A silly time to start a job
As I write in early October, it’s six weeks since I started this job. I’ve come to the conclusion that Autumn is a daft time to begin. Almost immediately, I was plunged into preparations for the most important liturgical solemnity of the year (no, no, no, not Christmas, let alone Easter, but Harvest, of course). Since I did not know the Irish tradition of inviting suckers from other parishes to come and preach, I’ve ended up being a sucker several times over, preaching not only in my own churches but in two of more savvy neighbours as well. One lives and learns. Or not. After the Harvests, the clergy conference. In the diocese of Derby, clergy conference was optional, and with over 150 stipendiary clergy, nobody bothered whether one went or not. Here it is different, so let me say without further ado how much I enjoy conferences. Nothing gives me greater pleasure. In academic life, conferences are marked by spite and invective thinly veiled as insincere politeness. Beware the question that begins ‘a most interesting presentation—I have one tiny question’. You are about to be disembowelled. My joy at Derby diocesan conferences was to open a book on which member of the clergy would speak (a) first, and (b) most often. After the conference comes the synod. I remember my days on the Diocesan Synod of Dublin and Glendalough, so have some idea of what joy is in store. After Synod comes Advent, by far the best time of the liturgical year though sadly now merely the ‘run up to Christmas’, and then Christmas itself. Jesus’ sweet head, the heresy of ‘veiled in flesh’, and … I’d better stop now. In amongst all this come prisons, hospitals, civic things, visiting the firm and infirm, being berated for not remembering someone’s name, and—the thing that theological colleges spend most time preparing one for—the drawing up of rotas.
Are you settling in?
This is the question that has tickled my acoustic apparatus (such as it is) several times daily for the last six weeks. You have all been most solicitous, and Susan and I thank you for your generosity and warmth. Monsignor John Byrne and his colleagues at SS Peter and Paul have been wonderfully hospitable, and when I represented the Church of Ireland Portlaoise Group at the memorial mass for UN veterans I was acclaimed most warmly. For the purposes of this discussion, though, please note that we are now settled. It is questionable whether one should ever feel too settled. There is no evidence that Our Lord was settled, or that he felt any terrestrial ties. He was certainly ambivalent about family. Family ties can indeed be invigorating and life-enhancing, but so too they can be stifling and repressive. Not doing things because so-and-so might disapprove. Being inhibited by some self-appointed and often rather stupid guardian of family morality. Jesus’ message was one of freedom from all this. He is on record as having urged people to distance themselves from (‘hate’ is the translation one most often hears) family. This is yet another call to detachment. We are all parts of the one body, but we are all detached. The liver and right kidney are parts of the same body, but are separate from each other. (Sorry—too much information for some of you, but you ain’t heart nuthin yet: wait till Mary’s uterus comes along). If over-attachment (obsessions, addictions, hatreds, etc), is the cause of most of life’s ills, and I am certain that it is, then detachment is at least part of the answer. Let it go. Be wary of being settled, because then you won’t cope with change. It’s worth remembering that mankind was originally nomadic, a lifestyle that became more difficult when we stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers.
A spot of bother
Those of you who follow church politics in the press, or on t’interweb (and, boys and girls, who doesn’t?), will have seen that our Bishop has been in what P G Wodehouse might have called a spot of bother. At the root of this bother is the matter of how we interpret Holy Scripture. How do we interpret Greek words of dubious meaning? How do we in the 21st century interpret Scripture written for a particular mindset and culture 2000 years ago and more? We accept that the Biblical flat earth and watery heavens are mistaken. We accept that the slavery, polygamy and incest that occur in the Bible are unacceptable. We do things that Holy Scripture tells us are forbidden: we eat pork, we wear polycotton, we ignore Levitical rules about farming. For people to get hot under the ‘choler’ about some rules and not others displays an arrogance and irrationality that is breathtaking. We must be honest about our own animal nature. The Church of Ireland bishops have announced that there will be a conference in 2012 to explore sexuality. This is good: we need to have this discussion, and we need to be seen to be having it, no matter what the result might be. The Bishops write that ‘biblical, theological and legal issues’ will be explored. This is not enough. They have omitted human issues, animal issues. How can they consider human actions and behaviour without considering the fact that we are animals, governed by instincts and hormones that are God-given. Come on Bishops, wake up!
Maybe we need to remember that alongside the two great commandments to love God, and neighbour as self, Our Lord gave us what is perhaps the third great commandment, to love our enemies. That is the work we have to get on with.