Saturday, 12 July 2014

The power of prayer

On 30th June Pastor Christian Fuhrer died in in Leipzig aged 71. The name will mean nothing to many - it didn't to me if I’m honest . And yet Christian Fuhrer was a one of the great Christian leaders of the late 20th century. But until I stumbled cross his obituary in The Independent newspaper last week, I wasn’t aware of him – though I was well aware of his actions.

Mr Fuhrer was born during the Second World War in Nazi Germany. With the ending of the war he found himself in East Germany living under Communist rule.

He worked initially in a car factory and at other times had jobs as a telegram delivery boy and as a waiter on a train. But all the while he was being called to ministry and from 1968 to 1980 he was a pastor of several different churches. In 1980 he became pastor of the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig.

It was at this church he started Monday evening prayers for peace. Gradually over several years these became the focal point for East Germans protesting against the regime led by Erich Honecker.

On Monday 9th October 1989 about 70,000 people took to the streets – in peace at Pastor Fuhrer’s urging – to protest, after 500 Honecker loyalists had occupied the seats of the church during the prayer session. Clutching candles and flowers the people peacefully protested. There were few arrests and no bloodshed. One police officer said afterwards “We were ready for anything except candles and prayer”

“What I saw that evening still gives me the shivers today,” F├╝hrer said in an interview in 2009. “And if anything deserves the word 'miracle’ at all, then this was a miracle of Biblical proportions. We succeeded in bringing about a revolution which achieved Germany’s unity... It was a peaceful revolution after so much violence and so many wars that we, the Germans, so often started. I will never forget that day.” (Quoted in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph 1st July 2014)

The following week 120,000 people turned up for the vigil. The week after that 320,000. On 9th November the Berlin Wall came down.

I am one of those Christians who really struggles with prayer. I know I should pray more than I do. I find it difficult to find the right words. I lead prayers week in week out for peace in the world and look at the state the world is in. I look at the divisions in this country and know I’ve prayed about that and things continue the same way. And I wonder what is the point?

But then I read Christian Fuhrer’s story and I have to think again. For this story shows me the power of prayer. Yes, I still wonder why if so many people are praying for transformation between Israel and Gaza say, why doesn’t God do something? But then maybe the secret lies in the story of Christian Fuhrer and the Leipzig protests. Not only were the people in his church praying for peace, they ensured peace was practiced not just preached as it were. (Surely though there must have been something miraculous in a protest of 70,000 not turning violent?)

"We experienced it together," he said of his role in toppling the old regime. "Thousands in the churches, hundreds of thousands on the street around the city centre. Not one broken shop window. The unbelievable experience of the power of non-violence." (Quoted in his obituary in The Independent 9th July 2014)

Maybe if we in our churches were more focused in our prayer things would be different? Or maybe Christians, powered by prayer, need to take to the streets on occasion?

Perhaps the obituary writers thoght it would be tactless to comment on Christian Fuhrer's surname which is of course the same word as Hitler used to describe himself. But the word translates into English as leader and, I believe, guide. Pastor Fuhrer truly was a great spiritual leader and guide. (And for people who notice these things, I know the "U" in "Fuhrer" should have an umlaut, but I don't know how to create one of these on my computer)

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Police under pressure

BBC 2 screened the first part of a documentatry series last night called "Police under pressure". It looked at what it is like to police Sheffield in South Yorkshire today when police budgets have been drastically cut by the current government.

The episode centred on neighbourhood policing in the Page Hall and Parsons Cross areas of the city. Both areas have high levels of unemployment and in Page Hall this is a potentially volatile mix of "communities" - White British, British Asian and, the most recent, 700 Roma families from Slovakia. (In one slight glimmer of hope in a dark picture the White British and British Asians seemed united - albeit over their condemnation of the Roma immigrants.)

