Blessed George

George_HerbertAdapted from the Church Magazine for this month

Lent is so early this year I haven’t had time to do anything much for a Lent course. I’m not impressed by the mediocre churnings of what passes for the minds of contemporary bishops and theologians, so given that the Church of England kalendar celebrates him on 27 February. I’m introducing my little darlings to George Herbert, a man at the top of my list for canonisation.

He was born in 1593 to a wealthy family in Montgomery. After Westminster School where he was tutored briefly by Lancelot Andrewes, another truly great mind, he went to Trinity Cambridge, became University Orator, and attracted the favours of King James I/VI. Then in his 30s he gave up this glittering life and was ordained priest, serving near Salisbury. He was feted for his care for parishioners and for providing food and clothing for the needy. (Oh to be a priest serving only one church and a miniscule population.) He survived three years of this, dying of tuberculosis in 1633. Do you suppose TB resulted from over-zealous ministry to the sick?

He left us his reflections on pastoral ministry A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson, still regarded by some as a kind of works manual, though hardly relevant to today’s multiparish clergy, and a collection of poems The Temple. It is thanks to John and Charles Wesley that some have made it into our hymn books: Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing; Teach me, my God and King; King of glory, King of peace; The God of love my shepherd is.

Richard Baxter (theologian, Puritan, hymn writer) said, “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books”. Through his fellow poet Henry Vaughan, Herbert influenced William Wordsworth. His poetry has been set to music most famously by Vaughan Williams, and by others including Berkeley, Britten, Weir, and Walton.

There is something about Herbert that intrigues, fascinates, enthrals, and speaks to me heart-to-heart. His poetry is full of humanity, rantings, depression, perplexity, joy, ecstasy, Biblical allusions, theological concepts, and references to science and culture of the day. I’m not really much into poetry, so it’s presumptuous of me to make any comment, but nevertheless, I can’t resist a few.

In Teach me, my God and King he writes of the famous stone that turneth all to gold. The idea of being able to turn base metal into gold has long been a part of intellectual inquiry. In mystical terms it’s about something that can turn base humanity into the divine: an elixir that cures all ills—indeed this poem is called The Elixir. And Lewis Carroll must have taken his inspiration for passing through the looking glass from this poem.

In Aaron Herbert compares unfavourably his unworthy thoughts as he vests for Divine Worship with the vestments worn by the high priests in the Jerusalem Temple: rich, colourful fabrics with bells attached at the hem.

The God of Love my shepherd is: this is quite the best metrical version of Psalm 23. Why did H W Baker think he could improve on it? Maybe he didn’t know it, though I find that difficult to believe.

The Pulley: am I alone in hearing resonances of Pandora’s box?

Redemption: why does this put me in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s shocking The ones who walk away from Omelas?

Love bade me welcome. Look at the third line from the end: My dear, then I will serve. Who is speaking? Is it Love who speaks, ready to serve the meal? Or is it, as I increasingly think, “me” speaking, acknowledging that unworthy though I may be, I’m not so stubbornly proud as to refuse the meal set before me by the prodigally generous father? If so, ‘serve’ is used as we might say ‘OK, I’m not very good but I’m good enough: I’ll do”.

Perhaps his most striking poem is The Collar. This can’t be a reference to the clerical collar, for that wasn’t worn by clergy until the nineteenth century. It’s about a collar used to restrain an animal. The very human Herbert, like all clergy, chafes time and again at the restrictions that come with being a clerk in holy orders: things you can’t do, things you’d like to say but just can’t, things you don’t want to do but must, ways you have to bite your tongue, ways you must put the needs of others before your own, ways you have to bottle up your emotions for the sake of doing the job well (I still find it dreadful to do funerals of people with parents living). In this 36-line poem Herbert rants and raves at God until four lines from the end, when he’s brought up sharp:

But as I rav’d, and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Me thought I heard one calling, Child: / And I reply’d, My Lord

A lump to my throat every time.

A Vicar’s Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent light

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beCarol Service homily for Burton and Bretby Rotary Clubs

Most people don’t expect a sermon at a carol service. But since a good many of you here today find yourselves in church only once or twice a year, I shan’t resist the urge to poke you.

I hear it said that English society is losing the plot, that it’s obsessed with individualism. People think their rights as individuals trump—pardon the verb—their duties as members of society. I hear it said that the church has contributed by having failed to proclaim its message clearly, that it has given in to the zeitgeist in colluding with the forces of secularism.

