warmemorial
  St Matthew's Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Welcome

Service Times

Our Location

History & Building

Latest News

Contact Us

St Matthew's Hall


The Liturgy

Baptism

Sermons & Open Letters

Projects & Appeals


The CHAT Trust

Nearly New Shop

The Choir


Parish Magazine

From Palestine to Elswick


Governance

Useful Links

The Anglican Diocese of Newcastle

Saint Matthew’s Church
Big Lamp, Summerhill Street, Newcastle upon Tyne

Living the Confidence of the Resurrection

Sermon at the Easter Sunday High Mass 2017

Father Richard Deadman

IN THE LITURGICAL scheme of things, this morning's main Mass is the Paschal victory parade.  The battle was won during the night: sin could not constrain the divine Will and Purpose so today we celebrate the triumph.

Triumphalism is oft-descried.  It smacks of the smug and the ungracious winner; and the Church has often been triumphalist about the wrong things: her worldly ascendancy, her victories in war or the painful demise of a detractor.

In recent years, of course, the tables have turned and we win few struggles - even the ones we ourselves have manufactured.  Worse still the record of our deeds has come back to haunt us and it is difficult to be triumphal when the clouds of shame hang over you.

Yet there is a danger that we respond to these considerations with a loss of confidence in the Faith, which is ours.  Numerically and financially somewhat on the back foot whilst beset by a range of squabbles, it can feel difficult to summon up much confidence.  If the Liturgy reflected our situation, it would be more akin to a Requiem - which I know would suit some of you just fine.

However, the Liturgy is not just a barometer of our feelings.  It is an expression of the divine Mystery; and today of all days it bids us not just remember, but take to our hearts the Gospel of Christ's irreversible victory over the destructive power of sin - in ourselves as much as in others.  Indeed, it is the application of confidence in Christ's Victory over sin in our own lives, which can be the most challenging.

When I was in Middlesbrough, the Vicar of Saint Barnabas Linthorpe, a flourishing low-church parish, was Canon Ian Reid.  He was a man who guided me more than ever he would know.  He did not set out to be a mentor of mine - and for the sake of his reputation, which I would never wish to besmirch, I should say that he is not in any way responsible for the priest I have become.  Never-the-less, through comments and observations, he made available to me aspects of his very extensive wisdom.

One of the principles, to which he held his congregation was that they should live by faith.  A practical outworking of this was that they should set a budget for work that needed to be done, cost it, set aside those funds and give away the rest - a considerable amount of money every year.  The point was that they should have confidence in God to protect them from being overwhelmed by misfortune.

It would be a lie to claim that I have ever emulated this example in the churches where I have worked, but the circumstances have always been a little different: and, of late, we here have done something of this by investing some of our meagre historic assets in our future.

However, it is in the personal that Canon Reid's philosophy has particular purchase.  In our lives we can find ourselves in the midst of so many and great dangers - or, at least, so it seems to us.  Some might actually be a reality whilst others are possible or imagined.  In response we resort to means and measures to mitigate the pressure.

This might seem a wise expedient; but the problem is that often they involve compromising the principles to which in fair weather times we would hold our lives.  When the destructive power of sin assails us, rather than having confidence of Chris's victory over the power of sin, we connive with that sin by adopting its own methods in a forlorn attempt to hold it at bay, inadvertently, perhaps, furthering its cause.

In so doing, we manifest a lack of confidence in Christ's Paschal triumph - indeed, a greater trust in the wisdom and ways of sin.  We tell ourselves that in a sinful world compromises have to be made: and the really pernicious aspect of that proposition is that it is true to an extent, but not true as frequently as we want it to be.

Sometimes, at least, what we are seeking to defend or maintain is not a justification for the compromises we would have to make; and it is in such circumstances that we need to remember that Christ's Triumph was secured through self-sacrifice.  When the price of holding on to those aspects of our life is the resort to the intrigues of sin - then we just have to let go: as Christ let go of His life on Good Friday.