The police were shown as constantly being pulled from pillar to post to deal with calls from people claiming there was crime taking place whereas in reality it was anti social behaviour. Interestingly, the gangs of youths didn't appear to be doing anything illegal as such. There were few arrests. In fact there was some discussion over what would constitute a crime. But to the Whites and Asians, gangs of Roma youth standing on street corners talking until the small hours was deemed anti social. And, in some instances, intimidating.

In an effort to get some control over the Page Hall area (the home of the Whites, Asians and Roma) the police applied a Section 30 order in order to disperse the gangs of youths hanging round.

(Under section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 it allows the police or local authority to impose a Local Child Curfew. A local authority or local police force can ban children under 16 from being in a public place during specified hours - between 9pm and 6am - unless under the control of a responsible adult.

In order to make the Section 30 work, the local inspector had to deploy a very heavy police presence all the time. This included officers mounted on horseback but also meant he had to move officers from Parsons Cross to Page Hall. Parsons Cross had been the subject of a Section 30 and it had worked with the reports of anti social behaviour greatly reduced. But of course as soon as the Parsons Cross officers were moved, youths in that area started to cause trouble again.

Put simply, there just weren't enough officers to go round.

What saddened me watching the programme was how demoralised the officers were. They looked fed up and exasperated.

Last week, I attended the National Association of Chaplains to the Police conference. The theme of the conference was "The challenges of modern policing" and the speakers (all serving police officers of different ranks) told similar stories to that shown on the programme. It is clearly part of the role of police chaplains at present to listen to officers (and police staff) as they go through this time of feeling undervalued and despondent.

My experience in Wiltshire as a volunteer chaplain suggests the issues aren't as extreme here. Nevertheless there is a continuing sense among officers (and staff) that it wouldn't take much for things to get out of control. Meanwhile "efficiencies" such as changes to shift patterns and closure of local stations meaning officers now have further to travel to start shift, will take their toll. (All officers I've spoken to find the new shift patterns disruptive to their own sleep patterns but also disruptive to their family life.)

As we watched the programme last night my wife commented "This isn't what the police should be doing" and she had a point. What Page Hall and Parsons Cross needed was input from social workers, family workers, youth workers and so on to try and fix some of the problem families. And, of course the levels of policiing that will deal with crime. But in the absence of these (and facilities such as youth clubs) the police are left picking up the pieces and sticking plasters over the wounds. Meanwhile the causes such as high levels of unemployment go untreated.

I was reminded of something one of the officers at the conference said. He'd spoken of how the police now have to pick up things that previously would have been dealt with elsewhere. But "elsewhere" has been cut too. The officer remarked "Surely there must come a time when someone gives us the authority to say 'No! We're not dealing with that.'"

I'd like to think so but the way things are I can't see it happening soon.


I emailed a fellow chaplain about the programme last night. And in her reply to me this morning she said this:

"I thought the issues came over really well and I hope people and ministers start to listen. Let those who have ears hear!"

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The right medicine

On our various visits to the USA, we’ve often used a Walgreens store. Walgreens is (to British eyes) a cross between Boots the Chemist and Woolworth. We first encountered Walgreen in San Francisco but have realised since they are not just in California but many other parts of the USA too.

The company started in the early part of the 20th century with a pharmacy in Chicago founded by Charles Walgreen. Since then the company has expanded and expanded and now has stores in all 50 states as well as in Washington DC.

Last Sunday morning (8th June) I heard an interview with a director of Walgreens – Randy Lewis – on BBC Radio 2’s Good Morning Sunday programme. Mr. Lewis was interviewed by Clare Balding.

In a very moving interview Mr. Lewis explained how his son Austin (now aged 26) has autism. And Mr Lewis mentioned that he was always worried about how Austin would cope without his parents. Like many others with autism (and I suppose other disabilities) Austin could not get a job. This in turn led to Mr Lewis to think about whether there was a way in which the company he worked for could find a way of employing a large number of people with disabilities.

The company was at the time taking on 1,000 people a year. So Mr. Lewis came up with an idea of employing people with disabilities specifically. In fact the ultimate vision was that 1/3 of employees would have disabilities.
The important thing was that in doing this there should not be an increase in costs.

