Inadequacies of ministerial training

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A good vicar

Two phone calls

“Can you help? We’re at the church—Irish family in a bit of bother”. Man, County Wicklow accent maybe.

They’ve got the wrong St Modwen’s, thought I: they need to ring the Catholics. “Which church?”

“St Aidan’s.”

Not the wrong church, so. I make another assumption: they want money or accommodation. The first I can deal with, the second I can direct them elsewhere.

I suggest they ring YMCA and was just about to give yer man the number when:

“They can’t help” says he.

“What exactly do you need?” says I.

“Car’s broken down outside church.”

I laugh. “I can’t help either” I say. If they knew me they’d know that I can barely find the oil doodah.

Phone slammed down (or the equivalent for a mobile).

I know a fair number of Irish priests, not one of whom would have been able to help. Maybe I know the wrong sort.

*******

“Is that Dr Monkhouse?” Man, posh accent, a bit smarmy. Hackles rise.

“It is.”

“I’m at the church and I’d like to see the monuments.”

“Which church?”

St Modwen’s in the market place it transpires. A car trip necessary. I ask him if he expects me to drop what I’m doing to open the church for him (yes, I agree, it should be open all day, but don’t get me started on that).

“Well, I’ve come a long way.”

“You could have rung to arrange this” says I. No response. I tell him he’ll have to wait maybe 30 minutes or so.

Eventually I drive there.

Tall, a bit dishevelled, in his 60s I guess. Bohemian unkempt longish hair. At least he has some.

I am not welcoming.

“I wasn’t ordained to care about church monuments, you know, and I have better things to do on a Monday morning than this”. Like watching a film on Netflix – I’m always exhausted on a Monday. I didn’t say about Netflix—merely thought it.

“I’m sorry. I should have rung in advance.”

“Yes you should. I have no time for memorials. They’re all about the past—egocentric people with notions above themselves.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

“When you’ve finished, let yourself out and shut the door behind you.”

*******

Car mechanic? Expert on memorials? Neither topic covered in training.

Because of this, Susan returned from walking the dog to find the car not there, so that discombobulated her day.

 

Stand well back

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Eyjafjallajökull

Eruption alert!

Retirement date set. This had to be done for I was wasting energy prevaricating. But now I want it to be yesterday. I’ve given myself permission to feel that I’ve had enough. I’ve stopped pretending.

And that’s the problem.

Everything that frustrates and dismays and angers me about parochial ministry in the Church of England—things that I’d kept down in order to do the job—now rises to the surface like methane bubbling from the seabed ready to bring conflagration and catastrophe. How can I direct this energy so that calamitous eruptions will not harm me or those around me? Though some parishioners are uninhibited in telling me what they think of me and what I ought to do, I can’t tell parishioners what I think of them. Well I can, but the fallout would be cosmic.

It’s inevitable that a shrinking and insecure organisation should turn inwards, wagons circling. It feels like what I imagine the last days of the Soviet Union must have felt like. The Politburo gathers on Lenin’s tomb, swaggering in their be-medalled uniforms and über-pompous titles, patting each other on the back in faux bonhomie and watching the parade of institutional paraphernalia. Onlookers, numbers dwindling year by year, are dejected, depressed and increasingly elderly. Party big knobs visit hoi polloi, smell fresh paint, and go from one venue to the next along routes lined by empty facades—Potemkin displays. Meanwhile the great unwashed turn their backs on all this flummery and get on with their lives as best they can.

The Church of England has stopped listening and talking to ordinary people. It now talks only to cult members with words that are unintelligible except to the initiated. It’s self-referential newspeak. Decision makers seem to have the attitudes of the 1950s—OK perhaps an exaggeration, the 1970s then—so people, even their own groupies, ignore them. For someone like me who has put a bit of energy into a civic role, despite not being naturally gifted with hail-fellow-well-met attributes, this is disappointing at best and despairing at worst. And as for the institution’s attitudes to sexuality, I am ashamed to be part of it. Reports of how the institutional church has treated those abused in any way by its minions lead me to wonder if there is deep-seated evil sustaining its protect-the-organisation-at all-costs mentality. The last days of the Soviet Union again.

