Recent Sermons

One Lord, Jesus Christ: part 3 in a sermon series on the Creed

preached on 10 Sept 2023 by Fr Benji Tyler, curate

Imagine, if you will, for a moment that – a bit like when you go to the supermarket to get milk only to find that there is now a worldwide shortage of milk – you have come to church this morning to be told that Jesus Christ really is dead. He has been discovered to be all just a complete hoax; that there really was no such person who rose from the grave and ascended into heaven…

“Jesus Christ is DEAD!” read headlines all over the world. “2000 years of gullibles proved wrong!” “the Good news is a lie: Church is no more!’

What would you do? What would we do?

Would we meekly believe it, having had a hunch all along that this was really true? Would we close the doors on our buildings and nail a sign across them reading “no use for this building – push off”?
Our heads might, in time, receive this, but our hearts? Could our hearts simply cut off everything we had known, felt, experienced since first we were introduced to the Christian Faith?

[This has, of course in one way or another, been the experience for many people throughout history – one has only to think of Japan in the 19th Century or Russia in the 20th where the state forbad private or public worship and belief.]

Because, for Christianity to be real you need a Christ. Christ is 100% the essence of Christianity – not 33.3%, shared with the other two persons, God and the Holy Spirit but 100%. You may have heard me quote Archbishop Ramsey before when he said that “in God there is no unChrist-likeness”.
And this essence of Christ is found in the first and shortest of all creeds – that found in Philippians 2:11 : “Jesus Christ, is Lord” “Kyrios, God”. Every tongue should confess it, to the glory of God the Father.

The simple reality is that it is impossible to be a Christian without confessing that Jesus Christ is the son of God, revealed in human flesh – God incarnate. And for Christian teachers it is not simply enough to know about Christ but to know Christ. Knowing Christ is what has ensured the remarkable continuity of faith throughout the world, knowing that Jesus really happened and knowing the effect that this happening was to have on the universe. For if it really happened, it is the greatest love story that ever entered the universe. If it did not really happen, then it is the greatest fantasy that ever entered the universe of human thought.

I want to be clear. No one is truly converted to Christianity by the reasonableness of the incarnation. Impossible. Because the incarnation is, in itself, not a reasonable story! But rather generation after generation is converted by being introduced to relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ.

The creed, as the statement of faith of the ecumenical Church, is keen to introduce this person pretty quick and then to dwell on him, as in for example The Apostles’ Creed, for nearly two thirds of the words.

This is because of that love story – the story of God’s love for humankind. It is the crazy story of the one, creator God, infinity perfect and lacking in nothing, becoming mortal flesh, suffering torture, death and hell for our sins.

Our sin can be summed up as a lack of love.
Redemption can be summed up as an EXCESS of love.

Which is why, when we look at Jesus on the Cross, either on crucifix or in mind’s eye and know who that is what he is doing and what love made him do it, we ourselves melt into a fervour of love.

So there I have focussed on the why we might believe in God as revealed in Jesus Christ and I want to now say just a little on how we might come to be in relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

And the how is so simple. For the how is how about prayer. God has reached out to us in Jesus Christ to enable us to come to him, in prayer.

When we begin to utter any prayer we must already have recognised something of the beauty of God and been attracted to it, attracted to God’s beauty as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.

And for us to respond to this, we recognise that it is God who has initiated this response; it is God who first reached out to us in Jesus; it is God who calls us out of self-involvement, self-centredness into dynamic relationship with true love, true beauty.

Another Archbishop, Rowan Williams, said that “prayer is what God does in us when we are close to Jesus”. Being close to Jesus, reciting his name, claiming his name in prayer brings to us a taste of eternity but also accustoms the pray-er to an acceptance of all that this life brings too.
The name of Jesus is not just to be invoked when we need that car-parking space or when we are sick, but we invoke it in order to bring us into a transformative relationship with him and with the world around us.

Each time we repeat the name of Jesus, be that in prayer, in Liturgy, in hymns, in music we are opened up to the possibilities of transformation. Our time, becomes God’s time. We surrender our all to his all, we become bound up in his love and we are sent out to do His mission, as his hands and his heart.

[Now the creed, of course, is concerned with the communication of right belief, of doctrine, of universal truth. And truth, like goodness and beauty, is understood most fully when we look at Jesus. Jesus, sent by his Father and receiving sonship in the Spirit to return to the Father. It is in that sonship, that becoming human, that WE are caught up into relationship with God. This dynamic energy of the Trinity is given to the world in the sending of the Son]

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” to draw us into the goodness, the beauty of God.

Put simply, God’s love is a giving of nothing less than his being, since his being is love.

Next week we will begin to turn our attention towards the details of the life of Christ whilst on earth and the crucifixion which is that vivid demonstration that even suffering can be turned to blessing when the heart is filled with God’s goodness.

So. I’m pleased to tell you that, even if we DO turn up to Church one day and suddenly discover that Jesus Christ is DEAD! I for one would find it impossible to believe.

For the testimony of faith that is inherited and lived out by each and every saint, living and departed, has built up too compelling a story for it NOT to be true, And, even if, at times I/we struggle to confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” or to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner” it is in the repetition of that blessed, Holy Name that we come to know, and will be assured, that there is no greater story of Love than that Jesus Christ became man so that we might become fully alive, now and for all eternity.




The Maker of Heaven and Earth: part 2 in a sermon series on the Creed

preached on 3 Sept 2023 by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price

References to the readings are to Genesis 1.24-end; Acts 17.24-28; Mark 4.35-41; and Psalm 19

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.


I wanted to share with you today a book I’ve been looking at: God made the dinosaurs! It’s a book aimed at primary aged children, all about the story of how dinosaur fossils were discovered and the role of Christians in that story. And I actually ordered it because there is a little boy being baptised later today who is absolutely fascinated by dinosaurs.


I can just about remember being into stegasaurus and triceratops, but nowadays to keep up with the dinosaur crowd you need to know the difference between an allosaurus and a carnotaurus! When Jesus teaches us that, to enter the kingdom of heaven we should be like little children, I think of children just like that, who are fascinated by the natural world, who are hungry for knowledge, who never stop asking questions.


Far too often we imagine that the dinosaurs are an embarassment to Christians in relation to the doctrine of creation, and in general that curiosity about the natural world – what we now call ‘science’ - is somehow a problem for our faith, and especially for our faith in God as creator. That couldn’t be more wrong. Professor Tom McLeish, who died earlier this year, had the rare distinction of being a professor of Physics, a lay minister in the Church of England, and a medieval historian. He wrote a lot about the history of the relationship between religion and science. It is worth knowing, by the way, that early Christians didn’t interpret the six days of creation literally, and that they never thought the world was flat! Tom McLeish says we’re wrong to think science is all about having the answers. Scientists are people who ask questions, who are fascinated by the wonders of the universe. And very often what has motivated that questioning and that wonder is the faith in a creator God.


To say we believe in God the Creator is not just a statement about God, or about something that happened in the past, but more significantly a statement about the universe and about ourselves: that we are created. It is because we believe that the universe is created by a creator that we believe it is worth studying: it isn’t random or illusory or irrelevant. Rather, it makes some kind of sense and we have some chance of understanding it better through the use of our God-given senses and our reason.


I read once in a book on childrearing that the first thing a child needs to know is that they are loved. And the second is that the world is interesting,

because if they do not take an interest in what is around them, they are not going to learn. The first thing our creed teaches us is that we are loved – God is our Father. And the second is that the world is interesting – the good creation of our good God.


And we can see something of God through his creation. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” – so says our psalm today. If you are a classical music fan you might be familiar with these words, set to memorable music – if rather mangled English! – by the composer Haydn in his oratorio ‘The Creation’. One day pours out its song to another: it’s an amazing image of the world around us joyfully shouting the truth of God, if only we take the time to hear it.


St Paul says something very similar in his sermon in Athens, which is recorded here for us in the book of Acts. Speaking to a Greek audience, people who did not believe in “one God, the Father” and had never heard of Jesus Christ, he tells them that God is nevertheless close to them, that they too have a relationship with him as their creator, and that he is already making himself known in their lives through the beauty of the world around them and in their own human nature.


In Genesis we hear a hint of our world’s extraordinary biodiversity: ‘every kind’ of beast, ‘every kind’ of creeping thing, ‘every kind’ of tree with the seed in its fruit. In the middle ages, the cutting edge textbook on animal biology would be the ‘bestiary’ or book of animals: each animal would be described both according to what was then known or believed about its physical characteristics and behaviour, but also what it might teach us as Christians. Amongst my favourites are the entry for the cat: the enemy of mice, likes to sit in hot places and is often too lazy to move! Or that for ants: they are given both as a good example of co-operation but also – in the way they select and store food – an analogy for the critical and intelligent way we should approach the ‘nourishment’ provided for us by the Bible! Modern biologiests estimate there are 8.7 million distinct species of animals and plants… of which a surprisingly high proportion are beetles. This is a wonderful and often strange universe which speaks of a wonderful and strange God.


To believe in creation is not just to believe that the universe was created, but that it is created: that it is God’s good creation. The Christian and Jewish creation story is not the only creation story which humans have told but many of the older stories involve some kind of conflict: squabbling Gods, sacrifices, murders. The world might even be created out of a dead body! By contrast, the stories that Jews and Christians tell of what it means to be created are of a God who brings order out of chaos, complexity and diversity out of the swirling void. Jesus’ friends know him to be more than mortal not so much by his miracles of healing as by his stilling of the storm. Creation obeys its creator, and peace is brought out of violence.


Paradise, as it is described in our reading from Genesis, is so peaceful that even the animals only eat fruit. This is not nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Christians can never use ‘nature’ as an excuse for violent or selfish behaviour. Rather, to believe in creation, is to recognise how far we have fallen from all God hoped for his creation, and to long for its fulfilment.


Just as God did not create the universe in some kind of competition, nor did he create it to serve any need of his own. Again, St Paul is absolutely clear about this, “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything.” In fact there is no reason for God to create the universe except out of the sheer love of creation. This is a universe created not for violence nor as a means to some other functional end but purely out of love and for love. And it is in this love that we find our meaning and our purpose: that God made us and delights in us.


We said last week that the creed says nothing about our behaviour or morality, about how we should live. That’s true. But the answers to those questions have to start with creation. Because it is only created things that can be said to have a meaning or a purpose, or to be good or bad.

If you pick up a rock, you cannot say whether it is a ‘good’ rock or a ‘bad’ rock or whether it is doing its job as a rock. But you can say whether a kettle or a printer or a car is good. I wanted to buy a new kettle I might look at online reviews, or I might check out Which? Magazine, where I could find kettles scored against all the things a kettle is meant to do, such as heat water quickly and not leak and look cool in my kitchen. And in a different way you can say whether a book or a TV series or a painting is good.


So if I am to ask, am I a good person, I first need to have an idea what is a person, what I was created to be. And fortunately our Creator has given us an example – the prototype, if you like – of exactly what a human being is meant to be. That is what we will be exploring in next week’s sermon

When the creed introduces us to Jesus Christ.


So today let us pray that as we adore God as the creator, we may be filled with wonder and curiosity and delight in our world, and in ourselves as his creation. Amen.

A sermon on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Assumption), 13 August 2023

The Revd Benji Tyler


As the saying goes: Mary is for life, not just for Christmas.

It is on these feasts devoted to Mary that the cradle Protestants amongst us might feel twinges of generational anti-Catholic sentiment, and claim the blood of the Martyrs burned by Queen Mary was spilt in vain if we dare allow ourselves to deviate from the focus on Christ.

I can say this, because this has been true for me. Mary distracts us from the focus of our faith in Jesus Christ and therefore a Sunday that sings, talks and celebrates her is a day of worship wasted in the annual economy of our faith.


So how did Mary become such an unmentionable concept amongst English Christianity following the Reformation, other than perhaps at Christmas. Martin Luther, himself the catalyst for the European Reformation, held an extremely conservative view on Mary, believing in her perpetual virginity as well as in her Immaculate Conception. He did concede that the latter should not be a dogma that people are obliged to believe.

In his 1527 Sermon, "On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God" he taught that “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul, infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin." He preached on Mary on all her feast days and he was also comfortable with keeping celebrated images of Mary in his churches where they remained until the time of “Enlightenment” in the 18th century.[1]


And what did Luther think of the most famous Marian prayer, as heard in the Gospel today? Well, he directed that the Magnificat be sung daily in all churches. This, at least the Church of England adopted and continues to maintain at Evening Prayer each day.


By this prayer, recorded in the Gospels, we know how Mary prays and how she intercedes in faith. This canticle is both the song of the Mother of God and the song of the bride of Christ, the Church. It is a song which is magnificent, in the sense that it magnifies the Lord, who has magnified his lowly saints who in turn magnify not themselves but the Lord Jesus.

And it was Mary, present at the Wedding of Cana, who petitioned her Son to bring about the miracle of the turning Water into Wine - that feast that was a sign of the future abundant giving of Christ in the wine of the Eucharist.

Here in Wantage, our every Sunday Eucharist is still witnessed by Our Lady, signified by her statue from Walsingham underneath the pulpit. She is present. We are present. and thus we all become one, unified by our common salvation through Christ whom both she and we contain within ourselves.


Now, you may well be thinking that these are matters far too complex to take on so why bother. Well, we bother because theology is faith seeking understanding – and our faith asks many questions of us – of both our hearts and our minds. It demands truth, deep in the inward parts. And the truth is, we all of us need a mother, whether physically or spiritually.


In this Church, the spiritual metaphor is amply displayed in its architecture and might perhaps be helpful to us as we come to imagine the deeper realities of the Church’s teaching, remembering that final truth never rests with us or our own individual belief but rather in our being incorporated into something larger than ourselves.


Before we come to the Altar, before we access the main body of the church, where do we pass by? The Lady Chapel. And that Lady Chapel contains the blessed body and blood of Our Lord in the reserved sacrament. If you like, Christ is contained within the womb of that chapel, dedicated to his mother.

Without whom, there would be no Christ and there would be no salvation. So it is fitting that, before we come to Christ we acknowledge the part that Mary had to play, that humanity had to play, before we can fully understand the part that God chose to play to reconcile us to himself.


The placing of the statue is there as a reminder to give thanks to God for revealing himself in the way he chose to do – become visible, become earthly, become tangible, become one of us, so that we might become part of God.


Soon we shall be exploring, in an Autumn sermon series, the Creed - beginning next week with a teaching mass (at 10.30). Fundamental to a right confession of the creed is the acknowledgement that ‘with God all things are possible’. Once our reason has grasped the idea of God’s almighty power – I believe in God, the Father Almighty – it easily and without hesitation admits everything that is afterwards proposed -


and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin May -


however far above our ordinary imagination can conceive. And it is Mary who teaches us how to accept things we find hard to believe, for in her simplicity, in her saying yes she modelled the secret of every true saint… yes Lord I believe, I submit to those things I do not understand and I gain your peace.


We need not fear the Virgin Mary, Blessed Mother of God, as either person or as doctrine. We might consider extracting her from Christmas alone. For even as Jesus did not stay a child seated on his mother’s lap, so we too must mature in our understanding of her, and pray that God would give us the same grace that he bestowed on Mary who carried Jesus in her womb, even as we do not shy away from carrying Jesus, her son, in our hearts and consume him at his Altar.


For in her we see how high humanity can rise – in Mary, in us, God withholds nothing when we give ourselves wholly to him as he, In Christ, gives himself wholly to us.


Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou, and blessed is the fruit of thy wonb, JESUS.







Barbenheimer: a sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2023

written by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, based on Luke 9.28-36. 

This sermon is the Director's Cut, combining versions preached at the two churches.

At the start of the film “Barbie”, Margot Robbie’s character, Stereotypical Barbie, is troubled by thoughts of death. So she leaves her Malibu beach dream house, and heads up towards the mountains to meet ‘weird Barbie’, and when she comes back down her whole idea of reality has been changed.


Today’s Gospel passage begins ‘eight days after these sayings’. ‘These sayings’ refers to a conversation Jesus has had with his friends about his death which has alarmed and troubled them. So now he has taken his three closest friends, Peter, James and John, with him up to the mountains. Whilst they are on the mountain, Peter, James, and John see Jesus looking different – exactly as they later will after his resurrection. You might recall, none of his friends immediately recognise him after he returns from death. They are given a glimpse of the eternal reality of who Jesus is.


People have always gone up mountains to get closer to God. Two of the most famous are the two men we meet at the top of the mountain – Moses and Elijah. Moses is said to have first encountered God in a burning bush on Mount Sinai and then later returned to receive the ten commandments from God. Elijah also goes up to mount Sinai at the most difficult moment of his life. You may recall the story, or perhaps the hymn – he meets with God not in the earthquake, not in the fire, not in the thunder, but in a voice of silence. Going up the mountain represents stepping away from our ordinary lives and trying to get a different perspective. We may be only about 100 metres above sea level here in Wantage, but in our worship we try to consciously take that step away from our ordinary lives, to set aside some of our distractions so that we can hear the voice of God.


Now St Luke tells us that the disciples are very sleepy, finding it hard to stay awake. And so we might be asking, is this all a dream? Did they drop off after all? There is something dreamlike about the way that they see two men and somehow know, without any surprise, that these are Moses and Elijah, or in the way that Peter speaks without really knowing what he is saying. But I’m not sure that necessarily matters. Our old testament reading from the book of Daniel is explicitly a dream, a vision which Daniel received as he lay in bed at night, and yet he takes it no less seriously as revealing something true. Just as Peter many years later insists on the truth and importance of his eyewitness testimony to what he saw on the mountain.

There is a scene in the Barbie film where someone asks a similar question: “is Barbieland an alternate reality, or is it like a place where your imagination…” and he’s cut off with the answer ‘yes’!


Regardless of exactly how Peter, James and John see what they see, it is a glimpse of heaven, a rare insight into how the world looks from God’s perspective, and from that perspective everything looks different. Jesus’ prediction of his own death, which from the human perspective of his friends is horrifying, and an unimaginable failure for everything he stands for, is described by Moses and Elijah as a ‘departure’ or ‘exodus’ which he is soon to ‘accomplish’.


Just like Moses, Jesus enters a cloud to speak with God, and just like Moses after his encounter on Mount Sinai, Jesus’ face is shining. So, just like Moses, he will accomplish an exodus. The passover of Moses was the delivery of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. The passover of Jesus, which we call Easter, will be the delivery of all God’s people from the slavery of sin and from death, through the deep waters of his own death.


Maybe Luke tells us about the disciples being sleepy not because he wants to suggest that they are not fully conscious but to remind us of another occasion when Jesus was again praying privately, in the company of the same three disciples: in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died. On that occasion, they do fall asleep and so Jesus alone enters into the events of his last days, seeing them in their true perspective, as a triumph and not as a humiliating tragedy.


“Lord, it is good for us to be here – “ Peter wants to stay, to remain in that vision of heaven. When Barbie meets Weird Barbie she is presented with a choice – I guess it’s a take-off of the iconic scene from the 90s film The Matrix in which Neo has to choose between the blue pill or the red pill

Except for Barbie it’s high heels for staying in her perfect fantasy life, or sensible sandals to go and seek the truth. Which would you choose? Well, which would any of us choose? Most of us would probably say that we choose the truth, but actions speak louder than words. Most the time, if we are honest, we human beings tend to choose fantasy and complacency over tough reality. But when you have seen the world differently, going back is not a choice. Peter, James and John are chosen by Jesus to see what they see, and they can never unsee it. The men who come down from the mountain are different from when they went up.


