Proud to be pleb

805629Four letter words often come to mind, but pleb isn’t one of them. I am without doubt a pleb. I have no connexions to the ruling classes. I am not of a landed family and have no land myself. Which reminds me: I heard a story, maybe apocryphal but still telling, of a man now a bishop who, when asked what his father did for a living responded ‘he doesn’t do, he owns’. As I say, I’m not one of them.

If pleb means someone from the lower social classes, then that’s pretty meaningless since in east Cumberland in the 1950s social classes didn’t really feature much. In the village there were farmers (Methodist) and there were people who lived in council houses (largely no religion). Within 10 miles there were landed gentry (C of E of course) such as the Vanes of Hutton, Whitelaws of Ennim, and Hasells of Dalemain. In Penrith it was rumoured that there were some very strange and exotic creatures: Catholics. Irish came in the 19th century to build the railway over Shap and Poles came in WW2. According to father, these people caused mayhem on Friday nights, and went to confession on Saturday, so it was all OK. There was a bit of forelock tugging. Father had been a policeman in Bradford in the 1930s, and through his work in later years with the Special Constabulary he was proud of his friendship with Lord Inglewood. But despite these later notions, we’re all thoroughly pleb so far.

Family history is still pleb. The Monkhouses were farmers and butchers; the Dobinsons (father’s mother) had aspirations certainly, but no land and no significant connexions. The Cranstons (mother’s father), a border reiver family, were butchers (and still are, famously so), and the Reids (mother’s mother) were Fife coalminers. So I’m still pleb.

I can’t remember having used the word in the playground to denigrate someone else. This is not because I was particularly virtuous—as a fat child I’d say I was more of a watchful performer—but because even though I did Latin it wasn’t a word that had any traction either way.

Of course, it’s the word playground that sums up this whole episode. It doesn’t speak well of Andrew wotsisname who comes across as a bit of a prat, and it doesn’t speak well of whoever objected to the word pleb: they should, as SWMBO says often enough to me, ‘grow a pair.’

I wondered what adjectives might I object to? Fat, smelly, untidy, ignorant, stuck up, insecure, stupid, degenerate, determined, stubborn, reactionary, unprincipled, pliable? They all leave me unmoved: some are accurate some are not. (Nice? Oh God, no, not nice, I will not tolerate being called nice.) I recall a party in Nottingham in the 1980s at which a woman, trying to insult me as gravely as she could, said I was a Conservative voter. She was a soggy champagne socialist and—of course—a Vicar’s wife. I think I told her to do something with a four letter word, not pleb.

For the record, I am not a Conservative voter. I am a Communist with me in charge.

Posted in A great future behind me | 2 Comments

The run up to Christmas



Once upon a time we had more disposable income than we do now. So we paid more tax and wasted more money. One of the best ways I’ve found to waste smackeroonies is on train trips. London-Brussels-Cologne and onwards. People look east.

German Christmas markets in November are something else, with fairs and stalls laid out in town squares in the shadow of the great church and the Rathaus. One year we found ourselves in Augsburg and Lindau. Lake Constance is just magic. Another year it was Koblenz, Limburg and Mainz. On both trips we had a night in Cologne, so we enjoyed the huge Christmas Market there. Lights twinkle in the frosty air; traditional music mingles with the aroma of glühwein and würst. Sustained by the delicious fare, we wander increasingly waywardly (glühwein) among stalls displaying local confectionery and handiwork. It reminds me just how many of our Christmas traditions are Central European in origin. We picked up a rather good Jesse tree icon in Cologne.



One of their customs that might do me some good is waiting until Boxing Day to open presents. As parishioners and my regular reader know, I’m possibly the world’s most impatient person, so I say this not as a killjoy, but rather to remind myself that a bit of waiting, however tiresome, increases the joy.

It’s waiting that Advent should be about, instead of which the evil advertising industry has assailed us since September with they call the ‘run up to Christmas’, presents, trees, food, booze and generally getting ready for the winter solstice. ‘Let’s get Carol Services out of the way’ (my first is on a stupidly early 5 December), ‘so we can get on with important stuff like planning TV’, presumably as a background to family rows. Advent is obliterated in all this frenetic activity.

