Coping, or rather not coping

LUP03510Happy pills ran out two weeks ago. Sertraline. I thought I’d try and do without it: I’d halved the dose a few weeks earlier. Today it became painfully clear to me that I can’t. The emotional lability is something else – listening to a friend playing Fauré, I can hardly remain upright. Or the end of Guilmant’s first organ sonata where the big tune is like the sun coming out.

I wrote in a previous blog that music melts my shell, leaves me unprotected, removes me from time and place, and that I would do almost anything for a fix of more of the same, to stay in that place of delight. But the effect of music doesn’t account for the disabling emotional lability, the psychic turmoil, the near despair of this morning.

There’s plenty that could contribute to all this: brexit, the fuckedupness of this country, the frank corruption of its “leaders” and their cronies, the cruelty of the church—oh, the putrid church—and so much more. But none of it accounts for the feeling that life shouldn’t be like this.

I thought that it’ll be over soon when I retire, when people no longer want some of my energy. Then I’ll be able to cope. But today I realised that I need a helping hand now. What did it in the end was another friend, well familiar with psychosis, telling me that what I was describing, no matter how I rationalized it or what euphemisms I employed, was “mental” and was “illness”. That struck home.

Now the fun starts.

I ring the GP surgery. No appointment today. “Ring tomorrow”. No guarantee that I’ll get one tomorrow. This went on for some time. I was surprisingly calm. I did not lose my kool. Eventually I said “so what you’re really saying is that I’ll see a doctor sooner if I go and play tag with HGVs on the A38”. Silence. “No definitely not. Hang on a minute—I can give you an appointment at 4.50 pm today. Is that any good?”

So that’s what it takes.

It was Chesterfield I think where I started long term SSRIs. A decade of parochial ministry. What is it about parochial ministry that is so emotionally draining?

  • Feeling the energy drain from me as people touch the hem of my garment.
  • People dumping their problems on me, and my not knowing how to get rid of them, especially the horrendous ones involving young people.
  • People dumping their neuroses, anger and aggression on me even though it has nothing to do with me. “Get the violence off the streets and into the Church where it belongs” said Michael Bland, a notorious former incumbent of Buckland, Gloucestershire.
  • After ministering for 30 years to open-minded and intellectually supple young people, now to be dealing with those, no matter how lovely, in their autumnal years, lacking vision or intellectual curiosity.
  • Having legal responsibilities but neither authority nor funds to manage them.
  • The feeling that however much I do, it’s not enough. This comes from diocesan staff, the assumption being that church decline is my fault, personally, and my responsibility, personally, to reverse. Bollox. As I’ve said before Lichfield is by no means as bad as Derby was.
  • Observing that ministry to non-church goers is nearly always appreciated, while that to churchgoers is often, in their eyes, inadequate. One group no expectations, the other more than making up for it.

That’s enough for the moment.

Of course, there are joys and delights that I shall miss very much. But it’s a funny old job that requires one to take happy pills.

Words from the heart

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From our Tree of Life carpet (Qum)

In my last blog I berated the Church of England for the abuse scandals; I coruscated the bishops for their apparent lack of compassion not only for victims but also for us foot-soldiers who day by day bear the shame; and I wondered if I’d wasted the last 13 years of my life as a Clerk in Holy Orders.

Never for one moment did I imagine that my words would reach a wider audience than my three regular readers. In the event, the blog was highlighted on Thinking Anglicans—a liberal blog (though I’m more radical than liberal)—and US blog Episcopal Café. It has thus been widely read, although to say that it “went viral”, as one colleague did, displays an endearing ignorance of e-jargon.

I spent my first 18 years in east Cumberland in a somewhat bleak society where compliments were almost unheard of, so I find myself brought to tears by the responses to the blog. They have been almost entirely positive. Comments have included “I think he is a breath of fresh air. Would there were more like Fr Stanley in our Church”; “Fr Monkhouse’s congregation is lucky to have someone who speaks such naked truth and whose sincerity is so apparent.” And most moving of all: “I have just sat and wept at your piece about the state of the Church. What comes home to me more than anything is … what amazingly important Godly words you are speaking to us all in Church … I am grateful for your wisdom, courage and deeply loving heart.”

I say all this not to boast, but to show how much people appreciate raw honesty from the heart. As a priest I’m struck by how when I open my heart to a parishioner, and more often vice versa, without barriers of politeness or compromise or fear of consequences, healing always follows. Liberation. Tears flow. Cleansing tears. Tears from the heart. The tears that wash Jesus’ feet. The tears that in Andersen’s The Snow Queen melt the heart of ice and bring restoration. Luther’s herzwasser.

