Angels and demons: a farewell

MichaelS Michael and All Angels 2019

Revelation 12: 7-17. Matthew 18: 1-10

Rambling Rector’s last Sunday homily as Vicar of Burton upon Trent

When you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

He was a terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest sort and, in fact, he was the devil himself. One day the devil was in a very good humour because he had just finished a mirror which had this peculiar power: everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it seemed to dwindle to almost nothing at all, while everything that was worthless and ugly became most conspicuous and even uglier than ever. In this mirror the loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the very best people became hideous, or stood on their heads and had no stomachs. If a person had a freckle it was sure to spread until it covered both nose and mouth. If a good, pious thought passed through anyone’s mind, it showed in the mirror as a carnal grin.

“That’s very funny!” said the devil, who, laughed aloud at his invention. 

The hobgoblin’s apprentices scurried about with the mirror until there was not a person alive that had not been distorted. Then they flew up to heaven itself, to scoff at the angels, and our Lord. The higher they flew, the wider the mirror grinned. They could hardly manage to hold it. Higher they flew, and higher still, nearer to heaven and the angels. Then the grinning mirror trembled with such violence that it slipped from their hands and fell to the earth, where it splintered into billions of bits, or perhaps even more.

And now it caused more trouble than before it was broken, because some of the fragments were smaller than a grain of sand and went flying throughout the wide world. Once they got in people’s eyes they would stay there. These bits of glass distorted everything the people saw, and made them see only the bad side of things, for every little bit of glass kept the same power that the whole mirror had possessed.

A few people even got a glass splinter in their hearts, and that was a terrible thing, for it turned their hearts into lumps of ice. Some of the fragments were made into spectacles, and evil things came to pass when people put them on. The fiend was so tickled by it all that he laughed till his sides were sore.

But fine bits of the glass are still flying through the air.

Like the passage from Revelation that we heard earlier, it’s a fairy story about the origin of the human propensity to sin, to do bad things, to do things that harm others and ourselves. It’s the beginning of Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

It makes the connexion between devil and diabolic. Diabolic, in contrast to anabolic, means splintering, and here we have splinters of evil glass that pass into eyes and heart to distort vision and turn the heart to ice. You don’t have to look too hard to see these twisted characteristics of world leaders: Pyongyang, Damascus, Khartoum, even Westminster, for this nation is being splintered asunder. It is diabolical.

But this applies not just to “them”. It applies as much to “us”. It’s our tendency to hard-heartedness, lack of compassion, forgetfulness of loving-kindness, determination to see the worst in people and situations. It is egocentricity. It is self-obsession. It is total self-indulgence. And that is Satanism.

Am I deluded to use such terms? Listen to S Paul: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Revelation, Paul, and Andersen tell vividly of what Michaelmas is about: the battle between good and evil, the “force fields” in which we exist. It’s a personal battle, in my experience often lost in a fit of temper or a surge of adrenaline: the things I do in the heat of the moment, no chance even to consider consequences, leading to regret and shame.

The question is: how to deal with this? Does Scripture have anything to say?

The Common Worship lectionary for Michaelmas does not: it gives the story of Nathaniel with Jesus telling him that he’ll see angels ascending and descending. I can’t make anything of that. But the historic lectionary of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, comes spectacularly to my aid for Michaelmas with these words of Jesus:

Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

There are other wonderful bits of today’s gospel, not least that anyone who harms a child should be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. With all the church scandals, I sometimes wish we took that literally. But for Michaelmas the message is that the forces of evil within are more likely to be vanquished if we assume the mantle of a child.

Here are some of the characteristics of childlikeness that we might use in our struggles: innocence, trust, fearlessness, imagination, having fun, making the best of things.

I spoke of some of this last week, particularly at S Modwen’s where I urged you to approach the future with imagination and without fear. Fear is the opposite of love. Fear leads to hatred. Graham Greene wrote that hatred is failure of imagination. Fear leads to suspicion, name-calling, abuse, oppression, cowardice, failure to fight injustice. And fear leads to death of the spirit in both oppressor and victim. We harm ourselves every bit as much as we harm others.

