Resurrection

It is 5.45am.

My eyes are gritty. My brain feels smothered in cotton wool. The ache in my arms and legs goes down to my very bones, the exertions of the last three days making themselves felt already, and we’re not done yet.

The pilgrimage made by the women to the tomb on that Sunday morning two thousand years ago was not in a small and luridly coloured Renault travelling across the Clyde. I reflect wryly that if I had been part of that small group of loyal women on that day all those many years ago, I would have been the one begging to be allowed to inhale coffee before we went out. I would have thought, a little irreverently, that the body of Jesus, dead and cold as we expect it to be, would do no harm waiting a few minutes more for its embalming for me to be properly caffeinated. The sky is still mostly dark over Great Western Road as I slip into an empty church.

This is a place that feels of home. I know every corner of it, and standing here in the darkness and stillness I am entirely content in my own soul. On this dark Sunday morning, this place bursts with the remembered footsteps of all the people who have walked through it and memories of all that has happened over the last week.

Here, where just seven days ago a crowd gathered together with their palms and their shouts of Hosanna. A mighty Glaswegian rabble that packed in tight and then walked and sang with the Lord.

Here, where a labyrinth laid in the Nave on Monday and Tuesday, where people came to walk and pray and meditate, taking a moment of peace before the rollercoaster of the Triduum began.

Here, where water and suds were splashed as the feet of so many disciples were washed, and where we shared the supper that started with friendship and feasting and ended with betrayal.

Here, where there is a wax stain from where the great Paschal candle was smashed on the altar steps by bandits who had turned against their Messiah, and here, where I ran the length of the aisle to snatch away precious things from the back of church as the words of Psalm 22 rang in all our ears. Do not be far from me, for trouble is here and there is no one to help.

Here, where we waited that long long night in the garden. There was a point on Thursday night when I understood how the three who had fallen asleep must have felt.

Here, where the cross stood on Friday morning, and here, where so many people waited at the foot of it for hours, waiting and waiting and not leaving even when it was clear that nothing more could be done for him.

Here, where we cleaned and polished and shone on Saturday, putting everything back to rights, just in case, just in case there might be a resurrection. There are two thousand and seventeen Easter eggs hidden around the wood and stone, and cases of Prosecco waiting patiently under tables. There has been a rumour and it is said that miracles do happen, sometimes.

Here, where the murals of Gwyneth Leech show everything that has happened this week, the crowd with clubs and swords, the tree, the people passing by with their heads turned away, all of it taking place just around the corner in Kelvingrove Park. This week is not something that we can separate ourselves from by time or by place. This is something that has been real and close and true.

The sky has begun to lighten. There is a gentle spatter of Glasgow rain. Gradually, over the last hour or so, we have been joined by everyone else, our friends with whom we have grieved these last days, all arriving for what may be one final journey, one final service — or may be something else entirely. We gather together away from the sanctuary that we all love. We make our pilgrimage outside to the memorial stone where the dead of our congregation are remembered, to the place where they buried him.

And here, in the place where they buried him, a fire burns and a tomb is empty and the Gospel truth dawns that he who we loved and lost is with us now.

Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia.

Advertisements

How The Light Gets In

Today, we will step onto a road that will lead, painfully and inevitably, to a hill just outside Jerusalem and to the witness of a political execution that we do not understand.

There is a busy week ahead. There are feet to be washed, and a mob coming, and a church to be made gleaming, and I am actually working all seven days of it, too, and if I were to look closely around the cathedral I’m sure I’d find that all manner of loveliness has been stashed away, in case, in a week’s time, just in case, we might wake up early and find that an impossible thing has happened.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 00.16.47

Photo: Gordon Smith

I can’t think about all of that too hard. This is a week where at least trying to take things one day at a time is the only way I can keep from going mad. One of the qualities that I least understand but most admire in my clergy friends is their ability to write an Easter sermon before the Easter Vigil.

I was told nine years ago that if I kept Holy Week and the Triduum at St Mary’s Cathedral, it would change my life and it would change the way I experienced my faith.

And I didn’t believe it.