At a recent church meeting we considered briefly some reasons why men so often find church unappealing. (Yes, I’ve read David Murrow’s Why men hate going to church.) We looked at the choice between making a commitment to a football club and a church. Both provide a sense of community. Both provide ritual. Both provide colour and chanting (words might be different, but I’ve always liked profanity—it’s so euphonic). Both have priests and acolytes. Both provide physical expressions of “worship”. Sport is good for the body, church with its emphasis on chocolate and all things farinaceous, is most definitely not: no wonder so many church people are overweight. But only the church provides finger-wagging moralising that, coming from an organisation so rich in hypocrisy and pretence, is hard to stomach.

Then there’s the sense of competition: winner and loser. Scripture, about which more later, can easily be interpreted as encouraging repression and condemning competition. Now look, girls and boys, we are animals. We are driven to a large extent by testosterone, women too. Competitiveness is hard-wired in. It is not to be suppressed—very dangerous—but channelled. Sport does this. Church does not. People are not stupid—they might not be able to articulate this, but they intuitively know it and make their own choices. (Having written this I admit there’s plenty aggression in the church, much of it passive: don’t sit in my seat, don’t interfere with the flower arrangements, don’t change the hymns, don’t use the crockery in this cupboard unless you’re a member of the Mothers’ Union.)

Of course I think the Christian Gospel—the teaching and example of Jesus—is entirely worth promoting. Its psychological authenticity is unquestionable. That’s one thing that has kept me in the job. That’s why I think everybody could benefit from hearing it. And that’s why to be part of an institution that continually shoots itself in the foot is so frustrating. The other thing that is profoundly authentic about religious experience is liturgy which to my mind is not about worshipping God, but celebrating humanity.

Some clergy complain about the burden of administration. Without doubt it’s worse than it was ten years ago, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with that of a job in the real world. These clerics should just get on with it and shut up. Anyway, as I’ve said before, the wastepaper basket is the handiest accessory in my study. So no, girls and boys, it’s not the volume of administration that is so dispiriting, it’s the futility. It doesn’t lead to change for the better. It doesn’t lead to performance being rewarded in any tangible sense.

Two examples will suffice.

  • Attendance statistics. How many people have joined/left your worshipping community this year? What’s a worshipping community? This is impossible to answer in an inner urban setting with a constant flow of casual visitors, churchyard sleepers, temporary workers, Eastern Europeans who think S Paul’s is RC. How many people aged 60-70? over 70? As if I or anybody else is going asking old women their age.
  • Mission action plans. Oh God. What do you intend to do over the next year? five years? How will you do it? Who will be in charge? It’s like being back in infants, answering questions set by people less imaginative than you. Sometimes they ask what resources you need—as if they will be provided. Ha bloody ha! I could go on but I’ll stop for the sake of my blood pressure. Every worthwhile development in almost 13 years of my parochial ministry has been serendipitous. Not one could have been planned for.

I suppose these things keep people employed in diocesan offices, checking up. Lichfield diocese is on the whole reasonable (Derby was grim), but it feels as if one is living in a totalitarian regime keeping apparatchiks happy in the land of make-believe. Soviet Union again.

As I said, the psychological authenticity of the gospel is peerless. The way in which it inspires individuals to bring life abundant—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless—is priceless. The church has been a wonderful patron of the arts for almost 2000 years, thereby giving people a vision of the divine. But the more the institutional Church of England promotes this cultic control-freakery, the sooner it deserves to die.

The solution to many problems in medicine is masterly inactivity. There is a lesson in that.

Renaissance

pupa-3978412_960_720Church Magazine, March 2019

Spring-cleaning brings to mind memories of carpets being draped over washing lines and beaten to within an inch of their lives. It’s a happy coincidence that for us in the northern hemisphere, spring means more hours of sunlight, animals and plants waking from hibernation, caterpillars becoming butterflies, and a general feeling of renaissance. A good time of year for an inward spring-clean—Lent.

Between caterpillar and butterfly there is the intermediate stage of pupa, chrysalis, cocoon. It looks from the outside as if nothing is happening. Such is far from the truth. Inside, all sorts of things are happening as some bits die, new bits develop, and things rearrange themselves before the adult form forces its way out with a great deal of effort.

