Remembrance 2019

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielThis is a bittersweet time of year for Monkhice. October used to be a month of celebration, since all our children were born in October (the rhythm method of conception). There are still birthdays of course, but now with anniversaries of funeral and requiem. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness comes with unwelcome ambivalence. It will never be otherwise.

And then November.

Remembrance Day brings anger. The stupidity of strutting generals of the Great War, using people as disposable toy soldiers in the pursuit of their family squabbles. Contemporary politics is differently deplorable, with the wholesale telling of porkies to gain the approval of the even more powerful. The words “lying turds” come to mind.

Remember the stupidity of war. Remember how killing never achieves anything other than bitterness. Remember how bashing people on the head to get them to agree with you never works. Never.

Maybe what we really, really want is forgiveness.

We need to forgive the wrongs of others. Let go of them, let go of retribution. Our resentments don’t hurt the person that did us wrong—they hurt us. They grow inside, a cancer of the mind, making us bitter and twisted. More surely and more swiftly than any malignancy, they destroy us. Think of Miss Havisham. Hold your resentments in your hands and throw them over your shoulders. Leave them behind.

Most of all, and most difficult of all, forgive yourself.

In the news today is a man who joined an Iranian group opposed to the Ayatollahs. He has been in exile for 30 years. He is 60 and has never seen his son since infancy. He can’t forgive himself for his decision to join. Poor man. How I sympathize with him, even though my own actions might not have had such sad consequences. And then I hear a voice within say “it’s perverted pride, you know, and a kind of arrogance, to think that your sins are unforgiveable”. Well, be that as it may, it doesn’t help much.

Re-membering.  Think of it as putting the members, the pieces, back together again—what all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t do. Reintegration, restoration, anabolism as opposed to diabolism or catabolism. The rubble cleared away so that new foundations can be laid. I wish this were as easy to do as it is to write.

The poppies of Flanders grew because the machinery of war churned up the ground, provoking dormant seeds to life. We can hope that the turmoil of confronting the past will allow dormant seeds to flower within us. Who knows what wonderful things might result? This is healing—nothing to do with cure, but rather working with the reality of our situation.

I repeat: maybe what we really, really want is forgiveness. Self-acceptance.

So, relax. Celebrate your joys. Acknowledge your mistakes. Cuddle them. Love the hell out of yourself.

Then you might be able to change yourself a bit. You certainly won’t ever change anyone else.

Hugh would have been 42 today

Hugh2I find his birthday more affecting than the anniversary of his death—in three days’ time. I don’t know why, it just is.

Hardly a day goes by without him cropping up in my thoughts, but then that’s true for Gloria (Victoria) and Ed too. With Hugh, though, it’s not what he might be doing, or hoping that the cold is a bit better, or the marathon training is going well, or whatever, but rather an emptiness.

There was a time when the overwhelming malignancy of loss blotted out any possibility of hope or delight or joy. That is not so now. The loss is there, certainly, the waste of a good and heroic man, father, husband and son, but now mingled with memories of mischief, boldness, pugnacity and perseverance. A smile on the face and a tear on the cheek.

I suppose this is progress. It’s interesting to observe and note my feelings and, as it were, cuddle them. And I do. For months after the catastrophe, maybe even a year, the lament of King David at the death of his son was always with me: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!  And it still is, but periodically now, not constantly. Unpredictably, but temporarily.

HughAs I’ve written elsewhere, the death of a son affected this particular father in some interesting ways. I no longer waste my time on things I don’t have to or won’t enjoy. The exhaustion that came with the devastation—like being assaulted by the greatest imaginable physical force—has not quite dissipated, and indeed is prolonged by tiredness that comes with the culmination of 43 years of ministry to students and parishioners. But I am hopeful.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rest of life, and as I retire officially in five days’ time, the sense of uncertainty is heightened. It’s a modern disease of course, this quest for purpose. It’s not helped by a society that measures success according to rank, qualifications, wallet, and size—none of which matters when you’re in the coffin.

Familyl’m sick of doing. Maybe it’s time for a bit of being. SWMBO has tended me for forty six years, so now I shall do my best to tend her. I’m free of having to organise and administer and chivvy a bit, so I’ll be better able to think, to write, to spread lovingkindness with eye-twinkling mischief in all the ways I can to all the people I can. Doubtless along the way I’ll continue to provoke and irritate and exasperate.

Hugh had PhDs in those qualities.

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.