Matthew and Maria’s Mini Wedding Address

May I begin by thanking Didier for kindly allowing me to speak today, and to go first! And may I also remind us all of absent friends, at least those absent physically though not I am sure in spirit; those who would have dearly loved to be here but are separated from us, either because they are beyond the seas – or unable to travel even within this country, or because they are beyond this life and are part of that great crowd of witnesses to this marriage which stretches back through time but which includes some who have known and loved us on our journey to this special day.

I hope you will agree with me that there is no impediment which might prevent the lawful marriage of these true minds.  I think you’d have to be brave to stand up and make an objection. Matthew and Maria are two very determined young people and I don’t think they’d take prisoners!

This line in the sonnet is a reference to some words from what is now called the Book of Common Prayer, in Shakespeare’s time the 1558 Prayer Book: ‘I know not of any lawful impediment why I may not be joined in matrimony.’ Apparently Maria has said that if I take any photos during the wedding she will dragon kick me. Now some of you may doubt that Maria would be able to execute a dragon kick in her wedding dress, but I’m taking no chances so I’ve locked my camera safely in the boot of the car. If that’s how she feels  about a few photographs, I can only imagine what she’s do to anyone who tried to come up with an impediment to this marriage taking place!

Perhaps Maria and Matthew’s determination stems from being a younger child, with at least one older sibling. Maria screwed up all her courage to climb across roof tops rather than be left behind by her brother. Matthew kept his feet firmly on the ground, but he was still very anxious to play catch up with his brother and sister.

When he was about ten months old he was desperate to walk and used to toddle around pushing a little trolley full of bricks. One sunny afternoon we took the trolley outside but there was too much inertia for him to be able to push it across the grass. Rather foolishly I took out all of the bricks to make the trolley lighter and suddenly it took off, with Matthew desperately trying to keep up until it ran completely away from him and he fell flat on his face. Some children would have given up at that point, but we put a few bricks back into the trolley and straight away he picked himself up and tried again.

When Matthew was at school we would go sometimes and watch him play rugby. The opposing team would get down from their coach and usually they were roughly the same size and weight as Matthew’s team, except that there would always be one boy who was built like a colossus. And then you would know, with a sinking feeling, that very soon the colossus would be charging down the pitch, clutching the ball, with Matthew hanging on grimly to his waist – his feet trailing behind him in the mud as he was dragged along in the titan’s wake – until finally the colossus would run out of stamina and blunder to the ground. And then both teams would pile enthusiastically on top of them, with Matthew and the colossus hidden  somewhere at the bottom of the ruck.

One day we heard that the deputy head had shouted at Matthew, ‘You’re an animal, Bishop!” What has he done now?’ we thought, but it turned out to be a backhanded tribute to his determination to hang on to his opponents.

But the prize for determination surely belongs to Maria. Some of you will know that at a public exhibition of Tang Soo Do.  Maria was supposed to chop a thin tile in half with her bare hand while a grandmaster was going to split a thicker tile. Except that there was a mix up. The grandmaster went first and smashed Maria’s thin tile by mistake, leaving her to attempt the thicker one. Some of us would have passed up the opportunity. Not Maria! She did break it, at the second attempt, but only after breaking her wrist first!

But of course, it takes determination to become a doctor as, once again, some of you will know. And I suggest that it takes determination to do anything well. It may not seem like it today, but it takes determination to be married and to forge a strong marriage.

Sonnets are often about love, but they’re not often about the rough and tumble of everyday loving. They’re usually about an idealised form of love. There’s nothing wrong with having an ideal, a perfect form, of love at which to aim. It helps us to keep on being  determined. But nonetheless it is an ideal and, like the colossus on the rugby field or the girl trying to break the grandmaster’s tile, we’re bound to fall short. There are  impediments to the marriage of true minds, but determined people don’t have to admit them. They can work around the impediments – be they hectic shift patterns, or demanding relatives, or sleepless children, or accident, illness or old age.

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, and yet everything alters. A word of advice to everyone here. Never say, ‘You were absolutely lovely when you were 19.’ There is no way back from this mistake. Because the inevitable response is, ‘Are you saying that I’m not lovely now?’

When your life partner is still only 26 you can extricate yourself from this dead end with a fair degree of plausibility if you say, ‘You haven’t changed a bit!’ But will this gambit work quite so well when your partner is 86, or even 46, or – heaven forbid – bald as a coot?

