From Iona’s isle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry George, it’s not the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

From beyond the grave

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From Beyond the Grave – a great film

Two funerals the week after Easter. I’m not available for either.

The first is for a woman who back in the mists of time was christened in St Semperviridis, married there, and so must be buried from there. She has not attended said church for decades, and I know none of the family—indeed they live in a different county and different diocese.

The second is for a woman who has been a member of St Semperviridis for many years past, but whose family have opted to avoid the church for this final ritual and go instead for a crematorium. This causes some distress to members of the congregation who would like to be present in church for the obsequies, but since none of the family is a churchgoer, I guess that won’t weigh heavily on them. Despite not wanting the church building—here’s the interesting thing—the family wants the Vicar of St Semperviridis to do the honours at the crematorium. Since I’m on leave, I arrange for a retired colleague to take the service, but before giving the go-ahead, the family wishes to approve (or not) my choice.

Let me be clear about this: the first family wants the church building but isn’t bothered about the priest; the second wants a priest known to the dead woman but isn’t bothered about the location, or about acknowledging her church allegiance.

Underlying all this is the attitude of the undertakers (two different firms). Would it be unreasonable, if a family wants a particular church or a particular priest, to expect undertakers to establish availability before going ahead with diary bookings? Apparently it would.

What’s going on?

In one case the church building is a tribal temple, like a Masonic Hall. It doesn’t matter who does the incantations so long as they are done in the right place—or in this case the place that was “right” for the woman’s early life. This is the sociological church, the pagan church, the geographical parish church, the established church, the Church of England as it used to be before clergy bothered too much about being friends with Jesus. My three years in the Church of Ireland taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the church as tribal temple, in that case the temple of protestant landowners on whose lives Christian teaching impinges hardly at all.

In the other case it’s not the temple that matters, but the person of the witch doctor: the place where the shaman utters the magic words is of no import.

Of course one doesn’t know what’s going on under the surface. One doesn’t know about the difficulties of fitting a funeral into busy diaries, even though ministers may be expected to change theirs. One doesn’t know how much “getting things right for the funeral” signifies guilt at ante mortem neglect. This is something to which I allude at every funeral when I say that one day everyone will go in a box “like that”, and you never know when, so get your lives in order now so that when that day comes there are as few regrets as possible.

Just for the record, here’s what I’d like to happen to me.

  • cut into bits and fed into a septic tank—environmentally useful; or:
  • burnt, with ashes chucked onto the West Coast Main Line from a bridge just off the road between Orton and Tebay;
  • I’m not bothered about any religious rituals at all;
  • most important of all—a good party.

But really, I don’t care two hoots. They, whoever they are when the time comes, will do just what they want and that’s exactly right. No shoulds, no oughts, no expectations from beyond the grave. I don’t want any physical memorial whatsoever: I don’t want there to be any sign of my having existed.

A Vicar’s Life

revYou may have seen Rev (BBC1) some years ago, with Tom Hollander as Adam Smallbone. Fiction, but said to be based on reality of being an urban Church of England priest doing his tortured best in the face of an apathetic culture, self-obsessed clientele, and a hostile church establishment interested only in careerism and managerialism.

You may more recently have seen Broken (BBC1) with Sean Bean as Michael Kerrigan. Again fiction, but more obviously (to me) based on the reality of being a Catholic priest in a deprived inner city of the north of England. Priest and people in this come across as somehow more genuine than the stereotypical cartoons of Rev. It’s heart-rending stuff, entirely authentic I assure you. It put me in mind of Jimmy McGovern’s Priest (1994), a truly prophetic work.

You may be watching A Vicar’s Life (BBC2) about four real Herefordshire Church of England clergy. Two episodes down at the moment. There’s no comparison with Sean Bean’s Broken, or even Tom Hollander’s Rev. At least the fictional priests lived the agonies and ecstasies of real humanity on the edge. The Herefordshire programme is all about buildings and the institution. I see nothing in it so far other than middle class complacency, and gimmickry to try and get people to support the organization. There is nothing about the inner life. There is nothing about transcendence.

This is odd in somewhere like Herefordshire where you would think that beauty would be a way in. I remember my Methodist minister uncle, who had served in Carlisle, Sedbergh, Leeds and Stockton before retiring to his native Langwathby, telling me toward the end of his life—rather courageously I thought—how his view of God was not what it used to be, and how increasingly he was attracted to a Wordsworthian panentheism, possibly even pantheism. Who could not be so attracted in the gently luscious Eden Valley, more so even than in the Lakes next door in my opinion?

