Monday, 2 October 2017

'With the help of God, I will': Words & actions

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’.

In nomine Patris…

‘Andrew, will you do this for me?’

‘Yes, of course I will.’

You hear the words coming out. Perhaps you really do mean to do what you say you will, and then find that, somehow, it just never happens. Perhaps something deep down tells you that you never intended to do it in the first place, but your words get ahead of your actions.

It’s not that you didn’t want to do it, it’s not even that you consciously decided not to, it just didn’t happen: a sin of omission not commission.

Jesus’ parable of the two sons cuts to the quick of human motivation and action. I wonder if this parable inspired the words of a Book of Common Prayer Confession: ‘we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and done those things we ought not to have done’.

The parable should prompt us to examine our motives and actions.

Of course the parable also points to the possibility that we might equally refuse to do something but then do it. It may be a little perverse, but at least it’s done. This is a time when we ‘may turn from our wickedness and live’.

The irony of the parable is that the unwilling son is found to be willing and the willing is found to be unwilling.

Parables open up possibilities of interpretation. The two sons could represent two aspects of our personality; the bit of us that is willing and the bit of us that is grudging; the bit of us that acts and the bit of us that fails to act.

The two sons could be the Church at times, talking a good Gospel of love, faithfulness and holiness then reining back on that; or at other times, not trumpeting significant acts of mercy and love that we know do happen.

In the context of Matthew’s gospel the target of the parable is thinly veiled. The two sons represent the ‘righteous’ in the guise of the religious authorities – the chief priests and elders - and the ‘sinners’ in the guise of tax collectors and sex-workers: the righteous who say ‘yes we’ll do that’, and don’t; and the sinners who actually do it despite their words.

The two sons were asked to go to work in the vineyard. Herein lies a clue of Jesus’ intent to that first audience. The vineyard is code for Israel. Go and work amongst the people of Israel: recall them to the Covenant; recall them to works of justice, mercy and truth, their first love.

Reflection on the two sons cajoles us into asking ourselves a question: what is my response to God’s call on my life?

Another way Jesus approaches this question is to ask ‘can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ Am I willing to shape my life according to the way of Jesus Christ, the one who walked the way of the cross?

The parable asks us to examine our hearts as followers of the way of Jesus Christ. It asks us to reflect on our deepest desires as children of a loving heavenly Father. This is what St Paul is getting at when he shares with the Christians of Philippi his own search, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’.

The use of the word ‘mind’ implies that this is all in our heads; that it is something we decide through rational processes. But we are so much more than being thinking animals. We are desiring, yearning animals: we desire and yearn for love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness. That is not a mind thing; that is about tapping in to our deepest desires.

Our translation of the Bible lets us down when it says that the son who said ‘I will not go into the vineyard ’changed his mind (verse 29). It’s much deeper than that. A more literal translation is ‘change what one has at heart’. He came to realise what he truly had at heart, which is to do his father’s will, despite his initial words.

A change of heart is so much deeper than a change of mind.

Icon of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
There are uncanny echoes in this parable with another parable involving two sons. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, told in St Luke’s gospel, one son goes off the rails and the other stays dutifully attentive. And there’s a twist.

It is the son who rejected his father who learns true repentance and knows abundant forgiveness by overcoming what he thought he wanted to do through a deep change of heart – conversion of life – and what prompted it was ‘when he came to himself’ (Luke 15.17).

Body and mind and heart came together and he returned to his family home to pursue his deepest desire for love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness.

The dutiful son – the one who stayed around - revealed that his heart had not yet caught up with the joy of the love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness that he had already had.

In St Luke’s gospel Jesus beautifully tells us that ‘it is out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6.45).

Out of the abundance of the heart Jesus speaks: he speaks out of his love for the Father and the Father’s love for him. His speaking, his acting, his mind is all prompted by where his heart is: which is deep in the heart of God. As he reminds us elsewhere, our treasure and our heart are co-located: what we treasure most is deep in our hearts.

This parable of the two sons speaks to our personal discipleship – our ‘yes’ to God – it searches it out and examines it. It also speaks to our commission to go out into vineyard, whose boundaries stretch beyond God’s first-chosen people to the ends of the earth.

