Universal discredit

drainWe now find it impossible to live as we have done for the last three years on a single clergy stipend alone, about 25K a year before tax.

We have no dependants, no dog, no repayments. We have only one car (well actually not at present since the back axle is banjax(l)ed, so that’s a few thousand smackers on a replacement vehicule). The point is—and this is a rhetorical question—how do people manage these days? There’s a lot of people earning less than me, without the house, without the expenses, without the non-contributory pension. Maybe unmarried, sorry unpartnered, clergy can manage, but there must still be some clergy families—yes families, not a couple like us—who have to manage on a single stipend.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m out of touch and all clergy spouses earn. After all, many of today’s clerics are married to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, reflecting the fact that only romantic idealists would think of clerical life, and you don’t find many of them lurking in places where people run round like blue-arsed flies* doing several jobs in order to feed the family and pay the bills.

This, of course, says a great deal about the institutional church and its view of those at the sharp end of ministry. It surely can’t be long before parish ministry is entirely in the hands of House-for-Duty or retired clergy. I hear that one diocese in the extreme north west of England is tacitly adopting such a policy. This will allow the smaller number of paid clergy to have jobs in diocesan offices thinking fine thoughts and dreaming up initiatives and wheezes to inflict on the volunteers who actually do the work. Imagine, dear reader, telling volunteers what to do. How long before the volunteers tell the apparatchiks where to stick their wheezes? Still, I suppose with fewer paid clergy, stipends can be raised. Maybe not.

But let’s put clergy aside. After all, there soon won’t be any left and I doubt few will mourn their loss.

What about daily life for a huge number of people, including many here in this parish, as prices rise and inflation gathers momentum, the rich getting phenomenally richer while they do not?

What can we do about it? Will a change of government accomplish anything? I doubt it. Will Obi Wan Korbynbi, sitting in his magic money tree counting his leaves, come to the rescue? I doubt it. St Paul’s is hosting a refuge for the homeless this winter, but that’s like sticking an Elastoplast over an abscess—handy enough, but no substitute for the surgeon’s knife.

Comrades, revolution is called for. The trouble with a revolution, though, is that you end up exactly where you started. That’s what revolutions do.

* does any species of Diptera have a blue arse?


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The effects of transmitted stress

4167-newtons-cradle-2SWMBO draws my attention to an article in yesterday’s Church Times (13 October 2017) that explores the effects of clergy stress on clergy spouses.

The background to this is a recent survey in which clergy declare themselves on the whole happy and fulfilled in their jobs. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, knowing what I know and hearing what I hear, and it made me wonder if the clergy who responded to the survey were predominantly those with permanent “I’ve found Jesus” smiles on their faces, rose coloured spectacles, and a complete inability to see reality.

The article is illustrated by a picture of Newton’s cradle—the toy with balls suspended from a frame, the only balls that move are those on the edge, those in the middle remaining motionless but transmitting the considerable resulting forces. That’s the clergy spouse. Susan found it particularly telling because that image describes exactly how it was for her during the three years I was a Rector in the Church of Ireland.

The problem was not in Portlaoise—ministry there was varied and stimulating. It arose in neighbouring Ballyfin out of a Diocesan policy to force groups of parishes into unions. In C of E terms it would be the forced merger of separate Parochial Church Councils into one PCC. I shan’t tell the story here—I reserve that for another day when I have time and energy to work through my detailed diary of events and emails. In short, what I came up against in effecting diocesan policy can be boiled down to:

  • the way Diocesan council ignored local feeling;
  • the meddling of members of Diocesan council without my permission—I suspect this to have been in part Masonic intrigue;
  • what appeared to me to be a sense of entitlement in families who, by design or default, filled the gap in rural society resulting from the departure decades earlier of the Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The final straw was when, my having done what was required of me, that Diocesan policy was abandoned.

It was extremely unpleasant for me. But I was only a ball on the edge. On the other edge was Diocesan policy. Poor Susan was all the balls in the middle. Having reflected on that hell, I’ve come seriously to wonder if I’d witnessed a case of possession. Certainly, the word diabolical is not inappropriate, at least in its being an antonym of anabolic. There was splintering caused by behaviour that appeared malicious and malevolent. Read the Prologue to Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

I understand therefore something of the malignant effects of clergy stress on the clergy family. The article tells me how courageous one must be to go public with it. The fear is that by so doing you will mark the card of your spouse who will then be noted unable to cope and/or unfit for preferment—if preferment is your thing (it shouldn’t be, but humans are human).