Because the Transfiguration is not just about seeing heaven but about seeing Earth – seeing the world the way it truly is. In the same way that Barbie isn’t about Barbieland but about this world – how it is and how it could be and about the reality of being a mortal human being who isn’t a doll: Who isn’t perfect and who won’t be young for ever and doesn’t get to keep their life exactly the same and the way they want it for ever.


If the Barbie film is a little bit about death, that’s obviously even more true of the other half of the Barbenheimer phenomenon! The sixth of August, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also the anniversary of Hiroshima. Those two events, 1900 years apart, have each coloured one another in our imagination for the past nearly eighty years, and perhaps will always do so. “A cloud overshadowed them, and they were terrified...” The Transfiguration is a vision both of dazzling beauty and of terrifying darkness. Meeting with God, opening our eyes to see reality the way he sees it, is both a beautiful and a terrible thing. Hiroshima too teaches us something about ourselves, about what we as human beings are capable of: amazing feats of technology and collaboration and almost unlimited violence and destruction.


On the mountain, Peter, James, and John see Jesus as he really is – the radiant eternal Son of Man. But on the cross, they will also see him as he really is, broken and helpless and all-too-mortal. Because he is both those things and we are both those things. We are the children of God, made in his image, and we are also the Roman soldiers shattering that image on the cross. We are the disciples on the mountain, changed forever by the vision of his glory – and the same disciples exhausted and confused and terrified in the garden of Gethesemane. Sometimes what our imagination dreams up is made of pink plastic, and sometimes out of sixty-four kilos of enriched uranium.


As Christians, we see ourselves always as we are revealed by the horror of the cross. Yet it is always the cross transformed into triumph by the eternal light of the Transfiguration.




“Do not hold on to me.” A Sermon for the Feast of St Mary Magdalene 

Preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at the Parish Church on Sunday 23 July 2023

based on the story of Mary Magdalene in the Garden from John chapter 20


Today is the feast of Mary Magdalene, and so I am going to preach about Mary Magdalene! You might think that goes without saying, but in my experience, Mary Magdalene has a strange habit of disappearing. This is the woman whom Jesus chooses to put at the centre of the Easter story, and yet too often in the church she has ended up at the edge.


On one occasion – I shan’t tell you where this was – I went to church on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene and I heard the gospel reading that we have just heard, about Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And then the priest got up and said, he wasn’t going to preach on this reading but instead on the story of the woman taken in adultery. Now it’s a fantastic story – the story of Jesus defending a woman from those who condemn her – but it’s got nothing to do with Mary Magdalene. That’s probably the second most angry I’ve ever been at a sermon! And that isn’t the only time I’ve been to church on this feast  and found Mary Magdalene conspicuous by her absence.


I don’t say this to have a go at my brother preachers - goodness knows you can’t please all the people all the time! - but to illustrate something of the problem that we in the church have had with Mary Magdalene.


One of the problems is that she gets muddled up or conflated with other people. There’s Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. That’s quite an understandable one – and if you like an honourable one, since they are both close disciples of Jesus and they have the same first name! But Mary Magdalene has also been presumed to be the anonymous sinful woman in the Gospel of Luke, who gatecrashes a dinner at the house of one Simon the Pharisee, pours ointment over the feet of Jesus, and wipes it off with her hair. As well as the married woman caught out in adultery. None of which fits with what the Gospels tell us about Mary Magdalene.


And in the Western church, historically, she was often confused with a later saint named Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who went on a pilgrimage and then gave up that life to become a hermit in the desert. That’s why if you’re into art you might sometimes see pictures of Mary Magdalene depicted in later life wearing a sort of ragged hairy garment.


Even more exotic is the way Mary Magdalene has been received outside the church: lots of people over the centuries have wanted to give the Jesus story a romantic subplot, to spice it up a bit, and they have seized on Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ potential love interest, wife, even the mother of his children. I’ve never read or seen Dan Brown’s the da Vinci code but I believe that book features this myth about Mary Magdalene!


So there’s a theme here: Mary Magdalene has become the epitome of the ‘fallen woman’, an example of the penitent sinner, but also in a way a bit of a sex symbol. Mary Magdalene fascinates us, but we can’t quite let her be who the gospels show her to be. The Gospels suggest that she was an independently wealthy single woman who travelled with Jesus,  yet we would rather focus on dishing the dirt and speculating about her past… she won’t be the first or the last woman in the public eye who has experienced that!


The way she has been treated illustrates something of the ambivalence in the way church authorities have treated women in the past, particularly women’s bodies and women’s physicality. Most notoriously of course we can think of the Magdalen Laundries: these were institutions in Catholic Ireland which were supposed to care for single mothers but often, as we now know, did anything but care for them. And in 1997, Pope John Paul II caused some controversy with a sermon in which he claimed that the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the first to see him after his resurrection rather than Mary Magdalene as recorded in the Gospels.


Jesus puts this woman at the centre of the story and we keep trying to push her back out.


And maybe this is the most radical of all the radical things that Jesus did in his life: choosing Mary Magdalene to be the first witness to the resurrection. The testimony of only one person, and a woman at that, would have had little or no weight at the time. Even today, if we think of court cases in which the only testimony comes from the voice of one woman, we know how difficult it is to ensure justice in such a case. Jesus of course went on to confirm his resurrection by many other appearances and yet he determined that the faith of his apostles

should rest in the first instance on the word of one woman.


The feast of Mary Magdalene is a good time to remember that our love for God involves our bodies as well as our minds and spirits. Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not married, we have no reason to believe they were romantically involved, and yet her love and devotion to him was certainly ‘physical’ in the sense that she wanted to be physically close to him. She travelled with him in his lifetime, she was physically present at his crucifixion, and she came to the tomb in order to see and touch and anoint his body, drawn by this instinct to serve him, and to show her love and service by her care for his body.


Our first reading today came from the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon which in some ways is a surprising book to find in the Bible because it’s not about ‘religion’ - it is a love poem. The fact that a poem about romantic love, human love, is in the Bible is a reminder that God doesn’t just relate to one part of who we are or to one part of our lives but wants to know the whole of us. That’s reflected also in the way we worship: that we will hear and reflect on the words of scripture but we are also invited to physical communion with Jesus to draw close to him through the bread and wine of the sacrament.


Mary Magdalene is the example to us in her yearning to be close to Jesus and to serve him with all that she is – her mind, her body, her money, her voice. And yet her ultimate act of faith is in not touching Jesus. “Do not hold on to me” he says, or “do not touch me”. Note that this is the opposite of what he says to Thomas. Thomas needs to touch Jesus before he is able to believe. Mary does not. Jesus knows that she will go and tell what she has seen – in spite of how crazy it sounds, in spite of how others may react.


There is also another side to the church’s celebration of Mary Magdalene which brings us much closer to the woman we see in today’s gospel story. She is sometimes known as the Apostle to the Apostles, and the Dominicans or Order of Preachers chose Mary Magdalene as one of their patron saints. Indeed, so devoted were they to the Magdalene that they included her in their depictions of the Last Supper. In more recent times, female clergy have often been told that only men were present at the Last Supper – so I feel a particular gratitude to the Dominicans for challenging that assumption! Mary Magdalene is first and foremost a preacher: not perhaps someone who composes crafted sermons or who takes a leading role in worship - although we don’t know what her role may have been in the church later in life but someone who speaks about the great works of God and witnesses to her own encounter with Jesus. What strikes me in this passage is her immediate instinct to share. When she sees the tomb empty, her very first instinct is to involve the others.


Those of you who were here will recall that I chose the feast of Mary Magdalene for my first service in Wantage, so I have been here now exactly a year and in that year some great things have happened! I have not done those great things, but I have been present as other people have done them and as God has begun to do great things among us. That is the way in which Mary Magdalene is a great example to us: not as someone who does great things,  but who is present as God does great things and does not cling on to Jesus, but longs to share him.

5th Sunday after Trinity

preached by Fr Benji Tyler

Wantage Parish
Matthew 11. 16-19, 25-end

If you have managed to get through this morning’s liturgy of the word without thinking what on earth is all this about then I take my hat off to you.
Imagine my own groans when I sat down to write a sermon yesterday [today] only to discover that my several go-to sources for inspiration were all agreed on one thing – that both Matthew and Paul present highly complex concepts of the human condition that are not easy to understand or interpret.

I have just finished watching the mini-series ‘A Small Light’ – a new film that charts the circumstances surrounding the hiding of Anne Frank’s family in Amsterdam during the second world war. After the Frank family’s tragic discovery by the Nazis and subsequent deportation to Bergen-Belson concentration camp, their protector Miep Gies is wracked with guilt that she was unable to prevent the inevitable.
When trying to make sense of it all with her husband, as she relives all the things she could have done better to protect her friends, she is reminded that “All we can do is make a choice, every day, to do something good. And you made that choice every day. It’s all we have control over”.

St Paul is at anguish to try and prove that his sin often gets the better of him. Even when he wills to do good, he is unable to achieve it in his flesh because sin takes over and corrupts even the good which he desires.

One of the most common feelings within the Christian life is that we have in some way failed. Failed to live as we think we ought to and failed to live as we believe God expects us to. From time-to-time these feelings crowd in on us and maybe we are tempted to give up on it all – the burden just becomes too heavy and we believe that in order to be free of it we might as well deny God and live an easy life, as everyone else seems to do.

But perhaps this is because we are not understanding exactly what the yoke of Jesus is all about. Through our baptism and by our daily choice to live as a follower of Jesus we pledge to take on the easiest of yokes and the lightest of all burdens.

For the opposite of this is not total peace from having no burden and no yoke at all – the opposite is trying to do it the way of humankind… and believe me, human kind actually has a way of heaping laws upon laws upon laws in order to replace that which God writes upon the hearts of humanity when they choose to love God before all else – including themselves.

Romans 7 v 23 can be a release from any temptation to enter a ‘purity spiral’ – that we need to align ourselves with a ‘perfect church’ free from theological or ideological error.

The Church of England, as it discusses prayers of blessing for same-sex partnerships is at risk of creating silos of purity – rather than focussing on the purity of Jesus Christ who is the one who rescues us and perfects us. This is St Paul’s conclusion – that whatever mistakes we make on earth, it is Christ who saves and who will present us to the Father, not our own merit.

The choice to wake up each morning and do good remains with us, but we need to be careful that we do not fall into an obsessive and sanctimonious one-upmanship in our faith, adding yet another failure to our growing list by not being positive enough.
Burdens are still burdens and yokes are still yokes. Let’s just acknowledge that for a moment – Jesus doesn’t promise no burden in this life – only a lighter one!

Jesus encourages us here and in other passages of the Gospel to look to the fruit of our actions and judge each other by them rather than our failings to live up to certain standards.

The overriding message we might leave with today is that if we are at least trying to follow the way of Jesus, if we are choosing to do good each day, DESPITE the fact we know we often fail, then no Christian needs fear falling short of perfection.

May God give you the grace to forgive yourself your every imperfection as you look to Jesus who , as Psalm 145 reminds us, ‘upholds all those who fall and lifts up all those who are bowed down’.


A sermon for Pentecost

preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at Holy Trinity Charlton

based on the account in the Acts of the Apostles


Who inspires you?

The other day I heard an interview on the radio with a guy called Kevin Sinfield, a former rugby player. His best friend Rob Burrows was also a rugby player until he developed Motor Neurone Disease, and now Kevin spends most of his time running sponsored marathons to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease research. You might’ve seen the clip of Kevin carrying Rob over the finish line at the inaugural Rob Burrows Leeds Marathon last week. It’s hard to talk about these men and their story without using the word, ‘inspirational’. Through his friendship with Rob, Kevin has been inspired to see ‘strength’ and greatness in a new way: not the strength and greatness of a successful sportsman but the different strength of someone who is now entirely physically dependent on others. And in turn that has led him to action: to use his own gifts to help people and to inspire others to do likewise.

This is what it means to be ‘inspired’, to be filled ‘with the spirit’.


The other people we often refer to as ‘inspirational’ are teachers – many of us can say we were inspired to follow the path we’ve taken in life by a particular teacher. For me it would be Mr Minns, my sixth-form history teacher, although he’d probably be very surprised to see where I’ve ended up! A good teacher helps you to see things differently – including yourself and your own potential. To be ‘inspired’, filled with the holy spirit, is to look at the world differently and it leads to real change in how we act.


Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church. Like a birthday, of course, it is about receiving gifts! The ‘gifts of the spirit’. But I’m not sure we should see it as the beginning of the church and certainly not as the beginning of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been at work in creation since, well, since creation! It might be better seen as an eighteenth birthday, an official ‘coming of age’ when the church received the rights and responsibilities of adulthood but was certainly still a long way off a finished product!


We hear that the disciples are gathered together ‘when the feast of Pentecost  had come’ – i.e. the existing Jewish feast of Pentecost or ‘Feast of Weeks’, fifty days after Passover, which celebrated the giving of the law to Moses on the mountain. So we can compare the giving of the spirit with the giving of the law. The law was entrusted to one person, Moses, on behalf of all. The spirit was poured out on the whole congregation of disciples. The law was written on stone – solid, immutable. The spirit was poured out in wind and flame, ever-moving, impossible to pin down. The law sets external boundaries for how we should act and live together. The spirit seeks to change the heart and guide us into the right paths through wisdom.


This new age of the spirit is, you might say, a more democratic age in which everyone is a potentially a prophet: just as the Lord has promised from the time of Moses, the spirit is now poured out equally on all those baptised into Christ and the spirit’s gifts are no respecter of a person’s status or position, whether inside the church or outside it.


But of course this radical freedom and equality in the spirit is frightening – and not just to those who might have a vested interest in spiritual authority being kept in the hands of the few. Fire is dangerous.  Think of the scenes from Cardiff over the last week, of people rioting and setting things alight. When we hear at Pentecost of this powerful new sense of togetherness and fearlessness that is almost intoxicating – onlookers ask if the disciples have been drinking! – you can see how this could go very wrong very quickly.  If the church at Pentecost is sort of in its adolescence,well, that’s not always the time of our life in which we make the best decisions! And we certainly see that in the way people talk about the Holy Spirit. If we emphasise the authority that comes from the Holy Spirit over that which comes from the community of faith and the words of scripture. Then we might find ourselves ascribing divine authority to our every whim and impulse. And sadly, people who are seen as being inspirational, do sometimes abuse their spiritual authority. That’s why both Paul and Jesus in today’s readings emphasise the need not to ‘go it alone’, but to discern together as a community whether what we believe we are being told by the spirit is coherent with what we know of God in Jesus Christ.


It’s no accident that the first spiritual gift poured out on the disciples is that of languages: the gift of communication. Sometimes Pentecost is described as a ‘reverse Babel’. Babel is the story in which human beings co-operating to build a high tower are struck with an inability to understand one another. But Pentecost does not exactly reverse Babel – we do not all speak the same language but rather we learn to speak one another’s languages.

When you learn a different language you invariably learn something of a different culture – for example, do you use different words to address people depending on how important they are? Is it a language for speaking plainly and bluntly or for elaborate politeness? To learn someone else’s language is to try and see things from their perspective. Perhaps that is particularly relevant at this moment, when in Ukraine and in other countries, what language you speak is so often used as a shorthand for ethnicity and a justification for hostility. The disciples at the start of the Pentecost story are locked away, fearful, hostile, suspicious and inward looking; at the end they are out in the streets, talking fearlessly to people from every nation.


We often think of ‘spirituality’ as something private, something between ‘me and God’.  And we may think of ‘inspiration’ as private too. We are a church which celebrates creativity – the beautiful flowers, the new cover for our readings and gospel, our music – and we might think, some people have that creative inspiration, that artistic genius, and some don’t. But what comes across most strongly in this story is that the spirit is sent not to set some people apart from others but to confirm and demonstrate the universality, the inclusivity of Jesus’ mission and the equality that we have in Christ. We will again see the spirit acting in this way in other stories from the Acts of the Apostles, confirming to the doubtful disciples that God’s message is for people of all nations, races, classes, languages, and religious backgrounds.

So the gifts of the spirit are not for our private enjoyment, still less for us to boast in God’s favour, but that we may be inspired to serve and share with one another for the good of all.



He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread: a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter

Preached at Holy Trinity Charlton by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, on 23 April 2023.

Based on the Gospel story of the Road to Emmaus.


On the same day, they were talking and discussing about all these things that had taken place. Two disciples – probably a married couple, Cleopas and his wife Mary, are on their way back home,when they fall into conversation with a third person who appears to be going the same way. At the beginning of their discussion they are sad. They are talking about the events of that week and how it had not turned out as they had hoped.


But then, they begin to reflect on the scripture, they begin to interpret what the scripture might have to say about these events, and they start to make sense of it. Then they share a meal together – bread, broken and blessed. And finally they are sent out, sent out with joy to proclaim the good news.


Does that sound familiar? Oh, and it all took place ‘on the same day’ i.e. Easter day, the first day of the week. Sunday. That’s another clue!


A couple of weeks ago, I preached that we are ‘an Easter people’. But perhaps we are more particularly an ‘Emmaus people’. Because we, as human beings living after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, don’t encounter him as his first disciples did: face to face, with the breeze off the sea of Galilee blowing in our hair and probably the smell of fish! As I was saying in the bible reading group the other day, It’s deeply frustrating to us that those who knew Jesus face to face didn’t leave us a record of what he looked like – was he tall or short, fat or thin? We don’t get to meet Jesus in that way. We meet him in a more oblique way –  through scripture, through worship, through one another, and it often takes us a while to recognise him.


This story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus is like a parable of what we do here in the Eucharist. We start by bringing to God whatever is going on in our lives and in the week we’ve had: our hopes, our disappointments, our worries. We do that explicitly through the confession, but we do it in a lot of other ways as well – maybe the conversations we have at the door, maybe prayer intentions that we’ve put in the prayer list, or just what’s on our mind as we sit down. We never come empty-handed if you like. When we step through that door we’re always bringing something with us from our life outside.


And so when we hear the scripture, when we hear the word of God spoken from the lectern and when we hear it interpreted in the sermon there is a conversation there, a conversation in our own minds, between everything we are bringing with us into the church and what we are hearing. Cleopas and Mary recount this sequence of events that has happened to them: We thought he was the messiah. But he died. He was buried, but we can’t find his body. Someone said he was alive, but nobody’s seen him. They talk it over in the way that we do talk over strange or traumatic events, but no matter how many times they recount these events, they don’t make any sense.


It is only in the light of the scripture, as interpreted by Jesus, that these events start to have some kind of meaning. The events of their lives only make sense when interpreted by scripture And the scripture only makes sense when interpreted in the light of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: that is the claim of our faith, that Christ is the key to understanding the scriptures. And in turn to understanding the story of God’s interaction with the world not just in scripture but in our own lives.


