Response to Retirement 1

c2RR writes: not long after I’d posted Retirement 1, I had this response from a retired priest. She has given me persmission to post it — it’s worth reading.

I can relate to a lot of what you say. I’ve been out of Church now for about 15 years and it took me an awful long time to get rid of enough rage to be able to recover the sense of the divine chuckle at the silliness of most of it.

When I went forward for ministry, women were not ordained at all, just licensed as Deacons, so I spent much of my time being regarded as the freak, and forcing a pathway to acceptance. Of course now the C of E is so desperate for ministers that women are accepted because they are willing, as a result of cultural pressure, to fill the vacancies. That, of course, will change as new generations of women, my children’s generation, no longer see that women have to be submissive, willing to do anything, to take on a job.

The saddest thing I’ve witnessed is the retreat of the Church from engagement with the world as it is for most people. When I was ‘called’, liberation theologians from South America were essential reading for us. David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, and constantly in the media for standing on the side of the marginalised. In our own diocese, the then Bishop of Stafford was out on the streets marching against Thatcherism. I suppose this is what you mean by “being Jesus” rather than “talking Jesus” – the latter being something that makes me nauseous.

As you can see, the rage is still present.

As for speaking out—it takes its toll. The state of the Church Rampant (irony alert) now makes me sad. I see rural clergy with six churches and no ministerial help, up against all the things you mention in terms of nonsense from the institution. I would like to get involved but, as I’m constantly reminded by my partner, it is no longer my problem.

Maybe this is just as well, for beyond the confines of the institutional church there is plenty of life, and contributions to “The Kingdom” can come in other ways.

Tears and smiles like us he knew

VladimirIt’s easy for theology to engage with chemistry, physics, cosmology and the like. These topics are concerned with ideas, concepts, and theories, rather than with things you can see or touch or feel.

Like theology, these sciences are products of the human mind. Different people with different backgrounds, different brain wiring arrangements, will have different ways of looking at things. This is one reason why I don’t expect my theology, such as it is, to be the same as anyone else’s, certainly not that of Biblical authors who had an entirely different worldview and cultural milieu.

Engaging with zoology – human biology – is different.

Zoology concerns things we touch and feel and do. We ingest, we digest, we excrete, we screw, we fiddle with our own and each other’s genitals, we break, we wear out, we tear, we are vulnerable. It’s messy.

People of Biblical times are much more at home with this mess than we are. Scripture has blood, guts, bowels, murders, torture, wombs, circumcisions, hearts, body, eyes, ears, incest, and rape. These are not things prissy and prudish Christians talk about over sherry, let alone in church.

Church people seem unwilling to confront mess. Some are wilfully ignorant of biology. Human sexuality is a case in point: the churches’ attitudes to sexuality, masturbation and birth control are stuck in a bygone age that knows nothing of the embryology of the genital system or the role of ova and spermatozoa. The link between sexual intercourse and “love” is by no means clear in Scripture—nor even in the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer—despite protestations to the contrary.

People blame Paul. Wrongly IMHO. In contrast to “spirit”, he used the Greek sarx that translators rendered as “flesh”. What Paul meant by sarx would more accurately be rendered in modern English as “ego”. That and its ramifications make complete sense to me. But—and this is not Paul’s fault—so began the church’s denial of biological flesh and therefore of human pleasure and delight.

The incarnation—carnes the Latin version of sarx—is messy.

The nativity is messy. Mary screams and shoves, amniotic fluid leaks, fetal membranes are shed, baby howls, placenta emerges, umbilical cord is severed, lots of blood, maybe urine and faeces and copious farts. And if we assume that Luke’s nativity tale has a smidgeon of historicity, there are the animals with all that that implies.

Western Christians have intellectualised their faith to minimise mess. They’ve lost touch with flesh. They’ve covered it up.

By ignoring or denying biology, western Christians ignore or deny the incarnation.