In our lives we often reach a point where all that has gone before is cluttering up our heads to the extent that we are paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. We enter a kind of pupa. If we are willing, we can mirror the biological metamorphosis with a psychological metamorphosis as we let some bits die, new bits develop, and allow other things to rearrange themselves.

This is hard work. It’s painful. It takes a lot of energy to chip through the crust that develops around us so that the beautiful butterfly can emerge and take wing. You can easily extend these images into those of passion, crucifixion, and resurrection/ascension—and I leave you to ponder this.

In biology, the term for the adult form is imago. Image. Even the adult form is just an image, an illusion, a mask, a persona. So the question is: what is the adult an image of? How far do you have to delve into yourself in order to find the real you, if there is such a thing?

I doubt that there is such a thing. I find my own “self” so often at the mercy of events, emotions, sensations, and feelings. I’m certain that much of what we do is governed not by “free will” but by circulating chemicals in our bloodstream: testosterone, oestrogen, insulin, thyroxine, and countless more. There are the neurotransmitters – sometimes not enough of them, sometimes too much. All these substances affect our moods, our inclinations, our actions, and our perspective of life on the planet. And then there are things we shove into ourselves. Be in no doubt: food is a drug. Too much carbohydrate can make you sleepy. Too much caffeine makes you jittery. Too much booze makes some people aggressive, others stupid, others comatose.

Given all this, what room is there for any kind of “real” you? I suppose in order to find it you would need to deprive yourself of all food and drink and sit in an entirely stimulus-free environment in the hope that you would be able to find the real you. Trouble is, before you even began to get there, you’d be dead through boredom and inanition—like in Deanery Synod.

Nevertheless, Lent is a great opportunity to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and what you might do to get there—in particular, what you need to get rid of in order to make the journey easier. To use an analogy I’ve often used before, what do you need to chuck out of the basket so that the balloon can ascend to the heights?

Ash Wednesday is one of the truly great festivals of the year. It reminds us that we’re human, that we are going to die, and that we need to get a grip on our lives before it’s too late.

Interregnum

A reassessment will be forced on the churches in a few months’ time. By the end of 2019 I shall have retired. It’s unreasonable to expect Phillip to become effectively the vicar as he did in the last interregnum: he is seven years older and neither his health nor I suspect his marriage would stand for it. It’s unreasonable to expect Robin to become effectively the vicar, for he is not paid and, like all unpaid clergy he will do only what he is willing to do—you must not impose on his good nature. It may not be too difficult to find cover for Sunday services but you need to give serious thought to the future of midweek masses. In my retirement I don’t want to be tied down to any particular midweek service schedule, even if I thought it worthwhile turning up for a mass with one other person present—which I don’t. I don’t know any retired cleric who would.

I wonder how long the interregnum will be. It’s difficult to attract clerics to apply for jobs in the Midlands and North of England. Burton is not viewed as particularly attractive. This job is odd in combining different churchmanships, different social profiles, and civic responsibilities. The latter would repel some clergy, though I enjoy them.

Whatever else you do, remember that you need to present yourself as attractive. The interview is as much about letting applicants vet you as it is about letting you vet applicants. The interview team needs to be pleasant, positive, and interested in the applicant. Such is often not the case. You must be sure that other people the applicants meet on the day are not subverting the process by trying to impose their view of what the church needs, as happened for me.

You also need to do some work together beforehand, and I don’t just mean one meeting, in which you come to a common view of what you want. I recall in my interview in 2014 a point when, after two interviewers had been rather curmudgeonly, I realized I wasn’t going to be offered the job, so I went on the attack and said “you lot need to decide what you want, because it’s clear to me that you all want different things. It just ain’t gonna happen.” It was the best thing I did.

It’s not too early to think about these things. You must be assertive when dealing with the diocese and the deanery. You must not assume that bishops, archdeacons, rural deans and deanery apparatchiks know better than you what you need. They don’t. But you must be realistic. You must be forward-looking. You must accept that returning to how things used to be will never happen.

There’s a lot of reassessment to be done. Happy Lent.

Addendum to complete the story of my appointment to Burton

When they did get round to offering me the job after Fr Young had turned it down, I said I would take it only if all six assessors promised me their total support. I was assured that this was so. Three of the six kept their word. I suppose 50% aint bad.

