About Rambling Rector

Church of England Parish Priest

The stirrer stirred

I became a Clerk in Holy Orders at the end of June 2006, just over 14 years ago. 

When I was accepted for ordination I was working as the Foundation Anatomist in the new Graduate Entry Medical School of the University of Nottingham, sited in Derby. It was the plan that I continue in that job and in my “spare time” be an unpaid clergyman, a bit like the post-WW2 French worker priests (Mr Google will tell you more).

Shortly after beginning training in 2004 I began to feel that this wasn’t right. Given a personality with more than a few obsessive traits, I could see that I would want to do both jobs too well for my own good, and would therefore do neither properly. I applied for a change in status from non-stipendiary (unpaid) to stipendiary. After a bit of huffing and puffing and form filling I was sent for two more interviews at one of which the interviewer’s first words to me on opening her front door were “are you insane?” I was accepted for full-time ministry and in July 2006 I began as Assistant Curate – jargon for apprentice – in Wirksworth.

People confuse Wirksworth with Worksop. Wirksworth is an ancient lead mining village near Matlock on the edge of the Peak District. It’s a bit like a northern version of Rye in Sussex, full of nooks and crannies, curious houses (semidetached, one above the other, not next to it), tightly packed lanes and hills. It has a remarkable artistic presence displayed at the annual Wirksworth Festival. It attracts retired professionals, artists and academics thus providing a thriving intellectual life, far exceeding what you’d expect from a population of under 5500. 

Hidden away in the middle of town (village really, but they have notions) is the large cruciform church. When you find your way through one of the ginnels you are confronted by a charming cathedral close in miniature, so unexpected it quite takes your breath away.

Here it was in 2006 where under the watchful eye of the Rector David Truby I began to learn the ropes of being a parish priest. Some Assistant Curates have a terrible time with trainers who are inadequate or feel threatened. Not so David – the prospect of having a trainee (me) seven years older fazed him not one iota. He knew his job, and I my place—and it was a good place.

Though a brief curacy, only 20 months, it was a time of extraordinary richness. It seems incredible that so much happened in so short a time. Without a doubt the highlight was the explosion of ideas at the theology discussions at the Curate’s House, and the gin afterwards. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I began to see that rather than a priest (whatever that means, and nobody knows in the C of E these days), but a rabbi and a prophet, comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. I have spent my entire working life provoking others to think and learn, and shake them out of their complacency, and – let’s face it – there’s no more apposite word for the C of E. 

After about 18 months, the Bishop invited me to go as incumbent to parishes in west Chesterfield. Perhaps wrongly I felt that an invitation from the Bishop was not to be ignored – wrongly for maybe that post was not right for me. I recall being grilled at an introductory meeting by a host of posh people in twinsets, pearls and blue rinses (and that’s the men) and thinking “beam me back to Wirksworth” with a good few profanities thrown in. I could have said no, and maybe I should have, but back then I was more inclined to heed the “advice” of bishops than I am now.

West Chesterfield is wealthy and socially very conservative: expensive properties behind electric gates: they are inclosed in their own fat and their mouth speaketh proud things. Yes, I know I shouldn’t judge, but my response was visceral. I had a similar response – worse – when a couple of years later I applied for the post of Vicar of Helmsley and associated villages. After having been driven around the area and told of the local landowners – Sir This, Lady That, and Lord Howsyourfather, my guts screamed “get out of this hellhole”.

Despite the many good things and lovely people in west Chesterfield it would be true to say that I spent much of the time railing like an Old Testament prophet (Amos – read chapters 4 & 5). Paradoxically – and maybe because of this – my time there bore fruit in, I’m told, the loosening of attitudes, the widening of vision, the involvement of more people than just the elect few, and most particularly in the nurturing of vocations. I was moved at a Derby Cathedral ordination in 2019 to meet six Chesterfield people who said that I’d kicked them up the backside on the journey to ordination or readership. 

We need people to stir us up, but it comes at a cost to the stirrer.

Unexpectedly, 2011 saw our daughter in Dublin having problems such that we felt we should be closer at hand. There was no point looking for a job in the diocese of Dublin: those jobs tend to be reserved for the up-and-coming with a great future in front of them, rather than a 61-year-old has-been with a great future behind him. However, the diocese that covers the south east of Ireland had a few vacancies. I contacted the Bishop and was offered the incumbency of Portlaoise, one hour from Dublin. 

My intention was to stay there, for there is much about Irish life that is good: the Irish look forwards, outwards, onwards, and are well educated. Unfortunately I found myself in the midst of a huge row between one of my parishes and the diocese. I was aware that there was a problem, but in my arrogance I felt that my experience enabled me to handle it. I was wrong. You cannot begin to appreciate the bloody mindedness and bone-headedness of some Church of Ireland farmers. As time went by, with solicitors’ letters flying in every direction, and Susan becoming more and more affected by what it was doing to me, the writing was on the wall. The crunch came when the diocesan policy that caused the problem was rescinded. My work had been in vain, the rug pulled from under my feet. I was livid. My successor didn’t last as long as I did, and neither did his.

Fortunately, the post in Burton hove into view. It has been a good end. It has included civic and town centre ministry to which I took like a duck to water, never losing an opportunity to berate MPs and fat men in swords and uniforms on civic occasions. I also had charge of an Anglo-Catholic church in an urban priority area, where I developed a real sense of anger at the way in which the C of E – and society – ignores the poor, not least the white poor. To my great satisfaction the church became the venue for the Burton night shelter for the homeless. Despite all the goodness of my ministry in Burton, though, I felt that I could have done more: I’d been in post only 14 months when our elder son died. I was never the same again.