The combination of Protestant work ethic and a perversion of the suffering servant mindset is insidious and profoundly harmful. The more I think about Jesus and his ministry, the more I think that he came to abolish religion. I’ve heard it said that when Linda Woodhead asks her students to invent a religion, not one of them has ever suggested that clergy are necessary.

Posted in A great future behind me, Ecclesiology, Uncategorized | 2 Comments


parody-of-the-famous-scene-by-a-basil-lookalike_542319Homily for Proper 22 Year A by Phillip Jefferies

Isaiah 5: 1-7. Philippians 3: 4b-14. Matthew 21: 33-46.

Since the world appears on the whole to work according to reason, it would be logical to expect reasonable outcomes from things. You get in your car, turn the ignition and, if it’s got fuel and the battery’s not flat and it’s not flooded or damp, then it starts. That’s a fairly reasonable expectation – unless you’re Basil Fawlty. If your logic is like that of the owner of Fawlty Towers then when your car doesn’t start, you count to 3 and if still nothing happens you give your car a thorough thrashing.

But that is an unreasonable expectation. In the readings today we’re bracketed by vineyards – it could be a rollicking prospect, but it’s not! The parables of the vineyard in today’s readings from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew (and separated by about 800 years) disappoint and confuse.

It would be reasonable to expect good outcomes, perhaps euphoric even. In the first instance Isaiah’s poetic and ballad-like vineyard, against all reason, only produces a barren acidity that stinks. Matthew’s allegory of the vineyard of Israel results in the skewering of their long awaited Messiah, Jesus, by their leaders, the very defenders of the faith.

And then, in between, comes S Paul’s experience. Paul, Hebrew to the core, as to the law, faultless—a good Pharisee, no less! However, against all expectation, Paul seems to have lost everything and, what’s more, finds himself in prison. Now that doesn’t seem fair. Not a reasonable outcome you might think, for either a Roman citizen or a faithful follower of Jesus Christ—nor, within the justice of God, does it appear reasonable either. What is going on?

My Classics master with a crystal-clear mind, with 25 years as a sidesman, who never missed an 8 o’clock, was seriously confused when the frost took all his chrysanths. Stuff happens! Perhaps he’d imbibed too much vintage Greek because Greek philosophy, on the whole, centred on perfection. Greeks loved the circle with its symmetrical completeness. They loved the perfection of the universe swirling round the earth in perfect concentric circles.

They loved mathematics: Pythagoras’ Theorem of the square on the hypotenuse fame was wonderful, perfectly divine when it produced an integer, as with a 3, 4, 5 triangle. But when the answer was not a whole number, as with a 5, 5, 7.0710678 …  triangle, or was expressed as a fraction, Mr P was unhappy. Imperfection and infinity didn’t fit in with the divine.

Mr P couldn’t cope with imperfection; he tried to suppress his discovery. If it’s not whole then it’s not perfect and it’s not divine: there was no closure, no completeness. On top of that, the planets, it was discovered in due course, revolved not in perfect circles, but at best in ellipses. And nor did they go round the earth. What a mess.

We seem to be making an awful mistake expecting perfect outcomes. I don’t know what expletives Paul used: pious Christians would say “none whatsoever”. But Paul was doing all the right things and was in prison. He’d at least say: “This isn’t quite going to plan, my word!” You can say that again! And on top of a pretty blameless life, Paul was a Roman citizen, to boot. “Sod this for a game of soldiers”, as the Vicar might say, would be more appropriate.

But Paul soldiers on. He’s got his feet on the ground—well, to be more accurate, he’s got his feet in prison shackles. He knows stuff happens—stuff that, in all reasonable justice should not. He does, however, have a coping philosophy to see him through: he says, “I press on”. I expect there was a prison mug telling him to Keep calm and carry on. And what else can you do? Stuff happens and you have to get on with it. This is the language of hope, not of assurance, certainly not of certainty.

Paul says something else. He says that he lets go of what has gone before. That is what we are frequently urged to do: to let go—and it is essential from a practical point of view. You can’t withdraw from the track because, now and again, you come a cropper. That, it seems to me, is the awful stupidity of the present hysteria of calling people victims and, even, to expect closure on anything unpleasant from our past. We deal with it by getting on with things. I mean, our historic life is an essential and rich part of our present life.

