Ireland and England

I hardly think a caption necessary

I hardly think a caption necessary

Sunday afternoon I announced to SWMBO that since I now had only two services most Sunday mornings I was less tired than in Portlaoise where I had three. Then I fell asleep. I was snoring and muttering so loudly that Og the dog was agitated. Anyhoo, I set to thinking how life as a priest in the Church of Ireland compares with that in the C of E,

Irish clergy are better paid and can go on until they’re 75. Irish clergy have fewer demands on their time. I know of at least one who’s rarely outside the Rectory during the week. But because they are essentially chaplains to a small tribe, most Irish rectors care for their flocks with greater involvement than in the C of E. In return, parishioners respond with random acts of kindness – fuel for the rectory fire, a full tank of heating oil, the occasional hamper and/or bottle of nectar. The downside of this is that parishioners feel that they at least in part ‘own’ you, but there’s a price for everything.

English clergy come across a wider section of the population, even if only on an occasional basis for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Some of us like this, others don’t. There are more meetings in England (you never know what you’re missing if you don’t go, so I miss quite a lot) and we are much more ‘watched’. We are appraised and monitored. We are urged to do this, that and the other. We are told what healthy growing churches should and should not be doing. Frankly, all this makes me feel deeply inadequate and that whatever I’m doing is not enough. There are moves to import all this to the C of I, so I hope it will be resisted.

In Ireland (I speak of the Republic outside Dublin) clergy are thin on the ground. Any sense of isolation is overcome by networks from college (there’s only one in the C of I) and social media. I know of no English clergy who are such keen FaceBookers as Irish clergy. I’ve caught the disease. The many flavours of the C of E create their own support networks. There are accepting liberals, intolerant liberals, traditional catholics, wishy-washy catholics, traditional evangelicals, wishy-washy evangelicals … yes, it’s silly isn’t it … and these groups can be helpful so long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The tribal nature of the C of I, with the Church building as its totem, means that so long as there’s a steady supply of fecund Anglican maidens, with not too much notice taken of Ne temere if an Anglican should dare to marry a Catholic, the small rural church will be supported and maintained, if not often attended. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rural C of I survives longer than the rural C of E, where buildings are more expensive to maintain and where there’s little sense of loyalty other than to the graveyard (‘so that I can be buried with my ancestors’). The quasi-Masonic Lodge function of the church building has a huge downside, however. The loss of Anglo-Irish aristocracy can result in the gap being filled by self-appointed royal families, some of whom come to hold doleful and ignorant hegemony over parish and parishioners.

As to relations with other denominations, these are much healthier in Ireland. The dominance of the Catholic church means that it is secure enough to be gracious to the tiny minority. The Church of Ireland punches far above its weight, I guess, so that Irish society is seen as not being discriminatory.

So pluses and minuses. Maybe my soporific state on Sundays has little to do with any of the above, and more to do with the fact that I’m old and fat. Recent news that eggs and butter are no longer evil might help the first but not the second.

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 1 Comment

What is truth?

4288759Whistleblowing is in the news. Banks and bankers are at it again. HSBC is caught with its knickers round its knees. UK tax authorities have allegedly been either negligent or complicit in not having acted on a tip off. Church of England Archbishops have been cosying up to the former chairman of HSBC, himself an Anglican priest, so make of that what you will.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is unusual. Remember Mr Fred Goodwin and his antics when The Royal Bank of Scotland almost folded? I suspect that if there’s a bank that hasn’t yet made the news for the wrong reasons, it’s only because it hasn’t been found out. And it’s not confined to banks. Any organisation that has power will, in my experience, do everything it can to cling to its precious, at almost any price. Did you see the Belgian series Salamander when it was shown on BBC? The DVD is available, and I look forward to series 2. Is that truth or fiction? The powerless are pilloried by the powerful. Individuals are attacked by the mob. This is the law of the playground bully. If you were in any way unusual at school, you will know what it feels like to suffer at the hands of the unimaginative, and you will know to what ends you had to go to appease them.