So I tell myself, have a rest. Half an hour every now and then is better than nothing. Find something or someone who lifts my spirits and makes me smile. Find a friend who radiates energy, and avoid people who drain my life force like a vampire—there are plenty of them. Lionel Blue is always a radiator, and his advice for starting the day is to recall some proud moment of yesterday. I’ll see if I can dredge one up from what passes for a memory.

Find radiators, avoid drains. And they all lived happily ever after.

Posted in Pastoralia | 2 Comments

A call to action



Homily for Second Sunday before Advent, Year A, by Fr Phillip Jefferies

Zephaniah 1-7; 12-18. 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11. Matthew 25: 14-30.

A devastating prophet of doom is the almost unknown and difficult to date prophet Zephaniah who saw the Judgements of the Lord in the affairs of history. But it’s not just Zephaniah! All three readings at mass today are what you’d call full frontal – even Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica likens the coming of Christ to a thief in the night or the labour pains of a pregnant woman – grim indeed, and no escape. Nor, it seems, can we slip away into a comfortable parable in the gospel for today: the careful and cautious slave is roundly condemned!

If it were you or me and we were given only £300 (= 1 talent) to look after by someone we considered to be a bit of a tyrant, it might seem prudent to us, too, not to put it at risk. But, oh no, this parable isn’t about being careful, it is about risking it. So although we might be tempted to feel sorry for the third servant, we are not supposed to; put nicely, we might say nothing ventured nothing won – but the language of the parable doesn’t put it nicely: go to hell, says the harsh master, but with added venom!

The message from today’s Gospel then is very clear: get out there and live dangerously or there will be hell to pay. And as I said, the two supporting readings do just that: they support a tough understanding of what is expected at the coming of the Kingdom.

The Anglican calendar for these few weeks from the last Sunday after Trinity until Advent Sunday calls this period the Kingdom Season and the liturgical colour is red (that the Vicar likes red, or it’s the colour of his eyes, has nothing to do with it). Liturgically, red suggests fire and blood – drama and extreme cost. Are these fitting symbols for God’s Kingdom, do you think? Certainly, the readings, red in tooth and claw, as you might describe them, back up this view.

All this prompts us to ask whether the Kingdom of God might have more in common with a Caliphate than with a place for little children above the bright blue sky. I raise this somewhat fearful contrast not to be offensive, but to sharpen our minds to what precisely is being presented to us in the readings and in the theology of the kingdom of God.

I hear, as you do, of the radicalization of some young Muslims, one from our nearest city – up the road in Derby, and I wonder what they see about this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which fails to galvanize their admiration and loyalty. Well, I don’t know for certain, of course, what they don’t like. I do know, however, what fails to attract me and tends to take away my pride (to quote G K Chesterton). We seem to have such a vacuous life style, with a thorough-going celebrity culture. Most of our public statements come from our politicians with all the bombast of the bull horn – especially on foreign policy; our entertainment, while much of the world starves, is about endless different ways to cook. Meanwhile, our collective public worship appears to be centred on past wars, some of them very questionable, and is all organised by the British Legion.

There! And I’m not a radical, just from the slow, old West Country – whence bloweth the gentle zephyr; but, nevertheless, before me, whether I like it or not, is this radical parable Jesus told – and told with such vehemence!

I’m no extremist, just Church of England; but here I am sharing in this celebration of the Holy Sacrament of the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ. Perhaps it is I who need radicalizing! But perhaps the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Sacraments are, and should be, radicalizing in themselves; not into unspeakable degradation and violence, but out of any complacency and into confrontational Christian witness … Onward Christian soldiers!

Posted in Theology | 3 Comments

O valiant hearts

OValiantHeartsWithMusicRTFThe Civic Service on Remembrance Sunday 2014 at S Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent

 Micah 6: 6-8. Matthew 5: 1-12

Monday evenings this summer saw me glued to the box, watching the training of Marine Commandos. We glimpsed them, we glimpsed their trainers, many fresh from Afghanistan, and we saw how duty and tough love are agents of transformation. It made me wonder what our future is likely to be, shaped increasingly nowadays by ‘rights’ and indulgence.

