Have you ever wondered why, if Christianity is true, churches are not filled every week? Should Jesus have stayed around longer after his resurrection, or made a personal appearance once every hundred years or so?
As the Easter Season with its focus on the resurrection draws to a close it’s worth considering Jesus’ promise found in the Gospel reading this Sunday – from John 14:15ff. It forms part of the record of Jesus’ final hours before his arrest and crucifixion. He had told his disciples he was ‘going away’ (John 14:3), and they were frightened.
We see in John 14:15ff a tenderness not seen elsewhere as Jesus tells his disciples he would not leave them bereft: “If you love me you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with and will be in you…” (John 14:15ff).
This reference to the Spirit might initially give us the impression that Jesus is speaking about some impersonal power or force – as in Star Wars. Indeed, Acts 8:18f tells us Simon Magus thought the Holy Spirit was a force he could buy.
But with the personal pronouns ‘him’ and ‘he’, referring to the Spirit, we see that Jesus is saying the Spirit is not a force but a person. In the Greek, ‘Spirit’ is a neuter noun – an ‘it’ word. But John breaks the rules of grammar. The ‘hims’ and the ‘he’ of John 14:17 are strongly emphasized pronouns: He dwells with you…
But if we think of the Holy Spirit as an ‘it’ we miss Jesus’ promise. He says that with his going away he is to be replaced, not by an ‘it’, but by a ‘he’ – the Spirit, the ‘Helper’.
The word Helper translates two words – the preposition, alongside, and the verb, called. With his approaching physical absence Jesus promises the Spirit who would perfectly match the need for a Helper, a Comforter.
And this Helper or Comforter is not just ‘a comforter’ like Linus’s blanket, nor simply a hot water bottle for cold, hard times. The Spirit comes to strengthen us – to put strength into our hearts, into the backbone of our lives, especially when we are challenged.
Significantly Jesus says, ‘The Spirit of truth is not known by the world, but ‘you know him…’ (14:17). With his physical going, the age of the Holy Spirit will come. Jesus is now at work in the world through his Spirit.
This is very encouraging. When we go back to the Old Testament we read that God’s people dearly wanted God to live with them. But they found this concept hard to grasp. King Solomon asked: ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you;…’ (1 Kings 8:27).
The answer to Solomon’s question was, ‘Yes’. The Temple in Jerusalem was not only a place of worship. It symbolized God’s dwelling with his people – his special relationship with them.
Furthermore, in Ezekiel 37:27 God says: ‘My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…’ What Solomon thought God was too big for, God said he would do. He would dwell with his people.
This was something that bothered Stephen Hawking in his Brief History of Time where he wrote: ‘We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburb of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that could care about us or even notice our existence.’
However, Dr Henry Schaefer, one of the world’s leading quantum computational chemists writes: ‘I take a different position… There is no compelling evidence to date that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Human beings, thus far, appear to be the most advanced species in the universe. Maybe God does care about us! Stephen Hawking surveys the cosmos and concludes that the principal characteristic of humankind is obscurity. I consider the same data and conclude that humankind is special. I must be quick to add that a Christian worldview does not exclude the possibility of life, even sentient life elsewhere in the universe…’ (HF Schaefer, III, Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence? 2003, p.66.)
The amazing thing is that God notices us and cares for us more than we can begin to imagine. At the beginning of his Gospel, John tells us that God came among us: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
These matters and more we will be taking up at the June Anglican Connection conference. Here is a link you may want to check out: Effective_GospelCentered_Chuches_Invite
Prayer. O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us desolate, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to where our Savior Christ has gone before, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore. Amen. (BCP, Sunday after Ascension)
It is sometimes said that anyone who insists on a right understanding of God’s Word can prevent the Holy Spirit from bringing about renewal and church unity.
Yet the irony is that a right understanding of God’s Word is essential for an effective gospel ministry and the unity of God’s people. Jesus himself said it: “Those who worship him (God) must worship in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
It’s important we consider Jesus’ words here for they are often misunderstood. ‘Spirit and truth’ are not synonyms for sincerity of heart. Heartfelt worship as opposed to just outward form was always required of God’s people. In Psalm 51:17 David says, The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart…
Jesus’ words are far-reaching and profound: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him…” (John 4:23).
