Retirement 1

c2A recent post on the blog Thinking Anglicans (yes, yes, I know, smart remarks about oxymorons—very amusing I’m sure) told the story of two people who’d left the Church of England because of having been insulted and abused by regulars, both saying that they felt better for having left.

Now, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that what puts people off going to church are the people that already do, but nevertheless the observation set me thinking.

In a sense, I’ve left the Church of England too, through retirement. Even though in orders only since 2006, I’ve been associated with it since an act of teenage rebellion in the 1960s.

Teenage rebellion. Did I indulge in weed? No—well, not then. Unbridled sex? No—regrettably. Living in a commune? No—unless a basement flat on the South Circular Road near Clapham Common, where three boys shared a bedroom, counts as a commune (though that was later). The product of two Methodist dynasties abandoning the tribal temple for the Church of England? Yes, that’s teenage rebellion at its most revolutionary.

But back to the plot.

I know it’s early days, but I feel as if I’m working through post-traumatic stress disorder. Do other retired clergy feel similarly? Several have told me that for six months after retirement they slept a lot and couldn’t bring themselves to go to church. Me too.

What follows is not directed at loyal, hardworking and committed church members, but at the institution and its apparatchiks. For what stands out for me, looking back, is the way in which we are expected, even required, to ignore reality in order to pretend that the Titanic is unsinkable, that recovery is just around the corner, and that half-baked initiatives, cooked up by people that long since left the coal face for a comfy desk job, are the answer to our problems.

The truth is that the church has been in decline ever since the invention of the printing press, as a result of which people could read for themselves and didn’t need to be told what to think by priests. The fall since then has been gradual, with most recently, I think, the takeover by the state of welfare functions previously looked after by the church. The church has lost its purpose.

In making these analyses and drawing conclusions, there is of course a balance to be struck between destructive criticism on the one hand, and false hope created by rose-tinted spectacles on the other, but in church pronouncements and publicity these days there is rarely anything other than the latter.

In another life I knew a CEO of the “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” school. The culture of the Church of England reminds me of that. It doesn’t work. New buildings, even restorations and extensions, need to have sound foundations (did not someone say something like this two thousand years ago?), not on denial of reality, or on wilful blindness where elephants in rooms are concerned.

Any decent strategist knows that there must be consideration of “what ifs?”, of contingency planning, of alternative options, of disaster preparation. Instead in the Church of England, we have one kak-handed project after another, none seemingly based on rational detached analysis, and none monitored properly during and afterwards to see if the resources chucked at it have been well spent. Some are even justified on the basis of decisions made under the influence of the “Holy Spirit”. It is easy for us to deceive ourselves with groupthink that the truth is not in us.

I’ve been struck by the insidious nature of clerical institutionalisation, and in some cases its speed. It’s like the most virulent strain of antibiotic-resistant microbe. It infects some people even before hands are laid upon them. They speak clericalese, they think only in terms of the institution and the hierarchy, they never try to understand the point of view of a congregation member or a visitor, and they refuse to imagine what someone who’s never set foot in church – that’s most people these days – might see in the cold light of day.

This is a species of abuse. We allow it. We are complicit in this abuse by failing to ask questions, by failing to analyse events, by failing to make plans based on reality, by failing to be loyal dissenters, whatever the cost.

One of the Thinking Anglicans contributors writes that life outside the church is far healthier, and that it was non-church agencies that were helping him to recover. This is similar to how I feel.

My church at present is the gym, my wife’s the garden and nature. They are healthier than church, physically and spiritually, we meet people who smile more, who don’t require us to fill in forms and justify our existence, who have no expectations, and who are willing to help without conditions. Best of all, there is no attempt to use guilt and shame in order to control.

The church used to be an agent of beauty, a patron of the arts, using them to bring people to the Divine. I need to come to terms with the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be duped by it. Or perhaps that it has changed under my feet more than I ever imagined possible.

Remembrance 2019

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielThis is a bittersweet time of year for Monkhice. October used to be a month of celebration, since all our children were born in October (the rhythm method of conception). There are still birthdays of course, but now with anniversaries of funeral and requiem. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness comes with unwelcome ambivalence. It will never be otherwise.

And then November.

Remembrance Day brings anger. The stupidity of strutting generals of the Great War, using people as disposable toy soldiers in the pursuit of their family squabbles. Contemporary politics is differently deplorable, with the wholesale telling of porkies to gain the approval of the even more powerful. The words “lying turds” come to mind.

