Things creeping innumerable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A feral priest

michael ramseyChurch magazine February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enlargissez Dieu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

month country 2

In need of restoration

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

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

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

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

Enough

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The perfect pastor

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

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

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

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

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

Two things sap my morale more than anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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).

Play with your ears

PONTING_1911_Dog_Listening_to_Gramophone_Antartica-620x481The 2018 summer organ concerts at St Modwen’s finished last Wednesday. We went out with a bang.

The player was Ben Bloor, a kind-of-local lad, who’d been chorister and organ scholar at Derby Cathedral, then went on to organ scholarships in Oxford where he read music, Westminster Cathedral, St George’s Windsor, and Rochester Cathedral. He is now successor to Ralph Downes and Patrick Russill at Brompton Oratory—at the tender age of 27. He wears his virtuosic gifts with quiet affability, earthed humanity, and wry humour. He is someone who would have provoked in me, when I was his age, naked envy.

The concerts began in 2017 when the new organist, Tony Westerman, arrived. He has many contacts in the local organ scene and I said to him that it would be wonderful to have “a bit of culture”. I pretended that this was for the sake of the church and the town, but in truth my motivation was entirely selfish. It was I who wanted a bit of culture. Thanks to Tony’s organisational skills, I sure got it.

The concerts have been a remarkable and unexpected success. Burton is within 11 miles of two cathedrals with great musical traditions: Derby with its wonderful acoustic to the north-east, and Lichfield to the south-west. Coventry and Birmingham are not that far away either. So if Burtonians want organ music, they haven’t far to go.

I wasn’t expecting great numbers, and told people that I’d be happy if we made double figures. At the first 2017 concert there were, IIRC, over 30, and the most we had in that season was over 60. I’m told we sometimes had more than Lichfield Cathedral.

St Modwen’s has a number of things in its favour. It’s in the Market Square, in the middle of town. The organ is in the west gallery and speaks directly into the church—going full pelt it’s almost painfully loud. The console is at ground level and the organist can be seen, and can hear everything in proportion. But perhaps most significant was our insistence that the pieces played should be foot-tappingly tuneful. No forearm smashes. No tuneless crap. And the players have obliged with good heart. And hearts have been good. We’ve been blessed with organists, including professionals, willing to give their talents free, therefore indirectly for local charities. I’m extraordinarily grateful.

Some players have been stunning, and most excellent. It doesn’t follow that professionals necessarily play better than amateurs. I would rather listen to a performance that’s passionate and in tune with the spirit of the music despite a few mistakes, than one that’s cold, clinical and flawless—and I’ve heard professionals give performances that have been exactly that, and certainly not worth the vast fees they charge.

Only two players were disappointing. It sounded as if they, quite simply, did not listen to the sound they produced. A good player always plays with his or her ears. S/he will listen to what s/he’s doing. In my half-century as a church musician and cleric I’ve heard organists who are transported in ecstasy to an Enid Blyton la-la land where the sun always shines and wrong notes are unknown. Rather than listen to what they’re actually doing, they “listen” to what they think they’re doing. I’ve “fond” memories of a Derbyshire village organist whose hands worked entirely independently of each other, and without any apparent neural connexion to the retinal impulses resulting from the black dots and squiggles of the printed music. I coped with this by singing very loudly so as to drown her out. It was truly w-o-e-f-u-l. She couldn’t be sacked since she was related to half the village and the pastoral consequences would have been seismic.

Back in the 1960s my piano teacher, Miss Julia Thompson, a very proper Penrith lady, constantly exhorted me “Stanley, you must always play with your ears”. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. I carried on with lessons until I went to Cambridge in 1969. A lumbering late teenage boy sat next to a bird-like epitome of propriety, alternately praising and chastising him, must have made a pretty picture. One of my most cherished memories was when Miss Thompson set me a Beethoven sonata (can’t remember which) and after listening to me for a few minutes, stopped me and, knowing that I was a good sight-reader, said “Stanley, have you done any practice this week?”

Project Nokabolokoff

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With a snip snip here and a snip snip there

I heard a sermon yesterday telling us, as is right and proper, how our churches must be places of universal welcome for all, irrespective of appearance, wealth, intelligence, sexuality, and so on.

The speaker contrasted such a welcome with Deuteronomy 23:1 in which men who have had their bollocks and todger chopped off (respectively ‘stones’ and ‘privy member’ in the King James Bible) are forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord. Look it up if you don’t believe me. I’m not for now exploring the issue of whether or not I, who had a vasectomy aeons ago, am therefore fit to celebrate the holy mysteries.

For someone such as me with a long-standing interest in the evolution of reproduction, all things genital, and possessed of a degree of intellectual mischief, this was stimulating. On the way home I hatched a plan for the salvation of at least one of my churches. Here it is.

In the summer months, when the church hall is not being used for the homeless shelter, it could become the centre for something that has a great future in the Church of England—one of the few things that have—namely, an emasculation clinic.

There would be space for operating table(s), appropriate restraints, and anaesthetic equipment, though most procedures could be done under local—even with appropriate soundproofing no anaesthetic at all. There is more than adequate storage for surgical instruments and other paraphernalia. The kitchen area, which we hope to overhaul in the foreseeable future, could with suitable modification serve as a scrub-up area.

The theological and biological bases of this proposal are, in brief:

  • the reversal of the somewhat restrictive anatomical purity requirements of the Pentateuch, e.g. Deuteronomy 23:1.
  • an acknowledgment of the salvific power of the shedding of blood, as may be inferred from one of the verses of Fr Faber’s fine hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, viz ‘There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the head.’ The references to penile anatomy are quite explicit, as you can see.
  • a freeing, for those that request it, of the tyranny of testosterone that corrupts our human nature with horrid masculinity (I’m quite content with this tyranny myself, but I gather others are not).
  • an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no such thing as 100% male or 100% female and that we mammals are all on a spectrum of sexuality—pansexual I suppose. This is particularly so in males for reasons of biology that I’ll expound another time.

This modest proposal would be entirely congruent with the well-established tradition of the Church of England that results in the gradual, decades-long emasculation of any male who crosses the threshold of any of its churches. It would hasten the earnestly to be desired feminization of the church, and provide a public service for a society where boys and men are increasingly not allowed to be boys and men.

A winner all round, I think.

An interesting linguistic snippet. ‘Penis’ is a Latin word meaning little tail. The correct English word for privy member is cock, defined in OED as a short tube for the passage of liquid – as in stopcock, ballcock etc (again, look it up if you don’t believe me). I suppose matrons of ancient Rome were as squeamish as are matrons today: “now, now, Titus, stop playing with your little tail, supper’s nearly ready,”