All of us have a past, with good and bad stuff back there. It is part of the truth of who we are. Sometimes it is less manageable than others – and even the marvellous memories can upset us. That’s life: neither pretend it didn’t happen nor let it stop you dead in your tracks (well not for long, anyway). Press on—not with closure or with perfect or even satisfactory outcomes but in hope.

In the desolation of the dreams for our vineyard, God doesn’t make it all right. Rather, He reminds us who actually owns this vineyard we occupy: first, last and all stations on the line, the landowner is God.

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Liturgical dyspepsia


The ideal pet

There are two occasions in the liturgical year that I heartily dislike.

The first is Mothering Sunday, or Mother’s Day as people call it these days. Its original incarnation as the time for a pilgrimage to the mother church might have been OK. Its modern incarnation, with the gooey stickiness of sentimental femininity, I can hardly bear. No wonder some men find church too girly. And what about women who’d love to have had kids but can’t? It’s an excuse to get a visiting preacher.

The other is harvest. As you know I was brought up in an agricultural community and the farming year mattered greatly. At this time of year there was tatie-picking week, which coincided, deliberately—thanks to Cumberland County Council, Latin motto on school exercise books Perfero, I finish what I start—with school half term. I have some memory of rosehip week when we scoured the hedgerows for the bulbous scarlet objects to take to school for collection—3d/lb. In an urban context I see no point in harvest. In Burton upon Trent wouldn’t we be better off having some festival celebrating beer or Marmite or light engineering or Rolls-Royces or Toyotas or trains?

Harvest festival is a recent invention, 19th century. A Cornish vicar decided that the church was irrelevant to most of his people (nothing changes), and that having a harvest festival to connect church to the lives of his agricultural parishioners might do the trick. It didn’t work.

The thing I really find distasteful about harvest festivals is the sense that because the land has yielded its increase, we are especially favoured by God. One implication is that God looks with disfavour on those people living in places where the land is barren and infertile—as if the people who live there are inferior to us in northern Europe, where the climate is governed by the gulf stream that arises from the same set of phenomena that yield hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Never mind. We bring our packets and boxes and tins for distribution to the homeless by the YMCA and so feel good about ourselves. Bollix to that.

You may think this is just a dyspeptic vicar writing. You may be right. Another excuse for a visiting preacher.

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A few days in Texas



Susan, Ed and I had a few days with granddaughter Abby, Hugh’s widow and her extended family. It was lovely to see them. I was with Hugh’s former colleagues, and some friends of his came from Seattle to see us. All very moving, but poignant because of—I’m sure Hugh would relish this metaphorical mess—the absent elephant in the room.

I crumple up very easily. One of his mates, a Seattle fire fighter, has lost too many of his colleagues and friends in the course of jobs and military service. He copes by remembering the good things and the good times, for life moves on. And so it does. But not for me yet: it’s a matter of getting the clocks to start ticking again. Or waiting.

Anyway, enough of this. What I want to comment on in this piece is the contrast between the image of what, according to the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, life must be like under President Trump, and the reality. I tell you, life there is pretty much as it was under Obama. Surprisingly, immigration at Houston was quickest ever. Whataburger is still Whataburger. IHOP* is still IHOP, and I’ve gotten to like waffles and pecan syrup with my eggs and b, though as with the carfee Amurcans don’t know what “hot” means. And the number of fat people on mobility scooters seems much the same as it was two years ago (Burton is catching up).

This last comment puts me in mind of a 1973 episode in surgical outpatients at King’s College Hospital. The consultant was the Professor of Surgery, a lovely, gentle, lowland Scot who lived in modern architect-designed residence in Sydenham, regarded by cognoscenti as important enough to be illustrated in Buildings of England, London volume II (as it was then). He was not in the least like Lancelot Spratt, though he was well known for a fondness for the products of distilleries—say no more. On this particular afternoon he walked into a cubicle where on the couch was an enormously fat man with acres of flab wobbling over both edges. The worthy professor stopped, turned his head towards us, and with a terrifically wide grin on his face said in his gentle burr “hmmmm, a trifle obese, I see”, after which he conducted the rest of the examination with a joyful expression on his face.