The project was agreed and now the company employs a great many people with disabilities on the same terms as those without disabilities. And the project has had an enormous change of culture to the company as a whole.

In the interview Randy Lewis made clear that as well as being driven by the thought of his son, his Christian faith was also a factor. He said that he has always felt that Christians believe in a time of hope. A time of no tears when every wrong will be righted. Therefore his understanding is how do we build this world in anticipation of that time? Something I wholly believe too.
Therefore, through wanting to do something for people like his son and driven by his Christian faith, Walgreens have become an employer of thousands of people with disabilities. And many of those had never worked before.

In the interview Randy Lewis explained that Marks & Spencer in the UK have shown great interest in what has happened at Walgreens and the American electrical retail company Best Buy have also started to adopt the approach. As he said:

“Once you have decided to do something like this, there are others who want to join you”

Walgreens have a 45% stake in the company that owns Boots in the UK and in May there were reports that Walgreen was looking to take over the company as a whole. So who knows, if that happens maybe Boots will adopt similar employment practices to Walgreens?

I find it encouraging that some companies are prepared to do the right thing and act ethically or at least try and make a difference to the lives of others. All too often large companies just don’t seem to have a heart for people. Everything is driven by the bottom line. Walgreens shows that the bottom line can still be taken care of while at the same time people can be taken care of too.

Much of my dissertation for my degree in applied theology was taken up with looking at business ethics and I particularly focused on the work of Sir William Hartley. Hartley was a 19th century self-made multi-millionaire who made his fortune from jam. But his Christian faith (he was a Methodist) dictated that he was a philanthropist. His employees had exceptional working conditions and he ensured they had health care and schooling. And he tried to ensure that his suppliers were paid fairly.

There were other companies at the time who acted in the same way – such as Cadbury and Rowntree for example.

What a better place the world would be if companies sought ways of making profit certainly but also found ways of being good employers and ethical businesses. What a better world it would be if companies did more than just play lip service to corporate responsibility.

Mind you, before we get too misty eyed over Walgreen, it is apparently looking at basing its headquarters in Switzerland in a move that would mean the loss of $4billion in taxes to the US Treasury.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

It's the blind man, can I come in

Last weekend we met a group of friends for lunch. One friend was reminded of a time when he was regaling the group with a story and when he came to the somewhat saucy story and the pub they were in went quiet at the precise moment he came to the punch line. This caused him much embarassment and gave the friends a huge laugh.

I was then reminded of the time something similar happened to me when I was retelling a joke from the end of an episode of the Vicar of Dibley which involved a nun and a blind man. I'm not going to relate the joke here. Google it. All I will say is that at the precise moment I came to the punchline, a waitress leaned over me.

In a strange coincidence, in the week I had a visit from a blind man. That is a man who came to measure up a window for some Venetian blinds.

He had been due to arrive about 4pm but had phoned just before to say he was struck in traffic. By the time he arrived he was close on an hour late. I was hoping he'd be quick as I needed to get on with cooking dinner before my wife came home and in order for me to get out to a meeting. But the blind man wanted to talk once he realised I was a minister.

It turned out he'd been brought up in a Christian home and had attended a baptist church for many years. But as an adult he'd drifted away. But clearly his grounding had had an effect.

He shared several things he'd experienced recently. These included a conversation he'd had with a client who was a primary school teacher who wanted an old style of blinds. "I said to her 'These went out with the ark'. And she said 'What's the ark?' And I said 'You know, Noah and the ark.' But she really didn't know anything about it. What's the world coming to?"

He shared a few other things too.

He went on to tell me about a good friend of his who had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease last autumn. And the man poured out his great sadness about his friend. And he said how he felt he wished there was some way that his friend would not have to go through the great suffering that will inevitably come about as the illness develops.