Of course there have been one or two less approving responses. One commenter wrote “For his sake and [his congregation’s] I found myself fervently hoping that none of those congregations ever read his blog.” Sounds like a threat, perhaps, but then the commenter is the partner of a bishop, so uxorial solidarity might be a factor. As to my parishioners, many do indeed read my blog, and tell me how much they appreciate it, and others read the pieces as magazine articles.

This brings me to the reaction of a local colleague. His response put me in mind of a “jolly hockey sticks” kind of gal who’s just been made a prefect and is nail-bitingly fearful of losing her shiny new badge by being seen to associate with the winklepicker-wearing Teddy boy skulking at the school gates ready to lead her astray. (This imagery is pretty accurate for 1960s Penrith. Add in the Dunrobin café and the picture is complete.)

Here we have two models of priesthood.

On the one hand, non-confrontational, refusing to acknowledge elephants in rooms, unwilling to upset apple carts or frighten horses, unwilling to challenge complacency and hypocrisy, fearful of incurring the boss’s wrath. Desperate to be liked. Superficial.

On the other hand, the prophet, willing to open his or her heart, speaking truth to power, delving into the psyche to expose as much as possible of the grubbby base instincts that live there. An Old Testament prophet like Amos or Isaiah (when he’s not being boring) or John Baptist. Or, dare I say, Jesus.

These are many more models of priesthood. It’s up to every priest to work out which is the appropriate model. I’ve no doubt that the model one chooses is affected by genetics, background, upbringing and life experience.

I know which model is right for me and my gifts. The trouble is that it comes at a price. Emotional digging is hard work, especially when I encounter pernicious, malignant roots that threaten to strangle all else. Trawling through my psyche is utterly exhausting—much more debilitating than running or pumping iron in a gym. Like it or not, berating bosses comes with a frisson of fear, as whistleblowers well know. And, perhaps most importantly, the management of rage requires great care and judgment if it is not to destroy me.

Give me courage.

Deliver me:

  • from the desire of being esteemed;
  • from the desire of being praised;.
  • from the desire of being preferred to others;
  • from the desire of being approved;
  • from the fear of being humiliated;
  • from the fear of being despised;
  • from the fear of being rebuked;
  • from the fear of being ridiculed;
  • from the fear of being wronged.

from Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930)

“In-between” time

pupa-3978412_960_720Parish magazine September 2019

Summer draws to an end and I imagine many people are dreading getting back to the grindstone. Children might look forward to a new school year, new friends, new challenges, but they might be anxious about its uncertainty and, if the media are to be believed, possibilities for bullying.

There’s “in-between” time at St Paul’s. The night shelter gave the impetus to think about upgrading the facilities in the hall and rejuvenating a tired and drab environment—and a frankly ugly main entrance to the church that puts me in mind of the sort of DIY that the worst kind of landlord inflicts upon hapless tenants (just look at it from the point of view of a bride arriving for a wedding). Preliminary approval has been given. Is this good news? We now have to give serious consideration to the likelihood of raising, let’s say, quarter of a million. In the real world, this is not a huge amount of money for such work, though the prospect of raising it would scare the pants off me.

“In-between” time affects me personally. Once I made the decision to retire this autumn, moving and getting rid of stuff has blotted out all other concerns. A combination of giving six months notice with the fact that we’re not moving very far has meant that we’ve already started to take things across the road. In a way this prolongs the agony. Maybe it would’ve been better to pick one day and get a removal company to do it, though this seems a bit extravagant to move only 50 yards.

Several people have been surprised that we’re staying in the parish. If the Church of England were helping us buy or rent a retirement home, as it does for many clergy, this would not be allowed. I understand why. The temptation to interfere in a successor’s work is very strong for clergy who are incapable of minding their own business (that’s most clergy, then). I promise it will not be so with me/us.

I will not be allowed to function as a priest in any of the churches I currently serve. In an emergency I’d be willing to play the organ—but only in an emergency—for there is nothing more likely to deter an applicant than knowing that his predecessor still has a finger in the pie. And I know all about the problems faced by a local colleague as a result of his predecessor hanging around like a bad smell.

For the record, Susan chose the retirement home—and rightly so, after following me around for decades. She cares nothing for unwritten rules, and anyway if there were an argument between bishop and SWMBO, I know who’d win.