It is interesting that for most people, the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday is the most poignant.  Our better natures see the human devastation and we respond to it.  Easter, on the other hand, can feel like a happy ending snatched from the jaws of grief; but that is not quite how it is.

It has often been observed that the victory celebrations after two world wars were short-lived as the elation at peace soon ceded to the realisation that the world had been changed by the conflict - no more so than for the United Kingdom.  Something similar must be true of Easter.

With Christ's Victory over the power of sin and its manifestation in the Resurrection, we can no longer claim nescience.  We have a responsibility to respond to the significance of His Triumph - to cooperate with its consolidation - in the world, of course; but most particularly in our own lives.

In the Gospels, there is a story of a young man, who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit life eternal.  Jesus replies that he must give up what he owns; and, we are told, he goes away a sad man, because he was very rich.  There is a danger that similar dismay will overcome us as the implications of Christ's Triumph dawn on us and its light illuminates the real character of some of that in which we place our trust and affection.

It is not the Death of Christ, but His Resurrection, which is the real challenge.  Yes, the Crucifixion may cause us to reflect on our connivance with sin; but the Empty Tomb challenges us to do something about it; it tells us that we are not helpless in the face of sin; and that if we have the confidence, we can apply its Grace to our lives.

The Liturgy today is cast very much in terms of that confidence.  It offers no quarter to the prevarications and qualifications, which the world would whisper in our ear: it is not "alleluia, but..." - just alleluia!  Our own reservations at its implications for our lives are simply the last remnants of sin's guerrilla resistance to Christ's Triumph; but we and the world should be in no doubt that the battle is finally and definitively won.


Fr. Richard

 

God's work of Redemption

Sermon at the High Mass 2016

Father Richard Deadman

AS I UNDERSTAND IT, the Big Bang, which started the life in, if not of, our Universe, saw vast concentrations of matter explode with an energy, which has carried it vast distances over millions of years: amongst it the building blocks of the stars which adorn our skies, including the one we call the sun.  As a scientific proposition underlying the theological analysis in the Book of the Genesis, it works for me; but we shall leave that for now.

It is further my understanding that stars, like us, are born to die; and as their vigour begins to abate, the gravitational force of the matter of which they are made pulls the entity in on itself.  As the dying star shrinks the concentration of gravity becomes ever stronger meaning that the matter is packed ever more tightly until it is all contained in an infinitesimally small space and a black hole is created, which sucks into itself everything that passes too close.

Of course, it is always a risky choice for me to venture into the realms of science; but I get a little demob happy at this end of Holy Week and become prone recklessly to throwing caution to the wind.

Earlier in the week when I was still in my right mind – or what passes for it - on Friday, we gathered to commemorate another death of cosmic significance – that of Jesus Christ.  He was and is much more than an individual.  He was and is the Embodiment of God’s work of Redemption.

As He died the ephemeral circumstances of His execution were absorbed into His Sacrifice and that work of Redemption became ever more tightly focused on His Person.  Various versions of Stations of the Cross, draw on the biblical analogy of the seed in which is contained the whole identity of the new plant.

The whole of God’s Purpose for mankind was concentrated in this lifeless Body – was and is; because as I have observed many times before, the Cross of Good Friday sits at the heart of Resurrection Light.  So strong is its pull – as you would expect of the intensely focused Will of God - that it pulls into itself any and all who pass sufficiently near.

In this case, we should not think of geographical propinquity, but of those whose character of life approximates sufficiently closely to the identity of one redeemed.  Ultimately, so we read in Saint John’s Gospel, this will be everyone, since, when raised on the Cross, Christ will draw all people to Himself.

However, this is only half of the story; which is why we came back last evening; and are here again today – and might even come back again later on.

In a curious way, the natural order is reversed; for out of the Crucifixion emanates the Big Bang of Christ’s Victory.  With the Resurrection, the Grace of God contained in that infinite Purpose of Redemption explodes across time and space.

So, we are not left to find our own way to the proximity of Redemption – which, in any case, we could not do – but are provided with the building blocks of our Salvation in the experiences of our lives.  Supremely these are found in the Sacraments and the Word of God; but more generally even in the often humdrum events of life.