Am I suggesting, then, that we should become like children in order to fight wickedness?

I am.

But I’m not so naïve as to think that we don’t need to be careful. Our world is one of suspicion, cynicism and selfishness as much as it is of beauty, delight and joy. We need to be watchful. We need 360° vision. We need to consider likely consequences of our actions. But the more we can adopt the attitudes of childlikeness—not childishness—as a starting point, the more likely it is that good will follow.

This message is hammered home in The Snow Queen. It’s the trust of a child, Gerda, that helps her confront adversity. It’s the persistence of a child that keeps her going. It’s the prayers of a child that defeat the demons around the Snow Queen’s ice palace. And in what is quite the most moving part of the story, it’s the tears of a child that melt Kay’s heart of ice and wash out the evil splinters in his eye.

And the result? Reunion, restoration, rescue, healing, salvation, Make no mistake, the two characters in the story are in truth parts of you and me. Oh, how our splintered souls long for wholeness.

Unless you become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This has nothing to do with the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven—eternal life—is a quality of life here and now. It’s an attitude of mind, a way of looking at the world. It is life abundant before death. This is not a matter of appeasing an irascible sky pixie, or collecting nectar points for a seat in heavenly club-class. It’s a matter of making the world we live in more like the kingdom of heaven by fighting injustice and spreading loving-kindness.

Some people believe in angels. I like the idea of Michael the fighter, of Gabriel the messenger, of Raphael the healer, of Uriel the bringer of light. I like the idea of hosts of angels surrounding us, protecting and directing us. But for me it’s just more poetry, and it doesn’t affect my basic Michaelmas message about childlikeness bringing a glimpse of heaven.

Sunday worship is about precisely that: giving us a glimpse of heaven. Before mass, the vestry prayer often includes the words: “may our worship be a vision of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that others may be brought closer to you”. Good sounds, beautiful sights, inspiring words, lovely smells. One of my descriptions of the thing people call God is beauty in all its manifestations, and I have tried my best to cultivate that.

BurtonOnTrentPaul06We’re in S Paul’s, and for me to come into this place several times a week, and bathe in its glass, its furnishings, and the sense of the numinous they help create, has been a real joy. When I came to Burton six years ago with a view to applying for the job, I’d already seen the cool elegance of S Modwen’s, and I knew the moment I stepped in here that I could be at home. And then when a year or so later we unearthed that glorious altar frontal, I recognised it as the Bodley/Watts original: it’s the same design as in the Bodley-designed chapel at Queens’ College Cambridge where I was an undergraduate. What a delight!

This all contributes to the beauty of the liturgy in which relaxed ritual, with contributions from others, give a real sense of “numinous in community”. The party line is that in our services we honour the Lord, but since there is a bit of the Divine in each of us, in truth we are honouring ourselves, we are honouring the best of humanity. And that is a exactly as it should be: we refresh ourselves so as to enable us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed—and remember that unless we do that, all this churchy stuff is utterly meaningless.

It’s not only in church that we can experience this “numinous in community”. Some people, I’m told, have such a feeling at a rugby match. I gather that there is a popular sport in this country in which a round ball is kicked about, and millions of people find spiritual refreshment in that, however implausible I find it. Does this mean that church is merely a hobby for us, like sport for others? Maybe so, but I leave my successor to explore that. Meanwhile, let me tell you a story from my past that at least one of you here will recognize.

About 20 years ago when I was Professor of Anatomy in Dublin, I was standing with a colleague in the Dissection Room – a huge room housing 20+ cadavers and 200+ students and staff. The Anatomy course I was responsible for was acknowledged as being first rate, and the atmosphere was buzzing. Some students were dissecting, some chatting, some looking at x-rays, some considering symptoms and patient stories. Some staff were talking, some listening, some dissecting. For a brief moment I was overwhelmed: I felt as if I were in the presence of something Divine. My colleague must have felt similarly, for he turned to me and said: “you have made this happen”. It is my most treasured memory of sixteen years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Since July 2014 I have tried to provoke you to think, to shake you up, to let you see how right Diderot was when he urged enlargissez Dieu! I’ve tried to get you to pluck out eyes that offend—that is, to see differently, to move beyond the Sunday school pap of “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. And I hope our liturgy has enabled us to glimpse Divine grace and glory.