Easter Day is Easter Day, a festival filled with joy and light and wonder, and, where I celebrate it, Prosecco. The events that led up to it were just something that happened — they happened two thousand years ago, and I knew the story and I understood generally what had gone on and I truly saw no reason to get mixed up in it any more than that. I knew what had happened, and my dwelling on it was hardly going to change that, or me, or the world.

But the following year I was around and I was a server by that time, anyway, and I thought I might as well see what this Holy Week business was all about.

“If you keep Holy Week and the Triduum in this place, it will change your life and it will change your faith,” he said, again.

Still, I didn’t believe him.

Imagine how taken aback I was four days later to taste the hot salt of tears streaming down my face as I sat on the cold tile by the Garden, as the foot traffic of a bank holiday weekend in the west end of Glasgow clattered by outside the walls and his friends all ran away and left him. And to taste them again in the empty echoing hollowness of a sanctuary that come Friday morning has been desecrated. The pain of realising that I hadn’t understood anything — and that I still don’t, not really.

The events of the next eight days are raw and real to me, every single time. The thing I didn’t understand, back then, was that the story of the events leading up to Easter Day were a story of the world we live in and of right here and right now. The thing I still don’t understand is how we keep ending up back here. That’s what I keep asking myself. That’s what I’ll spend long hours over this week thinking about: how the world keeps ending up here, and how we can make the world a better place.

And as for that thing about Easter Day and its joy and light and wonder?

It turns out I hadn’t understood that either.

That the ecstasy is nothing without the agony. That the Hallelujah Chorus is only notes on a page unless its set against the backdrop of the wail of the blues. That you can’t properly savour the Prosecco until it’s washing away the bitter taste of hyssop. And that the crack in everything is how the light gets in.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 00.22.16

Photo: Gordon Smith

That promise was true. It has continued to be true. It will be true again this week, and its truth will be in ways that I cannot possibly begin to know yet.

It did change the story, and it did change me, and, yes, if we let it, it can change the world too.

Blessed Are The Fabulous

The word came down the long parade of singing, dancing, cheering people, spreading amongst the crowd of rainbows: “There are religious protestors up ahead.”

We raised our eyebrows. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an honest-to-God protester at a pride march in Scotland.

I was walking in Glasgow Pride with a group of Scottish Episcopalians yesterday, our numbers and enthusiasm undampened despite the best efforts of the steely Scottish sky to drown us all. I was holding an enormous banner that proclaims, “The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” I was standing with two priests, and behind us were a mass of Episcopalians, young and old, dogs and humans, men and women, bisexual and gay and straight, clergy and laity, veteran Pride attendees and Pride virgins, all wearing badges that say “Love Wins”, and, dashing about among the spectators lined along the pavements, a priest with a rainbow plait in her hair distributed invitations to come to church on Sunday morning.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 15.04.12

Photo: Vicky Gunn

I think there was a time when I’d have said we were a fringe group, in the Church. The first time I did Piskies at Pride, there were five of us. Yesterday, we were at least 25 of us and we were there with the blessing and the endorsement and the funding of my Diocesan Bishop. The world has changed. The church is changing. It has been slow and painful and bloody hard work, but it is happening and its truth is never more clear to me than when we all show up at Pride.

As we rounded the corner onto Saltmarket, the quality of the noise changed. The shouts which had been joyful became angrier, darker. The protestors we had been warned about came into view. A ragtag miserable looking crew, and a street preacher who was waving his bible in the air, and screaming about sodomy and sin and hellfire and damnation. None of it was about a God that I believe in or would have any time for if I did.

My experience of being a Christian who walks in gay pride marches as part of an identifiably Christian organisation is that people are generally quietly pleased to see us there. I’ve always felt welcome at Pride. As a group, we’re always kind of noteworthy — I walk beside someone who goes to Pride wearing a clerical collar and a badge identifying him as “Real Priest”, which is the sort of thing that still perks up most photographers. I’m not sure, though, that our presence has ever been actively cheered.

As we passed that ragtag bunch of protesters, we turned our banner on them.

The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You.

And a roar went up from the crowd.

