I came to bear witness to the truth


Faces of the Divine

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King 2015

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent statement that the Paris attacks caused him to doubt the presence (or was it existence?) of God gave me cause in yesterday’s sermon to lay into the intellectual poverty of our leadership. The implication that God is a European; the blindness to the fact that Islamic fundamentalists were originally recruited and equipped by the US for fighting Russians in Afghanistan; the lack of acknowledgement that the UK and US fawn over the ISIS-connected House of Saud. Is the former oil executive blind?

Look at the West’s involvement in the middle East over the last century: the partitioning of the Arabian peninsula, the partition of Palestine, the formation of Jordan and Iraq, the military campaigns that are seen as Christian wars, modern Crusades. And people wonder ‘why Paris?’

I wonder what His Grace’s musings say about his notion of God. That God is ready to jump in and solve problems for ‘people like us’ in a city that is such a nice place to live? He said something like that too.

The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were afraid to go after Jesus because people hung on his every word. Where is there a Christian leader of whom that might be said? Pope Francis perhaps? Certainly no Anglican now that Desmond Tutu has left the main stage. Nobody in the Church of Ireland says anything at all for fear of the brain dead eejits in the North, and in the Church of England all we get is ignorant bluster.

At least Dalai Lama has balls: “We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

I ‘came out’ in the pulpit yesterday. I said that Jesus was a Buddhist in everything he said and did; that all he asks is that we follow his example; that arguments about atonement are piffling; that what matters are compassion and the death of self.

I said that we were now witnessing the oozing into place of the third world war and that the future is bleak. Of course, none of this absolves the evil perpetrators of evil deeds, but we might at least recognize our complicity in the sin of the world through our own ego and pride.

I said that there is no hope until people realize that the Kingdom of God is not about life after death or about an ideal political system to be gained by bashing people over the head until they agree with us. My kingdom is not of this world.

It is an inner kingdom, here and now. It is certainly not a kingdom of control, It is a kingdom of beauty. I came to witness to the truth – that is, beauty and imagination in all their manifestations. Beauty and imagination do not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

Conquering kings their titles take, from the lands they captive make; Jesus, by a nobler deed, from the thousands he hath freed.

It was St Cecilia’s day yesterday, so we sang:

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

Beauty and truth seem pretty interchangeable to me. I came to bear witness to the truth. I said I’d probably be sacked after a sermon like this.

Posted in Ecclesiology, Inner kingdom | 2 Comments

I love all beauteous things


Eyes that see shall never grow old

At last, Herbert Howells speaks to the sanctuary of my soul. Or, more truthfully, at last his music has penetrated the fat inclosing it.

Over the years, I’ve thought and said some dismissive things about Howells. That when you’d heard one of his Evensong settings, you’d heard them all (like Haydn String Quartets, and Palestrina Masses). That his organ compositions were little more than quiet-loud-quiet or loud-quiet-loud. That—ye Gods, how I am ashamed of this—he never let go of the death of his son. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

It’s tempting to say that his loss released energy in his work that speaks to my loss. But the Requiem that I now find so poignant was written in 1932, three years before his bereavement. Howells certainly channelled his grief into creativity, but early compositions speak to me just as powerfully, so there is something more than the outworking of his grief that penetrates to my Holy of Holies.

I wonder what it is. Is it perhaps no more and no less than the pursuit of beauty?

I found beauty in the early 1960s in Carlisle.

The biology teacher shouts “don’t you know which side your bread’s buttered?” when I bare my soul about music or medicine. The organ teacher borrows money from my parents, so can hardly encourage me to go against their wishes. I finally let hold of my grip in 1972 when I went to medical school. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that loss. I’ve been chasing and mourning it ever since. Is my addiction to the church merely a vain attempt to cling to that first love?

Today I’ve discovered Howells’ I Love all Beauteous Things written in 1977. Like the anatomist’s knife it slices open my insides in one stroke. It exposes my soul to the world. An unprotected soul is mortally vulnerable, but better wounded than icy, for the wounds do the work. Gerda and Kay in The Snow Queen, different parts of me, tears of love melting heart of ice.

We see events in the world that demonstrate, yet again, the three groups of demons (addictions in modern parlance) that Evagrios in the fourth century AD identified as responsible for the ills of the world: “those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those that incite us to seek the esteem of others. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.”

