About Rambling Rector

Church of England Parish Priest

Coping, or rather not coping

LUP03510Happy pills ran out two weeks ago. Sertraline. I thought I’d try and do without it: I’d halved the dose a few weeks earlier. Today it became painfully clear to me that I can’t. The emotional lability is something else – listening to a friend playing Fauré, I can hardly remain upright. Or the end of Guilmant’s first organ sonata where the big tune is like the sun coming out.

I wrote in a previous blog that music melts my shell, leaves me unprotected, removes me from time and place, and that I would do almost anything for a fix of more of the same, to stay in that place of delight. But the effect of music doesn’t account for the disabling emotional lability, the psychic turmoil, the near despair of this morning.

There’s plenty that could contribute to all this: brexit, the fuckedupness of this country, the frank corruption of its “leaders” and their cronies, the cruelty of the church—oh, the putrid church—and so much more. But none of it accounts for the feeling that life shouldn’t be like this.

I thought that it’ll be over soon when I retire, when people no longer want some of my energy. Then I’ll be able to cope. But today I realised that I need a helping hand now. What did it in the end was another friend, well familiar with psychosis, telling me that what I was describing, no matter how I rationalized it or what euphemisms I employed, was “mental” and was “illness”. That struck home.

Now the fun starts.

I ring the GP surgery. No appointment today. “Ring tomorrow”. No guarantee that I’ll get one tomorrow. This went on for some time. I was surprisingly calm. I did not lose my kool. Eventually I said “so what you’re really saying is that I’ll see a doctor sooner if I go and play tag with HGVs on the A38”. Silence. “No definitely not. Hang on a minute—I can give you an appointment at 4.50 pm today. Is that any good?”

So that’s what it takes.

It was Chesterfield I think where I started long term SSRIs. A decade of parochial ministry. What is it about parochial ministry that is so emotionally draining?

  • Feeling the energy drain from me as people touch the hem of my garment.
  • People dumping their problems on me, and my not knowing how to get rid of them, especially the horrendous ones involving young people.
  • People dumping their neuroses, anger and aggression on me even though it has nothing to do with me. “Get the violence off the streets and into the Church where it belongs” said Michael Bland, a notorious former incumbent of Buckland, Gloucestershire.
  • After ministering for 30 years to open-minded and intellectually supple young people, now to be dealing with those, no matter how lovely, in their autumnal years, lacking vision or intellectual curiosity.
  • Having legal responsibilities but neither authority nor funds to manage them.
  • The feeling that however much I do, it’s not enough. This comes from diocesan staff, the assumption being that church decline is my fault, personally, and my responsibility, personally, to reverse. Bollox. As I’ve said before Lichfield is by no means as bad as Derby was.
  • Observing that ministry to non-church goers is nearly always appreciated, while that to churchgoers is often, in their eyes, inadequate. One group no expectations, the other more than making up for it.

That’s enough for the moment.

Of course, there are joys and delights that I shall miss very much. But it’s a funny old job that requires one to take happy pills.

Words from the heart

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From our Tree of Life carpet (Qum)

In my last blog I berated the Church of England for the abuse scandals; I coruscated the bishops for their apparent lack of compassion not only for victims but also for us foot-soldiers who day by day bear the shame; and I wondered if I’d wasted the last 13 years of my life as a Clerk in Holy Orders.

Never for one moment did I imagine that my words would reach a wider audience than my three regular readers. In the event, the blog was highlighted on Thinking Anglicans—a liberal blog (though I’m more radical than liberal)—and US blog Episcopal Café. It has thus been widely read, although to say that it “went viral”, as one colleague did, displays an endearing ignorance of e-jargon.

I spent my first 18 years in east Cumberland in a somewhat bleak society where compliments were almost unheard of, so I find myself brought to tears by the responses to the blog. They have been almost entirely positive. Comments have included “I think he is a breath of fresh air. Would there were more like Fr Stanley in our Church”; “Fr Monkhouse’s congregation is lucky to have someone who speaks such naked truth and whose sincerity is so apparent.” And most moving of all: “I have just sat and wept at your piece about the state of the Church. What comes home to me more than anything is … what amazingly important Godly words you are speaking to us all in Church … I am grateful for your wisdom, courage and deeply loving heart.”