We see evidence of all this every time that conscience prevails over the impulse to exploitation or cruelty, greed or self-interest: most vividly, perhaps, when the concession is grudging.  In such cases, the pull of virtue overwhelms the allure of venality and we see God’s work of Redemption slowly infiltrating itself into human society.

The problem, of course, is that not every choice, not every action born of conscience is well-conceived.  Frequently, forays into the realms of righteousness take us into unfamiliar territory and often we get it wrong.  Translating the substance of good into good actions is a skill learnt through experience.

However, the consequences of errors of judgement can grind us down and drive us back along the path of virtue to whence we came; but the Grace of God is infinite and after the dust settles we can begin to feel its influence in our lives once more.

Cynicism, therefore, is the greatest enemy of the divine Purpose; because cynicism tells us that there is no good to be achieved; and so desensitises us to the Presence and power of God’s Grace.  Yes, the world is strewn with failures; but often these lie either side of the road to some paradigm-shifting success.

This is the essence of our hope kindled and revealed by the Resurrection of Jesus: that the world is slowly – falteringly – heading towards redemption.  We are not suggesting that every good intention will result in good outcomes; but that properly to believe in Christ risen from the dead is also to believe in that glorious day when all shall be redeemed.

 

Fr. Richard

 

Living with Secularism and Secularisation

A discussion Summer 2015

Father Richard Deadman

WE ARE TOLD OFTEN that we live in a market-place of ideas and philosophies. People survey religious and cultural plurality and see an atomised world of thought and values. Of course, as with any ecology, the different strands are not completely distinct. Views, which now compete, often look to a common source and there are, so to speak, families of ideas - not least, religious belief.

Ironically, religion’s great opponent in modern discourse - Secularism - has a common root with its great adversary. In 1307, Pope Boniface VIII issued a document (1) articulating a long-held view in Church circles that the world was governed by two swords - the one spiritual and the other temporal. His purpose was to prevent princes and barons trespassing on the Church’s prerogatives, particularly with regard to the appointment of bishops and priests. However, this division of human society into two distinct categories would, from a certain perspective, come back to bite the Church as the temporal sword slowly developed into what we now term Secularism. Confusing this distinction is the intervention of Liberalism.

Liberalism is a nebulous concept and means different things to different people. In its pristine state, it argues that we should be free to do whatever we wish, except where our freedom infringes the liberties of others to do what they want - at which point the arbitration of Law or the courts is necessary.

However, over the years it has become almost a simile for “less strict.” So Christians of various stripes will append “liberal” to their self-identity (liberal Catholic, liberal protestant &c) to advertise the fact that, although they are generally sympathetic to a particular tradition, on certain questions they are at variance with the stricter precepts.  Liberalism and Secularism are often yoked together in defining the ideal modern state. The Liberal would say that people should be able to adhere to whatever religious ideas they like so long as it does not impact on the ability of others to choose different religious views or none at all. This perspective underpins an important, if somewhat controverted, element of the American Constitution. (2)

From this approach, Western democratic states have developed the notion of the neutral state: one that does not espouse any particular religion or philosophy; but rather serves to ensure that the variety of people can live harmoniously together; and this has been termed Secularism or, in French, Laïcité, which is a key concept in their Constitution. (3) The problem with all this is that, whilst some legal provisions can be dispassionate (4), state government as it is presently conducted, is not and cannot be value-neutral. When a government decides to go to war, to establish a social security system, regulate marriage, defining which characteristics are vulnerable to equality legislation, or indeed, the way we impose taxation, underpinning those choices is an implicit set of values. Even the decision whether government should be value-neutral or not is a value-driven decision - as we see in the United States.

