Posts

The Great Identity Crisis

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13)

Jesus words from John 15 have a special resonance this evening: Remembrance Sunday. They are inscribed on many a war memorial or chapel built in memory of those who fell. Bonds of friendship forged in war endure. One of my last acts as Bishop of Sheffield was to travel to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme where the Pals Regiments from northern towns and cities saw their first and tragically their final action of the Great War.

We remember for the sake of those who gave their lives and carry still their mental and their physical scars. But we remember for our own sake as well, if we are wise. We remember as a nation in order to piece back together our identity, our fragmented sense of who we are. We remember together the conflicts which defined the 20th century in the hope that we might somehow find our bearings in the 21st.

As humanity and as a nation we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of identity. We no longer know who we are. We are lost and cannot find our way home.

Each Tuesday this term, you will find me in a Select Committee in the House of Lords making an enquiry, with others, into Artificial Intelligence. We call witnesses: on the future of work, on data, on business applications, on research, on the media.

Each Tuesday evening my mind has been stretched to capacity. I’m learning many things. That my young grandsons will probably never drive or own a car. That the familiar life script of education then work and then retirement will soon no longer apply. That the impact of AI will fall unequally and adversely on the poor. That social media is rapidly changing political debate and public truth. That the fastest way to be a billionaire is to read for a doctorate in machine learning.

But most of all I am learning more about our crisis of identity. Our science fiction tells us what we already know from our politics: we are deeply unsure of who we are. Each step forward in AI forces us to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about being human. According to one writer, humanity will spend the next three decades, perhaps the next century, in a permanent identity crisis.

Sometimes people ask me – or want to ask me – what a Bishop is doing as part of an inquiry into Artificial Intelligence. AI is too important to be left to the scientists. There are huge ethical questions: not least, on this Remembrance Sunday, around weaponisation.

But I am there most of all because as a Christian, I understand the most important truth about what it means to be human. At the heart of the Christian faith is the faith that Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, became a person and lived the most authentic human life and gave his life that we might live. The deepest answer to our crisis of identity does not lie in machine learning or robotics, or history. The deepest answer lies in love.

For “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”

In 1637, in a different age, Descartes coined his axiom, I think therefore I am: cogito ergo sum. He was searching for rational proof of his own existence and found it in his freedom to doubt, to rebel. But Descartes only takes us so far.

Some think Descartes has been recast in the age of consumerism where we define ourselves more and more by what we spend and where we spend it: I shop, therefore I am. Some translate this as Tesco ergo sum.

The Gospel of John offers something much more profound to the anxious philosopher, to the driven consumer, to the fragmented soul seeking an identity which satisfies.

For John says this. We know who we are when we know we are loved by our maker.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, says Jesus. Abide in my love.

That love, received by faith, gives us the strength to know who we really are and the strength to love as we are loved.

“Love one another as I have loved you”.

So what does it mean to be human, to be alive, to redeem and to shape the life entrusted to us?

It means to know that we are loved and in that knowing to find strength to love. No longer cogito ergo sum but amor ergo sum.

I am loved therefore I am.

And more than amor ergo sum but amor ergo amo. I am loved and therefore I love.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13)

Magdalen College Oxford
12th  November 2017
John 15: 9-17

 

The Mission Community of St Frideswide

On Wednesday of last week, I was able to license the Revd. Kate Seagrave as Mission Priest to St Fridewide’s church and parish in Oxford and to a new community in Oxford, the Mission Community of St Frideswide.

For some years the Osney benefice has been thinking and praying about the future of St. Frideswide’s Church on Osney Island, near to the centre of Oxford.  The idea was born of a new centre for prayer and spirituality spanning the traditions.  St. Mary Magdalene and St. Aldate’s are both involved in the partnership.

As I thought and prayed last year about the city of Oxford as the incoming bishop, I came with two initiatives in mind specifically for the city.  The first was to establish a new monastic community which would draw some of the young adults in the city together in prayer and community life and service of the poor.  The second was around teaching the faith and more on that story later.