But it is not through the scripture that the disciples come to recognise Jesus physically present with them. It is when he takes bread and blesses and breaks it – as I will do, as we do and have done every Sunday since that Sunday. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he vanished from their sight…” In the very moment that they see him for who he is, he is gone. When we break bread together, Jesus is present amongst us. He is present amongst us in the form of the bread and wine, his body and his blood, and he is present amongst us also in the body of Christ, the church. He is present with us, but he is no longer separate from us.


That’s how I read this moment when he disappears. It’s part of this strange transitional time between the Resurrection and the Ascension, when Jesus continues to appear amongst his people, but only to prepare them for when they will see him no longer. Once they are able to recognise him, they no longer need him to be present as a separate, physical human being, because he has shown them that he is already present with them In their study of the scripture, in their breaking of bread, and in one another. When two or three are gathered in my name, says the Lord, there am I among them.


The Gathering, the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the sacrament – and finally, the dismissal or sending out. That is the final chapter in this story. After they have had this encounter with Jesus, they immediately get up and go out, back to Jerusalem, to share the good news.


I wonder where you are on this journey? I wonder where we are as a church? Are we right at the beginning, baffled and heading in the wrong direction –  perhaps like Mary and Cleopas looking back to our memories of the way that we used to relate to Jesus at some point in the past, and how that used to make us feel, and wanting to hold on to that but also finding that it no longer makes sense in our life? Or are we like the disciples in their conversation with Jesus listening with interest, wanting him to stay so they can hear more, but still walking the wrong way? Or are we sitting at the kitchen table in the house at Emmaus, just enjoying the presence of Jesus our Saviour and rejoicing that he is alive! Have we reached the point of being able to get up and put our shoes back on and head back into our lives, carrying this good news in our hearts?


But of course that’s not quite the end of the story. The disciples don’t go on their way rejoicing and proclaiming the good news in the streets. There are other stories like that in the gospels: the shepherds at the nativity, or many of those who were healed by Jesus. But that is not this story. In this story, the disciples go back, back to where they have come from To tell their brothers and sisters in Christ, that Christ is Risen! Alleluia! …  Yes we know he is! Alleluia!


It turns out that the news is not news: or at least, not a scoop! The disciples back in Jerusalem have also seen the Lord.


That is the real challenge to us: after we have seen our lives illuminated by the light of the scripture, and after we have encountered Christ in the sacraments, and after we have gone out to share the good news with the world, to recognise that God is not something we have found, or brought with us, or that we have to give to others but that he is there before us, not at the end of a journey  but right there, wherever we have been in our lives: walking alongside us and also walking alongside those whom we meet, and to open our eyes to see that God has been there all along. Amen.


GOOD FRIDAY 2023 Sermon || Wantage || Fr Benji Tyler
Isaiah 52 13-end of 53 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 4 14-16 & 5 7-9 | S John 18-19

Printed on a box containing second-hand books in the Fitzwaryn Chapel of this church was this quote of Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve this world.” I’m quite sure that, when Anne wrote this, she did not imagine that her thoughts would become the strapline for RecyCoolBox, in their attempt to encourage us to reuse, reduce, recycle.

However, having just judged an eco-company for perhaps appropriating a quote for their own ends, I am going to be a pure hypocrite and do the same, and hang these few words to us today off of her words:
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve this world.”

We have just heard an epic story - for some of us maybe for the first time, and for others the umpteenth time. Yet, for most people this is a story that we hear about or live through, most days. Because it is a story containing real-life characters with real-life emotions and expressions, confronting real-life situations . Elements of this story are played out in every community from that day to this, so in that’s sense - as Cally Hammond writing for the Church Times says – “The Passion is the purest distillation of the cup of human pathos and suffering that we drink from daily”.
The biblical four readings today, as at all masses, set the gospel in a wider context. They allow us to zoom out, as it were, and see something of that which has gone before in God’s plan of salvation: as the Prophet Isaiah and Psalm 22 give colour and shade to, and something of which has come after: as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews unpacks. This grandstand view of history that we have, enables us to marvel at their fallibility as the protagonists played their part in bringing about the death of Jesus Christ.

Every year, as we rehear the story, we remind ourselves that the redemption of the world is in the hands of humans making ‘imperfect, unkind, thoughtless, self-interested, cruel choices, which turn out not to make the world more wretched or worthless’ but rather to contribute to God’s magnificent and crazy story of salvation for the whole world.

The Passion story does not force us an understanding with clever rhetoric or persuasive propositions, but rather it allows us to enter a narrative whose players we all know. In our World now, choices continue to be made by humans who act only partially understanding their fullest motivation or comprehending the longer-term outcomes of their decisions. In our own little spheres of community, we may feel we are being played, used and abused. Or we may not, ourselves, be given the grace to perceive yet how our own actions might be using and abusing our fellow human or our fragile environment.

But, unlike the players of the Gospel Passion, we Christians today can perceive, with real insight, the deeper meaning of those events long ago. We can trace the hand of God at work, as he co-operates with us - with frail, sinful mortals – in telling his story.
We can begin to allow God to weave his story into ours, creating endless possibilities for improving the worlds that we inhabit. So don’t wait a single moment to begin your new beginnings. Don’t wait a single moment to start to improve this world. Because, for now, this world is God’s good gift to you and you are here exactly for one reason and one reason only: to bring, through your words and your deeds, your thoughts and your worship, Glory to God for the eternal salvation he has wrought for you by his cross and by his passion. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve this world.”

Jesus wept: a sermon for Passiontide

Preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at Holy Trinity Charlton on 26 March 2023


When we imagine a night of passion we are probably not thinking of a few hours nailed to a cross! And yet “Passiontide” is the name we give to this season of the church’s year, the second half of Lent, when we turn from focusing on our own sin and repentance towards reflecting on the suffering of Jesus’ last days and hours.


The word ‘passion’ shares its root meaning with the word ‘patience’ and also the word ‘passive’. It carries the sense of victimhood and endurance. Passion in the sense of suffering is something that happens to us, or to Jesus – something we undergo, something we have not chosen. The Passion is something done to Jesus. The one who has always been so active, so focused on his own destiny, is now powerless and subjected to the will of others.


The miracle we hear about in our gospel story today, the Raising of Lazarus, is the final miracle or ‘sign’ in John’s gospel and by far and away the most dramatic, raising a man from the dead. St John in his gospel presents this miracle as the incident which really sparks off the series of events which lead to Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. You notice how he emphasises that many people from Jerusalem were there – our translation refers to them as ‘the Jews’ but of course they were all Jews, Jesus included. So this was an event which, John says, was witnessed by many people outside the circle of the disciples, and identifies Jesus very publicly as a powerful figure and a threat to those in authority.


We have come a long way here from Jesus’ first miracle recorded by  John, the turning of water to wine at the wedding in Cana. We could see these two miracles as being at opposite ends of a spectrum. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is reticent, even secretive about his divine power and identity. And bringing a man back from the dead is clearly on a totally different scale from avoiding the social embarrassment of a wedding without wine!


But there is one very important similarity between these two miracles. In both cases, Jesus is moved by compassion. In each case, at Cana and again at Bethany, it initially appears that Jesus is not going to act. But he is moved by compassion, not so much for those who are the direct beneficiaries as for their friends and relations. Jesus is moved by the concern expressed for them by others. We can think perhaps of other examples, such as the paralysed man lowered down through the roof for healing. And he is also I think touched by their faith. Neither his mother Mary at Cana nor Mary and Martha at Bethany ask him directly for a miracle, but they express their confidence that such a thing is possible for him, and leave it absolutely in his hands. And Jesus honours – Jesus is moved – by their compassion and their faith.


Jesus wept. It is, famously, the shortest verse  in the authorised version of the Bible. It is also perhaps a shocking verse. Jesus cried. What does it mean to say that God suffers? That God gets upset? That God hurts? The Old Testament, of course, constantly ascribes human feelings and reactions to God: God loves, God gets angry, God is grieved. And yet in the conventional teaching of the church it is not possible for God per se to suffer. Jesus’ human body can suffer, but how can God be said to suffer, because suffering implies lack or limitation, and there is surely nothing lacking to God? But of course that’s not the only kind of suffering. Passion can also be com-passion, suffering-with. We can suffer for others, we can feel their pain, and that is no less real than suffering inflicted directly on our own bodies.


This miracle of the raising of Lazarus has a meaning and a message. Like most or all of Jesus’ miracles, it isn’t just worthwhile for its own sake, but rather an enacted sign of what Jesus is trying to show us. It is if you like an illustration of Jesus’ words to Martha and Mary, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. And yet, as an illustration of  resurrection, it actually causes more problems than it solves! I have heard so many sermons emphasising that what happened to Lazarus was not the same as what happened to Jesus on Easter morning, and not what will happen to us all come the Resurrection! We do believe in the bodily resurrection, and that’s important, but we don’t expect to be resuscitated in our coffins, or reconstituted from scattered ashes! After all, most of the faithful who have died in the Lord over the past two thousand years are now a long way past the stage of stinking!


There are obvious parallels with Easter Day: John takes care to mention that the stone had to be rolled away from the tomb, and that Lazarus was wrapped in strips of cloth. But nobody seems to have difficulty recognising Lazarus, as they do with the risen Christ, and nor is there any doubt that Lazarus will die again some day – indeed we are told by John that the same people who were trying to kill Jesus were also plotting to put Lazarus back in his tomb sooner rather than later!


So what happens to Lazarus is not a straightforward illustration of what will happen to Jesus or to us – just in the same way that the prophecy of Ezekiel to the valley of bones, immortalised in the song ‘dem bones dem bones dem dry bones’! –  does not mean that the hope of Israel is of a sinister skeleton army like something out of Pirates of the Carribbean, but rather points towards the reality that death cannot have the final word against the love of God.


When Martha and Mary speak to Jesus they already know and believe that the dead will be raised; they already know and believe that death will not be the end; they already know and believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God. They do not need to see this miracle in order to believe in the promise of the resurrection or to believe in Jesus’ power. But maybe they do need this miracle to believe in Jesus’ love.


“If you had been here, our brother would not have died”. That is a statement of great faith and yet also of great doubt – because he had chosen not to be there, until it was too late. Martha and Mary need to see Jesus’ passion – they need to see that he cared about Lazarus,

cares enough to be hurt by his death, as they are, even though he knows and they know that death is not the end.


The raising of Lazarus does not need to happen to show that the dead will be raised one day, but that the resurrection matters here and now, that the resurrection is good news for our mortal bodies – these fleshy stinking human bodies of bone and flesh and sinew. St Paul tells us that our bodies are dead because of sin – not ‘will die’ but ‘are dead’ – because of our passions. Remember we said that passion is about what happens to us, about not being in control. Sin comes about when we are enslaved or tossed about by our impulses and desires and emotions that happen to us beyond our control. And in that sense we are ‘dead’ – we are objects rather than subjects in our own lives.


But St Paul also says that our mortal bodies will ‘have life’ through the spirit which raised Jesus from the dead – not just life in an eternal future but life for our mortal bodies in this world. As Jesus calls Lazarus to walk out of his tomb and to be unbound and set free from his grave clothes so he calls us to walk out from the death of sin into the light of new life and new freedom.


God is passionate about us. He loves us to death and on the cross he shows us vividly that he feels our pain, that we matter that he loves us enough to hurt. And in this passion season we are invited to show our love for him, by coming alongside him in his suffering

as he has been alongside us. To have compassion.





In Spirit and in Truth: a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent

Preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at the Parish Church on 12 March 2023

on The Woman at the Well in the Gospel according to John

A spring of water gushing up… is what we found outside the vestry door this past week! And unfortunately it did not bring us eternal life but an early morning visit from a nice chap called Dave from Thames Water, and some phone calls to insurers and archdeacons, and probably quite a large bill. Because that’s not a place you actually want water gushing up out of the ground - although I suppose it’s not the worst thing that could come out of the ground in a churchyard!


And that’s the thing about water, or any liquid: it doesn’t stay where it’s put. It can be difficult to control. Given the chance, it will get out and flow to somewhere else.


One theme of our gospel reading today is that God, like flowing water, is no respecter of boundaries. He does not always go where we put him or stay where we thought we left him. This gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is one of many stories recorded in the gospels in which Jesus crosses boundaries, and in which he meets and engages with people who are outside his own community. In many of those stories we get the unsettling impression that Jesus himself is learning and is being changed by those encounters. In this story, we hear that Jesus has crossed into Samaritan territory: the Samaritans a religious minority which consider themselves to be Jewish but are rejected by mainstream Judaism of the time. And we are told that the disciples are shocked – not just that he is talking to a Samaritan woman, but even that he is talking to a woman at all. This week, with so much in the news about refugees and migrants crossing the channel in small boats, and different ways of responding to that, it feels like an important time to be reflecting on what it means both to cross boundaries, and to respect  boundaries, what we might give and what we might receive in our encounter with people from outside our own communities.


The first thing that strikes me about this encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is that the power dynamic is not what we expect. Because we know that Jesus is God, we think of him automatically as the powerful one in this conversation and we think of the woman as the outsider. In fact many interpretations of this passage assume that the woman is some kind of outcast, ashamed of her eventful marital history, maybe even a prostitute, and coming to the well in the heat of midday in order to avoid meeting other women who might judge her. If that’s the case, John doesn’t choose to emphasise it – and I wonder if this is one of those many occasions where the value of our reading the Bible is how it illuminates our own prejudices! Certainly she is taking a risk going to a remote place to fetch water alone, as women today are at risk in the same circumstances. Right now we’re very attuned to the vulnerability of a woman alone with a man in such circumstances. But she is evidently also a strong woman, proud of her Samaritan heritage, more than ready to defend herself and her people’s religious practices. So perhaps we should read her more like the Wife of Bath – the pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales to whom Chaucer also gave five husbands!


Really it is Jesus who is presented as vulnerable in this story. It is Jesus who is the outsider in this Samaritan town. Jesus is exhausted – he can’t even make it as far as the town to get food. He is alone – his friends have left him, as they will leave him on the last night of his life. And he is thirsty – the water is there but he can’t get it because he doesn’t have a bucket! He is thirsty as he will be thirsty again on another hot day as he hangs on the cross. One of the very last things that Jesus ever does in his life is to ask for something to drink from those who are crucifying him. And here he is, foreshadowing that moment, making himself vulnerable to this woman who is his enemy, asking her to do him a favour.


In the Old Testament, an encounter between a man and a woman at a well often has a romantic conclusion. Jacob, for whom this well takes its name, met his wife Rachel at a well when he offered to water her flocks. His mother Rebekah became engaged in a similar way, when she drew water for his father’s servant. But if Jesus was expecting a similar graciousness on the part of this woman, he is sorely disappointed! Because Jesus and this unnamed woman are not just meeting as two strangers but with all the baggage and history and mutual suspicion of their two peoples.


If Jesus here is like water – unbounded, flowing where it will – the woman’s perspective is more rigid. Time and again she reminds him of the limits, the solid wall of division between their two peoples. You say Jerusalem, I say the mountain… let’s call the whole thing off! So when Jesus says that God is to be worshipped neither in Jerusalem nor on the mountain, he is saying that both Jews and Samaritans need to transcend those rigid boundaries, to recognise that God is neither his possession nor hers, but the God of all peoples and places: God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and in truth.


In spirit and in truth. In freedom and in honesty. When I was researching for this sermon, I read this definition of what ‘liquid’ is: “liquid particles are bound firmly but not rigidly”! That feels like a very good metaphor! If Jesus is the living water, then we are called not just to cross borders and break down boundaries, but also to remain true to our source. The spring of water gushing up doesn’t just represent the unbounded, the overflowing, the limitless love of God, but also the healing and cleansing power of God. I mentioned the Wife of Bath… well, if you’ve ever been to Bath you can see the old temple of Aquae Sulis, built on the hot springs, Bath Abbey, the Christian place of worship, immediately next door, and Thermae Bath Spa, with its rooftop pool, which you might say is the modern secular equivalent! There is something about ‘living water’, water that flows and bubbles, that draws us to seek healing.


After all the argument that she has had with Jesus, it is not any profound theological message which the woman at the well takes back to her people, but this: “he told me everything I have ever done”. Of course he didn’t tell her everything, he told her one thing – her marital history, and particularly what that means for her current relationship. Somehow he sees that this is the one thing that matters to her, that gets beyond her identity as a Samaritan woman and a representative of her people and to the heart of her own personal story. It is this which moves her: his insight into her life, and his willingness to say it, to challenge her, to ‘go there’. And perhaps there is after all something almost romantic about this meeting at the well –  not just because theological debate is a great topic for a first date, obviously! but because what else do we want from a lover than that they see us for who we really are?


For us, the everlasting spring of water is the water of our baptism, and the water of Christ’s wounded side: the bottomless mercy of God which we can draw on every time we return to him, confessing our sins. It is in being confronted by the solid reality of our sinfulness and limitedness, that we meet the boundless overflowing mercy of God.


And so, just as Andrew and Peter and James and John in their turn have left their nets to go and fish for people, so this woman – the apostle to the Samaritans – leaves her jug at the well, because now she has living water to share. Amen.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test: a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at Holy Trinity Charlton on 26 Feb 2023

on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness from the Gospel of Matthew and the account of the Fall.

“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down…” This is the challenge at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it is a challenge he will hear again in his final hour, “If you are the son of God, come down from the cross.” This is the challenge that hangs over the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry: if you are who you say you are, why are you suffering? Why are you weak? Why are you failing? If you were really the son of God then surely you would have the power to fix all this?


This is also the challenge that hangs over us as Christians, as children of God. if God is who he says he is – our loving and all-powerful father – why do our lives look the way they do? Our modern Lenten disciplines may not seem to have much in common with the temptations of Christ – although I suppose retreating into the wilderness would be one way to stay away from the biscuit tin! And yet the testing that Jesus is facing here is familiar to all of us. These are words we have all heard, either from others, or more likely from the doubts inside our own heads: if you are really a Christian, if you really have faith, if God really loves you, then why are you sick? Or why are you out of work? Or why have you lost someone you love?


In his three challenges to Jesus, Satan identifies three things Jesus should be able to do, if he is the son of God: Have everything he needs or wants, protect himself from harm, and have complete power and majesty. What kind of God would he be, if he doesn’t have those three things?


We remember here that Jesus is right at the beginning of his ministry. In his baptism at the River Jordan, he has been told, “you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased”. This is a very new identity for him. And just as Mary questioned the message of the angel, so Jesus here must be testing himself. He doesn’t doubt God, but it would be quite reasonable for him to doubt himself.


And the devil is quite reasonable. Shakespeare said, “the devil can cite scripture.” When Jesus uses his knowledge of scripture to defend himself, Satan comes right back at him. He is able to use the authority of scripture for his own ends, to twist and manipulate and provoke. And again, I think that’s a kind of testing we recognise in our own lives: that sometimes the scripture itself can pose a stumbling block to us. The more we know, the more tangled we get in the Bible’s different stories and perspectives. Sometimes our testing can come to us in the guise of piety - if I just pray harder, if I just have more faith, if I could just understand the Bible more thorougly… Those are temptations to which we’re particularly open in this Lenten season. We may go into it thinking that now is the time to achieve great victories, be it over the devil or over our bad habits and expanding waistlines! But God is often just as interested in our failures as our triumphs.