If you think this and deplore the way in which the Church has retreated from society to become an inward-looking sect, then I say this to you: stop moaning and start going to church. Put your money where your mouth is and change the church from the inside.

“Ah but”, I hear you say (there’s always an ah but). You say “church is only for old women and children”. “Church these days is sentimental claptrap of flowers and pet services and vicars obsessed with chocolate and coffee”. “Church is about middle class complacency” you say. “Church patronizes me with doggerel songs, playschool prayers and infantile sermons”. “Church doesn’t connect with the joys and sorrows of ordinary people” (I suppose members of Rotary Clubs can be regarded as ordinary people for the purposes of this homily.)

Certainly, when I look at celebrity vicars today, I can understand why people think like that.

So let me correct you about Christianity.

It’s not about chocolate. It’s not about vomit-inducing Jesus-is-my-best-friend talks. It’s not about worshipping texts written by people who thought the earth was flat. It’s not about believing fairy stories. It’s not about asking a sky pixie to sort out your problems because you’re too lazy to take responsibility for yourself.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove. The inner Christ.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s what Christmas is about. As Mary let the infant grow in her belly, so can we let him grow in ours, for we are all Mary. We don’t need to do anything—the Christ-child within is already there; we just need to let it happen—or rather, we just stop resisting. As we have already sung: O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.
  • As the Christ-flame grows within us it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully. That’s the crucifixion.
  • With all the inner rubbish now burnt up, we are resurrected; we ascend to the heights like a hot air balloon now unburdened by ballast. Our inner flame lights the way for others and consumes their burdens. Light as illumination, light as wisdom, light as less heavy.
  • And this with Jesus as the model, the example, divine humanity, the Word.

Christianity is about putting other people on the same pedestal that you’re on yourself. Christianity is about recognizing that we’re all in this together—every living creature, not just humans. Christianity is about giving away your self, because only then will you find yourself. And at this time of year it’s about remembering the importance of being child-like. Not child-ish: selfish, egotistical, me-me-me, but child-like: trusting, exploring, fun-loving, risk-taking.

I leave you with this question: would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become? If not, use this Christmas, this festival of childlikeness, to do something about it.

A very happy Advent and Christmas to you all.

Christus Rex


The welcome

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King 2017 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In Latin it begins, Excita, quaesumus, Domine … This, sad to say, is not about Christmas puddings, but is about asking to be excited.

The Christian life is not easy. It’s not about blindly following a pre-established rulebook or imposing rules on others. Jesus did not write an arid rulebook for his followers. Jesus did not think that belief in him could be attained through imposition. He did not come to establish a new religion. In fact more and more I think he came to abolish religion—to set us free from rules for their own sake, by showing us how to renounce all the vain things that charm us most. He came to show us wisdom that has no need of the rules of jobsworths, no need of prosperity and security for ourselves, no need of always having to be right. Then we are free to live selflessly, ego-free, for others.

A Vicar comes in contact with all sorts and conditions. People who are recovering from illness, people who have been in and out of hospital, people who are out of work, homeless, hungry, at their wits’ end, people who’ve endured more hardship in life that I would wish to endure. I witnessed dignified behaviour from people at their most exposed, most vulnerable, weakest. Regal, king-like.

Is this the kingship of Christ the King? If so, it involves accepting stuff that happens. Being passive: the passion. It involves rising above desolation in the hope of a fresh start. Resurrection and ascension. It’s not comfortable: we have to cope with the darkness of the deeps before we can rise to the sunlight. But the gospel readings of the last few weeks have not been comfortable. All of them have spoken of judgment, of exclusion, of condemnation for those who are late, or lazy, or easily satisfied, or who—as today—are hard-hearted.


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

Who do you remember from your past? Do you remember with gratitude those who punished you, who tried to impress you, who imposed on you? Do you remember with gratitude those who showed you, taught you, encouraged you, goaded you to action perhaps by words that rankled at the time, and then left you to get on with things?

Christ the King never uses power to his own advantage. He shows, teaches, encourages and then lets us get on with it. He is a team captain who works with the team rather than imposes on them; a captain who uses power for the benefit of others rather than for his own self-interest. He is the sort of king who leads us, pushes us, to places we fear to go. He stirs us, excites us, to action. He provokes us to realize that we don’t need to be fearful and ashamed of the past, but that we can move on with the past behind us to great new things. He doesn’t burden us with expectations and rules and shoulds and oughts. He takes them away from us and carries them himself. He is the sort of King who makes our loads lighter, not heavier. Christ the King lifts us from the rut and excites us to look to the future.

