Advent 2017

Orante_Panagia

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 tell 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.

I came to bear witness to the truth

15tue_hhdl-adt_12x8

Faces of the Divine

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King 2015

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent statement that the Paris attacks caused him to doubt the presence (or was it existence?) of God gave me cause in yesterday’s sermon to lay into the intellectual poverty of our leadership. The implication that God is a European; the blindness to the fact that Islamic fundamentalists were originally recruited and equipped by the US for fighting Russians in Afghanistan; the lack of acknowledgement that the UK and US fawn over the ISIS-connected House of Saud. Is the former oil executive blind?

Look at the West’s involvement in the middle East over the last century: the partitioning of the Arabian peninsula, the partition of Palestine, the formation of Jordan and Iraq, the military campaigns that are seen as Christian wars, modern Crusades. And people wonder ‘why Paris?’

I wonder what His Grace’s musings say about his notion of God. That God is ready to jump in and solve problems for ‘people like us’ in a city that is such a nice place to live? He said something like that too.

The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were afraid to go after Jesus because people hung on his every word. Where is there a Christian leader of whom that might be said? Pope Francis perhaps? Certainly no Anglican now that Desmond Tutu has left the main stage. Nobody in the Church of Ireland says anything at all for fear of the brain dead eejits in the North, and in the Church of England all we get is ignorant bluster.

At least Dalai Lama has balls: “We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

I ‘came out’ in the pulpit yesterday. I said that Jesus was a Buddhist in everything he said and did; that all he asks is that we follow his example; that arguments about atonement are piffling; that what matters are compassion and the death of self.

I said that we were now witnessing the oozing into place of the third world war and that the future is bleak. Of course, none of this absolves the evil perpetrators of evil deeds, but we might at least recognize our complicity in the sin of the world through our own ego and pride.

I said that there is no hope until people realize that the Kingdom of God is not about life after death or about an ideal political system to be gained by bashing people over the head until they agree with us. My kingdom is not of this world.

It is an inner kingdom, here and now. It is certainly not a kingdom of control, It is a kingdom of beauty. I came to witness to the truth – that is, beauty and imagination in all their manifestations. Beauty and imagination do not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

Conquering kings their titles take, from the lands they captive make; Jesus, by a nobler deed, from the thousands he hath freed.

It was St Cecilia’s day yesterday, so we sang:

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

Beauty and truth seem pretty interchangeable to me. I came to bear witness to the truth. I said I’d probably be sacked after a sermon like this.

Fragrant chaos

censer-incense-burner-01There’s a fuss in Burton about a proposed new Mosque. The far-right are planning a protest march.

I had a lift from a Muslim taxi driver. I invited him into S Paul’s. He took his shoes off at the door, stood and gazed, wandered around. I said I wished that some of our people were more like him and other faithful Muslims, respectful and with a sense of the Divine. Churches might be thriving.

If there is a protest about the plans for a new Mosque—and I hope not—I pray that the protestors will repent. But idiots are idiots, whatever their idiocy.

It is a fact, though, that church is irrelevant to many people these days. What does ‘church’ mean to those who’ve never set foot inside, whose parents and grandparents have never set foot inside?

In the film Chocolat there are two visions of church. The first is cold, gloomy, repressive, and governed by people who use power to oppress and control. Then, the wind blows open its doors. God the disturber exposes unhappiness and hypocrisy hiding behind a façade of judgmental pomposity. ‘Church’ that was an oppressor becomes a liberator.

As for the faith, it’s seen by most people as life-denying and over-regulated. This is criminal. The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simply to teach others what he had taught them. Rather than making dogmatic statements about how to get to heaven, Jesus modelled and taught how to live now—here on earth, and he said that this was heaven! Despite this, neurotic church people have made Jesus’ death and resurrection into a bookkeeping tally, good behaviour rewarded with the promise of a kind-of club class after-life. We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. No wonder people dismiss church.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s the incarnation. We don’t need to do anything; we just let it happen. O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.
  • As the flame grows it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully – that’s the crucifixion …
  • so that we ascend to the heights, unburdened, unshackled, to be lighthouses lighting the path for others and lightening their burdens.

That’s it. All the rest—doctrine, dogma, rituals—is poetic window dressing, some of great beauty, and some well past its sell-by date.

During my ordination training I visited a Hindu Temple in Leicester. It quite took my breath away. Smells, colour, activity, incantations, devotions – quiet and not- so-quiet murmurings soaking the Temple. People coming and going. A family having a blessing here, people preparing a meal over there. Children playing here, adolescents chatting there. Religious bric-à-brac that knows nothing of middle class notions of good taste or the stifling conservation police. Facilities for hospitality, pastoral care, social action, learning and devotion. No moaning about how things used to be, but rather living in reality.

The building is used. There’s no scruffy notice apologizing for the Church being locked outside the one service every fortnight. There’s no rivalry between flower arrangers or intercessors. There’s nobody saying ‘you can’t sit there, that’s my seat.’ The temple is a place where people talk to each other, listen to each other and acknowledge the presence of something infinitely bigger than themselves. It’s life affirming. I suspect that heaven—if I ever see it—will be fragrantly chaotic like that Hindu Temple. I hope it will.

Is this an unrealistic dream: a church that is fragrantly chaotic, open in every respect? Not simply beauty of craftsmanship, but beauty of the human spirit, open and saying ‘yes’, like Mary was open, saying ‘yes’? Is it an unrealistic dream that Christians might learn from other faiths?

Let’s celebrate life abundant, not life resisting, life enabling not life denying. Let’s be a church, as Pope Francis says, that like a Mother always seeks the good and salvation of all her children.

Knowing one’s worth

You would think this would do for the ABC

You would think this would do for the ABC

In today’s Church Times, The Archbishop of Canterbury seeks a Diary Manager, salary between 23K and 30K. My stipend is 23K, so when you add in the cost of housing I suppose the Diary Manager might be costing much the same as a parish priest. It’s good to know one’s worth in the eyes of the Pope of Canterbury.

The Diocese of London is thinking about having a seventh bishop. The Diocese of Leeds (formerly Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield) is appointing a sixth bishop. This diocese has four bishops. And if you’re regular C of E kind of guy or gal, you’ll know that each year the Dioceses ask for more and more of your money. You might think that there are questions to be asked about how the church spends its money. The place to ask them is … well, I can’t answer that. There isn’t one.

Deanery Synod might be the place, though a recent meeting I attended seemed concerned only about writing a mission statement. Deck chairs and titanics spring to mind. Nevertheless, Deanery Synod is the nearest to the decision makers that hoi polloi like you and me get, and it would be good to see meetings become a teeny bit relevant.

Some of my friends thought that the ad was asking for a ‘Dairy’ Manager. Quite a nice job, some said, looking after the Archbishop’s cattle, herding them, feeding and watering them, milking them. Well it might be in rolling Staffordshire perhaps, but in Lambeth I suspect it would be udderly tedious. Boom, boom.

We plod on. There were 12 people at today’s 1230 Mass. No gimmicks, just the work of the church in all its glory and tradition and continuity.