Things creeping innumerable

virus.jpgAn asthmatic child living in a farming village. Even thinking about being close to hay bales makes my lungs feel prickly. I never minded cow dung or sheep dottles, but grass and hay and corn were not my friends. Neither as it turned out was that poisonous substance cows’ milk, but that story can wait.

I learnt very young that the bedroom window should be left open, and I spent many happy hours in the dead of night with my arms pressing down on the windowsill to engage the accessory muscles of respiration so as to get a bit more air in.

A particularly unpleasant episode occurred when I was about 14 and had five weeks off school with what was diagnosed as pneumonia and pleurisy. When I returned to classes, I was told with some glee that they’d heard that they’d never see me again. Ha!

I don’t think I ever really recovered from missing so much work. I remember particularly the fourth form chemistry exam where some of the questions were complete gobbledegook, the material, I maintain, having been dealt with when I was ill. There was a good deal of whispering going on between me and a neighbour who, doubtless at risk to his immortal soul, helped me. Never let it be said that I don’t know to cheat.

I’m reminded of all this since for the last four weeks I’ve been out of action with a respiratory infection. It started on the throat, then the larynx, then the trachea making me feel as if a wire brush were plunging to and fro inside it. To the lungs next with painful cough, phlegm (grey, no blood, since you ask) and then back up again. I was reluctant to take antibiotics for what is almost certainly viral, but I wanted some prednisolone to reduce the inflammation.

Could I get a GP appointment? Reader, I could not.

I tried to get the steroids online, illegally. Couldn’t even see how to do that without going into bitcoin or the dark web, neither of which I’m ready for yet. If there’s anyone out there that can help me stash steroids for the future, please contact me privately. Seriously – I mean it. After three weeks I went to A&E and got some prednisolone. It’s finished now, but I don’t think the job is done properly.

I was musing on all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts, some of which—bacteria and viruses—are bothering me at the moment. Why don’t they go and find somewhere else to reproduce? Why does it have to be in my respiratory tract?

The urge to reproduce is clearly overwhelming in these little bastards. Is the urge to reproduce overwhelming in humans? I think it is, only we sublimate it into other things—a future blog.

As a clerk in holy orders I’m supposed to believe in things like free will, and choice, and discernment guided by the “holy spirit”. I don’t think I do. As creatures of this earth it seems to me that we are at the mercy of circulating chemicals, most of which are produced by the body itself—sex hormones, other hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and many more. Some of them are produced by organisms that live with us such as bacteria on the skin and in the gut.

Some of the chemicals that influence us are voluntarily injected, absorbed, eaten, drunk or smoked. And don’t think just because you’re not injecting yourself that you are drug free. You’re not. Food is a drug. Coffee is a drug. Cheese is a drug. Water is a drug according to our Cambridge pharmacology lecturer. Nobody, nobody, is drug-free. If there were such a thing as free will then it’s not “free”.

We’re at the mercy of all these circulating chemicals. So relax.

Anyhoo, I digress. Back to the plot. These bacteria and viruses are clever little things. They perceive a weakness in my immune system and before I can say immunodeficient, wham! the little buggers are in there reproducing with gay abandon causing havoc and generally making me feel shite.

I’ve noted over the years that I tend to succumb to infections not when I’m stressed, but when I’m recovering from stress. Like the moment I leave on holiday. Or in this case, since I find November and December stressful, the moment January comes along. It was ever thus. Do you think I learn from my observations? I do not.

Do you think if I prayed hard enough the microorganisms would spare me a little, that I may recover my strength? Might they go hence, and be no more seen in me? Might they find someone else to infect?

No, I suppose not. But it’s becoming clear what I need to do.

A feral priest

michael ramseyChurch magazine February 2019

Michael Ramsey was the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury since 1900. There are two biographies published: the more scholarly by Owen Chadwick, which repays reading again and again; the other more affectionate and gossipy by Ramsey’s one time press officer, Michael De-La-Noye. The latter reports that Ramsey was more than once to be found chanting “I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England”.

In the thirteen years since I was ordained, the Church of England has changed beyond recognition. I could be wrong, mind you—it could be that the changes began sooner but I didn’t appreciate them, having been in Ireland, but whenever they started, they have been damaging.