I was thinking of staying in post until I was 70 in June 2020 but I had such a bad chest infection in early 2019 that I reconsidered. When you’re single-handed in town centre parishes with schools, Advent and Christmas are relentless. So I retired in October 2019. I said to Susan that since she’d followed me around for decades, it was her turn to decide where we ended up. With friends in Burton, Derby, Wirksworth, Chesterfield and Nottingham, good train, air and bus connexions (this matters since my eyesight is very poor and Susan’s deteriorating) we moved across the road.

The C of E does not look kindly on retired incumbents staying in the parish where they were last at work because of the possibility of interfering with a successor. There’s no chance. I need seemly liturgy, decent music and thoughtful preaching. In today’s C of E you’re more likely to get second-rate game-show hosts who are purveyors of doggerel songs, playschool prayers and infantile preaching.

So I’m thinking of becoming a pagan.

It’ll take me back to maypole dancing at Langwathby May Day in the 50s and 60s, only this time naked. What a prospect.

Sarf London medic

In previous posts, I’ve explained why going to see the doctor can be dangerous, and why we should treat mental illness with compassion without embarrassment. This piece is much more personal.

The Cambridge medical course was and is six years long, three in Cambridge 1969-1972, three on the wards 1972-1975. In my day the hospital at Cambridge couldn’t cope with 250 medics each year, so it was the custom for almost all of us towards the end of second year to apply for a clinical place in another medical school for years 3-6. Most of us went to one of the London schools, and I ended up at King’s College Hospital on Denmark Hill (Camberwell), not too far from the Peckham of Del-boy. Peckham has now been well gentrified, but it most certainly was not so then.

In late summer 1972, a couple of weeks before the course was due to start, I arrived in London on the overnight sleeper from Carlisle, and met up with David and Steve, two more Cambridge medics, in search of student bedsit(s). We stayed in north Clapham with another friend who had already begun work in the Bank of England. I remember most vividly the invertebrates slowly sliming across the “bathroom” wall. Salubrious, huh? 

King’s was in south London but my two mates were attending more central medical schools: David in Whitechapel, east London, and Steve in Hammersmith/Fulham, so wherever we ended up, we would have to travel. We allotted ourselves search areas: mine was Paddington and north Kensington (think Grenfell but long before).

After a few days up and down the smelly and stained staircarpets of shifty letting agents, we settled on renting a basement flat on the South Circular road between Clapham Common and Balham (gateway to the south). It had its good points. It was a short walk to Clapham South tube, the living room and bedroom were spacious, and the gaff had its own side entrance. Less good were the fact that the bathroom and bog were just an incompletely partitioned area of the kitchen, culinary and other smells blending appetisingly, and the second bedroom was actually a cupboard under the stairs up to the ground floor. 

We were not in the least put off by any of this, not even by the flock wall paper that I see in my mind’s eye in the living room with its scenic eye-level view from the bay window of discarded cans and dog turds on the pavement. We invited a nonmedic friend of Steve’s to share the rent. He was a Nigel Planer (The Young Ones) type – lanky, lugubrious, long black hair – and was supposed to be at some college or other but as far as I could see spent most of his time on a mattress in the tiny, smelly, windowless under-stair cupboard with his girlfriend, doubtless engaged in mind-improving activities with mind-altering substances.

This meant that David, Steve and I shared the bedroom. Three blokes. We got to know each other pretty well. Single beds before you ask.

I had a daily commute across town of 3.5 miles each way. No car in those days. I knew nothing about London buses, but as a rail nerd I had a working knowledge of tube and rail networks, so my journey was 100 yards walk to the tube, two stops on the Northern Line to Clapham North, across the road to Clapham railway station, two stops to Denmark Hill station, 200 yards walk to King’s. I did it on foot sometimes along Acre Lane through Brixton – pleasant enough if I wasn’t pressed for time.

My first student attachment was at Dulwich Hospital, a couple of miles from King’s, up and over Dog Kennel Hill, one of the steepest in south London. A year later, after Susan and I were married, I cycled a fair bit, and up and over the hill got me quite fit.

Three things I remember quite clearly from my time at Dulwich.

The first is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Peter Friedlander, a most delightful and gentle consultant physician in his late 60s, told us that his first line treatment for any stomach upset was liquorice. “Oh sure”, thought we, “what would an old codger who was at medical school in the 1930s know of modern all-singing-all-dancing medicine?” Well, boys and girls, he was absolutely right in this as in so much else. Liquorice root is indeed the active ingredient of several therapies. Just because it comes from a plant and not a laboratory doesn’t mean it’s no use—the opposite in fact. Also from plants come aspirin, morphine and digitalis, and from mould, penicillin. Dr Grundy in Cambridge drilled into us that these drugs are four of the five essentials you need to have if stranded on a desert island. The fifth is insulin. (By morphine people actually mean heroin – diamorphine – but they have a fit if you call it that.)

Dr Friedlander also taught us that for patients on a lot of drugs, it’s often wise to stop the lot and see what happens. You see, the trouble is that drugs interact with each other, and when several are taken together they have unpredictable effects that make things worse. That message—keep it simple—still informs just about everything I do.

The other Dulwich realisation was that sometimes—often in fact—the best thing to do is let someone die. Too often I saw patients suffer unnecessarily just for the sake of being kept alive for an extra week or two or month or two, often in great distress. Why? Well sometimes it makes the doctors feel they’re doing something (doctors like you to think they’re omnipotent), but also sometimes—and I saw this in ordained ministry too—because family members use someone else’s pain as a weapon to score points off each other.

