Bible, creation, evolution, science

Autumn. Churches (remember them?) mark harvest festivals and creation.

Churches are stuffed with flowers. My eyes water and my nose streams (it runs in the family).

Churchgoers bring gifts to their god and place them at the front of the church – home grown produce like tinned fruit, vegetables and soup, and packets of rice and pasta. Preachers tell how fortunate we are to be so favoured by the prodigal generosity of Creator God, but stop short of saying that therefore those whose harvests fail must be being punished by the irascible sky pixie.

The keen reader will deduce that I hate harvest festivals. I hated them as a child in Methodist Sunday School and I hated them as a vicar. Most years I managed to avoid having to preach at harvest by inviting somebody else do it. I was able therefore to listen to the infantile platitudes of others.

A friend with whom back in the day I worked at the University of Nottingham is now one of the editors of Southwell Minster (Nottinghamshire’s cathedral) magazine, and given this wonderful time of year, and my background in medicine, zoology and theology, she asked me for an 800-word piece on creation. Here it is.

The earliest Biblical “creation” story is in Genesis 2 and 3: earth, Adam and his rib, Eve, garden and talking serpent. It’s a myth – that is to say a story that expresses profound truth. Actually, I don’t think it’s really about creation. I think it’s an explanation of why humans cock-up. In short, we put on fig leaves to hide our fears, shame and insecurities and big ourselves up, the fig leaf being the first fashion accessory hiding the reality beneath. Herein lies the origin of egocentricity. 

The Genesis 1 story – “In the beginning God …” – came later. It is a glorious panoramic vision of the origin of the cosmos from big bang onwards. It is rich in meaning, with strands reaching back to even more ancient myths. You’ll see that the order of appearance of living things is pretty logical: plants, aquatic creatures, birds, land animals, then humans appearing at the last minute. In this there’s more than a hint of progressive evolution.

There is another snippet of a creation story that for me is spine-tingllng. Read Psalm 104 (preferably the Coverdale Book of Common Prayer version) and Proverbs 8 especially v 22 onwards (any version). Another character is introduced, lady wisdom, Sophia in Greek. Divine wisdom, the pre-existent Christ, present alongside the creator at creation, the unformed stardust of which the universe is made. If this Christ-wisdom is the stardust of the universe, Christ-wisdom is in every one of us. This is marvellously beautiful imagery: don’t take it literally, but let it work on your imagination. 

I said above that the first creation story hints at evolution. Of course writers of Hebrew scripture knew nothing of modern notions of evolution, but given that I do not accept Biblical creation stories as historical fact, I see no incompatibility with what they try to explain and what modern science tries to explain. Did you know that the first few days of mammalian development (yes, we are mammals – apes in fact – get used to it) are a kind of speeded-up evolution as things like tails appear then (usually) disappear, to give but one example. As the 19th/20th century zoologist Haeckel put it, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (look it up if you’re interested). 

The Biblical stories are poetry, allegory. No more. They attempt to explain what we observe and experience. They are rich sources for speculation and reflection, particularly in relation to Greek and Roman myths and folk tales of all cultures. 

Some people believe them to be scientifically accurate, despite the fact that they were written in a different language by humans with a different world view in a different cultural milieu from today’s – people who believed that the sun orbited the earth and that there were seas under the earth and above the skies. I can tell you that some “Bible-believing” medical students were aghast to discover that women and men have the same number of ribs. The idiocy of fundamentalism.

Arguments about creationism versus evolution are not worth wasting your time on. If people want to insist the Bible is a scientific manual, that the earth was created about 6000 years ago, and that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, good luck with that. Don’t bother me with it, and stop abusing children by teaching it.

What is much more important is something that I’ve already touched upon: “If this Christ-wisdom is the stardust of the universe, Christ-wisdom is in every one of us” and indeed in every living thing. We humans are creatures of this earth, no more and no less, along with “all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts” and – note this – plants and fungi and bacteria and archaea – and viruses. 

Unfortunately we’ve got this out of kilter, and I’m sorry to say that our reading of the Bible must take the blame. In Genesis 1:28 God reportedly tells humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”. The way we have interpreted this amounts to a criminal misrepresentation of the Hebrew. The message should be that we are to be responsible for, to nurture, to be good stewards of, to enable the earth and its creatures to flourish. The idea that the earth is ours to plunder as we like is utterly evil. 