This is the Spirit’s gift that our thinking, speaking and acting is shaped by Jesus Christ coming from the very core of our being: our guts; our hearts. That is the Spirit in which we proclaim the Creed, pray the Lord’s Prayer and respond to the dismissal, ‘In the name of Christ. Amen.’ It’s from our guts.

To know the mind of Christ is to be filled with love for the Father, a love poured out in service of the world.

Today let us commit ourselves to take into this new week, both in our words and in our heart, a renewed commitment to Christ: by saying ‘with the help of God, I will’:

Those who are baptized are called to worship and serve God.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you persevere in resisting evil,
and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you proclaim by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all people,
loving your neighbour as yourself?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.

May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith,
that you may be rooted and grounded in love
and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Transfiguration: shine as lights in the world

First preached as a sermon at the Cathedral Eucharist, Guildford Cathedral, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Sunday 6th August 2017

Daniel 7.9-19, 13-14; 2 Peter 1.16-19; Luke 9.28b-36

‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1.19b)

In nomine Patris…

Prior to his death recently, my spiritual director and confessor, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell was sitting for a portrait. This is because as a former University chaplain many of his former students and friends clubbed together and prevailed upon him to have this done.

Not long before his death I was with him, as he sat in his favourite chair, and we talked. We talked about mortality - he was dying, but at the time I didn’t know how imminent it was – and we talked about light.

Bishop Geoffrey described the method of the portrait painter, who whilst not a man of faith, was intrigued by light and what light exposes and what it conceals. We talked about one of the major theological influences in Geoffrey’s life, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who wrote a good deal about light, glory and transfiguration.

For his funeral a prayer card had been produced on one side an icon and on the other the finished portrait that had been completed just in time. It was extremely moving for me to see.
Bishop Geoffrey Rowell
by Alexander Debenham, 2017

The portrait, which appeared in many of his obituaries, shows Geoffrey in his episcopal robes sitting in that favourite chair. The portrait shows a curious mixture of the domestic – his favourite chair – and the ecclesiastical - his white and gold cope and stole.

Geoffrey’s gaze looks out beyond the viewer of the picture, as if he is looking towards something beyond this world even, to something deeply captivating. This isn’t the look of someone who is not paying attention to the person in front of him (a besetting sin of many Bishops) rather it is a portrait of a man looking into the uncreated light of God: he can see, to use the title of one of his books, The Vision Glorious.

The Vision Glorious is what lies beyond us, but also is close at hand: ‘you will do well’, writes St Peter, ‘to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.

Geoffrey’s gaze is the gaze of the Christian (his mitre is visible but in the shadows of the portrait). It is as if he is looking beyond to the vision of glory that, a vision which we believe he sees now, in all its fullness; a vision glorious of what we may all see in this earthbound life and existence of ours.

In the portrait light gently washes across Geoffrey’s face, as if spilling out from the glory he beholds, something like the look on Moses’ face after he had beheld God’s glory in the Tent of meeting described in Exodus.

The light of Jesus Christ is not reflected light, but is light seeping out from his divinity: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (John 8.12). The Christian bathes in that light.

On a rather more prosaic level, I spent some time last week working with the lighting consultants for the cathedral and discussing what lighting is needed when and where with our new lighting system.

We covered the sort of issues Bishop Geoffrey had touched with his portrait painter: the way light can be used to draw out certain features; how light and shadow as both necessary in order to give tone and texture to a portrait or a building. We talked about how over lighting deprives a portrait or a building of its character and the nuances of the subject: light is not well used when it bleaches out the subtle details of the subject. Light can be used to pick out and enhance features.

The Transfiguration of the Lord bathes Jesus in light. But this is not a lighting scheme for a building or to pick out the delicacies of a human subject.
 The Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov

Rather it is a declaration of divinity. This divinity shines out through humanity, the human Jesus Christ, who is divine, at one with the Father.

The Letter of James tells us, ‘all gifts come from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1.17). The light that is seen emanating from Christ is the uncreated light of God. Gregory of Nazianzus teaches that if we imagine the sun to be bright, and it is – don’t look at it – then the uncreated light of God is beyond brightness.

The call of a Christian is to be attentive to the resplendent light of Christ as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Christianity is in many ways a religion of light, light refracted into a dark world, but a light upon which God declares, ‘Let there be light!’