But I digress. What of the floods? I hear you ask.

Nothing. We were in north Houston—Northampton, Tomball and Magnolia to be precise. We didn’t venture south to the mosquito-infested swamps on which central Houston is built. But we heard about the heroism and neighbourliness of people who were not affected as they dealt and deal with those who were.

And the wall?

When you live as close to the Mexican border as they do, and when you’re relieved that Mexican drug cartel bosses are being rubbed out, you might well be delighted at the prospect of a wall.

* International House of Pancakes. Don’t laugh. I think there’s a branch in Mexico. Or possibly Canada.

Posted in A great future behind me | Leave a comment

Placentas and pizzas



Mrs Windsor née Middleton is pregnant. It’s in the newspapers so it must be true.

First, I have to get this hobbyhorse off my chest. The correct spelling of fetus is fetus, not foetus, the word being related to felix, femina, etc. The incorrect spelling occurs first in the late writer Isidorus (570-636 AD) who fancied that the word could be derived from foveo (I cherish) instead of feo (I beget). So there.

Now to the hard stuff.

Is it an embryo that is taking root in Mrs Windsor’s genital system? Yes indeed. Is a fetus? Is it a baby? Is it a child? Embryo and fetus are defined by convention: you can look them up if you like. Baby is a meaningless term. Is it a parasite? Well, it steals mama’s nutrients and dumps its rubbish on her. It guzzles into her flesh so that its placenta can plug itself in to mammy’s tissues and get up close and personal with her blood vessels. It consumes the contents of parental wallets for at least two decades. Make up your own mind.

Some people worry about when the fetus becomes human. Not I. It’s human because the spermatozoön and ovum that produced it came from gonads belonging to humans. Reputedly. Anyhoo, however royal this fetus may be, it’s also a chordate, a vertebrate, a mammal, an ape and a primate. This is much more important than royalness.

The royalness will doubtless induce the Church of England to produce a prayer for the royal products of conception—it may already have done so—the usual crass, meretricious, tendentious, wordy drivel that comes from Lambeth. Products of conception include placenta, amnion, chorion, umbilical cord. Are they royal too? Are we to have a prayer for the royal placenta? Will a specially consecrated pair of scissors be used to cut the royal umbilical cord?

Killing the fetus

When do you think it should be permissible to kill the fetus? Or perhaps, when should it no longer be permissible? Well here’s the thing as I see it. Despite what the law may say, there is no single moment during the whole course of pregnancy at which the fetus is significantly different from what it was the moment before. There is no event that takes place that sufficiently differentiates what the fetus was before that event from what it is after the event. Fetal development is a continuum. From this point of view, if it’s permissible to kill a fetus at 18 weeks, then it’s permissible to kill a postnatal child or an adult. For those of us who have a little list of people not one of whom would be missed, this is comforting.

Why are we born when we are born?

The short answer is nobody knows. Brain size must have something to do with it. If we stayed inside any longer, our heads would grow so big that we wouldn’t be able to get through mama’s pelvis. But like I say who knows?

We are born very immature. A newborn horse can canter off pretty soon after birth, but not a newborn human. Unfortunately. Neurologically (spinal cord tract myelination—look it up), some of us mature more quickly than others. If earlier, we shall be better at physical activity and sport at an earlier age. If later (like me, dear reader), we shall have the shit kicked out of us at school for being physically inept.




Placenta in Latin means flat cake. It is a most interesting organ, much under-researched. Its evolution is fascinating. Some mammals have lots of little placentas. Some, like mice and humans, have a single placenta. A primate (therefore human) placenta is about the size of a small pizza. Looks like one too. Some twins have separate placentas, some share.

A mouse placenta is similar in size to the head of a small drawing pin. Believe me, I know. I’ve dealt with hundreds of them in my time. When our three products of conception were little, the eldest drew a picture of me at work with the caption “my daddy studies mices kidneys”. Adrenals, actually, and fetal ones at that, but the gist was spot on. She had not mastered the apostrophe by that stage (like an increasing number of adults, but don’t get me going), but had grasped that plurals are normally formed by the addition of a terminal s, and that in conjugating the verb ‘to study’, y sometimes becomes ies. Pretty good, huh?