“Why do you do Pride? Aren’t we a bit past all that? Why is Pride even still necessary?” I’m asked sometimes. And then they remind me: “I mean, you’ve won.”

The truth is that we do Pride because of stuff like that, and because of what that kind of thing represents about the world in which we all live. Because when forty-nine people living at the epicentre of the land of the free and the home of the brave can be killed for being in a gay club, we haven’t won yet. Because when there are parts of the world where people are killed for being on a Pride march, we haven’t won yet. Because when being LGBT is still a criminal act in 72 countries and carries the death penalty in 13 countries, we have evidently not won yet. There are fights that still need fighting.

This weekend, I’ve been thinking about the day Gene Robinson came to Glasgow.

It was a summer day in Glasgow very much like yesterday — dark and dreich and very very wet. It was the year he had been barred from attending the Lambeth Conference and from celebrating Communion in England, and he came to Scotland instead. I remember that I was running very late for church that day, and that I was thoroughly taken aback when I opened my taxi door onto a bedraggled group of protesters and a couple of folk who pounced on me, trying to hand me bible tracts, as I stepped onto Great Western Road. And then from nowhere an arm descended around my shoulders and a voice told me to come inside. Inside, where there was warmth and light and joy and love.

A place where God is love.

The rain thundered down on us yesterday. The preacher ran alongside us with his megaphone, outraged and incoherent and drowned out by the sirens of the Scottish Ambulance Service doing it on purpose. A forest of rainbow umbrellas danced up the street. The people of Glasgow turned out onto the streets and hung out of their windows to cheer us on. Just over my left shoulder, a priest began walking backwards and conducting an impromptu rendition of Dancing Queen. And through the black clouds and pouring rain, the Holy Spirit shimmered and shimmied over our heads, boogeying ahead of us into that better world that we seek to create, where heaven has been built and truth that is Gospel has spread unto the ends of the earth.

God is love. God is love. God is love.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 15.00.49

Photo: Beth Routledge. Artwork: Audrey O’Brien Stewart.

Badges

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 20.10.37

I reckon there’s a market for these.

I arrived at church this morning in a whirlwind — filled with caffeine, hair everywhere, glasses wonky, dashing into the sacristy to do the most rapid of changes, from scrubs to cassock, before the service started. The clergy and the rest of the congregation are well used to this by now. A raised eyebrow and a murmur of, “So what time zone are you in today?”

Today, though, I was presented with the latest offering from the Cathedral badge stall (not yet available online).

 

 

 

Love, Which Is Always Stronger Than Death

Of the many things I have learned over the last year, one that I consider the most important is that I can now say with authority that the pain of waking up on Easter Monday morning is every little bit as bad as the pain of waking up the day after running an actual marathon. 

The trade-off for both things is that they are worth every creak of every muscle that pulls in new and interesting ways.

In the middle of Holy Week, I had dinner with a friend who is not a Christian but who has been around for the last decade of me slipping further and further into Jerusalem and knows how that goes. She asked me what it is that we do in the Triduum, exactly, and, because she is a good and generous person, sat without interruption through what I am sure was a longer explanation than she had been counting on. The way I talk about this week in the Christian year and the length at which I talk about it is because even at the end of that explanation, I hadn’t done it justice — and the point is that you can’t, not by describing it, which clearly doesn’t mean I stop trying. And because there was a time, in the not too distant past, in a lifetime that included at least a couple of years when I was worshipping at my cathedral, when I was a Palm Sunday and Easter Day sort of Christian.

Not that I had failed to realise that there was a crucifixion, but that I just didn’t really see any need for me to dwell on that.

I mean, there was always going to be a resurrection. Right? It didn’t matter whether I sat through all the unpleasantness in the middle. Did it?

Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous.

In my own defence, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that without living the terrible reality of that crucifixion, the glory of the resurrection is no resurrection at all.

That there is more wonder in the lights rising during the singing of an Exsultet when I have sat by and wept as the light of the world went out.

That the moderately hysterical giggles around the reluctantly lighting Easter fire would be less joyful in a world where the Paschal candle never smashed to the ground.

The relief of the first communion after the pain of that last one.

That the voices crying Alleluia are more glorious when those same voices have wailed their lamentations.