It was while I was living in Clapham South that Susan and I rekindled our school friendship. By then she was a primary school teacher in Droylsden, east Manchester, and one weekend in late 1972 she came to visit the grubby basement. An evening walk to Clapham Common found us in the Windmill tavern. I, then a junior clinical medical student, asked her to marry me. The wedding would have to wait four years, said I, until I was earning. 

So, dear reader, we were married within months in August 1973.  But all that’s another story. Until then, I leave you with this vignette from my bachelor social life at that time.

The year is 1973, the time Friday evening. The story concerns four young men attending King’s College Hospital Medical School who were taking an evening stroll. As they proceeded from Camberwell in a north-westerly direction towards The Oval, a thirst descended upon them somewhere in salubrious north Brixton.

“Behold, seest thou yonder hostelry?”
“Yea, verily. Let us hie thither and slake our thirst.”
“Aye, aye. Come, let us make haste.”

It was the Skinners’ Arms on Camberwell New Road. The four knights did enter.

“If it be thy pleasure, fair wench, we parchèd wanderers each desire a tankard of thy most toothsome nectar.”
“Most certainly, wandering knaves,” quoth she.

Some time and several flagons later, behold the lights did dim. Music rang forth and lo, a lady materialized on the podium. The knaves salivated in eager expectation. The performing lady gradually divested herself of her habiliments until she stood before the assembled company in a two-piece bikini that didst cover only the barest of essentials. She had a midline scar below the umbilicus.

“Ah, comrades, spiest-ye the scar?” saith I (for yes, I was one of the four). “Perhaps the lady hath undergone an hysterectomy.”

It was not that the utterance itself was foolish, but rather the volume at which it rang forth, for the intended whisper cameth more as proclamation. If thou understandest that, thou dost apprehend the nub of the issue.

“Thou art mistaken, fair friend,” quoth the lady, “for ‘tis an appendix scar.”

And having uttered those very words the bikini-clad performer hied herself to the bench at which the knaves sat, and reclined on the knee of the writer, and polished his spectacles with one of her removèd undergarments.

Now, the knaves were, admittedly, very junior medical students, but they possess’d enough anatomical knowledge to know that appendicectomy requirest not a midline incision but rather a right-sided incision. Nevertheless, they sensed that circumstances were not propitious for elucidation. They felt that discretion was in their interests, and without further quaffing or quoting they legged it back to their lodgings. The young men were lucky, methinks, not to have been set upon by the lady’s supporters. 

The moral of the story? To draw conclusions from observations is good, but proclamation of same should be judicious if one wants to avoid getting one’s head kicked in.

In the dark?

Burton Hospital Eye Outpatients, 26 June 2020

Exchanges between hospital staff (HS) and me.

Me            Good morning. Outpatients, 9.30.

HS            assumed: can I have your name please?

Me            Sorry I’m deaf, can’t hear.

HS            still not loud enough: can I have your name please?

Me            I need to see your lips move, so please can you take your mask off? 

This does not go down well. After giving the requested information:

HS            We don’t seem to have your phone number. Can you let me have it?

Me            after having given it: that’s odd, you know, because somebody rang me last Monday to tell me about the appointment, and somebody rang me yesterday to confirm that I would attend.

HS            bluster bluster.

Me            Upstairs as usual?

After an affirmative nod, up I go. Upstairs is laid out differently from last time. I normally sit on the left to be near the place where staff call for patients, since none of them speaks very clearly. After about 20 minutes having been ignored:

Me            Am I in the right place?

HS            Have you had your temperature taken?

Me            No.

HS            Well, you should be over there in a red chair.

Me            after moving: It might be a good idea if the receptionist were to tell people that.

HS            There are notices in the lift and on the stairs.

Me            thinking: Notices? Notices? In small print? FFS, this is an eye clinic.

But I merely smile and relocate my backside.

Before long my sight has been tested, my right retina scanned, and in I go to the consultant. All very pleasant, though taking longer than usual. The consultant is very gently spoken and not easy for me to hear.

HS            What sort of surgery have you had?

Me            perplexed since he has the notes in front of him: Well I had the procedure that fries the ciliary apparatus last year and in 2018.

HS            Here? In the theatre downstairs?

Me            Yes.

HS            You had retinal surgery (not a question).

HS            No, not here, that was in Derby in 2008 by Mr Chen.

Him           So what was the operation here?

Me            after dredging my memory: cyclodiode laser treatment.

HS            Here?

Me            Yes, twice. You have the notes there: is there no record?

HS            Well, I can’t find them. Those records are digitized and kept offsite. We are completely in the dark.

Boom boom!

Me            trying to keep a straight face: that’s crazy ridiculous.

HS            shrug of the shoulders: That’s the way it is. Tell me when you had the cyclodiode.

So I did, and he wrote it down.

Ocular pressure on both sides is good. Glaucoma on the right is under control. It turns out I have a substantial cataract on the right, as well as glaucoma. Because that’s my only functioning eye, and surgery carries the risk of my being left totally blind, his advice is to live with the cataract until normal daily activities become impossible. I’m happy enough with that. I ask if successful surgery would mean that I could drive, to which the response is probably not.

After these moderately entertaining exchanges, he rationalises my seven lots of eye drops to five.

This is good, except that he insists that the drops I use should be from individual sachets without preservative, rather than with preservatives from a plastic bottle (cheaper). It seems the preservatives are damaging my corneas. He tells me that I must insist that the GP prescribes the individual sachets and not the generic drops in plastic bottles. Knowing as I do how difficult it is even to get a GP appointment, I express doubt that this will work and tell him why.

HS            Oh well, that’s the problem we all have to deal with. Good luck.

Then I’m dismissed with cordial farewells and I pootle off to hospital pharmacy to get the first new prescription. Do you know it takes 50 minutes to find two boxes, put them in a plastic bag, and give them to me?

