About Rambling Rector

Church of England Parish 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?

Advent letter 2018

Leningrad bookshop as was

Leningrad bookshop as was

Yesterday a friend told us that she hated Christmas letters. This is because, she said (rightly in our experience), she is fed up with hearing how perfect other families are, mum and dad sustaining the world economy with their cottage industry, fighting corruption and reversing global warming, though—hypocrisy alert—this seems to involve a fair bit of travelling on aeroplanes. The children of this perfect family are truly chips off the old block and are already in line for Nobel prizes.

It doesn’t occur to the writers to put a sticker on the envelope advising the ingestion of antiemetic medication before opening.

This may well be the last of the Monkhice “Advent” letters since the Vicar has it on good authority that the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England, in its continuing suicidal quest to be relevant and trendy, will abolish Advent from 2019. It will be replaced by a series of “Sundays after Black Friday”, the liturgical colour to be vermilion red to reflect the resultant bank balances. The season of expectation is thus replaced, in line with the zeitgeist, by that of instant gratification. The residents of Burton vicarage, in their loyalty to all liturgical innovation, have enthusiastically embraced the spirit of the age by consuming the first tin of Celebrations. Actually it’s plastic. Can you have a plastic tin?

Susan and Stanley went to Barcelona in February. It snowed. We liked Barcelona, especially the old part. Stanley was not impressed by Gaudi. Despite, or possibly because of, reading History of Art at Cambridge, he thought a five-year old could have done better. The Sagrada Familia is over-rated and looks as if it’s melting, and Gaudi’s tiles are not as good as the ones in Carlisle station jacksie where there are also some interesting and educational messages on the wall.

Speaking of which, himself got into trouble in Sagrada where he was desperate for a wazz so went to the loo, or tried to. But a Guardian of the Porcelain refused him entry on the ground that it was being cleaned. He was reminded of an episode in Leningrad, as was, in 1987 when in the bookshop on Nevsky Prospekt young Hugh, nine or so, said he needed the loo. Stanley went to the counter and said to the assistant “gdye twalette pazhalusta?” The response was “nyet.” This exchange was repeated. Stanley turned to young Hugh and suggested that he go into the corner of the shop and “piss on the floor”. The assistant then escorted the pair of them to the staff toilet. It just goes to show.

The next outing after Barcelona was to Cumberland in August where the Vicar officiated at the wedding of his grandniece in the parish church of the village where he spent his childhood. It was a lovely occasion marred only by the fact that his left eye, the blind one, was very painful. Examination the next week revealed that it was about rupture as a result of arteries bleeding into the vitreous humour, so he had a little operation. It is still not right, not painful but irritating. He wanted them to take it out so that he could have two glass eyes, one with red sclera so that he could pretend to be Dracula when it suited him. Or rather half Dracula since the good eye does not (yet) have a red sclera. Actually, the good eye isn’t that good. It has glaucoma and a cataract. He won’t drive on dark nights any more. This is wonderful since he can miss meetings. He told his parishioners that there would be no more evening meetings in the winter. They were delighted. Fewer meetings for all: truly a win-win situation.

The trip to Cumberland was combined with the Vicar giving an organ recital in Whitehaven. Surprisingly perhaps, West Cumberland is full of good organs for which there are various reasons, one of which being the profitability in the 19th and early 20th centuries of mining and heavy industry.

Our other jaunt was by train to meet medical school friends in Leeds. Decades since we last saw some of them. Apart from these trips, and occasional visits to Ireland, it’s difficult to prise Monkhice from Burton.

Stanley’s hearing is disimproving too, again not without benefits in meetings. They have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not. They have ears, and hear not: noses have they, and smell not. Susan’s hearing is not great either but her vision is good. She can still thread needles. She spends a lot of time crocheting and stuffing things—toy animals that she makes along with friends at The Making House which is in posh Burton, that is to say, the other side of the river.

Stanley was reminded yesterday that 2019 marks 50 years since he started third level education. He says education, though he’s inclined to the Alan Bennett view that education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you were taught. This year was 30 years since he became Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Like birthdays and anniversaries such things don’t move him much, but they are reminders that tempus fugits. As it fugits he looks back over his life and he’s reasonably happy given that he doesn’t want to be boring—indeed he thinks boring people should be exterminated—and he would like on his deathbed to say “my God that was a helluva ride”. Or royud as they say in north Dublin.

