Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’

First Sunday after Christmas
29 December 2019
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Reviewing the year is something we all like to do at the end of December

I have already read reviews of photographs and restaurants for 2019

My own review of TV programmes have had two standout performances

The first was Phoebe Waller Bridge’s “Fleabag”

I would never had watched Fleabag had it not been brought to my attention by my daughter

But the series revolved around the central character of Fleabag and her dysfunctional family

Her neurotic but high achieving sister Claire

Her estranged Father and manipulative godmother

An array of unsuitable boyfriends

Followed by the wonderful introduction of “Hot Priest” which saw a spike, not only in Church attendance, but also M&S gin and tonic.

The second programme was the recently concluded drama “Gold Digger”

The sixty year old Julia Day falls in love with a man half her age and nearly causes a family meltdown

Her hypocritical lawyer elder son, the feckless younger sibling together with a jealous ex-husband all conspire, in their own ways, to bring down the relationship

Christmas is a time for families

Numerous parishioners have told me that they have either been hosting their families or visiting them this week

This Includes, not only children, but grandchildren and partners as well

Then there are extended families where someone has become an “aunt” or an “uncle” or just a member of the family, by invitation

However, as we all probably know, families can be dysfunctional

 There are sibling rivalries/there are fallings out

There can be individual and collective problems which, brought together under one roof, can be quite toxic, particularly at Christmas

Families are complicated and not always quite what they seem

Today’s reading focuses, once again, on the Holy Family

We started the season of Advent by concentrating on Mary and her obedience to the will of God

Our attention then, naturally, turned to the Christ Child

Last, but not least, at the end of Christmas, it is the turn of Joseph who is told of God’s plan for Mary and the Christ child

But Joseph represents an interesting figure in the family mix because he is Jesus’ adopted rather than biological Father  

This is, perhaps, an odd choice for a Christian model of fatherhood

The nuclear family which we revere in the crib is not as straight forward as it might first seem

Furthermore, Jesus, in a sense, has two Fathers

As I said before, families are complicated

A few years ago I had to host some Nepalese Officers at a dinner in San Remo in Italy

Royalist officers who were caught up in the struggle against Maoist insurgency

During dinner, I sat next to a beautiful female officer and we touched on the subject of marriage

Not in the romantic sense but on the interesting subject of polyandry

Polyandry is the custom of having more than one husband

It is limited to just four countries in the world and this includes Nepal

Polyandry is designed to stop land being carved up into ever smaller parcels

But, inevitably, it has led to the understanding of a child having “two” Fathers

In contrast to Nepal, there stands Natal

It was formerly the Colony of Natal and is now the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa

The reason I mention Natal is because, in contrast to Nepal, Natal practised and still practises polygamy

Polygamy, as you know, is the practise of taking more than one wife as opposed to husband and is the exact opposite of polyandry

It is still practised in Islam and Christianity in some parts of the world

These Christian countries include Swaziland ruled by King Msawati III

I know because I taught some of his children who were at Sherborne

In a sense, his children have two or more “mothers” and the wider family appeared to function perfectly well

However, the Colony of Natal has, historically, caused problems’ for the Church of England

Problems about marriage which, arguably, continue to this day but in different guises

In 1853, a Cornishman by the name of John William Colenso was appointed as their first Bishop 

He was a man of great religious zeal

Not only did he write a guide to Zulu grammar but also translated the Bible into Zulu

But as with many missionary priests, he ran into cultural difficulties

In the case of Natal, this included polygamy

Bishop Colenso however took a relatively relaxed view  

Not only did he not believe that polygamy cast men and women into outer darkness, but, more importantly, he believed that all wives had to be cared for by their husbands and could not be discarded

This sounded eminently sensible, however, common sense brought him into conflict with the Church of England which demanded he insist monogamy

Colenso was not prepared to change his position

Predictably, he incurred the wrath of his Bishop

Summonsed before a local court, Colenso found himself excommunicated

And a new Bishop of Natal was consecrated

However, as so often, although this was a spiritual ruling, this was not the legal reality

The final decision lay with the Privy Council

An attempt to bring this issue to a head at the Lambeth Conference 1867 also failed thanks to the Archbishop of Canterbury carefully avoiding the issue

In the end, Colenso stayed in place thanks to a ruling from the Privy Council

This meant that there were two ecclesiastical jurisdictions until Colenso’s death

Some Churches staying with the Church of England whilst others preferred the Province of South Africa

This case raised issues, not only about marriage, but also the status of Anglican Churches overseas

Questions which also continue to this day

Whatever the merits of the arguments, the Church family also showed itself to be dysfunctional

As I said before, families are complicated, and that includes the Anglican Communion

But returning to the Bible

Rather than having a perfect nuclear family on which to draw, the reality is more complicated

Indeed, there are indeed no less than forty individuals in the Bible who have more than one wife.

Furthermore, if we go back to Abraham, the father of all the great faiths, he has a child through his wife’s servant Hagar

An early example of surrogacy and, yet another family, where there is more than one parent

Fast forward to the New Testament

The genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthews’ Gospel presents a family which might also lead to friction at Christmas

Great uncle Solomon certainly has some skeletons in his cupboard not to mention wives

Not to mention aunt Rahab

Careful navigation might be required over Christmas lunch

I mention this, not to denigrate the Bible or indeed any family, not least the Holy family

But simply to illustrate that all families have their complexities, even the Holy One

Whatever problems we might encounter, we are not alone this Christmas or indeed at anytime

It is part of the human condition

However, the Holy Family, and particularly Joseph set us a wonderful example at Christmas

Joseph embodies the triumph of grace

He puts nurture in front of nature

He puts the needs of others before his own when he could so easily have walked away

He exhibits generosity over genetics and models a different type of family opening the way to a more open and tolerant society generally

At the Christmastide we might all do well to ponder his example

And fashion our own families in a similar vein, whatever that might mean, and whatever complexities it may contain