Close on an hour after he arrived he left. Having poured out his heart and leaving a quote for some new blinds.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Simple Gifts

The following is an abridged version of a sermon preached at Central Methodist Church Chippenham at the Folk Festival Service 25th May 2014

The hymn Lord of the dance – was written by English songwriter Sydney Carter in 1963.

From the moment he wrote it the hymn became popular, soon entering the standard Anglican collection Hymns Ancient and Modern and becoming a firm favourite of church congregations, folk camps and school assemblies.

According to Sydney Carter’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph in 2004:

“The hymn's success stems from two elements. It has a lively, catchy tune, adapted from an air of the American Shaker movement. But the optimistic lines "I danced in the morning when the world was begun/ and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun" also contain a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all”

Carter himself admitted that in writing the hymn he had been partly inspired by the statue of Hindu god Shiva which sat on his desk; and, whenever he was asked to resolve the contradiction, between a Christian hymn and this Indian god he would declare that he had never tried to do so.

I am not going to get into a debate about the theology of “Lord of the dance” – though for many years the hymn was ignored by the Methodist Church. It wasn’t included in the 1981 book “Hymns & Psalms”. However, it has been include in our new book “Singing the faith”.

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced by what the hymn is trying to say. So why then have I included it this morning – apart from the reference to dance of course? I’ve included it because of the tune.

Again, according to Sydney Carter’s obituary, many who first heard the hymn “naively assumed that it must be several centuries old; but others detected a disturbing ambiguity beneath its Nonconformist inspiration.” But Carter wrote it in the 1960s and he used a tune written in America in the mid 19th century by Joseph Brackett a member of the Shaker Christian sect. The song was called “Simple Gifts”.

The song was largely unknown outside Shaker communities until Aaron Copland used its melody for the score of Martha Graham's ballet Appalachian Spring, first performed in 1944. Copland used "Simple Gifts" a second time in 1950 in his first set of Old American Songs for voice and piano, which was later orchestrated. Many people thought that the tune of "Simple Gifts" was a traditional Celtic one but both the music and original lyrics are actually the compositions of Brackett. "Simple Gifts" has been adapted or arranged many times since by folksingers and composers.

The song was composed in 1848 by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett as an easy-to-learn tune for Shaker worship. Shakers were as vigorous in their worship as they were in their work. They were Christians who believed that Jesus would return to judge the world, so they had better be ready. Men and women were separated in Shaker villages and agreed to lead celibate lives. They lived simply, with few personal possessions.

Their workshops, which supported their villages, were famous for their creativity. They were not shy about sharing their products or their songs with the public, because the survival of their celibate church depended on recruiting new members.
The one time each week when everyone stopped working and men and women mingled was during worship, which involved singing and dancing that sometimes got so wild that outsiders gave the group its common name, Shakers.

The original words to Joseph Brackett’s tune are:

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

This song for Shaker worship is perhaps not in the same league as a Charles Wesley hymn for theology! And yet the words suggest to me anyway something really important to the Christian faith the need to turn our lives around from sin. And also to recognise the gifts we have been given by God. And how in recognising those gifts, and accepting them, and using them, we will feel right with God.

Perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible that mentions gifts is that in 1 Corinthians 12 we heard read a moment ago.
The church Paul founded in Corinth clearly gave him concerns. Across 1 Corinthians, it is clear that Paul is concerned that this group of believers is divided over so many things. The divisions are in part due to what the BBC reporter Robert Peston might call “socio economic grounds”. In other words, there was division because some people were rich and others poor. Some were Greeks former pagans and others were Jewish. Then there were divisions about the treatment of the Lord’s Supper.

But perhaps the biggest division was over what are termed “spiritual gifts”. Or more accurately, there were divisions over how the spiritual gifts should be used.

Now I think it is important to realise that Paul recognised that within the church in Corinth, just as in other churches, and indeed in all communities, there was diversity. That is fine in his eyes. Paul realises that people will be different and will have different gifts. It is when the diversity leads to divisions that Paul is concerned.