I don’t fault the treatment one little bit. Burton Hospital has been very good to me. But I do wonder about administration, record keeping, the ability of one computer system to talk to another, and the difficulty people seem to have in imagining what it’s like from a patient’s perspective. 

All hail the NHS!

Mental illness

For the church newsletter, a sequel to “Should I go to the doctor?” https://ramblingrector.me/2020/05/16/should-i-go-to-the-doctor?/

If you have a broken arm, you go to hospital where it’s dealt with. If it happened playing sport or doing something heroic, your injury will be a badge of honour. If you’re a schoolboy whose arm was broken in a rugby match, you’ll be unbearable as you flaunt the evidence of your manliness. I don’t know how schoolgirls regard bones broken in, say, a hockey match because I’m not a girl.

If you have a faulty electrical circuit in your brain and become depressed, or self-harming, or in any way unable to cope, chances are you will not consult a doctor, but will soldier on, telling nobody, sinking deeper into the doldrums. If you tell someone else you run the risk of being patronised or ridiculed as odd, inferior, inadequate, even possessed by evil spirits—yes, that view is still held by some and is common in some cultures.

We can see, touch and understand a broken bone or a leaking blood vessel or a blocked tube. But we’ve little or no idea about what goes on in the brain. We talk about and are even proud of our broken bones, but we are embarrassed about and even ashamed of our broken minds. It should not be so.

Why do people become mentally ill? 

Maybe because some people don’t produce quite enough of a certain brain chemical which is used for one nerve cell to communicate with another. Maybe because some people produce too much of a different chemical. The one might result in depression, the other in mania or overactivity. Maybe some mental illness arises because repeated traumatic childhood experiences result in the development of electrical networks in the brain that enabled us to cope then but are unhelpful now. Maybe some people develop such networks in the brain as a result of genetic inherited patterns. It’s all a bit of a mystery.

If you use your imagination you might be able to see that some of these conditions can be helped by learning to think differently: counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Believe me, these are hard work and take time. Other conditions can be helped by chemicals. Sometimes a bit of both is good, with drugs kick-starting a longer period of counselling or CBT.

Recognising mental illness is difficult. We all have different personality types. Some people are prone to depression, others to overactivity. When does an exaggerated characteristic become illness? 

Sometimes such instability is productive. You may have heard of Tourette’s syndrome in which people have a mind that fizzes with ideas and a mouth given to uttering a constant stream of shocking profanities. If you are, for example, a jazz musician who is most productive when Tourette’s is at its height, the last thing you need is for the symptoms to be taken away with drugs, especially if it’s the jazz that puts bread on the table. Being “abnormal” in this way is no bad thing. There have been studies showing that the most original and creative scientists and artists can in some way be regarded as not quite mentally “normal”.

Please remember that there is in truth no such thing as “normal”: it is merely a statistical definition. To give one example, “schizophrenia” is used in different ways in different societies. In totalitarian states the chances are that if you are critical of the way society is organised, constantly sniping at government policy, you’ll be declared schizophrenic and confined to an asylum (for “protection”) or prison camp. Our society is highly critical of this, but hypocritical in that we do the exact same thing using different criteria. I leave you to think about that. Perhaps “normal” means “able to cope with society”. But what if society itself is abusive and oppressive? We need to fight for justice.

It’s also true that the brain receives information from all parts of the body and we know little about how this affects mental health. There is growing evidence that what goes on in the intestine affects our mental wellbeing – the “gut brain” sending information to the “head brain”. You know about gut feelings – this is what I’m on about. So, eat well, treat your intestines with respect, and if your diet upsets you in any way, change it. Don’t be a fool.

Similarly, exercise. It releases brain chemicals that improve the mood. It gives a sense of achievement. The best medicine is your own sweat produced by exercise. Just do it. 

Let me give you my theory about how some mental illnesses arise. We need to start with some evolutionary history. 

As you pass forwards (upwards in apes like us) from the spinal cord you come to the brainstem. In simple terms this deals with automatic things, control of breathing and heart rate, balance, coordination, awareness of position in space – stuff that we need but have no real control over. Next come the paired structures, right and left cerebral hemispheres. These are where awareness and thinking occur: we process information in order to make decisions. Part of the hemispheres deals with urges (sex, hunger, fear), memory, mood and emotion (these are linked) and another part with logical thinking, analysis, reasoning. 

I’m pretty sure that some mental problems result from tension between these two parts. For example, I might in a fit of anger feel the urge to punch your teeth down your throat, but the thinking part of my brain tells me that if I do, there will be undesirable consequences for me, and therefore I override the urges and refrain. Too much of this kind of repression results in a building up of frustration that, if not dealt with by exercise or kicking the cat or some such, is not good for mental health. Learning to recognise and cope with anger is a good thing. Anger, by the way, is good. It spurs us to improve what needs to be improved.

This is only a theory and it can’t be proved, but neither can it be disproved.

I said above that counselling was useful therapy, and to my mind it would be better named “listening”. Every single one of us is capable of being a listener. It’s one of the things that people with mental illness need. They do not need to be judged. They do not need to be told what to do. They do not need to hear your opinion or why you think they’re in the position they’re in. What they need from you is simply companionship. Look at that word “companionship”. In the middle of it is panis, Latin for bread (pain in French). Bread together. What they need is for you to take them for tea and something to eat. Sit with them. Listen to them. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut except when eating and drinking.

If you do that you’ll be increasing the amount of delight in the world. There is no better thing to do.

Men suffer disproportionately from depression. It is said that Staffordshire has the highest rate of young male suicides in the country: you will know how often the A38 is closed and the rail service disrupted for undisclosed reasons. Men are less likely to talk about their feelings than women who often need no encouragement. 