4123Of course, my views say something about me. Others are sure to disagree with me. Good—I like disagreement, for only through being challenged do we grow and develop. But IMHO there is far too much emphasis in the Church of England these days on Jesus and not enough on “The Divine” – which, as a Greek scholar pointed out to me years ago, is a better translation of theos than “god”. No wonder the Hebrews would not speak the word. The sentimentality, emotional indulgence and self-obsession of Jesus as my lover is something in the contemporary church that I find utterly repellent. I need to look out and beyond, not in and around. Thus I prefer facing east at mass, all of us fixed on “the other” beyond, rather than the inward-looking, closed and self-congratulatory circle of “me and my mates” as I stand as at the shop counter facing the congregation.

Pub and church used to be the principal facilitators of social cohesion in a community, the price for the ordinary punter being to have to endure a talk of variable quality week in, week out. I bet the publican’s was way more interesting than the Vicar’s. Those functions have slipped away from church to other structures and organizations such as social services and hobby groups. I don’t think that is anyone’s fault, it’s just what’s happened. It’s not recent—it began with the invention of the printing press that enabled people to read for themselves (if they could).

But I’m certain that, as with Old Testament figures time and again, the answer lies not in frenetic activity in the hope of getting people to come back to church, but in inactivity: retreating to the cave to pause, to reassess, to allow or even hasten death in order that rebuilding might begin. Not for nothing is Siva the Hindu God that regenerates after destroying—Phoenix from ashes, the work of the spirit, the blazing bush.

The Master advises against flogging dead horses (Matthew 10.14, Mark 6.11, Luke 9.5). We ignore this by switching on life support when we should be letting events take their course. Close churches. Demolish them. Sell them.

Perhaps future episodes of A Vicar’s Life will reveal more to my taste, but given the state of the Church of England these days, I shan’t hold my breath.

Advent 2017

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Great Panagia of Yaroslavl

St Paul’s Magazine, December 2017

Mary’s uterus: wider than the heavens

From the Liturgy of Basil: he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens.

Margaret Barker’s first seminar drew almost 40 people. I was worried that we might not get double figures. The subject matter, the virgin shall conceive, touched upon early Hebrew images of God, one of which is the veiled (as in the veil in the Temple Holy of Holies), eternal queen mother of god. Accordingly, it is she who conceived, not a young girl from the sticks. These images have come into Christian traditions as variously Mary, spirit, and wisdom.

We heard how, before the book of Deuteronomy was written, a reformation expunged the feminine from the scene. Above all, I saw afresh that every detail in Luke’s story of the nativity had meaning for those who knew the traditions, swaddling clothes, for example, signifying the garment in which the King is wrapped at anointing (look on YouTube at videos of the 1953 coronation and you will see many of the same traditions).

The more you know, the more interesting it becomes and the more you want to know. It doesn’t matter that the stories might be fiction. If they are, they are intended to convey the importance of someone impressive and remarkable, whose message is life-changing.

I sometimes hear people say “I don’t think …” or “I don’t believe …” this that or the other. What I want to hear are the opinions of people who are well informed by research and study, not those who rely simply on prejudice or Sunday school pap. Nobody can say that Margaret is not well informed, so I’m intrigued by her views, and can let them kick about in my head. When it comes to ideas, I’m not an either/or person, more of a both/and. I love ideas.

None of this changes the doctrine of the incarnation. It enriches it. As the infant grows in the mother, her uterus is the entire cosmos nurturing this new way of looking at the world—the infant. This is an image in Wesley’s hymns and Orthodox theology. As we sing every Christmas, the infant can, must, should, “be born in us today” and every day. Every single one of us is, or can be, Mary—a god bearer. (Gents, if you’re worried that you don’t have a uterus, fret not. You do. It’s a little recess in the prostate gland called the prostatic utricle, a remnant of the thing that becomes the uterus in females. Never let it be said that you don’t learn a bit of mammalian embryology).

This is the Christmas story. It has nothing to do with making yourself sick on Quality Street and war films, or stuffing your face with dry turkey and fart-making sprouts, or Morecambe and Wise (never liked them). By all means celebrate the pagan festival and the end of the year and the winter solstice and spring not too far away; enjoy the hangovers and family rows and fallings out and being bored with each other, but remember the real meaning.

Consequences

A recent Church Times article reports good news about church choirs. In places where they are nurtured, congregations grow and priests of the future are produced. Nurturing of course means spending money—you have to spend in order to earn dividends. A new organist at Modwen’s has reinvigorated music there. Summer concerts raised over £1500 for local charities, and drew in about 50 people every week, many of whom had not been before. It shows what can be done in just a matter of months when one puts one’s mind to something.