Please understand, dear reader, that the placenta is fetal. Entirely fetal. The only bit of maternal tissue that comes out with the placenta is that which is torn away from the uterine lining when the placenta detaches itself, hopefully after birth. This is why bleeding may occur.

The placenta, like the infant that it nourishes, is a foreign organism as far as the mother’s immune system is concerned. Why is the placenta, which comes into intimate contact with maternal tissue, not rejected? Well, sometimes it is. And so arise spontaneous abortions and other obstetric headaches.

A bit of history

In the fourth, fifth and sixth Egyptian dynasties the placenta was held to be the seat of the external soul. There existed the ceremonial position of Opener of the King’s Placenta. Some have suggested that in Abigail’s flattery of King David (1 Samuel 25:29) she calls on this image, the ‘bundle of life’ (KJV) being the placenta, though this is not mentioned in recent Biblical commentaries. Some societies suppose the placenta to be ‘the twin brother or sister of the infant whom it follows at a short interval into the world’ — and in a way, it is. In central Africa a belief in reincarnation leads to the afterbirth being buried at the doorway, or under the threshold of a hut, practices connected with the divine doorkeeper and the widespread custom of carrying the bride over the threshold.

The great fry up

And now, children, finally for today’s “Listen with mother”, remember that the placenta is a most nutritious organ. It’s not that different from black pudding: blood, connective tissue and other bits and pieces.

Fried with eggs, mushrooms bacon and tomatoes it would make a right royal breakfast.

Posted in A great future behind me, Medical | 2 Comments

Questions and answers


Langwathby. River Eden left, Settle-Carlisle right

I’ve recently been asked to answer questions about my life. Here are some of them with my responses.

Family and growing up

I suppose I’m a border reiver, a hybrid Cumbrian Scot. I was born in Carlisle and brought up 20 miles south along the river Eden in Langwathby. I retain Cumbrian flat vowels as evidence.

Arthur, my father, was the second of five children of William, a Langwathby farmer and merchant, and Janet (née Dobinson) his gentle, somewhat patrician north Cumbrian wife from Roman Wall territory. Jeanne, my mother, was the second of five daughters of the Kirkoswald butcher Stanley Cranston and his wife Nellie (née Reid), a miner’s daughter from Fife. My sister was born during the Second World War when things were very tight. I was born in the expansive post-war period when we’d “never had it so good”. So essentially we were both only children with childhoods that were quite dissimilar.

We lived in a house where my paternal grandparents had lived before they moved across the road next to Arthur’s sister’s family. Up the hill were Arthur’s youngest brother with his family, lording it over the rest of the village more than just geographically. To complete this vignette of the Monkhouses, Arthur’s eldest brother was a Methodist minister in Carlisle, and another worked in a bank in Carlisle and sang tenor in the Cathedral choir. It wasn’t until I started organ lessons that I knew anything of our common interest in church music.

Nellie was reputed to be the youngest of 16 children. She went into service in Edinburgh in her teens. My cousin told me that she, a somewhat statuesque lady, was more than occasionally to be found in the pub dragging her husband out. Typical Methodists. Stanley liked to be called Stan by his grandchildren, and I assumed that was another nickname for a grandfather, like Pop or Papa. It never dawned on me that it was short for Stanley until I was a teenager.

Nellie and Stan had five daughters. The eldest lived in Carlisle, my mother came to Langwathby after nursing at Wrightington and Bradford Royal Infirmary, the next went to Darlington, and the twins ended up in Warwickshire. I have photos of the Cranston sisters, most striking with high cheekbones and almond eyes. Like Nellie when she was young, they look Slavic, oriental almost. I wonder about Nellie’s ancestry, and whether a sailor from the east contributed to their—and my—gene pool. Maybe that accounts for my interest in Russian Orthodoxy.

1950s Langwathby

11My father was fascinated with all things automotive, and spent the Second World War as driver and batman to a General in Greenock on the Clyde. We had a green Morris MRM 261 and so were able to get away from time to time, but with few private cars in the village, most of my school contemporaries were not so fortunate. There’s a picture of my sister and me in Trafalgar Square: she looks about 12 so I must have been about 4.

The village school was next to the railway station on the Settle-Carlisle. You could get trains from the village to Leeds, Bradford and Blackburn as well as, of course, Carlisle and Skipton. There was maybe even a stopping train to Edinburgh that went up the Waverley line. The daily passing of the Thames-Clyde and Thames-Forth expresses was eagerly awaited especially if school playtimes coincided.