In Burton there’s a charity supporting men’s mental health. It deserves your support. 

Experts and skeptics

Sayings of Richard Feynman, Nobel prizewinning physicist:

  • There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made.
  • Science is organized skepticism of the reliability of expert opinion.

In our response to covid, we are witnessing the lack of expertise of experts.

We assume that science is incontrovertible. It may well be.

Scientists, however, are not. They are human. When they “speak science” to us, we do well to remember that actually they are speaking not science, but science as interpreted by scientists. Not the same thing at all.

We observe scientific phenomena. Observations rely on our senses and intellects. We measure scientific phenomena. Measurements rely on instruments and techniques. In biological science we observe and experiment on animals, human and non-human. Animals have “personalities”. They are not predictable. Personalities influence responses.

When a scientist inspects cells or tissues under a microscope, they have been pulverised in all sorts of ways to render them observable. If yesterday’s work is to be compared to today’s and next week’s, you need to be pretty damn sure that all the conditions and chemicals and temperatures that held yesterday are absolutely identical to today’s and next week’s. This can never be. 

There are so many variables in biological science. It is very messy. Mathematics is pure. Physics is almost pure, but is a bit messy since it has to be observed. Chemistry is messier still. Biology is very messy indeed, as I explain above. Messiest of all are things like psychology and social science, the latter once defined as the study of those who don’t need to be studied by those who do.

In the biological sciences, it’s necessary to amass a large amount of data. Those data must be tested, time and again, and robust statistical analyses applied, before even tentative conclusions can be drawn. 

I’m not saying that it’s not possible to draw conclusions in biological science. But it is time consuming and laborious, and it requires meticulous work from researchers whose personalities are well suited to meticulous work: focussed, capable of paying attention to detail and possessed of almost infinite patience. A bit anal you might say. Being on the autistic spectrum certainly helps.

Most of all, scientists must be impervious to the pressures from themselves and others to get their results to conform to expected patterns that suit their own ideas or those of the organisation and funding bodies for whom they work. 

In short, scientists need to be uncontaminated by personal bias. Good luck with that.

You see, the problem is that scientists—experts—are human.

Back in the 4th century, Evagrios the Solitary said “there are three groups [of demons] who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three.” Evagrios clearly had a profound knowledge of human psychology.

The third of those demons, seeking the esteem of men, is by far the most insidious and dangerous. And that is at the root of the sin of the expert, of the scientist in general, and indeed of humanity.

We all want to be well thought of. It is good for the sake of pay, pension, reputation, self-esteem and ego. But seeking the approval of others requires that we choose those whose approval is worth having. Therein lies the problem.

The ego of an unscrupulous scientist can lead to his ignoring inconvenient results, even fabricating data. It can lead to a pet model overriding observed data, the latter being squeezed and deformed to fit the model just as the ugly sister’s toe was amputated so her foot might squeeze into the glass slipper. Researchers employed by drug companies are particularly vulnerable to such pressures in order that their results will best enhance company profits, and thus reputations and prospects.

I need not perseverate. You can see how the demon of seeking esteem infects us all—and in the realm of science, you can I hope see how such pressures and biases can distort the interpretation of biological data.

And that brings us to covid.

In the covid case we are dealing with a novel virus. People use that word, and yet they don’t see that novel carries with it uncertainty and unpredictability, for if something is novel we can not reliably assume or deduce anything on the basis of what we have known heretofore. When a scientist comes along with a model, people latch on to it. “We need something,” they cry; “this is something; this will do”. 

Well, it might not do. Indeed, it did not do at all.

They, we, should assume nothing but instead proceed cautiously, adjusting and refining our ideas on the basis of data, rather than on the basis of some preconceived model. Instead we did the opposite: “we have a world expert modeller; we know better than the rest of the world; we know what the virus will do”. We certainly do not know what the virus will do, or how we will respond to it. 

What we need is constant wariness, a readiness always to adjust, refine, question. As Richard Feynman is reported as saying, “Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” 

Experts, I repeat, are human and subject to all the deceptions and foibles of human nature. The problem is that we put too much weight on what they say. We treat them as infallible. We do not question them. We should. We need dissenters to say, “hang on a minute; what if … ?” Unfortunately dissenters, whistle blowers, are rarely if ever applauded. Richard Feynman could himself be a skeptic, for former US Attorney General William Rogers said of him “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.” 

We need more, many more,  pains in the ass.

Looking ahead

I suspect that Floyd and Colston riots are in part manifestations of frustration and inconvenience of a policy drawn up on the basis of expert opinion insufficiently questioned and now seen to have been ineptly handled. The spark, I’m in no doubt, was anger at the behaviour of the Prime Minister and his adviser.

We are in for months of civil unrest—the rest of the year and possibly more. The privations, unemployment, business failures and shortages of covid will be as nothing compared to those resulting from the now almost inevitable hard brexit. The shysters in government will use the former as serendipitous cover for their treacherous and self-serving pursuance of the latter.

Politically, I have no axe to grind. In my time I’ve voted for everything except the Greens. But I come to the view that the best option for the immediate future would be an early uprising that would replace this morally bankrupt government with a “war cabinet” that includes Mr Starmer who already has acquired the gravitas and discernment that eluded most of his predecessors and that far exceeds anything in the present administration. Quite how this uprising could be provoked is something to ponder. 

It’s interesting to note that following the Irish general election months ago, there is still no government in Leinster House. And yet Dr Varadkar remains Taoiseach, the Irish go about their business, and two days ago the lockdown was eased considerably. 

Who needs a government? Who needs politicians? We urgently need loyal dissenters.