There seems to be no such enthusiasm at St Paul’s. This is a shame. I hear it said that church musicians should not be paid. Architects, plumbers, roofers, electricians, solicitors can be paid, but not musicians, despite the need for tuition, hours of practice, hard work. The organists we have do splendidly, but they’re not going to be around for ever. Actions, or in this case inactions, have consequences. Draw your own conclusions.

We’re at that time of year when people come to St Paul’s to get out of the warmth. I gather that recently one lady stayed for all of four minutes, reducing the congregation by one twentieth when she left. That was the Sunday I was preaching at Riverside Church on the High Street. Comfortable chairs and comfortable temperature are obviously a turn-off, for there were about 80 people there. Circumstances have consequences. Draw your own conclusions.

As it happens, I quite like the cold, but then I’m a man. Or a dog. Bedrooms should always be cold. It keeps down the germs multiplying. Maybe people come to St Paul’s to sleep—my eyesight is such that I can’t be sure from the pulpit. If I saw a student asleep in a lecture, I would pause, point him out (usually him), wait until he awoke, then ask if I could get him anything like a pillow, and tease him. Didn’t happen often.

Future

Anyhow, back to the plot. We have a problem with the huge building that is St Paul’s. It’s difficult to know what to do about it. All ideas will be considered. But remember that what worked when you were young, pterodactyls flapping about the sky, is not necessarily appropriate now. So think. Pray if you like (actually, praying is thinking), and try to imagine a future even though you won’t be around to enjoy it.

I’m 70 on 6 June 2020 and am obliged to say bye bye if I haven’t gone before. Will I be replaced? That’s doubtful given that my three churches together don’t support the cost of a fulltime cleric—you are subsidised. That may well be appropriate, for I can’t see that this parish will ever be self-sufficient, but the diocese/deanery may take a different view. What sort of clerical service do you want? What sort does this part of town need? Do you care? Maybe all that matters is having a priest for Sunday mass.

The YMCA approached us about hosting a night shelter for Burton homeless, December 2017 to March 2018. The PCC agreed. Of course, there are concerns and I share them. But YMCA are professionals and it’s not in their interest to get it wrong. And the truth is that if we never took risks we’d still be scrabbling round in caves. It’s absolutely right that as well as learning and beauty and worship we should be concerned with social action. It’s a gospel imperative. It might help carve out a role for this church in this part of town.

Finally

Gregg’s made headlines recently with an image of a manger with a sausage roll instead of the infant. It offended some Christians for obvious reasons, and Jews and Muslims because at least in theory a sausage has pig in it. But it has to be said that “Lord Jesus” backwards is susejd rol. So maybe it was a satanic plot. Anyway, it just shows how crass Gregg’s advertising team is, and confirms that all advertising is satanic.

Happy Christmas or nativity or solstice or sausage roll or end of year or whatever. In obstetric terms (back to the uterus), happy celebrations of the delivery of the infant King from the uterus of the veiled queen mother of God. And remember above all else that Christ is born in you today and every day. Raise a glass or six to that.

Cathedrals: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum

28A recent report from the C of E tells us that cathedrals are “amazing” places doing awesome things. Leaving aside the inflation of language that I so deplore, it occurs to me to wonder how well ordinary churches would do if they had access to at least half the resources thrown at cathedrals.

One of my churches is about the size of a small cathedral, such as Derby, Birmingham, Carlisle. It is staffed not by several paid clergy, paid musicians, paid administrators, paid finance directors, paid fabric managers etc—none of these—but by one third of a Vicar—that is, girls and boys, me (only a third of me because I have two other churches, one almost as big). That’s it. End of. Its regular congregation is about 30 who give of their time, energy and resources generously and sacrificially.

Of course, I don’t begrudge the cathedrals their worldly success, and I’m not in the least envious. Not at all. Not one iota. It’s important for the C of E to serve, as cathedrals undoubtedly do, the people who already have so much. Ministering to the middle classes is what the C of E is for, after all. (On first typing that last sentence my autocorrect had not middle classes, but idle classes. I should have left it.)

I have a cunning plan.

In order that cathedrals might be even more successful, I propose that without further shilly-shallying at least half the parish churches in the country should be closed—I’m quite happy to make the decisions—so that even more funds can be directed to cathedrals to help them do even better.

Furthermore, the clergy of the churches that will under the Monkhouse plan be closed can be redeployed in Diocesan offices thinking up more initiatives and demands to dump on the fewer and fewer parochial clergy that are left. This will result in an all-round increase in job satisfaction and wellbeing.