‘Spirit’ and ‘truth’ are key words. Indeed, when we read John’s Gospel carefully, we see that these two words are bound up with the very person and work of Jesus.
So, in speaking of ‘spirit’ here, Jesus is not referring to God’s non-material nature, but rather to the new age that is dawning when the inner life of God will become available to men and women through him (Jesus).
Further, when Jesus speaks of ‘truth’ he is not speaking about sincerity. Rather, he speaking of the inner reality of God which, hidden in the past, is now revealed in Jesus.
Jesus is saying it is only when we receive the spiritual life and the spiritual reality of God that are bound up in his (Jesus’) unique Person and work, that we can truly worship God. He calls for a heart response, not to some vague, mystical view of God, but rather to himself. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” he says, “No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the 16th century English Reformation, understood this. It is why he was committed to the systematic reading of the Scriptures in Church, together with the faithful preaching of God’s Word.
He also wanted to ensure that the truth of God was clearly stated in the Prayer Book he crafted. As his first Prayer Book (1549) did not set out clearly and unambiguously the significance of Jesus’ Person and Work – especially in the service of The Lord’s Supper – he produced a second Book in 1552. There he removed sections that were ambiguous and confusing in their theology.
So, in in the service of The Lord’s Supper, he removed any reference to the Spirit and the Word coming on the bread and wine (called an epiclesis – ‘a calling down’ of the Spirit). In 1549 he had left open the idea that we partake of Christ because he is physically or mystically present in the elements. Christ is physically in heaven.
Thus Cranmer’s calling down of the Spirit (epiclesis) is at the beginning of the service where we pray: Almighty God… cleanse the thoughts of our hearts through the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Further, Cranmer also took out any sense that we contribute to our salvation through our very participation in the Communion, or because we are in some way offering a good or meritorious work. Our salvation is through Christ alone.
In the prayer immediately before the Communion, Cranmer’s language is clear and unequivocal: Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death on the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world…
How can we more effectively reach people who long to find the truth? How can we effectively hold out a gospel ministry that enables more and more people to worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’? Surely we will want to read, study, preach, and sing God’s Word. We will also want to ensure that God’s truth is consistently found in the Prayer Book of the church.
Clearly I am only just touching on some very big questions. Yet so important are these matters that we are addressing them at the June Anglican Connection conference.
Here is a link you may want to check out: http://anglicanconnection.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Effective_GospelCentered_Chuches_Invite.pdf
Prayer. Almighty God, you alone can order the unruly wills and passions of sinful men and women. Help us so to love what you command and desire what you promise, that among the many and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys may be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP Easter 4 – adapted)
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In his book The Reformation Experience, Eric Ives, Emeritus Professor of English History, University of Birmingham, England, writes that whether you agree with the Reformation or not, The most remarkable thing about the Reformation is that it still matters.
While observing that many students of the Reformation explore the political, economic and social issues of the time, he insists that the Reformation was essentially a religious event. Writing from ‘a bottom up’ approach to the history of the 16th century, he explores the reason for the huge transformational change in England.
He highlights the importance of the reawakened understanding of the Scriptures and the recovery of key biblical themes: we are saved by faith alone through God’s grace alone, in Christ alone. He also notes the significance of the translation of the Bible into English. All churches in England were required to have a copy. This was to be read at all services and available for people to read at other times. Sermons were also regularly preached.
Yet in the concluding pages of his book, Professor Ives points out with respect to preaching that ‘it is notorious that only 10 per cent of any address remains in the mind by the time the listener gets to the church door. ‘So what did reach the people?’ he asks. ‘The answer is the Prayer Book itself. The twenty-first century decries rote learning, but the majority of Elizabeth I’s subjects were not bookish: they were listeners. They repeated the liturgy aloud and they repeated it regularly… And the words they heard and repeated… taught them the faith and two things in particular: rely on God and live a moral life’.
Assuming this conclusion is correct, it brings home to us the importance of memory – something we can easily lose in today’s fast-paced, digitized world.