“We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” These words of Dalai Lama shout at me.

Take responsibility for your actions: your overeating, your overuse of antibiotics, your exploitation of other people, your consumption of natural resources … Face your grief for your sins, and for the hurts done by others. Then your tears will flow. Tears that come from the heart: herzwasser. The woman’s herzwasser that washes Jesus’ feet. Herzwasser that flows when we are forgiven, and when we forgive. Herzwasser that flows in the presence of beauty in all its manifestations: sounds, sights, smells, handiwork, openheartedness, and above all else sacrificial love: “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!”

The Kingdom of God is not about life after death. It is not about an ideal political system. My kingdom is not of this world: it is an inner kingdom, here and now.

It is certainly not a kingdom of control. It is a kingdom of liberating beauty in its protean manifestations. Beauty does not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

I love all beauteous things,

      I seek and adore them;

God hath no better praise,

And man in his hasty days

      Is honoured for them.

I too will something make

      And joy in the making;

Altho’ to-morrow it seem

Like the empty words of a dream

      Remembered on waking.

Robert Bridges, 1844–1930

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Comfortable words

1We’re not the first and won’t be the last, but I don’t know what I think until I write it down, and writing is therapeutic, so …

We need to lick our wounds. We’re not straying from the nest.

I find solace in liturgy and the offices of the church. A funeral visit yesterday was truly moving, and I heard and saw that the family found it so too. Officiating at Evensong sung by Lichfield Cathedral choristers was like being wrapped in a sucky-rug woven by strands from Carlisle, Southwell, Ripon and Dublin. Mostly Carlisle: great east window, celestial ceiling, mediaeval misericords, organ. Emotional certainly, but good emotional not bad emotional. This kind of professional activity is somehow real. It’s just about all that matters at present other than family and close friends. Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.  

Anything that requires a response from me is out of the question. I should be at two coffee mornings today. There’s no chance. I can’t face any sort of social interaction except with those who know the value of silence. This is nothing new, but what is new is the pain of being talked at. Pious platitudes provoke an only just resisted thrusting of index and middle fingers into the speaker’s eyes. They may mean well, but that doesn’t make it any better. Wise people say “there’s nothing I can say.” Even some clergy have responded thus. If in doubt, say nowt.

Some people say they will pray for us. A few years back while driving up the M1 I heard a radio play in which Almighty God, overwhelmed by prayer requests flooding in by heavenly fax, asked his secretary to hand him the next in line for action. It was—a bit of a backlog—from someone whose family had been wiped out by the Black Death. I doubt that any fax about us would make it to the top pretty soon. My notion of the impassible Divine isn’t that of a celestial GP doling out analgesic pastilles on demand.

The new dog entertains despite sharp baby teeth. It’s impossible not to be amused at a Boxer pup, though I suspect amusement will soon become tarsomeness and irritation. Irritation: yes, the rawness of grief makes me even more intolerant. I can hardly bear to engage with arguments about trivia, and let’s face it, it’s all pretty trivial. I know that people like the Vicar to make decisions so that they can blame him when stuff goes wrong, but Hugh’s death has made me determined not to engage with this kind of childishness. Is this intolerance of trivia temporary? I sure hope not.

I’ve been taken aback by some people’s responses in two ways. First, some persistently ask prurient questions. Ed pointed out that what they really want to know is: was it suicide? (Hugh “died suddenly”). That had not occurred to me. Now when people do this, I say “it wasn’t”. Second, a few people who’ve made precious little effort for decades to keep in touch with Hugh or us suddenly become very “caring”. Perhaps they are sincerely trying to help, but I can’t help feeling it’s just guilt.

It’s a lovely day: cold, sunny, my favourite. The sort of day for a train journey down the Rhine to a Christmas Market. Mainz perhaps, or Limburg (that was good). The Germans know how to do Advent.

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 2 Comments

A rare privilege

North Bend, WA, 2004

North Bend, WA, 2004

Three weeks ago I never imagined that I would say this, but — it’s a rare privilege for a father to speak at the obsequies of his son. It’s rare for obvious reasons. It’s a privilege because over the last three weeks I’ve come to know Hugh as never before, from hearing and reading what his colleagues and friends have said about him.

