs it. Now more than ever.


*Thank you to Stephen Cherry for this insight.

Hymn about giving / money etc

That reading about paying tax to the Emperor sort of felt like it needed a new hymn (at least, someone suggested it did). So here is one, to the tune Bunessan (Morning has broken). 

Here we are giving,
out of our plenty
fruit of thanksgiving,
tribute of love.
Hearts overflowing
cannot stand empty,
constantly growing
grace from above.

Gathered as one, and
thankfully bringing
all that we are, and
all that we do.
Serving and caring,
praying and singing,
building and sharing,
offered to you.

Love beyond measure,
total compassion,
We are your treasure:
wondrously giv’n.
Made in your likeness,
imaged and fashioned,
life that is priceless,
valued in heaven.

A hymn for the Queen’s birthday

A little something for the Queen’s birthday. The tune is Praise my soul, the king of heaven.
This has become a collaborative effort between me, Julie Bacon, Gill Robertson, Leah Vasey-Saunders, Sheridan James and Cate Williams (so far!) – other contributors are welcome. 

Praise the Lord for faithful service,
offered through each passing year,
Steadfast prayer, ‘May God preserve us’
Through the times of joy and fear.
Bless our Queen and bless her people,
Give us strength to persevere.

Praise the Lord for faithful vision,
keep life’s journey fixed in sight,
seek God’s will in each decision
Pray to choose the good and right.
Bless our Queen and bless her people,
In God’s way our shared delight.

Praise the Lord for faithful duty,
God has called: to this we cling,
live it out with grace and beauty,
in the tasks each day may bring.
Bless our Queen and bless her people,
As we seek to serve the King.

Praise the Lord for faithful living:
Seeking peace and just accord,
Trusting, hoping, still believing,
sharing faith in deed and word.
Bless our Queen and bless her people,
Fellow servants of One Lord.

This feels like we might be finished – I’ve been loving the collaborative approach. Thank you so much!

Vocations Sunday hymns

It’s about to be Vocations Sunday (in the C of E, that is).  If you want a new-ish hymn for your service, how about one of these?  They’re all free to use – just help yourself (if you could attribute them to (c) Ally Barrett that would be great, but there’s nothing to pay!:-)

This first one is about Vocation, ministry and mission, entitled
Hope of our calling

Tune: Woodlands
(it’s also in the latest version of Hymns Ancient and Modern)

Hope of our calling: hope through courage won;
By those who dared to share all Christ had done.
Saints of today, Christ’s banner now unfurled,
We bring his gospel to a waiting world.

Hope of our calling: hope with strength empowered,
Inspired by all that we have seen and heard;
This call is ours, for we are chosen too,
To live for God in all we say and do.

Hope of our calling: hope with grace outpoured,
From death’s despair the gift of life restored;
Our call to serve, to wash each others’ feet,
To bring Christ’s healing touch to all we meet.

Hope of our calling: hope by faith made bold;
To sow God’s righteousness throughout the world;
Bring peace from conflict, fruitfulness from weeds,
The kingdom’s harvest from a mustard seed.

Hope of our calling: Spirit-filled, unbound,
Old joys remembered and new purpose found,
Our call refreshed by sacrament and word,
We go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

This next one was written for the service in York Minster on 17th May 2014, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of women priests in the Church of England – anyone is welcome to use it, though. 
The tune is Londonderry Air.

Glory to God, the mother of creation,
in love you brought the universe to birth,
then gave your life to purchase the salvation
of all the sons and daughters of the earth.
Glory to you, for love that’s shown through history:
the warp and weft that patterns time and space.
By grace you’re known, yet known to be a mystery,
and we can touch eternity in your embrace.

Glory to you for calling us to service,
shepherds and stewards, messengers and priests,
we give ourselves in gratitude and gladness
as guests and hosts at your thanksgiving feast.
Our hearts exult in loving affirmation,
We sing with joy, your greatness we proclaim.
Your praise resounds in every generation,
Our souls with Mary magnify your holy name.

We are united, in Christ’s body dwelling,
one in the Spirit: wind and fire and dove;
one in the grace and hope of every calling,
to lift the ways of earth to heav’n above.
Through all our lives your power is ever flowing,
To show your work of love is underway;
Stir up your gift in us, your grace bestowing,
so we may speak and live your Word afresh today.