Sisters and brothers, I thank you for the fun we’ve had together, the joy and delight. Since my heart is in large part in Ireland, and since I’d like my ashes to be scattered on an Irish mountain, where almost four years ago I scattered my elder son’s, let me say:

Go raibh maith agaibh. Slán agus beannacht leat. Bail ó Dhia ort.

Thank you. The grace of God be with you. God bless you

Let me leave you with one question, a most profound question that takes us back to Revelation, to The Snow Queen, to today’s gospel:

would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become?

School farewells

8FE545E47BBA9025EF6F58790423E056“Hello Stanley” pipes up a cheery little voice behind me. It’s about 8.45 am and I’m walking up Wetmore Road to Holy Trinity C of E School for what they call Collective Worship and I call Assembly. I’m going sedately, taking in the local scenery of what used to be granary stores, malt houses, and architect-designed office blocks of unsurpassed ugliness. I’m going so slowly in fact that the patter of tiny feet overtakes me.

I shall miss the young people. They’re delightful: courteous, smiling, chatty. I know that for some, home lives are chaotic, and school for them is the safe place, the place of stability. But there’s no sign of that in how they deal with me.

I had a bit of a job getting them to call me Stanley, without any handle. The staff were in favour of Rev Stanley—ugh on so many levels—and were reluctant to let go. The children, though, took to it immediately. Father Stanley might have been OK, but I’m pretty sure that some of them wouldn’t be too sure what a father was, in any sense. So, Stanley it was and Stanley it remained.

Holy Trinity (Primary) School is the only Church of England school in Burton. It’s ironic that I should be the incumbent looking after it (for historical reasons, it’s attached to S Modwen’s), since I’m one of the few clerics that think institutionalised religion should have nothing to do with state education. But I’ve done my best.

Throughout my thirteen years as a cleric, I’ve always had schools. They are not my comfort zone. I’m used to dealing with late adolescents and young adults, not 5 to 10 year olds. I used to lose sleep over what I’d say to them. However, I learnt that they’re always fascinated by stories, especially personal stories about my childhood, and when I was at school. I know that other people do Bible stuff, so I try to put Christian teaching in what I hope is an everyday context, and I certainly heap no burdens of guilt or shoulds or oughts on them. The most difficult thing is to explain to, say, a six year old why, a few months after the nativity play, we’re telling of Jesus’ gruesome death. And as for the resurrection …. It’s too easy to be banal.

School work is now so specialised, and if you’re on a governing body (as I was) so demanding, that ordinary parish priests who find it stressful should have the option of handing it over to specialists who are not lumbered by routine parochial stuff. But, looking out of the window, I see pigs flying past.

I visited Holy Trinity four to six times a term. The other school I went to, Shobnall Primary, is not a church school, and I was there twice a term. It’s across the road from S Aidan’s and they use church at Harvest, Christmas and Easter, although that can’t go on much longer because soon the increasing number of pupils won’t fit. Shobnall children are lovely too, and at my last assembly earlier this week, I was fist-bumped and cuddled.

As I say, I shall miss the children. I’ve learnt far more from them than I suspect they have from me.

“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.

Christian children all must be …

220px-Meek_Mild_As_IfHomily for Proper 15, year C. Luke 12:49-56

With thanks to my friend Rod Prince.

In four months’ time you’ll be singing about the Prince of Peace, while I, for the first time in almost 70 years, will be free to enjoy the fleshpots of Maspalomas or some other sacred spot. “Christian children all must be” you’ll warble, “mild, obedient, good as he.”

As if.