It’s customary not to speak ill of the dead so that what is said about them bears little relation to the truth – de mortuis nil nisi bunkum. I shan’t fall into that trap: I am more familiar than most with the anatomy of the gonads, so am well able to recognize balls. But I know what I saw in Houston when I visited Hugh’s work place. I know the shock, the glazed expressions, the crumpled faces of his workmates. I heard what they said. I read what they, and others, wrote. Those manifestations of grief were so very moving because of their patent sincerity. You can read some of them in the US funeral leaflet.

Boys in Moscow, 1987

Boys in Moscow, 1987

At the funerals of both my parents thirty years ago I was struck by how little I knew them, and how little they knew me as anything other than their grown up child. Thankfully, over the last fifteen years, I came to know Hugh as a man, a fellow explorer, not just a son. Now in the last three weeks, as in a whirlwind, I’ve had the privilege of seeing him as a teacher, an example, a beacon. It’s taken my relationship with him to quite a different plane. I wish, O how I wish, that it were not so. Like King David when his son Absalom was killed, I have wept, “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!” But it is so, and I must live with that.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people can be divided into two categories—not sheep and goats, but drains and radiators. In pastoral ministry – and as a medical school teacher, which is a form of pastoral ministry – one comes across a lot of drains. Churches are full of them. They suck the life force from you as they enjoy ill health, or enjoy finding fault. They try to draw you into their jaundiced world view. They think that because you drink tea with them you give your and the church’s approval to their prejudices. They are, in short, full of crap.

About 1980

About 1980

Hugh was no drain.

He radiated mischief. Eyes were open and alert minutes after birth. He prized open Susan’s eyes, “wake up mummy” as she was taking a nap between ministrations to a 4 year old, a 2 year old (him), and a newborn. “Don’t sit on the bike – you’ll fall off into the pit and break your arm”. So he did, and he did. And then “don’t go swimming with your arm in plaster, or the cast will fall off” – so there’s a memory of Hugh running up to the pool at a campsite in the Dordogne, and jumping in with his plastered arm held high. There’s a photo somewhere.

He radiated cheek: not many Wesley College second formers would say to a huge sixth form rugby jock—Leinster triallist—who collided with him in the corridor, “watch where you’re going, you fat fecker”. Hugh’s alliterative skill was not enough to protect him from retribution.

Eton Choral Course about 2000. Guess which is Hugh

The man in the white suit. Eton Choral Course about 2000

He radiated energy. He loved an argument. He had a profound sense of justice that made him provocative, dogged, and protective. He was intellectually quick so did not make himself popular with pedestrian Wesley College staff: he agreed with the psalmist “I have more understanding than my teachers”. He did not make it easy for his parents. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is nothing worse for an adolescent boy than to have a father who understands him. Hugh had no time for people who should know better, and he told them so. He was utterly intolerant of humbuggery. He comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. I am so very proud to be his father.



It’s the job of a priest in a funeral homily to put a life into a theological context. I recall something said by the Archdeacon of Chesterfield as we chatted before my ordination as priest 8 years ago. We were talking about “sin”. He said, “quite simply, sin is life unlived”.

Sin is life unlived.

You are sinning if you don’t make the best of what life throws at you. You are sinning if you don’t use your gifts and skills to increase delight. You are sinning if you don’t use your personality to put a smile on people’s faces. You are sinning if you sit in the corner and wait for other people to serve you. I could go on.



Hugh was never a sinner! You just had to mention his name and faces would light up. And if you found him irritating, you deserved to be irritated. St Irenaeus had it spot on 2000 years ago: The Glory of God is a human being fully alive. Hugh was fully alive. I could go on with other learned quotes, but one more will do the trick: Jesus said I came that all may have life and have it in abundance.

Hugh had it in abundance. He shared it with the world. He helped people who received him convert old wine to new. He packed more into 38 years than some people pack into twice that time. I’m sad to think that maybe in the last 10 years he was worn out as he valiantly and sacrificially endured a series of hardships for the sake of his daughter and wife, but I’m so grateful to the people of Independence Oilfield Chemicals that with them for the last year Hugh found a place where he was appreciated and cherished. It’s not everyone who finds a music degree to be the perfect entrée into lab work in the Texas oilfields. Talk about charm.


Bahamas 2015

I shall wrap up as I always do at funerals with an admonition. It’s particularly apt in this case because Hugh’s death was so unexpected. Remember, all of you, every one of you, that you will one day go the same way. And it might be tomorrow. So please, please use Hugh as your example: live your life to bring delight to others; live it so that when your time is up you leave behind as few regrets and as little unfinished business as possible.