The words of 2 Peter 1:12f come to mind: Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
Remind, refresh, and recall are key words here. Peter wanted to keep fresh in the memories of his readers the things they had been taught about God; he knew how important it was they remain firm in God’s truth.
Christianity is a faith grounded in received truth. There is a body of information that can be known and recalled. The process of revelation had begun in what is now our Old Testament. It was confirmed, developed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ who passed it on to the apostles.
Peter’s concern is that Christianity could be cut loose from its historical moorings and become nothing more than a spiritual experience. His desire is that God’s people know and remember the gospel and the essential teaching of the Scriptures.
The leaders of the Reformation were committed to reading and preaching the Bible. They looked for ways to teach and build up God’s people in their faith and living. So with the English Prayer Book, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer designed a pattern of daily Bible reading that took everyone through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament three times.
The Prayer Book includes a Catechism to be taught at church and which every household was expected to use in raising children. The Catechism includes the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and our duty to God and our duty to our neighbors (which includes the State).
In Cranmer’s second prayer book (1552/1662), there is a clear, consistent Bible-based theology. People hear the Scriptures read, sung and preached. As well as a prayer of confession, prayers for matters of common concern are prescribed (hence ‘common prayer’).
Furthermore, in the 1552/1662 service of The Lord’s Supper, the substance of God’s gospel is clear. And with repetition, key words become etched in the memory – for example, words that remind us of the significance of Jesus’ death where he made: a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world…
The challenge for us today is to determine how we can teach and build up God’s people in the non-negotiable truth of God in a way that it is remembered.
Indeed this is one of the key subjects we plan to explore at the Anglican Connection conference in June where we are asking, ‘Can we be more effective in gospel ministry?’ We are encouraging ministers and/or church leaders and members from across the country to come.
Here is a link where you can find out more and register: Conference Registration
Prayer. Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth so that they may return into the way of righteousness: grant to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s service that we may renounce those things that are contrary to our profession and follow all such things as are agreeable to it; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (BCP Easter 3)
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© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
Fruitful outcomes are something we expect from worthwhile endeavors. So we look at measures of productivity in the corporate world and perhaps also in our annuity or superannuation fund. Productivity is a sign of life and growth.
It is therefore interesting to learn that Jesus too is concerned with productivity. He lived in an agrarian culture and used grape-growing as a metaphor for the productivity he is committed to.
Vineyard owners work hard to develop the output of each vine. They know that to get maximum output there will be times when judicious pruning is required, for a good grower doesn’t confuse short-term profitability with long-term viability. Indeed, Jesus makes the point that a good vine-grower treats low-producing branches quite differently from non-productive ones.
In John 15:1-2 we read Jesus’ words: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
To understand what his reference to fruit means, we need to consider the context of his words. The previous chapter concludes with his expectation that his people will love him and keep his commands. And in John 15:9 we read: ‘If you obey my commands you will remain in my love’.
There are times in the Old Testament when Israel was likened to a vine, planted and tended by God. Psalm 80:8-9 says of God, ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. By the time of Jesus, the grapevine was close to being a national symbol for Israel – a little like the Big Apple for New York.
But there was something uncomplimentary about this, for wherever we find the metaphor of the vine in the Old Testament it seems to be associated with the moral and spiritual degradation of Israel. Isaiah 5, for example, tells us that instead of producing good grapes, Israel yielded sour grapes. For all the blessing God showered upon Israel, he looked in vain for a harvest of righteousness that he wanted to see. And Ezekiel bluntly said that Israel was a useless vine.
When we think about this we see that with his words, “I am the true vine”, Jesus was challenging Israel’s right to continue calling itself the people of God. ‘Israel may say it is a vine,’ Jesus is saying, ‘but I am the true vine’. “I am the vine,” he continues, “you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
These tough words were not just about Israel. They are also words to people who call themselves Christians but for whom Christianity is no more than a box to check. And Jesus warns us, ‘That is not enough!’ He expects visible evidence of our loyalty to Him. In the absence of such evidence, we cannot think of ourselves as secure in his friendship.
Israel’s mistake was to assume that because they had the temple, because they had the Scriptures, because they had the right pedigree, they would be immune from judgment.
