Epiphany 3, Year A. Isaiah 9:1-4. Psalm 27. 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. Matthew 4:12-23
As I was leaving a parishioner’s hospital bedside on Friday, the RC priest on duty waved at me and stopped for a chat. He reminded me that it was Christian Unity week.
It’s not top of my priorities, and it falls at a silly time of year, too soon after Christmas. Last year, the Kiltegan Fathers invited me to give their Annual Christian Unity lecture in February – a better time. This year, the PP and I decided that rather than have a badly attended midweek service in gloomy January, we’d do something practical at Christmas. And that’s why I preached at one of the masses on 21 December, and why Fr Eddie came to the Carol Service the next day.
If unity means united in mutual support as we try to live the life of Christ as best we can in the culture and place in which we find ourselves, then I’m all for it. If it means uniformity—that we should all be the same—then I’m against it. Having different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things is wonderful. It means that life is not boring. It means that we can have intelligent discussions about things, whether they be theories of the atonement, or ethical dilemmas, or animal experimentation, or whatever.
What we need is Christian unity-of-purpose. Mutual respect. We don’t quite have it in this state, but it’s immeasurably better than it was. Yes, it’s sad that when I go to RC Mass dressed as a Church of Ireland priest, I’m probably not offered the sacrament, not because I’d refuse it (I wouldn’t) or because left to his own devices the priest wouldn’t offer it (he might), but because conservative people might object as it’s against church rules. And the other way round: I wouldn’t surprise an RC priest by offering him the sacrament in this church—not because the priest wouldn’t accept it (he might), but because of what some of his flock might say if he did. It’s possible, of course, that some C of I parishioners might take offence at what I might do in these circumstances, but I’m not inclined to take any notice of that. I yield to no-one in my regard for church rules.
It’s all rather silly anyway. RC chaplains in prisons and hospitals offer the sacrament to everyone—no questions asked. I urge C of I patients to accept it with joy. In other countries, there are fewer scruples than here where waters are polluted by centuries of resentment bred into respective tribes. In the history of Christianity, murder and violence have too often resulted from a lack of mutual respect because of this sort of tribalism—which brings me to today’s Epistle.
Paul was cross with people arguing about whose baptism was best. Next week I’m baptizing twins in a Candlemas liturgy. I will be doing things that I don’t usually do. I will be doing things that maybe you aren’t used to. But I challenge anyone to say that my baptism is somehow less efficacious than anyone else’s because of that. Something like that seems to be what the Corinthians are arguing about. ‘If this gets any worse’ maybe Paul is thinking, ‘there’ll be arguments, rivalries, sectarianism and even warfare’.
Isn’t that the problem with the world—‘my way is right, yours is wrong’. ‘I know best.’ ‘If you don’t agree with me, you don’t deserve to live.’ ‘You’re not part of my tribe, so you matter less than I do and I can have you rubbed out’. We need tribes and families for support. But when they get ‘notions’ of superiority, those in other tribes come to be regarded as less human, with ethnic cleansing and concentration camps just around the corner.
The problem with tribalism, or denominational posturing in church terms, arises when how we do things becomes emphasized at the expense of the reason why we do them. The point of the game is, as I said before, to live as best we can the life of Christ in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The focus is the Lord and the Lord’s kingdom. If we forget that focus, we’re likely to think that the focus is what we think and do. The focus becomes ‘our’ mob versus ‘your’ mob.
Life is too short for this nonsense. Of course decisions have to be made, but as I said last week, it’s often not a matter of right and wrong, but rather simply choices and consequences. It really doesn’t matter if others choose to express their love of the Lord differently from us, so long as we, and they, don’t start to claim that only ‘our’ way is best. If we do, we are making an idol of the way we do things. Tribalism in any form depends on the claim that ‘we are best’, ignoring the possibility that other tribes may think that ‘they’ are best. It assumes that there is nothing bigger than us.
If religion has no other use, at least it tells us that there is something bigger than us. We humans can be extraordinarily arrogant. We assume that we rule the planet and that it’s our plaything. Let me tell you, boys and girls, that if any creatures could be said to rule the planet, they could well be jellyfish and their friends in the oceans. They’ve been around 700 million years. They’re the oldest living multicellular organisms. They can kill us. They are increasing in number. They show every sign of continuing well into the future, long after we humans have gone (we’re not, despite what we think, a very successful species).