However, it’s an easy mistake to make. I heard a woman say once that when her husband died she lost the last person in the world who looked at her and still saw the 16 year old he had fallen in love with. After his death she knew that people would only see her as old or – if she was fortunate – as middle aged. And I thought, ‘How absolutely true that is.’ Because we do idealise our love, there will always be a level on which our partner never alters in our eyes but remains essentially the same. Love alters not with time’s brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.

I said that sonnets are usually an idealised picture of love but, because Shakespeare was a remarkable poet and this is one of his greatest sonnets, he is able to transcend the form and introduce something less than ideal into his image of love. It can be threatened by tempests, and be sure – if you live long enough to come within the compass of time’s sickle – there will be at least the occasional tempest. You will need to be determined to make your love an ever-fixed mark that never alters.

The sort of advice which St Paul gives will stand you in good stead: ‘Hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection;  rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer and live in harmony with one another.’

One of the things I admire about Maria and Matthew is that they say they want to make the world a better place than they found it. We can all try to do that, with a bit of determination. It doesn’t have to be an individual effort. It’s something we can do together. But, as St Paul puts it, to keep the vision alive, to keep on trying to leave the world better than we found it, we will need zeal, we will need to be ardent to make it happen, we will need high ideals, and we will need determination. And with God’s help all these things are possible.

So let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. May your love be an ever-fixed mark, a bright star to every wandering bark you meet, and may it continue to shine.

Leave a comment »

David and Katies’s Wedding Address

Generally speaking, there are five ways you can get to make a speech at a wedding. You can ask someone to marry you, and then make a speech about them.

You can be asked to be the best man – or sometimes now the chief bridesmaid. The website “You and Your Wedding” says, ‘This is hopefully the most memorable speech of the whole day – it must be humorous while finding a tone which will please both the bride and groom’s friends and their grandmothers, managing not to offend anyone but still being entertaining.’ So as your mother said on hearing this, ‘No pressure there, Matthew!’

You can of course be the father of the bride, he gets to make a speech, or you can be the groom’s favourite uncle. At least that’s what my uncle said when he got up and made an impromptu speech when Helen and I got married. No one felt able to argue with him, so away he went and – oddly enough – we both still remember exactly what he said.

And then, of course, if none of those categories applies to you but you’d still like to get up and make a speech at a wedding, you can be ordained, or at least commissioned as a preacher or lay reader. And then you get to go first.

It’s a great privilege to have been asked by Katie and David to give the address at their wedding service this morning and to have been allowed by X to take up that invitation, so thank you all very much.

We knew something significant had happened in David’s life the day after he met Katie, because he rang us – which was unusual – and he sounded unusually happy. He said he had met someone whom he felt was going to be very special.

During his first year at Leeds University David had made friends with another student who was just starting to study dentistry. After that first year their friendship gradually waned but in his third year they were still sufficiently friendly that he got an invite to her birthday party. David was with another of his friends, Jason, that night, and they had decided to do something else, but on their way to whatever that was going to be they dropped in for a drink at the party, and there David met Katie, and he changed his plans. So I don’t know how Jason’s evening turned out, he can tell you later, but David and Katie’s evening turned out to be both unexpected and life transforming.

There are two ways of looking at what happened to Katie and David that night, and both are equally valid. If you subscribe to the idea of love at first sight, you can say that each of them met Mr or Miss Right. They recognised in one another a kindred spirit and wrapped their arms around one another – literally and metaphorically – and determined never to let go.

The other way of understanding their meeting is the way that the poet Robert Frost was talking about when he wrote that on our life’s journey we come to a series of places in the road where two paths diverge and we have to make a choice – there and then, upon the instant – which way we are going to go. On that view life is a series of choices or opportunities. David and Katie both had a choice the night that they met, an opportunity which they could either grasp or let go, and they chose to grasp the opportunity.

The difference between these two views of how we enter a relationship is that one is static and the other is dynamic. In the static view, we find the perfect relationship and then we try to hold on to what we’ve found, to keep it fresh – as my uncle put it – throughout our whole life together.

In the dynamic view we have to keep on making choices, which we make, at first only as individuals, but then increasingly together as a couple. And some of those choices can seem quite small at the time, trivial even – like whether or not to go to a party – but they can grow to have momentous consequences, and others can seem full of significance from the very first moment, like when two people’s eyes first meet across a crowded room.

When Jesus met people they always faced a moment of decision. He was such a special person, so out of the ordinary, that they were forced to decide there and then whether they were with him or against him, whether they believed in him or not.

On this view every day is special. Every day we have to wake up and renew our commitment to one another and face new challenges hand in hand.

As a student of English literature, David will be no stranger to the idea that a text can have more than one meaning. That’s the literary critic’s stock in trade. And so it is with the readings that Katie and David have chosen for us this morning.

