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


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!

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.


remington-keywound-triple-chime-mantel-clock-by-hermle-2-1.gifPortlaoise GFS had its end-of-season bash last night. Terrific! The star event was the dance routine. On the stage behind us, the dance teacher was strutting her stuff for the girls in front of us to follow. After a few minutes I became aware of a small commotion behind me. The girls’ infant sisters and brothers were themselves ‘copying’ the teacher—that is to say, jiggling about with giggles and fallings-over and great glee. It was all quite wonderful.

A three-tiered performance of leader at the back, performers in front, and uninhibited joyful randomness between says something profound about life, the universe and everything. Maybe an improvement on Plato’s cave allegory that I need to tease out a bit.

As a leaving present the GFS gave me a mantelpiece clock with Roman numerals (including IIII instead of IV, very proper) duly inscribed for SWMBO and me on the back. Lovely. In turn, I thanked them not only for the present, but also for simply being. As with students at Maryborough School, I feel as if I’m at their level and they at mine. Heart speaks to heart when we get together. I treat them as colleagues, they respond as colleagues. This isn’t always the case with congregations. A clerical neighbour has twice berated me for looking on them as colleagues: he says I should look on them as children. Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Is it that there’s something deeply infantilizing about attending church? Actually, this is now widely accepted, so there’s no question about it. There’s a container in the church porch for people to put their brains in as they arrive.

Is it that there’s something deeply infantilizing about adulthood? It’s certainly the case that the education system results in people knowing more and more about less and less. Vision becomes more and more restricted. You see this medical education: I regarded it as my job to help remove blinkers. Still do. ‘Education is what’s left after you’ve forgotten what you learned at school.’

Maybe it’s quite simply that I’ve never grown up. Yes, that’s it! My aim is to immature with age. This is why I’m not old enough to play golf.

New blood?

Ducreux__YawnLocal election results here are rather gloomy. The same old faces, many of whom look about 30 years older in person than they do on publicity posters.Some say that it’s better to go for experience, but the trouble is that ‘experience’ has brought us to a place that most folks would rather not be. I hope that those with ‘experience’ will not allow the same old crooks to go on milking the system. What power do local politicians have anyway? I gather that the answer is ‘pretty much none’, in which case, why are they so expensive?

We see the same phenomenon in church elections: select vestries, diocesan synods, diocesan councils. Same old names, same old faces. How do we get new blood and new thinking on to tired and listless committees?

It’s said that the emigration of young people from Ireland will be reduced by providing more jobs. Will it? Maybe they emigrate because they’re tired of the same old faces perpetuating the battles of the past without, it seems, the ability to look ahead with imagination and vigour.

I’m just a humble clerk in holy orders, but I really do think that a bit of ‘inexperience’ might serve us better than the narcoleptic complacency of ‘experience’.

Out of the mouths …

Picture-1011-300x226A local National School visited St Peter’s yesterday. They asked intelligent questions about the church and items in it. An observant young man wondered why there was a decorative Star of David on some of the chairs. ‘Because Jesus was a Jew’ was my immediate answer, followed by consideration of all the symbolism in church and liturgy that comes from the Jerusalem Temple.

Before long, a black boy asked: ‘are you English?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘why do you ask?’

‘Your accent,’ he replied.

What would have happened had I asked him if he were African because of his pigmentation?

The straightforwardness of young people has much to commend it. For myself, increasing the size of the oral aperture in readiness for the articulation of phonation is often merely an opportunity to change feet, and then to wonder to whom the letter of complaint will be sent.

Be ye not like to horse and mule, which have no understanding: whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle, lest they fall upon thee.

Belly button theology

SnailShell45Emmaus road in Assembly this morning. The seniors stay back afterwards and we explore some ramifications. Then we consider the umbilicus. Is there a connexion? I’ll get to that in a minute. The thing is, you see, that I’d had occasion to draw attention to a young man’s visible belly button to get him to sit upright. So, the umbilicus.

Anybody know what it’s for?

For a cord.

Connecting to what?


OK, says I. Really, it goes to the placenta, which then plugs into mammy. Has any of you seen horses or calves or pups being born? And some of them had. (No cats: cats should never be born).

I find the belly button very useful. When you’re eating in bed, you can put the salt in it to dip your food into.

They recognized this as a joke.

And, says I, if you get a screwdriver you can unscrew the umbilicus so that your bottom drops off. Yes, cynical reader, I did indeed use the word bottom, though it wasn’t the word that first came to mind.

They did not recognize this as a joke. I had to confess. Then they thought it uproariously funny. Strange isn’t it? eating salt they did, unscrewing they did not.

Emmaus and umbilicus—is there a connexion?

New life, nurturing, feeding, serving. The two-way traffic of nutrients going one way and waste products the other. One universe contracting down enabling another to open up. Cosmic renewal, the means of refreshment, exchange, vivification.

Admirabile commercium.


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