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.

Posted in Theology | Leave a comment

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?

Posted in A great future behind me | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Theology | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Theology | 2 Comments


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
Posted in A great future behind me, Theology | Leave a comment


Lcms_lutheran_pastor_being_ordainedI recently led a retreat for an ordinand and four readers about to be licensed. Here is the sermon I preached at the ordination. I have changed one name.

One of the things Elijah was asked by the Lord was ‘why are you here?’

Why am I here? It’s been a real delight to have been with you all over the last four days, and I thank you for the invitation to be part of it. We’ve spent much of the last few days exploring aspects of what it means to be human. Not the artificial hail-fellow-well-met sort of humanness that you get at meetings and social gatherings where people are trying to impress each other, façade speaking to façade, but the heart speaks to heart humanness that is actually divine. Yesterday, we celebrated St Irenaeus, one of whose most famous utterances is God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is. To be fully human is to approach the divine.

When we live life to the full, we approach the divine. In the words of Charles Wesley, made like him, like him we rise. That is what the festival of the Ascension is about: our humanity – all of it, every jot and tittle – shared by Jesus – is taken to heaven, that is, made Divine.

Being fully human is what the priest needs to be. To give his all, all the time. Being fully human doesn’t mean we do what we like: it means we use our God-given talents to the full. We all have the Divine spark embedded within us like a divine pilot light, so becoming fully human means letting that divine pilot light expand to fill us from the inside, squeezing out what St Paul calls the flesh—that is ego, selfishness, pride, conceit, pomposity, ‘all the vain things that charm me most.’ When heart speaks to heart, the divine core inside does the work, and the resultant pastoral encounter is powerful beyond measure. I concentrate on pastoring for that is what I sense Peter’s principal calling is, and it is what he thinks it is.

Pastoring is not about telling people what they want to hear. Pastoring does not mean tolerating nonsense from people who should know better. One of the functions of the priest, as we shall soon hear, is to admonish. Warn. Point out consequences of foolishness where it exists – and it is widespread in the church. Members of congregations don’t like it when the priest admonishes them, but, Peter, don’t be put off. If people are acting childishly—and there is something about the church that infantilizes people—they need to be told, and it is the priest’s job to tell them. Good luck with that.

If you walk into the sacristy of an RC church, you will certainly see a picture of the Pope. If you walk into the vestry of a Methodist church, a picture of one or both Wesleys. In a Presbyterian church, a picture of Calvin perhaps. What do you see in an Anglican vestry/sacristy? I hope you don’t see a picture of the Bishop – they’re exalted enough. In Portlaoise vestry I could gaze upon the faces of almost all my twentieth century predecessors, for it is well known that the foremost authority on all things is the previous Rector. But in an Anglican vestry I bet you anything you will see a mirror.

Imago deiPeter, you need to spend time gazing into that mirror. Not simply to check that vestments are on properly, important though that is. Certainly not to give yourself airs and graces and big yourself up with what in Portlaoise they call notions. But to look into your own eyes, and heart, and ask yourself ‘what am I doing here?’

What are you doing here? What are you doing here? What are you doing here?

Who is you?

How does your face show forth the divine core inside? What is the relationship between them? For the priest to function authentically, it’s essential that the part of the Divine Lord that exists as the pilot light in you is allowed to reach the surface and shine out.

Peter works with people. He has always worked with people. I have observed him over the last four days. He knows how to listen. I have listened to him. His observations and reflections come from deep within; they are not superficial or meretricious. They are not calculated to ‘show off’: they are profound enough naked, as it were. And most importantly of all, unlike many church people, he knows when to shut up. He has a natural openness, and my guess is that he is a good comforter—not in the sense of sickly sweet there, there, but in the true meaning of comforter, that is, strengthener.

It seems to me that Peter is on that road that Irenaeus wrote of when he said: The glory of God is a living person and the life of man is the vision of God. He will be, I predict, a robust and authentic pastor. Good luck with that.

He is a man of science. Before I was ordained I was a medical school teacher of anatomy and embryology, so I predict that he will be asked to justify church teaching that goes against all known facts of biology. He will be asked why the House of Bishops seems to believe that there have been no developments in biology since Aristotle. My advice to him is: don’t try. It’s simply not possible. He must develop his own strategy for coping with the church’s headlong rush into a new Galileo debacle. Good luck with that.

He brings to ministry his humanity, his authenticity, his love for the Lord. He brings his eccentricity. And he brings his sensitivity. The big challenge is not to let pastoral energy and sensitivity be drained away. There are three things that will do just that if you’re not careful.

The first is an institutional problem. Although the number of people attending church is falling, and the number of Indians is falling, the number of chiefs is not, the number of initiatives is not, and the amount of paperwork is not. I’ve found that my most useful office accessory is a large box by the side of my desk into which I ‘accidentally’ drop stuff that ends up in the recycling bins. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Then, there are personal issues that sap energy and disable gifts. And the greatest of these is stress. I’ve been a doctor, a medical school teacher, and a Professor, but there’s a relentlessness and emotional involvement about this job that is more demanding than anything else I’ve done. Hospital doctors have time off, leave the hospital and get drunk. Lecturers go home. Clergy are always expected to be available, and perfect. Relentless is the right word.