It’s worth remembering in these anxiety-inducing “in-between” times that the whole of life is “in-between”.

The trouble is that we want to be in control. We want to know what will happen later today or tomorrow or next week or next year. We want our lives to be orderly. But life is not orderly. And anyway, orderly so often means boring, and as you know I am certain that there are few things worse than boring people.

It’s one thing to want a vague idea of the shape of the next few months, but it’s another to let this vague outline become rigid. And so many people do. They leave the house at the same time every day, sit in the same seat in the same café every day, eat and drink the same stuff every day, see the same people every day, watch the same TV programmes … and so on.

As far as I’m concerned this is a living death. If I’m ever in this position, please someone get a knife and slit my throat. But make sure the knife is sharp. Very sharp.

I’ve already mentioned chucking out. We have moved ten times since we married in 1973. Out chattels have crossed the Irish Sea four times. Each move has resulted in a chucking out. Despite this, I’m astonished and appalled by the amount of crap we’ve collected over the last five years in Burton. Neither of us is free from this, although it’s no secret that while I’m a chucker-out, Susan is a hoarder. But when faced with the prospect of moving from a nine-room house to a five-(smaller)-room house, there is no choice.

I’ve often written and preached about to need to chuck out, usually in the context of the rubbish we carry around in our heads. Attitudes that once sustained us but no longer do so; things we used to like and depend on but have now become addictions (demons) and obsessions; ways of thinking that limit us. And this leads me back to the need to accept that we’re not in control and to be open to all the possibilities that life brings.

One day—later today maybe—you’ll be dead. So before it’s too late, embrace uncertainty now, don’t be afraid, try new things, and remain open-minded like a child. Didn’t someone once say this over and over again?

Happy autumn to you all.

We’re all in this together

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Homily for the Mayor’s Civic Service at St Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent, on 19 May 2019.

Colin, thank you for inviting me to be your Chaplain. You got in just in time, for I’m 69 in a couple of weeks, and I retire in October. I was surprised to be invited because I’m told I’ve gained a reputation for rattling cages and pricking pomposity. But you, Colin, intimated to me that was why you asked me. So fasten your seatbelts and off we go.

This is not a good time to be a Church of England clergyman. It’s not a good time to be a public representative of a deeply flawed institution that comes across as arrogant, hypocritical and inhuman: an organisation perceived to have provided a safe haven for child molesters, and one that cares more about its own reputation than its victims. Reprehensible behaviour by a few clergy tarnishes us all. If it’s the case that to err is human and to forgive divine, then to deny and cover-up and ignore belong to the Church of England. This is far removed from the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, and indeed from the wisdom of all cultures and religions worth bothering about.

Similarly, I don’t suppose this is a good time to be a politician. Worse, in fact, because unlike the church—which is pretty irrelevant to most people—politicians affect everybody. Over recent years in this country we have had politicians feathering their own nests, favouring friends and members of their families, fiddling expenses, spending public money for private gain. And now brexit: the stupidity and pride of buffoons in Westminster at their pernicious playground politics fiddling while the UK burns. Reprehensible behaviour by a few public representatives tarnishes you all.

So, council members, you have my sympathy and support in trying to do all that is good, all that is noble, all that is delightful and admirable. If I can do anything to help, even if only by listening, then here I am.

All this raises the question why we humans behave like this. What goes on in the human psyche?

Those of you brought up with some residual knowledge of Christianity might recall that Jesus’s three temptations in the desert can be whittled down to one: the urge to show off: “look at me, look at me” we are tempted to shout. Resist it! About 2000 years ago, Evagrios in what is now northern Iraq, set down some profound observations concerning these temptations. He wrote that our human frailty arises from three so-called demons.

  • The first is the demon that incites us to take more than we need. Greed. And not just greed for food or drink, but greed for emotions, for pleasure, for possessions. For power.
  • The second is the demon that incites us to take what we want simply because somebody else has it. Envy. Begrudgery,
  • And the third, the worst of all, is the demon that incites to seek the approval of others—to please other people into whose good books we wish to slither, into whose beds we wish to crawl. By the way, don’t be put off by the word demon.  These days we think of demons in terms of addictions or obsessions.

What has all this to do with councillors? The answer is everything. It’s these demons that, despite our best intentions, drag us down. It’s these demons that we need to be on guard against if we are to replace selfishness with selflessness for the sake of the common good. And I don’t imagine that, as public representatives, you are in the game for selfish reasons.