Despite living less than 100 yards from school, I was made to stay for school dinners. The emetic qualities of the tapioca, rice pudding and semolina, were memorable: great globules of pearly snot in a mixture of vomitus and semen, not that I could have put it like that then. I never ate puddings, so as punishment was kept in the whole dinner break, deprived of playtime. I found books to read.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADaily assembly consisted of a hymn and a prayer. It was a C of E school, though I don’t remember the Vicar ever visiting, and prayers were from the Book of Common Prayer. This Methodist child was bowled over by the language, especially the one that goes “defend us in the same … neither run into any kind of danger … ordered by thy governance”. The words, the syntax, the poetry, the other-worldliness—entrancing to this 6 year old. It didn’t feature every day, but as soon as the Headmistress began “O Lord and heavenly father” my antennae twitched. And they say the BCP has no mission value.

Eden Valley in the 1950s

It was isolated. There was no M6. The Pennines to the east meant that for much of the dark year we were cut off from Hexham and Scotch Corner. When my aunt and family visited from Darlington, they were gone by 3 pm to ensure safe passage over Stainmore. The road over Shap with snail-pace nose-to-tail traffic, impassible for much of the winter, meant that journeys south were fraught and slow. I still think southerners begin at Lancaster. To the north was Scotland, and we went that way more than south or east, not least because of friends in Greenock. Trips west to Keswick don’t feature much on my radar. My abiding images of the Lake District are of gloom, pines, rain and hills that fence me in.

So it was part of England, but detached from England. At school we sang songs about the Scots ravaging Carlisle, and about dreadful Sassenachs. It was almost Scottish and had been Scottish, but it was not Scotland. It was fiercely independent-minded and self-reliant. But—and this affected me deeply—intensely closed minded, anti-intellectual, socially conservative and oppressive.

Tilting train near Penrith

And this did not begin to change for two decades, when the M6 snaked its way up through the Lune gorge (I was in the third year at Cambridge by then), and electrification of the West Coast Main Line a couple of years later, Penrith and Carlisle gaining a rail service undreamt of by 19th century engineers.

Studies and work as an anatomist

I was moulded into medicine by my parents. I’m not aware of ever having had any choice. I qualified as a doctor in 1975 after three years at Queens’ College Cambridge where I read Medical Sciences (2 years) and History of Art (1 year), and three years clinical studies in King’s College Hospital, London.

Things that stand out in my intellectual formation include (1) realising that as human beings we are apes in the long line of evolution from primaeval soup; (2) embryology—we carry our structural and genetic history with us; (3) the year spent in History of Art where I began to learn to think (as opposed to remember) at the feet of such luminaries as Anthony Symondson and David Watkin. It was a most entertaining and transformative year in all sorts of ways.


Rex Coupland

In 1975 as a final year medical student it became clear that the practice of medicine was not for me. I spent much of my time fearful that I would do the wrong thing; the responsibility was terrible. I can’t remember things unless I have a framework to hang them on, and in medicine there’s an awful lot of random stuff to remember. But I never forgot my fascination with the history of the human form—evolution and embryology—so I approached several medical schools to see if there was any scope for a job in that. I ended up as Anatomy Demonstrator, or Temporary Lecturer as it was called, at the then new medical school at Nottingham. That grew into a permanent Lectureship.

I must have been a disappointment to the Professor, the late great Rex Coupland, because I was interested in teaching and student welfare—pastoral stuff—and he pointed out that I had no future unless I made a research name for myself. This was not what I wanted to hear. Nevertheless I managed to get a PhD and a few papers published.

In the mid 80s, when the Universities were being squeezed by the Thatcher government, I saw that my future at Nottingham after Rex’s imminent retirement would be precarious. In early 1987 I saw an advert for Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which despite its title is the biggest Irish medical school, and I applied. On 3 January 1988—not a great time of year to be arriving in a foreign jurisdiction for a new job—we rolled off Sealink ship St Columba at Dun Laoghaire: Susan and me, with Victoria (12), Hugh (10) and Edward (8). Hugh and Edward were choristers at Southwell and Ripon respectively, where they remained until secondary school in south Dublin. With ferries and airports and one thing and another that was a very fraught few years. It affected our wellbeing. I wouldn’t do it again.