As a race, humans have a woeful record in this regard. We see around us the fruits of our unbridled greed and arrogance. 

In the coming season of creation and harvest, stick that up your smoke and pipe it.

Mental illness

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

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

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

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

Why do people become mentally ill? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts and skeptics

Sayings of Richard Feynman, Nobel prizewinning physicist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us to covid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead

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

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

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

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

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

Noli me tangere

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beA churchy one – sorry.

Archbishops have banned sharing the chalice at communion. The RC diocese of Rome has stopped all communion services for a month.

There will be panicking in the aisles. Mass demonstrations. People will wilt away, craving the sacrament.  Those who are so intrinsically wicked that they need communion several times a week must be inordinately distressed.

This is wonderfully illustrative of the knots into which people tie themselves in order to believe six impossible things before breakfast. I banned intinction years ago. My experience was that only respectable middle class women wanted it so that their lips didn’t have to tread where others had trod before. I pointed out that their hands were filthy from scratching faces, touching hankies, bibles, hymn books, leaflets and pews, and exchanging the peace (thank God that’s gone if only temporarily), the conclusion being that their hands that used to do dishes were actually cesspits of potential infection. They didn’t like that.

The advice and discussion make a mockery of transubstantiation (if anyone really and truly still believes that mediaeval nonsense), and even consubstantiation. Maybe the diocese of Rome has it right – the priest’s hands will be filthy enough, despite alcohol washes, that even the bread/wafer/Host is itself a danger to health – whatever that is.

When the current crisis is over it’ll be fun to see how the justification for banning the common cup is quietly forgotten as former practice is resumed – despite the fact that microorganisms live in us and on us by the billion, and that though they help to keep us in good working order, they can cause real problems if they get into places where they shouldn’t be?

This is the best entertainment the church has provided for a while. Laugh out loud stuff. Confusing an issue with facts is always problematic.

Sex

image

Lunar landing

As some of you will know, the church has its knickers in a twist about sex.

The church—be in no doubt about this—talks bollocks. One of the reasons it can’t recognize balls is that it’s stuck in the past (“surely not” I hear you say) and it ignores biology, the most fundamental thing of all.

So to get the juices flowing, and in preparation for things to come, I offer you this.

Structure

The gonads of the early embryo can develop into either testes or ovaries. It seems that the ovary develops unless hormonal conditions at a certain stage of development ‘switch’ on the testis, as it were. The female is the default setting. Very rarely (1 in over 80,000 births), an individual may have an ovary on one side and a testis on the other, or a gonad may contain both ovarian and testicular tissue.

The ovary stays more or less where it started, but the testis descends into the scrotum. Undescended testes, this descent having been arrested, are common: about 3 in 100 male births. In a sense, an undescended testis signifies incomplete male development.

The clitoris and penis both develop from the same embryonic precursor. The female, again, seems to be the default setting. Penile congenital anomalies such as hypospadias, where the opening is on the under surface of the penis, are surprisingly common (some say 1 in 300 male births). They can be regarded as varying degrees of reversion to the female anatomy. How small does a penis have to be before it is a clitoris? If you’re interested, there are websites (so I’m told) that show all sorts of penile anomalies and how some people have them modified.

The scrotum and the labia majora develop from the same structures: the scrotum is the two labia sewn together. You can see the ‘seam’: you’ll need a mirror unless you have a tolerant friend. How large do labia have to be before they become scrotum-like?

Every adult male prostate gland contains a vestige of the precursor of the uterus.

Every adult female has structures that in males develop into the tube conveying spermatozoa from testis to penis.

Some people are born with external genitalia of one sex and internal genitalia of another. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be neither one thing nor the other—a girl may be born with an abnormally large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a small penis, or with a divided scrotum, like labia.

Structural anomalies in the male are more common than in the female, though you may recall the fuss about the South African ‘female’ athlete who was reported to lack both ovaries and uterus.

Chromosomes

Normal male: XY chromosomes. Normal female: XX chromosomes. The incidence of newborns that are neither XX nor XY has been put at about 1 in 1700. Here are some examples:

    • XXX: 1 in 1000. Female, often no other manifestations.
    • XYY: 1 in 1000. Male, often no other manifestations.
    • XXY: Klinefelter’s syndrome. 1 in about 1000, often sterile, males with female fat distribution. May never be diagnosed, so may be commoner than we think.
    • XO: Turner’s syndrome. 1 in about 3000. Appear female, nearly always sterile.
    • Mosaic, some cells XX, some XY. Very uncommon.