I’m aware as I say this, that I could be accused of promoting ‘blind faith’, faith that shuts its ears to challenge. And indeed there is an honourable tradition within Christianity going all the way back to St Paul which is sceptical about worldly wisdom and reminds us that the simple faith of the person who has gone to church every week for eighty years but never been to a bible study is no less than that of a professor of theology, and often much greater. In the words of an Ascension Day hymn “faith believes nor questions how” - I can’t give you the title of the hymn as it’s a word we don’t say in Lent!


What Jesus demonstrates here, more than a clever response to Satan’s arguments, is obedience to God in spite of them. And if we go right back to the beginning, to the garden of Eden and to the fall, what is fruit of which Adam and Eve are not to eat? The knowledge of good and evil. Does that mean, ignorance is bliss? Does a strong faith have to be one which doesn’t allow itself to be troubled by facts or by reason?


Re-reading this account of the Fall, a story which we may think we know well, I was struck by how… well, how un-sinful our ‘original sin’ is presented as being. Eve isn’t a bad person. She is honest: the serpent asks her a straight question and she gives a straight answer. She is sensible: she can see for herself that the fruit is good to eat, and that it looks good, and she realises that understanding and wisdom are good things to want. She is generous: as soon as she has eaten some of this delicious brain-food she shares it with her husband. Even the villain of the piece is not all bad: the writer of this story takes care to remind us that the serpent was one of the creatures created by God.


Eve’s disobedience doesn’t come from selfish or rebellious motives but from doubt: the serpent puts into her head that God doesn’t trust her and maybe she shouldn’t trust God. “Faith” is another word for “trust”. So when we say “faith” is unquestioning, we’re not talking about faith in our beliefs – which should always be subject to challenge and open to learning – but about faith in God, about trust as the essential quality of a loving relationship. Eve is not a bad person but she is naïve, she is immature – let’s be fair, the whole universe is very young at this point in this story! Eve is not able to see that she is being manipulated. It is indeed desirable to know the difference between good and evil – but only if you have the maturity to know how to choose the good. When Eve eats the apple, her eyes are opened… but all she sees is her own nakedness.


If you’re thinking that maybe this first sin isn’t all bad then you are in good company. This isn’t a new wacky modern idea: that ambivalence is there in the text and in aspects of both Jewish and Christian thought and most remarkably in the medieval Christian idea of the ‘felix culpa’ or ‘happy fault’. If Adam and Eve had not sent humanity off down the path that leads out of Eden then we would not have been led to the cross – to the highest example of human self-giving. The ability to choose good or evil consciously is arguably what distinguishes humans from other animals. So in his obedience to his Father, Jesus does not simply pass a test that Adam and Eve failed. In the cross we see the ultimate consequence of humans taking responsibility for choosing good or evil: the ultimate in human compassion in the face of the ultimate in human violence.


Satan challenges Jesus to prove that he is the son of God. And prove it he does, precisely by refusing to be the kind of God that Satan is trying to provoke him into being: a God who cannot share our needs, our pain, or our powerlessness. That’s the God that Eve was lured into believing in, when she was tricked by the serpent. That’s the God we too often believe in, perhaps without knowing it: a God who uses his unfettered power for his own ends. But Jesus refuses to use his power, or even to use his own words. He speaks entirely in quotes from scripture until the moment that Satan shows his hand. And then Jesus sees and names Satan for what he is, and commands him to be gone, and in an instant angels are there waiting upon him.


It is in his restraint that he shows himself to be God and that he shows God to be something very different from the all-powerful tyrannical deity of our pious fears. And so also with us: it is not in our strength and our certainty but in our weakness and failing and when we are running on empty that we know ourselves to be the beloved children of God. 



Sunday next before Lent 2023 Year A | Wantage Parish

Fr Benji

"…give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory"

On this Sunday next before Lent we stand, as it were, overlooking the precipice of Lent.
I wonder how you visualise Lent? Do you see it as a time of denial and dieting, a time for spiritual growth, a time for slowing down? Maybe you just feel guilty about how much you wish you could be a ‘better’ Christian if only you had the time and discipline. Maybe Lent enables your doubts to cloud your faith. All or some of these may be true for you.

I want to assure you that there is no such thing as a perfect Lent. So don’t be tempted to think that, when you hear that your friend is doing just marvellously at giving up wine or chocolate or managing to read every Come and See email, your Lent is less.
As it says in that 1692 Desiderata: ‘Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself’.

The readings this Sunday are given to us so that we might take that far-reaching view, as though from a mountain top, be drawn into the bigger picture and receive for ourselves a ‘wholesome discipline’ that we prepare ourselves to better receive the Resurrection.
Today, we join Moses on the Mountain BEFORE the grace of law is given to God’s people; we join Peter, James and John as they glimpse the glory that IS TO come, that we may, in part, better prepare ourselves to receive the Mystery that is the Resurrection.

I began with a text taken, not from scripture but from the collect for this Sunday
…give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory

Today we have asked for grace. Grace is the vital component of Lent which allows us to enter the Mystery of the Resurrection. Lent without grace is like a car without an engine. It looks great, practical, useful yet it is going to get no one nowhere.

…give us grace to perceive his glory.

But what exactly Is grace? Believe it or not, grace has never had any one single definition. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for grace [hen & charis] indicate favour being bestowed from a superior to an inferior. The New Testament refines this understanding to include a sinners life transformed and reorientated to produce faith and repentance.
For St Augustine, even as grace led to an increase of faith so it also led to a renewed will that becomes the agent of God’s own loving acts towards others.

By the end of the Medieval period grace was thought of as an independent virtue, which could produce acts commending the sinner to God’s mercy – faith by works – one of the key doctrines which Martin Luther and others set about to reform.
Ever since the reforms of the 16th Century, controversy has continued as to how grace reaches the Christian – is it primarily through a worthy reception of the sacraments or by hearing the word of God spoken and preached?

Most recently the Church has come to agree that in grace God essentially gives himself to us, bound up in the person of Jesus Christ: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased’.

According to the Collect, we ask for grace to perceive his glory for two reasons: firstly so that we may be strengthened to suffer with Jesus and secondly to be changed into his likeness. These are potentially dangerous and world-changing request.
Are we sure we know what it is we are truly asking for?!
How easy it is to pray for the healing of others, or for a car-parking space, or for world peace. But praying that we may be strengthened to suffer and changed into the likeness of the Son of God is something quite different!

Yet our prayers, or more specifically our biblically informed prayers made in the light of revelation – will be answered according to God’s covenant with us. By praying for grace to perceive his glory we are making a request for none other than to be able to endure suffering, becoming more like him.

And what does it mean to become more like him? To be changed into his likeness?

It is said that ‘the glory of God is a man fully alive’. As Christians we believe Jesus Christ to be the most fully alive human to ever walk this earth, and so when we ask to be changed into his likeness, we are desiring to enter our fullest humanity.
Christianity, far from being a neat religion of certainties and divinely wrapped parcels of belief, is more about holding in tension contrasts and contradictions. The transfiguration of Christ on the Mountaintop was not the final vision that the disciples had of Christ. The story of redemption was not here completed but rather on the cross and by the grave.

Tempting as it is to worship only the light, it is in the holding the light with the disgustingness of the cross that we begin to understand the glory and the grace; not so that we can be assured that an eternal cloud and a harp are our reward, but so that we can face our own suffering and the suffering of our world with the bold certainty that, despite it all, it will have its end not in death but in resurrection.

Lent is a precious journey that moves us towards the cross and therefore moves us towards our fullest humanity. We can make a choice, standing here as we are observing it from the mountain top. Forty days and forty nights Moses was in the cloud, with God. Lent invites us into a cloud. A cloud of searching, of listening, of trusting. A cloud where doubt can turn to faith. A cloud which, after forty days and forty nights, will be gone and will reveal to us whether we have chosen to become more fully human, more fully Christ-like or not.

This Lent, all you are called to do is place yourself into the arms of grace. Open yourself up to the possibility of transformation, be that through fasting, prayer, joining with others to study God’s word, by attendance at mass. Be gentle to yourself whilst cultivating that wholesome discipline, but be sure that when you pray for grace to perceive his glory YOU WILL be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory.

God, give me grace to perceive his glory. May that be our Lenten prayer. Amen.

The Creation is Groaning: a sermon for the second Sunday before Lent

Preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at the Parish Church on 12 February 2023

Readings: Genesis 1.1-2.3, Romans 8.18-25 and Matthew 6.25-34

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings! Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!


Thus wrote the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, inspired by the crumbling statue of an ancient Egpytian pharaoh obtained by the British Museum in around 1820. The point is, of course, that the great works of the mighty King have crumbled to dust, and the fragments of his once powerful civilization have become a tourist attraction. Time, and the desert, have had the last laugh over human effort and ingenuity.


This week, the world has witnessed a more blunt and appalling reminder of the fragility of human life and human achievement against the power and heartlessness of the natural world. In just two minutes on Monday morning, some six thousand homes were destroyed, and we are learning that as many as twenty-five thousand people may have died – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Wantage and Grove, and it’s still going up.


Today we are not inclined to hear the story of creation as an invitation to celebrate the glories of the natural world or to cherish and protect our fragile and precious environment. We are the ones who feel fragile now, confronted by nature’s indifference and our own helplessness. We are not in any mood to thank God for creating the world the way it is.


So perhaps the words that speak to us in our readings this week are not, “do not worry”, still less “the sufferings of this present life are not worth comparing with the glory to come”. Rather, it is this line: "the creation is groaning". Here is a startling claim: We are used to talking about human sin and human fallenness as if it’s all about us. But Paul says, what is true of us, is true of all creation. The whole universe is not the way it’s meant to be. This is not what God wants for his creation.


The word Paul uses is ‘futility’, or in another translation, ‘frustration’. In other words, nothing lasts. Everything must come to an end. The philosopher Hannah Arendt draws a distinction between what she terms ‘labour’ and ‘work’. Most of how we spend our time in our daily lives, whether in a job or in our domestic lives, is what she calls ‘labour’. Producing food, for instance, is labour: ‘sowing, reaping, gathering into barns’ – and preparing, and cooking, and washing up afterwards.


These are the things we do because we need to do them and we keep on doing them because we keep on needing them. Labour is never-ending. It is absolutely essential,  but at the same time we have nothing to show for it. We have sown and reaped and gathered and chopped and cooked and eaten, and we are in exactly the same position at the end as we were at the beginning, ready to start all over again.


This futility or frustration is an aspect of our mortality, our limited-ness: our body has constant needs which we have to meet in order to stay alive. And it also arises from the limitations of the world: we do not live in the garden of Eden, surrounded by abundant food just ready to be plucked off the trees, but in a world of scarce and unreliable resources. And so we strive: we sow and reap and toil and spin.


But the Christian tradition teaches that this is not the natural order of things, if by ‘natural’ you mean, the way God planned it. Instead we read that hard and frustrating work is a consequence of the Fall: “cursed be the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it; by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.” And so, Paul says, we are looking for the redemption of our bodies. We may be saved, in mind, in heart, in soul – but for the liberation of our bodies, the redemption of the physical order, we are still waiting, we and the whole natural world.


This is the truth about the Universe: it is good and it is fallen. That is the Christian claim, and it is very different from the ‘law of nature’ as we would commonly understand it.


Charles Darwin in his work on the origin of species posited competition over scarce resources as the driving force in the living world. Competition between species, competition between individual members of a species. In the decades that followed, some thinkers extrapolated and distorted Darwin’s ideas from a scientific description of a natural mechanism into a philosophical statement about the nature of the world. So-called ‘social Darwinism’ made ‘the survival of the fittest’ into the central truth about the Universe. Competition between species became competition between nations; the extinction of species became the extermination of races. After all, it was only 'natural'.


But if, as the Christian tradition claims, the creation is fallen – not just humanity but the whole creation – then we can’t straightforwardly use ‘nature’ as a guide. We can’t say that how things are is how they must or should be. ‘Survival of the fittest’ may be a truth, about this fallen world, but it is not the ultimate truth about creation.


We’ve talked about labour, this kind of endless striving for the necessities of life - the treadmill on which we are all to an extent stuck as mortal human beings. But there is another kind of work, creative work, work that actually accomplishes something new and lasting, whether it is an object for practical use – a table, a saucepan, a car – or a piece of writing, or an artwork, something that exists for its own sake.


On the seventh day, God finished the work that he had done and he rested on the seventh day. This is the kind of work we are talking about when we speak of the work of God’s creation, something which is accomplished. Unlike human labour, this constant striving to keep our production ahead of our consumption, God’s work can be finished. That is one of the ways in which the Sabbath is so significant, because rest marks the completion of work: the promise that futility and frustration and decay do not have the final word; that it is possible to do something which lasts.


But that does not mean God’s work is done; God’s creation continues because it has a life of its own. We, his people made in his image, are also creators – co-creators with God continuing to participate in the ongoing creative life of the world. That is why it is so satisfying for us to make things, to have something to show for all our effort! God himself chose to be incarnated as a carpenter!


The reason that our labour is futile – not unimportant, but futile - is because of our needs and our limitations. Because we are mortal and because the world never has enough, we cannot rest from our  striving. But God can rest because God has no limitations and no needs. Think about that. God does not need the universe. And God is not limited by the universe – he isn’t competing for space with his own creation the way animals compete for habitat. If none of this existed, God would not be any less or any greater.


Therefore God’s creation is – must be - a creation purely out of love, something that exists for its own sake. If you like, an artwork. That is the real law of nature: the ultimate truth about creation, about the universe, about us: that we are created and loved by God. And even though it doesn’t make it any easier to contemplate what has happened in Turkey and Syria, and it certainly doesn’t make it better for those who are there, pulling their loved ones out of the rubble or waiting in hospitals for news, it is also the ultimate truth about each and every one of those twenty five thousand who have died: that life is not futile, just because this life comes to an end, but remains eternally God’s timeless work of art. Amen.

A Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at the Parish Church on 22 January 2023

Has Christ been divided? 


+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Fishermen are possibly not the people on whom I would build a kingdom of peace and harmony! Many of you know that I previously ministered in Grimsby, which was once a major fishing port, and the defining event in the collective memory of that community was the Cod Wars, a series of sometimes violent disputes between the UK and Iceland over fishing rights in the North Sea. This took place in the middle of the twentieth century but it continues to poison Grimsby’s attitude to Europe and to intenational co-operation to this day. So I for one am not too surprised - knowing that Jesus Christ chose his first disciples from amongst fishermen - that the church today looks less like an ark of salvation than a number of rival fishing fleets squabbling over territory!


There’s no doubt the church’s credibility in carrying out the mission entrusted by Christ to those first disciples at the sea of Galilee is very seriously undermined if anyone looking to learn about the One Lord, Jesus Christ has first to choose between half a dozen different churches! We might or might not take comfort from St Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, which reminds us that strife between different groups of Christians is not uniquely the product of our own age, or of any other historical period but comes with the territory of being human.


This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an international joint initiative which is observed by most of the world’s different churches and denominations. This week in January is also generally seen as the most depressing week of the year! That seems horribly appropriate, because I have to ask how much difference all that prayer for Christian Unity has made. The forty years of my life have coincided with a wilderness period for ecumenism - that is, relations between churches and progress towards church unity. It seems hardly believable now that, back in the late sixties, the Pope placed a bishop’s ring on the finger of the Archbishop of Canterbury and invited him to give a blessing, or that the Methodists voted in favour of a proposal to be reunited with the Church of England. I’m afraid we were the ones who blocked that! The prospect of institutional unity seems more remote than ever.


Yet at the same time, many Christians have become indifferent to their denominational distinctions, and to the ‘organisation’ side of organised religion in general. We know that real hostility exists just over the water in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, but here on the ground in Wantage, most of us already feel we’re part of the same thing as our Christian brothers and sisters in the Baptist church or the Community Church or St John Vianney. We co-operate on projects such as the food bank. We share the experience of being Christians in a society that mostly isn’t. We feel the truth of the Orthodox saying:  “the walls we build on earth don’t reach to heaven”. Getting all Christians together into one institution doesn’t seem very urgent or maybe even very desirable.


So if the separation of the churches is a problem that isn’t going to be solved, and maybe doesn’t need solving, why do I still believe that prayer for Christian unity is our most urgent duty?


When St Paul wrote to his Corinthian church, he recognised that Christians didn’t leave behind their fallen behaviours outside the church walls. Our disunity is likewise connected with a wider malaise in our twenty-first century world. We call it by various names: culture wars, identity politics, polarisation, post-truth. A few years ago, I think those of us in the church – who care about the idea that some things are true and some are wrong – thought the challenge was indifference and relativism: everyone believes whatever works for them. Now maybe we long for that superficial harmony of live and let live!  It seems that people disagree more fiercely than ever, not just holding their own views more passionately but feeling threatened by the very existence of someone else who thinks differently. Just look at what’s happened in the past week  with the relationship between England and Scotland and different positions on what the law should allow in terms of gender recognition. That’s another Union which has been strained close to breaking point. It is the question of our times: how is it possible for people to live together?


And that’s the challenge to the church. Can we be different? Can we, in our relationships with one another model an answer, or at least the hope of an answer, to this great question of our times?


In our gospel reading we hear that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was a fractious and resentful province which felt far from the cosmopolis of Jerusalem – a place, we might say, in need of some levelling up! But it was also ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ – where Aramaic-speaking Jewish villages  such as Jesus’ home town of Nazareth and his base at Capernaum co-existed with newer  communities of greek-speaking non Jews, side by side but keeping very separate lives and cultures.


The astonishing claim of Jesus and his immediate followers was to break down that barrier: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” And more than that: “there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus”. Christian Unity is nothing less than the mission of Jesus, to break down the fundamental human differences and power dynamics which exclude and divide.


If “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”, then this is the challenge to us, the church: how can we live as a reconciled community, a community of the reconciled? Christian Unity is not just about unification between churches but about the quality of our relationships from top to bottom.


The Anglican tradition and family of churches, to which this parish belongs has always taken very seriously the mission to build unity. Anglicans have been at the forefront of ecumenism and we have presented ourselves – not uncontroversially! – as uniquely placed to reach out and build bridges with different churches because of our own broad and comprehensive understanding of what Christian life and belief can look like.


Anglicans are never afraid to learn and to borrow from the wisdom and riches of other Christians’ traditions. Sometimes, of course, that affection for how other churches do things can seem like a lack of loyalty to our own, and I know this church has an uncomfortable history with that. But just as the English language has developed one of the richest vocabularies in the world by begging borrowing and stealing words from other languages, or the English palate has adapted itself to love pizza and curry as much as roast beef and spuds, so the global church tradition which originated first in England has an aquisitive attitude to the practices and prayers of Christians outside its boundaries. As the classical writer Terence said “nothing human is alien to me” so the Anglican motto could be, “nothing Christian is alien to me”! The model of unity for which we strive is to be broad enough that any Christian can be a member of the Church of England without being untrue to whatever other tradition may have given them faith.


But this commitment comes at a cost. We have seen in this past week a decision from the Bishops of the Church of England, to permit for the first time same-sex partnerships and marriages to be publicly celebrated by the church through services of blessing and dedication but stopping short of legally-recognised marriage services. It is a decision which will be too much for some and not nearly enough for others. The Church of England is famous for its compromise solutions; its admirers describe this as the ‘via media’ – the middle way – and its detractors call it fudge! Is it cowardice to try and please everyone, or is it bravery to take the line of compromise knowing you will please no-one? At the very least, it is a witness to the earnestness with which we take the task of living together. The Church is Christ’s body, broken for us on the tree, broken for us at the altar, and still broken by our sin and division every day. If that hurts, it should do! because it is Christ’s pain that we are feeling.