Ad multos annos

When I was about 10 I sometimes wondered what it would feel like to be 70. Now I know.

I also wondered what it would feel like to be dead. I’ll get back to you on that.

I’m glad to have reached this day, for I’ve long had a niggling suspicion that I might not. I’ve outlived my mother by three years, and if I manage another 12 months I’ll have outlived—just—my father. My sister is seven years older and still going strong, but then women tend to last longer, my mother excepted.

Life has fallen into several compartments: Langwathby: Penrith and Carlisle; Cambridge; London and marriage; Nottingham; Dublin; Derby. Then came ordination after which the pace of change quickened: Wirksworth, Chesterfield, Portlaoise (Ireland again), Burton. Ten house moves since marriage in 1973 and four Irish Sea crossings with resultant administrative hassle of tax, banks, utilities and whatnot in UK and Republic of Ireland, the latter involving both punts and euro. Susan and I became experts in organising moves from one jurisdiction to another, again and again. We learnt the value of renunciation—chucking out—physically and psychologically.

For much of the time, trying to juggle this with the demands of family, career, job politics, and being English in Ireland in the late 80s, I felt like a rabbit in headlights. This was not helped by the agony—and I mean agony—between 1988 and 1991 of living in Ireland while having first both sons then one at boarding schools in England until they were ready for Irish secondary school. Think ferries, overnight drives, unaccompanied flights for the boys, nine or ten times a year. Other people seem to cope well with such like but I did not. In the 1990s I needed lots of help. And later I came to realise that, as with many parents, the job, and in my case the students, got a better part of me than my family did. Thankfully, the feeling of guilt is now behind me.

The children navigated the turbulence of adolescence in a new country, and settled there making great friends and going on to college. Victoria married an Irishman, and Edward took Irish citizenship. Hugh, the middle one, went off to pursue his childhood American dream. After travelling around, then in order Seattle, marriage, fatherhood, and Wasilla (Alaska), he and his family ended up in Texas near his wife’s folks, where in The Great Catastrophe of 2015 he died. When I saw him last we were planning road trips “if I’m still alive” said I, to which he replied “you’ve thirty years in you yet”. He didn’t even have thirty days.

But the rest of us are still extant. We talk to one another and we love each other unconditionally and unlimitedly. I could not have survived without them.

So what does it feel like to be 70? 

My blood pressure is 135/80, give or take—woefully shocking for someone who consumes eggs, salt and butter in industrial quantities. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t listen to doctors or take statins. My resting pulse (lying in bed first thing of a morning) is just below 60. I feel better than I did 10, even 20, years ago, funny turn notwithstanding: https://ramblingrector.me/2020/05/07/a-funny-turn/. 

In my head I’m immaturing with age, I feel like a stroppy teenager. Long may it continue.

I have a great future behind me.

It feels fine.

Nobility in lockdown

At first, the virus signalled the end of the world. Now we know it to be neither particularly lethal nor particularly infectious.

We have been led to hysteria.

Opinions differ about the lockdown. Evidence is equivocal: its effects, however, are not. The economic consequences will be felt for generations, and the geopolitical maelstrom is only just beginning. 

But whatever about the big picture, the lockdown has been desperately cruel for many, especially the chronically ill, the dying, the grieving, and those in sheltered accommodation and care homes. 

The purpose of this piece is not to provoke discussion about the handling of the pandemic or the nature of the lockdown, but rather to let a dear and longstanding friend tell the story of how it has affected him and his wife. They are examples of the heroism that has emerged from this terrible wound that our society has inflicted upon itself. 

Over to you, friend.

I already look with horror at the misery caused not by the virus but by our response to it. My wife, sadly, has dementia and Parkinson’s disease, and has lived in a care home for over three years. I was excluded from visiting her altogether from the day lockdown started and left her the day before that wondering if I would ever see her again. Her capacity precludes any meaningful contact by telephone or video calling. 

The home has been visited by the virus with proportionate fatalities, but she has not so far been infected as far as I know. But over the first two months she gave up eating and drinking properly, lost more than half a stone in weight and has not been out of doors other than to make two trips to A&E following falls with injuries. Without saying how, I have found my way round the restrictions on visiting though I am limited to one visit per week at present. She is now showing more interest in eating and her mood has lifted at least some of the time.

I am slightly nervous, as lockdown is lifted, that my access may perversely be blocked again for reasons of preventing virus spread in the interests of others. The national policy has been one of panic rather than reasoned risk assessment with measured responses.

Church Crisis

The Church of England has a problem. Money.

The English public, if it thinks of the Church of England at all, assumes it’s phenomenally wealthy, and that the church receives funding from the state or from taxes.

None of this is true.

The church is at a crisis. The history of how it has come to this is long and complex involving mediaeval laws and customs, agricultural and land legislation, economic changes, societal and cultural changes, the impact of scientific endeavour, and more.  But though the history is interesting, we must move on from where we are now.

Funds come from:

  1. personal giving by parishioners;
  2. fees from weddings and funerals;
  3. parish rental and investment income, if any; and
  4. subventions from the Church Commissioners whose funds are also dependent on rental and investment income.

As a result of lockdown, church closures and economic effects of government response to the virus:

  1. Giving has plummeted. Although some churchgoers give by standing order or direct debt, more do not, instead putting cash on the collection plate week by week—which of course has completely dried up. Most churchgoers are elderly and many know nothing of online banking.
  2. There are no occasional offices in church at present, and in any case they were in sharp decline before covid.
  3. Church halls are shut, so there is no rental income. Income from residential and commercial property is significantly reduced. Investment income has been decimated by the stock market crash.
  4. Commissioners’ funds have taken a big hit for similar reasons.