The passage from St Paul’s letter to his friends at Corinth was obviously intended to have a spiritual meaning. In fact, some people think that the beautiful poem at the heart of the reading, that description of what love is like – kind and patient; never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude; never selfish, or quick tempered; slow to keep a record of wrongs that others do; but glad whenever truth wins its way; always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting – that little poem is a description of the character of Jesus himself. That’s the kind of person he was, and the kind of people we can only pray to become, relying on his love to make it possible for us.

But the passage can also be read, of course, as a poem about the love shared between two people. If you make this poem your guide, Katie and David, even for most of the time, your relationship will be a source of great strength and joy to you both and an encouragement to others. And of course, as you make your vows together and in the years ahead, you will have the prayers and encouragement of all your family and friends gathered here today – and of those at home who are thinking about you now.

More than that, you will have that eternal love which St Paul talks about, enfolding you and binding you together. It’s a bit like a wedding cake. And I can say this with confidence because I am now intimately acquainted with the way wedding cakes are constructed! If you just put three tiers one on top of the other you will have a disaster when the bride and groom come to cut the cake. A three tier wedding cake weighs about the same as a large toddler, so as the bride and groom apply a little bit of gentle pressure with the knife, or even breathe on the cake, there’s every chance that the top two tiers will come crashing through the bottom tier. Or indeed that might happen as the car bearing it to the wedding is being driven over a speed bump. So what is needed, hidden underneath all the delicate tracery of sugar icing, is a sturdy inner framework of pillars which will hold the cake together. Think of faith, hope and love as those pillars. And the greatest of these is love.

In contrast to 1 Corinthians 13, the poem by E E Cummings, is about the love between two people, but it was also intended by the poet to be read on a spiritual level. Cummings said that at the heart of life, and at the heart of all things and every relationship, there is a transcendent presence which he called the Thou, and he strove throughout his life to have an I-Thou relationship with this presence, to affirm it and acknowledge it. He said this was the only way to be truly yourself and most deeply in love with one another.

So when he says:

i carry your heart with me, (i carry it in my heart)

i am never without it

(anywhere i go you go, and whatever is done by only me is your doing,

you are my world, my true, and it’s you

are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

and when he says

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root, and the bud of the bud. and the sky of the sky

of a tree called life; which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

he’s talking not just about the one person he loves above all others, but about the timeless spiritual presence that he believes transcends their love and has the power to make it a love that will endure for ever, even beyond life itself.

I’m not sure whether he would have used the word, but – to save time, so we can get on with the wedding – let’s say that he was talking in the poem not just about his relationship with the one special person in his life, but about their relationship together with God. Like St Paul, he believed that God completely understands us, and only in the unfailing love of God will our love find the faith and the hope that will never fail. So as you make your promises to one another, may you make them in that same assurance and in that same power, and may you find the deepest secret, the greatest thing of all, the love that never fails but is made perfect in hope and trust.

A prayer for David and Katie

Eternal God, from whom comes every good and perfect gift,

we ask you today to fill Katie and David with the riches of our grace

and to breathe into their marriage the strength of your holy and life-giving spirit.

Give them the gift of that love which puts no limit on its faithfulness and hope.

Sow in their hearts the joy that comes from sharing with one another and grows with giving to one another.

Let peace spring from their relationship and flow deeper with the years.

Give them patience when things go wrong and persistence when times are hard.

Bless them in their work and in their companionship, in their sleeping and in their waking, in their joys and in their sorrows, in their living and in their dying.

May kindness and generosity, gentleness and tenderness, healing and hopefulness be the fruits of their relationship.

Guide them as they become a family and as they change each other through the years,

and as their love ripens and their marriage matures

may they reap the harvest of the spirit, rejoice in your gifts

and reflect your glory in Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.

A prayer for us all

May Katie and David so live together that the strength of their love

may reflect your love and enrich our common life as their family and friends. Amen.

Leave a comment »

Sunday Breakfast, Radio Sheffield, Sunday 18 January

Paulette: Now, as Barack Obama is inaugurated as president of the United States, do Christians feel the world could become a better place, or does a president always have to be pragmatic first and a man of faith second? Joining us now is Revd Neil Bishop from the Yorkshire and Humberside Faiths Forum and he’s based in Darnall. Morning, Neil.

Neil: Good morning.

Dean (Pepall): Morning, Neil.

Paulette: Now the whole world does seem optimistic, doesn’t it, about Barack Obama. Is that a feeling, is there a feeling of optimism in the faith communities?