Jesus began his ministry in a divided land and invited divided and broken people to build his church. If we are to live as reconciled people, reconciled to one another, we must first be reconciled with and to ourselves, as well as to God.

How can we meet one another in peace if our own hearts are divided by fear, resentment, insecurity and bitterness? Let us then pray for Christian Unity: the unity of each Christian in singleness and simplicity of heart. Amen.

What's in a name? A sermon for the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

Preached on New Year's Day 2023 at the Parish Church by the Revd Katherine Price, Vicar

After eight days it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus.


What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So says Juliet Capulet to Romeo Montague: two lovers trapped by their names.


But a great deal of thought goes into a name. The name of a product or a company requires careful market research: nobody wants to find their brand translates as something obscene in a foreign market! There are international committees for the naming of stars, or storms, or pandemic diseases. And of course, the naming of cats is a difficult matter…


In twenty-first century Britain the naming of a child is generally a matter for the parents, who may well keep it to themselves until after the birth, on the grounds that, once it’s a fait accompli, other people are much less likely to react by reminiscing about their unpleasant classmate at school who shared that name or pointing out an unfortunate abbreviation or pun. The name chosen might express the parents’ aspirations for their child - in some cultures names like ‘Lucky’ or ‘Wealthy’ are popular. Or you might name your child after someone you would like your child to emulate – apparently the names of Love Island contestants were particularly popular in 2022! We are a long way from the situation in former centuries when maybe half of men would have been called William or John, and half of women some variant on Ann or Joan.


Jesus’ name, Yeshua or Isho in Aramaic, is a variant of the name Joshua. Joshua is best known as the hero of Jewish legend who led the invasion of the promised land and took the City of Jericho, and for whom one of the least attractive books of the Bible is named! ‘Jehoshua’ also means ‘the Lord is salvation’, hence the reference earlier in Luke to Jesus being given this name ‘because he will save his people from their sins’. But perhaps what is most significant is that it’s an entirely commonplace name - and, at a time when some in Palestine would have been adopting Roman and Greek names, it is a distinctively Jewish name.


Most of the time we don’t choose our own names. They are given to us, and they say less about who we are as individuals than about our culture and our family. The most common baby name in the UK in 2022 was Mohammed. Even if we do choose to change our name it’s most commonly when we get married, or to mark a religious conversion, or increasingly a gender transition. It’s about how we relate to others. You don’t need a name to talk to yourself: you need a name so other people know how to talk to you.


And so, roses notwithstanding, Romeo and Juliet cannot change their names. They cannot escape the family and the society they have been born into no matter how they might wish to disavow what it stands for.


If a name is given to locate us within our family and our wider community, some cultures go further in physically marking children through tattooing or scarification, using traditional symbols to communicate to others information about who they are and where they come from. So the circumcision which accompanied Jesus’ naming can be seen as an extreme form of the same thing. Of course for Christians the first shedding of Jesus’ blood has symbolic value in looking forward to the cross but it is also about placing Jesus firmly within the culture and community of his own people, the Jews.


At the risk of making the men in the congregation a little uncomfortable, I’m going to say a few words about the history of circumcision. It probably starts out as a widespread middle-eastern custom which may have involved only a small cut. But we know from St Paul that by the time of Jesus,  there were Jewish men who were trying to reverse or conceal their circumcision to fit in with Roman and Greek society – remember the importance of the baths, where you would meet people naked! As a kind of reaction to this, circumcision becomes more and more important as the pre-eminent marker of Jewish identity and actually develops into the more extreme form practised today.


For Mary and Joseph, there is no question that their son will be circumcised. Luke simply recounts it thus: “it was time to circumcise the child”. Jesus gets no say in this. It is simply part of what it means to be born as a Jewish boy  in that place and time. Nowadays, circumcision is much more controversial, although just how controversial is still very culturally defined: if you pick up a new baby book written for the American market the first chapter will probably be about whether or not to have your son circumcised – not an option parents will be offered in an NHS hospital! But increasingly we are less comfortable with the idea that parents might make decisions over their child’s physical integrity and religious identity. Yet we still take it for granted that parents will choose whether their child receives vaccinations, or which school they will go to.


So much of our lives is determined by our family background: not by the choices our parents make, but just by who they are their genetics, where they live, how much money they have,  their presence or absence in our lives, the examples set by those around us. We are heirs of a particular inheritance, the inheritance of our culture, our history, our family, whether we like it or not. Many of us will have spent time with family over the last week and even the way you celebrate Christmas is probably in part something you have inherited. And we all know that inheritances often cause as much trouble as they’re worth, particularly within families!


Because to be an heir is not the choice of the one who receives  but the one who gives. Circumcision in the Jewish tradition is the mark of the covenant, the mark of God’s faithfulness to his people as beneficiaries of the promise made to Abraham.


At the burning bush, God revealed his name to Moses so that from then on, his people would be able to address him by name. In Jesus Christ, God gives us a new name by which we can address him. Not the mysterious name by which he revealed himself to Moses, a name so sacred that over time it came to be hedged round with alternatives such as The Lord, and never uttered directly, but a human name and a human face by which we can enter into relationship with God.


And the name which he gives himself  becomes the name by which we are known: ‘Christians’, people of the anointed one or in some middle eastern countries Nazarenes, followers of the man from Nazareth. Like all names, it ties us down to a family, a community, a culture, a history. We are heirs to the whole of the Christian tradition some of which we may wish to treasure, and some of which we might wish were not taking up room in our metaphorical attics and understairs cupboards. We are bound to others who bear the name of Christian in this generation and through history. They are part of who we are, however that may make us feel. And we are bound also to the generations of the future to preserve this inheritance for them.


Jesus Christ was born under the law to redeem those born under the law: not to start afresh, like the flood of Noah, but to enter into history, culture, family, and renew it in his image.


On this New Year’s Day, the secular tradition is to make a new year’s resolution: New year, new me; Out with the old, in with the new. The resolution will probably be forgotten by the end of January and the old me will resolutely still be here – maybe a pound or two lighter, maybe not. But the tradition in the Methodist church is the renewal of covenant. I’m not going to use that text in our service today, although it is authorised for use in the Church of England as well, because it is something solemn, not something to spring on people unprepared. But I would like to invite us to consider this New Year not as a time to take up some new project of individual self-improvement but an opportunity to re-commit to renewing and redeeming all we have already received.



Christmas Day 2022

Homily by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price


She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them.


I wonder what stories are told about your birth. What are the anecdotes – funny or hair-raising or poignant – that have become part of family lore, perhaps to be brought out inappropriately round the Christmas dinner table later today?


The story my mum tells, not about my birth but about her own, is about my grandmother travelling to hospital in an ambulance in a storm... strapped down to the deck of a ferry. This was Cornwall in the nineteen-fifties, before the building of the Tamar Bridge and the nearest hospital was the wrong side of the river. And when the paramedics arrived at the house they told my grandfather to fetch what they needed – no, not hot water and towels, but a hammer and a nail! You can imagine his face! They had to hurriedly explain it was to put up a drip next to the bed. But the best story has to go to another Cornish baby, born just this week in a helicopter somewhere between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland. I don’t even know how you register that as a place of birth!


The stories we tell about our birth are about the things that matter – things that were important or out of the ordinary. Luke tells us four things about Jesus’ birth: it was in Bethlehem, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, he was laid in a manger, and it was because there was no room.


He was born in Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? The answer we always hear is that Bethlehem is the place foretold in prophecy for the birth of the Messiah. But that doesn’t tell us much, and certainly means very little to us today. What I think is more interesting is where Luke starts his story: a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This is an actual historical event, although not necessarily in precisely the year Jesus was born. This is about the imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea, the area around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Roman empire – Roman taxes, Roman soldiers – is coming to the neighbourhood.


So if they are travelling from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, Joseph and Mary are entering the Roman occupied territories. And they are going to be registered, so that the Romans know exactly how many people they have and where and how much money they can get out of them. This is about imperial control. And it’s particularly offensive to Jewish thought. Even today some religious Jews won’t take part in a census.


So when we hear that Jesus is born in the city of King David, the great king of Jewish history and legend it’s a little bit like being born in Wantage, the town of King Alfred! This is a political statement, that he represents a different kind of power and legitimacy.

In the words of our Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah the birth of this child, this powerless child, is somehow also the defeat of every empire built on violence, on “the boots of tramping warriors” - or we might say, the rolling caterpillar tracks of tanks - and the establishment of a reign of peace. And this is ironic, because Caesar Augustus is credited with the establishment of the Pax Romana, commemorated in the traditional words at Midnight Mass each year: ‘when all the world was at peace’. We imagine the birth of Christ coming at a time of political upheaval and turmoil but actually it was a time of unprecedented peace – albeit an imperial peace. So when the angels sing, Glory to God and on earth Peace to those he favours, Jesus is offering a rival peace, a peace built on something other than military might and strong borders and an efficient bureaucracy.


Secondly, Luke tells us that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth. This is what we sing about as ‘swathing’ or ‘swaddling’ bands. But why does Luke mention this? Swaddling is just what you do to a baby. The angels to say to the shepherds, ‘this will be a sign for you, you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth’, and that’s a bit like saying, ‘you’ll know it’s the right baby because he’ll be wearing a nappy’. How can that be a sign?


Well, Jesus will be wrapped in strips of cloth on another occasion, by his mother and other women, and laid not in a manger but in a tomb. If you look at our manger in the crib, it’s actually quite a realistic representation of what a first century feeding trough looked like – it’s made of stone. It looks quite a lot like a tomb. So when we hear that Jesus is laid in a manger we are meant to remember Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one who lays down his life. But he is also the one who feeds us: as the animals come to the manger to eat and drink so we come to Jesus to be fed – most literally here at this altar in this service of holy communion.


Finally, we hear there was no room. Now yesterday at the crib service we saw a play about the innkeeper, and after writing that script I was horrified to learn that there was no innkeeper and no inn and probably no stable. I wanted to say, yes there is! It’s there in the bible! Well it is there in our particular English translation of the Bible but apparently, as I have now learned, the word used could mean any kind of guest room. Might be in a hotel, might be in a house. And animals quite often lived inside the house at night anyway. So, one argument goes, maybe our crib scene is all wrong and Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away at the door at all, but staying in a house, perhaps with relatives, and they just happened to have the spare room full with all the rest of the family as I imagine many of you have this weekend!


But I’m not convinced. If there’s nothing odd about this part of the story, why would Luke mention it? This isn’t about being born in one room rather than another, this is about there being no room. Even before he has been born, Jesus is being rejected and turned away by the people he has come to save and taking his place with those at the margins.


This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. This message is for us as well as for the Shepherds. How are we to know this baby as our God and our saviour? Because he gives his life for us; because he feeds us; and because he is found not by kings in the palace at Jerusalem or in Rome or in London or New York but by poor shepherds in a small town in a colonial province amongst those who are pushed out and overlooked and for whom there is no room. Amen.



Darkness: a homily preached at Midnight Mass

by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price


He was in the world, but the world did not know him.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


It came upon the midnight clear…

Actually we have no idea whether Jesus was born at midnight or at three o’clock in the afternoon – although statistically a baby born without medical intervention is more likely to be born in the hours of darkness. But whatever time of day or night it took place the event we commemorate this night is an event cloaked in darkness. It takes place in a small town in a small province on the far fringes of a great empire. The scene: a nondescript shelter – maybe a barn or a cave or the lower room of a little house, of the sort that still cluster against the hillsides in Palestinian villages. In a dark corner, a woman giving birth in the straw.


A personal moment, although perhaps not quite as private as we would now imagine. Most likely Mary would have had other women with her, not to mention the ox and ass and donkey! Joseph probably stayed well clear. The nativity, like the resurrection, was witnessed first by women.


An insignificant place, and an insignificant audience for this apparently insignificant moment… this moment from which every other event in human history is now dated.


Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call the Christ, was born in obscurity and he lived most of his life in obscurity. He didn’t rule a kingdom, he didn’t write a book, he didn’t win a war, or discover a continent, or create a new invention. He died five miles from where the Christmas story says he was born - as it happens, at three o’clock in the afternoon. That we do know. The most public and well-attested event of his life was his death. In an empire in which legionaries could march from Egypt to Hadrian’s Wall, he never travelled more than a hundred miles from where he grew up. And yet his is the best known name in history – way bigger than the Beatles!  – and we live in a world that quite simply would not have existed were it not for this moment.


He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. God came into his world not with flashes of lightning and trumpets and earthquakes but as it were by the back door – sneaking in under our noses, quietly, without fuss.

His arrival was not proclaimed by heralds or released to the world’s media, or shared on twitter but announced to a few shepherds who happened to be in the neighbourhood. God enters the world… and the world just doesn’t notice. We don’t get it. We’re trying to find God, but we’re looking in all the wrong places.


If Jesus is the light what he brings to light is the story hidden in plain sight from the foundation of the world -what has been dubbed the Bible’s minority report – that our God is a God of the hidden, the vulnerable, of the outcast and the obscure.


In this Year of Our Lord two thousand and twenty two, our world is smaller and our lives are bigger. At  least, we take up more space on the planet and on the servers of Google and Facebook. Life feels more public: it has never been easier to compare our lives with others – or what they choose to share of them – never easier for a private moment to go viral  or an individual to launch from obscurity to a global brand. That can be a lovely thing: for a record-breaking fifth time this year, the Christmas Number One has gone to LadBaby: a bloke and his missus from Nottingham.


But are we at risk of forgetting that the most important moments of our lives may have been small, private, impossible to explain to anyone else or unnoticed even by ourselves until much later? Did it even really happen if it’s not on insta?


What we celebrate this night is what Christians call the incarnation: God coming to share everything it means to be human, God revealing himself to us in a human life. What we see in Jesus is the truth about God. God is what we see in Jesus Christ.


So how does it change the way we see God if instead of looking up to an all-powerful figure, up there somewhere in a distant heaven, we look down, to seek him among the powerless and the dispossessed? What if we cannot see him, not because he is so far above us, but because he is hidden in plain sight in those people and places and moments we overlook or disregard?


So tonight we gather in the darkness to seek the God who comes to us in darkness. Amen.

A sermon for Advent 4

Preached by Fr Benji Tyler, curate of Wantage, on 18 December 2022


Year A | Advent iv |
Wantage Parish
Gospel: Matthew 1 18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

On the 24th February this year ‘with imperial swagger, Russian troops, tanks and planes were on the move [, advancing towards Ukraine]. The disaster unfurled on a grey, ordinary Thursday morning, sprinkled by rain. By 5am friends and loved ones were calling each other, peering into their phones, clicking on news updates and making existential decisions. Stay or flee?

[Luke Harding of The Guardian recalls:] Some packed and got ready to leave. Others took refuge in apartment building basements, wondering if the horror might pass. Alerted by colleagues, I threw on my boots and coat and took the stairs to the hotel’s underground garage. The floor filled up with staff and guests. A family arrived. A mother shepherded her two children to safety. The kids perched on chairs. They were carrying colouring books. The war was no longer abstract, a matter for opinion columns and thinktanks. It was a bringer of random death, if not to these children, then to others.
By breakfast, the scale of Russia’s military assault became apparent.'*

This is what it looks like for an everyday civilian – for you and me - when an earthly ruler attempts to align the world according to his view. Today, as in the days of the Bible, land and people are still claimed as possessions. The use of war in these situations is inevitable. Yes the weapons may be different, but the invaders and the invaded are the same. Human beings as despots and as victims. Human beings caught up, against their will in a moment of history.

Which makes the circumstances of the coming of the Saviour of the World, King of the Universe all the more astonishing.

I would like to invite you to pause with me and join in moment of wonder. To think that a Jewish boy, conceived in a woman who could easily have been stoned for apparent adultery, born in an animal house surrounded by cold and filth, escaped the attempted murder of jealous King Herod, and raised as his own by Joseph a Carpenter, is the one to whom you pray, the one to whom you look for your very life’s purpose and the one who one day, you believe, will come again in glory and dwell with you forever? [pause]

The German language has a word Zeitenwende – literally: a times turn, a turning point in history. The paradox in the Zeitenwende of the coming of the Son of God, Christ the King, to this earth is that the single greatest conquest in history occurred totally unnoticed, save for an ox, an ass and a camel, which adored.
And yet, despite the humility, (or maybe because of it), the lack of army, the death on a cross - the consequences of this quiet, humble, peaceful birth are that hearts for 2000 years have been challenged, changed, and transformed into an army whose ensign is peace, whose weapon is love.

The war in Ukraine over the past year has been devastating. Cities have been laid waste. The largest mass movement of people since WWII has taken place. The price of oil, of food and everything else is soaring.
But the consequences of invasion have also been transformative for international relations. In a matter of days, unthinkable things happened. Sweden and Finland abandoned neutrality; Germany, pacifism; the UK, post-Brexit estrangement from European neighbours; Poland and Hungary, antipathy towards refugees, at least those from a neighbouring country. By showing solidarity with Ukraine, the US and its allies found a role, a new moral purpose and a collective resilience.

The birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way.

A way that, let’s be honest, even we his followers might have done differently had we have been God. Yet Matthew’s claim that God came among us in THIS way, should give us more cause for hope than a thousand ‘other’ ways. More cause, because if God can change the world through a birth of a boy in a stable in Bethlehem which Zeitenwende’d human existence, he is the God I want to worship this Christmas; the God I want to trust; the God I want to pray to for peace and goodwill amongst all men.

St Joseph trusted God. He trusted that this baby, born of the virgin Mary, was the one who saves, who would rescue humanity. We today must be like St Joseph. We must take him seriously, take his attitude to heart. As we look at the mess our world still gets itself into in our own day, as we look at the atrocities of war, of inequality, of poverty - the invitation this Christmas is to join St Joseph in acknowledging his son whom he named Jesus and trust afresh that he WILL continue to save; will continue to save his people and through his people, the whole world. This is why we celebrate Christmas.

Let us pray.

Almighty God,
from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed:
kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all, the true love of peace
and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel for the nations of the earth
that in tranquillity your kingdom may go forward,
till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.



A sermon for Gaudete Sunday (Advent 3)

Preached by the Revd Dr Chris Dingwall-Jones, Chaplain of Jesus College Oxford, at Wantage Parish Church on 11 December 2022


My Kingdom is not of this world.


Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic spiritual writer and social activist, was fond of the phrase ‘to love is to suffer.’ This idea has strong roots in Christian theology – after all, Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’s love for us, and the ‘high point’ of Jesus’s ministry among us is known as the ‘passion’ – Jesus’s suffering with and for us, demonstrating his love for us. The double meaning of passion, as suffering and as deep love, attests to this mystery.

But this is hard. Suffering is something we rightly want to avoid, for ourselves and for others. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day on which we are reminded to ‘rejoice in the Lord always,’ a day on which our readings point to a day when even the barren parts of the earth will rejoice, when impassable wildernesses will become a highway, when sorrow and sighing will flee away.