Most clergy stress is not caused by what you have to do, but by what you don’t do, but think you should. Much of this guilt arises because we have to bear the expectations of others that developed in past days when clergy were much thicker on the ground. Only you live in your skin. Only you can know what your priorities are. If parishioners are offended by something you’ve done, or not done, in good faith, that is their choice, not your responsibility. Try and ignore expectations that others dump on you. One of the things I find most difficult—you see, I fail as a vicar—is dealing with people who think that my sole purpose on God’s earth is to help them find the grave of their great great great grandmother. No matter how often I tell them, they just don’t get it that I don’t care.

The third trap into which you may fall is that you may, just may, be tempted to be nice. For the best of reasons, usually, we want people to think well of us. But Deacon Evagrios back in the 4th century wrote that the worst demon of all, because it leads to all the others, is that which incites us to seek the approval of other people. It is NEVER worth having. Our task, it seems to me, is not to please other people but to reflect the Master to the world. Jesus was not nice. St Paul was not a nice man! The bishop of Carlisle said not too long ago that the CoE was in danger of dying through too much niceness. Jesus was challenging, impatient, provocative, almost rude on occasion. He goaded people to confront reality. This is what healing is, and it is what Jesus’ whole ministry was about—healing. The process is not nice: it is about seeing the world full on, straight on, face-on. A face that is uncovered lets the real you shine out to the world. A face that speaks the truth.

Speaking the truth, and exposing one’s thoughts and fears is exhausting. And that is why you need to be careful to follow Jesus’ example and take frequent solitary R and R breaks. Say no. Slow down. We can’t reflect Jesus if we don’t spend time with him. Good luck with that.

Eyes that see do not grow old

Eyes that see do not grow old

There’s no need for you to be perfect. St Peter was certainly not perfect. We do a better job when the soft and vulnerable centre is exposed to the world, rather than the smooth exterior. Like chocolate éclairs: that lovely moment when the goo inside is reached. If you put a lamp inside a large plant pot, you will not see the light unless there is a defect in the pot. A crack will let the light out. You must be a crackpot. Only through your cracks, defects, wounds, will your true humanity shine out and be able to do the work of a priest. And remember, true humanity is divine, as Irenaeus said. Find a soul friend to whom you can expose yourself – metaphorically I think – and of course you have your family. Expose yourself to your wife and family. Good luck with that.

And lastly, Peter, never allow yourself to become instutitionalized, and never cease pricking the bubbles of pomposity.

At this ordination service we are giving thanks. We are affirming your ministry and commending it to the future. We affirm ourselves, too, and commending ourselves to the future with you, supporting you in every way possible. Here are some words of St Paul.

I wish you all joy in the Lord. I will say it again, all joy be yours. Let your generosity of spirit be manifest to all. The Lord is near; have no anxiety, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond our understanding, will keep guard over your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus. And now, my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is loveable and gracious, whatever is delightful and admirable—fill all your thoughts with these things; … and the God of peace will be with you.

And now, go forth upon your journey from this place, in the name of God the Father Almighty who creates you; in the name of Jesus Christ who redeems you; in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you; in communion with the blessed saints, and aided by angels and archangels, all the armies of the heavenly host, and by the thanks and prayers of all of us who know and love you.

Oremus pro invicem. Blessed be God for ever. Amen, Amen, Amen!

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia, Theology | 6 Comments

Remembrance day

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain

My last assembly at Maryborough School; ‘D’ day 70th anniversary; my last visit to St Fintan’s Psychiatric Hospital Links Centre; my birthday. Round the corner, my last week in Portlaoise beckons. A memorable day. A Gemini day. A Janus day.

Looking back

On the TV I hear ‘O valiant hearts …’ sung at the Normandy landings commemoration. It takes me back to Carlisle Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday in 1967 when I heard and sang it for the first time. Tear-inducing words set to luscious sentimental music that the 17-year old adolescent musician thought far from good taste, even though he was much moved by it. He knows better now, the ambivalence of simultaneously relishing two opposing responses now absorbed into the system. Back then, the more intellectual rejection of jingoism just about won the day. Now it’s the human cost that is uppermost and that leaves me silent and ‘filling up’ as I hear and sing Arkwright’s words and Harris’s music.

I lived and worked in Derbyshire for 8 years and it was a woman of Derbyshire who enabled me to understand something of that human loss. Vera Brittain from Buxton lost her fiancé, her brother, her friends, and her dreams, and as a result went on to change the world for the better. If you’ve not read her Testament of Youth, I recommend it; the film version is to be found on YouTube. As one who in comparison has led a charmed and self-indulgent life, I can only be silent.

St Modwen, Burton upon Trent (© A Class Photography)

St Modwen, Burton upon Trent (© A Class Photography), one of the three churches to which I’m going

Looking forward

I didn’t mind being 50 or 60, but I’m unsettled at 64. At the age when the Beatles wondered if they would still be fed and needed, and when many of my school and college mates have retired, I’m just about to start a new job. Don’t write me off just yet. Jorge Bergoglio was older and he seems to be doing fine. Can I recover the energy that the last three years has drained out of me? Once the decision to move was made, I started sleeping better and recovering the mentality of my inner 6-year old, so I think so. Do I have the imagination and percipience to see opportunities and make the best of them? I think so, for that is not age-related: I know plenty of sparkling old people and dull young people.

A dear friend in Portlaoise told me a couple of days ago that the thing about me that she would miss more than anything else was the mischievous twinkle in my eye. This augurs well.

Posted in A great future behind me | Leave a comment