As I talked with those who had been praying about St. Frideswide’s Church, we found that there was real overlap and synergy between our different visions.

There are several traditional religious communities in the Diocese of Oxford.  All of them have been praying for some years for the renewal and rebirth of the call to religious life and community.

We found in the Community of St. Mary the Virgin a religious community which is willing to be a partner in this new venture: to pray for the fledgling new monastic community; to share its own wisdom about life in community and to offer financial support through its trustees.  We hope to be in conversation in the coming months with the other religious communities in the diocese seeking their support.

Thousands of young Christians come to the city of Oxford each year.  Many are preparing for a lifetime of service in a whole range of different professions in the United Kingdom and across the world.  Many would value time in the period between their studies and the beginning of their working lives to offer to God and to learn the deeper skills of community, prayer, and mission.

Planning for the new mission community is at an early stage.  We hope that by this time next year we will have two or three small households of young people who agree to live together for a year at a time, keeping a common rule of life, engaging in mission of various kinds, preparing for all kinds of service in the future.  We hope that we will also find a way to unite people across the city in a common rule of life to form a broader community of prayer and in mission.

As we plan we are trying to be sensitive to the Spirit and open to the wisdom of a great many people.  Kate’s task in this first few months will be to be to have open ears and lead that process of discernment and planning.

There has been a sense through the project so far of God’s call, of many different strands coming together and of a sense of God’s life and blessing.

St. Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford.   We mark her festival this week.  As a young woman, Frideswide dedicated her life to God and to others.  She founded a religious community for men and women in which they could dedicate their lives to prayer, to a common life and to service of the poor.  She was a leader in mission across the city and the surrounding area.

The city and university and diocese grew up around a community of welcome and gentleness and kindness and hospitality.

As a Diocese, we are taking a year to return to the source of our vision and life: to Jesus Christ.  We are exploring what it means to be a Christ-like Church.

We are taking as our text the Beatitudes from Matthew 5.  That text will also be the centre of the life of our new monastic community.

The community will seek to live out what it means to be a Christ-like Church.  First in contemplation: rooted in prayer and seeking to dwell in the presence of the Lord and encouraging the wider Church to explore and enrich our life of prayer.

Second in compassion: ministering to those most in need in our city, not out of our own capacity but in the power of the Spirit; serving in partnership; seeking to serve those who are at the margins and most vulnerable.

And third in courage: this will be a community that seeks to be courageous in all they are and do: courageous in discipleship and listening; in confession; in repentance; in forgiveness and in welcome; courageous in proclaiming the Gospel through the life of the community.

Please pray for this new venture in both this parish and in the new community.  Share your wisdom and encouragement with us as we move forward.  Pray for Kate Seagrave as she leads us, especially in these early months.  If God calls you, become involved.

Let us see together what God will do as we seek to become a more Christ-like Church

Wisdom at the crossroads

It is very good to be here this evening to license Will to this key role in the Church, University and the City of Oxford.  I first met Will over 20 years ago in Halifax when he came as curate.  We were colleagues together in Sheffield when he was chaplain to the University and residentiary canon.  He has since gained further and deeper experience in another University in another place.

I know Will to be a gracious and wise priest and pastor, a careful listener, a good friend, an apt teacher.   A great deal of prayer and reflection has been invested in his appointment.  I am grateful to the patrons, to the Churchwardens and to all who helped with that process and all those who have supported and sustained the ministry of this Church over recent months.

We stand this evening at a moment of new beginnings and fresh hope in the long story of this Church and these parishes.  We surround Will with our love and prayers and encouragement as he takes up this new ministry.  We pray for all who minister and serve here with him.

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”.

The calling of this Church since its foundation has been to offer wisdom at the crossroads.