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


Kings have kingdoms.

When Christ the King was on trial for his life, he said his kingdom was not of this world. This is NOT about the afterlife. He was telling Pilate that his kingdom was an inner kingdom—a kingdom of outlook, of attitude, of motive—that powers Godly action here and now. It’s a recognition that the trappings of the material world are part of the layers we surround ourselves with in order to make ourselves look big. Vanity. Illusion. Look at Robert Mugabe and his millions, his palaces, his jets, all the people he has conquered and maimed and killed and humiliated.

We make the ideal kingdom—the Kingdom of heaven—here NOW. Life before death, not life after death. It’s about you and me making a world where we show, we teach, we encourage. A world where we don’t impose. A world where we don’t sit back criticizing others and looking down our noses at them. It’s not a kingdom where we stifle and suffocate and kill, but a kingdom where we excite and inspire others to action.

The Kingdom includes children, who were nobodies in that world—children who take risks, who listen, who experiment, who play, who are uncynical. The Kingdom excludes the pompous jobsworths. The Kingdom stands in judgment of the elites who create and shape things so that they can grow richer and fatter at the expense of the rest of us. Mugabe again.

It’s a kingdom where we seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak. Where those who had trampled the weak are brought down. A kingdom where people are brought in, and community is restored. Where the tendency to entropy is reversed, where chaos is transformed into cosmos as in Genesis 1. Continuing creation.


We live messy lives. The mess of holiness. God bless this mess. We honour the King

  • when we forgive others and let go of resentments.
  • when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the outcast, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner—thus helping to free them from their pasts.
  • when we realise that the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, are all parts of us that we have lost contact with—parts of ourselves that are strangers to us. And as we forgive others, we begin to forgive ourselves. This is truly the key to liberation from the past. Harden not your hearts ….
  • when we grow up, and take responsibility for ourselves.

We do all this to refresh and re-empower ourselves in order to do what we say we will do at the end of Mass—that we go in peace to love and serve the Lord, to bring about his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

In Flanders fields


Poppy seeds – natural narcotics

A Vicar is in bother for reportedly banning Onward Christian Soldiers on Remembrance Sunday (he didn’t actually – see here – but why let facts confuse the issue?). Other ministerial bêtes noires include Jerusalem (And did those feet, not the other one), I vow to thee my country, and O valiant hearts.

I won’t ban any of them. I like Onward Christian soldiers. It’s a great tune, and the words and images that so offend the PC brigade don’t offend me. We need to be more assertive—how can others have respect for people if they don’t stand up for what they believe? How can we have meaningful theological dialogue if all we believe in is Jesus is my sentimental lover, chocolate, pet services and holding stones?

I vow to thee is my least favourite of this lot. The words are daft. All very stiff upper lip and Bertie Wooster but meaningless piffle. The tune is not one of Holst’s jewels and its span of over an octave makes it difficult to sing. But if people want it they can have it. Maybe one of the reasons I dislike it is the image it conjures up in my mind’s eye of the horsey set in their Barbours and jodhpurs and Alice bands and jolly hockey sticks. And that’s just the blokes.

And did those feet is wonderful sing. The music is real quality, as you’d expect from Parry. But what about Blake’s words? How to describe them? For starters, they don’t mean what most people think they mean. The dark satanic mills have nothing to do with the mill towns of the north—the poem predates them. They almost certainly refer to the institutions that attempt to brainwash people into being Orwellian slaves of the establishment: anything that keeps the rich man in his castle and the poor man tugging his forelock by the gate. In other words, the Church of England and the degree mills of Oxford and Cambridge. Despite being employed by one and a graduate of the tech college on the edge of the Fens, I’m inclined to think Blake was on to something. Or perhaps on something.

And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? No they didn’t. And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No he wasn’t. And did the Countenance Divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills? No it didn’t. And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills? Absolutely not, so gird up your loins, no point waiting for the powers that be to do it; let’s do it ourselves—and the second verse tells us how.