That being asked, at half past six in the morning on Easter Day, to manufacture a confetti cannon is probably always funny, but funnier when it is part of misery and grief finally slipping away.

That the joy of the high holy razzmatazz of a church full of loveliness glitters less brightly in a place that was never seen to be stripped of all its loveliness. That the sound of a popping champagne cork and a clanging bell is less wonderful if you have never contemplated a dark, silent, empty place that you have loved and tried to remember what it was like before all the happiness went out of it.

And that the resurrection was never ever a sure thing.

Into this world, morning is breaking,
All of God’s people lift up your voice,
Sing out with joy, tell out the story,
All of the Earth rejoice.

My experience of the Triduum is a living Passion. A tragedy, and screams of grief that pierce the festivities of a Passover, the revelry of a Bank Holiday weekend, and the indifference of a world that seems as if it’s forgotten. A crucifixion that is real, as real for us today as it was for the people of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Late on Holy Saturday, I posted this video on my social media feeds. That’s how I feel on Holy Saturday. Is there going to be a resurrection? I have no idea. This is being posted two days after Easter Day because it feels too much like jinxing it to write anything about Easter in advance of it actually happening, because, well, what if it doesn’t? My experience of the Triduum is a resurrection that is an actual miracle, every time, and that kind of joy only comes from having first gone to the most appalling depths of grief. The darkness and the light. The joy and the sorrow. The sitting in a bare church where God is not, and the glory breaking from the tomb as the truth dawns that he whom we had loved and lost is with us now in every place and forever.

The reason I talk about it the way I do is because I was once promised that if I kept Holy Week and Easter the way I now do, it would change my life and it would change the way I lived my faith. It is six years ago since the first time I decided to test that promise, and it keeps being true. And therein lies that miracle.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 00.04.33

Photo: Stewart Macfarlane

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

Open, Inclusive, Welcoming (and Proud)

It always gives me great joy to march at Glasgow Pride in the company of my Episcopalian brothers and sisters.

Photo: Gordon Smith

Photo: Gordon Smith

Today, I was marching with Changing Attitude Scotland, which is the network within the Scottish Episcopal Church that works for the equal rights of LGBT people within the Church and beyond. I was out there today with people from the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway, many of whom were from my home church of St Mary’s Cathedral; but I was also out there with people who had come from across the Province to join us.

Pride is about marching for gay rights, which are equal rights. Pride is about celebrating everything that has been accomplished, and about remembering the work that has still to be done.

A number of us out there today were involved in the equal marriage movement in Scotland. A number of us have now turned our attention to the movement for marriage equality within the Church. Our work is not done.

I think it’s really important for religious groups to be seen at Pride. I’m always pleased to see groups from the Reform Jews, and to have a chance to catch up with the Metropolitan Community Church and Affirmation Scotland. I think it’s important for this face of the church to be public and out there. The group that I march with has grown in size and enthusiasm, year after year after year. There were more than thirty of us at Glasgow Pride today, a far cry from the four wet and bedraggled Piskies who gathered on the Royal Mile in 2008. This year was the first year that our efforts at Pride have been partially funded by the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway, and that’s a big thing. We are no longer a fringe movement or a special interest group. We are in the Church and of the Church, and the Church is starting to recognise that. That’s a really big thing.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 20.29.18

You think the world has changed, but as I walked through George Square today there were still flashbulbs turning to the priest walking next to me and people nudging their friends as they read out the words on the banner that I was carrying:

“Look! Look! The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”

The world has changed. It’s changed because we keep changing it. And every time we do something like this, we change it a little bit more.

As long as our religious institutions are not equal. As long as our youth are rejected by their families. As long as a teenager can be killed merely for being on a Pride march. Our work is not done.

Today was a great Pride. Thanks to Glasgow Pride and to the Scottish Episcopalians who came out to support us.

Return To The Lord Your God

A number of years ago, I was asked by a friend from a different faith tradition to talk about Holy Week. He said that he knew what Easter was about and he understood why we made a big fuss over that, but that no one had ever told him what this week leading up to it was really about. He asked if I could explain.

I couldn’t.