Physically it stands at the very centre of the city and university, not far from Carfax, from the old river crossing which gives Oxford its name.  The story of this church is entwined with the story of the university it serves.  This was a place for the granting of degrees, for study, for congregations. Tens of thousands come to this place each year: as students facing the decisions which will shape their lives; as visitors looking back and looking forward.

Oxford itself is a crossroads of the world: a place for the mining of knowledge; for the shaping of minds; for the moulding of culture.  The University preserves conversation and encounter in its collegial life: the opportunity for different disciplines to meet, for fresh insights to grow, for iron to sharpen iron in debate, for face to face encounter.  The influence of those conversations and fresh minted understanding is world changing.

And here, at the crossroads, stands this ancient Church, a serious house on serious earth.  Here in this place, wisdom calls to those who seek.  Here in this place, a community of Christian people gather and grow, offering hospitality and welcome and service.  Here in this place there is an ongoing witness that without faith and God it is not possible to give an adequate account of the universe; that without faith it is not possible to give an adequate account of culture or history or politics or law; that without faith it is not possible to give an adequate account of human life and potential and community or truth or beauty or love.

Wisdom calls and raises her voice here.  Wisdom invites those who come to look deeper, to listen to the rising hunger, to the unanswered questions, to the unquiet heart within.  Knowledge abounds in this generation.  But wisdom remains scarce.  Facts seem plentiful but truth is rare.  Trends and fashions abound but where is the wisdom on which a young man or woman can build their lives.  A city teeming with people can yet be a place of isolation.  Where can community be found in which I do not have to compete?  In which I can begin to be myself?

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”.

The wisdom offered in this place has changed the world and endured.  John Wesley’s sermons offered here are read and studied still.  The sermons of Keble and Newman and Lewis are still inspire.

So no pressure then Will.  Nothing to be feared here.  It should all be plain sailing.

Any new pastoral charge is daunting, but some are more daunting than others.  It is no small thing to stand by this crossroads and dare to raise your voice, to invite those who pass to come in and drink.  It is no small thing to be a public representative of Christian faith in this university at this time.

This new ministry will only be possible if you and the community here are rooted and grounded in prayer; unless you take time to dwell deeply in the scripture and sacrament; unless your inner life is fed by streams of living water.  The fear of the Lord, not the fear of others, is the beginning of wisdom.  That fear and knowledge of God demands time spent in prayer and contemplation, seeking the face of Christ, dwelling deep.  Putting down those deep roots and finding those rhythms in a new place takes time.  Do not expect too much too soon.

This new ministry will only be possible if you and the community here are willing to value one another’s gifts and work well together.  No priestly charge is a solitary ministry but this one can only be fulfilled by working closely with lay and ordained colleagues.  I ordain and license you this evening to work with others, to build a team, to continue to shape and model good collaboration, to serve and enable and invest in others who will go on to serve in different vocations in many different places.

Finally and most important, this new ministry will only be possible if you remember daily the truth at the heart of the second reading you have chosen, the story of the annunciation, of St Mary the Virgin for whom this Church is named.  God uses for his purposes those who know they are inadequate and weak and ill equipped; God uses the weak and imperfect.  God may call, often, to a mission which seems impossible.  But the experience of ministry is that God provides and surprises again and again as we offer what we have with joy with without fear.

Mary is called to bear God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.  All of us who call ourselves Christians are called to carry his name in different ways and different places.  We can do that only as we say with Mary, daily: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”.

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”.

In your ministry in this place, offer wisdom at the crossroads.  As you exercise this ministry together, be contemplative, be compassionate, be courageous.  The world is ready to listen.

In Philip Larkin’s words:

 “A serious house on serious earth this is….
Since someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in.

Enjoy this ministry entrusted to you and this new chapter in your common life.  May God bless these parishes, this university and these communities as together we seek wisdom for our world.

Amen.

A sermon at the institution of the Revd. Dr. Will Lamb as Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin with St. Cross and St Peter in the East

2nd May 2017.

Proverbs 8.1-22 and Luke 1.26-38