When making decisions, and weighing up options, I encourage us all to think about what motivates us. Is it personal gain? Is it revenge? Is it the common good? Which of the options before us is likely to bring delight? Which is likely to lead to misery?

All of us, public representatives and private citizens, would do well to set aside the needs of the clubs or parties we belong to, and instead concentrate on the needs of individuals. It’s the effects on individuals that make the headlines. It’s the effects on individuals that lead to misery or delight. If we get the little stuff right, the big stuff will look after itself.

The second reading today was the story of the Good Samaritan. In those days, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, I suppose a bit like the tribes that support rival football clubs. Nevertheless, it’s the enemy that stops to help—he puts compassion for another human being before tribal loyalty. Help can come from the most unlikely source. We’d do well to accept help from anybody. We’re all in this together.

The priest and Levite who went out of their way to avoid the injured man were not bad people. They were on their way to Jerusalem in order to do their jobs in the Temple. For them to come in contact with a bleeding man would render them ritually unclean and unfit to do their jobs. In refusing to help they put duty before compassion. I guess we’ve all fallen into that trap, some of us many times over. I urge you as public representatives to keep compassion at the forefront of your minds in all that you say and do. Compassion for the underdog.

We’re all in this together. All humanity. I don’t know what image of the thing called God you have—if indeed you have one. I try not to have one, because it limits me, but I can live with the idea that God, the Divine, is beauty in all its manifestations: beauty of character, of action, of intent, of the senses, of craftsmanship—whatever is delightful. Delight. Furthermore, I have no doubt that there is God in every single one of us on the planet. We are all made in the image of God. We are all bits of God, even though we often do our best to hide it.

Some of you may have heard of particles in the blood called platelets. When we cut ourselves, platelets are attracted to the site of injury where they plug the hole to help stop the bleeding. Platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for, surprise, surprise, very large cells. Just as platelets are broken off bits of a megakaryocyte, so we are broken off bits of God. Just as platelets plug gaps and aid healing, so we must plug gaps and aid healing. We’re all in this together.

Finally, I ask you to look at the text of hymn we shall soon sing: And did those feet …

It’s easy to read the words of Blake’s poem as the worst sort of jingoistic piffle. And that is indeed how many people read it. But I doubt it’s what was in Blake’s mind. He was a deeply subversive writer, revolutionary, political, angry. The poem’s first verse is in fact a list of ironic questions:

  • Did those feet walk upon England’s mountain green? No, they did not, but oh that they might.
  • Was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No, he was not, but oh that he were.
  • Did the countenance divine shine upon our clouded hills? No, it did not but oh that it would.
  • Was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills (Oxbridge degree mills by the way)? No, it was not, but oh that it might be.

The second verse inspires us to work for the answers to be yes.  Inspire me to act, to work for justice without which there will never be peace. I will not cease till we have built the holy city here.

And that, sisters and brothers, is what I invite us all to do. We’re all in this together.

Sanctuary of my soul

The-Holy-Eucharist4Monday in Holy Week

I suspect all of us have heard people say ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ There’s always room for one more, so they’d be in good company if they came. We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is painted as, amongst other things, a hypocrite. Today we hear him say that money used to buy oil should be given to the poor, whereas in fact he wanted to filch it for himself. And tomorrow there’s an element of ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ in the Judas story. It puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart:

I want to share something with you: the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.

I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s something of Judas in us all, about our human nature. Biology will play its part.

We left Jesus on Sunday standing at the gates of the city, facing death in the city of wrong. Jesus faces his demons in Gethsemane. We must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we can’t love these demons until we see them, and we can’t see them until we look them full in the face.

What are our demons? Let’s look at the demons in the Passion narratives. There are three obvious headings: failure to confront reality, that is to say, denials; mob justice; and evasion of responsibility.

Let’s look at them.