Remember the stupidity of war. Remember how killing never achieves anything other than bitterness. Remember how bashing people on the head to get them to agree with you never works. Never.

Maybe what we really, really want is forgiveness.

We need to forgive the wrongs of others. Let go of them, let go of retribution. Our resentments don’t hurt the person that did us wrong—they hurt us. They grow inside, a cancer of the mind, making us bitter and twisted. More surely and more swiftly than any malignancy, they destroy us. Think of Miss Havisham. Hold your resentments in your hands and throw them over your shoulders. Leave them behind.

Most of all, and most difficult of all, forgive yourself.

In the news today is a man who joined an Iranian group opposed to the Ayatollahs. He has been in exile for 30 years. He is 60 and has never seen his son since infancy. He can’t forgive himself for his decision to join. Poor man. How I sympathize with him, even though my own actions might not have had such sad consequences. And then I hear a voice within say “it’s perverted pride, you know, and a kind of arrogance, to think that your sins are unforgiveable”. Well, be that as it may, it doesn’t help much.

Re-membering.  Think of it as putting the members, the pieces, back together again—what all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t do. Reintegration, restoration, anabolism as opposed to diabolism or catabolism. The rubble cleared away so that new foundations can be laid. I wish this were as easy to do as it is to write.

The poppies of Flanders grew because the machinery of war churned up the ground, provoking dormant seeds to life. We can hope that the turmoil of confronting the past will allow dormant seeds to flower within us. Who knows what wonderful things might result? This is healing—nothing to do with cure, but rather working with the reality of our situation.

I repeat: maybe what we really, really want is forgiveness. Self-acceptance.

So, relax. Celebrate your joys. Acknowledge your mistakes. Cuddle them. Love the hell out of yourself.

Then you might be able to change yourself a bit. You certainly won’t ever change anyone else.

Last night I dreamt I went to Queens’ again

800px-Queen_Elizabeth_Grammar_School,_Penrith._Picture

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith

Childhood dreams in which I was falling alarmed me enough to make me wake myself up. Then one night I deliberately didn’t, to see what would happen. It was exhilarating. I enjoyed the flight, for that’s what it turned out to be.

About nine months ago I began having dreams in which I was back at school, anxious, perplexed, and fearful about failing chemistry and physics. I was wandering around on my own, observing fellow pupils in groups. The dream version of Penrith Grammar School was pretty much as it was in the 1960s.

Other dreams were about Cambridge and medical school—King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, south London. In these, there was no topographical resemblance to the real thing, then or now. There was a post-apocalyptic air of dilapidation, oppression, grubbiness and decay. Buildings were crumbling, streets dirty, pavements littered with rubble. Corridors became labyrinths with unattainable goals. I was back for resit exams, usually biochemistry or physiology (odd, since the subject I actually failed was pharmacology). The really curious thing is that in these dreams I was always aware of thinking “hang on a minute, why do I have to be here? I qualified as a doctor in 1975 and I’ve been a Professor of Anatomy?”

Cambridge_Queens'_Gatehouse

Queens’ College Cambridge

Last night I dreamt I went to Cambridge again, though it was nothing like the real thing. In a haze of perplexity and indecision, I’d not found my timetable, so I’d missed three days of lectures and practicals. I was already notorious as the only person out of about 250 students who hadn’t attended anything.

Someone told me that I should be at Gordon Wright’s neuroanatomy lecture in half an hour. Gordon, let me tell you, in real life taught us neuroanatomy with great wit and style; he subsequently gave me helpful criticism on my textbook Cranial Nerves, so it’s not surprising that he has an honoured place in my memory. But why, having written two anatomy texts—and I was aware of that in my anxiety—should I have to attend his lectures?

Then it came to me what this was about.

Starting again.

It’s obvious now. Retirement means starting again. There is apprehension. Rubble is cleared away. It feels like going into a labyrinth. I was slow to see it.

Aren’t dreams clever? It takes the conscious a fair old time to catch up with the unconscious.

I hope the dreams continue. Enlightenment may dawn.

Hugh would have been 42 today

Hugh2I find his birthday more affecting than the anniversary of his death—in three days’ time. I don’t know why, it just is.

Hardly a day goes by without him cropping up in my thoughts, but then that’s true for Gloria (Victoria) and Ed too. With Hugh, though, it’s not what he might be doing, or hoping that the cold is a bit better, or the marathon training is going well, or whatever, but rather an emptiness.