As a result of death, resignation and retirement, I found myself as essentially a one-man show. The arrangements for handling cadavers for dissection were redolent of Frankenstein’s laboratory in a Hammer horror, and having come from the new set-up at Nottingham, the medical course was if anything worse. I set about modernising both, and had some pretty awkward fights for money and for the place of anatomy, not only from colleagues begrudging the quality of our teaching, but also from educationalists who were beginning to maintain that medical students didn’t need to know facts so long as they could look and act ‘caring’. It was hard work.

The other thing that got me into trouble with my colleagues was the strange notion that since the medical students paid our salaries (which they did at RCSI), we should actually listen to their concerns.

In about 2000 I was in my office in Dublin thinking what next? I’d had two textbooks published, still in print, and it came to me that it was time to move on. I took a sideways step into computer-assisted learning, but that did not turn out well for me, and after a couple of years I was back in UK as foundation anatomist at the new medical school in Derby.


The perfect pastor

How has this affected ordained ministry?

I see theology and pastoralia through the lenses of evolution, embryology and medical science. It’s incarnational, of course, and I have no hesitation in saying that if theology and biology disagree then the theology needs to be modified or ditched. I’ve come to the view anyway that Jesus shows us the way to abundant life—no more, no less—and that doctrine is at best poetry and at worst oppressive nonsense. Theology is a human construct, so if our brains are evolving, theology must evolve too.

My training also leads me to value straightforwardness and candour. I am told that I’m frighteningly blunt. Telling the truth seems to be the most serious sin a priest can commit, for people expect a vicar merely to confirm their prejudices while drinking their tea.

What did you most enjoy in medical studies and practice?

In medical studies it was seeing that we humans, primates (apes not archbishops), mammals, vertebrates, chordates, all fit into the procession of life. I wonder how we will continue to evolve, or whether we’re the end of a road. I rather hope the latter, for we’ve so cocked things up that mass extinction would give the opportunity for a fresh start, Noah’s flood wise, with evolution doing a better job next time round. As I get older (I’m 67) I think it must be quite nice to be an orang-utan picking fleas out of a friend’s fur.

In my year as a full time medical practitioner one of my jobs was in Ear, Nose and Throat and Plastic Surgery where I enjoyed doing mucky stuff like wound cleaning and sucking out pus from mastoid cavities, and such like.

.. and most difficult?

Not letting people die with dignity. I’m haunted by an infant with biliary atresia who was repeatedly operated on merely, as I saw it, to provide practice for surgeons. Though I was at the bottom of the food chain, I was not without opinions, and one day I—a 26-year-old neophyte—had the temerity to voice them to the assembled professors and consultants, knowing that the parents were on my side. I think the response is best left to your imagination. I’m not a natural respecter of rank.

What was your first experience of God? How has that developed?

Beauty. I’ve already told you about my response to poetic language. For a boy who was fat, asthmatic, uninterested in football or cricket, and without any aspiration to spend his adult life knee deep in cow shit, life in 1950s Langwathby was universally grey and often cruel. When, through organ lessons at Carlisle Cathedral in the early 1960s, I discovered beauty, I was transfixed. I was able to combine this with what I’d learnt about beauty of humanity from Bible stories, and this began to forge a notion of the Divine. I was repelled by Christian Union types at Cambridge, confirming me on a theological journey towards what I have come to understand as the apophatic and mystical incarnated into the pragmatic and practical.

When did you take on ordained ministry?

I remember discussing the itch to seek ordination with the biology teacher at Penrith Grammar School. Back in Derby in 2003 someone who had known us in Nottingham asked me what plan I had for the future. I could hardly answer, and knew that that was the time to scratch the itch. Every door opened. I started training with the East Midlands Ministry Training Course in 2004, was deaconed in 2006, and priested in 2007.

The two years with EMMTC were intellectually the most stimulating of my life. I was fortunate to have as course Principal Michael Taylor, a former Catholic priest who had been through the hands of Ratzinger and Rahner amongst others, and provided a perfect stimulus for me. So for two of the three years I was setting up anatomy at Derby, I was also studying theology out of hours—well actually sometimes during hours …

Grief at Hugh’s death

It’s not two years yet, and I still find grief at the death of my elder son to be fierce and bitter. We don’t really have the verbal images for this, but it’s like being covered in a blanket that blots our sun, moon and stars, that makes it impossible to move, that extinguishes delight. For 18 months there was never a day without my hearing King David’s lament at the death of Absalom, 2 Samuel 18:33. That voice has largely faded now, but the aching lassitude, exhaustion and apathy persist.