The Church is in real danger of becoming an exclusive sect where one is accepted only if one can sign up to a particular set of beliefs, a particular view on the atonement, a particular view on the interpretation of the creeds, a particular view on the afterlife. And more. This is not my sort of church.

My sort of church is truly catholic where everyone is welcome no matter what his or her views, to explore the thing that I call The Divine. Instead of its being for all, it’s becoming a hobby group for middle class club members only. Some churches even organise people into fellowship groups that can be used to keep an eye on the purity of members—beliefs, way of life—just like secret police in a totalitarian regime.

Of course, the church IS a totalitarian regime, or its apparatchiks would like it to be. But the truth is that however much archbishops and bishops and General Synods may pontificate and huff and puff about how they think we proles should live and what we should believe, congregations have their own ideas. I don’t know anyone who bases their thoughts, opinions or actions on what bishops say.

If you read the news emanating from the Church of England HQ, Lambeth Palace, or the House of Bishops, you will see that the church is in a constant state of warfare between its different parties. Some don’t mind same-sex marriage, some do. Some are happy to affirm gender redesignation, others are not. Some are supportive of women bishops and priests, others are not. Some think that every word in the bible is literally true, some do not. And more, with all stations between the extremes.

All this is a criminal waste of energy. I’m not bothered what you think of the virginity of Mary. I’m not bothered whether you think priests have magical powers or not. I’m not bothered what you believe about sacraments. I’m not bothered whether you think the resurrection/ascension is historical fact or entirely metaphorical. I’m not bothered what any of you do with your genitals alone or in the context of a mutually respectful relationship.

What I’m bothered about is the teaching and example of Jesus. And from what I read about the early church, that’s the only thing they cared about too (after all, most of the doctrine hadn’t been invented then). And the bottom line of that teaching is liberation, healing, salvation, redemption—all words for the same thing—the purpose of which is that we have life abundant: that we grasp life’s opportunities and make good use of them and—a crucial point—help everyone else to do likewise. The common good. That we use our gifts and skills for the benefit of others and ourselves. That we free ourselves from the things that tie us down, that restrict our vision, such as ways of thinking, ways of acting, addictions, obsessions—all things that prevent us rising like “the lark ascending” so that we may approach The Divine, that we may all be sons and daughters of The Divine.

Enlargissez Dieu.

In the words of the great Advent carol, This is the truth sent from above: “and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say”; and I would add “and did”. It really is as simple as that.

Liberation. Freedom from attachments—attachments to people, to family, to emotions, to desires, to ways of thinking, to addictions—all addictions, not just chemical. This is a Buddhist message too. Trouble is, it’s hard work. It requires you to delve into your psyche to identify the things that keep you in your rut. It’s such hard work, in fact, that the church gave up on it and instead made it into a punishment/reward exercise with the promise that the more ticks you get in the class register, and the more gold stars for your portfolio, the better seat you’ll have in the afterlife.

Let me make it quite plain: I don’t care about the afterlife either. I’ve heard of a Catholic theologian (name escapes me at present) who said that belief in the afterlife is not a necessary prerequisite of being Christian. I long to meet Hugh in the afterlife (I can’t even type this without filling up), but I don’t bet on it—there is nothing in scripture or doctrine that says I shall.

I don’t know that I would go as far as Michael Ramsey in saying that I hate the Church of England, at least not until I’m in receipt of its pension, but I certainly think its current direction is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not much bothered about bishops and hierarchies, and that’s putting it mildly. I’m not that bothered about creeds: I can interpret them as I wish—and I do.

What I AM bothered about is life abundant. Not life resisting, not life begrudging, not life bemoaning, not life denying, but life abundant. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven; or as the well-known American theologian Dolly Parton might say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. This, the psychological authenticity of the gospel, keeps me in the job.

Christian life and liturgy are not about being entertained like Sunday morning at the London Palladium. They’re not about collecting Duke of Edinburgh awards in caring or sharing or being pious or knowing when to do this that or the other. Life and liturgy are about celebrating our humanity with beauty in all its manifestations.

month country 2

In need of restoration

I was raised in a staid, repressed environment, in some ways puritanical. It has been a long journey for me, though I started quite young. I wonder if it comes easily to us staid, repressed English to look into our hearts.