Baptism is the moment when we see the Light of Christ first rises our hearts: it connects us with the creative purposes of God,’ ‘let there be light in this child of mine’. Our own baptism, when we are washed clean in water, connects us to the Baptism of the Lord and to his Transfiguration: ‘this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!’
Shine as a light
in the world
to the glory
of God the Father

Baptism begins the life of paying attention to Christ: it is about bathing in the glory that comes from him; about gazing upon his Divine Face which illumines our faces; it is about being open to the search light of his wisdom and truth; knowing him as the Beloved Son of the Father; it is about being lit up for life.

As St John puts it in his gospel, ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1.4, 5). This is Jesus; this is Transfiguration.

The Eucharist draws us into the darkness and shadows of being human and shines the light of Christ into our lives; it takes us to the darkness, ‘in the same night that he was betrayed’ and to the lynching of the cross, when, in the middle of the day, darkness fell over the whole land (Matthew 27.45) and it takes to the glory and splendour of Resurrection.

What this means for us day by day is that we open our eyes to Christ in the world and see what God is up to, the life in which we participate and seek to shine out too: as we’re commissioned at baptism, ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1.19b)

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Wheat & Tares: Reflections on judgement and judgmentalism

First preached as a sermon by Canon Andrew Bishop at Guildford Cathedral Sunday 23 July, 2017, Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Gospel text, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

‘Let anyone with ears listen’ Matthew 13.43

In nomine Patris…

The parables that Jesus told his disciples and the crowds who followed him are multifaceted. On first hearing they are deceptively simple, and certainly memorable. Many, but not all, have an obvious and apparent meaning. But a second hearing, or reading, makes us realise that there is a whole lot more to them. The parables become searing and searching. If we are reading them faithfully, with attention and open to the possibility that God will speak through them, we find that the parables read us more than we read them.

Weeds in a field of wheat
And we bring our own experience and insights to the parables. If you spent the day in the garden weeding yesterday, between the showers, or have it planned this afternoon, no doubt you will be thinking practicalities and the merits of glysophate (for those not horticulturally minded, it’s a weedkiller) or the hand trowel. But more than that we start to be searched out by a parable like this. We might begin to wonder what weeds need plucking out of our own lives; what are the weeds that need plucking out of society?

This is a tough parable. Its conclusion really flies in the face of what we might assume the gospel is all about. Surely God does not want the destruction of anyone, be they virtuous wheat or malevolent weeds; so what’s all the talk of furnaces of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth? Surely we moved on from all that after the Middle Ages? It doesn’t feel the sort of modern message we might want to hear.

So do we leave it there, declare that things have moved on a bit and conveniently ignore this parable? I suggest not.

If we remember that the parable reads us as much as we read it, it becomes frighteningly modern and prescient. This is because the parable condemns judgmentalism and commends judgement.

Judgements need to be weighed carefully
Judgement has got a bad name in recent years. This happens when we mistake judgement for judgmentalism. Making good judgements in our choices is fundamental to be responsible human beings in society. Judgements are integral to justice, and in the gospels justice and mercy go hand in hand. Mercy is not a soft option but is the partner of judgement.

Our age is curiously judgemental and not so good at making judgements. Social media firestorms rage in the heaping up of judgements against other people; be they politicians, celebrities, media figures or even, bizarrely, the judiciary. Demands for instant solutions force and hurry poor judgements which results in poor decisions. Judgmentalism evacuates mercy from justice.

In contemporary society very often the word, ‘religious’ or at least ‘Christian’ is assumed to be synonymous with ‘judgemental’. And it has been well earned. The church has often been complicit in believing herself to be the judge, dispensing condemnations and anathemas to those who step out of line.

The church has wanted to do the weeding long before the harvest. This has led, quite literally sometimes, to the burning of those people who dissent or fall outside the norms of the time or those we choose to point the finger at, scapegoat and blame.

The point of the parable is that the weeding, the judgement, is not our task. In the parable when the weeds are uprooted the wheat will be uprooted along with it: put another way, the very act of us judging and seeking to root out others corrupts us at the same time.

Marchela Dimitrova, “Jesus Christ, the Judge.” 2011
The parable resists our human inclination to judge others, and indeed even to judge ourselves. How dare we? How dare we, who proclaim in the Creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, seek to be judges ourselves? The judgement is Christ’s not ours.

As individuals, the church and as a society we all stand together under judgement. Here’s the challenge. How can the church show not what it is to judge, but what it is to stand open to judgement? In other words, to be penitential?