Funds from parishes, sources 1, 2 and 3, go to:

  • Pay, pension and continuing training for all clergy except bishops and cathedral deans. 
  • Diocesan advisers, administrators and secretaries
  • Parsonages
  • Local mission
  • Churches, parish buildings and their maintenance

Funds from Commissioners, source 4, go to:

  • Cathedrals
  • Bishops
  • National mission initiatives
  • Central administration (Church House London, Lambeth Palace), large and Byzantine.
  • Subventions to dioceses to help plug the gap between what comes in from parishes and what goes out in pay and pensions. Such subventions do not close that gap.

Most dioceses are using reserves or are already bust. 

  • Liverpool and St Albans have furloughed some clergy. 
  • Sheffield even before covid was aiming to reduce paid clergy numbers by almost a half in the next few years. 
  • Worcester has asked the public for donations to pay clergy. 
  • Chelmsford has told parishes if they can’t stump up £60K annually, they won’t get a paid parson, and has announced that paid clergy will be cut by a third.
  • It’s acknowledged or rumoured that Truro, Hereford, Sodor and Man, Blackburn, Manchester, Newcastle, Derby, Leicester, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Southwark, Rochester, Portsmouth, and Guildford (Surrey of all places!) are at the edge or just tipping over. Others too possibly. 
  • One source who knows Carlisle diocese said that the only reason it isn’t bust yet is because it doesn’t spend anything – and as a Carliolian by birth and Cumbrian by descent and upbringing, I see this as admirable prudence.

Clergy pay and pensions

Consider these figures.

  • 1 Archbishop of Canterbury £85,070 
  • 1 Archbishop of York £72,900 
  • 1 Bishop of London £66,820 
  • 39 other diocesan bishops £46,180
  • About 60 suffragan (assistant) bishops £37,670
  • 43 Deans £37,670 (Dean of Oxford not remunerated by the Church)
  • About 100 Archdeacons £36,100
  • Ordinary paid parsons £25,265 minimum (about 5000 I guess)

Although the typical parson receives an annual stipend of just over £25K, the cost to the parishes is about £60K since the parish share also funds the parson’s pension and continuing training, parsonage maintenance, and diocesan staff such as mission advisers, safeguarding advisers, vocations advisers, and other advisers, administrators and secretaries. The church collects the money and passes it to the dioceses that then pay the clergy. Wealthy parishes that pay more than £60K in theory subsidise poor parishes that can’t afford to. Some do. Other wealthy parishes resent giving their money to an organisation that they disapprove of and withhold what they are asked to pay as a form of blackmail.

Since income from parishioners (source 1) has now dried up, the Commissioners recently loaned the dioceses £75 million to tide them over the covid crisis. Note: loaned—I’ll return to that. The pension is a significant call on funds, for it is a non-contributory defined benefit pension with a very generous lump sum. Furthermore, for Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons, the pension enhancement that comes from their increased pay is backdated to the year of their entry into clerical orders—this could amount to 20 years’ worth enhanced pension. That is scandalous.

Pensions used to be the responsibility of the Commissioners, but in 1997, after the Commissioners had had their fingers burnt, they were passed to the dioceses, that is the parishes. Parish income having now collapsed, the Commissioners will have to pick up the cost, and this will leave a big hole in their assets—unless of course clergy pay and pensions were to be slashed.

Sources 1, 2 and 3 also fund the building. Think ancient, damp, roof, structure, stained glass, organs, plumbing, electrics, heating, and more. Think of a building the size of a small cathedral, often to be found in inner city deprived areas, sustained by a regular congregation of say 25 people all over the age of 60. 

Remember that the vast majority of congregations are numerically tiny, elderly, and on pensions. As a result of the lockdown they have lost the habit of weekly attendance. Lost habits are hard to re-establish. Will they want to return given the anxiety that will persist about catching the virus? How many will still be alive next year? Another issue is that many churchgoers have loyalty not to Christianity, nor to the parson, but to the building and, in rural areas, to the graveyard where they wish to be buried with their ancestors. 

Why would these people continue to give to church funds if they’ve stopped attending? And it’s unwise to put any faith in online worship: it brings in no money, it requires web access and equipment, it is yet another task, and it is questionable how well supported it will be when people are able to resume “normal” activities.

Church Commissioners

The Commissioners fund, in short, cathedrals, bishops, central administration, training institutions and mission initiatives. In 1997 their assets were about £2.5 billion. After they stopped funding clergy pensions, assets grew to about £8 billion. As I said earlier, that’s being eaten into as I write: property prices and rental incomes are slashed, markets are depressed, and with working from home here to stay, rent from commercial properties is in short supply. And now they will have to take back most or all the pensions burden.

So far, then:

  • Parishes are in the red and reserves are being gobbled up.
  • Dioceses are in the red and reserves are being gobbled up.
  • The £75 million loaned to the dioceses some weeks ago won’t last long – it may already have run out. How can dioceses be expected to pay back this loan?
  • Prospects are gloomy.

You can see why there’s a money problem.

And I hope you can see that the biggest drain on funds is clergy pay and pensions.

What to do?

Closing and selling off churches has been suggested.

Who wants them? Few are amenable to other uses. They wouldn’t raise much cash given present property prices, and once a church is sold, it’s sold.

If they are sold, the heritage brigade will be up in arms: national heritage, part of the landscape. belong to the community, the people’s patrimony – all this they will cry. Morally, selling them to fund the religious activity of a dwindling sect is questionable since the buildings over the centuries were largely funded from taxation or levies and so can indeed be said to belong to the people.