I leave you with an extract from J L Carr’s short novel A month in the country, a beautiful work made into a beautiful film with Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson and Patrick Malahide. The vicar (Malahide in the film) is talking to a young WW1 veteran (Firth) who has come to restore a painting in the village church, thereby also restoring himself after the horrors of the trenches:

The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals – they employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’ He laughed bitterly.

I may not hate the Church of England—yet—but I would regard it a badge of honour to be called a wild, angry and uncontrollable priest. A feral priest.

Enough

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The perfect pastor

I’ve been scathing about clergy who after a few years in parochial ministry suddenly discover they are being “called” to sit behind a desk. I become incandescent when I see more and more parishes dumped on fewer and fewer parish clergy, while at the same time noting the cancerous growth in the number of staff in diocesan offices.

It was similar in academic life. Forty years ago one of the pleasures of being a university teacher was that apart from academic work there were ancillary tasks to be attended to, such as admissions, and student pastoral care. Since then, these have been taken from academics and put in the hands of people employed solely for the purpose. Whether or not this improved the student experience is questionable, but it certainly made my life less interesting. Coupled to this, the staff-student relationship was destroyed as Orwellian algorithms replaced discretion and discernment. The reduction in the number of people at the coalface, and the pestilential growth of faceless administrators, are common to both.

Now, after thirteen years in parochial ministry I must eat my words. I understand why clergy desert parish ministry for administrative jobs and chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons and such like, where professional standards apply, and employment is governed by law.

I’ve had a varied life. I learnt survival skills as a fat and bookish boy in a rural community where only sport mattered. I survived—enjoyed—university life on the edge of the fens despite a northern accent (no, I’m not a professional northerner). I was moulded into a career that I didn’t particularly want but found a niche for myself in one of its side streets. I ministered to people in towns, villages and cities, including Camberwell and Brixton. I learnt Machiavellian skills of university politics and wielded them with some distinction. I developed a feel for what people need if they are to flourish. I dealt with happy students, sad students, needy students, independent students, crazy students, manipulative students, delightful students, apprehensive students (I was one myself). I can recognize chancers and charmers. I coped with being an Englishman in the Republic of Ireland. I survived the death of one of my sons. I’ve dealt with all sorts and conditions of colleagues, many of whom were and are egomaniacs.

But nothing, nothing, compares to the pressures on my psyche that come with front-line parochial ministry: the frustration and helplessness when confronted by almost malicious bureaucracy, the way it impinges on innocent people trying their best, and having to deal with mendacious, manipulative and occasionally psychotic church people.

Two things sap my morale more than anything else.

First, cowards who complain to others but lack the courage to complain to whomever they’re complaining about—me. There have been only two or three (that I know of) in my ordained ministry, but it takes only one to drip poison. I know they’re doing it because people tell me (that of course raises more questions). The poison is like acid that becomes more destructive the further it spreads, so that by the time it gets back to me, it could corrode steel.

The force that breaks down and splinters—diabolic—is much more potent than that which builds up—anabolic. The tendency to entropy rules every bit as much as in thermodynamics. I know in my head that complainers are in a tiny minority, but they are vocal. They are deeply disturbed, and part of me is concerned for their welfare. But first I must look after myself. People say I need a less porous roof over my head. And I do.  But I don’t know how to grow it, and if I did, it would change me. Perhaps I need to change.

Second, people who are incapable or unwilling to think for themselves. They think that because someone from former millennia said something or propounded some theory, the old view must prevail, the implication being that people of a former age were more intelligent and better informed than we are. I know of no evidence for this.

Such people are obviously frightened. They need the security of the straitjackets woven by others. They sit like abused children, cowering in the corner of the room. They are sad. And I am naive to hope that they might change.

I’m heartily sick of hearing that my views on such-and-such are heretical and of little worth because they are out of line with those of say Paul or Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Wesley. If the church is to regain any kind traction in society, it has to come to terms with the realities of life here and now, not there and then. It has to think afresh. I’m on record as saying that if there is a conflict between, say, biology and theology, then theology must either be ditched or changed. But I feel as if I’m pissing in the wind.