Retirement 1

c2A recent post on the blog Thinking Anglicans (yes, yes, I know, smart remarks about oxymorons—very amusing I’m sure) told the story of two people who’d left the Church of England because of having been insulted and abused by regulars, both saying that they felt better for having left.

Now, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that what puts people off going to church are the people that already do, but nevertheless the observation set me thinking.

In a sense, I’ve left the Church of England too, through retirement. Even though in orders only since 2006, I’ve been associated with it since an act of teenage rebellion in the 1960s.

Teenage rebellion. Did I indulge in weed? No—well, not then. Unbridled sex? No—regrettably. Living in a commune? No—unless a basement flat on the South Circular Road near Clapham Common, where three boys shared a bedroom, counts as a commune (though that was later). The product of two Methodist dynasties abandoning the tribal temple for the Church of England? Yes, that’s teenage rebellion at its most revolutionary.

But back to the plot.

I know it’s early days, but I feel as if I’m working through post-traumatic stress disorder. Do other retired clergy feel similarly? Several have told me that for six months after retirement they slept a lot and couldn’t bring themselves to go to church. Me too.

What follows is not directed at loyal, hardworking and committed church members, but at the institution and its apparatchiks. For what stands out for me, looking back, is the way in which we are expected, even required, to ignore reality in order to pretend that the Titanic is unsinkable, that recovery is just around the corner, and that half-baked initiatives, cooked up by people that long since left the coal face for a comfy desk job, are the answer to our problems.

The truth is that the church has been in decline ever since the invention of the printing press, as a result of which people could read for themselves and didn’t need to be told what to think by priests. The fall since then has been gradual, with most recently, I think, the takeover by the state of welfare functions previously looked after by the church. The church has lost its purpose.

In making these analyses and drawing conclusions, there is of course a balance to be struck between destructive criticism on the one hand, and false hope created by rose-tinted spectacles on the other, but in church pronouncements and publicity these days there is rarely anything other than the latter.

In another life I knew a CEO of the “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” school. The culture of the Church of England reminds me of that. It doesn’t work. New buildings, even restorations and extensions, need to have sound foundations (did not someone say something like this two thousand years ago?), not on denial of reality, or on wilful blindness where elephants in rooms are concerned.

Any decent strategist knows that there must be consideration of “what ifs?”, of contingency planning, of alternative options, of disaster preparation. Instead in the Church of England, we have one kak-handed project after another, none seemingly based on rational detached analysis, and none monitored properly during and afterwards to see if the resources chucked at it have been well spent. Some are even justified on the basis of decisions made under the influence of the “Holy Spirit”. It is easy for us to deceive ourselves with groupthink that the truth is not in us.

I’ve been struck by the insidious nature of clerical institutionalisation, and in some cases its speed. It’s like the most virulent strain of antibiotic-resistant microbe. It infects some people even before hands are laid upon them. They speak clericalese, they think only in terms of the institution and the hierarchy, they never try to understand the point of view of a congregation member or a visitor, and they refuse to imagine what someone who’s never set foot in church – that’s most people these days – might see in the cold light of day.

This is a species of abuse. We allow it. We are complicit in this abuse by failing to ask questions, by failing to analyse events, by failing to make plans based on reality, by failing to be loyal dissenters, whatever the cost.

One of the Thinking Anglicans contributors writes that life outside the church is far healthier, and that it was non-church agencies that were helping him to recover. This is similar to how I feel.

My church at present is the gym, my wife’s the garden and nature. They are healthier than church, physically and spiritually, we meet people who smile more, who don’t require us to fill in forms and justify our existence, who have no expectations, and who are willing to help without conditions. Best of all, there is no attempt to use guilt and shame in order to control.

The church used to be an agent of beauty, a patron of the arts, using them to bring people to the Divine. I need to come to terms with the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be duped by it. Or perhaps that it has changed under my feet more than I ever imagined possible.