For 19 years we lived in Ireland. Hardly a week goes by there without some new revelation of political chicanery, or some report of abuse of the powerless by the Church – an organisation that for reasons of history has been allowed way too much power over society. A dear friend, who worked for years in the Irish psychiatric hospital service, had a mantra that she impressed on me when I was having a spot of bother: “Might is always right and authority always upholds authority, so get used to it and watch your back”. I doubt it’s better here in the UK. It may even be worse: in this more complex layered society, with the networks of the largely public school educated élite who are in charge, it’s easier to hide things out of sight of the great unwashed—that is, you and me.

Whistleblowers always have a tough time. If you tell an unpopular truth, people will criticise you. Far better, it seems, to live in some artificial never-never land of make-believe than to dwell in the courts of straightforwardness and truth. Prophets are never popular. They have always suffered for pointing out the elephant in the room.

Lent is about a spiritual spring clean. The events leading up to Easter include the story of one who suffered for daring to tell it like it is. Pontius Pilate’s question ‘what is truth?’ is the anthem of the pragmatic appeaser. We need more whistleblowers. We need more people who are ready to tell the truth and who are willing to suffer for it. Are you? Am I?

Posted in Pastoralia, Theology | Leave a comment


Floral_matryoshka_set_2_smallest_doll_nestedSWMBO asked me “what exactly is spirituality?”

It’s a very good question, for the word is bandied about quite indiscriminately, but nobody ever says what they mean by it..

I’m not aware of any generally accepted definition, not even one that’s widely accepted.

What is a ‘spiritual person’?

  • Some people mean someone who’s into joss sticks, open toed sandals, cheesecloth shirts, tie dies, that sort of stuff, gaia, energies. Others call them away with the fairies.
  • Some people mean someone who is serious, moves and talks slowly and rarely smiles and says they think a lot. Others call them lazy shirkers.
  • Some people mean someone who goes to church every day and pontificates about keeping the rules. Others call them sanctimonious hypocrites. 
  • Some people mean someone who puts on a permanent ‘I’ve found Jesus’ smile and who patronizes and condescends to those who don’t. Cambridge University CU members come to mind. I find it difficult to resist the urge to poke their eyes out.

I think spirituality is a looking out: a recognition of the fact that we’re not in control, that we’re at the mercy of something infinitely bigger. That we are, in a word, contingent.

I think spirituality is a looking in: an acknowledgement that the faces we present to the world are merely masks that could be otherwise, and that an inner journey calls us to search among this detritus for the Divine core—the ground of our being.

I think a spiritual person is one who acknowledges all this; someone who lives life to the full as best s/he can and helps others to do likewise; someone who is fully aware of his or her own strengths and weaknesses; someone who is in no doubt that s/he is no more and no less than a creäture of this earth among many other creatures, and someone who knows that s/he is here today and gone tomorrow.

Two pretty awful, and therefore quite funny, medical student aphorisms:

  • If you talk to God you’re a Christian. If God talks to you you’re a schizophrenic.
  • Neurotics build castles in the air; psychotics live in them; psychiatrists collect the rent.

I’ll get my coat.

Posted in Inner kingdom | 1 Comment

Confirmation class 1

child-laughingI’m doing adult confirmation preparation for an accountant, a student of mathematics and a YMCA executive, so I’ve been forced to think about what I tell them. Here is my brief ‘catechism’ part 1.

The Divine (“God”) is the sum total of all that is beautiful, delightful, lovely, creative and ordered (i.e. just and true). There is a bit of God in everyone and everything: we are all broken off bits of God. “What is not God is nothing; what is not God is no thing.” Therefore, there is God in you and even in me.

God is the laws of science (logos), of physics, of the cosmos, … and much more. God is love. The perfect human manifestation of this is Jesus the Christ whose example and life we emulate as best we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Since none of us, despite God within, is perfect, we cock up. This is part of the human condition. Sometimes we do this intentionally and sometimes accidentally; sometimes by things we do that we wish we hadn’t, and sometimes by things we fail to do. We need to acknowledge our own mistakes, our own imperfection and our own helplessness. This is not to grovel, but simply to accept that we are not perfect and not in control, but that we will bash on doing our best as we see it at any moment in time. It helps if we can talk about all these things to a friend from whom we hide nothing. And if you don’t have such a person, a priest will do fine – anonymous or known, it does not matter.