How do we bring all this together? Suffering and rejoicing, the coming of the Kingdom and the reality of the world as we find it today, with all its injustice and all its sorrow?

In essence, this is the question John the Baptist is asking of Jesus in our Gospel reading. John, like the prophets who came before him, was a thorn in the side of the rulers of his day. John’s preaching was popular with ordinary people, who came to him to be baptised. When we piece together the Gospel accounts, we find a figure who recognises the injustice of the world he lives in, and encourages people to repentance, as well as advising them how to exist within this world. John stands between the world as it is, unjust, impossible to navigate without becoming complicit and the coming of the Messiah, which will herald in both wrath and justice.


At the start of the Gospel reading, John seems confused by Jesus. Like many who stand up against the powers of the world, John has found himself imprisoned by local rulers. Something about Jesus’s preaching and activity seems to have struck him as wrong, since he asks ‘are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?’

It’s hard to know exactly what John has in mind here, but part of the confusion surely comes from the fact that John remains in prison, injustice is still the foundation of Judean society, and the Messiah seems to be doing nothing about it. Surely, if Jesus were the Messiah, John would have been released? Surely Herod would have been deposed and Jesus the Messiah installed as the true King of the Judeans? John is suffering, and in his suffering he longs to see justice done, here and now.


I want to pause here and think about the cause of John’s suffering: it is not just that he is in prison. John has self-consciously styled himself after the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who knew that suffering would be their lot. The Letter of James makes this understanding clear: the prophets are to be seen as an example of suffering and patience. Jesus is similarly clear that prophets will be rejected and even killed for speaking God’s word and in God’s name. John has spent his life living a life of extreme simplicity and hardship in the wilderness.

And yet, now, after the Messiah has come, he is suffering: the exploitation and injustice he has been preaching against continue, he has been arrested, and the coming of the Messiah does not seem to have had any impact on the status quo. John’s complaint comes not just from his situation, but from his awareness that things could be different. The knowledge that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near makes the experience of injustice more acute, because it stands in contrast to John’s own experience of injustice.


This is the difficulty at the heart of Christian spirituality. We know that Jesus has come. We know that what Jesus has come for is to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, the restoration of all things and the end of all injustice. We know that Jesus calls us to look for the signs of the kingdom, to recognise where the world is being transformed, and to join in.

But we also know that the Kingdom is not here yet. We know that there is so much injustice throughout the world: we see the conflict in Ukraine, the exploitation of workers which has enabled the World Cup to take place in Qatar. We see the cost of living crisis contrasted with the enormous wealth of a very few. We see a deliberate attempt to use the media to stoke division rather than solidarity, picking vulnerable groups like asylum seekers as scapegoats.


As Christians, we are called to inhabit the place of John the Baptist, sharing the suffering of those who are oppressed precisely because we know that this is not how it is meant to be, that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be justice and peace, and everlasting joy.


This is what it means to say ‘to love is to suffer’ – as we grow close to Jesus through scripture, through prayer, through the Eucharist, we learn to see with the eyes of the kingdom, and to tell what we hear and see. With the eyes of the kingdom we are reminded that creation is good, but that human sinfulness has damaged that goodness. With the ears of the kingdom we hear the cry of the oppressed, a voice of protest against sin. And with the eyes and ears of the kingdom we discern where Christ is at work transforming a sinful world, through grace, into the kingdom.


And through it all, we suffer – because we are called to live in a world where the kingdom is not yet here. ‘Be patient’ says James, ‘strengthen your hearts,’ take the prophets as examples of suffering and patience. Even within the lifetime of the apostles the waiting for the fulfilment of the kingdom called for a patience which required the support of grace – and we are far on in time from then.

There has, perhaps, been little joyful in what I have said so far: to be in Christ is to be made more sensitive to the suffering of the world, to be called to share Christ’s sorrow at the sins which beset it, to weep with those whose lives are crushed by the powers and principalities of this age.


But the Gospels insist again and again that here is joy. We do not suffer needlessly, but because of our closeness to Christ, because we have been allowed to see the vision of the world as it should be. This is a call to action, to solidarity, to rejoicing: God is not distant and disinterested, but sees the suffering of the world so clearly that God lived among us, entering into this suffering to its deepest extent, not just on the Cross, but in an unlikely birth, in an occupied territory, under a murderous ruler. Christ is here, with us, the source and token of joy despite everything.


In Christ we see the spiritual, the material, even the political brought together and integrated. Their out-working is not what we might expect, as John the Baptist found – but Christ is the promise that all that we hope for will find its consummation, all that we love is loved better and more fully by the Christ who suffered for that love. All our suffering finds its meaning in the love which will make Christ all in all, not because God wills our suffering, but rather because our suffering shows us the distance between what we know in part now and what will be in the future.

So rejoice. Rejoice in the face of the suffering of the world, that we have been granted the grace to see that this is not as it should be. Rejoice that our efforts, however inadequate, to address suffering in our communities are efforts to co-operate with the coming kingdom. Rejoice that Christ is among us this morning, in this community gathered at the altar. And rejoice that in the coming of Christ among us is a seed of the restoration of all things when the kingdom of God comes in power. Amen.

What the Dickens…? A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Preached at the Parish Church on 4 Dec 2022 by the Revd Katherine Price, Vicar.


The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…


Last week the Office for National Statistics released the results of the 2021 census, and in the top headline on the BBC news that day we learned that under fifty per cent of people living in Britain now define themselves as Christians. Christians have gone from being the majority to being officially a minority for the first time since records began.


Now these statistics are notoriously slippery and dependent on exactly how you ask the question, so this headline-grabbing figure may well be rather more arbitrary and less momentous than it first appears. Even when Dickens was writing a Christmas Carol back in the 1840s probably only half the population was in church on any given Sunday. Yet that headline does give us pause: is the church now a lone voice crying out in the wilderness?


Well if we are, then we are in good and venerable company! In Advent we recall how the way was prepared for the coming of Jesus, and in this second week of Advent we celebrate especially the prophets of the Old Testament. One of the key themes of Old Testament prophecy is the notion of the ‘remnant’, the faithful few. We find it here in Isaiah: “A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse”.


The so-called Jesse Tree was one of the most popular subjects from Old Testament prophecy in Medieval church art: there is an especially fine example just up the road at Dorchester Abbey. It traces the biblical figures and stories which connect Jesus back to his ancestor David, son of Jesse. In recent years the Jesse Tree has also become popular as a distinctively Christian alternative to the Advent Calendar. But the image in Isaiah is not one of unbroken continuity, but rather of new life springing from a tree  which appears to have been cut down and destroyed. Jesus comes as hope when all hope is lost – growing not from the old high branches but directly from the roots exposed by this violent pruning.


It is characteristic of prophecy that it is read anew and reinterpreted in each generation. So a passage from Isaiah features here in our Gospel reading, but whereas in the original it is the path being prepared in the wilderness here it is the prophet himself who is located in the wilderness.

John the Baptist has gone out into the wildnerness, into the place where traditionally people have gone to meet with God, complete with a diet straight out of “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!” Maybe it’s not much of a wilderness if you’re surrounded by TV crews, but it is interesting that even today, people are drawn to extreme and isolated terrain looking not just for fame but for redemption, for self-discovery, for forgiveness.


This weekend in Wantage we have been celebrating Dickensian Evening, the start of a season in which - in spite of the supposedly secularising trends in our society – people still turn out in huge numbers, both in church and elsewhere to sing carols about the coming of Jesus, or to re-enact his nativity.


Dickens in his novel, A Christmas Carol, was in many ways the inventor of our modern Christmas. His vision of Christmas as a family celebration really caught the early-Victorian imagination. But we’re missing the point if we associate A Christmas Carol with a romantic chocolate box image of a Victorian Christmas, all ice-skating and crinolines and roasted chestnuts. Dickens’ writing always had a sharp edge of social critique. The family gathered round the hearth to share a plump goose or turkey is only made possible when there is enough food for the table, enough fuel for the fire, and enough time off for workers to spend with their families.


In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is shown three visions of Christmas: Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come. He is invited to see how life will be if he does not repent, and how it might be if he does. In other words, prophecy. In his journeys with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come, Scrooge’s heart is opened to a different vision of what might be.


The world presented to us by Isaiah is equally as strange and fantastical as Scrooge’s dream: the lamb lying down safely with the wolf, and the lion giving up hunting and becoming a vegetarian! But it invites us to wonder how life could be different, to question the competition and violence that seems inherent to how we live in this world: be that nature red in tooth and claw or England versus Senegal in the next round of the world cup! This week, Archbishop Justin Welby has been in Ukraine meeting with representatives of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, because if we are to preach peace – to Vladimir Putin or to anyone else – we have to start by building peace within the family of the church. Yet I know how far we are – how far I am! – from being immune to a sense of competition between churches. Even in taking note of that statistic we started with – counting how many people are Christian, how many people are Muslim, how many people have no faith – we are buying into that desire to be top.


If Advent is about preparing to welcome Jesus, it is also first of all about preparing to welcome one another. In Isaiah, in Paul, and in the ministry of John the Baptist, we see one real distinctive marker of the new world that God is offering: the welcoming in of the gentiles, the goyim, breaking down the key distinction between the Jews, the descendents of Abraham, and all the other peoples. ‘Gentile’ literally comes from the word meaning ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’, the whole diversity of different human groups with their different languages and customs and their very different history in relation to the God of Israel. This is the promise that God might no longer be the jealously guarded posession of one people, but shared without any sense of competition or threat.


At the centre of A Christmas Carol is the figure of Tiny Tim, and at the centre of our Christmas story is the figure of the baby Jesus. In the words of Isaiah, a little child will lead them. It is a little child that knows the way into this new world. We often say that Christmas is ‘for the children’ as though we’re embarassed to be seen enjoying ourselves without the excuse of the little ones, or as though joy and wonder and excitement are something we grow out of the same way that playing an instrument, or painting or writing poetry or playing sport or caring about our friendships seem too often to be things we leave behind in childhood. This is the truth recognised by C S Lewis when he made Narnia a place which could be entered only by children who were not old enough to have stopped believing in the reality in front of them.


Now I am not romantic about children: a child’s love of Christmas can be deeply materialistic, the love of presents and chocolates! But it seems to me that the world looks to the church to keep Christmas alive, to hold on to something they remember as special and magical and untarnished, even if we can only bear to bring it out once a year.


On the same day as Christians and non-Christians made the headlines through the census data, there was another smaller headline with a statistic no less striking: one quarter of young people aged 17 – 19 are estimated to be struggling with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Now I want to be cautious about drawing any connection between those two developments: on an individual level, having a faith does not protect you from facing mental illness, and of course the lockdown has affected all of us in ways we may not yet fully grasp. But I think that Christians and non-Christians alike recognise the society we are living in is not always good for us. We are looking for a glimpse of how things could be different.


Just as Isaiah invites his Jewish readers to celebrate that God is God even for those who have not been part of God’s chosen people through the generations, so Christmas is an invitation for us as Christians to share Jesus: to recognise with joy rather than with jealousy and competition that Jesus is not our exclusive possession but is also part of the lives of many who have not made a Christian commitment.


There is more than one way to be a prophet. John the Baptist’s approach was pretty strong medicine: He called people vipers and warned them of God’s wrath and they lapped it up! That is the prophetic style of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. But it is also prophecy to enchant people with a vision of what life could be. What if it really could be Christmas every day? What if Jesus is for life not just for Christmas? That is the gift we have to give, and it is for everyone.

Let us walk in the light of the Lord: a sermon for Advent Sunday

preached at Holy Trinity Charlton by the Revd Katherine Price, Vicar



On 28 February 1944, at about half past twelve in the afternoon, Corrie ten Boom was awakened from sleep. She wouldn’t normally have been in bed at that time, but she wasn’t well: she was exhausted by the effort and stress of her secret work with the Dutch resistance, protecting Jews and others during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.


She was awoken by six people running past her,  through the hidden door next to her bed and into their hiding place. At first she thought it was a drill, because they had prepared for this so often. She even had a small bag packed with the essentials she would need in prison, not least a toothbrush and toothpaste. But it wasn’t a drill. At the last minute she flung her bag against the secret entrance to help conceal it, and so she was sent to a concentration camp without even a toothbrush. This was what she had been preparing for,

but in the end, the bag she had packed was not the preparation which mattered but the habit of compassion and self-sacrifice gained through fifty years of ordinary Christian living.


Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas. Last week on Stir-Up Sunday, I made my Christmas cake with Austin, using a kit from Going Green in the Arbery Arcade. It’s probably the first time I’ve done it that far in advance, and I thought I was fantastically well-prepared, until I looked at the first instruction on the recipe: soak the fruit overnight…! Preparing for Christmas is all about planning, starting early, making sure you have time to get everything done: catching the black Friday sales, checking the last posting dates. Sometimes the preparation is part of the fun of Christmas, sometimes it turns a family celebration into a major logistical operation. But it all depends on knowing when Christmas will happen.


That is the opposite of how the Coming of God is presented in our scripture readings. We cannot open twenty-four little doors on our Advent calendar, or count down the sleeps until Father Christmas. About that day and that hour nobody knows, only the Father…


According to one survey, something like half of all Christians in the US believe that Christ will return in their own lifetime. I think you’d probably get a different result if you asked that question here, but on the whole I would place myself in that fifty percent, not because I’ll be surprised or disappointed if it doesn’t happen but because it is a good discipline to live in that expectation. We have all of us in recent years had to confront the reality that life is less predictable, less preparable-for, than we would would wish it. Government teams were working on pandemic preparedness for years, but Covid was still a surprise. In our own church community these past weeks we have been terribly reminded of how sudden death, or terminal or life-changing illness, can come out of the blue.


So much of our mindset about being prepared is about planning for the future - pensions, retirement plans, care costs - rather than about living in the present, and being prepared for the possibility that the future will not happen, or will not happen in the way we expect. How would you be preparing for Christmas differently if you thought it could come at any time? You might try to be prepared for every eventuality. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who always has a torch, a bottle of water, and a small first aid kit in their glove compartment - maybe you were a boy scout or girl guide, always prepared! Or perhaps, knowing that Christmas could come at any time would have the opposite effect and make us prioritise what is really essential, our equivalent of the toothpaste and toothbrush.


Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as coming like a thief in the night. It’s an arresting and intriguing image. Can we imagine God coming, not in glory to a waiting world, but sneaking in, unbidden and unwelcome,  to a darkened world that has barred its doors against him, drawn its curtains against his light, and steadfastly closed its eyes to him? Yet that is exactly how he came to us in Jesus Christ, in this dark time of the year, in the darkness of a world that was dark not just in its suffering but in its chosen obliviousness to the light and hope of God. And that makes us as the church the sleeper cells of the kingdom, the reservists of the Heavenly Host: keeping our eyes open to the realities of what is good and what is bad in our world, and always ready for the moment when we may be called on to do the work of the kingdom.


Here in this parish, we are starting to think about how we might be more prepared – through prayer, through good stewardship of our resources, and through an honest inventory of our gifts and skills and particular callings - to respond to the needs of our community when they arise and to the ppportunities to serve God and witness to his love for the world. One possible way in which that might manifest itself is being presented by Fr Benji this Advent – whether there are ways in which our church communities could partner with other charities in Wantage to respond to the immediate crisis of fuel- and food-poverty in the coming Winter months. We’ll be hearing more about that over the next couple of weeks.


But even in a world that sleeps in darkness, we are called to be people of light. At the recent crime forum held at the Parish Church, we heard from Thames Valley Police about the challenges of what’s called the night-time economy and the vital work of the street pastors in our town. Many of us will be enjoying the night-time economy over the festive period! But it does seem to be true of humans in general that in the hours of darkness we are sometimes ready to act in ways  we would be ashamed of in the light.


Corrie ten Boom lived through the war in fear of exposure, of being found out: but at the end of the war, when her heroic deeds came to light she was rightly celebrated, and she devoted much of her energy in the immediate post-war period to rehabilitating those of her fellow countrymen and women who had not been so heroic and had been exposed and condemned as collaborators. It is perhaps the most deep-seated human fear: the fear of being exposed, of being found out, of being put to shame – many people live with that sense of imposter syndrome even when they have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.


Paul tells us that our best protection is ‘the armour of light’: living with integrity, with nothing to hide, so that when we find ourselves under the floodlights of God’s presence we have no fear of what will be revealed.


Because we are not the only ones who have been preparing. Advent is a time for preparation, but most of all it is a time for us to remember that God too has been preparing for this special moment. Through Advent we remember all those through whom God has been preparing the world for his coming, and on this first Sunday of Advent we honour especially the patriarchs: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and their descendents, from whom Jesus is descended physically and culturally. What happens at Christmas, has always been God’s plan, prepared from the foundation of the world: to enter his universe, to share our human life, and to be our Emmanuel, God with us, now and forever. Amen. 



A sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent, preached at the Parish Church on 6 Nov 2022

The Revd Katherine Price, Vicar

He is God not of the dead but of the living.


+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


“Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try

No hell below us, Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people, Living for today”


That was released by John Lennon in 1971, and the original video features the multimillionaire songwriter and his wife touring their mansion on their Berkshire country estate. Quite an easy today to live for.


But that is also the context of this debate between Jesus and the Sadduccees: is your faith about the living or is it just about the dead?


The Saxons called this month, November, the ‘blood month’, because it was the time for slaughtering animals that had been fattened up, and this month you could certainly make a good argument that our religion is all about the dead. We started the month with All Souls. Next week on Remembrance Sunday we remember the war dead. This weekend we remember, remember, the fifth of November.


But of course remembrance is what we do as a Church every month. Our celebration of the Eucharist is a remembering. And being a parish church, a church which cares about place and community means that we feel the presence of past generations in a very tangible way. This church is not just metaphorically but literally built on a thousand years  of our forebears in the faith: they found quite a few of them when they put the heating pipes in! And those of you who’ve ever been to an Orthodox country, such as Romania or Russia, you might have been invited to share a memorial meal in honour of the dead or even seen the priest pour a libation onto the grave - one time I seem to recall it was a bottle of coke!


There is something deeply human about honouring the dead, almost definitively human: homo sapiens sapiens have been burying our dead, sometimes with flowers or other gifts, for about forty thousand years. It’s where our spiritual instinct is strongest. Death is the horizon which only faith can look over.


But how we treat the dead says a lot about how we treat the living. When we honour the dead, be it with an elaborate tomb or mausoleum, or a single bunch of flowers thrown onto a coffin, we are saying that human beings matter, that they matter eternally. We are commanded by God to honour the weakest and most powerless in society. Well who is more powerless than the dead? G. K. Chesterton’s fabulous defence of tradition is that it “gives votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”


Just last week we heard about King Alfred, and his role in bringing Christianity to other parts of the English nation. And archaeologists can map the spread of Christianity in England by the changes in burial practices: Christians bury their dead facing East and with far fewer grave goods. Alfred, unlike his ancestors, would not have been buried in a ship surrounded by jewels and the bodies of sacrificed horses and servants. Humans continue to matter after death. Wealth and status doesn’t. That what that says.


So after all that, it might be a surprise to hear that life after death is not an automatic or necessary part of religious belief. In this church, we pray for the dead - that is something Christians have done since earliest times. It doesn’t require any particular theology. It is an instinctive act of love.