If one accepts that a father’s role is to protect his offspring, and if one manifestly has failed to do that, then one deserves to die. That is the logic that I had to confront, and if I had to confront it, then it may be that other people in my position must have to deal with it too.

Parishioners and colleagues are unobtrusively supportive, but a woman from another parish said to a colleague after 9 months that it was time I got over it. After all, she said, she’d buried two husbands. I can’t say I’m surprised. I didn’t want to be signed off, and indeed the regular weekly liturgy gave a structure to my life that I couldn’t have done without.

In the end you have to navigate the turbulence of grief for yourself, because it is yours alone and nobody else’s. There is very little to help fathers who lose adult offspring, most literature being concerned with mothers and the loss of babies or children. The only book I found helpful—very helpful indeed— is Inside grief, edited by Stephen Oliver.


I learnt to play hymns in Methodist chapels, so I know how to use the organ to control a congregation—not a skill that many organists have. I’ve been organist and singer at churches in central London, Nunhead, Nottingham, Dublin (St Ann’s in the city centre) and Derby. Along the way I picked up a prize in the ARCO diploma, and managed to pass FRCO. I doubt I’d do either of those things now. My hearing is poor and my one functioning eye glaucomatous. Nevertheless, I recently gave a concert as part of a series at St Modwen’s and I was pleasantly surprised. As the organist said—he was turning pages for me—“you’ve not lost the magic”.

The blog

I can’t remember why I started the blog. It’s a mixture of autobiography, criticism, prophecy, theology, provocation and puerility. The muse scarpered when Hugh died and she hasn’t reappeared, though sometimes I think I glimpse her skulking round the corner. I’m so enraged by the crassness of the bishops and much that goes on in the church that were I to write about them the blog would soon descend into dyspeptic vitriol, so I promised myself that when I do start again it’ll not be about church stuff. Anyway who cares any more?

Favourite sound?

There are so many, all musical. Fauré Dolly; Bach 6 part Aus tiefer (BWV 686) – is there anything so profound? I play it over and over again and find something new each time; the opening of Handel Dettingen Te Deum—when the choir enters it’s like a rocket launch, at least under Simon Preston’s baton; Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Dvorak Slavonic Dances. Russian church music. I could go on.

NPG x104740; Maxwell Marsden ('Max') Bull by Antony Barrington Brown

Max Bull, ten years before I knew him

Greatest influences?

Max Bull, anatomist in Cambridge, Rex Coupland, anatomist in Nottingham, Andrew Seivewright, Carlisle organ teacher. And most of all my beloveds: Susan and the three people who have taught me most about myself, Victoria, Hugh and Edward.

What do you pray for most?

I’m not sure what prayer is other than a journey into one’s inner being. If pushed I’d say I ache for justice without which there will never be peace (John XXIII, Pacem in terris). I’m not sure that peace in the sense that we use that word is a Christian concept. We need to fight.

What makes you angry?

  • Political correctness, particularly that which sees working class white people marginalized.
  • People in government who live behind electric gates in the Cotswolds or the Home Counties and have no idea what ordinary people have to endure.
  • The anti-intellectualism and corporate managerialism of the bishops, Philip North excepted. It’s almost as if when they meet, their sherry is laced with rohypnol, the effects of which don’t wear off until they leave. Of course, I yield to no-one in my admiration for bishops, especially those to whom I have pledged canonical obedience over the years. Anyway, as a cradle Wesleyan I’m not sure what bishops are for other than the pastoral care of clergy.

From our Tree of Life carpet (Qum)

What makes you happy?

I don’t think anyone has the right to be happy. We have a duty to contribute. But if you press me:

  • Intellectual eye-twinkling vitality.
  • Vibrant colours, especially red, in gardens, glass and fabrics.

What gives you hope for the future?

  • Biological processes that should wipe us out for a fresh start.
  • The intellectual suppleness and open-mindedness of young people. So of course the church is the ideal working environment for me …


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