Neil: I think there is, yes. I think it’s, um, I think it’s one of those moments that could be a turning point in, in history. I mean only time will tell, obviously, but – um – Martin Luther King said he had a dream that one day the – um – the content of people’s character would be more important than the colour of their skin and now the most important nation in  he world has taken that on.

Dean: It’s an interesting situation this, isn’t it? We have a President just around the corner – er – that generally speaking has had, the election of whom has had, a favourable response around the world. The last two, with George W Bush, had the complete opposite effect, didn’t it? And yet he would profess himself to be a Christian and Barack Obama is a man of faith as well, they tell us. I don’t think you could become elected president if you said otherwise, but do you feel this man has the kind of Christian principles that people outside of America recognise?

Neil: Well, I think, I think what has impressed people about Barack Obama is that he obviously does believe in things like peace and dialogue. Er, somebody said that President Bush, I mean I don’t doubt his Christian convictions for a moment, but they said that he – he came alive when he was talking about conflict, you know. Er, and that’s when he was most articulate. Whereas one senses that Barack Obama is more interested in, in doing things a different way. I mean, I know their talking about smart power, I guess Christians are a bit worried when people talk about power at all, but smart power’s got to be better than brute power.

Paulette: But, from a Christian perspective do you realistically think that Obama as a, as a president of the United States is going to make a difference to the world in general?

Neil: Well, um there’s a long tradition within the Bible of looking to political leaders to make a difference and, and even talking about them as God’s – er – chosen leader at times. A guy called Cyrus, who was the leader of – um – the Iranian Empire, er it wasn’t called that, it was the Persian Empire then, um about 3,000 years ago. And, and the Bible says that this guy is our representative and he’s making a difference to the world. So there’s a long tradition within faith communities of  looking to political leaders to make a difference. I think two areas where faith communities are expecting something to happen would be – um – Israel Palestine and global warming, two ares where – you know – there’s been significantly little progress over the past few years.

Dean: When we think of, er, a President of the United States he gets there by compromising all the way down the line really, doesn’t he? Because he has so many interests to try and represent. He eventually gets in, and when he gets in they start to tap on his shoulder and say, ‘Hey! Remember us?’ And very often that can conflict with the kind of things that you’ve been talking about, whether you’re talking about care of the planet, whether you’re talking about the Arab Israeli conflict, he’s – he’s in a lose lose situation in many respects.

Neil: Well, that’s true, but I think that’s why we have to keep on gently pressing for change and also praying for change.

Dean: Been good to talk to you. Thanks very much indeed  for coming in.

Neil: It’s a pleasure.

Dean: And would you say, you know,  that the views you’ve been talking about there are generally reflected in the – er – Yorkshire and Humberside faith communities that you come across? You do talk to a lot of people and I should imagine his election was something that many of you cottoned on to.

Neil: I think some of the people in some faith communities think less about politics than others but I think those people who do think about politics, yes, are certainly very hopeful that er that Barack Obama’s going to look for reconciliation

Dean: Thank you, we can but hope.

Paulette: Yes. You’ve got to hope.

Dean: Thank you very much, indeed. Neil Bishop, thank you.

Leave a comment »

Darnall Forum

This is an article which I have written for this year’s Methodist Conference handbook.

The Methodist Church has committed itself to celebrating diversity and working towards equality. This is very much the ethos of Darnall Community Forum, a charity set up by the residents of Sheffield’s most disadvantaged neighbourhood, to campaign for the regeneration of Darnall but also to celebrate its cultural, ethnic and religious diversity.

The Forum was established in 1998 but struggled to make an impact for a number of years. The fact that it has been revitalised is in no small measure due to the vision and commitment of local people of faith. The majority of the 14 trustees who currently oversee the Forum’s work are practising members of either the local Christian or Muslim communities and the minister of the local Anglican, Methodist and URC ecumenical partnership, Christ Church Darnall in the Sheffield East Circuit, played a prominent role in helping to revitalise the Forum’s work alongside other ecumenical and inter-faith partners.

The Forum is striving hard for greater equality in Sheffield. To achieve this, the residents of Darnall know that the gap between the most prosperous and disadvantaged neighbourhoods will have to be closed. At present, people in Darnall die 14 years earlier, on average, have lower incomes, are more likely to be living in over-crowded housing, more likely to be unemployed, and certainly breathe poorer quality air than people in the wealthiest suburbs.