Hugh. I am so desperately sad you’ve gone. I miss you every minute of every day, but thank you for letting your light so shine that we may glorify your Father which is in heaven. You are for ever with me.

Hugh Stanley Robson Monkhouse RIP. 20.10.1977 – 23.10.2015

Posted in A great future behind me, Theology | 15 Comments

They also serve who only stand and wait

testament-of-youthThe Civic Service on Remembrance Sunday 2015 at S Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent

Micah 6: 6-8. Matthew 5: 1-12

Last year I told you how moved I had been by the valour, comradeship and courage of trainee Marine Commandos seen in the 2014 TV series. I lamented that those values are so lacking in the narcissistic society that we have created. This year I’m looking at the valour, comradeship and courage in a different group of people affected by conflict.

It was a woman of Staffordshire and Derbyshire who alerted me to the valour and courage of those who waited, supported and loved from afar. I’m talking about Vera Brittain and Testament of Youth. At the risk of boring you with more of my viewing habits, I refer you to the 1979 BBC TV production, available on YouTube if you’re interested. I remember two of its most powerful scenes: Vera at the telephone hearing of Roland Leighton’s death, and later, so sadly near the end of the war, Mr Brittain reading the telegram informing him of his son’s death.

My wife and I went to Texas in September to see our son and his family. One of few pleasures of breathing recycled farts for half a day is the possibility that there might be a decent film to watch, and so there was: the 2014 film version of Testament of Youth. I thought as I watched that my theme for this 2015 Remembrance Day sermon would be those who, like Vera Brittain and her parents, “also serve who only stand and wait”.

So as well as those who have died and those who have been maimed, physically and psychologically, we remember the bereaved: the Vera Brittains, the mothers, fathers, lovers, sons, daughters, and friends. Those who wonder “what was it all for?” We remember that behind the ceremonies of this week there are countless stories of real human tragedy.

Now, please allow me a personal note. I decided on this theme about six weeks ago. Then, just two Fridays ago at 9.15 in the evening I had a telephone call from Texas telling me that my son had died in his sleep. He was 38 years and three days old. He leaves a wife and a daughter, a sister, a brother, a mother, countless friends on at least two continents, and a father. Now I am Vera Brittain receiving the phone call, I am Mr Brittain reading the telegram. Now I begin to understand what it was like, and is still like, for those who feel that part of them has died when they receive that shocking news. “Stop the clocks” does not even begin to express it adequately.

But among the desolation, I glimpse shoots of new life. I see that entombing oneself in memories and glorifying the past will not do. I see that the best way of trivializing an event and refusing to learn from it is to arrange an act of commemoration, then forget about it. This must not happen to me, or to us.

Nationally and individually, shoots of new life grow when we look into ourselves. We are all warmongers on a small scale: we think our opinion more important than someone else’s, we seek revenge, we won’t let go, we think we need to get the better of someone at Scrabble, or win petty arguments. I sit impatiently at traffic lights fulminating about why the old trout in front is waiting for a particular shade of green. Magnify that and put it in a different context, and we have war. We should remember how every evil act begins as a thought in someone’s head, and how every one of us must keep guard over our thoughts to nip the problem in the bud.

Today I urge you to think of the word remember in a different way. If dismember is taking apart, remember is putting it back together again. The King’s horses and King’s men couldn’t put Humpty back together again, because Humpty has to do it for himself. We must—I must—acknowledge the grief of loss, but then let go so that unlike Miss Havisham we are not trapped in the past. This is just as important for nations as for individuals. Look at the world and you will see.

We have the key to this in the first reading: Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with the Lord. And how do we walk humbly? Hear the second lesson: look into your own heart and see your poverty, your perplexity, your sadness at past hurts. These are your enemies. Love your enemies. They are inside you. Love them and you will move beyond them.

Today is about more than remembrance. It is about resolution to work for justice, and release of past grievance.

This is hard work, but in the words of Dorothy Fields, alluded to by Barack Obama at his inauguration:

Will you remember the famous men / Who had to fall to rise again? / So take a deep breath / Pick yourself up / Dust yourself off / And start all over again.

Posted in Pastoralia, Theology | 2 Comments

Fragrant chaos

censer-incense-burner-01There’s a fuss in Burton about a proposed new Mosque. The far-right are planning a protest march.