As I get older I find it increasingly difficult to cope with stress. At present I feel much like I did shortly after Hugh died: exhausted, drained, anxious, with barely enough energy for myself, let alone others. A year ago I thought I might seek a year’s extension and stay in post till I was 71. I was enjoying the job. I’m shocked at how quickly the feeling of having had enough has overwhelmed me.

Prophecy

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The absent centre

In Dublin I worked with surgeons who in retirement taught anatomy two days a week to medical students. They’d found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves. Here, I work with retired clergy who’ve found an agreeable church community with which they can develop a pastoral relationship, without the hassle of being the Vicar. They’ve found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves.

Now my retirement beckons: I have to go before my 70th birthday on 6 June 2020. Can I survive that long? I’ve been looking at an outline plan for 2019 liturgical events, civic events, meetings, administration. My heart sinks, especially since I have no administrator: it’s all up to me. I dread the prospect of the reigning monarch and/or her consort dying—not only because of the extra work entailed as Vicar of the civic church, but also because she just about holds together the nation in a way that nobody else does, and that I suspect her successors will not. But that’s another story.

I am incredibly tired—mentally, not physically. I look at the prospect of another Lent course, another Easter, another set of Harvests (ugh!), another set of Christingles (ugh, ugh!) with gloom. I feel as if I’m keeping the show on the road merely to give those whose hobby it is to attend church on a Sunday morning the illusion that things are more or less as they were when they were children, a few of whom resist with every ounce of their being anything that challenges that view. I am thus complicit in perpetuating a land of make-believe. I am complicit in keeping people infantilized. It doesn’t help that my vision of ministry is sneered at by the Lambeth politburo. I wonder how many of them were in multi-church ministry with no administrative help.

Church people have expectations of what a Vicar should be. I don’t meet them, thankfully. Church people are rarely open and honest with the Vicar: they tell him what they think he wants to hear—or should want to hear. Exchanges are therefore guarded and sometimes dishonest. I want to give them hugs and suggest that they relax. Sometimes I do, no doubt at the risk of being accused of inappropriate touching. I try to liberate them by being human and outrageous so as to give them permission to do likewise. It sometimes works.

Conversations with non-church people are something else altogether: open, honest, and often astonishingly revealing. They find it refreshing that the Vicar does not meet their expectations. It opens all sorts of doors. They say they like what they hear, for he is not institutionalized and doesn’t talk in Christian-speak jargon.

The volunteers that serve the YMCA night shelter at St Paul’s are by no means all church people. Many of them find it hard to articulate why they do it, but they restore my faith in humanity in a way that some church people with “a proud look and high stomach” do not. Such generosity seems to me to be Christianity in action. I don’t get that same feeling at the weekday masses attended by a handful of people.

I look forward with apprehension. I grieve the loss of plans, hope, prospects. It doesn’t matter that they may not have been well-formed, I’m aware that something is being lost, that things are slipping through my fingers. More than likely they were never actually in my fingers—but I thought they were. I thought I was beginning to get a grip on them, but when I look at my hands, I see they are evaporating. And it’s not principally a matter of deteriorating eyesight and hearing.

I could help occasionally with services at other churches. We’re staying in Burton, but many of its churches are not to my taste. They tend to be conservative theologically and undisciplined liturgically, whereas I’m for radical theology and traditional liturgy. For entirely understandable reasons, I’m not allowed to set foot in the churches I currently serve..

Music? My addiction to music developed in my teens as sublimation for erotic and sexual impulses driven by increasing circulating testosterone. Given the culture and family in which I grew up, that was pretty revolutionary. Music still brings me to heights and depths of emotion and I will enjoy it as long as my senses allow. I could play for services, but the number of clergy who want organists is rapidly decreasing as muzak replaces music. I am thankful for Rolleston Choral Society.

Writing? Who cares what I think? I’ve read again some of my recent blogs and have deleted them—exercises in self-indulgence and hubris. I suppose this is another.

Volunteering? Burton YMCA might be able to use me. I’m deeply concerned about the mental health of young men.

“Might be able to use me”: that phrase is a bit of a give-away. What does the real Stanley want? Is there such a thing?