After having being led a merry dance over the past few decades, Susan has chosen the retirement home. Not Penrith, as previously suggested (that was a crazy idea – she says so herself) but here in Burton. It’s a 2-down 3-up with a long thin garden in the town centre. The question is when? Himself is required to quit his job no later than 6 June 2020 when he’ll be 70. He could go earlier. He could apply from year’s extension in order to see the assistant curate through the first three years. We shall see.

Stanley learnt long ago not to make statements on behalf of other people, so all he’ll say about the rest of family is that Victoria and Edward are well, delightful, quirky, so not boring, in Dublin—as is Shane, Victoria’s husband. Abby and Adriene are well in Texas. We are of course in regular contact with them. Adriene remarried this summer so we hope that they will have stability after a tumultuous time. Abby is coming over next summer and we look forward to that. Hugh is always in our hearts. It is indeed true that he shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Which reminds me if you want to read my Remembrance Sunday sermon, you’ll find it on my blog. Google Rambling Rector blog.

Happy advent, sorry I mean happy season after Black Friday. May whatever force you believe in light up your life. And remember, sin is life unlived.

Remembrance Sunday 2018

thiepval-memorial-missing-2Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.

Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.

That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.

Let’s move on 100 years.

Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.

Why do we humans behave like this?

We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.

The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”

We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.

I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.

I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.

What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?

In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.

If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.

The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.

When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.

Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.

The Kim code

kim_il_sungNorth Korea has long fascinated me.

Michael Palin’s Channel 5 programmes (http://www.channel5.com/show/michael-palin-in-north-korea/) helped me to see how, in a country completely flattened by US forces just over half a century ago, people see Kim Il-sung as saviour.  The social morality of Confucianism helps me to understand how loyalty and filial piety contribute to the Kim family surviving in power. With US forces perceived as hostile only 100 miles away from Pyongyang, I understand the necessity to run a tight ship. Given the changes that are beginning to occur, I wonder how long it will be before Pyongyang is much like any other city in east Asia.

North Korea has affected my theology too.

Consider some of the stories surrounding the births of the Kim leaders. Heavenly sounds; miraculous changes in flora and fauna; rainbows; stars. Sound familiar?

There is nothing new about such birth narratives. They have always been part of folk mythology. There was nothing new about the Gospel birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and certainly nothing new about virgin births (there’s an interesting story to be told about the history of ideas in embryology, but it can wait).

Why are they written? Quite simply, to embiggen* the subject.

Biblical scholars have known for centuries that the scriptural birth narratives are fiction, fairy tales written for exactly this purpose. There is nothing even remotely new about this proposition. The stories in Matthew and Luke are stuffed with allusions to Hebrew prophecies and how the babe of Bethlehem is their fulfilment—again to ‘big up’ the child in the manger.

So what?

  • Jesus was a charismatic, integrated human. His effect on those around him was profound. His influence extended far beyond those who met him. He became the example, the prototype of abundant human living. His friends, impressed by him as by no-one else, wrote about him afterwards to ‘big him up’ so that his influence lives on long after his death. There is nothing new here.
  • Is he the Son of God? Kim Il-sung is a god. John 1 tells us that we all may become ‘children’ of God. Our destination in eastern Christian theology is that we come to share in the attributes of God.
  • Kim Il-sung, though dead, is risen. He is still head of state. He is worshipped.