Whether or not it is theoretically possible for a state to be governed in a value neutral way, there is no example of one being so governed; and Secularism presupposes a value system as much as the religious traditions of which it is so suspicious; as much was said by one of the judges in Ms Lautsi’s forlorn attempt to abolish crucifixes from Italian classrooms. (5) Rather pleasingly, this makes France, with Laïcité written into its Constitution, a confessional state!  At this point, we probably need to note that speaking precisely, Secularisation and Secularism are not quite the same thing. In theory, whilst Secularism is an ideology (6), Secularisation can simply mean the retreat of the influence of religion.  This may occur as people gradually lose interest in religion; but equally, it may be a policy, in which case it is Secularism, which would deny religion a place in the public realm, whether or not it enjoyed great support and interest. (7) In Britain, there is a mixture of Secularisation and Secularism, the one facilitating or encouraging the other.

As Secularism becomes an increasingly strong influence on our national life, we are entitled to inquire into the bases on which it presumes to fetter the liberties of other philosophies. After all, its great claim against religion is that ultimately, religious opinions rest on no empirically verifiable facts.  As has recently been observed, (8) Secularism lacks the rigour that it demands of others in this respect.  Pope Benedict remarked some years ago about the perils of an edifice of fundamental rights resting on the rather shaky foundations of a relativist account of the world. (9) In this, the former Pontiff alludes to the fact that modern Western Secularism is closely related to Liberalism, promoting the idea that there are no absolute rights or wrongs or, at least, that since they cannot be proven, the State has no place authenticating any particular value system.

Authority for State’s decisions therefore, should rest on the democratically expressed will of the people and the Rule of Law, which that democratically expressed will of the people creates.

The problem with this is that many Liberals are only happy with a range of democratically expressed choices. When, on a turnout far superior to any mandate enjoyed by locally elected politicians in this country, Egypt elected a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Liberals asserted that they had made an illegitimate choice and were noticeably quiet as a military coup overthrew the elected President.  Their argument ran, more-or-less, along the lines that since the Muslim Brotherhood stood for values which Liberals oppose, their election was inappropriate. Inter alia, there was a suggestion that in voting for the Muslim Brotherhood, many Egyptians were voting for the abolition of the democratic state. It seems therefore, that one cannot legitimately vote to abolish democracy.

Two questions arise from this opinion:
1.What else can the democratic will of the people not choose? 
2.How do we authenticate from empirically demonstrable data the limits of the democratic will?

Secularists often cite the framework of Human Rights as the new foundation of societal authority. IIndeed, it has been commented that Human Rights, “has all the hallmarks of a proselytising religion” “the doctrine of Human Rights is claimed to be the single universal framework within which all views must fit;” and “advocates the adoption of a particular world view:” even that Human Rights has developed into a “religion or belief.” (10) Within such a context any decision, which conflicts with these Human Rights would be illegitimate.

However, this does nothing to advance the argument, since the question arises, whence the codes of Human Rights, except through some extrapolation of the democratic process?
It is important to state that it is not the concept of some sort of Human Rights, which is problematic for Christians - a version of them is implied by the Gospel. Rather, it is the assertion or assumption that a particular formulation of them can constitute an ultimate source of authority.

Whilst many challenges to such a view could be brought, there are two, emerging from the formulation and practice of the Human Rights culture itself, which crystallise the problem. First, there is the issue of what scholars often term the “Margin of Appreciation” offered to States under the European Convention of Human Rights, qualifying the extent to which its subjects or citizens might enjoy their rights. The grounds for invoking the discretion to curtail rights include: necessity in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. (11) However, nothing in the text tells us how or when such considerations outweigh the supposed rights of the Convention.

Similarly as we know, the rights can conflict and whilst they are not assigned a place in a hierarchy, obviously in such cases one must prevail over another.

In both these situations, it is for judges to decide either whether a State’s Margin of Appreciation can apply or which right in a conflict will prevail. Unless we are to accept that such decisions are arbitrary or capricious, we are entitled to know what values are brought to bear in such decisions and whence they derive their authority. Logically speaking, there must be some higher principle than the rights them-selves, if it is capable of suspending them or deciding between them. However, it is not clear what this is; and the vacillating nature of judicial decisions would suggest that consciousness of this higher principle has not yet been crystallised.