I say all this not to boast, but to show how much people appreciate raw honesty from the heart. As a priest I’m struck by how when I open my heart to a parishioner, and more often vice versa, without barriers of politeness or compromise or fear of consequences, healing always follows. Liberation. Tears flow. Cleansing tears. Tears from the heart. The tears that wash Jesus’ feet. The tears that in Andersen’s The Snow Queen melt the heart of ice and bring restoration. Luther’s herzwasser.

Of course there have been one or two less approving responses. One commenter wrote “For his sake and [his congregation’s] I found myself fervently hoping that none of those congregations ever read his blog.” Sounds like a threat, perhaps, but then the commenter is the partner of a bishop, so uxorial solidarity might be a factor. As to my parishioners, many do indeed read my blog, and tell me how much they appreciate it, and others read the pieces as magazine articles.

This brings me to the reaction of a local colleague. His response put me in mind of a “jolly hockey sticks” kind of gal who’s just been made a prefect and is nail-bitingly fearful of losing her shiny new badge by being seen to associate with the winklepicker-wearing Teddy boy skulking at the school gates ready to lead her astray. (This imagery is pretty accurate for 1960s Penrith. Add in the Dunrobin café and the picture is complete.)

Here we have two models of priesthood.

On the one hand, non-confrontational, refusing to acknowledge elephants in rooms, unwilling to upset apple carts or frighten horses, unwilling to challenge complacency and hypocrisy, fearful of incurring the boss’s wrath. Desperate to be liked. Superficial.

On the other hand, the prophet, willing to open his or her heart, speaking truth to power, delving into the psyche to expose as much as possible of the grubbby base instincts that live there. An Old Testament prophet like Amos or Isaiah (when he’s not being boring) or John Baptist. Or, dare I say, Jesus.

These are many more models of priesthood. It’s up to every priest to work out which is the appropriate model. I’ve no doubt that the model one chooses is affected by genetics, background, upbringing and life experience.

I know which model is right for me and my gifts. The trouble is that it comes at a price. Emotional digging is hard work, especially when I encounter pernicious, malignant roots that threaten to strangle all else. Trawling through my psyche is utterly exhausting—much more debilitating than running or pumping iron in a gym. Like it or not, berating bosses comes with a frisson of fear, as whistleblowers well know. And, perhaps most importantly, the management of rage requires great care and judgment if it is not to destroy me.

Give me courage.

Deliver me:

  • from the desire of being esteemed;
  • from the desire of being praised;.
  • from the desire of being preferred to others;
  • from the desire of being approved;
  • from the fear of being humiliated;
  • from the fear of being despised;
  • from the fear of being rebuked;
  • from the fear of being ridiculed;
  • from the fear of being wronged.

from Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930)

O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, show thyself

jesuswept-300x225The abuse scandals in the Church of England haven’t featured in this blog up to now. This is not because I don’t care, but rather because I care so much. I’m so incandescent with rage that I hardly know what to write.

Anybody who wants a flavour of what’s been going on could start by dipping into two websites: Thinking Anglicans and Archbishop Cranmer. If you can’t be bothered, then take it from me that the institutional Church of England is secretive, evasive, cruel and corrupt. The people who work at the coal face, paid and unpaid, are by and large utterly decent and thoroughly commendable, but they don’t know the half of what goes on in the sleazy corridors of power.

It’s difficult to preach about this because, to be frank, the bulk of the punters simply don’t want to know. They come for a weekly fix of what they’ve always done on Sunday before pootling off to the pub or the local beauty spot. The last thing they want is for their complacency to be sullied by deeply unpalatable facts about the organisation that they profess to be part of. The latest morsel to come our way is the extent to which the tentacles of the establishment infiltrate this fetid, decaying corruption. Read this: Nobody’s Friends

Of all the issues that the Church should be concerned with, this—abuse in all its forms—is the topic that eats away at me the most. I’ve no idea why this should be so, for I don’t recall ever having been on the receiving end, except as I relate below.

At school I was taunted for being fat, bookish, wearing specs, and being more interested in church music than in grabbing other boys’ scrotums in the scrum. But I didn’t regard this as abuse then, and don’t now. I wasn’t at boarding school so had no experience of what is alleged to have gone on in some of them. As a church musician I soon became aware of the need to maintain distance between young choristers and me, and on the two occasions when I felt I’d overstepped the mark I visited the parents to apologize.