Some other parallels

  • Every official pronouncement and scientific paper in the Soviet Union had to begin with a reference to the works of Lenin, and in North Korea today, official pronouncements must quote one or more of the Kims. In the church, when people are confronted by a knotty problem, medical ethics for example, they first work out what common sense tells them, then they scour the Bible to back it up with a suitable quotation.
  • Institutional churches are totalitarian states. When the Church of England’s Church Assembly was set up in 1919, taking away some of the power from Parliament, one MP said ‘The fact that the organisation proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury is precisely the same organisation as has been adopted by Lenin is attributable to the desire of both to secure the same end … The real principle at the root of Bolshevism is a desire to combine a democratic form with autocratic effects, and that is what has taken place in this Constitution.’ (see: That Was The Church That Was: Andrew Brown & Linda Woodhead). Recent events in the Catholic Church and the Church of England make it clear that nothing has changed.
  • As an aside, it is held in North Korea that the digestive systems of the Kim family were so well tuned that they never needed to excrete urine or faeces (a bit like ladies who don’t sweat, I suppose, but much better). We know nothing about Jesus’ excretory processes, so the Kims are one up there. Furthermore, Kim Jong-il was regarded by some as fashion guru. Jesus’ influence in that regard flowered briefly in the hippie 60s, but didn’t survive.

So …

For me, the value of Scripture is in allegory and poetry. Some of it is terrible tripe. I recall my ageing Methodist minister uncle telling me that increasingly he was a Wordsworthian who saw God in all things. Just as platelets are broken off bits of megakaryocytes, so everything in the cosmos is a bit of God. We all have particles in us from the big bang. We may well have within us, in the form of mitochondria, some of the earliest life forms. We are all bits of God. What is not God is nothing (I think that’s from Sergei Bulgakov). What is not God is no thing.

Logos can be translated as ‘the system underlying all things’ (read Heraclitus), so: the laws of the cosmos. In John 1 this gives us: In the beginning was the system underlying all things, and the system underlying all things was with God, and the system underlying all things was God.

I can cling to that, just about, and to the last line of one of the verses of This is the truth sent from above: ‘and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say’ [and do].

* embiggen came into use, along with cromulent, after being used in ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’, the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons, seventh series (1995-6).

His Holiness Archimandrite Phillip Jefferies

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A good vicar

October 2018 St Paul’s mag

By the time you read this, the Jefferies extravaganza will be over. As someone ordained priest only 11 years ago, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like having been a priest for 50 years. How has he not been bored, year in year out? How has he managed to keep his patience? How has he managed to cope with the increasingly bureaucratic, meddling and managerial Church of England? I can’t answer for him so I’ll ask him to write something for next month’s magazine on half a century of priesthood.

It’s also half a century of marriage. Ye Gods, how has Rose managed to cope with him? I would be interested to read Rose’s reflections. I shall ask her to dish the dirt too. Behind every successful man is an astonished mother-in-law, but I guess it’s too late to ask her.

There are some terrible gobshites amongst the clergy. Phillip is not one of them. You might expect someone who has had a ministry like his, someone who has been (and is) as respected as he is, to be difficult to work with as a retired colleague. You might imagine that he would be telling me how he did things, and how I’m doing it all wrong, and generally waving it around to try and make me feel inferior.

Phillip does none of that. I hope he won’t disagree with me when I say that we have a great time. We exchange views. He gives advice when I ask for it, which is often. He answers questions honestly. I have no sense that he tells me only what he thinks I want to hear. He encourages me to take more risks than I do because, I sense, he feels he didn’t himself take enough. And thanks be to God, he is eye-twinklingly intelligent—which puts him in a tiny minority of clergy, I can tell you: him and me, in fact.

In short, I couldn’t wish for a better colleague. He had to retire when he was 65 under the terms of his appointment as Team Rector of Stafford, and here he is working with someone who’s 68. But he doesn’t take it out on me.

He will soon be submitting to the surgeon’s knife—if, that is, a heart lurks somewhere in Phillip’s thorax. I hope that his personality and inherent naughtiness will survive surgery intact, or even be enhanced, so that he and I can egg each other on to further heights of mischief.

Thank you Phillip: you’re a darling.

From Iona’s isle

213420.bHomily for Patronal Festival Evensong of the Church of St Aidan, Burton upon Trent

What attracted me, a Cumbrian village lad brought up in Chapel Sunday School, to defect to the Church of England when I was about 13? It was serious enough to lead to attempts at emotional blackmail by the Methodist minister about betraying family loyalty.

It was the liturgy and language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I may by then have developed an ear for words—I was already consuming P G Wodehouse—what really appealed was the sense that these words and this liturgy had been used for over 400 years in this place, week-in, week-out. A matter of tradition.