Psychological sex – ‘what do I feel or experience?’

We know very little. It seems that a part of the brain may be switched on to ‘I think I’m a male’ at a certain stage of development. It seems, again, that the female is the default state. There are reports of people who feel as if they have been born into the body of the ‘wrong’ gender. There are reports of an area of the human brain that in homosexual men is more like that of heterosexual women than that of heterosexual men: male body, female brain perhaps.

  • If a man admires or envies the muscularity of a male athlete, does that mean he is homosexual? Do rugby players who grab their opponents’ bollocks in the scrum have something else on their minds?
  • If a woman admires a Rubens lady of generous proportion, does that mean she is lesbian?

My view is that we are all on a sliding scale of sexuality, and we move to and fro. But the unfashionable truth is that we don’t know much for certain.

Defining man/male and woman/female

We simplify sex categories into male, female, and sometimes intersex, for cultural purposes. This is unsubtle. There is much scope for naturally occurring structural and chromosomal anomaly, and a spectrum of psychological sex.

Pleasure

To what extent did ancient writers associate procreation with sexual intercourse? In Biblical times, the roles of ova and spermatozoa were not as we know them today. It was held at one stage that semen merely initiated the development of the embryo in the mother, and at another stage that a spermatozoon contained the miniature human and that it was ‘injected’ into the mother, who was merely the vessel (oven) in which the embryo grew. (As an aside, both these shed interesting light on notions of virgin births in Biblical times, even accepting that virgin as we understand the word is the correct translation – which it isn’t.) This matters to the same-sex debate, because it is relevant to whether or not the ancients recognised the importance of pleasure in sexual intercourse—what we might term the psychological “reward” effects that come from the flood of endorphins released in orgasm.

If we say that sexual pleasure is banned, and that intercourse is only for the purpose of procreation, then intercourse must be restricted only to those times in the menstrual cycle when conception is possible. This turns current Catholic teaching on its head, for using the safe period for the avoidance of conception should surely be just as much a ‘sin’ as using a condom. Catholic teaching logically should restrict intercourse to the unsafe period.

So, how do we define man and woman?

  • Inspecting genitalia mightn’t give a definite answer, and who would be daft enough to suggest it?
  • Chromosomal tests might not be a reliable indicator of what gender the person feels.
  • Assessing the ability to engage in vaginal intercourse might do the trick. Doubtless assessors could be appointed by the state – a job for voyeurs (what’s wrong with voyeurism?). If one or both partners were infertile, then intercourse would be only for pleasure, so there might have to be pleasure police.

Conclusion

If we say we are certain, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Tears and smiles like us he knew

VladimirIt’s easy for theology to engage with chemistry, physics, cosmology and the like. These topics are concerned with ideas, concepts, and theories, rather than with things you can see or touch or feel.

Like theology, these sciences are products of the human mind. Different people with different backgrounds, different brain wiring arrangements, will have different ways of looking at things. This is one reason why I don’t expect my theology, such as it is, to be the same as anyone else’s, certainly not that of Biblical authors who had an entirely different worldview and cultural milieu.

Engaging with zoology – human biology – is different.

Zoology concerns things we touch and feel and do. We ingest, we digest, we excrete, we screw, we fiddle with our own and each other’s genitals, we break, we wear out, we tear, we are vulnerable. It’s messy.

People of Biblical times are much more at home with this mess than we are. Scripture has blood, guts, bowels, murders, torture, wombs, circumcisions, hearts, body, eyes, ears, incest, and rape. These are not things prissy and prudish Christians talk about over sherry, let alone in church.

Church people seem unwilling to confront mess. Some are wilfully ignorant of biology. Human sexuality is a case in point: the churches’ attitudes to sexuality, masturbation and birth control are stuck in a bygone age that knows nothing of the embryology of the genital system or the role of ova and spermatozoa. The link between sexual intercourse and “love” is by no means clear in Scripture—nor even in the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer—despite protestations to the contrary.

People blame Paul. Wrongly IMHO. In contrast to “spirit”, he used the Greek sarx that translators rendered as “flesh”. What Paul meant by sarx would more accurately be rendered in modern English as “ego”. That and its ramifications make complete sense to me. But—and this is not Paul’s fault—so began the church’s denial of biological flesh and therefore of human pleasure and delight.