Remembrance 2019

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielThis is a bittersweet time of year for Monkhice. October used to be a month of celebration, since all our children were born in October (the rhythm method of conception). There are still birthdays of course, but now with anniversaries of funeral and requiem. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness comes with unwelcome ambivalence. It will never be otherwise.

And then November.

Remembrance Day brings anger. The stupidity of strutting generals of the Great War, using people as disposable toy soldiers in the pursuit of their family squabbles. Contemporary politics is differently deplorable, with the wholesale telling of porkies to gain the approval of the even more powerful. The words “lying turds” come to mind.

Remember the stupidity of war. Remember how killing never achieves anything other than bitterness. Remember how bashing people on the head to get them to agree with you never works. Never.

Maybe what we really, really want is forgiveness.

We need to forgive the wrongs of others. Let go of them, let go of retribution. Our resentments don’t hurt the person that did us wrong—they hurt us. They grow inside, a cancer of the mind, making us bitter and twisted. More surely and more swiftly than any malignancy, they destroy us. Think of Miss Havisham. Hold your resentments in your hands and throw them over your shoulders. Leave them behind.

Most of all, and most difficult of all, forgive yourself.

In the news today is a man who joined an Iranian group opposed to the Ayatollahs. He has been in exile for 30 years. He is 60 and has never seen his son since infancy. He can’t forgive himself for his decision to join. Poor man. How I sympathize with him, even though my own actions might not have had such sad consequences. And then I hear a voice within say “it’s perverted pride, you know, and a kind of arrogance, to think that your sins are unforgiveable”. Well, be that as it may, it doesn’t help much.

Re-membering.  Think of it as putting the members, the pieces, back together again—what all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t do. Reintegration, restoration, anabolism as opposed to diabolism or catabolism. The rubble cleared away so that new foundations can be laid. I wish this were as easy to do as it is to write.

The poppies of Flanders grew because the machinery of war churned up the ground, provoking dormant seeds to life. We can hope that the turmoil of confronting the past will allow dormant seeds to flower within us. Who knows what wonderful things might result? This is healing—nothing to do with cure, but rather working with the reality of our situation.

I repeat: maybe what we really, really want is forgiveness. Self-acceptance.

So, relax. Celebrate your joys. Acknowledge your mistakes. Cuddle them. Love the hell out of yourself.

Then you might be able to change yourself a bit. You certainly won’t ever change anyone else.

Last night I dreamt I went to Queens’ again

800px-Queen_Elizabeth_Grammar_School,_Penrith._Picture

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith

Childhood dreams in which I was falling alarmed me enough to make me wake myself up. Then one night I deliberately didn’t, to see what would happen. It was exhilarating. I enjoyed the flight, for that’s what it turned out to be.

About nine months ago I began having dreams in which I was back at school, anxious, perplexed, and fearful about failing chemistry and physics. I was wandering around on my own, observing fellow pupils in groups. The dream version of Penrith Grammar School was pretty much as it was in the 1960s.

Other dreams were about Cambridge and medical school—King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, south London. In these, there was no topographical resemblance to the real thing, then or now. There was a post-apocalyptic air of dilapidation, oppression, grubbiness and decay. Buildings were crumbling, streets dirty, pavements littered with rubble. Corridors became labyrinths with unattainable goals. I was back for resit exams, usually biochemistry or physiology (odd, since the subject I actually failed was pharmacology). The really curious thing is that in these dreams I was always aware of thinking “hang on a minute, why do I have to be here? I qualified as a doctor in 1975 and I’ve been a Professor of Anatomy?”

Cambridge_Queens'_Gatehouse

Queens’ College Cambridge

Last night I dreamt I went to Cambridge again, though it was nothing like the real thing. In a haze of perplexity and indecision, I’d not found my timetable, so I’d missed three days of lectures and practicals. I was already notorious as the only person out of about 250 students who hadn’t attended anything.