  • Denials. Peter’s denials saved his skin—but only for that moment. Later, he wept, overcome with remorse. It’s hard to hear today’s news without being confronted by denials. How can a head of state deny his part in a situation that sees his people starve and killed while he lives in luxury? How can a politician say what is self-evidently not the case? Is anyone guilt-free? Who has not tried to get something for nothing, or used work time for personal business?
  • Mob justice. There are so many stories that illustrate this. Children attacking other children. One news item from 2007 sticks in my mind. In March of that year, The Times reported, a young man was surrounded by a gang with wooden sticks. Witnesses say that teenage girls egged on the attack with shouts of “Kill him, kill him.”
  • Evasion of responsibility. Judas said “it wasn’t me”. Pilate wriggled out of responsibility and washed his hands. Pilate needed to please his superiors. How often have I felt like that? And look at our politicians. It’s easy to pick on them because they set themselves up for it. Look at bankers evading responsibility. Now, we all make mistakes. We all are greedy. We all want the advantages of investment dividends if we are lucky enough to have money invested, and our pensions depend on them. We are all complicit in the sin of the world, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden. I accept all that, and I can’t and don’t condemn anyone for faults that also afflict me. However, the arrogance and lack of remorse that we see in public life is something beyond all this. According to the Gospels, Jesus was censorious about very little, but always, always, always about hypocrisy and complacency.

So three headings, but in truth they can be compressed into one: the sin of Adam—trying to be what we are not. The fig leaf has nothing to do with covering up our genitals, but is about covering up our naked selves by putting on a mask, a persona, to hide our true faces. We deny the truth because of our need to save face, but it’s not the face that suffers. It is the inner self that I harm when I deny what is evident to others. This inner self that is the Christ within, the Divine within. When we harm others, we wound the Christ within as surely as any nail on the cross.

I want to give you some biological basis for the Christ within. I begin with a prayer from the Liturgy of S Basil, addressed to Our Lady.

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens. Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices; glory to you.

“He made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens”. What a wonderful image.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, theotokos. Now, just listen to this reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. The woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her. The mother is changed by this, and it happens within a week of fertilization – before she knows she’s pregnant.

All this is biology.

Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy, Jesus’ cells invade Mary. Mary does not reject Jesus. Jesus and Mary exchange material. Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity; she’s one of us. She is the type. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine spark within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote: ‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ This is astonishing.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta.  So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I shall patent it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is an example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. We can be so much more effective when cooperating than when acting alone. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it’s a different story.

Given that we have this divine core within, why do we do rotten things like Peter, like Judas, like Pilate? Why, as Paul said, do we do what we know we shouldn’t, and don’t do what we know we should? Where do the demons come from? I don’t know. I look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. The development of ego perhaos? But there are spiritual battles going on in us all the time, and these are with the demons that we need to guard against.

Using the image of God within, how do we allow this divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to the still small voice, the implanted word.
  • Mary did not resist. It’s not that we have to do something actively, it’s that we have to stop doing something, and the thing we need to stop doing is resisting.
  • Thus we let the divine core within expand to fill our skins and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

Honest self-examination is a key to this. It can melt away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the Divine light shines in our souls and we see our demons, addictions, starkly illuminated. But as Isaac the Syrian said, it is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. Only then can we repent. Isaac talks of three stages in the way of union: penitence, purification and perfection – that is to say, conversion of the will, liberation from the passions (detachment), and the acquisition of that perfect love which is the fullness of grace.

Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is a co-redemptrix. But remember, Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. At our baptisms, each one of us becomes a Christ. As the Divine within suffuses all our tissues, so we have the new creation happening in and around our cells. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Finish then thy new creation, wrote Charles Wesley, when we shall be changed from glory into Glory.

Mary enables this mystical intermingling of human and divine. It is based on sound theology and, amazingly, on sound biology. In the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, the Saviour ‘began his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb.’

The battle for salvation is not about doing stuff and ticking boxes, but rather about relaxing so that the Divine core can expand to fill our skins, pushing out the demons. Imagine these demons as imps. When you recognise one, send it on its way. There’s nothing like the light of day to make these creatures dissolve. But there is a never-ending supply of them, and they keep us in exile from that inner sanctuary.

Here is a poem that talks of this inner kingdom, the holy of holies within. It was written by 20-year old Charles H Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

From morn to midnight, all day through,
I laugh and play as others do,
I sin and chatter, just the same
As others with a different name.

And all year long upon the stage,
I dance and tumble and do rage
So vehemently, I scarcely see
The inner and eternal me.

I have a temple I do not
Visit, a heart I have forgot,
A self that I have never met,
A secret shrine—and yet, and yet

This sanctuary of my soul
Unwitting I keep white and whole,
Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care
To enter or to tarry there.

With parted lips and outstretched hands
And listening ears Thy servant stands,
Call Thou early, call Thou late,
To Thy great service dedicate.

