Coming to light out has yielded fruit.

At St Aidan’s I found a complete set of maniples. The maniple is the vestment that the priest wears over his left arm, rather like the towel you see on a waiter’s arm in a posh restaurant. And that is exactly what it is. Of all the vestments, the maniple is the one signifying that Christian ministry is about service and waiting. For the life of me I don’t know why it fell out of use. It’s now back in use at St Aidan’s and at St Paul’s, where there’s also a complete set.



St Aidan’s has been given a book of readings for the lectern, a Book of Gospels to carry in procession, and – praise be – a thurible and stand for incense on special occasions. This is wonderful. Holy Scripture duly honoured.

St Paul’s, not to be outdone, has been given a green dalmatic. This is the vestment worn by the deacon (assistant) at mass. There are several white and gold dalmatics and one purple one, but until now no green one, and no red one. Anyone out there like to give us a red one? Don’t hang back. Whatever the dalmatic’s function is or was, it looks lovely. We do well to remember that beauty of all sorts is part of the Divine.

I wonder what other treasures will come to light.

Posted in Ecclesiology, Theology | 2 Comments

God bless this mess

MouldyBooksWent to the dump this morning. We’re chucking out church clutter. There’s an awful lot of stuff from 1896 that ‘might come in handy one day’. Some of it already has: a culture medium for fungi. You smell them when you go in.

I like dumps. I like the mess. I like the outskirts of towns with the randomness of buildings and telephone poles and wires. I like the scattering of car shops, tyre shops, furniture shops, bathroom shops, burger shops. I like Derby road in Burton. It’s all so normal somehow.

It’s sad to see farming villages neat and tidy. ‘Cotswoldized’ is the word I use. They should have dogs barking and cows mooing and cow dung decorating the roads. And smells. That’s what farming villages are for. It’s depressing when the chattering classes move in with their A-K-ya accents, their Chelsea tractors and their notions. It’s all so sterile. We’re too clean. No wonder our immune systems don’t cope like they used to—they’re not challenged enough.

Some people have a vision of heaven that’s ordered beauty. A Midsomer village where one’s friends live in ochre-cloured cottages along the banks of the stream, behind Kentucky-fried Georgian doors. I hope not.

censer-incense-burner-01Sunday Mass is heavenly. Sounds, sights, smells. Incense smoke curling up through stained glass sunlight. It’s a mood altering substance: it alters mine anyway. Music to aid devotion rather than simply excite. Order, certainly, but with a joyful tendency to entropy. Acolytes doing their own thing, the occasional wanderer from the pathway brought back with a quiet hiss to attract attention. Then giggles. Where is the thurifer? Where are my specs? I’m in the wrong place again. I forget a book and have to ask someone to pass me it. And then, charismatic soul that I am, I do something spur of the moment. Loosely ordered humanity. I hope this is more what heaven’s like.

Down with cleanliness, down with tidiness. Eat dirt—it’s good for you.

Posted in Pastoralia, Theology | 1 Comment

Mary Magdalene ruminations

rp7200717050917arc_phtGenesis: In the beginning, creation.

Genesis: Eve and Adam: separation from the Divine; expulsion (death) from a garden.

John at Christmas: In the beginning, creation.

John on Good Friday: death in a garden, fracture, alienation.

John at Easter: early on the first day … in a garden. The second Adam. New creation.

John at Easter: Mary (that is, humanity) reunited with the second Adam. Restoration. In from the cold. If Mary the Mother of God is the feminine of the Divine, Divine Sophia (wisdom), a type of humanity, might not Mary Magdalene be also a different type of humanity?

Jesus said ‘Mary’ and she knew who he was. New creation.

Mary Magdalene was right—he is the gardener. Lancelot Andrewes Easter Sermon 1620:

A gardener He is then. The first, the fairest garden that ever was, Paradise. He was the gardener, it was of His planting. So, a gardener.

And ever since it is He That as God makes all our gardens green, sends us yearly the spring, and all the herbs and flowers we then gather; and neither Paul with his planting, nor Apollos with his watering, could do any good without Him. So a gardener in that sense.

But not in that alone; but He it is who gardens our ‘souls’ too, and makes them, as the prophet saith, like a well-watered garden;’ weeds out of them whatsoever is noisome or unsavoury, sows and plants them with true roots and seeds of righteousness, waters them with the dew of His grace, and makes them bring forth fruit to eternal life.

But it is none of all these, but besides all these, no over and above all these, this day if ever, most properly He was a gardener. Was one, and so after a more peculiar manner might take this likeness on Him. Christ rising was indeed a gardener, and that a strange one, Who made such a herb grow out of the ground this day as the like was never seen before, a dead body to shoot forth alive out of the grave.