The incarnation—carnes the Latin version of sarx—is messy.

The nativity is messy. Mary screams and shoves, amniotic fluid leaks, fetal membranes are shed, baby howls, placenta emerges, umbilical cord is severed, lots of blood, maybe urine and faeces and copious farts. And if we assume that Luke’s nativity tale has a smidgeon of historicity, there are the animals with all that that implies.

Western Christians have intellectualised their faith to minimise mess. They’ve lost touch with flesh. They’ve covered it up.

By ignoring or denying biology, western Christians ignore or deny the incarnation.

Body and blood

lastsupper.jpgHomily for Holy Thursday

People of the Book are much more at home with parts of the body and bodily functions than we are. They think nothing of talking at length about blood, guts, bowels, wombs, circumcision, hearts, body, eyes, ears. They are much less prissy and much more down to earth than respectable Anglicans.

Let’s start with blood.

The film Gandhi has Charlie Andrews on a crowded train, hauled up to sit on the roof. An Indian says to him ‘I have friends who are Christian: they eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday.’ It’s a friendly greeting, though with today’s flesh-eating zombie and vampire films and video games, people might think otherwise.

We can bleed to death. As the blood seeps away, so does the life-force. Lack of blood equals death, so blood equals life. Ritual preparation of meat to eat involves draining all the blood so that diners are not guilty of consuming the life force. (I like black pudding so am doomed.) The blood that marks the doorposts in the first Passover signifies that the house will be preserved: blood equals life. The blood of Jesus, the blood that flows from his crucified side, gives life to the world.

First biology.

  • Blood brings nutrient to the cells of the body. What more nutritious than the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Blood contains red cells that bring oxygen to the tissues. Get rid of the polluting smoke of duty and should, and instead take up the oxygen of freedom from worldly burdens. We are in the world, but not of the world.
  • Blood has white cells that fight disease and maintain health. Think about that.
  • Blood removes rubbish from tissues of the body, and contains platelets that plug holes in blood vessels. Think about that too.

When I hear of the ‘blood of the lamb’, I understand it as, quite simply, the life of the Divine. As St John’s Gospel has it: ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you’ (John 6:53). And in the passion gospel we hear that when Christ’s body was pierced, blood and water flows out to sanctify the earth.

Now body, and specifically on Holy Thursday, feet.

For most people on the planet, feet are even more important than they are for us. Bad feet means no work. Feet need to be cared for. Washing feet is service. And I know that naked feet of the very rich look pretty much like naked feet of the very poor.

Imagine Jesus and the disciples’ feet. No stout brogues, and I doubt that they would have been so lacking in fashion sense as to wear socks with their sandals. Who knows what they trod in. So in washing their feet, Jesus was taking a bit of a risk.

This is a cleansing, like Baptism. A washing away of the dust on our feet, that is, washing away the past. It’s a confession. And as we wash each other’s feet we might confess our weaknesses to one another. In truth, we should be washing each other’s feet as a preparation for every mass.

Now bread.

Companion means [taking] bread together. That is a sermon in a sentence. Bethlehem, Bayt Lahm, means house of bread. Another sermon.

And finally, an invitation.

I could end with George Herbert’s invitation (Love III: Love bade me welcome …), but instead I opt for Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ play on the word ‘come’ in his Christmas Sermon of 1620.

In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engrave, to show us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, ‘Come.’ And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, ‘Come.’ And let them who are disposed, ‘Come.’ And let whosoever will, take of the ‘Bread of Life, which camedown from Heaven’ this day into Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of life, – of that His life which we hope for in Heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another venite come unto Him in His Heavenly Kingdom to which He grant we may come, That this day came to us in earth that we thereby might come to Him and remain with Him for ever, ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous.’

Renaissance

pupa-3978412_960_720Church Magazine, March 2019

Spring-cleaning brings to mind memories of carpets being draped over washing lines and beaten to within an inch of their lives. It’s a happy coincidence that for us in the northern hemisphere, spring means more hours of sunlight, animals and plants waking from hibernation, caterpillars becoming butterflies, and a general feeling of renaissance. A good time of year for an inward spring-clean—Lent.

Between caterpillar and butterfly there is the intermediate stage of pupa, chrysalis, cocoon. It looks from the outside as if nothing is happening. Such is far from the truth. Inside, all sorts of things are happening as some bits die, new bits develop, and things rearrange themselves before the adult form forces its way out with a great deal of effort.