Someone told me that I should be at Gordon Wright’s neuroanatomy lecture in half an hour. Gordon, let me tell you, in real life taught us neuroanatomy with great wit and style; he subsequently gave me helpful criticism on my textbook Cranial Nerves, so it’s not surprising that he has an honoured place in my memory. But why, having written two anatomy texts—and I was aware of that in my anxiety—should I have to attend his lectures?

Then it came to me what this was about.

Starting again.

It’s obvious now. Retirement means starting again. There is apprehension. Rubble is cleared away. It feels like going into a labyrinth. I was slow to see it.

Aren’t dreams clever? It takes the conscious a fair old time to catch up with the unconscious.

I hope the dreams continue. Enlightenment may dawn.

Hugh would have been 42 today

Hugh2I find his birthday more affecting than the anniversary of his death—in three days’ time. I don’t know why, it just is.

Hardly a day goes by without him cropping up in my thoughts, but then that’s true for Gloria (Victoria) and Ed too. With Hugh, though, it’s not what he might be doing, or hoping that the cold is a bit better, or the marathon training is going well, or whatever, but rather an emptiness.

There was a time when the overwhelming malignancy of loss blotted out any possibility of hope or delight or joy. That is not so now. The loss is there, certainly, the waste of a good and heroic man, father, husband and son, but now mingled with memories of mischief, boldness, pugnacity and perseverance. A smile on the face and a tear on the cheek.

I suppose this is progress. It’s interesting to observe and note my feelings and, as it were, cuddle them. And I do. For months after the catastrophe, maybe even a year, the lament of King David at the death of his son was always with me: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!  And it still is, but periodically now, not constantly. Unpredictably, but temporarily.

HughAs I’ve written elsewhere, the death of a son affected this particular father in some interesting ways. I no longer waste my time on things I don’t have to or won’t enjoy. The exhaustion that came with the devastation—like being assaulted by the greatest imaginable physical force—has not quite dissipated, and indeed is prolonged by tiredness that comes with the culmination of 43 years of ministry to students and parishioners. But I am hopeful.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rest of life, and as I retire officially in five days’ time, the sense of uncertainty is heightened. It’s a modern disease of course, this quest for purpose. It’s not helped by a society that measures success according to rank, qualifications, wallet, and size—none of which matters when you’re in the coffin.

Familyl’m sick of doing. Maybe it’s time for a bit of being. SWMBO has tended me for forty six years, so now I shall do my best to tend her. I’m free of having to organise and administer and chivvy a bit, so I’ll be better able to think, to write, to spread lovingkindness with eye-twinkling mischief in all the ways I can to all the people I can. Doubtless along the way I’ll continue to provoke and irritate and exasperate.

Hugh had PhDs in those qualities.

Angels and demons: a farewell

MichaelS Michael and All Angels 2019

Revelation 12: 7-17. Matthew 18: 1-10

Rambling Rector’s last Sunday homily as Vicar of Burton upon Trent

When you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

He was a terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest sort and, in fact, he was the devil himself. One day the devil was in a very good humour because he had just finished a mirror which had this peculiar power: everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it seemed to dwindle to almost nothing at all, while everything that was worthless and ugly became most conspicuous and even uglier than ever. In this mirror the loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the very best people became hideous, or stood on their heads and had no stomachs. If a person had a freckle it was sure to spread until it covered both nose and mouth. If a good, pious thought passed through anyone’s mind, it showed in the mirror as a carnal grin.

“That’s very funny!” said the devil, who, laughed aloud at his invention. 

The hobgoblin’s apprentices scurried about with the mirror until there was not a person alive that had not been distorted. Then they flew up to heaven itself, to scoff at the angels, and our Lord. The higher they flew, the wider the mirror grinned. They could hardly manage to hold it. Higher they flew, and higher still, nearer to heaven and the angels. Then the grinning mirror trembled with such violence that it slipped from their hands and fell to the earth, where it splintered into billions of bits, or perhaps even more.