It was remarkable to witness as training went on how these men come together in the service of something bigger than themselves. They learn that individuality is subservient to the common good. They learn that their own preferences and desires count for nothing when it comes to the well being of the unit. They learn comradeship. When one of them fails in an exercise there is none of the derision that I suffered in PE classes at school (I was and remain physically inept) but instead a remarkable level of encouragement and support.

It’s people and attitudes like this that we honour today.

Think about the men in the trenches a century ago. Maybe they signed up seeking excitement, maybe they were bored, maybe they had a sense of service, or maybe they were escaping desperate circumstances. Just like today’s commando trainees. Think how dreadful life was in the trenches. And death. And yet, despite this—or perhaps because of it, for there’s nothing quite like adversity to bring people together—we witness the comradeship and intimacy that develop, and we see it in ex-servicemen and -women.

Now think of the women and men who served in the Second World War, in the Gulf War, Ireland. Think of those serving at this moment: Afghanistan, the Middle East, and more. Think of servicemen and women who suffer in peacetime as a result of idiots who think they know better than everyone else. Think of those that are injured physically and mentally. And think of their families.

It is people like this that we honour today.

We’re not here to honour politicians who appear to indulge in playground games like ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ or ‘you can have my soldiers if I can be your friend’. We are not here to condemn service chiefs who make the best decisions they can given the information they have at the time—or who have decisions imposed on them. We’re here to remember those who learn to their cost about justice, and mercy, and humility. That is what the first reading is about. And in the second reading we hear that only when we have emptied ourselves of selfishness can we begin to glimpse the kingdom of God—which is not about life after death, but about what life could be here on earth, as it is in heaven.

However much historians might proclaim the stupidity of the First World War, one cannot deny the evil that was confronted in the Second. Fighting evil is necessary, so long as we remember that every evil act begins as a thought in the mind—and that such evil thoughts are in your mind and mine as well as in the mind of the Dictator. It’s worth remembering too that nowadays a UK military presence often serves, in the words of the second reading, ‘to show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.’ Selflessness replaces selfishness. That, brothers and sisters, is what Resurrection is about: we can all rise to the selflessness of eternal life if we put aside selfishness and ego.

My son and his family live in the United States. I’m always struck at US airports how military personnel are invited to board first, and how at shows and public events the military are applauded. Americans respect their military all year round. This week we show our respect for those who learnt the hard way that selflessness, not selfishness, is the way. It would be good if we could remember this message in the other 51 weeks of the year, every year, and in every moment of our lives. Before it’s too late.

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Ugly bug prayers

1409307203767_wps_14_BN2XBP_Colorized_transmisThere are calls for prayers to end the Ebola curse. Cathedrals do it, churches do it, even educated fleas do it. So what’s it all about? What are they asking for?

That the Lord will strengthen sufferers to bear what must be borne? Fair enough I suppose. We need to relax into allowing the processes of nature to take their course.

That the Lord will zap the viruses because they are less important than people? Are not viruses ‘creatures of this earth’ just like us? Why should viruses suffer more so that we suffer less? Do viruses suffer?

That the Lord inspires medical scientists to come up with a cure or a vaccine? If they don’t or can’t, does that mean they haven’t tried hard enough, or that they were not properly tuned in to the Lord’s radio frequency?

That the Lord intervenes to solve the problem somehow? Good luck with that.

On the way to Texas, a lightning strike over Bristol (damn the place) caused us to return to LHR where we were welcomed by fire engines and ambulances. They kept us on the plane, fed us, did the necessaries, and then we took off again to arrive 6 hours late having breathed recycled farts and each other’s germs for 16 hours. What was the Lord telling us, do you think? Possibly as a result, SWMBO and I now have viruses attacking our respiratory tracts. There’s a wire brush going back and forth in my trachea.

Will someone pray for me? I can’t do that—it would be very un-C-of-E. Will someone pray for the viruses concerned? As others have said, hunger kills more people than Ebola, but dealing with Ebola is more important because rich people can die from it.

Pass the sherry, darling.

