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Amidst disagreement we can all consider the wonder of Christ

Tuesday 4th December, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

by Reverend Christopher Harrison | tags: , , ,

Rev’d Christopher Harrison considers the recent rejection of legislation allowing women bishops, suggesting that, despite the disagreement, Christmas is a time for a common focus

Some years ago, in my last parish in Derbyshire, an elderly churchwarden told me that she had changed from being vehemently opposed to the ordination of women to being in favour of it. What had made all the difference was that she had got to know several women lay readers who took services in our church, and it began to feel perfectly natural to her that such people should be able to become priests. I thought of her when I heard about the General Synod’s vote rejecting women bishops, and was saddened by the reflection that people like her, who are prepared to change a deeply-held opinion and be open to new ways of understanding God and the Church, may be rather rare, especially on General Synod. Indeed the run-up to the vote seems to have led to a hardening of attitudes, rather than any real attempt to grow in mutual understanding.

The Church of England has been dealt a heavy blow, whichever side you happen to be on. Even if you are on the side of the opponents of women bishops, the credibility of the Church as a whole has been severely shaken. This parish, however, has for many years now been in the forefront of efforts to ensure that women and men have an equal place in the ordained ministry, as well as in other areas of the Church’s life, and at a meeting the day after the vote, our Church Council agreed the following statement:

"The Parochial Church Council of the parish of All Saints, St Mary and St Peter, Nottingham, wishes to make known its profound sadness in relation to the rejection of the draft legislation which would have enabled women to become bishops in the Church of England. Considerable efforts have been made to provide for those who oppose this change, and it is iniquitous that the persistence of blocking tactics should prevail over the wishes of the huge majority of members of the General Synod as a whole who are in favour of the proposals. We deplore the inability of the Church of England to legislate for something whose theological rationale is overwhelming, and press for a successful outcome to this impasse to be achieved at the earliest opportunity."

As Christmas approaches, we should not let disagreements within the Church, however serious, prevent us from focusing on the spiritual heart of this season. We can easily become so caught up with frustration or sadness about aspects of the Church with which we disagree, that we forget the sheer wonder of the coming to earth of Christ, the Son of God, as a baby, with all the vulnerability and fragility that this implies. The incarnation of Christ means that the very nature of God became human. It also means that through Jesus, living and dying among us, rising again and ascending to heaven, we can glimpse something of God and be given a way to enter heaven, if we believe and trust in him and follow his way of self-giving love. So, when you see the babe lying in a manger, or when you sing Christmas carols, do remember the cosmic aspects of all that we celebrate at Christmas time. For this isn’t just a time for giving and receiving presents, and for lots of eating and drinking, but for remembering that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3.16).

What, though, do we mean by ‘eternal life’? Is it some vague concept of unending pleasure and happiness, in a mystical alternative world? A particularly interesting contribution to the debate about what we mean by heaven and eternal life has recently been made by an American neuroscientist, Dr Eben Alexander, who has just published a book entitled ‘Proof of Heaven’. While the title may at first sight sound over-confident, you will see, if you read the book, that Dr Alexander has every reason to believe that the realm of existence commonly known as heaven actually exists. A few years ago Dr Alexander went into a deep coma for seven days, caused by bacterial meningitis, during which his brain largely ‘closed down’. During this period, as he understands it, he had a remarkable experience in which his consciousness, freed from the filtering normally done by the brain, became aware of a kind of reality, a dimension of existence, which was beyond time and space and in which all things somehow were connected with one another. It was, mostly, a place of love and light, where his own personal identity was somehow part of a greater whole, but he was still able to be aware of his surroundings as an individual conscious spiritual being.

It is ironic that modern technology, far from simply reinforcing the modern belief that the material world is all that exists, is now able – by keeping people alive in far more extreme circumstances than has ever been possible before – to open doors to the non-material world that have largely remained closed until now. Of course much rigorous analysis of such experiences must take place, and we should not rush to hasty conclusions. But I still do feel, having followed the literature on near-death experiences over many years now, that this latest account takes us much further in our understanding of such things than has previously been possible. Perhaps, then, as we think of Christ coming to earth at the first Christmas time, we can see this coming together of earth and heaven in a new light. In Jesus, the realms of eternity and of time and space were somehow bridged in a unique way; and the love which pervades the heavenly realms was spread forth in our world in a manner which changed humanity forever.

A happy and blessed Christmas to you all.

 

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