Champagne Rules

It became my custom to give up alcohol during Lent. I’m not sure when it started, but by the time I was ordained it was an established practice. With the eagerness of a new curate I was very clear that this was something I would observe, come what may. Like so many of the things we decide with absolute conviction, God is adept at questioning any rule we might turn into an idol. During those first few years of ordained life I found myself on one occasion at a 90th birthday celebration for a parishioner. Naturally, the fizz was circulating in abundance and there was to be a toast. I began to wonder whether my Lenten observance was pharisaical – placing the observance of a rule over its spirit and purpose. At that moment I took a glass and toasted the nonagenarian.

Rules can be very useful, even essential, but it can be important to know when they should be set aside for a greater purpose. In the Church of England the recent debates about same-sex blessings might be another example of the ‘champagne rule’. The moment when we realise that a rule no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended. When the Church realises it is operating a self-denying ordinance that leaves it skulking in the corner when the community we are called to serve is celebrating.

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Matthew 11: 16-19 NRSV

When we develop or change rules it can be unsettling. Many of those who have changed their mind on the topic of the blessings have done so because they have listened to people in relationships that are enriching each other, and the community: ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’. I am quite sure that they have also been open in prayer to seek what God is asking of the Church. Opponents simply battering on about marriage as something that has never changed (it has), or investing a particular interpretation and a huge weight on a few verses of the Bible, should not fly in the face of the overall purpose and direction of the Gospel. God is love, and enabling people in love to be blessed in the community does not seem un-Christian.

Perhaps it is only when we arrive at a particular moment, and are open to hear the whisper of wisdom, that we feel able to engage the champagne rules. For me it changed nothing about my overall observance of Lent. In fact, it helped dispel my youthful pride in a holy and sacrificial abstinence. God didn’t allow me to complete Lent with a clean sheet, but ensured that when there was a wedding or a birthday I always raised a glass. As the days of Lent progress it is important to remember that rules alone seldom (if ever) bring us closer to God.

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’.

Romans 13:8

Letting go

In a parish I once knew, long ago, there was a splendid cabinet in the vestry. Made from fine timber, it was a large chest with many drawers – in which, liturgical vestments were stowed. It had been given in memory of their father by two members of the choir.

When I was present to lead worship on a Sunday I often spent time in the vestry before the liturgy began. On several occasions these members of the choir would voice concern about something to do with ‘father’s chest’. An alien object had been placed on the top; or a drawer was sticking out; on more than one occasion it appeared to have been moved an inch one way or the other. The cry would go up: ‘what have they done to father’s chest?’

Over time a question began to form in my mind. Had this object really been given? The continuing bonds of attachment seemed so great, so proprietary, that it was hard to think of this as a gift that was given free, unencumbered and without strings.

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.

Matthew 6: 3-4 NRSV

On Ash Wednesday I think there is much to consider about giving and detachment. The ashes remind us that our physical life is temporary, and that all we own will one day be dust. More significantly, God gives Jesus without any sense or implication of ownership. Horrifically, human beings did with this gift what happens to far too many lives. Even on the cross and hearing the cry of despair, God is silent. This is a gift – a true gift, and therefore God can make no claim even on that desperate day we shall mark six weeks on Friday.

All out genuine acts of letting go echo something of this divine gift. If we give we can never claim ownership or, indeed, any greater interest than anyone else. Perhaps this is why gifts are so rare. In his poem ‘Walking Away’ C Day-Lewis reflects on the moment his young child disappears, momentarily, for the first time:

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Salty Language

Over ten thousand feet above sea level in central Peru it was surprising to find a whole industry dedicated to the production of salt. The Maras salt pans go back over a millennium to the Chanapata culture. As this civilisation gave way to the Inca Empire, they continued to provide their distinctive pink salt far and wide. At such a distance from the sea, and at such altitude, the steady supply of salt seems miraculous. Long ago, this land was below the sea and left salt hidden in the hills. A spring which runs through the complex of underground passages this enables the striking ‘pink gold’ to be extracted from the small stream that emerges above the pans. The rights to salt production are handed down through the generations, back to a time now lost to memory, with tourism adding further value to the enterprise. It is hard work, but the rewards can be significant.

Photo by Roger Duran on

For all of my life salt has been readily available and cheap. This was not always the case and for most of human history salt has been a precious commodity. In the Roman Empire it was taxed, and served a wide variety of uses – religious sacrifice, medicinal, fish preservation and, of course, the seasoning of food. Like anything that is taxed, this also made salt political. In Matthew chapter five, when Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth’, it follows only a few verses after the calling of the first disciples. In a way largely missed today, the leap from those involved in fishing, to an image of salt, was entirely natural. Everyone was connected to salt in some way; and no one doubted its value.

In the Jewish Scriptures there are intriguing references to the ‘covenant of salt’. In the various covenants God made, such as with Noah and Abraham, there is a theme of constancy (at least on God’s part). Probably due to its properties of preservation, salt was often used for these moments of commitment. In Numbers 18:19 we hear about the relationship of God to the people as ‘a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants’. A commitment made in salt was expected to endure.

In Greek and Latin the words for ‘salt’ also carry the sense of wit and sparkle. Salt put the zest into a meal, transforming the plain into the delicious. As an image used by Jesus (‘salt of the earth’) to address the crowds who came to hear him, it suggests that those who are alive to God should be the people changing the taste of living. Like the image of yeast used by Jesus, this isn’t about changing what would become the Christian Church, but about how the baptised are called to transform the world.

is it really the salt
that really matters
or is it the bitterness
that wakes us up
and lets us know
what this life is all

Ric Bastasa, 2009, The Salt of the Earth

Salt is undoubtedly a powerful and necessary part of our lives, but it is not benign. We talk about ‘rubbing salt into the wound’. When we distrust what we are being told we ‘take it with a pinch of salt’. Spilling it is seen by many as bad luck. The language about salt reminds us that anything significant can be used for good or ill. As Ric Bastasa conveys in his poem, we can spend too long wondering about the salt – and not enough time thinking about the changes it brings. Portrayed as the salt of the earth, the crowd was being encouraged to preserve its sparkle; never to lose its wit and flavour. Jesus may be suggesting – by comparison – that the religious leaders had grown bland and stale: ‘but if salt has lost its taste… It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot’. Without the responsibility to enliven others these leaders had failed in their calling: to enable people to be God’s salt for the world.