It is against this background that we might contemplate the critique made by Secularists of religious opinions. There is a danger that we are persuaded by the claims of Secularists to a more cogent analysis of the world than that offered by religious teaching.

There is some evidence that religious organisations are undergoing a process of “Internal Secularisation” in the face of relentless pressure from Secularist self-promotion. (12)

In many ways Secularism reflects the apotheosis of bureaucracy.  The precepts of Secularism and codes of Human Rights were crafted to manage plurality in human society, setting minimal standards for human dignity.  They were responses to perceived cruelty and exploitation.  In particular, the UN Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention with its administrative trappings were intended to ensure that the atrocities visited on people by Nazism could never be repeated.  However over the years, they have taken on a life of their own, no longer serving a higher aim; but becoming an end in themselves, not only constraining the State in the exercise of its power, but increasingly dictating how people relate to one another.  Yet the principles behind the specific provisions are undisclosed, leaving the rules open to manipulation.

You cannot build a human society solely on the basis of what people are not permitted to do or say to one another; nor by imposing uniformity in the interests of civil peace in a plural community.  Secularism is essentially a reactive phenomenon. If it were truly neutral in its character, it would leave communities to flourish, recognising as has been said by a judge in this country, that true Liberalism has to accommodate views which are on occasion unpalatable to some. (13) Any reasonable person would agree that there is a balance to be struck; in particular the vulnerable need to be protected from abuse or exploitation, whatever its motivation.

Beyond that, as various articles of the European Convention on Human Rights put it (14), the necessity of coercion must be established whereas, often it seems, all that is actually needed is a desirability from a certain point of view. The participation of judges and the infrastructure of the State can lead people to accept that this is how things are and how things must be.

There is a danger that religious people succumb to a philosophical version of the “God of the gaps”, trying to squeeze some sort of residual religious belief into the Secularist framework in the mistaken belief that Secularism has won the argument. However, this is not the case at all. Christians should have more confidence in our account of humanity and the world in which we live.


Fr. Richard

 

NOTES

1 Unam Sanctam
2 “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof: or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
government for a redress of grievances.”
(American Constitution: First Amendment).
3 “France shall be an indivisible, secular [laïque],
democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure
the equality of all citizens before the law, without
distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall
respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a
decentralised basis.”
(French Constitution, Article I)
4 Eg, A rule to say that we should drive on the
left or the right hand side of the road.
5 Lautsi and others v Italy (2011) (30814/06) in
the Concurring Judgement of Judge Power,
wherein Secularism is described as an
Ideology amongst others.
6 See note 5
7 See Sandberg R: Religion, Law and Society
(2014) (CUP) pp 56f.
8 See Cox, N: The Clash of Unprovable
Universalisms - International Human Rights and
Islamic Law in OX Jour of Law and Religion Vol2
(2) (2013) pp 307-329.
9 See Allen, JL: The Rise of Benedict XVI (2005)
(penguin) pp176f.
10 Evans, MD: Religious Liberty and
International Law (1997) (CUP) pp259f.
problem.
11 These are those stated in Article IX:2 of the
ECHR; they are not identical for each right and
some rights do not permit such restrictions.
Furthermore, many of the rights are susceptible
to a “derogation” in times of emergency (see
Article XV).
12 See Sandberg R: Religion, Law and Society
(2014) (CUP) pp86ff.
13 Sedley LJ in Redmond-Bate v DPP [2000]
HRLR 249 OB para 20
14 See eg. Article IX:2

 

 

ARCHIVE
Download as pdf. (Acrobat Reader required. Available free from adobe.com)

God's Gift of Himself (File size 156 KB)

Faith and Culture 2011 (File size 188 KB)

St Matthew 2011 (File size 188 KB)

The Song of Mary 2011 (File size 172 KB)

The Body of Christ 2011 (File size 160 KB)

The Science of Faith (File size 59 KB)

The Credit Crunch (File size 44 KB)

 

enquiries@stmatthewsnewcastle.org