My final thought on this matter concerns the press release announcing to the world this great joy, and all similar spin. It’s taken me a long time—dunce that I am—to realise what they call to mind. They are like media reports from Pyongyang. Similarities don’t stop there, of course, for it’s well known amongst North Korean cognoscenti that Kim Jong-il’s birth took place on a mountainside and was heralded by inter alia a bright star appearing in the sky.

I’ll get my coat. And my P45.

The effects of transmitted stress

4167-newtons-cradle-2SWMBO draws my attention to an article in yesterday’s Church Times (13 October 2017) that explores the effects of clergy stress on clergy spouses.

The background to this is a recent survey in which clergy declare themselves on the whole happy and fulfilled in their jobs. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, knowing what I know and hearing what I hear, and it made me wonder if the clergy who responded to the survey were predominantly those with permanent “I’ve found Jesus” smiles on their faces, rose coloured spectacles, and a complete inability to see reality.

The article is illustrated by a picture of Newton’s cradle—the toy with balls suspended from a frame, the only balls that move are those on the edge, those in the middle remaining motionless but transmitting the considerable resulting forces. That’s the clergy spouse. Susan found it particularly telling because that image describes exactly how it was for her during the three years I was a Rector in the Church of Ireland.

The problem was not in Portlaoise—ministry there was varied and stimulating. It arose in neighbouring Ballyfin out of a Diocesan policy to force groups of parishes into unions. In C of E terms it would be the forced merger of separate Parochial Church Councils into one PCC. I shan’t tell the story here—I reserve that for another day when I have time and energy to work through my detailed diary of events and emails. In short, what I came up against in effecting diocesan policy can be boiled down to:

  • the way Diocesan council ignored local feeling;
  • the meddling of members of Diocesan council without my permission—I suspect this to have been in part Masonic intrigue;
  • what appeared to me to be a sense of entitlement in families who, by design or default, filled the gap in rural society resulting from the departure decades earlier of the Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The final straw was when, my having done what was required of me, that Diocesan policy was abandoned.

It was extremely unpleasant for me. But I was only a ball on the edge. On the other edge was Diocesan policy. Poor Susan was all the balls in the middle. Having reflected on that hell, I’ve come seriously to wonder if I’d witnessed a case of possession. Certainly, the word diabolical is not inappropriate, at least in its being an antonym of anabolic. There was splintering caused by behaviour that appeared malicious and malevolent. Read the Prologue to Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

I understand therefore something of the malignant effects of clergy stress on the clergy family. The article tells me how courageous one must be to go public with it. The fear is that by so doing you will mark the card of your spouse who will then be noted unable to cope and/or unfit for preferment—if preferment is your thing (it shouldn’t be, but humans are human).

The combination of Protestant work ethic and a perversion of the suffering servant mindset is insidious and profoundly harmful. The more I think about Jesus and his ministry, the more I think that he came to abolish religion. I’ve heard it said that when Linda Woodhead asks her students to invent a religion, not one of them has ever suggested that clergy are necessary.

Requiem aeternam Burton Burbles

55430_largeNo, no, not Hugh. He’s had his requiem.

But his death is causing me to reassess my priorities. No more pussyfooting around. No more wasting time on trivia. And no more Burton Burbles.

It first appeared as Rambling Rector in 2008 as a kind of 3-church benefice leaflet in Derbyshire. In 2011 it moved across the Irish Sea and served the same function for three churches in Ireland. Then I started my blog http://ramblingrector.me so when I came to Burton I changed the name of the leaflet to Burton Burbles to reduce confusion.

S Paul’s and S Aidan’s have their own magazines; S Modwen’s does not. S Paul’s and S Modwen’s have weekly news sheets, S Aidan’s does not. I thought there was a need for a vehicle common to all three churches and tried, singlehandedly, to make it such.

At a meeting last night it became clear that I was alone in this view—indeed, there was more than a smidgeon of hostility to the notion that each church might need to know what others were doing. I must therefore be wrong.

Burton Burbles could only serve the intended purpose if information were passed to me, since along with most Vicars who are not seriously deranged I don’t know stuff unless I’m told it. Or it’s written down and handed to me. As it is, or rather was, I wasn’t told it and yet some people still were offended that I hadn’t appropriately stroked their egos.

If people want theological whimsy and provocation, and/or to know what’s in my mind, they can come to church, or log on here to the blog – I write something most weeks. Occasionally there are pieces by me in The Burton Mail, the local daily.

So finally, and not in homage to a writer that does not appeal to me,  IF

If you can start the day without caffeine or pills; If you can wait when loved ones are too busy to give you time; If you can take criticism and blame without resentment; If you can face the world without lies and deceit; If you can relax without booze; If you can sleep without the aid of drugs; If you can love without imposing conditions; If you can do all these things;

… you’re a dog.