There can never be complete equality between the residents of a city and it would probably be undesirable even if it could be achieved. Ironing out all the differences between individuals and communities would not only be unproductive and stifling, it would also be a denial of the fascinating kaleidoscope of backgrounds, cultures, faiths and outlooks which helps to make a place like Darnall so vibrant. However, where the gap between the wealthiest and poorest people is too great, and creates manifest unfairness in the opportunities available to different citizens of the same city, it has to be closed and people of faith have been in the forefront of the struggle.

Darnall Forum has a team of seven full-time workers, drawn from different faiths and cultures, which I am privileged to lead. We work to help local people find better jobs, new skills and wider opportunities, but also to help the different ethnic and faith communities to see how they can work together to bring about positive change.

The Christians and Muslims who have worked so hard for community cohesion and regeneration in places like Darnall do so because we share a God-given vision of how disadvantage can be overcome. We want to raise the profile of neighbourhoods like Darnall, so that the wider community begins to see them as beacons of hope and signs of God’s Kingdom. The positive developments that happen in places like Darnall prove that difference is a cause for celebration not for fear. Helping the Darnalls of this world to thrive is essential to the salvation of the whole city, the whole nation and the whole world.

Leave a comment »

BBC1’s The Passion – The Denouement

The resurrection of Jesus was portrayed in a surprisingly literal way. At first I was concerned that the risen Jesus seemed to be an Anglo-Saxon blond, whereas the earthly Jewish had looked more Jewish. However, once the disciples had recognised that Jesus was alive he reverted to his original appearance.

 I felt the way the resurrection was depicted could have been more daring. The risen Jesus might have been played by a different actor each time he appeared, or the appearances might have been more enigmatic.

In St Luke’s account of the Emmaus story he is careful not to close down the possibility that the disciples have encountered an ‘ordinary’ stranger who simply understands the truth about Jesus far better than they do, and so opens their eyes to the truth, but ‘The Passion’ left no room for different layers of meaning or possibility. In that sense, although it strove to be entirely orthodox, I felt the narrative was slightly dissatisfying.

Most surprisingly of all,  the risen Jesus made no attempt to show his friends the marks of his passion, and he did not appear to them only when they were alone together, away from the crowds. Both of these things are necessary features of the Easter story because resurrection always has to be about faith rather than certainty.

Leave a comment »

BBC 1’s The Passion

I think BBC 1’s ‘The Passion’ is brilliant, and very moving. I certainly could find myself believing in the BBC Jesus, though only by making allowances for the fast pace of the narrative. Obviously I would need to hear a lot more of what Jesus had to say in order to be as convinced by him as the other characters in the story. This could have been achieved if the narrative had spent less time dwelling on the political intrigues of Pilate and Caiaphas. (Herod has been cut out to keep the narrative flow simpler.) Am I the only one who doesn’t find politicians all that interesting? And the writers have missed some obvious opportunities to point up the character and wisdom of Jesus in action. ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ is a Temple Controversy story which belongs in Holy Week. It would have made a beautiful illustration of some of what Jesus had to say in the drama about the Jewish elders.

The production is sufficiently orthodox to appeal to a traditional Christian audience. Jesus clearly believes himself to be the Son of God and predicts his resurrection while remaining genuinely frightened about the ordeal he is going through, and believably shaken  at the end by its pain and ferocity. I think the crucifixion scene would grace an act of Christian worship very well. However, the miracles are down played. Jesus is shown tending the sick at the Pool of Siloam, but not healing anyone. 

To appeal to a mainstream audience the production has an edgy feel. As I said before, this prevents us from hearing any sustained teaching but it does give the drama a sense of urgency and intensity.

Unlike some of the Gospels, the production is also careful to avoid any overt anti-semitism. Am I the only person, however, who thinks that The Passion has a distinctly feminist flavour which detracts from the underlying Christian message? It’s easy to see the way the story unfolds as an indictment of the men involved, (Jesus excepted), and an affirmation of the women. We see various male characters doing their thing from a mixture of motives, but most of them indulge in unnecessary posturing and delude themselves about the true situation and their own reactions to it. It’s the women – on both sides of the conflict – who inject a down to earth and common sense challenge to what’s unfolding around them. This is great for a modern drama, and all too believable unfortunately, but it is dangerous for the Passion to be interpreted as misguided men triumphing over sensible women. The Chrisian faith teaches that Christ died for all, not just for the male of the species. We are all sinners and we all contribute, in different ways, to the human predicament which he came to save us from.

Leave a comment »

With apologies to the real Bishop of Pontefract!

Yes, there really he is a Bishop of Pontefract. He s a nice man and I am not he, but I am a bishop and I do live in Pontefract, hence my choice of nom de plume.

Comments (1) »