In our lives we often reach a point where all that has gone before is cluttering up our heads to the extent that we are paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. We enter a kind of pupa. If we are willing, we can mirror the biological metamorphosis with a psychological metamorphosis as we let some bits die, new bits develop, and allow other things to rearrange themselves.

This is hard work. It’s painful. It takes a lot of energy to chip through the crust that develops around us so that the beautiful butterfly can emerge and take wing. You can easily extend these images into those of passion, crucifixion, and resurrection/ascension—and I leave you to ponder this.

In biology, the term for the adult form is imago. Image. Even the adult form is just an image, an illusion, a mask, a persona. So the question is: what is the adult an image of? How far do you have to delve into yourself in order to find the real you, if there is such a thing?

I doubt that there is such a thing. I find my own “self” so often at the mercy of events, emotions, sensations, and feelings. I’m certain that much of what we do is governed not by “free will” but by circulating chemicals in our bloodstream: testosterone, oestrogen, insulin, thyroxine, and countless more. There are the neurotransmitters – sometimes not enough of them, sometimes too much. All these substances affect our moods, our inclinations, our actions, and our perspective of life on the planet. And then there are things we shove into ourselves. Be in no doubt: food is a drug. Too much carbohydrate can make you sleepy. Too much caffeine makes you jittery. Too much booze makes some people aggressive, others stupid, others comatose.

Given all this, what room is there for any kind of “real” you? I suppose in order to find it you would need to deprive yourself of all food and drink and sit in an entirely stimulus-free environment in the hope that you would be able to find the real you. Trouble is, before you even began to get there, you’d be dead through boredom and inanition—like in Deanery Synod.

Nevertheless, Lent is a great opportunity to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and what you might do to get there—in particular, what you need to get rid of in order to make the journey easier. To use an analogy I’ve often used before, what do you need to chuck out of the basket so that the balloon can ascend to the heights?

Ash Wednesday is one of the truly great festivals of the year. It reminds us that we’re human, that we are going to die, and that we need to get a grip on our lives before it’s too late.

Interregnum

A reassessment will be forced on the churches in a few months’ time. By the end of 2019 I shall have retired. It’s unreasonable to expect Phillip to become effectively the vicar as he did in the last interregnum: he is seven years older and neither his health nor I suspect his marriage would stand for it. It’s unreasonable to expect Robin to become effectively the vicar, for he is not paid and, like all unpaid clergy he will do only what he is willing to do—you must not impose on his good nature. It may not be too difficult to find cover for Sunday services but you need to give serious thought to the future of midweek masses. In my retirement I don’t want to be tied down to any particular midweek service schedule, even if I thought it worthwhile turning up for a mass with one other person present—which I don’t. I don’t know any retired cleric who would.

I wonder how long the interregnum will be. It’s difficult to attract clerics to apply for jobs in the Midlands and North of England. Burton is not viewed as particularly attractive. This job is odd in combining different churchmanships, different social profiles, and civic responsibilities. The latter would repel some clergy, though I enjoy them.

Whatever else you do, remember that you need to present yourself as attractive. The interview is as much about letting applicants vet you as it is about letting you vet applicants. The interview team needs to be pleasant, positive, and interested in the applicant. Such is often not the case. You must be sure that other people the applicants meet on the day are not subverting the process by trying to impose their view of what the church needs, as happened for me.

You also need to do some work together beforehand, and I don’t just mean one meeting, in which you come to a common view of what you want. I recall in my interview in 2014 a point when, after two interviewers had been rather curmudgeonly, I realized I wasn’t going to be offered the job, so I went on the attack and said “you lot need to decide what you want, because it’s clear to me that you all want different things. It just ain’t gonna happen.” It was the best thing I did.

It’s not too early to think about these things. You must be assertive when dealing with the diocese and the deanery. You must not assume that bishops, archdeacons, rural deans and deanery apparatchiks know better than you what you need. They don’t. But you must be realistic. You must be forward-looking. You must accept that returning to how things used to be will never happen.

There’s a lot of reassessment to be done. Happy Lent.

Addendum to complete the story of my appointment to Burton

When they did get round to offering me the job after Fr Young had turned it down, I said I would take it only if all six assessors promised me their total support. I was assured that this was so. Three of the six kept their word. I suppose 50% aint bad.