There was a time when the overwhelming malignancy of loss blotted out any possibility of hope or delight or joy. That is not so now. The loss is there, certainly, the waste of a good and heroic man, father, husband and son, but now mingled with memories of mischief, boldness, pugnacity and perseverance. A smile on the face and a tear on the cheek.

I suppose this is progress. It’s interesting to observe and note my feelings and, as it were, cuddle them. And I do. For months after the catastrophe, maybe even a year, the lament of King David at the death of his son was always with me: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!  And it still is, but periodically now, not constantly. Unpredictably, but temporarily.

HughAs I’ve written elsewhere, the death of a son affected this particular father in some interesting ways. I no longer waste my time on things I don’t have to or won’t enjoy. The exhaustion that came with the devastation—like being assaulted by the greatest imaginable physical force—has not quite dissipated, and indeed is prolonged by tiredness that comes with the culmination of 43 years of ministry to students and parishioners. But I am hopeful.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rest of life, and as I retire officially in five days’ time, the sense of uncertainty is heightened. It’s a modern disease of course, this quest for purpose. It’s not helped by a society that measures success according to rank, qualifications, wallet, and size—none of which matters when you’re in the coffin.

Familyl’m sick of doing. Maybe it’s time for a bit of being. SWMBO has tended me for forty six years, so now I shall do my best to tend her. I’m free of having to organise and administer and chivvy a bit, so I’ll be better able to think, to write, to spread lovingkindness with eye-twinkling mischief in all the ways I can to all the people I can. Doubtless along the way I’ll continue to provoke and irritate and exasperate.

Hugh had PhDs in those qualities.

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.

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, and. 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.

We’re all on a spectrum

1*K6J46bRKr_HC-1bCqlEKYAMy chest has not been right since February. Three weeks ago I could feel it getting toxic again: the smell and taste of incipient infection. Then breathing difficulties so bad one evening I almost went to casualty. Fortunately I found some prednisolone lying about.

I’ve written before about childhood asthma. My lungs didn’t mind the piles of ordure in the village, but they took grave exception to hay, corn, grass and pollen. And hens. There was a time when my father kept hens in a black barn up by the Chapel, but we soon found out that I wouldn’t be joining him in that venture. It was awful. Memories were rekindled when I put my head into the bell chamber at S Paul’s, home to lots of birds of the feathered variety, and spores and fungi and other things that exist only to spite me. No bats. They’re in the pews. It’s a fine ring of 10 bells up there; second best in Staffordshire after Lichfield Cathedral, they say. The Bass family spent a helluva lot of money on S Paul’s.

I’ve moaned before about the near impossibility of getting a GP appointment, so I got myself some prednisolone and antibiotics from … well, let’s just say elsewhere. The doxycycline seems to be working, but I stopped the prednisolone since corticosteroids are immunosuppressive and that’s the last thing I want. Eventually it dawned on me that I’ve probably developed COPD, not surprising given my childhood history—and all the milk I was made to drink. This weather doesn’t help either. My chest prefers it colder.

I’ve been exhausted for the last two weeks. Sleep a lot. The bad chest is doubtless a factor, but so is something else that I would never have predicted. Stuff that I used to be able to do like water off a duck’s back now causes major anxiety. I get panicky if there are more than two things out of the ordinary in a week. The Mayor’s Civic Service had me in a tizz. Of course, it went very well—the sign of something meticulously organised—but as soon as it was over I collapsed for three days. It was the last big thing before I retire, unless of course Philip or HMQ dies, or both. I just hope they struggle on till November at least.

What I’m observing is that I simply don’t want any more to be responsible for the wellbeing and experiences of others. As a teacher, pastor and mentor of students and now parishioners since 1976 I’m tired, drained, vampired. What little energy I have I need for myself.

I haven’t yet found a vision for the rest of life—it evaporated in an instant with the nuclear explosion of October 2015. At first this troubled me, but now I think it’s a good thing: I have no expectations. No expectations means openness to experience, living in the moment, or that’s the theory at any rate. But it would be good to be able to sparkle for myself like I do for others. The lot of the prophet / comedian / performer is lonely. I understand why comics kill themselves: they—we—see too clearly. I’ve never been tempted yet. For the last decade happy pills have kept me from becoming too paranoid, and recently I’ve noted a suspicion of hypomania from time to time. I don’t mind that—it can be quite fun actually—so long as I don’t do anything silly like spend money on stuff I don’t need and then feel bad about afterwards.

We’re all on a spectrum. Some of us are on several. Life is interesting.