Remember: this parable is a vision of the Kingdom of God, not a world controlled by the church. It is as demanding for the wheat – the children of the kingdom – as it is for the weeds – the children of the evil one. Yet we are impatient to start weeding, trimming, tidying: for the children of the kingdom other gifts are required: patience, faith and trust. The judgement is Christ’s.

This has a direct personal implication and impact. As the children’s song goes, ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me’. We can change that to, ‘Let there be penitence on earth and let it begin with me’.

The seeds of pernicious weeds are usually pretty tiny, mobile and germinate easily. They take root quickly and deeply. So it is with our own shortcomings– that ‘persistent buried grudge, the half-acknowledged enmity which is still smouldering’ that envy or jealousy – those things, once they root and take hold, become sin; they impair our vision and sharing in the life of God.

At each Eucharist we open ourselves up and speak words of confession and are assured that God’s judgement is merciful and inclined to forgiveness. For some, and perhaps it should be for more of us, the practice of confession one to one with a priest becomes a way of digging deeper, not to diminish ourselves but to be filled with God’s mercy. The priest does not judge, but the penitent says before God, I am open to judgement.

As a paraphrase of the last verses of Psalm 139 put it:

Investigate my life, O God,
    find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
    get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
    then guide me on the road to eternal life.

And this moves beyond the personal and into life together. What then does it look like for the church to be open to judgement? It requires us to re-position how we speak of the faith. So, rather than condemn, we commend.

It has been said that, ‘through creative, repentant activity in public life, the church participates in God’s healing transformation of the world.’ That is hard. It is also something that will not be understood by the world.

We acknowledge that this has to be spoken to ourselves as the church first so that we can speak it to the world. An example might be how we speak of the ecological crisis and sustainability. We need to retreat from sanctimony and confess the ways that our use of scripture has led to domination and the exploitation of the world’s resources. In end of life matters, we need to commend life and support all that enriches life before we condemn those of a different position: we all stand under judgement.

We cannot claim to be anything other than fallible human beings, but fallible human beings entrusted with a great treasure for and on behalf of the world.

The existence of the church is the guarantee that Jesus Christ remains committed to the world for which he died.

You and I are implicated in that as disciples. The church tells the world that Jesus’ message is to the end of the age. It is not about being superior, or judgmental, but rather, being faithful to Christ in a world that does not know him, simply out of love for that world and ‘all who dwell in it’.

So, the message is: forget the weeding! It is not my job or your job, not the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, nor even the Pope’s job, to make the kingdom neatly manicured or weeded, wielding spiritual glysophate and religious hand trowels, with us judging what is a weed and what is a flower. This is Christ’s ministry.

Let’s reject judgmentalism and take judgement seriously. And may it start right here: in my heart and in yours.

Roger Toulson (1946-2017)

Dedicated in thanksgiving for the life of Roger Toulson, Lord Toulson, sometime  Queen's Counsel, Lord Justice of Appeal, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: the least judgmental judge I know. May he rest in peace. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2017

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Encounter & Transformation

First preached as a sermon on the Sunday before Lent 2017 at Guildford Cathedral.
Readings: Exodus 24.12-18;  2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want to invite you to mountaineering with me. You don’t have to be supremely fit or nimble, and you won’t require oxygen. All you need is openness of heart to an encounter, and a readiness to go back down the mountain changed.

View of Guildford Cathedral from the south east
The first mountain, well, hill. Morning by morning I ascend Stag Hill and up here at its summit I meet the Lord in word and sacrament as I come to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist. I then descend the hill into the University bearing, I trust, the life and light of Jesus Christ. And in the evening I repeat the ascent and descent through the sublime worship of Evensong.

It may not be Mount Sinai, Mount Zion or the Mount of Transfiguration, but it is my place of ascent and encounter, one I share with you. This holy place is a place where we meet the Living God, where the Holy Spirit draws us Sunday by Sunday, day by day. In coming here we open ourselves afresh in word and sacrament to the transforming, igniting, inspiring possibilities of God.

The Bible is replete with times and places of encounter with God, and transformation through God, and more often than not, but not exclusively, they happen on high places.

The Transfiguration of Jesus as described in our gospel reading, our second mountain, is one such moment.

Icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ
Jesus takes with him three disciples - Peter, James and John – and is joined on the mountain by the figures of Moses and Elijah. Moses embodies the teaching and guidance of Torah and is the representative figure of the Exodus: liberation and freedom. Elijah encapsulates the prophetic tradition of the radical call to turn afresh to God.

In Jesus’ presence Moses and Elijah are recast as the pillars on which the people of the New Covenant will be shaped. Jesus is not another person amongst them but is the very presence of God, not superseding but shot through the first covenant which Moses and Elijah represent.

The transfiguration accounts of the three synoptic gospels, and testified to in the Second Letter of Peter, are emphatic that something quite decisive and remarkable happened on that mountain on that day. They ascended a mountain, encounter Jesus and through his transfiguration they are transformed themselves, ready to descend as new creations in Christ.

This rich and powerful moment of encounter and transformation on the mountain gives shape to all our encounters with God. It tells us that encountering God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is not a matter that can leave us indifferent. As St Paul writes, in a different context, ‘we shall all be changed!’ (1 Corinthians 15)

The transfiguration of Jesus conjures up an image of the surging vision of people streaming up our third mountain to God’s dwelling place as described by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Many peoples will say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’ (Isaiah 2.3).

The transfiguration also evokes the picture too of the water flowing down from our fourth mountain, the Temple Mount described by the prophet Ezekiel: surging water flows and meets the stagnant waters to transform them and make them fresh (Ezekiel 47.8). It shapes what the action of dismissal at the Eucharist is meant to be: as transformed people we go to be living water to a stagnant world.

Ascent and flowing down; encounter and transformation; God’s ways of life.

Christianity is a religion of enduring encounter and transformation. It is a religion of intensity and extensity, in other words intense moments of encounter that then spread out without being thinned down.

We call this sacramentality: intense moments when the divine presence breaks in. The pouring of water in baptism, the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, the words of absolution following confession,  the pledge of the husband and the wife, the soothing oil of gladness in anointing, the empowering Spirit given at confirmation and ordination: in all these intense moments God’s transformative grace breaks into human experience.

Churches and cathedrals are places of encounter with and transformation by God, and are themselves sacramental. That is at the heart of why this is a precious and holy place and not just a big brick hall.

The great Christian quest is to see the light of Christ breaking through in all places, all moments and all people. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit which is open to us all. In this light we see things afresh and differently; when we have seen the light of Christ shining out then our eyes focus in a new way.

If we will allow it – and God works with us, not against us - this transforms how we see the world and how we are seen in the world. It means we see the Kingdom of God in our midst and we are seen as signs of that Kingdom.

So what will a transfigured you or I look like now, and when we’re out and about in daily life? Perhaps to modify the words of St Benedict, we will be ‘striving to live by God’s commandments every day. Treasur[ing] chastity, harbour[ing] neither hatred not jealousy of anyone and do[ing] nothing out of envy… not seek[ing] to quarrel; shunning arrogance. Honouring the elderly and loving the young. [When having] a dispute with someone mak[ing] peace with them before the sun goes down. And never los[ing] hope in God’s mercy’ (RB 4). That’s not a bad application of being a Christian.

But it’s not just about us: this also about who Jesus Christ, our Saviour, is.

In the gospels Pilate declared ‘behold the man’ and the centurion declared, ‘truly this is God son’: both were right, because Jesus Christ in his body is truly human and truly God. The reading of the transfiguration gospel today tells us of what will be accomplished in Jerusalem in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our journey to Easter takes us to see Jesus exalted on another hill; the hill of Golgotha. There, as St John Chrysostom said, ‘I see him crucified; I call him King’.

In a dying and dead man on the cross – flanked not by Moses and Elijah but by two criminals - we see the exalted glory of the God who loves us.

The season of Lent, of careful, prayerful preparation that we will begin on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is a time of deepening encounter and transformation as we are exalted in the heights and walk the way of the cross. It is not too late to prepare for Lent!

As you prepare for Lent you can ask yourself two questions: how and where do I encounter Jesus Christ? What does my life transformed look like?

You have ascended the mountain of the Lord; you meet Christ in word and sacrament: then go from here and be bearers of his light and life.