One of the many sins of the Church has been to promote the travesty of Jesus as nice, meek and mild. Meek maybe, in the proper sense of humble and unassuming—but “mild”? Oh per-leeze! Sunday School pap. “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”.

Making Jesus cuddly—and many do—is patronising arrogance. It’s based on the notion that nanny knows best, and that horses must not be frightened.  Consequently, Jesus is castrated and faith emasculated such that the focus is no more than a cross between fairy godmother and sky pixie. Why are we surprised when people, faced with such an anodyne Jesus, decide they have better ways of spending Sundays—and indeed their lives. No wonder people stay away in droves. No wonder men hate going to church.

Jesus talks about baptism. Don’t be deceived. The Greek word for baptism means to dip or to be submerged, but it’s also used to describe a ship that has sunk, someone submerged by drink or drugs or life, a scholar overcome by his subject. He’s talking about the doom that is to be his. In Jewish theology fire is judgement: for them, hell is more than just an oven, but a place of Judgement.  Jesus says that he has come to bring judgement, but before that can happen he must be submerged by suffering and death. That is the way to new life: tried in the fire, phoenix rising from the ashes—for him and for us.

These are the words of a man deeply in tune with human psychology and human experience. He shakes his audience out of complacency to get them to see that things really can’t go on as they are if life is to flourish. The Jews believed they were a chosen people, simply being a Jew enough to secure eternal salvation. This complacency enraged him. “You’re good at predicting the weather, but you refuse to see the likely consequences of your actions and attitudes”. It’s like a new Vicar who sees with fresh eyes what must be done, but who meets complacency and obstruction at every turn.

Jesus is a radical. He condemns very little, but always, always, always pretence and hypocrisy. His message of freedom from religious and secular oppression, from fear, from intimidation, from control, comes at a price. There are always those who will kill to retain power and the status quo. We only have to consider struggles throughout history in all empires—including the British Empire—look no further than Ireland. Oh, how we need this man in today’s church with spineless, hypocritical leaders, and in national life with lying and deceitful politicians.

This struggle is never without cost. Just as an abscess can’t heal until the knife has been plunged in to let out the fetid pus, so the sword of righteousness must be wielded to decapitate the heads of the wicked. This will divide nations, communities and families—remember what Simeon said when the infant was presented in the Temple: “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many”—yet the struggle has to be waged. There will never be peace until there is justice. Fighting for justice is love in action. If you are not engaged in that battle you have no right to call yourself a Christian. No wonder Christians are persecuted. Christians should be persecuted.

This is not about my standing several feet above criticism and ranting about other people. It’s certainly not about you thinking that because you come to church you’re more virtuous than others, and that you can’t wait to get rid of this Vicar who makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s about you looking into your own heart and using the sword to cut out the hypocrisy and double standards therein. You may criticize politicians, but you’re just like them—you, though, don’t have as many opportunities to display your defects. And make no mistake, I’m no better than you. No worse either.

Christianity is not a security blanket that we use to insulate ourselves from the world. It’s not prayers to a sky pixie that we hope will make good our cock-ups. It’s an acceptance that I am imperfect, you are imperfect, he/she/it is imperfect, and that healing comes only when individually we face the reality of who and what we are. Only by excising the vain things that charm us most—that is, dying to self—will we rise like the lark ascending to new heights.

What a joy

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A good vicar

It is Rambling Rector’s considered opinion, based on 11 years as an incumbent, that people who contact him in their quest to find out about family history are – how shall he put this? – ah yes – a pain in the hole.

They seem to imagine that he has nothing better to do than to drop everything, run to their aid, and accede to their every loopy demand.

They seem to imagine that when he sees an email in his inbox headed “Family history enquiry”, his heart overflows with joy and his life is complete. “Oh whoopee!” they think he thinks, “another enquiry about dead people. Yippee!”

Reader, this is far from the truth. This Vicar, be it understood, is concerned with the living. He doesn’t give two hoots about the dead or about memorials or vaults or tombs or other manifestations of family arrogance and pride.