What makes me begin every Sunday Mass at St Paul’s with the Trinitarian greeting in Latin? It’s not because I think I’m in Rome. It’s the feeling in some small way that those words have been said in similar circumstances for give or take 2,000 years. A matter of tradition.

The root of the word tradition is trade. It implies movement, transaction, development. It is not a static, sterile thing, but active and fluid. I like to know what a tradition is, and why and how it developed. I can use bits of it as suits me. In this morning’s readings we were reminded that tradition is not to be blindly followed, but is there for our sustenance. We live in the present and make plans, drawing on the best of the past as and when.

What, I wonder, did Aidan think of tradition? What would he have regarded as traditions? He is credited with the growth of the church in Northumbria. What would he be doing here in Burton, now? At this festival last year, George, the Diocesan Director for Mission said that we might see growth in the church if we could all tell one person the story of our Christian discipleship, encouraging them to join us and see for themselves.

I didn’t say so at the time, for I had no wish to be discourteous in public, but I didn’t agree with him. I don’t think that cuts the mustard these days.

First, I think many of us would be hard pressed to articulate our Christian formation. We came to church because we were made to. We found something that kept us coming, maybe singing, maybe shared interests, maybe community. We might occasionally have listened to Scripture or even to sermons, and gradually, very gradually we absorbed something of the Christian tradition. It has been, and remains, a slow process. It’s bit like the development of a fetus from one cell to a newborn baby: it’s impossible to point to one particular moment at which something dramatic happens, but over nine months the transformation is miraculous. For many of us, that Christian transformation takes place over decades. I don’t believe that the thing that some people call conversion is an event. It’s a process. Even St Paul’s so-called conversion took place over days, rather than in a moment.

Second, the Christian story is not sufficiently compelling—or maybe is not told in a compelling enough fashion—to get people to change. In western Europe, we are, I think, too prosperous, not desperate enough. Look around the world at where Christianity flourishes—I’m not talking here of the prosperity gospel of the American evangelists: that is a perversion of Christianity.

And then there’s the public image of the church. At the moment it’s grim. Suffice it to say that the institutional church is seen by many as a safe-space for child abusers.

So I think telling people about Jesus, or telling them our personal story is unlikely to be effective. In our world, people are suspicious of institutions, and of anyone who tries to impose their point of view. Such a strategy is seen as manipulative, even abusive.

Sorry George, it’s not the way.

Rather than tell, let’s show. Actions speak louder than words. I’m much more impressed by what people do rather than what they say, and you might remember the gospel story comparing a man who says he won’t do something but then does it, with a man says he’ll do something but then fails to deliver.

We have sung a hymn written by John Bell of the Iona community. If there is something about Iona that infects people, then I like to think that this hymn has the spirit of Aidan in it—not tramping around the countryside yabbering on about Jesus, if he did, but showing Jesus in action.

Whatever else the traditions of the early church in these islands have given us, they have left us with that of confession: heart speaking to heart as we tell a friend our deepest fears. Those fears are so often about the lack of courage to change, being too comfortable, too complacent, too prosperous, as we surround ourselves with metaphorical fig leaves of luxury. Those fears lead us to live, as it were, behind electric gates, inclosed in our own fat, our mouth speaking proud things.

The words of the hymn are prophetic, demanding, shocking.

  • Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Are you prepared to be changed?
  • Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is not necessarily the Divine will?
  • Will you leave yourself behind?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is no more important that what someone else wants? The crucifixion/ascension is the replacement of selfishness with selflessness. Are you prepared to give and not to count the cost?
  • Will you risk the hostile stare? Are you prepared to be unpopular?
  • Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?Are you prepared to delve deep into your psyche to uncover your deepest darkest fears and impulses, and expose them to the light?
  • Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?Are you prepared to fight? Fighting for justice is love in action.

If we want to attract people to the Christian message we can’t do better than show them what it is. Working for justice, tending the sick in mind or body, provoking people to leave the ruts they are in, getting people to see things differently. This is Jesus in action. It’s so much more authentic than simply telling people about Jesus. It’s utterly authentic psychology, utterly authentic Christian tradition, utterly authentic Christianity.