And now it caused more trouble than before it was broken, because some of the fragments were smaller than a grain of sand and went flying throughout the wide world. Once they got in people’s eyes they would stay there. These bits of glass distorted everything the people saw, and made them see only the bad side of things, for every little bit of glass kept the same power that the whole mirror had possessed.

A few people even got a glass splinter in their hearts, and that was a terrible thing, for it turned their hearts into lumps of ice. Some of the fragments were made into spectacles, and evil things came to pass when people put them on. The fiend was so tickled by it all that he laughed till his sides were sore.

But fine bits of the glass are still flying through the air.

Like the passage from Revelation that we heard earlier, it’s a fairy story about the origin of the human propensity to sin, to do bad things, to do things that harm others and ourselves. It’s the beginning of Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

It makes the connexion between devil and diabolic. Diabolic, in contrast to anabolic, means splintering, and here we have splinters of evil glass that pass into eyes and heart to distort vision and turn the heart to ice. You don’t have to look too hard to see these twisted characteristics of world leaders: Pyongyang, Damascus, Khartoum, even Westminster, for this nation is being splintered asunder. It is diabolical.

But this applies not just to “them”. It applies as much to “us”. It’s our tendency to hard-heartedness, lack of compassion, forgetfulness of loving-kindness, determination to see the worst in people and situations. It is egocentricity. It is self-obsession. It is total self-indulgence. And that is Satanism.

Am I deluded to use such terms? Listen to S Paul: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Revelation, Paul, and Andersen tell vividly of what Michaelmas is about: the battle between good and evil, the “force fields” in which we exist. It’s a personal battle, in my experience often lost in a fit of temper or a surge of adrenaline: the things I do in the heat of the moment, no chance even to consider consequences, leading to regret and shame.

The question is: how to deal with this? Does Scripture have anything to say?

The Common Worship lectionary for Michaelmas does not: it gives the story of Nathaniel with Jesus telling him that he’ll see angels ascending and descending. I can’t make anything of that. But the historic lectionary of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, comes spectacularly to my aid for Michaelmas with these words of Jesus:

Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

There are other wonderful bits of today’s gospel, not least that anyone who harms a child should be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. With all the church scandals, I sometimes wish we took that literally. But for Michaelmas the message is that the forces of evil within are more likely to be vanquished if we assume the mantle of a child.

Here are some of the characteristics of childlikeness that we might use in our struggles: innocence, trust, fearlessness, imagination, having fun, making the best of things.

I spoke of some of this last week, particularly at S Modwen’s where I urged you to approach the future with imagination and without fear. Fear is the opposite of love. Fear leads to hatred. Graham Greene wrote that hatred is failure of imagination. Fear leads to suspicion, name-calling, abuse, oppression, cowardice, failure to fight injustice. And fear leads to death of the spirit in both oppressor and victim. We harm ourselves every bit as much as we harm others.

Am I suggesting, then, that we should become like children in order to fight wickedness?

I am.

But I’m not so naïve as to think that we don’t need to be careful. Our world is one of suspicion, cynicism and selfishness as much as it is of beauty, delight and joy. We need to be watchful. We need 360° vision. We need to consider likely consequences of our actions. But the more we can adopt the attitudes of childlikeness—not childishness—as a starting point, the more likely it is that good will follow.

This message is hammered home in The Snow Queen. It’s the trust of a child, Gerda, that helps her confront adversity. It’s the persistence of a child that keeps her going. It’s the prayers of a child that defeat the demons around the Snow Queen’s ice palace. And in what is quite the most moving part of the story, it’s the tears of a child that melt Kay’s heart of ice and wash out the evil splinters in his eye.

And the result? Reunion, restoration, rescue, healing, salvation, Make no mistake, the two characters in the story are in truth parts of you and me. Oh, how our splintered souls long for wholeness.