It’s icing on the cake when people announce that they’re coming to Burton on such and such a date, or are standing at the church, and demand that someone let them in. RR can barely be civil at such impoliteness. The notion that they might have consulted in advance is foreign to them. RR detects an attitude of entitlement that is common in the white middle classes. Perhaps they think that the Church of England is part of the NHS, funded by their taxes.

To all of you out there who might be thinking of contacting the Vicar of the church where your forbears lived, or worshipped, or were baptized, married or buried centuries ago, I say “don’t”. Just don’t.

Find another hobby. Go for a walk. Kick the cat. Take up foxy boxing.

But leave the Vicar alone.

Not just a room with a view

64560001_10157419352417292_2862819861422145536_nTrevor Thurston-Smith’s homily for Corpus Christi at S Paul’s, Burton-on-Trent, on 20 June 2019

It’s a real privilege to be with you this evening and I’d like to thank Fr Stanley for his kind invitation, and all of you for your warm welcome. It’s also good to see a number of familiar faces from Horninglow.

Those of you who know me may remember that I trained for the priesthood at Chichester Theological College. The College closed in 1994 – eight years after I left – when the Bishops did to ordination training what Beeching did to the railways.

The former college building is now a Residential Care Home, and more than one rather unkind wag has been known to say, “No change there then.” When I last visited Chichester, it seemed that the old College Chapel was being used as a dance studio. I suppose there’s some continuity there too, as some students were rather obsessed with liturgical choreography.

Chichester stood very firmly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, so most of its students came from parishes where Mass with vestments, bells and smells and reciting The Angelus were the norm. Many of them were also familiar with that Catholic devotion known as Benediction.

For anyone who’s not familiar with it, this is a service at which a consecrated host is placed in a receptacle known as a monstrance. Usually the monstrance is highly decorated and the bit in which the sacrament is exposed is often designed to look like the sun. The monstrance is placed on the altar, usually surrounded by a multiplicity of candles, for adoration by the congregation. Prayers and devotions are then said, and finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the congregation. The priests’ hands are veiled to show that the people are being blessed not by him or her but rather by Christ himself, present in the blessed sacrament.

The college authorities at Chichester were worried that this practice would be seen by some as too extreme for an Anglican Theological College, so it was banned. As a compromise arrangement, the Bishop of Chichester held a service of Benediction in his private Chapel on the first Monday evening of every month, and students from the College were invited to attend, and did so enthusiastically. On the remaining Monday evenings of the month, in the College Chapel, we had a rather bizarre observance that was known rather inappropriately as ‘Exposition’. This involved the doors of the tabernacle on the high altar being opened, supposedly to reveal the sacrament within. The trouble was that the high altar was miles away up at the east end of the chapel, and there was a space and another altar between it and the nave. In good light, with a strong pair of binoculars, there was a slight chance that students on the front row might just be able to discern the outline of the ciborium – a sort of lidded chalice – that held the reserved sacrament.

It was all a bit of a farce, so it was I suppose inevitable that on one occasion, as the Principal solemnly opened the tabernacle, genuflected devoutly and prepared to walk away, a student felt moved to burst into song:

“A room with a view…..”

Somehow that student did go on to be ordained, but he’s now the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Church of England.

Well that’s enough nostalgia, for now at any rate. We’re here this evening on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, to give thanks for the gift of the Eucharist – this wonderful sacrament in which we receive Christ in a special way.

You may wonder why we need to do this. After all, we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday as we commemorate with particular poignancy our Lord’s last supper with the disciples.

The problem with Maundy Thursday, though, is that there’s really far too much going on. There’s the foot-washing and the giving of the new commandment to love one another; there’s Judas the betrayer slinking off into the darkness to do the dirty deed; there’s Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and, of course, the terrible looming prospect of his impending death.

So the church in her wisdom, decided to have this separate celebration focussing purely on the Eucharist itself.