The Divine within is like a pilot light. Incarnation. For us to be fully human that light needs to fill our skins from the inside. What stops it from doing so are things like pride, greed, avarice and showing off. To let it shine and fill us, it’s not that we need to DO something, it’s simply that we need to relax into ourselves, to recognize our pride, greed, avarice and showing off tendencies, and then let them melt away. When you lift up the lid of your psyche, you begin to see all sorts of grubs wriggling around. But then, in the warm light of love, they can begin to melt away as you love the hell out of yourself. This is at least a lifetime’s work.

“And if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say.” And what JC demonstrated is that we rise to the heights – we approach The Divine – when we let go of pride, greed, avarice, showing off – that is, when ego dies, and selflessness replaces selfishness. Crucifixion followed by ascension.

All the rest, the dogma, the doctrine, is poetry that has collected around the message. Much of it is of great beauty, psychological authenticity and ultimate truth. Some of it is past its sell-by date and should be ditched.

Posted in Theology | Leave a comment

Life is a terminal condition

Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today.

Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.

Please excuse me: I’ve written about this sort of stuff before, but I can’t stop myself doing so again.

TV adverts at the moment tell us: for the first time as many people survive cancer as die from cancer; together we’ll beat cancer; soon nobody will die from cancer.

What nonsense! It’s emotional manipulation to get you to give to cancer research.

If you don’t die from cancer, then what will you die from?

Maybe you think you won’t die at all. Maybe you’ll live for ever like the struldbrugs in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, increasingly opinionated and cranky (some of us are like that already). At 80 years of age their marriages were dissolved because no two people could stand each other any longer, and they became legally dead, no longer able to own property. This is not unattractive: no taxes, no responsibilities, no leaking roofs to worry about.

Somehow, unlikely though it may seem, I think Swift was taking the piss.

Life is a terminal condition. Deal with it. We invest so much in doctors and drug companies because people can’t come to terms with that fact. We imagine that the next new drug or treatment will allow us to live for ever—or at least, for that bit longer.

Imagine you’re expecting to kick the bucket any day, then a new drug unexpectedly becomes available and you are told you have an extra month. What will you do with the extra days? Will you travel to where you’ve always wanted to go? Will you write your life story? Will you make sure that the people you think are gobshites know your opinion of them? (a very tempting option.)

When my mother was on her last legs with secondary cancer, she was put on morphine and had a couple of months at home. She asked me what to do. I said if I were her, I’d get a train ticket and go places I’d never been, though by then she was too ill to bother. After she died, my father bought a deep fat fryer, so that was soon the end of him. If we don’t die of cancer, I suppose heart disease will be the killer. Or murder—if the struldbrug character changes are an indicator.

What will it be for me? Road traffic accident? Heart disease (I like eggs; I like salt)? Cancer? Quite possibly cancer. I’m a bit of a worrier and there is evidence of cancer-genes in the family. Now just so you get this straight, cancer is not a disease, it’s a side-effect of ageing: the longer you live, the more likely your cells are to go out of control. Also, cancer is not God’s judgement. Cancer is not a punishment. Cancer, like so many other things, is just stuff that happens.

The game's up

The game’s up

Back to the plot. The beginning of the year is a good time to make peace with people you know you’ve offended or hurt. You might tell people who’ve hurt you that you bear them no ill will. You would then have a lighter heart, carry fewer burdens, and live more serenely. You can start this now, by living each day as if ‘twere thy last. Because it jolly well might be.

Wiping out this disease today means you die of something else tomorrow. Life—to repeat—is terminal, and you never know when the game’s up.