Paul sees the different gifts within the church at Corinth as having been inspired by the Holy Spirit and these diverse gifts enrich the community in a God given way. Paul realises that having people with different callings and different life circumstances is all evidence of people having been blessed by the Holy Spirit.

Now, I need to say that in the passage from 1 Corinthians we’ve heard read, Paul is focusing specifically on what are often termed “spiritual gifts”. And throughout his writings Paul lists many examples. But it’s fair to say that these are not a full list. And as the Christian writer Paul Sampley points out in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, although Paul is discussing spiritual gifts specifically, the same is true about all we are granted to do as believers. Whether that takes place as some service for others or some kind of ministry or whether in a work context.

So, when I’m talking about gifts, I’m not just thinking of the spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues or gifts of healing. I’m thinking much wider than that.

Paul recognises that there are apportionments of gifts, servings of gifts and of workings of gifts:

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, 1 Cor 12 NRSV

When we look at a diverse group of people, we begin to see what Paul means. In this congregation today there will be many, many gifts. Some will be gifts of musicianship in order perhaps to lead worship and sing of God’s love. Others will be more practical such as a gift of woodworking. And in this town over the folk festival we will see evidence of many gifts. Now it may be that some of the people with gifts do not recognise them as coming from God. But their gifts are given from God. And even if they do not realise that their gifts are God given, if the gifts have produced happiness, laughter, joy and pleasure, then how cannot that be a gift from God? These things can be thought of as fruits of the spirit.

It is no accident that people have certain gifts. Paul tells us:

11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 1 Cor 12 NRSV

The Holy Spirit is the source of all gifts and the Holy Spirit allocates such gifts as the Holy Spirit chooses.
Paul also makes the point that whilst accepting the diverse allocation of gifts, whatever gifts one has been given, the gift is not given in order to vaunt oneself but the gifts are designed to serve the common good of the community:

7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good

That is a quite a challenge. I’m sure we can all think of examples of people who have been given a talent but who then use that gift in an abusive way or in a way that isn’t for the common good.

And in any case as I said earlier Paul reminds us that:

11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

Therefore, no one should boast of having any particular gift, because the Spirit has doled gifts out as the Spirit sees fit.
Bringing this back to the Folk Festival. What strikes me is the sheer sense of fun and pleasure the performers had. I am sure there could be some Morris Dancers who have “diva” moments, but they are few and far between. What they do is for their enjoyment of course, but the gift they have for dancing and playing music serves no other purpose really but to bring pleasure to others. That is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise those who have been singing or performing. Yes there is enjoyment for oneself, but there is the bringing of pleasure to others.

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Post Script

After the service a church member told me how much "Lord of the dance" means to her. Firstly, she was at a student Christian conference in 1963 when Sydney Carter came and taught them his new hymn. And the lady met the man who would become her husband at the conference.

Then she said how on one occasion her four year old granddaughter had been with her in church and "Lord of the dance" was sung. Later that day Copland's "Appalacian Spring" was on Classic FM. The granddaughter said "Grandma it's the damp settee song" "What do you mean sweetheart?" "We sang it in church. I am the Lord of the damp settee"

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Who'd be a school governor anyway?

In a bid to encourage more people to become school governors, schools minister Michael Gove has said

“The thing about being a governor is that it’s not just a touchy-feely, sherry-pouring, cake-slicing exercise in hugging each other and singing Kumbayah.

“The whole point about being as governor is that you ask tough questions. How are our children doing? Is money being spent wisely?"

In my best Michael Rosen style, this is my letter to Mr Gove.

Dear Mr. Gove,

Having spent 6 years as a school Governor (latterly as Chair of Governors) I can assure you Mr. Gove, that the Board of Governors I was part of, took our role seriously and we all tried to be as professional as possible. The Governors' Support team from the local authority emphasised to us the need to challenge and question. (Due to cuts by your Government and implemented by the local Tory run council, the Governors Support team and training was greatly reduced, by the way.)