Posted in Theology, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

This sanctuary of my soul

Great_Mass_in_C_minor_(Mozart)_p1We were in Hugh’s truck on the way from San Antonio to Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country. A day out. Muzak was oozing from the speakers. Quite without warning Mozart’s C minor Mass Kyrie began. I can’t quite find words for the effect it had on me at that time in that place, but it was something like being jolted by an electric shock in an instant into the fullest sort of life imaginable.

‘This is the best thing he ever wrote.’

‘They used it in A Very British Coup, with Ray McAnally.’

‘There’s a bit in the Sanctus that quite bowls me over.’

‘Doesn’t it all?’

University Methodist Church, San Antonio

University Methodist Church, San Antonio

The following Sunday we were at the local church. Plush, wealthy, comfortable, striking modern stained glass, acolytes in albs, candles to gladden my heart (yes, Methodist candles!), a lovely two-manual mechanical action organ by Rosales of Los Angeles—and they let me play it. The church orchestra featured. I must say, though, it was rather like a diet of honey both musically and theologically. Not soporific exactly, but certainly tending to make me wonder if I was in Stepford.

The contrast between the two musical experiences was remarkable. Mozart electrifies, muzak stupefies. Mozart—that Mozart in particular—exposes in an instant that central vacuum in my being that longs to be embraced. It tears apart the layers of ‘show’ that collect like dental plaque. It brings home to me, yet again, that all ‘this’ is vanity. It explains, yet again, why my best sermons are written under the influence of music, for it’s not long before whatever comes through the headphones bypasses conscious hearing and unlatches the sanctuary of my soul. The sad thing is that it is so expensive of emotion and self that I don’t do it often enough. My kingdom is an inner kingdom.

I was 13 when I first heard Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a maiden. ‘However long I live’, I thought then—as now—’I shall never be able to produce anything quite so concentratedly beautiful.’ I wonder what it felt like to be Patrick Hadley—actually, quite fun by all accounts, for there are lots of stories about him. I wonder what it felt like to be Mozart.

Posted in A great future behind me, Inner kingdom | 4 Comments

Fair perceptions

S Modwen's in the background

S Modwen’s in the background

Today I blessed Burton’s Statutes Fair. A 600-year history I gather. The Mayor spoke, I blessed, children from Holy Trinity School prayed and cut the ribbon, and I splashed a lot of Holy Water about. There was no need of this actually, for plenty of the natural stuff was dropping as the unstrained quality of mercy.

On my way to the ‘green room’ beforehand I bumped into the President of the Showmen’s Association of Great Britain who pointed to the showmen’s prayer on the back of his card. I was wondering what I would say at the grand opening, having left my preparation in the hands of the Holy Ghost, and so this was a gift from heaven. ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous’ Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, so this happenstance must prove that there is a God and that she was listening to my concerns.

The quote about coincidence is also attributed to Lauren Pederson, of whom I had not heard. Is it another name for Einstein? or vice versa? I wonder if Lauren and Albert were ever in the same room at the same time. Would that have been coincidence?

Anyhoo, back to the plot. The circus owner, who had himself been President of the Showmen’s Association, told me the story of how that prayer came to be. At an Association meeting in Rome, members were told gather in a certain place at a certain time. They were taken in a bus with police escort to the Vatican and in due course issued into the Presence. Lengthy and enthusiastic conversations ensued, and the chain of office much admired by His Holiness. That is where the prayer comes from, a product of Pope John Paul II.

Chatting to civic dignitaries after the Fair blessing, I was sounding them out about increasing the profile of S Modwen’s in the town, and how best to make it known that the church was at the service of the town and everyone in it. After all, the building is in the Market Square, and it’s a real shame that it’s locked most of the time. The dignitary was sympathetic and helpful, but agreed that we are up against the widely held perception that the church as a whole was standoffish and stuck up. The same thing was said to me in similar circumstances in Portlaoise about the Church of Ireland.

I remember the first time that it really dawned on me that perceptions were often more important than facts, because it’s perceptions that we have to deal with. It was at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland when a colleague and I were discussing some issue that was causing great student unrest. My colleague was holding to facts, while I said  facts didn’t much matter because what we had to counter were widely held perceptions.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

 We have work to do.

Posted in Ecclesiology, Pastoralia | Leave a comment