Later, of course, the theology became a problem, and a source of division within the church; the reformation cleared away what Diarmuid McCulloch has called the ‘soul mass industry’ – the lucrative trade in prayers for the dead –

represented here in this church by the Fitzwaryn Chantry chapel, where the mass would have been offered for the respose of the souls of the Fitzwaryn family.


In the Church of England, praying for the dead only really became acceptable again during World War I when once again the instinct of love, the need to express our ongoing love for those who had died, trumped questions of theology. The same people who knitted gloves and sent food parcels to the front still wanted to do something for their loved ones, even after death

Confronted with the reality of grief, the theological questions are as artificial and tone-deaf as the scenario posed by the Sadduccees to Jesus, who see a woman seven times widowed as a good debating tactic and not as an awful human tragedy.


But the very fact of this debate between Jesus and the Sadduccees, who were the religious leaders and priests of his time, reminds us that we are also heirs to a longer Jewish tradition which is very much about this life. The hope of resurrection or eternal life is – to us shockingly - absent from much of the Old Testament. The burial of the dead was always a sacred duty in Jewish tradition,

but it was the end and not the beginning of true life in God. Even today’s passage from the book of Job is rather a selective quotation! And that is an important reminder that our relationship with God does not have to be about our anxiety for our own or our loved ones’ fates. This life alone can be motivation and scope enough for a life of faith.


So when Jesus and the Sadduccees meet, Jesus represents a relatively new and radical perspective. The Sadduccees are the religious establishment: it was from them that the priestly cadre in the temple was drawn. Caiaphas who sent Jesus to Pilate would have been a Sadduccee. These are the ones who have remained in their positions under Roman occupation; these are the Jews who are seen as safe and acceptable to the authorities.


Whereas the hope of resurrection is radical and politically dangerous. It developed during this period of occupation and invasion when devout Jews were making the choice to accept death and martyrdom rather than submit to rulers who expected them to compromise on their faith. John Lennon dreamed of a world with nothing to kill or to die for; but generations of oppressed and occupied peoples have found that there are things worth dying for. There are people in Ukraine right now fighting because some things matter more than this life. And it is that sense not just that human beings matter eternally, but that humanity and justice matter eternally, that leads us to the hope of resurrection.


The dead matter because the living matter. The way we think about death affects the way we live. If the dead are not raised then the only hope we have that something of us will survive is through reproduction, through childrearing – or perhaps through accomplishing some lasting achievement or legacy. That is our only response to the sense of tension we feel between the eternal significance of human life and the reality of individual mortality. In the older Jewish tradition, children are our immortality. That is why in so many of our scriptures we see this massive stigma on so-called ‘barrenness’, childlessness – the stigma which God again and again challenges and removes.


It is still the case that marriage and parenthood are religious duties in Judaism; it is not acceptable for a religious Jew to remain single. But Jesus was single, and we know some of his immediate followers were – notably our own St Paul. So when Jesus says, those called to eternal life neither marry nor are given in marriage he is not simply dismissing the Sadduccees absurd caricature of life after death but saying something much more radical about what the hope of the resurrection means for how we live in this life. In recent days and in recent years within the church there’s been a great deal of debate about marriage, about who can and cannot get married and who might or might not leave the church as a result, and perhaps it is instructive for us to hear Jesus saying that marriage is not as central to Christian life and teaching as we might imagine.


But the hope of resurrection means that we matter: our bodies, the choices we make, our lives. All matter – eternally. It is because the dead matter that the living matter. He is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him they are all alive. Amen.




A sermon for All Saints, preached at Wantage Parish Church on 30 October 2022

The Revd Katherine Price, Vicar


Who is in and who is out?


This week we have had the drama  of our new Prime Minister picking his new Cabinet - or in some cases not so new! The political pundits and podcasters have been hotly watching  for who will be walking proudly up to the door of Number 10 under the gaze of the press photographers, and who will be quietly summoned to the office to be let down gently.


A good leader is only as good as their team, whether that be Rishi’s cabinet, Gareth Southgate picking his world cup squad, or Elon Musk clearing out the top team at Twitter! Or for those of you who were watching Doctor Who last week the Doctor and her ‘fam’!


So today we celebrate Team Jesus, also known as the Communion of Saints. Here in the parish church at Wantage we have two patron saints: Peter and Paul. A tactfully phrased press-release would say that they bring different and complimentary gifts to the team of apostles. Or to put it more bluntly, they are chalk and cheese. Yet Jesus had a place for them both – even if they worked best together when that was as far apart from each other as possible!


Building a team is not just about picking the right people, but about forming them together and motivating them, inspiring them to pursue a shared goal, to overcome setbacks, and to trust and respect one another. One of the many ways we can see what we do together on a Sunday morning is as training – training together as a team for the Kingdom of God.


St Paul had a particular ministry of ‘team-building’. Many of the so-called ‘Pauline epistles’ – that is the letters of Paul himself and those like today’s letter to the Ephesians which may have been written by Paul or by his followers – are addressed to ‘the saints’, to the church in a particular place, giving the kind of feedback you might get from a coach or a team captain: sometimes building them up, sometimes gently advising, sometimes hauling them over the coals! And actually many parts of the Bible can be seen in this light: it is addressed to us not as individuals, but as a team, reminding us of what it is we are striving for, and not to be discouraged by the challenges we face.


That’s the spirit in which I suggest we might read today’s Gospel passage, the Beatitudes, Luke’s account of a sermon Jesus preached to a great crowd at the bottom of a mountain near the sea of Galilee: as a rousing pep talk for his followers, uniting them in a common struggle – yet not a struggle against those who oppose them but for them.


If we read it a a series of statements about individuals there is a risk that this sermon becomes just an empty speech, a manifesto for jam tomorrow. There are people in our community who are hungry, literally hungry. They don’t want to be told that they are ‘really’ blessèd, however theologically true or profound that might be. They don’t want to be blessed, they want to be full.


But I’d like to invite you to hear this differently. Jesus looked up at his disciples – looked up – and said ‘blessed are you…’ That phrase, ‘blessed are you’ is the beginning of the Jewish phrase ‘blessed are you, Lord God, king of the universe’. An observant Jew would say that multiple times a day with different endings depending on what was being blessed or given thanks for. When we hear that Christ at his last supper blessed and broke the bread, giving thanks to God, he would have used those words, ‘blessed are you’. So here he is honouring these people, honouring the holiness and sanctity in them.


How does it feel to hear that addressed to us, to our church? Blessed are you when you are getting old. Blessed are you when you are tired. Blessed are you when people ignore you, or misunderstand you, or misrepresent you. You are blessed, you are holy.


To be a saint is to be holy, and we are all called to holiness, to a life-long process of drawing nearer to God and being transformed by him. As our epistle reading explains it, to receive wisdom and revelation, as you come to know God, so that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened as you look towards the inheritance you have been promised. We should not be afraid to see the Christian life as a journey of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of holiness.


But that does not necessarily mean that all of us saints-in-training will or should aspire to experience that holiness in terms of the intense mystical experiences reported in the lives of some saints: the ecstasies of St Theresa of Avila, the ascetic feats of the desert fathers, or the Damascus conversion of St Paul. The Christian tradition is rich in examples and accounts of mystical experience, but has never placed them at the centre of the Christian life; it has much to say about these experiences, these tangible encounters with holiness,

because it is part of our human experience, arising from our God-given human nature as spiritual beings - and, as we are reminded by our reading from Daniel, just as likely to be a terrifying or baffling experience as one of peace and clarity.


But our faith is a pragmatic one: Love your enemies. Give to those who take from you. Pray for those who hate you. For Christians, holiness is worked out largely in practical and interpersonal ways. Forgiveness, thankfulness, generosity – these are the practices which train us in holiness, and our progress in holiness is unlikely to be accompanied by tangible benefits such as prosperity or popularity or physical good health. As Theresa of Avila said, “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”


Having said that, one meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘healthy’ or ‘whole’. When you are choosing a team, you start by looking at their gifts and strengths, what each person has to offer. Part of what it means to be holy, and to be the Holy Church, is that the whole of what we are is offered to God. I wonder whether we feel that’s true at the moment. Do we know that God sees and values and receives all the different parts of who we are and what we have to give, or do we feel as though the only types of gifts which are valued are those which are visible in our worship, or those which are remunerated, or those which are exercised within the church context rather than in our work, family, and personal life? One of the reasons that we as a church are going to be offering the Personal Discipleship Plan tool is so that we can hear from one another

what God is doing in the whole of our lives.


But – if you will pardon the pun – what we learn from the team that Jesus Christ built around himself is that God does not want just our ‘whole-ness’ but also our ‘holey-ness’. Holey as in holey socks! Our gaps, our threadbare patches and our weak spots. He identifies as the blessed precisely those who seem to have least to offer, and time and time again he shows himself more interested in how he can use our weaknesses than how we can use our strengths: how the scepticism of a Saint Thomas can become an invitation to other doubters, or the violent self-confidence of St Paul be harnessed for the gospel, or the cowardice of Saint Peter open a opportunity for God’s overflowing mercy.

Because true holiness belongs not to us but to God. We affirm it in our liturgy, in our worship: “You alone are the holy one.” Or in a part of the Orthodox liturgy which has been borrowed into our own common worship, the priest declares “Holy things for Holy people” to which the congregation responds, or perhaps retorts, “One is Holy, one is Lord”. To be holy, in the Christian tradition, is to receive the Holy Spirit: holiness is not something we achieve but something God accomplishes in us. As we are incorporated into the body of Christ, physically incorporated by the physical sacraments of baptism and communion, so we are animated by the spirit of Christ.


After he has addressed himself to the poor and the rich, to the grieving and the happy, Jesus addresses us in these words: “I say to you who listen…” In the end, that is what it means to be the Holy Team of Jesus: to be those who listen to his Holy Spirit. Amen.




Bible Sunday 23 October 2022
Wantage Parish Church

Fr Benji

Show the light of your countenance upon your servant
and teach me your statutes.
Words from Psalm 119

What is the primary source of Christian revelation?… Believe it or not, it is not actually the Bible. It is prayer. And I invite you to hold that thought.

A dangerous book

We need to understand the Bible, because the Bible did so much to form the world we live in.

Not least because the Bible is also a very dangerous book. On the basis of the Bible, Christians have been murdering Jews for nearly 2000 years, and those who became the Jews have killed others in pursuit of a promised land.

Of course, that has to be qualified: some Christians and some Jews. Even so, on the basis of the Bible, witches have been burned alive, homosexuals executed, children beaten, Africans shipped to slavery, women treated in law as children, animals regarded as human property, and wars justified in the name of the Prince of peace.

This immediately makes the point that the Bible is a powerful book, open to different understandings and opposing uses.

But in that case, what can it possibly mean to say that the Bible is the word of God?

The word of God and the people of God

Does it mean that God dictated the Bible in such a way that it contains no mistakes about anything? Is the Bible completely infallible and completely inerrant?
Most people agree that there are factual errors in the Bible although they may explain them differently. The Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there speck of sandstone can be detected in its structure. One might draw the analogy with the Bible - these specks of sandstone do not detract from the entire structure. So when one sacred writer says that on any given occasion 24,000 were slain and another that 23,000 were slain it can be helpful to look at it in this way.
God did not bypass history and human circumstances, but used them to help a people to grow up and come of age making a name and nature known that people could understand and respond to, because they knew them to be true to themselves.

The Bible is a consequences of a process, it came into being over a period of more than 1000 years so that the Bible is not a single book. It is made-up of hymns, histories, songs, law codes, prayers, and many other kinds of writings, focused on God and preserved by the people.

John Goldingay wrote of the activity of the Holy Spirit:

“It does not bypass their distinctive humanity but uses it. They do not have to be perfect, nor do their words have to be models of balance, free of rawness or solecism, in order for God to work through them. The grace of God is such as to be entirely prepared to speak through skewed human agents and quite relaxed enough to trust that their eccentricities will do more good than harm”.

The Order of the Bible

The children of Israel and people of the covenant slip into error and mischief as much as any children do. What is remarkable is that they recorded these lapses as carefully as their brilliant moves into vision and truth. It was a bumpy ride and they learned from it as they went along.

The Bible is not put to together in chronological order. The first words of the Bible to be written were not Genesis 1:1 and the earliest part of the New Testament is not the gospel according to Saint Matthew. Most parts of the Bible have gone through a long process of editing as one generation after another brought to bear on the circumstances of their own day the words they received from their predecessors. What is extraordinary is that they did this. They did not regard the words from the past as having a historical interest only, but knew that through them, God was speaking to them in the present. Prophets go to the past to interpret the present, as do many of the Psalms. In the New Testament, Jesus, and those who wrote the New Testament quote scripture as having authority.

Last week we had from Timothy that all scripture is given by inspiration - literally 'I breathe into'.

This scripture could equally be translated, “every scripture inspired by God is also useful...”

Jews and Christians believe that all scripture, not just the books of the prophets, is inspired. 19th century Christian, J. W. Bergen wrote: “every book of it, every chapter of it, every verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it, every letter of it is the direct utterance of the Most High”

A claim like this can be extremely misleading. Once again we have to remember that the Bible is not isolated from history but immersed within it. Where the text of the Bible is concerned - every letter of it - we do not know what anyone originally spoke or wrote. Thinking of inspiration in this way becomes difficult when we remember that the decisions of Jews and Christians about the books to be included as scripture where for a long time uncertain and did not turn on decisions about which books were inspired but which books should have God derived authority in their communities.

The Authority of Scripture

God is the author of all things. Without God we would not be. In the quest for the growing up of a people into maturity, not by force even when we go astray, but by the nurturing of apparent and by our cooperation of faith, God evokes and brings into being the words that now stand as scripture.

God is the source of these words by being the source of the lives that wrote and spoke and edited and preserve them.
Because God was in this sense their author, they have authority. They are the means through which God’s authorship continues still in human lives, so that a new and different story is told about them, a story of holiness and love. The Bible is thus the word of God because through these words, God becomes the author, or at least the joint author, of the continuing story of our lives, as individuals, and as communities that tried to be God's story in the world. We read the Bible column not to find text to enable us to burn witches, make slaves, subordinate women, condemn homosexuals, and murdered Jews. All of those acts and attitudes were justified by taking single texts and applying them without reference to the greater purpose of God in the creation of happiness and love. If the Bible does not produce that, and if it instead leads to communal hatred and acts of violence and destruction, it is being misused.

There is a better way: we read the Bible in order to encounter the word of God in the words of God, and to be made a holy people for the worship of God and the service of the world.

Praying the Bible

We may read the Bible out of interest, or as a fascinating story, just for enjoyment. But many reads the Bible as the word of God and the starting point of prayer. What difference does it make to read the Bible in that way? The Bible seems to be about God talking and interacting with people in the past, long ago. But the Bible is a means through which God extends that talking and interacting in to the present. Yes, there are many prayers contained within the Bible, not least the psalms and the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and we can make those prayers our own. But beyond that, the Bible offers itself as the place to meet God now, and to be met by God in ways that will change our lives.

Susie, our parish lead on pastoral care, has provided a list of daily readings in the e-news that you may like to make use of. There are different apps for prayer and scripture. There are many opportunities to join the clergy in prayer, both at the daily office and at mass throughout the week. But the simplest way is to take a passage and let that passage be the introduction that starts the conversation with God. The passage may draw out from you anger, happiness, fear, hope, trust. Allow time and quiet to listen to what it is saying to you and what it is drawing out from you. From this reading it may inspire you to write or sing or dance. It may inspire you too a good deed or give you an idea for the improvement of your community. You may simply stay with the passage and let it rest in you.

You may ask is there any control over this? How do we know that it is God who is speaking? Well, the guarantee is prayer. Remember that if people had not found God and been found by God through prayer in the first place there could not possibly have been the honest visionary, angry, encouraging, searching, hopeful words that make up the Bible.
There are no words, as a whole, like this, gathered together in books of this kind, anywhere, in any religion, or in any literature. It is God, or at least at the very least this people's belief in God, that made the total difference.

Share the belief, and the reality will become clear.

The reformer, John Calvin, put it like this:

“Scripture will only be effectual to produce the saving knowledge of God when the certainty of it shall be founded on the internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit”.

The control is this: if you find that praying the Bible does not draw you deeper into relationship of holiness and love with God and your neighbour, you need to pray it more receptively and attentively. You are not on your own. The Bible is read and prayed in community, in liturgy, in the worship of synagogue and church.
May the words from this strange and remote word of the Bible in the past come into our lives today and turn them into something better for tomorrow.

Sunday 11 September 2022: a sermon on the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The Revd Katherine Price, Vicar

I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


We come today to mourn for our late Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. Mourning is not the same as grieving. Grief is a feeling, or more commonly, a succession of feelings, unpredictable and disconnected, different every day. Mourning is a duty: a deliberate act.


Many are grieving today. Foremost among them, of course, her family: King Charles, and all her children and grandchildren. Many will perhaps have been surprised by grief, by how much her death has affected them personally. Some will have found that they are grieving anew for their own loved ones, for those whom they have lost, whether recently or long since. They may find that this shared duty of mourning permits and unlocks their private grief in a way that perhaps our modern culture of celebrating life does not easily allow.


And there will be those also who feel uncomfortable, who want to insist – perhaps out of respect for those ordinary unroyal people whose death is no less overwhelming for those who loved them - that the Queen was only one person like anyone else.


One person, yes, but one person lost by each and every person in this nation.

She was our Sovereign, but also, in later years, our national granny. One of her last and most memorable TV appearances, at her jubilee, was acting opposite Paddington Bear!


On Thursday, as we heard the news that she was close to death, I was standing waiting in a queue as the young woman next to me, maybe university age, gasped and beckoned her friend over. As they looked together at her phone screen, one of them said “No! the Queen can’t die!”


The Queen can’t die. I think that speaks for so many of us, in our first reaction. She has been a fixture through the whole of their lives and almost certainly their parents’ lives. That a day should dawn when we do not have a Queen feels as new and inconceivable a thing as a day when the sun does not rise in the East.


It is that constancy which perhaps most of all sums up what the Queen meant for us all. In the best possible sense, someone we were able to take for granted. The Reverend Sorrel Shamel-Wood, recently ordained priest in this diocese, has written a poem which begins: “You were old, already, when I was born / And I took your gentle face for granted: / On every coin and every postage stamp.” You only have to step outside this church to see a whole fleet of vans at the Royal Mail depot which will now need to be repainted. Whatever the Queen has meant to you her face and her name have been part of the fabric of your life at least for however long you have lived in the UK - and for those beyond, maybe even more so, synonymous with this country.


It is, and it feels like, the end of an era. At a time of great instability and uncertainty in our lives and in the world another constant has been removed, a prop that we took for granted has been pulled away. Another friend – not a Christian – wrote to me these words: “She is the last bastion of a stable, sane, compassionate world built on duty, service and tolerance. When she goes it will be as though an era is ending, the wheel of history crashing round on its axis away from goodness and honourable behaviour.”


In our Gospel reading we hear the words of our Lord, “I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” and it is that sense of selfless service most of all, which was represented by Queen Elizabeth. She showed duty in a time of self-fulfilment, reserve in a time of relentless self-publicity, and in a time of social fragmentation, she was someone we all had in common. Her death seems to underline that we are entering a more doubtful age.