But Mr Gove, now for the reality check. If you are expecting that level of professionalism and the confidence to challenge, then you are expecting a certain calibre of person to become a governor. In fact that is a point made by Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors Association who notes that the majority of school governors all have a professional or management background.

And whilst I wouldn't want to discourage anyone who doesn't have that kind of background from becoming a governor, the reality is that given the kind of scrutiny that is expected, "ordinary" people may well be put off. (That was the experience I saw at the school where I was governor. Several parent governors stopped being governors as they were put off by the amount of paperwork they had to read and digest.)

It is hard to say how much time I had to give as a governor. Probably as a governor it amounted to something like 4 hours a month. But as chair I spent this amount of time each week. I would frequently be called in to the school to sign papers, or for special meetings over and above those scheduled. I had a fornightly meeting with the Headteacher. And during an OFSTED inspection, I had several meetings with the lead inpector as well as having to be part of the team that picked up the pieces afterwards.

And, by the way Mr. Gove as a volunteer I would have expected some politeness and courtesy from the Inspector. I didn't receive this and neither did the staff. The complaints I made about the inspector afterwards, were ignored. The complaint being dealt with by other inspectors who clearly were going to circle the wagons around their colleague.

Being a governor was rewarding certainly - especially during the times when I was able to interact with students at concerts, presentation evenings etc; but I wouldn't rush to become a governor again. The constant moving of goalposts by you Mr Gove means it is hard to keep up. And, quite frankly, it was demoralising to see the teachers wilting under the constant drip, drip of criticism.

Must go. Sherry to drink, Kumbayah to sing.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Open our gates - out of love for God

In John’s Gospel there are 7 sayings of Jesus that start with the “I am” These include “I am the way the truth and the life”, “I am the light of the world” “I am the bread of life” and “I am the Good shepherd” perhaps being the most famous. But one of them “I am the gate” is perhaps not so easily recalled.

A gate brings to mind something that separates those on the outside from those on the inside. It could be said that a gate is there for two purposes; For protection and / or privilege.

Last Bank Holiday Monday we went on a walk organised by the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust. We walked from Chippenham to Lacock and back. And part of the route followed a public footpath that skirts the Duchess of Cornwall’s house at Ray Mill just outside Lacock. And there were definitely gatekeepers and gates there I can tell you. And although you can’t see the gates from the footpath, the gates are there for protection and also a sign of privilege.

We may get that idea of a gate and its purpose. But when we think of Jesus in that context, and indeed the idea of gates and gatekeepers for our churches, what message is that saying?

I suppose that for two thousand years the church’s proclamation that Jesus is the gate has served both ideas – the idea of Protection and of Privilege. And this thinking makes sense when we take perhaps the most famous of Jesus’s “I am” sayings in
John 14:6

6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

What Jesus is saying is:

You come in to the Kingdom of God via the gate that is me Jesus Christ. I will offer you protection and by entering in to the Kingdom you are adopted into God’s family. So therefore you are privileged.

And it’s worth remembering that for those John was writing for, those who entered by the gate that was Christ had to then close the gate on the flock that remained in the Synagogues and in the Temple. They were turning their backs on the old way and they needed to put in place barriers - spiritual and physical - for their own protection. Jesus was the gate to a new way of life and the Kingdom of God.

However, from that time onwards such an understanding had led to concern. Questions of exclusion and inclusion have raged ever since. Who was in or out theologically, morally or ethnically? And since John’s time, a whole multitude of divisions have grown up in the Church haven’t they so that the flock is now in many different folds.

And it seems to me that we in the church have decided that having Jesus as the gate isn’t enough and so we have chosen to build our own gates inside his gate!

The Church of Christ has been putting up its own gates for centuries. There were the differences between the Celtic and Augustinian Christians. Then there have been splits between what would now be termed the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. And of course in the 15th and 16th century the Protestant Church split from the Catholic Church. And now within the Protestant Church are many denominations. And let’s not forget that at one time the Methodist Church in this country was split – chiefly between Wesleyan Methodists and Primitive Methodists.