Unless you become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This has nothing to do with the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven—eternal life—is a quality of life here and now. It’s an attitude of mind, a way of looking at the world. It is life abundant before death. This is not a matter of appeasing an irascible sky pixie, or collecting nectar points for a seat in heavenly club-class. It’s a matter of making the world we live in more like the kingdom of heaven by fighting injustice and spreading loving-kindness.

Some people believe in angels. I like the idea of Michael the fighter, of Gabriel the messenger, of Raphael the healer, of Uriel the bringer of light. I like the idea of hosts of angels surrounding us, protecting and directing us. But for me it’s just more poetry, and it doesn’t affect my basic Michaelmas message about childlikeness bringing a glimpse of heaven.

Sunday worship is about precisely that: giving us a glimpse of heaven. Before mass, the vestry prayer often includes the words: “may our worship be a vision of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that others may be brought closer to you”. Good sounds, beautiful sights, inspiring words, lovely smells. One of my descriptions of the thing people call God is beauty in all its manifestations, and I have tried my best to cultivate that.

BurtonOnTrentPaul06We’re in S Paul’s, and for me to come into this place several times a week, and bathe in its glass, its furnishings, and the sense of the numinous they help create, has been a real joy. When I came to Burton six years ago with a view to applying for the job, I’d already seen the cool elegance of S Modwen’s, and I knew the moment I stepped in here that I could be at home. And then when a year or so later we unearthed that glorious altar frontal, I recognised it as the Bodley/Watts original: it’s the same design as in the Bodley-designed chapel at Queens’ College Cambridge where I was an undergraduate. What a delight!

This all contributes to the beauty of the liturgy in which relaxed ritual, with contributions from others, give a real sense of “numinous in community”. The party line is that in our services we honour the Lord, but since there is a bit of the Divine in each of us, in truth we are honouring ourselves, we are honouring the best of humanity. And that is a exactly as it should be: we refresh ourselves so as to enable us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed—and remember that unless we do that, all this churchy stuff is utterly meaningless.

It’s not only in church that we can experience this “numinous in community”. Some people, I’m told, have such a feeling at a rugby match. I gather that there is a popular sport in this country in which a round ball is kicked about, and millions of people find spiritual refreshment in that, however implausible I find it. Does this mean that church is merely a hobby for us, like sport for others? Maybe so, but I leave my successor to explore that. Meanwhile, let me tell you a story from my past that at least one of you here will recognize.

About 20 years ago when I was Professor of Anatomy in Dublin, I was standing with a colleague in the Dissection Room – a huge room housing 20+ cadavers and 200+ students and staff. The Anatomy course I was responsible for was acknowledged as being first rate, and the atmosphere was buzzing. Some students were dissecting, some chatting, some looking at x-rays, some considering symptoms and patient stories. Some staff were talking, some listening, some dissecting. For a brief moment I was overwhelmed: I felt as if I were in the presence of something Divine. My colleague must have felt similarly, for he turned to me and said: “you have made this happen”. It is my most treasured memory of sixteen years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Since July 2014 I have tried to provoke you to think, to shake you up, to let you see how right Diderot was when he urged enlargissez Dieu! I’ve tried to get you to pluck out eyes that offend—that is, to see differently, to move beyond the Sunday school pap of “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. And I hope our liturgy has enabled us to glimpse Divine grace and glory.

Sisters and brothers, I thank you for the fun we’ve had together, the joy and delight. Since my heart is in large part in Ireland, and since I’d like my ashes to be scattered on an Irish mountain, where almost four years ago I scattered my elder son’s, let me say:

Go raibh maith agaibh. Slán agus beannacht leat. Bail ó Dhia ort.

Thank you. The grace of God be with you. God bless you

Let me leave you with one question, a most profound question that takes us back to Revelation, to The Snow Queen, to today’s gospel:

would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become?