So, as I say, I’m not sure why the revelations of abuse should so affect me other than being profoundly disappointed in an organization that professes to be Godly. Every fibre of my being goes out to those who have suffered.

I am ashamed to be a public representative of the Church of England. I was ordained at the age of 56 (now 69) and I wonder if I’ve wasted the last thirteen years of my life—a fool to have been seduced by the institution. Am I alone amongst clergy in feeling this? And there has been not a single word of encouragement from any bishop.

In other walks of life, the boss might sympathize with the plight of embattled foot-soldiers, assuring them (us) of support when needed. I can imagine a Brigadier encouraging the troops after a battle that didn’t go to plan, in order to restore morale.

But not a peep from Church of England hierarchs.

I must confess to a feeling of schadenfreude about the John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher stories. At several points in my life I’ve been assailed by evangelical so-called Christians who have condemned my views, and assured me that I’m destined for hellfire unless I believe precisely what they believe. This happened in childhood (rural Methodism), at university where some of the most oleaginous and judgmental creeps imaginable (Cambridge Christian Union types) poured scorn on us “College Chapel” Christians, and since then at meetings of Churches Together, especially in Chesterfield and Burton.

All this could be regarded as abusive, so there’s a certain guilty pleasure in seeing that the scions of these corruptions of Christianity now stand with their reputations in tatters. To read that one of them beat the crap out of an adolescent boy, to the extent that blood was gushing down his legs, puts that form of “Christianity” in its proper place. Just imagine: eight hundred lashes—they had to break for lunch—as punishment for a wank, or some such. Ye Gods. Satanists would be more humane.

About five years ago my elder son told me that if I willed any of my estate to the church he would utter incantations and stick pins into a clay doll made in my image. There is no danger of that. After a lifetime of sacrificial giving to the church, not one penny more will go to this cruel, hypocritical and putrid institution.

“In-between” time

pupa-3978412_960_720Parish magazine September 2019

Summer draws to an end and I imagine many people are dreading getting back to the grindstone. Children might look forward to a new school year, new friends, new challenges, but they might be anxious about its uncertainty and, if the media are to be believed, possibilities for bullying.

There’s “in-between” time at St Paul’s. The night shelter gave the impetus to think about upgrading the facilities in the hall and rejuvenating a tired and drab environment—and a frankly ugly main entrance to the church that puts me in mind of the sort of DIY that the worst kind of landlord inflicts upon hapless tenants (just look at it from the point of view of a bride arriving for a wedding). Preliminary approval has been given. Is this good news? We now have to give serious consideration to the likelihood of raising, let’s say, quarter of a million. In the real world, this is not a huge amount of money for such work, though the prospect of raising it would scare the pants off me.

“In-between” time affects me personally. Once I made the decision to retire this autumn, moving and getting rid of stuff has blotted out all other concerns. A combination of giving six months notice with the fact that we’re not moving very far has meant that we’ve already started to take things across the road. In a way this prolongs the agony. Maybe it would’ve been better to pick one day and get a removal company to do it, though this seems a bit extravagant to move only 50 yards.

Several people have been surprised that we’re staying in the parish. If the Church of England were helping us buy or rent a retirement home, as it does for many clergy, this would not be allowed. I understand why. The temptation to interfere in a successor’s work is very strong for clergy who are incapable of minding their own business (that’s most clergy, then). I promise it will not be so with me/us.

I will not be allowed to function as a priest in any of the churches I currently serve. In an emergency I’d be willing to play the organ—but only in an emergency—for there is nothing more likely to deter an applicant than knowing that his predecessor still has a finger in the pie. And I know all about the problems faced by a local colleague as a result of his predecessor hanging around like a bad smell.

For the record, Susan chose the retirement home—and rightly so, after following me around for decades. She cares nothing for unwritten rules, and anyway if there were an argument between bishop and SWMBO, I know who’d win.

It’s worth remembering in these anxiety-inducing “in-between” times that the whole of life is “in-between”.

The trouble is that we want to be in control. We want to know what will happen later today or tomorrow or next week or next year. We want our lives to be orderly. But life is not orderly. And anyway, orderly so often means boring, and as you know I am certain that there are few things worse than boring people.