Some Christians of course – to say nothing of those outside the church –  will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Well the fuss is about the fact that this is the one and only service that Christ himself instructed us to hold. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Hold a family service, a ‘Songs of Praise’ or Choral Matins in memory of me”. Instead he told them to take bread and wine and to do this. Other services have their place, of course, but the Eucharist is central to our worship precisely because it is what Christ has commanded us, his disciples, to do.

But why did he command it?

The clue lies in the language he used.

The word used in the Gospel that is rather inadequately translated into the rather ‘wet’ English word ‘remembrance’ is actually the Greek word ‘anamnesis’, and this means far more than a simple looking back; it’s far more potent that the kind of nostalgia I’ve wallowed in this evening. Rather it describes a form of recollection that can impact powerfully on the present and change someone’s behaviour in the here and now.

From this, of course, comes the Catholic doctrine of ‘Real Presence’ and the idea that the Eucharist is far more than just a symbolic memorial. As someone once eloquently said, “The Eucharist isn’t a funeral tea for a dead prophet”.

Many years ago I was shocked when a very Catholic-minded priest whom I respected greatly said in the course of a retreat, “I’m not stupid enough to worry about what does or doesn’t happen to a piece of bread.”  But as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself thinking exactly the same thing. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly believe that Christ is especially, mysteriously and wonderfully present in the sacrament, but I really can’t be bothered to get wound up about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation, or debating how God actually does it. Let’s face it, it’s a mystery that we’re never going to understand this side of the grave.

In any case, surely what really matters isn’t what God does to a bit of bread, but rather what that bit of bread does to us; and that brings me back to what Jesus was up to at the last supper.

When he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it; when he poured the wine, blessed it and shared it, he was giving the disciples a means of anamnesis – a means of recollecting him, of recalling his death and his giving of himself – a means of remembering that was so potent that it would impact powerfully on their present and change them.

Tonight, we are giving thanks for this means of remembering that is so potent, that it changes and transforms us in the here and now.

If you’ll allow me just one last reference to Chichester, our Principal used to get a real bee in his bonnet about people who received communion and then immediately genuflected before going back to their seat. His argument was very logical. He pointed out that a priest carrying the sacrament wouldn’t genuflect to the sacrament elsewhere because his focus would be entirely on the sacrament in his hands. So, he went on, when we have just received the sacrament into ourselves, we shouldn’t be reverencing it externally elsewhere, we should instead be honouring and rejoicing in the Christ who is now within us. He went on, “If you really can’t help yourself and you must genuflect, for goodness’ sake genuflect to the person next to you at the altar rail and honour the Christ in them”. I quite like that idea, because it certainly resonates with Jesus’ teachings about serving and honouring others and his suggestion that what we do for the least of our brethren we do for him.

There is a danger for all of us that making our communion becomes an act of individual piety and nothing more; that it becomes about ‘me and my Jesus’ so that we forget about the neighbour in whom we are asked to see Christ and whom we are called to love and serve.

The Anglican Priest and theologian Dan Hardy wrote this:

The individual pilgrim shares in the Church’s eucharistic communion, and eucharistic communion extends beyond the sanctuary into all the daily actions of its members……We are to imitate Jesus by walking round, embodying a presence on the actual land.

Those of us who like to call the Eucharist ‘Mass’ need to remember that that word comes from the Latin Missa which means ‘to be sent’. The name comes from the words at the very end of Mass – known as the Dismissal – go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In other words, you’ve reconnected with Christ, you’ve been fed now it’s time to get out there into the world and be Corpus Christi – the body of Christ in our very needy world.

Tonight, as we give thanks for this wonderful sacrament, let us also recall what we are called to be and let us resolve afresh to always approach the Eucharist believing that through it we will recollect Christ in such a powerful way – that we will reflect anew upon the meaning of his death and resurrection – and  that his Truth and his Love will transform us here and now.

So as you make your Communion week after week or even day after day there’s one question I would ask:

Do you, in your life, clearly display Christ mysteriously and wonderfully present in you like the monstrance placed high and visible on the altar.

Or are you just ‘a room with a view’?

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.