I had a lift from a Muslim taxi driver. I invited him into S Paul’s. He took his shoes off at the door, stood and gazed, wandered around. I said I wished that some of our people were more like him and other faithful Muslims, respectful and with a sense of the Divine. Churches might be thriving.

If there is a protest about the plans for a new Mosque—and I hope not—I pray that the protestors will repent. But idiots are idiots, whatever their idiocy.

It is a fact, though, that church is irrelevant to many people these days. What does ‘church’ mean to those who’ve never set foot inside, whose parents and grandparents have never set foot inside?

In the film Chocolat there are two visions of church. The first is cold, gloomy, repressive, and governed by people who use power to oppress and control. Then, the wind blows open its doors. God the disturber exposes unhappiness and hypocrisy hiding behind a façade of judgmental pomposity. ‘Church’ that was an oppressor becomes a liberator.

As for the faith, it’s seen by most people as life-denying and over-regulated. This is criminal. The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simply to teach others what he had taught them. Rather than making dogmatic statements about how to get to heaven, Jesus modelled and taught how to live now—here on earth, and he said that this was heaven! Despite this, neurotic church people have made Jesus’ death and resurrection into a bookkeeping tally, good behaviour rewarded with the promise of a kind-of club class after-life. We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. No wonder people dismiss church.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s the incarnation. We don’t need to do anything; we just let it happen. O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.
  • As the flame grows it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully – that’s the crucifixion …
  • so that we ascend to the heights, unburdened, unshackled, to be lighthouses lighting the path for others and lightening their burdens.

That’s it. All the rest—doctrine, dogma, rituals—is poetic window dressing, some of great beauty, and some well past its sell-by date.

During my ordination training I visited a Hindu Temple in Leicester. It quite took my breath away. Smells, colour, activity, incantations, devotions – quiet and not- so-quiet murmurings soaking the Temple. People coming and going. A family having a blessing here, people preparing a meal over there. Children playing here, adolescents chatting there. Religious bric-à-brac that knows nothing of middle class notions of good taste or the stifling conservation police. Facilities for hospitality, pastoral care, social action, learning and devotion. No moaning about how things used to be, but rather living in reality.

The building is used. There’s no scruffy notice apologizing for the Church being locked outside the one service every fortnight. There’s no rivalry between flower arrangers or intercessors. There’s nobody saying ‘you can’t sit there, that’s my seat.’ The temple is a place where people talk to each other, listen to each other and acknowledge the presence of something infinitely bigger than themselves. It’s life affirming. I suspect that heaven—if I ever see it—will be fragrantly chaotic like that Hindu Temple. I hope it will.

Is this an unrealistic dream: a church that is fragrantly chaotic, open in every respect? Not simply beauty of craftsmanship, but beauty of the human spirit, open and saying ‘yes’, like Mary was open, saying ‘yes’? Is it an unrealistic dream that Christians might learn from other faiths?

Let’s celebrate life abundant, not life resisting, life enabling not life denying. Let’s be a church, as Pope Francis says, that like a Mother always seeks the good and salvation of all her children.

Posted in Ecclesiology | 4 Comments

A liver of lilies

white-water-lilyDoes being a C of E parish priest advance the Kingdom of God at all?

I am the curator of listed buildings, the administrator of diocesan regulations, the community shaman and witch doctor for rites of passage for people rarely seen again, the chaplain to an offshoot of the Evergreen club. I am expected by many to be the upholder of middle class prejudices as they try to suck me into agreeing with them. Sod that for a game of soldiers.

Some people who knock at my door for this and that are, I think, genuine. One of them has just been – with a child in a buggy – wanting money. He went off with tins of baked beans. I am a softy, but only, I fear, because I don’t have the courage to say ‘no’, so I chide myself about that.

SWMBO is much more robust—like when we were at Penrith Grammar School, and I used to ask her (a prefect like me) to tell the boys to get out because I didn’t want to. It’s true that I didn’t see why they should have to get out, but that’s another matter.

I recall being told to chuck some boys out of the bogs where they were smoking. I went to the Headmaster (a good man and a wonderful Maths teacher) and asked why I needed to: ‘if they want to kill themselves, let them’. He said ‘do it, or resign as Prefect.’

Guess which I did.

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