Oh, I told him the names of the festivals — which he already knew. And probably I could have offered a historical account of the events of the week according to Mark, if I had been moved to do so. And while stumbling over my own incompetence I may have slipped in a, “… and then on Holy Saturday we clean everything.” 

We ended dinner with him more baffled than he had been and wishing he hadn’t asked, and the reputation of informed intelligent Christians in tatters on the plates before us.

You must understand that I used to avoid Holy Week. I knew the story of the Passion, but I didn’t live it; and I had a theoretical knowledge of what each of the services was supposed to be re-enacting, but I didn’t really get what it was about. I slipped into a back pew for the big festival service on Easter Day, when the flowers were in bloom and the place had been polished to within an inch of its life and, so I was told, a miracle had happened. I hadn’t been a guest at that very particular Eucharist. I had never witnessed the tearing apart of the temple, or been the friend who fled when they came out to arrest him, or wept at the foot of his cross. I had never crept out of my house in the dark and stillness of a Sunday morning to visit a tomb, not knowing whether there had been a resurrection.

I had not yet taken seriously the promise that had been made to me that if I kept Holy Week in the place where I now keep it, that it would change my life and change my faith.

And so I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what it was like to have incense in my nose and cold tile against my face and adrenaline in the back of my throat, and to lie there silent and terrified and furious.

Or about the love and the joy and the betrayal and the fear and the anger, and that I would experience all of those things in a few short hours.

Or why Judas betrayed him, or why Peter denied him, or why Thomas doubted him. I didn’t know why he didn’t just run when he had the chance. I didn’t know that they were all just as human as I am.

I didn’t understand why it was important.

That it might be about something that happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but it’s about things that have happened in Germany and Rwanda and Bosnia and the Sudan. It’s about what happens in Jerusalem today and in Syria and the Ukraine and in Glasgow too.

I didn’t know that it’s about being willing to live it.

I didn’t know that it’s about being broken up into a thousand pieces and hanging onto the faith that tells us that in the dark and stillness of a Sunday dawn, we will be put back together.

And I didn’t know that I would never ever be the same.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness;
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Are All Welcome?

On Saturday 21st February, Changing Attitude Scotland is holding a Eucharist for Change where we will pray for LGBT inclusion and justice in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Frankly, at the moment it doesn’t feel as if all are welcome in this Church. A sign hangs outside every Scottish Episcopal Church in the land that proclaims, “The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You” — and I’m not sure that it does. In the wider sense of Church, this is become a Church that I don’t much like and that I don’t recognise.

A church cannot be sometimes inclusive and sometimes not. A church either welcomes people who are LGBT every week, or it doesn’t at all. It speaks up for justice issues whenever it sees injustice, or it doesn’t at all. It models diversity all the time, or it doesn’t at all. It recognises the relationships of same-sex couples within its congregation publicly and proudly, or it might as well not bother recognising them at all.

If you want to do justice, do it in the boring and the ordinary and the everyday.

I stayed at St Mary’s Cathedral because the day I came here as a visitor was the same day as two of our congregation had their civil partnership blessed, and their relationship was prayed for in the intercessions as if to do so were no big thing. By treating it as the most ordinary thing in the world, it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard in a church.

But it can also be important to do something a little out of the ordinary, and I think that time is now.

I feel as if we need praying for.

I feel that as we come up on the season of Diocesan Synods and the preparations for General Synod that go along with that, we need to pray for change and the will to make it happen. I feel that as we still struggle with the hurtful and harmful things that have been said by the Church this year, we need to pray for those who have been most badly damaged by it. I feel when I look at the hierarchy of the Church that we need desperately to pray for the wisdom and courage that often feels lacking from those who lead us.

This is LGBT History Month, and that’s significant — not only to pray in thanksgiving for those who came before us and got us to where we are now, but to pray for ourselves and for our place in our own history and for what we might do to change the world.

On Holy Ground

In some parts of the Christian church, there is a tradition of welcoming a person into their church on the night before their funeral is held. It is a short and meditative and very lovely service, and it is a time for them to be with the people who knew and loved them best before all the clamour and intensity of the next day. And afterwards, they remain in the sanctuary, safe and sleeping in the company of God and all His angels.