Yet, we do not lose heart. Those seventy years of the second Elizabethan Age

were times of enormous social and political change, as great as anything we face today. Just as we looked to Queen Elizabeth as a constant at these times of change, so she looked to Christ, the eternal king, the constant presence in her life as in ours.


The eighth of September, the date on which Queen Elizabeth departed this earthly life is also the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a profoundly important sense, it is true that Queen Elizabeth was just one person: she, in her Christian humility, would be the first to acknowledge that. But, like Our Lady, an ordinary woman called to an extraordinary duty. We mourn today, because in this changing world, death is real, loss is real, grief is real: nothing in the Christian tradition, least of all the death of our Lord and Saviour, allows us to deny or bypass that reality.


But the peaceful death of a Christian is always also a triumph: the fight well fought, the race run to completion. And in that sense, a death is also an invitation to celebrate life, not in an individualistic sense, but rather the life we all share, as human beings, as children of God, and the life that we are promised in Jesus Christ.


Our mourning is for Elizabeth our Queen, for all that she meant to us and all that we have lost in her passing. But our joy is for her, our sister in Christ, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary – whose face was familiar to so many, but whose heart was fully known to her Lord alone. A child of God, a sinner of Christ’s own redeeming, a lamb of his own flock, now gathered into his eternal kingdom.








Sermon on the Nature of Evil

Fr Benji Tyler
Wantage Year C Trinity 10 21st August 2022

Every once in a while it is good to be reminded of, even confront, the problem of evil.
Evil in all its various forms - and we could name many: the evil of war, of senseless crime, of homelessness, of viral and bacterial infection, of pain and suffering caused by natural disaster or mental affliction.
Evil and sin seem to surround us on a daily basis and, to the pessimist, it would be easy to understand evil as the natural order of the world.

'You make this world lousy' says Doc, the drug-store owner, to some of the Jets in 'Westside Story.' 'That's the way we found it, Doc,' answers one of them.

This is a challenge to anyone professes to believe in God and we cannot ignore or evade it.
Is the world intrinsically oriented towards evil or towards goodness? Is evil the status quo from which goodness occasionally erupts or is the world good and evil the disrupter.
The quickness that many of faith and of none run to deny the existence of God when suffering erupts is alarming.

And so in order to safeguard ourselves against this bent we need, I think, to understand the nature of evil.
How can we, as Christians in the 21st century seeking to mature in our faith and not waiver at any slight (or indeed massive) interjection. make sense of suffering and evil?
Do we resign ourselves to Gallio's argument that, if there is a God at all, he must be completely indifferent to what happens on this planet, and cares for none of these things, or do we face the challenge with hope and courage and perseverance seeking to discover hidden mystery and truth?

I very much hope that you will accompany me on the latter journey.

Of course it would be impossible to plumb the depths of this question in one short sermon but I hope we can at least begin to discover somethings that might help and, with the women in our Gospel reading, know the healing touch of Christ.

It was Darwin who, towards the end of his long life wrote ' According to my judgement happiness decidedly prevails'. The very fact that pain and evil trouble us so profoundly, whilst goodness and order and beauty pass by almost unnoticed, is a witness to the fact that goodness is the norm throughout the universe.
the problem of evil would not present itself as a problem if chaos was the rule and not order, or sickness the normal human condition and not health. Just as people take snow for granted in the Arctic so we would take evil for granted. And yet we don't. We rail against it. We avoid it. We pray it away.

At this point I must say that there is no neat answer to the problem of evil. There are no easy solutions to any of the great problems of Theology and Philosophy and if there were I would be highly suspect of them. In every faith there must needs be a high level of agnosticism, of humility in the face of the great questions. For we must remember that in this life we walk by faith and not by sight.

So, to return to our problem. If God is omnipotent (all-powerful) nothing can happen unless he wills it. If God is Love, then whatever he wills must be good. But, you say, there is still a great deal of evil! Does this mean that God is NOT omnipotent after all, or that there is some flaw in his love and goodness?

No. to deny this is to accept false theories of evil - and there are aspects of each which are tempting to believe.

The first which says that God is the sole source of all that is and therefore somehow responsible for what we call evil, as part of his divinely ordered plan and it is useless or wrong to question it. the sort of 'God's will be done' sort of attitude. Sound's alright until you factor in the Holocaust... this attitude fails to distinguish between what God commands and what God permits to a world given free will.

The second proposal to the solution of evil can be more persuasive and is held by many Christians. God is not so much al-powerful but is all-goodness. This divine perfection makes it inconceivable that God could be responsible for any of the evil in the world and so lays it at the feet of the devil. The war between good and evil in ourselves is a microcosm of the cosmic war between goodness and evil which is why it is so popular because it is relatable. Our Lord himself appears in the gospels to support this view as we today heard him attributing the woman's ailment to Satan. But it is obvious that he treats these demons and powers as a Sovereign treats their subjects - with authority and not with reason.
To believe in a God who is not omnipotent is to admit that God is not God, for God is, as St Anselm puts it 'a Being than whom no greater can be conceived'.

The third is less probable but is also commonly held amongst Christians and that is that actually evil I, in reality, just a lesser good. For God is in his heaven reigning in omnipotent goodness and therefore all must be right with the world. Evil is reduced to an illusion because we fail to recognise it as a part of the perfection of the whole.

Yet we do seem to intrinsically know what is right and what is wrong.
So what is the ‘correct’ Christian view of evil?
A created world which ran like clockwork because nothing had any will of its own would have been a wonderful world, a potentially evil-free world but a limited world. The actual universe which in fact exists is, more wonderful still. We believe that God dare to create beings who share in his authority and freedom. Without freedom humankind would have been incapable of loving God or their fellow human. Humanity was made to love and love must be free.

It is only in a world where cruelty, hatred and injustice CAN happen that love, friendship and self-sacrifice WILL happen. God, the creator of angels and men and insects with free will play their part in the course of the physical universe. And it is our choice, as we heard in the reading from the Hebrews, to choose or refuse to hear the one who is speaking, who is calling us to receive an unshakable Kingdom.

The Church perseveres in the mystery of God's ultimate and universal responsibility and this is where the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ comes in. For in this foreknown, fore planned act of God, God accepts responsibility for all things, even evil, and in the Passion he discharges it.

Words alone cannot and do not satisfy the human longing for answers. Our primary need is not for someone to explain the problem of evil to us but for someone who will show us how to transform the suffering which results from it from being wasteful, negative and senseless into something which may be creatively used for good.

This is precisely what the Christian faith offers us. Not an explanation of evil but a tool to meet suffering and what to do with it. And in Jesus of Nazareth, we find assurance that God can transform evil into good.

Far from denying the existence of evil, the Christian gospel reveals to us the greatest crime that ever there was - that which was inflicted on a man who had done no wrong - here we view the full range and depth of evil. Standing at the foot of the cross - as I did at Oberammergau a few weeks ago, witnessing how perfect Love was treated. At the cross, evil came face to face with goodness and love and instead of goodness and love becoming contaminated, evil was neutralised and defeated. The victory of Easter Day, won on Good Friday is how God accepts and discharges all his responsibility for all the evil in the world: by enduring the worst that evil can do to HIMSELF and in doing so making it serve his purposes for good.

Fr Harry Williams of Mirfield put it like this
'What looked like the utter defeat of goodness by evil was in reality the final defeat of evil by goodness. What looked like the weakness of a dying man was in reality the strength of the living God. What looked like tragedy was really victory'.

If we believe this, we shall never complain again that suffering is wasteful or meaningless or that it defeat's God's purpose - for if God can bring good out of the cross then he can bring good out of your sufferings too. And in allowing God to do so your suffering will be transformed from the self-destruction of 'this lousy world' into one of the most effective and productive activities open to us. As Isaiah says 'your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday'.

So, when suffering comes, either to you as an individual, you as community or you as God's Holy Church, remember the pattern and shape of it as demonstrated by God not only in the Incarnation, life, and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also through his triumphant resurrection, which looks forward with confidence and hope to the time when there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away. (Rev 21 : 4).

[In receiving prayers for healing and anointing, you may know yourself assured of the miracle: that not only Christ but Christians are made perfect through sufferings and that your sufferings have the potential to be transformed into joy.]

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.


May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God the Holy Spirit give you strength. May God the holy and undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Sermon preached at Holy Trinity Charlton for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Revd Katherine Price, 14 August 2022

(for the sermon preached at the Parish Church please see below)

He has put down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly


+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


This week’s feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary is often called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – not because she ‘assumed’ that it would be a nice idea to have a feast in the middle of summer, but from the belief which grew up in the centuries after her death that her body did not remain on earth, where it could be fought over by well-meaning devotees and relic hunters, but was taken directly to heaven. Some versions of this tradition go one further and suggest that the Virgin Mary, unlike her son Jesus, did not even need to pass through death to be resurrected, but went to heaven without ever dying.


This devotion to Mary as someone almost super-human has inspired some of the most glorious art and music in Christian history. If you’ve been on holiday to Spain or Italy or Poland you may perhaps have seen something of the cult of the Virgin Mary – I don’t use cult in the derogatory sense, but simply the  devotion to the Virgin. Processions with life-sized statues dressed in embroidered finery and crowned with jewel-encrusted crowns. You might be surprised to learn that before the Reformation it was this country, England, which had the greatest devotion to the cult of the Virgin. Just down the road in Reading, at the local museum, you can see possibly the earliest depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin: a stone carving from one of the pillars of Reading Abbey.


Earlier this week Jan and I were trying to find pictures of Mary for the notice sheet, and you can imagine how many there were to choose from. I would hazard a guess that Mary is the single most depicted woman in human history. Is it even possible to look at a picture of a mother and child and not think of the Madonna?


And yet behind all these different faces from every century of Christian history, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the real Mary. The Galilean peasant girl, the wife of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. The real Mary is a very  human Mary. She is a mother. The few words and deeds recorded during her son’s lifetime are the words and deeds of a mother:

She is cross because her twelve-year-old boy wandered off to the temple by himself.

She has compassion for her friends who under-ordered on the wine for their daughter’s wedding.

A couple of times she even tries to stop Jesus’ public ministry – perhaps because she can see where this is going to lead.


It matters that we remember and honour Mary not in spite of but because she is an ordinary woman. And it matters for three reasons.


Firstly, what is at stake when we honour Mary as the mother of God’s son is nothing less than the incarnation. Jesus Christ is fully human because he has a mother.


Secondly, it matters that Jesus Christ was born of a woman, because it means that a woman, and a woman’s body, is essential to God’s salvation plan for the universe. The incarnation is not a clean, bloodless, divine miracle. It involves a birth, and birth is a messy business. The Word was made Flesh, and flesh is a messy, dirty, bleeding, hurting thing.


Attitudes to motherhood at the time of Jesus were paradoxical: we hear that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was seen as cursed for not being able to have a child of her own, or so it was thought. But we also here that Mary herself had to be  purified at the temple after giving birth, as well as the shame and scandal of not being able to explain to her fiance Joseph exactly how she came to be pregnant! When God chose to take on human life, in Jesus Christ, he took on all of human life not just the easy or the neat or the respectable bits but also the scary and the shameful and the stomach-turning and the sad.


And thirdly, it matters because Mary is a revolutionary. Our gospel text today is known as the Magnificat, and it’s sung at Evensong every day in our cathedrals. It is all about the powerless triumphing over the proud. Luke puts these words in the mouth of Mary, claiming that what she is doing is nothing less than a revolution on a cosmic scale: the triumph of God, and the defeat of his enemies.


There may not seem to be anything revolutionary about a girl having a baby. Mary is not the obvious feminist hero – she is famous for being a mother, and for being a virgin, and for being associated with a more famous man! Mary doesn’t do anything that other women and other mothers have not done. But is surprising how many revolutionary movements start with a woman just  being a woman where other people don’t want her to be: Rosa Parks sitting in the wrong seat on the bus in racially segregated 1950s America, or Malala Yousafzai, going to school in Pakistan.


15 August, the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also this year the first anniversary of the Taliban re-taking Afghanistan. One of the most immediate and profound consequences of that is the disappearance of women: from education, from many workplaces, from showing their faces in public, and from anywhere they can’t go without a male chaperone. When we remember Mary, a young girl growing up in the middle East, without particular wealth or status, with the grave disadvantages of being both young and female, we should remember all those other young girls growing up in the middle east and elsewhere where being a young girl automatically puts you at the bottom of the heap.


The UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon, speaking about the nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was 15 when she had to flee Pakistan, said that she had showed what terrorists most fear is a girl with a book. Now the most common depiction of St Ann, the mother of Mary, is of her teaching her daughter to read. And in traditional depictions of the annunciation, Mary is reading when the angel Gabriel comes to her. And it is to her he comes – not to her father, not to her husband, to her. He has put down the proud, and lifted up the lowly…


It turns out, what the powers of hell most have to fear is a girl with a book.



Sermon preached at the Parish Church for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Revd Katherine Price, 14 August 2022

In the fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman


+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Three people, and only three people, are mentioned by name in the creed:

One is Jesus Christ, obviously. Another is Pontius Pilate! We’ll come back to him. And the third is the Virgin Mary.


The writers of the creeds didn’t include Jesus’ mother as a bit of human interest or family background. If you’ve been following the Lambeth Conference this month, or General Synod earlier this year, or if you’ve ever attended a PCC meeting, here or elsewhere, you’ll know that getting Christians to agree is no mean feat. So the wording matters. What is at stake in saying that Mary is the mother of God is nothing less than the incarnation.


When Paul says, God sent his son born of a woman, you might think, well obviously, how else would you be born? But he spells it out, to say that incarnation doesn’t just mean, Jesus has a human body but Jesus has everything that a human being has, including a family, and a childhood, and a history. Family history is big business these days - we get enquiries here from people whose ancestors were baptised or married here - so many of us want to know ‘who do you think you are?’ and look for that in our family history. Mary means Jesus had a family history.


And being born of a woman is also, it has to be said, a messy business. The Word was made Flesh, and flesh is a messy, dirty, bleeding, hurting thing. The incarnation means that God’s salvation plan for the universe doesn’t just involve a male body broken on the cross but a female body racked by childbirth. In the time of Jesus, attitudes to motherhood were paradoxical:

We hear that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was seen as cursed for not having a child but also that Mary herself had to be purified at the temple after giving birth not to mention the shame and scandal of having to explain to her fiance Joseph and his family exactly how she came to be pregnant before the wedding. I say in the time of Jesus, but I don’t know that our attitudes to motherhood today are much less contradictory!


Our gospel text today is known as the Magnificat, and it’s sung at Evensong every day in our cathedrals – our choir will have been singing it a lot in Brecon this week! And it’s a revolutionary text. It is all about the powerless triumphing over the proud. What Mary does is nothing less than a revolution on a cosmic scale. And I think we do well to remember that in particular this year because 15 August, the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also the first anniversary of the Taliban re-taking Kabul. There are times and places where simply daring to be a woman is an act of resistance.


One of the reasons it matters that a woman is involved in salvation is that for so long women have born the stigma as ‘daughters of Eve’ blamed for instigating the fall. It is in that story, in God’s words to Eve, that this paradox of childbirth is laid out. God has already told Adam and Eve to multiply – but here he tells Eve that the consequence of her disobedience is that childbirth – the very thing which should be most natural to her – will be the most painful.

In our third hymn today, listen out for the line about ‘the second Eve’. Just as Jesus is often called the second Adam, Mary is sometimes presented as the second Eve, who reverses or undoes her ancestor’s sin. Some medieval hymns and poems make use of the idea that ‘Ave’ in Ave Maria is the reverse of ‘Eva’. It’s one of those quirky little play-on-words that are most amusing… if you are a monk and you know medieval Latin!


As well as pain in childbirth, God promises Eve that she and the serpent will remain enemies – ‘he will bite your heel and you will crush his head’. So the Bible is bookended with these two stories of a woman’s encounter with a serpent: in Genesis, Eve defeated by the snake, and in the book of Revelation, the woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars escaping from the dragon!


Earlier this week Jan and I were trying to find pictures of Mary for the notice sheet. We were defeated not by the seven-headed beast of the apocalypse but by computer trouble! But most of the pictures we found were rather meek and mild, and there were a lot of them! I would hazard a guess that Mary is the single most depicted woman in human history.  And there is a risk that Mary, the wife of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth becomes a symbol rather than a real woman.


Today’s feast is sometimes called the dormition or falling asleep of the virgin, i.e. her death, but more commonly in the West it is called the ‘assumption’, from the legend that her tomb, like Jesus’, was found empty and her body was lifted to heaven, or even, in some versions, that she didn’t die at all. It’s beautiful, but also a little bit like, anything Jesus can do she can do better! And these devotions, which start quite properly as honouring Jesus through his mother can undermine exactly what they are meant to reinforce: that Jesus is fully human. His mother does not have to be different from other women – she just has to be human. Nor does she have to represent salvation for women, because if Jesus is fully human, he is fully human for all of us, not just for men.


The real Mary is a very human Mary. Only a few of her words and deeds are recorded: she is cross because her twelve-year-old boy wandered off to the temple by himself; she has compassion for her friends who under-ordered on the wine for their daughter’s wedding; a couple of times she even tries to stop Jesus’ public ministry – perhaps because she can see where this is going to lead.


Maybe these words of the Magnificat are not the triumph song of the victorious Queen of Heaven but the excitement of a teenager who has heard the words of an angel but has not yet heard the words of Simeon, ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul’. In that sense, Mary is like us: she accepts Christ into her life absolutely – literally into her very body – but she does not yet know where that will lead.


I recall when I was pregnant the woman behind the counter in the Oxfam Shop on Broad Street, Oxford, looking from my belly to my collar and back again and saying ‘You’re pregnant! And you’re a priest!’ One of the many striking and surprising ways in which Mary has been depicted in art is dressed as a priest, and this is something pregnant women have in common with clergy: that you become public property. It’s like wearing your heart on the outside of your body: something very personal becomes very public, it becomes everybody’s business. Because bringing a child into a world with an uncertain future is an act of radical hope for the whole of humanity.


But it is also an act of radical patience. Those of you who have fruit trees in your garden – we are very much blessed with them at the vicarage – will have noticed how early they are ripening this year. It can be tricky to know when to pick apples. Or even worse, pears: they are rock hard right up to the moment they are slush! We are reminded by St Paul in the passage with which I began this sermon that Mary comes into God’s story ‘in the fullness of time’,  when the time was ripe.


To say that God is incarnate does not just mean that God inhabits space, and human flesh but also time, and human history. Our God is a God who supremely acts in and through time: Which is where that other figure in the creeds comes in, Pontius Pilate! God could not or did not become man at just any time, but at this moment in human history, with a Roman empire reaching its peak, ripe both to destroy God’s son and to spread his fame across three continents.


So incarnation means waiting.

Waiting nine months for God’s son to be born

Waiting thirty years for him to start his ministry

Waiting through the many generations of Jewish expectation which find their culmination in this one Jewish girl.

And waiting still. Because the triumph acclaimed in the scriptures has been won- already, and also not yet. Today, there will be women in Afghanistan and elswhere bringing children into a world where the lowly have not yet been lifted up and the proud are very firmly on their thrones. And yet – God has been born of a woman, and therefore there is hope.