Finally, this hymn is based on the Ely Diocese Vision Statement
The tune is Guiting Power (Christ Triumphant, ever reigning).
It’s quite long, so would work as a processional/recessional/offertory

Gracious God, your love has found us,
bound us, set us free.
Take our lives, transform us into
all that we can be.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

Call us to be Christ-revealing,
radiant with your light;
generous as a hilltop city,
visible and bright.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

 Call us all to live the kingdom,
active here and now;
Life affirming, world-renewing.
Church above, below.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

Call us all in love discerning,
strong in word and deed;
sent, commissioned, gladly serving
all who are in need.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

Call us as your loved disciples:
learning, growing, fed;
Send us out, as new apostles,
Leading as we’re led.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

Call us deeply, touch our souls through
worship, prayer and word,
teach our minds to feel in echo
myst’ries yet unheard.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

Call us, as you called creation
when the world began,
Guide our hearts’ imagination
to your loving plan.
Call us, one and all, together,
now and evermore, we pray.

New hymn for godparent Sunday

Godparent Sunday falls on 1st May 2016 – it’s the first time that the Church of England has set aside a particular day for godparents, so it deserves a hymn all of its own. tune: Slane aka Lord of all hopefulness

Thank you, O Lord, for the gift of this day:
a time to count blessings, to think and to pray,
support us, inspire us, and call us anew,
help us to be faithful in following you.

Bless us in keeping our promise to care,
our loving commitment to always be there,
we’ll smile at each moment of joy and success,
and when life is bitter, our love is no less.

Bless us with patience, with care and with time
to listen, to challenge, to open our mind,
exploring life’s questions in wonder and awe,
and sharing the wisdom that loves to learn more.

Guide us, O Lord, as we walk on life’s way,
Discov’ring together fresh blessings each day,
O Lord of our journey, we ask you to show
the paths we might follow, the ways we may go.


Easter Hymns

Here are the three Easter hymns that I have written, conveniently copied into one post so you can find them easily.

Easter Morning hymn
The tune is Praise my soul / Lauda anima.

Early, while the world was sleeping,
to the garden Mary came;
lost in lonely grief, still weeping
till in love you spoke her name.
Alleluia, alleluia
Nothing now can be the same.

See, the sunlight, slowly dawning
overwhelms the shades of night,
welcoming this glorious morning,
rising with the Light of Light.
Alleluia, alleluia,
Death and darkness put to flight.

Trusted as the first apostle,
Mary swiftly made her way;
bearing this, the Easter gospel
to a world in disarray.
Alleluia, alleluia,
Good news for the earth today.

Risen Jesus, come and greet us:
Speak our name, we are your own;
In your generous love you meet us:
in our lives that love is shown.
Alleluia, alleluia,
Resurrection life made known.


Eastertide hymn
This one is based on the various encounters that the disciples had with the risen Jesus. It is designed to mirror the Epiphany hymn, ‘Songs of thankfulness and praise’, attempting to capture the lectionary stories of the season, so you’d sing it to whatever tune you use for that.  

Life comes to an upper room,
breaking through the fear and gloom;
walls and door-locks are no bar:
Jesus meets us where we are.
Life dispels the doubt of grief
bringing hope and new belief;
touching scars – these signs of pain
bring us back to life again.

Life comes to a broken heart,
bowed by sorrow, torn apart;
in the darkness of our tears
Jesus speaks to calm our fears.
On our journey life comes home,
in this fellowship made known;
with Christ’s body we are fed:
life revealed in broken bread.

Life comes to a sunlit shore,
sharing food with friends once more;
Fresh new callings banish guilt,
hope and faith and love rebuilt.
Jesus’ vict’ry over death
brings new life with every breath,
to the world it’s freely giv’n,
reconciling earth with heav’n.


A song of Moses and Miriam
A metrical version of the canticle usually used at the Easter Vigil
Tune: Kingsfold (the second part of the tune should be used for the doxology)

O sing aloud to God our strength
whose glory conquers all,
His mighty power has raised us up~
While horse and rider fall.
We sing in worship, for to God
All praise and thanks belong,
Our voices raise the melody
Of our salvation’s song.

This is our God, whom we exalt
Until the world shall end;
The Lord who saved our fathers will
To us his love extend.
He did not leave us in our plight
But to the rescue came,
Our strong defender in the fight,
Jehovah is his name.

His powerful hand has been our shield
And glorious is his might,
And all the hosts of evil now
are shattered at the sight.
The breath divine that gave us life
The mighty flood sets free,
And so the water’s swirling rage
Devours our enemy.

Almighty is the power of God,
His love will never end,
He has redeemed us, set us free,
and leads us by the hand.
And now he brings us to that place
Where we may dwell secure,
The holy house of God shall be
Our haven evermore.

All glory be to God on high,
The Father, Spirit, Son,
To whom we raise the melody
Of our salvation’s song.