It’s one thing to want a vague idea of the shape of the next few months, but it’s another to let this vague outline become rigid. And so many people do. They leave the house at the same time every day, sit in the same seat in the same café every day, eat and drink the same stuff every day, see the same people every day, watch the same TV programmes … and so on.

As far as I’m concerned this is a living death. If I’m ever in this position, please someone get a knife and slit my throat. But make sure the knife is sharp. Very sharp.

I’ve already mentioned chucking out. We have moved ten times since we married in 1973. Out chattels have crossed the Irish Sea four times. Each move has resulted in a chucking out. Despite this, I’m astonished and appalled by the amount of crap we’ve collected over the last five years in Burton. Neither of us is free from this, although it’s no secret that while I’m a chucker-out, Susan is a hoarder. But when faced with the prospect of moving from a nine-room house to a five-(smaller)-room house, there is no choice.

I’ve often written and preached about to need to chuck out, usually in the context of the rubbish we carry around in our heads. Attitudes that once sustained us but no longer do so; things we used to like and depend on but have now become addictions (demons) and obsessions; ways of thinking that limit us. And this leads me back to the need to accept that we’re not in control and to be open to all the possibilities that life brings.

One day—later today maybe—you’ll be dead. So before it’s too late, embrace uncertainty now, don’t be afraid, try new things, and remain open-minded like a child. Didn’t someone once say this over and over again?

Happy autumn to you all.

Christian children all must be …

220px-Meek_Mild_As_IfHomily for Proper 15, year C. Luke 12:49-56

With thanks to my friend Rod Prince.

In four months’ time you’ll be singing about the Prince of Peace, while I, for the first time in almost 70 years, will be free to enjoy the fleshpots of Maspalomas or some other sacred spot. “Christian children all must be” you’ll warble, “mild, obedient, good as he.”

As if.

One of the many sins of the Church has been to promote the travesty of Jesus as nice, meek and mild. Meek maybe, in the proper sense of humble and unassuming—but “mild”? Oh per-leeze! Sunday School pap. “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”.

Making Jesus cuddly—and many do—is patronising arrogance. It’s based on the notion that nanny knows best, and that horses must not be frightened.  Consequently, Jesus is castrated and faith emasculated such that the focus is no more than a cross between fairy godmother and sky pixie. Why are we surprised when people, faced with such an anodyne Jesus, decide they have better ways of spending Sundays—and indeed their lives. No wonder people stay away in droves. No wonder men hate going to church.

Jesus talks about baptism. Don’t be deceived. The Greek word for baptism means to dip or to be submerged, but it’s also used to describe a ship that has sunk, someone submerged by drink or drugs or life, a scholar overcome by his subject. He’s talking about the doom that is to be his. In Jewish theology fire is judgement: for them, hell is more than just an oven, but a place of Judgement.  Jesus says that he has come to bring judgement, but before that can happen he must be submerged by suffering and death. That is the way to new life: tried in the fire, phoenix rising from the ashes—for him and for us.

These are the words of a man deeply in tune with human psychology and human experience. He shakes his audience out of complacency to get them to see that things really can’t go on as they are if life is to flourish. The Jews believed they were a chosen people, simply being a Jew enough to secure eternal salvation. This complacency enraged him. “You’re good at predicting the weather, but you refuse to see the likely consequences of your actions and attitudes”. It’s like a new Vicar who sees with fresh eyes what must be done, but who meets complacency and obstruction at every turn.

Jesus is a radical. He condemns very little, but always, always, always pretence and hypocrisy. His message of freedom from religious and secular oppression, from fear, from intimidation, from control, comes at a price. There are always those who will kill to retain power and the status quo. We only have to consider struggles throughout history in all empires—including the British Empire—look no further than Ireland. Oh, how we need this man in today’s church with spineless, hypocritical leaders, and in national life with lying and deceitful politicians.

This struggle is never without cost. Just as an abscess can’t heal until the knife has been plunged in to let out the fetid pus, so the sword of righteousness must be wielded to decapitate the heads of the wicked. This will divide nations, communities and families—remember what Simeon said when the infant was presented in the Temple: “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many”—yet the struggle has to be waged. There will never be peace until there is justice. Fighting for justice is love in action. If you are not engaged in that battle you have no right to call yourself a Christian. No wonder Christians are persecuted. Christians should be persecuted.