Christians like to be within the fold but we then we seem to want to put up our own gates to keep others out.

It’s quite possible that some of you here remember a practice that was common in many Methodist Church certainly until the early 1970s. And that was what could be termed “A fenced table” or “A closed table." A fenced table or a closed table is the practise whereby communion is open only to accredited members of the Christian community. This practice meant that only members of the Methodist Church – and I mean the very specific definition of being a Member within Methodism – could receive communion. I certainly remember as a child that at the end of a Sunday service those who weren’t Members were asked to leave or at least it was made clear they would not be allowed to receive communion because they weren’t members.

Fencing the table is thus the opposite of open communion, where the invitation to the sacrament is extended to "all who love the Lord" and members of any denomination are welcome at their own discretion.

The phrase “Fencing the table” goes back to early Scottish Calvinism, where the communion table literally had a fence around it, with a gate at each end. The members of the congregation were allowed to pass the gate on showing their communion token, a specially minted coin which served as an admission ticket. And the token was given only to those who were in good standing with the local congregation and could pass a test of the catechism.

Of course in Methodism now it is the practice for all who love the Lord to receive communion if they wish. But what message were we in Methodism sending in the past with our practice?

St Augustine apparently described the church as “a hospital for sinners” which I think is a good description. But by putting in our own standards and restrictions, such as a closed table, it seems to me that the message is sent that if the Church is a hospital for sinners, some are more sinful than others. Which is not the case in Christ’s eyes.

My point is that as Christians those of us who are in the fold can seem too keen to impose rules to keep out those on the outside. We want to be the gate keepers rather than the gate openers. Why?

Is it because somehow we see ourselves as needing to be gatekeepers in order to protect the morally weak and vulnerable within the fold from the thieves and bandits who might come in and taint us?

Or is more about the fact we like to see ourselves as a privileged community of the ethically pure?

Or do we like to be gatekeepers in order to keep out the wrong sort of people?

Just before Easter I saw a story about a statue placed in front of a church in Davidson North Carolina USA. Now when I was in America last year I visited Davidson a number of times. It is a small pretty which is very affluent. It is home to Davidson College a very exclusive University.

The statue is of a homeless Jesus The statue, a work by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, places Jesus on a park bench, sleeping in a thin shawl. The man is unidentifiable as Christ save for crucifixion wounds on his feet.

The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench. St. Alban's Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighbourhood filled with well-kept town homes.

"One woman from the neighbourhood actually called police the first time she drove by," says David Boraks, editor of "She thought it was an actual homeless person."

That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.

"Another neighbour, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out," Boraks added.

Some neighbours feel that it's an insulting depiction of the son of God, and that what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighbourhood.

Some in the community disagree with the message the statue sends. "Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help," Cindy Castano Swannack, who called police after seeing the statue, told WCNC. "We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy."


Now this is the reaction to a statue of a homeless person. Imagine what the reaction would have been if a real homeless person turned up at that church? I suspect many would have wanted the gate keepers to keep that person out.

For years St. Anthony's Catholic Church in San Francisco has served meals to people in need. Over the doorway to its dining room the church has posted a sign bearing the inscription: Caritate Dei. One day a young man, just released from jail and new to St. Anthony's, entered the door and sat down for a meal. A woman was busy cleaning the adjoining table. "When do we get on our knees and do the chores, lady?" he asked.

"You don't," she replied. "Then when's the sermon comin'?" he inquired.

"Aren't any,"
she said. "How 'bout the lecture on life, huh?" "Not here," she said.

The man was suspicious. "Then what's the gimmick?" The woman pointed to the inscription over the door. He squinted at the sign. "What's it mean, lady?" "Out of love for God," she said with a smile, and moved on to another table.

Caritate Dei – Out of love for God. Maybe all churches should have that painted above our doorways to remind us to keep the gate open to those who want to come and know the Lord.