Posted in Pastoralia, Theology | Leave a comment

Taboo in Tabuk

buraydah02A Tabuk imam has forbidden the making of snowmen. Quite right. Snowwomen and snowcamels too. Anything that has a soul may not be represented in crystalline water. As a theologian, I’m aware of a large corpus of literature on the souls of camels, as well as a little aphorism about the use to which camels can be put that I cannot print here, for children might be watching.

Reading about the fatwa took me back to the 1980s and 1990s when from time to time I went to Saudi on behalf of the College of Knowledge in Dublin to teach (two weeks at a time) or to examine (5 days or so). I was in Tabuk only once, but today’s news puts me more in mind of other Saudi trips, most particularly to Buraydah where I served a few sentences.

The culture in Buraydah is sooo relaxed, for this is where the Saudi religious police are trained. They patrol the streets eagerly seeking out infractions of dress and behaviour codes, a bit like Irish priests are said to have done in the past. Men may hold hands, women may hold hands, but man and wife may not. Under no circumstances may any female skin below the chin be visible, and preferably only that around the eyes. Ankle skin, frightfully erotic, drives men in Saudi into a frenzy. Being caught in contravention of any of these rules draws verbal abuse and a lash or six from the cane that every religious policeman carries. Female companions of mine were spat at on several occasions for daring to show a bit of trouser leg below the chador.

We were housed in apartments in the hospital compound. I noticed that local inhabitants rose about 5 am to turn on their car engines so that by the time they left the house two hours later the AC had the interiors nice and cool. The air was fragrant with he heady mix of Saudi incense – petrol fumes.

Apart from five or six hours teaching a day, life was a social whirl. The liturgy that gave shape and meaning to the day was that of oral hygiene: setting aside a good 10 minutes for cleaning my teeth. In those days I was obsessed with exercise (I’ve grown out of it now) and so by dint of disciplined running round the central green area morning, noon and night I became quite lean and very fit. Much like now.

Each morning I filled in a form indicating my supper choice from a reasonably comprehensive menu. Each evening it was rice, peas and a scraggy avian leg. That little exercise became for me a parable of a country where, it’s rumoured, whisky turns to water as it enters the oesophagus of the King.

Posted in A great future behind me | Leave a comment

A cold coming we had of it

7507019fWe disembarked from Sealink’s St Columba on 3 January 1988. There were four of us: Victoria, Edward, Susan and me. Southwell Minster School term began later that week, so we left Hugh lodging with a friend. It was dark, nowhere open until 9.30 or so, so breakfast at the Royal Marine seemed like a good idea.

Our new home was up the Old Long Hill between Enniskerry and Roundwood. The removals van wasn’t arriving until next day, so we had a barren sort of a day. I wondered what the hell I’d done accepting this job in a foreign country, agreeing to move house in January, and leaving our two boys at cathedral choir schools in England. Madness.

Ye Gods, it was cold. Thin walls, large windows. The only bit of the house with carpet was the small hall, so there we slept in sleeping bags, five hearts (we had a dog) huddled together.

The week after, Edward went back to school in Ripon: Fokkers to Leeds/Bradford. Victoria, secondary school age, stayed with us. I used to stand in the kitchen and watch the St Columba on its way to Holyhead and ache for the boys. That memory does not dim with the passing years.

The house was in a wonderful position with lovely views to the main Glendalough road across the valley, and to the sea and the Kish lighthouse over the roofs of Bray. But what a money pit. Everything that could be rickety was rickety, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Water pumps, leaky roofs, failing heating system, wonky electrics, wobbly floors, inspissated sewage pipes leading to a jerry-built septic tank. Ah, that’s why the vendor refused to let our surveyor go into the roof space and take up the carpets. There’s a moral there: don’t buy from a solicitor who is acting for himself. Caveat emptor. When you’re dealing with the well-being of a young family in insecure times, though, other concerns predominate.

We found a builder – well, he called himself a builder – to mend the leaks, but every hole plugged meant a larger one in the bank balance as money flooded out. He taught us to ask ‘which Tuesday?’ when he said he’s be with us on Tuesday.

It was lovely in summer. It was a wonderful place for adventurous children to grow up. But life was complicated.

Posted in A great future behind me | Leave a comment