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

© Andrew Bishop, 2017

Friday, 27 January 2017

How can life go on? Reflections for HMD 2017

Personal reflections following a first visit to Auschwitz in January 2017

Archbishop Justin Welby at Birkenau, January 2017
Two weeks ago I flew out of Cracow having been in Poland visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. It was my first visit to Auschwitz and I was there as part of a group of Anglican clergy led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

That question: ‘how can life go on?’ is addressed to all humanity. The implications of the question are huge. How can life go on in the face of crimes against humanity, genocide and pernicious, virulent anti-Semitism? How can life go on after the Nazi’s brutal, systematic attempt at exterminating a whole people?

But I want briefly to give a very personal, rather unformed response in the wake of my visit to Auschwitz.

I have woken today with a heavy heart and, as I knelt to say my prayers this morning, tears that filled my eyes, just as when I was there, remembering that this day marks the ‘liberation’ of Auschwitz.

Those tears were prompted as I walked around Auschwitz 1 and the site of beatings, hangings, shootings, starvation, torture, gassing and sadistic brutality.

Those tears were prompted as I stood by the railway line at Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, where families - men, women and children - were separated and sent to die by gas or by hard labour, starvation or random acts of malice.

The railway at Birkenau and 'Death Gate'
I stood there considering what would happen if I and my family had been taken there: would I be judged fit to work? What of my fit, sporty 17 year son? Would he be assigned to the Sonderkommando to the work of removing bodies from the gas chamber and putting them in the crematorium, after extracting gold teeth and cutting off women’s hair? What of my skinny 14 year old son, the right age to be spared the gas but would he be judged strong enough? What of my 12 year old son, could he be passed off as 14 and thus not go straight to the gas chamber? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What of my 8 year old daughter? What of my wife? The chances they would live beyond their first day at Birkenau would be limited, and I would never see them again and not be able to say goodbye. How can life go on?

The entrance to Auschwitz 1 - 'Works Makes Free'
Images and thoughts assaulted me throughout my visit. I know others in my group were

struck by the same things as me: walking under the Arbeit Macht Frei gates; through the death gate at Birkenau; the close proximity of the Camp Kommandant’s house where he lived a normal family life next to his murderous day job and where he was hanged after the war because of his crimes.

And there were other images that will stay with me. Being January there was snow on the ground and the landscape looked beautiful and innocent as snow does. But the dissonance between the beauty of the snow and the sunsets over Birkenau with what happened there was acute.

I was astonished not to see any walls, but just thin strands of barbed wire meaning that the prisoners could see out and the locals see in. I was revolted, almost physically, to learn more about the programmatic degradation of human beings so that they felt disgusting to one another and to themselves. I simply stood in silence by the pits into which the ashes of the dead were dumped, and where they still remain. How can life go on?

But life did go on for some. And, thanks be to God, the Jewish people were not eradicated, but are here and contribute to the diversity of society and our world.

The liberation of Auschwitz came 72 years ago tomorrow.

What sort of liberation was it? Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s accounts as survivors of Auschwitz remind us that the liberation for them was not a joyous time for a party like VE Day 1945 here. Rather, it initially meant being force marched in appalling weather to other camps.

But following the end of the war and the uncovering of all that the Holocaust was, the question ‘how can life go on?’ is a haunting one. Perhaps after my visit my first response is that it does: life does go on.

One of the great contributions of the Jewish tradition to humanity is the priority of life. One of the great sayings of wisdom in the Jewish tradition, if not a direct quote from the Scriptures, is the toast ‘l’chaim’, which means, so I am reliably informed, ‘to life’ or ‘for life’.

Life goes on but never to be the same.

With the Archbishop and fellow clergy we reflected on deep and painful themes such as the Church’s relationship with God’s ancient people the Jews; deeply aware given where we were, of the inglorious part played by the Christian churches in fostering antisemitism in Europe over centuries and the almost total silence of the Church in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power.

How does life go on? It goes on in never letting the memory of Auschwitz fade or be denied. Life goes on in all the times we speak out about genocide, in all places where it happens. Life goes on in an uncertain world if we can name and expose anything which snuffs out life, or fosters hatred and death, for example, where people are identified in groups as somehow less than the ideal or norm, whether based on their faith, ethnicity, sexuality, gender or physical abilities.

Returning from Auschwitz my life does go on, but never to be the same again.