It’s the same today. We can say, ‘I have been baptized and married in the church’, and, ‘I attend church at Easter’, thinking that all will be well when we pass from this world to the next. But, according to Jesus, the mark of everyone who is part of the true vine is fruitfulness. Where fruitfulness is absent, so is true faith.
So he continues: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers;…” (John 15: 6). There is a dramatic change in the tense of the verbs here. Literally he is saying, ‘whoever is not remaining in me’ (present tense), ‘has been thrown away’ (past tense).
This strange counterpoint of tenses suggests that the severance of the branch and its consequent decay are not the result of its sterility, but the cause. It is because it never really belonged to the vine that it never produced fruit. So when he speaks of branches ‘in me’ being cut off, he is referring to people who have superficially belonged to a church and called themselves Christians.
Love in response to his love, prayer and loyalty to his commands is what Jesus expects of us.
As we reflect on what this fruit-bearing love and obedience looks like, we see that it refers to the reality of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the quality of our life measured by the Ten Commandments and the exhortations of the New Testament; it also involves sharing God’s passion for the lost. Fruitfulness is seen in Godly love and living, prayer, and drawing others to know Christ Jesus. Let’s pray for God’s grace enabling us to lead fruitful lives in Christ.
So urgent is the need for fruitful gospel living today, so ill-equipped are many of God’s people, will you also join with me in praying that many churches across the US will send representatives to the Anglican Connection June conference? It’s not just for ministers or even Anglicans. It is also for church members who are committed to the priority of God’s gospel.
Find out more at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgiBA9YCcB4&feature=youtu.be.
Further information and register at: http://anglicanconnection.com/2017-national-conference-effective-gospel-centered-churches/
Prayer. Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly living; give us grace so that we may always thankfully receive the immeasurable benefit of his sacrifice, and also daily endeavor to follow in the blessed steps of his most holy life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore. Amen. (BCP Easter 2)
Unless I missed something, articles questioning or dismissing the authenticity of Christianity seemed somewhat muted this Easter. Was it out of respect for the churchgoers in Egypt who were massacred on Palm Sunday?
Yet while churches around the world prayed for fellow-Christians in Egypt, little media attention was given to the large numbers attending Easter Day services in Egypt.
None of this should surprise us. Western society reckons that its cool dismissal of Christianity is savvy and sophisticated. Films and persuasive media voices continually assume there is no God. The biblical miracles are fables. Only fools believe them.
Where then do God’s people find strength to persevere – even in the face of persecution?
At the end of John 13, a dark cloud hung over Jesus’ disciples. For three years they had followed him, increasingly confident he was God’s promised king. But at the Passover meal he had told them he was going away. “Don’t be troubled,” he said. “Believe in God, believe also in me… I go to prepare a place for you.”
Thomas’s response expressed a frustration we can all feel: “Lord, we do not know where you’re going…”
We can sympathize with Thomas. Today, people like Richard Dawkins have problems with the idea of a heavenly world. Maybe Thomas thought like this too. Maybe that is why later on he couldn’t at first accept that Jesus had risen from the dead. For him, knowledge had to be based on concrete realities, not abstract metaphors.
Jesus’ reply to him is breath-taking, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He didn’t say, ‘I’ll show you the way’ but rather, ‘I am the way’; he didn’t say, ‘I’ll tell you the truth’ but, ‘I am the truth’; he didn’t say, ‘I’ll give you eternal life’ but, ‘I am the life’ (John 14:6).
Jesus is saying that behind the universe is not a mathematical equation or a scientific formula but a person. Despite the voices of Richard Dawkins and others today, there are eminent scientists who agree with Jesus. For example, John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, has said: ‘The rational intelligibility of the universe,… points to the existence of the Mind that was responsible both for the universe and our minds. It is for this reason that we are able to do science and to discover the beautiful mathematical structures that underlie the phenomena we can observe.” (cited in Paul W. Barnett, Gospel Truth, p.21)
Jesus tells us that the only way we can make sense of our human existence is by recognising that he is the complex person who is the Mind behind the universe. This means that people who can barely remember their math tables can be closer to the truth than many high-powered mathematicians or scientists, because they have a relationship with him.