In Christian Unity Week we do well to remember how tribes and tribalism can lead us to do terrible things. We do well to realize that what dictates our identity as creatures of this earth doesn’t come from us, but from the Christ. And that identity could include Jews and Buddhists and others, as well as people who call themselves Christians.
This is what Christian Unity is about: respect leading to justice. Disunity and tribalism that lead to injustice are what Paul was arguing against.
Ultimately, what matters is what the Psalm speaks of: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation … One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require: even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit his temple.’
My regular reader will know that a while back in Brave new world I chided the Archbishop of Canterbury for seeming to belittle the work of the parish priest. I put these sentiments into a courteous email to him. After 10 days or so I had a reply from the Archbishop’s Acting Correspondence Secretary, a retired Archdeacon, saying, in essence, push off and get used to the new regime, and stating that the traditional model of parish ministry was failing. The questions I raised about expectations and administrative burdens, however, were ignored.
One thing amused me. The retired Archdeacon, despite being a fully paid-up member of the new iconoclasm, appended ‘The Venerable’ to his signature.
Titles and status remain so very important in the brave new Church.
Carlisle hospitals saw quite a bit of me when I was young. Chatsworth Square Nursing Home took my tonsils when I was about 5. All I can remember is dark green walls and glass partitions. The Ear, Nose and Throat fraternity made me one of theirs after that, with a sinus job, two nasal polypectomies and an operation on the nasal septum when I was about 17. Somewhere in all this came appendix, two teeth operations (they’re wonky at the front), and an arm job. Mostly, I was at the City General, but the appendix and arm were done at the (old) Cumberland Infirmary where for the appendix in 1960 I was in Ward 18 opposite grandfather W P Monkhouse, then in his 80s.
For one of the nose jobs I was in a side room with a boy from Workington whose sister was called—and this is what it sounded like to me—Hughery. I’d never heard of that name and asked him to say it again, just to be sure. Yes, it sounded like Hughery. So that’s what I said. It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me that it was Hilary, and he was probably in for a palate operation, so pronouncing ‘l’ was a problem. He thought he was saying Hilary and I heard Hughery. No wonder he was cross with me: I suppose he thought I was making fun of him.
One thing illness does for you, popular wisdom has it, is make you patient. It makes you take each moment as it comes. It teaches you not to have too many expectations. You learn that when doctors say you might be home at the weekend, you equally well might not. You learn to laugh off these little disappointments. When you expect to be going for an operation on Tuesday, and it’s cancelled because you have a chest infection, you learn to take it in your stride. That’s what popular wisdom says illness does for you.
Let me tell you that popular wisdom is piffle. Complete twaddle. Especially if you’re a child. As is well known, I am the most patient and even tempered of God’s creatures, but not even I was able to bear with equanimity the unpredictability of illness. I was in despair when some sign of progress did not materialize as I thought it should.
My nose would have been less inclined to run in the family had I not had cow’s milk shoved down my throat ‘when I were a lad’. It should come in bottles marked ‘poison’. Cow’s milk for cows, human’s milk for humans. It’s a snot generator. In the 1990s an Ear, Nose and Throat colleague told me my nose would be better if I stopped milk. I have, except in tea, and it is. The other thing that affected me was grain and meal that, since my father ran an agricultural feed manufacturing plant, put money in our pockets.
Milk and wheat are not good for Rambling Rector. I wonder how different my life would have been if I’d known sooner. As for cats, which always know that I’m allergic to them, the best place for them is under the wheel of a heavy truck.
One of Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a man whose nose grows so long that people trip over it.
Something to cheer the drooping spirit on a cold and gloomy January day.
Frances Wadsworth-Jones makes brooches using crushed precious and semiprecious stones and sells them for up to £2,500. ‘Nothing special about that’ you may say. Oh yes there is. They’re inspired by pigeon droppings. She says ‘I like to try and find beauty in the unexpected and I quite often look at the floor. Ealing is great for inspiration.’
The streets of Ealing must be paved with—err—gold.
‘People must think I’m mad’ … surely not … ‘because I have to take pictures of poo too. I’ve got hundreds.’ There’s no law against it, apparently. Do you suppose they’re stored on computer?
I’m very childish. There’s nothing quite like talking about poo to bring on a smile, though maybe talking about farting does too. I was taught that before flushing it away one should always inspect poo for colour, smell, consistency, and ‘does it float’? Note particularly any changes. Poo is a good indicator of inner health.