A feral priest

michael ramseyThere are two biographies of Michael Ramsey, some time Archbishop of Canterbury: the more scholarly by Owen Chadwick, the other more affectionate and gossipy by Ramsey’s one time press officer, Michael De-La-Noye. The latter reports that Ramsey was more than once to be found chanting “I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enlargissez Dieu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

month country 2

In need of restoration

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

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

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

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

Prophecy

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The absent centre

In Dublin I worked with surgeons who in retirement taught anatomy two days a week to medical students. They’d found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves. Here, I work with retired clergy who’ve found an agreeable church community with which they can develop a pastoral relationship, without the hassle of being the Vicar. They’ve found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves.

Now my retirement beckons: I have to go before my 70th birthday on 6 June 2020. Can I survive that long? I’ve been looking at an outline plan for 2019 liturgical events, civic events, meetings, administration. My heart sinks, especially since I have no administrator: it’s all up to me. I dread the prospect of the reigning monarch and/or her consort dying—not only because of the extra work entailed as Vicar of the civic church, but also because she just about holds together the nation in a way that nobody else does, and that I suspect her successors will not. But that’s another story.

I am incredibly tired—mentally, not physically. I look at the prospect of another Lent course, another Easter, another set of Harvests (ugh!), another set of Christingles (ugh, ugh!) with gloom. I feel as if I’m keeping the show on the road merely to give those whose hobby it is to attend church on a Sunday morning the illusion that things are more or less as they were when they were children, a few of whom resist with every ounce of their being anything that challenges that view. I am thus complicit in perpetuating a land of make-believe. I am complicit in keeping people infantilized. It doesn’t help that my vision of ministry is sneered at by the Lambeth politburo. I wonder how many of them were in multi-church ministry with no administrative help.

Church people have expectations of what a Vicar should be. I don’t meet them, thankfully. Church people are rarely open and honest with the Vicar: they tell him what they think he wants to hear—or should want to hear. Exchanges are therefore guarded and sometimes dishonest. I want to give them hugs and suggest that they relax. Sometimes I do, no doubt at the risk of being accused of inappropriate touching. I try to liberate them by being human and outrageous so as to give them permission to do likewise. It sometimes works.

Conversations with non-church people are something else altogether: open, honest, and often astonishingly revealing. They find it refreshing that the Vicar does not meet their expectations. It opens all sorts of doors. They say they like what they hear, for he is not institutionalized and doesn’t talk in Christian-speak jargon.

The volunteers that serve the YMCA night shelter at St Paul’s are by no means all church people. Many of them find it hard to articulate why they do it, but they restore my faith in humanity in a way that some church people with “a proud look and high stomach” do not. Such generosity seems to me to be Christianity in action. I don’t get that same feeling at the weekday masses attended by a handful of people.

I look forward with apprehension. I grieve the loss of plans, hope, prospects. It doesn’t matter that they may not have been well-formed, I’m aware that something is being lost, that things are slipping through my fingers. More than likely they were never actually in my fingers—but I thought they were. I thought I was beginning to get a grip on them, but when I look at my hands, I see they are evaporating. And it’s not principally a matter of deteriorating eyesight and hearing.

I could help occasionally with services at other churches. We’re staying in Burton, but many of its churches are not to my taste. They tend to be conservative theologically and undisciplined liturgically, whereas I’m for radical theology and traditional liturgy. For entirely understandable reasons, I’m not allowed to set foot in the churches I currently serve..

Music? My addiction to music developed in my teens as sublimation for erotic and sexual impulses driven by increasing circulating testosterone. Given the culture and family in which I grew up, that was pretty revolutionary. Music still brings me to heights and depths of emotion and I will enjoy it as long as my senses allow. I could play for services, but the number of clergy who want organists is rapidly decreasing as muzak replaces music. I am thankful for Rolleston Choral Society.

Writing? Who cares what I think? I’ve read again some of my recent blogs and have deleted them—exercises in self-indulgence and hubris. I suppose this is another.

Volunteering? Burton YMCA might be able to use me. I’m deeply concerned about the mental health of young men.

“Might be able to use me”: that phrase is a bit of a give-away. What does the real Stanley want? Is there such a thing?

Remembrance Sunday 2018

thiepval-memorial-missing-2Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.

Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.

That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.

Let’s move on 100 years.

Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.

Why do we humans behave like this?

We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.

The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”

We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.

I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.

I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.

What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?

In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.

If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.

The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.

When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.

Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.