 Jesus refuses her touch: Do not go on touching me … there’s work to be done. Go and tell the others … Resurrection and ascension are one process in John.

Jesus and Mary Magdalene are Adam and Eve, reunited, in the garden. The lover and the beloved in the Song of Songs in the garden of love. Mary Magdalene is in Paradise, and so are we, if only we can see it. Jesus’ reborn body is the Holy of Holies, for the veil of the Temple has been destroyed. Now at dawn, redeemer and redeemed are together again in new Eden. ‘all creation is made new’.

Frances Hodgson Burnet’s The Secret Garden has resonances.

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Mobile phones off

turn-cell-phones-off1Cell phones came relatively late in my life. Now I’ve an i-phone.  God knows why, I hope, for apart from feeling I should have this toy because everyone else has one, I certainly don’t. Madness. Sure, it was handy for the three weeks we were without landline and t’interweb, but now …. ? it’s a waste of money and a waster of time. A distraction from life. My eyesight is such that there’s no point in using it to take photos, and anyway I’ve never been much interested in them except as a means of gaining information. (The need to gain information – there’s another demon that infects me, though it’s less powerful than it used to be).

Others chide me for my phone manner. Or lack of it. It is, they say, brusque. I’m not troubled by this, and neither should they be: at least I don’t take up too much of their time. They might understand if they realised that I grew up at a time when going on past the pips was, to say the least, discouraged. It cost money.

A trilling phone always makes me panic. So much so that I invariably fumble and often press the dratted button that cancels the call instead of the one that answers it. Then I call back immediately and of course get the engaged tone because the caller is leaving a message. And so it goes on.


The Belgrave, Kennington, SW9

I think the reason for my panic stems from my brief time as a hospital doctor. It was an unforgiving environment in which military immediacy was demanded, or so I thought.

The worst experiences were in the Belgrave Hospital for Children where at night I was the only doctor in the place, and me still within 12 months of passing finals. So much responsibility on such unexperienced shoulders with so little support—in fact, NO support. I went to bed dreading the phone. From my room under the roof, I was woken by the front door bell ringing in the middle of the night. Heartsink. The call to A & E inevitably followed. Panic, churning stomach, inner jelly, mask of competence, brave face. I hope junior doctors are better supported now.

I had a clerical colleague in Ireland who occasionally asked me to take his calls so that he could go and do whatever it was he did. But I had to assure him that I would have the phone switched on and on my person, at all times. And I mean ALL times. It’s extraordinary the lengths that some clerics go to in an attempt, one supposes, to feel needed. Can anything be that urgent?

I’ve never lost the momentary panic. I come into the house and look nervously to see if the message-waiting light is on. Even on my day off. Will I ever recover?

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St Paul

$(KGrHqUOKkME4mZZv,)gBONZKivDDg~~0_12The Epistle for this coming Sunday goes on a bit. It demands amputation. A decision about the incision site will be made on Sunday morning. But setting aside the need to keep up a sense of liturgical movement, as I read more of Paul I am more and more in awe.

He gets a bad press. Some see him as misogynistic, repressive and peremptory. I see him as a Boxer pup with boundless energy. He nips your ankles and jumps up and down, pestering and licking you like young Fido trying to attract your attention to get his message across. He doesn’t give up.

He repeats himself time and again. He says the same thing in different ways, each directed to his particular audience: rescue (from drowning) for seafarers, redemption (of loans) for businessmen, liberation for captives, justification (getting things straight) for craftsmen and draughtsmen. And so on. All different ways of saying the same thing: salvation. Sanctification was John Wesley’s term—and he is usually spot-on. Theosis is the term I like: God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is. A becoming, groaning in pain as we are changed from glory to glory. Metamorphosis.

He can be bad-tempered. I’m with him in that. Take the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul is exasperated, astonished—incandescent even—that people could have been so stupid. It grieves me to hear it read ‘flat’ in church. It needs welly, and plenty of it  Paul is impatient. I’m with him in that too. Life is short and opportunities must not be missed. There might not be another.

Paul is reckless, a bit psychopathic even. I guess he needed to be to do what he did. An easy working companion? I guess not, but then pearls need grit. His apparent bossiness and misogyny to my mind are all simply about trying to stop the fledgling Christian communities from drawing attention to themselves in places where to have done so would have led to persecution and shunning. That’s all.

So what is Paul about? One four letter word.

No, not that one.



Love, pure and simple. One word with so many meanings and resonances. Sharing, encouraging, warning, admonishing, rescuing, caring, nurturing, forgiving … and more. Paul is the apostle of love. His conversion is forgiveness as his past is left behind.