Actually, the intestines aren’t ‘inner’ – they’re outer’ because the ‘inside’ of the tube is continuous with the outside world through mouth and anus. This is the basis on which rests the distinction between carcinoma and sarcoma. But this is not supposed to be a pathology tutorial.
Pigeon poo isn’t just poo. That’s the black stuff in the middle. The light stuff round the edge is, in our terms, urine. Whereas we eutherian mammals have separate holes for wind and piss (though you wouldn’t think so listening to some people – and piss is in the King James Bible so don’t moan at me), birds have only one. Everything gets mixed together, so. The evolution of the sphincters and sex region is utterly fascinating.
I watched an episode of Benidorm the other day (I’m a recent convert to this wonderful, wonderful series) in which a turd is found floating in the swimming pool. I wonder if this will interest Frances. If pigeon poo brings luck, as she says, what will human poo bring?
Animal experimentation is certainly an issue that polarizes. I wonder how many opinions are based on facts and experience rather than sentiment and propaganda. How many of those vehemently opposed are principled enough to refuse antibiotics, or question how they were tested?
For several years I worked on the mammalian adrenal gland. The mouse Mus musculus was the creature of choice. I could not have done the work without killing. The question is: was it worthwhile?
Zhou Enlai, when asked about the importance of the French revolution, is reported to have said that it was too early to tell. I feel rather the same about much research in general, and mine in particular. I certainly don’t claim it to have had any impact, but this is not to say that in the future someone will not build upon it in a way that enlightens us about endocrine processes.
Headline-grabbing results are rare. Scientific research is like chipping fragments from a stone, a sculpture gradually emerging. Researchers build upon the work of others, and slowly, slowly knowledge accumulates. After a great deal of accumulation, conclusions can perhaps be drawn. It is dangerous to draw them too soon.
Yes, there are alternatives to animal experimentation, and they are increasingly used. More will be developed. But, in the words of my friend Andy, ‘at the moment they can’t simulate the real deal because mammals are so delightfully complex and still so poorly understood—despite the hubris of the scientific community.’
Is animal experimentation evil, immoral, bad? It concerns me that too much is done simply as CV boosting, as truthfully in my case, and there are problems with the way that research is politicized by factions and industry, but that’s another story.
I suspect that opposition to animal experimentation is most vociferous among those who are furthest removed from living and working with animals. You won’t find much opposition in the agricultural community. If you hold that all creatures are God’s creatures like us, then the only logical position is Jainism: non-violence towards all living beings. How do you define living? Plants? Fungi? Bacteria? Slime moulds? Clergymen?
Much of what we know of how the inner ear works comes from research that was done on human subjects in 1930s and 1940s Germany, in circumstances that may well appall us. We have benefited from that research not least in the development of hearing aids and cochlear implants. Knowledge of some neurological conditions comes from experiments on monkeys and apes. It’s all very well to object—until, that is, you get the disease.
When we lived in Nottingham, our children attended a school patronized by sandal-wearers, amongst whom there were more than a few objectors. Our children said “my daddy works with mice’s kidneys” (kidney/adrenal confusion understandable at that age) and drew pictures of my office. I did rather fear reprisals.
I was a reluctant researcher—a disappointment to the eminent Professor Rex Coupland, I didn’t enjoy the nitty-gritty of research and much preferred teaching, scholarship and administration. Rex was a big man with a long stride, so there was warning of his approach as he stomped along the echoing corridors. When professorial footsteps were heard in the distance, one could either dodge into the Dissection Room, or dash into the khasi, or else nip downstairs, along the corridor on the floor below, and then up again at the other end. Silly or what?
Peter Selley, a man with a scanner, has kindly sent me this picture. It shows the King’s College Hospital Medical School eight on the Thames in the Tideway Head. I blogged about this here.
From left to right we are:
- Stephen Martin (cox, latterly a psychiatrist in Durham)
- Sandy Anderson (stroke, don’t know where he is)
- Clive Coddington (GP in Hampshire I think)
- Chris Morris (don’t know)
- Bob Morris (don’t know)
- Terry Riordan (pathologist in Devon)
- Peter Selley (GP in Devon)
- James Anderson (bow, don’t know)
The boat wasn’t ours. We rented it from Thames Rowing Club, whose boathouse in Putney we used. The team was ‘sponsored’ by Mr A M MacArthur (1921-2012), then Consultant Cardiothoracic surgeon at King’s, who had been a noted athlete and rower in his youth. You can read his obituary here.