This is not about my standing several feet above criticism and ranting about other people. It’s certainly not about you thinking that because you come to church you’re more virtuous than others, and that you can’t wait to get rid of this Vicar who makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s about you looking into your own heart and using the sword to cut out the hypocrisy and double standards therein. You may criticize politicians, but you’re just like them—you, though, don’t have as many opportunities to display your defects. And make no mistake, I’m no better than you. No worse either.

Christianity is not a security blanket that we use to insulate ourselves from the world. It’s not prayers to a sky pixie that we hope will make good our cock-ups. It’s an acceptance that I am imperfect, you are imperfect, he/she/it is imperfect, and that healing comes only when individually we face the reality of who and what we are. Only by excising the vain things that charm us most—that is, dying to self—will we rise like the lark ascending to new heights.

Susan

66833415_2243781695676332_5078101973371191296_nAt Susan’s party on 13 July 2019 (birthday 5 July), Stanley said something like this:

It’s good to see you all. Thank you for coming. We have people from Burton, Nottingham, Brassington, Wirksworth, Chesterfield, Northumberland, and Cumberland (I refuse to call it Cumbria), and of course from Dublin. It’s just lovely that the Dubliners are here; we wouldn’t have had this celebration without Victoria, Ed and Shane. There’s one person who should be here but isn’t. Hugh is with us constantly in one way or another, but how we wish he were here in person. His wonderful daughter Abby is with us from Texas—it’s great to have you—give her a round of applause. Susan planted a yellow rose (of Texas) named Hugh just behind me, but it flowered earlier.

Susan and I met at Penrith Grammar School in about 1966. She comes from Westmorland north Pennine farmers and Durham miners. She has many characteristics of the tribe: straightforward, guileless, totally honest, blunt, stoical, intensely loyal, and stubborn. She has borne more than her fair share of sadness. Her father died just after Hugh was born. Her younger brother died just after Ed was born. She was a determined and robust mother to three children, and a steadfast wife, with no extended family support whatsoever. And then she had to bear what no mother should have to bear—the death of a son. And still she bashes on.

I said she was intensely loyal. She is. Since we were married in 1973, we’ve lived in London, Nottingham first house, Nottingham second house, County Wicklow, Dublin city, Derby first house, Derby second house, Wirksworth, Chesterfield, Portlaoise, and now Burton, shortly to move to a retirement home in Burton. Our chattels have crossed the Irish Sea four times. That’s a lot of hassle. So when it came to settling on a place to retire to, I said that since she’d followed me around for so long, she should decide our final move. So we’re going across the road!

If you look around, you’ll see the fruits of her green fingers. If you go over the road and see the garden shortly to be home, you’ll see she’s already been hard at work. I’m delighted that she has such joy in horticulture, and it’s marvellous that she’s passed on that gift to Victoria and Ed.

That’s more than enough from me. Raise is your glasses to an extraordinary and great lady.

What a joy

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A good vicar

It is Rambling Rector’s considered opinion, based on 11 years as an incumbent, that people who contact him in their quest to find out about family history are – how shall he put this? – ah yes – a pain in the hole.

They seem to imagine that he has nothing better to do than to drop everything, run to their aid, and accede to their every loopy demand.

They seem to imagine that when he sees an email in his inbox headed “Family history enquiry”, his heart overflows with joy and his life is complete. “Oh whoopee!” they think he thinks, “another enquiry about dead people. Yippee!”

Reader, this is far from the truth. This Vicar, be it understood, is concerned with the living. He doesn’t give two hoots about the dead or about memorials or vaults or tombs or other manifestations of family arrogance and pride.

It’s icing on the cake when people announce that they’re coming to Burton on such and such a date, or are standing at the church, and demand that someone let them in. RR can barely be civil at such impoliteness. The notion that they might have consulted in advance is foreign to them. RR detects an attitude of entitlement that is common in the white middle classes. Perhaps they think that the Church of England is part of the NHS, funded by their taxes.

To all of you out there who might be thinking of contacting the Vicar of the church where your forbears lived, or worshipped, or were baptized, married or buried centuries ago, I say “don’t”. Just don’t.

Find another hobby. Go for a walk. Kick the cat. Take up foxy boxing.

But leave the Vicar alone.