That experience tells us what Paul really is. A mystic. His letters to the people of Corinth and Rome are full of beautiful mystical writing: mirrors, seeing in a glass darkly, knowing as we are known. And Romans chapter 8. It’s stupendous stuff if you see it big-picture.

Quite the most memorable part of a trip to Rome a few years back was St Paul’s Outside the Walls, where he is reputed to be buried. Never mind if he wasn’t, it felt as if he was.

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An anxious desire for irrelevance

Kingdom_of_Heaven_icon_(19_c._S-Peterburg)Church Times this morning: several things catch my eye.

On the one hand, the ‘Church urgently needs a grown-up debate about theology’, and on the other, ‘the afterlife is vital to the affirmation of a God of love’. Are these contradictory?

Is it reasonable to claim to be a Christian without believing in an afterlife? As it happens, I think it is, but for me, today, it doesn’t seem that important. Eternal life is not about life after death, in preparation for which we take out an insurance policy of pious beliefs and actions. Eternal life, ex-temporal, out of time, ex-stasis, in the timeless present—a quality of life, here and now, that we glimpse in the here and now as a result of ego-erasure. This is what death on the cross is partly about as limited self dies and unlimited cosmic reality rises.

Where does this leave what people call the afterlife? I don’t know. I rather think that when the time comes I shall look into the face of the Divine and see myself. I shall not be able to bear the sight, a bit like Gerontius. But I shall take what comes as a result of trying to live life. After all, sin is life unlived.

A great deal of doctrine and dogma that we’ve inherited was drawn up by people in a particular culture with a particular world-view in an attempt to express the inexpressible. SInce then, words and ideas have been translated and pummelled to the limits of elasticity—maybe beyond. Some of this doctrine and dogma has passed its sell-by date. But it doesn’t matter: it can be honoured for what it is—poetic imagery, much of very great beauty. I will not try to pin it down to twenty-first century interpretations in an ‘anxious desire for relevance’. To describe God is to limit God.

Which brings me on to two other issues from today’s Church Times. Angela Tilby says what I’ve felt for ages: the traditional Lord’s Prayer is easier to say and remember than the modern versions, largely because new versions were drawn up by people without appreciation of musical patterns of speech.


A quality cope

And lastly, vestments. There are moves afoot to do away with rules about what clergy are required to wear. Already bishops turn a blind* eye to widespread flouting of the rules. What is a uniform for? I was in a primary school yesterday where the male teachers (hurrah!) wore collars and ties (hurrah!). How can pupils respect what a teacher stands for if s/he is scruffy?

As I typed the first draft of this, the word bling* appeared instead of blind. So today we have a picture of thoroughly modern Bishop dressed in a newly commissioned cope that puts me in mind of Stonehenge and satanists. I’m not a great cope-wearer myself, though they lend a bit of dignity and respect at a funerals, weddings and of course at Benediction, but when I wear a cope it’ll be one that looks like a quality carpet wrapped round the shoulders and is decorated with traditional symbols. It will not be one that shouts ‘look at me, look at me, look at me’. Which takes me back to death on the cross as ego-denying behaviour.

Mission through tradition is the strapline for me.

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Dallow Lock (copyright Tuesday Night Club)

Dallow Lock (copyright Tuesday Night Club)

We exchanged our UK driving licences for Irish ones only last year. When we knew we were moving, we wished we hadn’t. But full marks to the DVLA: one phone call without hours of tinny Vivaldi, one form, one photo and new licence by return of post. Simples. I wish I could say the same for utilities and car insurance.

The Trent and Mersey canal is a few streets away. Barges, holiday makers, fry-ups at Shobnall Marina café, watching and helping at Dallow Lock, gardens backing on to the towpath. I’m put in mind of the Cam. Colour, gentle movement, industrial archaeology, swans guarding their territory and hissing at Og the dog, moorhens and chicks, ducks and ducklings. Delightful.

People talk about beauty of moor and mountain, but a rural Cumbrian childhood in the 1950s was mind-numbingly monochrome. The Lake District (Sunday drives) was slate grey, conifers and rain. Fellside village culture was repressive and lonely for a boy who liked neither football nor cricket. Perhaps this is why I like colour and variety. Richness. Religion too: ritual, colour, fine sights, fine sounds, fine smells, with prayer and lots of parties. No more sensory deprivation.

On the one hand:

Protestantism – the adroit castrator
Of art; the bitter negation
Of song and dance and the heart’s innocent joy –
You have botched our flesh and left us only the soul’s
Terrible impotence in a warm world.
R S Thomas 1995

… and on the other:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

There’s always laughter and good red wine.

At least I’ve always found it so.

Benedicamus Domino!
Hilaire Belloc
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