Most significant of all, many—most—people are emotionally and atavistically attached to churches whether they attend or not: churches are community temples and memory deposits; they are often focal points of community cohesion. People care about churches and graveyards, but they don’t care about a resident parson. To them, buildings matter more than clergy or doctrine. Many clergy, and I suspect bishops too, find this difficult to stomach: they regard churches as inconvenient and expensive money pits and would rather worship in a warm industrial unit.

If churches were to be closed and/or sold, how would decisions be made and by whom? Many of the poorest churches are in the most deprived areas—the very areas where the churches do the most valuable work. Will the well scrubbed and well heeled of leafy suburbia be happy to see their money going to needle-strewn inner city parishes?

In summary, selling off churches would be a once-off; it wouldn’t raise much; and it would be hugely unpopular with a substantial and vocal section of the public. It would, truly, strike at the nature of the culture we have inherited. 

So how about reducing pay and pension costs?

  • Since all clergy will in future have to be paid by the Commissioners, change the whole basis. Abolish all differentials. Pay all clergy the same, bishops the same as parsons, and reimburse expenses in full according to the nature of the work. It’s worth noting that clergy in France, including bishops, get less than a half of what a C of E parson gets. Yes, French clerics are unmarried, but then most C of E clerics have earning partners.
  • Restructure the pension scheme to be more in line with almost every other: contributory, DC, realistic lump sum. 

Cull paid clergy

  • Reduce numbers by at least two thirds, those remaining being sited strategically in accordance with population or geographical factors. Most churches could be served by unpaid clergy living locally, selected by local agreement.
  • Stop – now – recruitment to paid posts. A few years ago there was a national drive to recruit more young people to the ranks of stipendiary clergy. This was immoral then, and is much more so now. There is no way that the church will be able to fund them for say 40 years, let alone provide a pension. 
  • All other paid clergy to take early retirement, packages funded by the Commissioners.
  • Ordain nonstipendiary ministers as required on the basis of local recommendation, and after rigorous training.

But: do turkeys vote for Christmas?

Administrative costs

Within one hour by road of where I sit there are five, maybe six diocesan offices, finance departments, safeguarding teams, mission teams … and so on. So:

  • Merge all 42 diocesan administrations into one central body, sited in the midlands or the north. Think of the likely savings and increased efficiency.
  • Dioceses should retain only pastoral functions.
  • Ordained diocesan staff now surplus to requirements should serve in parishes or use their skills in other careers.

Buildings

  • Bishops don’t need cathedrals (Lutheran style), so cathedrals to become merely churches with historic titles only (Presbyterian Church of Scotland). Deans, chapters, residentiary canonries to be abolished. Musical and other mission activities could – should – survive, appropriately funded. 
  • Fabric and maintenance of large churches and “cathedrals” to be funded centrally, perhaps with the introduction of a voluntary church tax (continental style) to support only the fabric (but not the activities within). Maybe HMRC would deal with this. Or perhaps, French style, fabric could become the responsibility of the state given the payment by the Commissioners of a suitable dowry. Unfortunately, available funds are unlikely to be adequate, and the economic and political circumstances are far from propitious.
  • All other churches to be run by unpaid clergy and/or lay minsters living in their own homes. 
  • There are too many churches, especially in towns, so churches could be offered to local communities. Unwanted churches should be abandoned or demolished.
  • Sell all parsonages no longer required.

Bishops and dioceses

Some say we need fewer, some say we need more.

  • Option 1: reduce the number of dioceses and diocesan bishops from 42 to about 17, and the number of suffragans from about 60 to 14 or so, suggested * below, on the basis of population and/or area and communications.
    • Durham, Newcastle *
    • Carlisle, Blackburn, Sodor & Man  *
    • Liverpool, Manchester, Chester *
    • Lichfield, Coventry, Birmingham *
    • Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester 
    • Bristol, Bath and Wells, Salisbury *
    • Exeter, Truro *
    • Winchester, Portsmouth, Guildford
    • Southwark, Rochester, Canterbury *
    • London * *
    • Norwich, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich *
    • Ely, St Albans
    • Oxford *
    • Peterborough, Leicester *
    • Lincoln *
    • Leeds *
    • Sheffield, Southwell. Derby *

This would run the risk of fewer bishops feeling more important with a regrettable further increase in clericalism.

  • Option 2: 
    • Increase the number of dioceses and bishops from 42 to about 150 – maybe each deanery as at preset becoming a “diocese” (do we need the title?). 
    • No suffragan bishops needed, nor Archdeacons or Deans since a cathedral is now no more than a church with a history. 
    • No fancy titles. No House of Lords. No pay differentials. No purple shirts. No clericalism. No establishment. Perhaps these “bishops” would be the only paid clergy.
    • Increase the number of unpaid clergy. Ordain on the basis of local recommendation and need,

Training

A difficult business, especially given the shortage of funds. At present there are nine residential institutions and a multiplicity of local part time courses. Some clergy are trained for three years full time, others (like me) for two years part time with a few residential weekends. There is no agreed national curriculum. Some students are grounded in New Testament Greek, some are not. Some are fed the arcane enthusiasms of course staff.

I don’t know what the future of training will be, but online learning and e-resources are essential. We don’t need so many training institutions, but we do need:

  • Standardisation with agreed curriculum.
  • Academic rigour.
  • Intelligent study of Scripture.
  • Instruction in basic liturgical history and praxis.
  • Instruction in church history.
  • Extensive e–resources in the widest possible sense.

And finally …

This is a great opportunity for radical action. The church does not need a sticking plaster, but rather a scalpel wielded mercilessly to drain the abscesses. “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

I thank many people for stimulating me to think about this, and am particularly grateful to “Froghole”, Rupert Moreton, Andy Sparrow and Susan Monkhouse.