I don’t remember that we trained much. There were occasional sessions on the rowing tub doodah in the boathouse in an attempt to tidy up technical skills such as feathering, but the training I recall was simply rowing on the river. In all weathers too.
Some of us were serious rowers, in particular the captain, Clive Coddington, whose contacts got us to the Kingston Regatta, Terry Riordan whose voice stunned us all, and (I think) Bob Morris. I hope that Peter and Steve won’t mind if I class them with me as rowing for fun. Not that Steve, mind you, rowed. All he did was sit on his orse (as Ross O’Carroll Kelly would say), steer and shout at us—which he did very well, I might add. Peter had (has still I rather think) a searing wit and is great good fun. Susan and I know him best of all, and were able to visit his mansion in Devon in later years. Stephen had an explosive laugh, and unlimited enthusiasm for things Scottish and military, and Waugh’s Sword of Honour. I remember Clive for his vigour and intelligence, but I suspect he found it frustrating that some of us lacked his commitment. Of Terry the voice I have already written.
I’m pretty sure Susan and I were wed by the time this photo was taken. I was enjoying myself as a medical student, but Susan was teaching at an inner city school just off the Old Kent Road in north Peckham. This was by no means easy, and I hope she might commit memories of it to print before too long.
Most of us in this photo qualified as doctors in 1975. I organized a reunion for our cohort in 1985 at the Savoy in London. That’s the last time any number of us met, though individuals have kept in sporadic contact.
Gentlemen, thank you!
As a child I was enraged when adults referred to me as Arthur’s lad, or whatever, and it narks me now to hear people say so-and-so’s daughter or son. I have a name, dammit, and I was given it at Baptism.
When we give someone a name, we feel more personally involved with him or her. A different kind of relationship is established: I’m now me, not just Arthur’s son, or his car, or his boots. Using a name, we can address someone directly.
But other things happen too when we give somebody a name. We make them part of our tribe, our group. We domesticate them like a pet. We begin to feel comfortable with them, and able to control them, drink tea with them and suck them into our prejudices.
It’s easy to let this happen with our relationship with the Master.
We begin to feel we know him. We ask him for this or that favour, ignoring the fact that millions of others ask for favours that negate ours. We ask him to cure this or that illness in someone we know, as if he is at our beck and call. We twist his teaching to suit us and our situation, ignoring the fact that we’re already pampered and privileged. As we domesticate Jesus we try to make him ‘one of us’, like a lap dog that wags its tail and goes for walkies at our whim.
It’s dangerous to claim to know Jesus. It reflects our narcissism. What emerges from Holy Scripture is just how unpredictable he is. I marvel at those people who claim to know the Master. I do not dare presume. He is concentrated, undiluted love—certainly—but that is not limited by my desires and prejudices. Concentrated, undiluted love might mean saying ‘no’ to me, for my own well-being. Many churches have the strap-line ‘to know Jesus and to make him known’. Good luck with that.
Who is doing the naming in today’s Gospel?
The mistake I’m making is to assume that I’m doing the naming. Of course I’m not. ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ doesn’t come from my mouth, nor from the mouth of John the Baptist, who’s puzzled by Jesus’ appearance in the queue. ‘What are you doing here? You know what I’m on about better than I do.’
Jesus doesn’t need baptism. But maybe he’s waiting in line for our benefit. Acting as our representative, he shows us what to do. In the words we heard at the carol service: ‘and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say’. He identifies with all of us imperfect people who need a fresh start and a new identity—which is one of the things that baptism’s about.
The Gospel tells us whose son Jesus is, and the first readers knew very well what his name meant. Jesus, the Greek version of Joshua (and like Jason, as in the Argonauts), means ‘the one who saves’. From what, by what means, and to what end, are topics for a whole course of sermons.
Whatever else today’s events mean for you and me, they remind us that the Master is not a personal pet, to be called on only when we need a bit of a cuddle and ignored the rest of the time. And just as he, the beloved Son, shows us the way, all of us are beloved sons and daughters of the Divine Lord, with all the rights and responsibilities that brings.
Jesus is immersed in the Jordan. We are immersed in divine love, by no means always easy to bear. Today is a call to think about our personal relationship with the one we claim to worship.