 © Andrew Bishop 2017

Thursday, 19 January 2017

What can be said? Reflections on Auschwitz

These reflections come following a visit to Auschwitz with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a group of fellow Anglican clergy earlier this month. On Thursday 26th January 2017 I will join with my Jewish colleague and others from around Surrey at the University of Surrey to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. I have been asked to speak at the event having so recently visited Auschwitz. What follows is my beginning to work through what it means to speak about something unspeakable. As Archbishop Justin Welby has said elsewhere, “I’ve come away with too much to write, and no words to write it.” 

But here are some initial thoughts of mine.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent' Ecclesiastes 3.7b

There is a profound silence at Auschwitz.[1] That silence emanates from the deathly hush of the gas chamber after people have been killed - murdered - and before their mortal remains are turned to dust and ashes in the ovens. 

It is said that the birds do not sing at Auschwitz. In my first visit there earlier this month I don't recall birdsong, but that may just have been me being unable to hear sounds of beauty and unrestrained joy in a place that represents the polar opposite of all that is good. What I do remember, whilst walking around Birkenau, was hearing the barking of a dog quite clearly. That bark pierced the freezing air as an inarticulate cry that spoke more deeply than I knew at the time.

The people who were killed at Auschwitz had not always been silent or silenced: they spoke, laughed, cried, had dreams, aspirations and hopes. They prayed: praise, lament, supplication and thanksgiving. They spoke eloquently and passionately; they gossiped and slandered. Some had not even learned how to speak beyond the primeval cry for their mother's breast. In short, they were human beings, ordinary and living their lives. 

The humanity of those killed, in all its ordinariness and prosaic detail, is the first thing that the Nazis sought to deny. Their strategy was one of, first, identification (the Nuremberg laws and the wearing of the yellow star), second, isolation (the ghetto) and, third, eradication (Auschwitz). They predicated all this on the less than humanness of the Jewish people, and because of that they had no right to speak, be heard, or to breathe. Human rights only apply to human beings.

Witnesses to the killing testify that those people who were killed at Auschwitz both sang psalms to God and screamed out in terror: they were not silent lambs led to the slaughter.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

Anything that one writes or says about Auschwitz has to be properly reticent. It can never be casual or cheap. Auschwitz demands that we pay attention to our silences and our speaking. It's not simply about the choice of words but whether or not we deploy words at all.

Why so? In the face the industrialised and systematised processing of death there is little that can be said that is not trite, hollow or over earnest. Anything we might seek to say about Auschwitz has to pass a high burden of authenticity.

In The Edge of Words Rowan Williams points out that choosing to keep silent can operate in more than one way.[2] Silence can be a way of honouring those people and situations about which we cannot properly speak. However the Nazi project was dependent on German society keeping silence about the violence and death at its heart: colleagues, neighbours and friends of Jewish people did not speak out. For every Oskar Schindler and Maximilian Kolbe there are countless stories of people betraying Jewish people and effectively condemning them to Auschwitz and all that that held.

Silence can also manipulate and betray. Not to speak out about Auschwitz, even 72 years since its 'liberation', is an abdication of responsibility. Failure to speak about, and speak out about, Auschwitz will mean a failure to speak out about pernicious anti-Semitism, crimes against humanity and genocide in our own times.

In the wake of Auschwitz we also need to guard against 'over speaking' that is, naming things evil that may be distasteful, so that when that which is truly evil is present it can be identified, isolated and defeated.

Auschwitz puts me, as someone who always wants to speak, or at least talk, in a difficult position. To speak means I might say too much or not enough, to remain silent, whilst honouring the dead, also can collude with the silence about their fate and what led and leads to it. All I can do is make that judgement in the hope that I speak well: if nothing more, Auschwitz makes me all the more aware of the power and 'edge' of words and silence. May Auschwitz, the place and the idea, never be forgotten or the memory of those who died there fall silent.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

I want to conclude with the words of Elie Weisel an Auschwitz survivor, the author of Night, with words from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:

The world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and woman are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center [sic] of the universe.[3]

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

[1] When I am referring to Auschwitz, I am referring to both a place and an idea: the concentration camp and death camp - Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, at Birkenau - and also using 'Auschwitz' as representing the whole Nazi eradication programme of God's ancient people, the Jews, intentional, brutal and evil as it was, and the others - amongst them Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviets, catholic priests and religious - who were also murdered.
[2] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), Especially on silence as a moral choice, 48-51.
[3] Elie Wiesel, trans. Marion Wiesel. Night. (London: Penguin Books. 2006), 118.