This is not fantasy. John candidly reports that Thomas thought for a while it was. He didn’t believe the other disciples when they said they had seen Jesus risen from the dead.
Then when he saw him he responded, My Lord and my God. Were those first followers dreaming?
Six weeks later Peter preached the first Christian sermon less than two miles from Jesus’ tomb, yet no one contradicted his claim that the tomb was empty.
In troubled times we have the assurance, the comfort, and indeed the joy of Jesus’ words, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Let me add, because so many have not heard or do not know what to believe, the Anglican Connection conference is focusing on the twin themes of ‘Effective Church’ and ‘Effective Gospel Outreach’. We have a great line-up of speakers and ministry workshops grounded in the Bible and framed by talks on the Reformation. Worship will be lead by the gifted Gettymusic team.
So urgent is the gospel need today, so ill-equipped are many of God’s people, will you join with me in praying that many churches across the US will send representatives to the conference?
The conference is: June 13 – 15 at The Crowne Plaza, Dallas, Galleria-Addison.
Find out more and register at: http://anglicanconnection.com/2017-national-conference-effective-gospel-centered-churches/
Prayer. Almighty God, you have conquered death through your dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ and have opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant us by your grace to set our mind on things above, so that by your continual help our whole life may be transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in everlasting glory. Amen. (BCP, Easter Day)
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© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
The final volume of JRR Tolkein’s, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, is dominated by scenes of despair. Yet as the two hobbits from the Shire, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, unlikely heroes of the saga, wearily pursue a cause that is seemingly hopeless, we encounter Sam’s reflection when he pauses and looks up:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.
Without hope for the future life becomes meaningless. Indeed anxiety, fear and hopelessness about the future seem to have been the cause of the recent suicide of a successful Wall Street man.
Where do we find hope for the future that is a ‘true hope’?
In John’s gospel we see that life had been heating up for Jesus in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders had attempted to stone him (John 10:31) for his apparent blasphemy. So Jesus left the city for the region east of the Jordan River. There he learned that his friend Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, was dying in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem.
When he heard that Lazarus had died, and against the advice of his disciples who feared the Jewish leaders, Jesus returned to Bethany where he was met by Martha. In the course of their conversation he made the amazing assertion: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Significantly, he didn’t say, ‘I promise resurrection and life’ or ‘I procure’ or ‘I bring.’ He said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ The witness of the New Testament, the evidence of history, the existence of the Christian church all point to the fact that Jesus’ words are the truth.
In his poem, Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold identifies the fear and hopelessness that lies in many a human heart: The world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy nor love, nor light nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.
Where in the world do we look for meaning and hope? In our abilities, our resources, our success? In political solutions?
The events of the first Good Friday and Easter Day tell us that there is no real answer apart from Jesus Christ. Because he has come; because he has given his life in our place; because he has been raised from the dead, we can have the assurance of hope.
John 11:26-27 tells us that Jesus challenged Martha about his claim to be the resurrection and the life with the question, “Do you believe this?” To which she replied: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”.
Jesus asks you and me the same question today: “Do you believe this?” If you do believe this to be true, what does it mean for your life now – and for your future?
Will you be praying this Easter for opportunities to tell your story of faith to family and friends, inviting them to come with you to church?
The Apostle Peter writes in his First Letter: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,.. (1 Peter 1:3-4).
Prayer: Almighty God, you have conquered death through your dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ and have opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant us by your grace to set our mind on things above, so that by your continual help our whole life may be transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in everlasting glory. Amen. (BCP, Easter Day)
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ANGLICAN CONNECTION CONFERENCE – June 13 – 15, Crowne Plaza, Dallas, TX
Music is one of the delights of the Christian faith. Keith and Kristyn Getty of Gettymusic, will lead worship; they will also lead workshops on the importance of biblically grounded music and song in building effective, outreaching churches for adults and children in today’s progressive culture.
At a time when many people have never heard, and so many don’t know what to believe, we aim to explore practical ways to develop more effective gospel-focused churches.
Find out more and register at:
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© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com