At the end of one such service, the person’s granddaughter told us how much the church had meant to her grandparent and how pleased she was that they would be able to spend this time in this place that they had loved. I thought that that sentiment expressed a great deal of what we might hope a church can be.

There are occasions in the life of the Church when we are told to remember that we stand on holy ground.

Last night at Evensong, I sat down in an old and well beloved building. I listened to the old stories of Michael and of Moses. I heard the familiar song of Mary. I let the cadence of the words wash over me. As the sun set on a weekend of which the best that might be said of it is that my grumpiness was not without just cause, I became aware of the angels carrying away my troubles.

I wonder what we mean when we remind ourselves that we stand on holy ground.

I think that very (too) often it is meant as a way to tell us that this is a place of “don’t”: don’t touch that, don’t run, don’t bring that person here, don’t ask awkward questions, don’t let children talk too loud, don’t laugh, don’t argue, don’t make a spectacle of yourself.

Really?

Nick Page writes an evocative passage about a visitor to Jerusalem emerging from the Lower City into the light and noise of the Temple Mount. About the livestock market and the business deals and the purification places and the chanting and singing and the lively discussions about the finer points of law. A place where all life is to be found.

In that is an idea that I recognise more in the church than the idea of “don’t”.

It is a place where all life is to be found.

Yesterday, as a song was sung about a dragon that once was slain, I found myself thinking about the life that is to be found in this church.

It is a place where I have ceilidhed the night away.

And spirited away six glasses and a bottle of fizz to the sacristy.

And dripped ice cream on the tile.

And cooked sausages on the dying embers of holy fires.

It is a place where I’ve thuribled backwards amid a shower of rose petals.

Where I’ve smiled.

And giggled.

And mourned.

To this holy ground we have welcomed a man who was arrested in Canterbury Cathedral and a bishop who was shunned by the Lambeth Conference.

And a rooster.

And a cat who I had to retrieve from beneath the feet of an organist.

Right in the middle of the sanctuary, we have held AGMs.

And debates and votes and elections and a Parliamentary hustings.

I’ve sat cross-legged on the floor at the high altar wearing rainbow-striped socks and no shoes, and getting silver polish all over everything.

I’ve washed feet and spilled Radox on the floor.

And spilled wax on the floor.

Once, I nearly set the sacristy carpet on fire in the middle of a service.

(It’s a wonder they ever let me back.)

We are the home of musicians and knitters and Tai-Chi and Alcoholics Anonymous.

And, originally, of the LGBT Switchboard.

I’ve had arguments there.

And had my feelings hurt and I’m sure hurt the feelings of others in return.

And loved and I know been loved in return.

I’ve been there in ecstasy and in anger and in joy and in grief, and even when I’ve thought that I’m maybe not quite feeling it.

I’ve been there in the darkness before dawn.

And in the darkness after midnight.

And in the light of day.

It has seen births.

And covenants.

And deaths.

And a resurrection.

A church is not polite society. It isn’t Granny’s front room, where you can’t eat anything sticky or talk about politics or get your shoes on the furniture. For me, it is a place that is loved and lived in and worked in, a little bit battered around the corners, and maybe best described by the Maori idea of turangawaewae: an old word that means our places of being and our places of belonging, the places where we feel empowered and the places that we are connected to, a place of home.

It is the place where we meet Jesus – a Jesus who was fully human and who himself experienced all the wonderful terrible mixed-up spectrum that comes with just being a person. It is where he demands nothing of us other than that we be wholly ourselves, with no masks and no pretences and no need to be someone or feel something that we’re not. It is where we bring the best of us and the worst of us and all the ordinary stuff in the middle too.

Perhaps it isn’t really a wonder that I’m allowed back.

So when you stand on holy ground, remember that. It isn’t an exhortation to mind your company manners, or to keep your shoes off the furniture, or to tie yourself in knots being diplomatic. It isn’t a place where you can do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing or be thought not good enough. It is a place where in the safety of God and all His angels and in the company of the one who knows us best, we can find all of life and call it home.