It’s deeply radical and breathtakingly subversive. We need it at least as much now as they did then. Revolution, Comrades. Next time you see Toby and Tristram and Tasmin and Jocasta with their scrubbed faces and telephone number bonuses belting out Jerusalem, have a good laugh. (In Dublin I suppose it would be Ultan, Fiachna, Fionnula, and Derbhla, but they wouldn’t be belting out that hymn and Remembrance Sunday has an altogether different feel.)*

As for O valiant hearts, it’s incredibly moving. There’s no other hymn that for me expresses the stupidity of war in general and WWI in particular: the stubborn pride of military leaders, their callous duping of recruits, the pointless deaths. Never mind the questionable theology (if I banned hymns for that reason there’d be precious few left). Why does this affect me so? Maybe it’s the time Arkwright’s poem was written, 1919. Maybe it’s Harris’s music, Edwardianism dripping from every note. If you’ve read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth you might have seen in the text a piece of music by Vera’s brother Edward written I suppose about 1913 with a similar yearning feel.

I’ve always had O valiant hearts at my Remembrance Day services, and always will. It makes me angry and tearful in equal measure, so I have it as the offertory hymn when I go the altar to receive the gifts—which takes my mind off things. This time of year is difficult enough for Vicars with All Souls and Remembrance, and I really don’t need a blow upon a bruise to remind me of the deaths of young people who had their lives in front of them.

The only hymns I really can’t bear are: (1) There is a green hill – terrible theology; (2) All things B and B – words fail me; (3) the middle two verses of Once in royal – Christian children should never be mild and seldom obedient. I’m more inclined to ban tunes than words. But when our generation is dead and gone, nobody will know hymns at all. They are simply not sung any more at schools, other than some posh ones. Funerals and weddings often opt for canned music. They just want a CD of favourite tunes. I’ve stopped caring I’m afraid.

* thanks to my friend Eric for the names. He’s good at that sort of thing.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, May 1915

Saints and souls

800px-Votive-candlesHomily for All Saints and All Souls

Colossians 1: 15-20. Matthew 5: 1-12

Today’s gospel, the Beatitudes, takes on a startling immediacy in The Message. I shall read it to you.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your tether. With less of you there is more of God. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inner world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or spread lies about you to discredit me. It means that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. Be glad when that happens, for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets have always been in that kind of trouble.

This is how to be a saint. It’s not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, carrying through, determination, self-knowledge. It’s about disturbing the comfortable and not being swayed from the cause of right. It’s about being real and authentic, and giving your self away.

I’m not keen on saints. They’re too perfect. The nearest thing to saints I’ve come across are those who live with the most awful grinding problems day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, yet still manage to keep their heads above water, if only just, smiling and glad to be alive.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Humility is the key. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right, because one day you’ll be dead – and it could be very soon. Live life to the full. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place are saints in his book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, you’ve no chance. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be—if that matters which it shouldn’t. It’s trite to say that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, but its true. Prophet Stanley goes further and says that you’ve no chance of living life to the full unless you’ve cocked up in the past. Often. And learnt from it. The words of the hymn we shall sing in a few minutes—we feebly struggle, they in glory shine—are wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because they and we have feebly struggled, and are feebly struggling.

As I say, humility is the key. Humus, earth. Feet planted firmly on the earth, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your imagination, or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young and vicars knew how to be vicars. Earthed. We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return.

In Colossians we hear of the cosmic Christ, present at the moment of creation with the creative force. Begotten of his Father before all worlds. The Christ that comes to show us the way, who in the Greek comes to save not just you, not just me, not just humanity, but the cosmos. The Christ, that is the anointed one, the Messiah, who is always and everywhere present.

We are creatures of the cosmos. The Christ is of the cosmos, always and everywhere. We come into being as biology gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. A frightful sight, I know. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. It’s the same for everybody and everything. Always was, always will be.

Think about that. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Whatever. Certainly, nothing is wasted. But however you look at it, people come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. Importantly for today, we are never not in the presence of the particles, atoms, and molecules of those we mourn. The particles, atoms and molecules that constituted them are all around us. We are never not in the presence of those whom we remember today.

We are never not in their presence, and they are never not in ours.

Their names will be read out. Candles will be lit. What do we think we’re doing? Praying for their safe crossing across the sea of purgatory? Well, if you like. That doesn’t float my boat though. There might be some kind of reckoning in which we see ourselves for what we really are, naked, rather than as what we in our delusional pride think we are, but I doubt that a few scrappy mutterings on days like today will make much difference.

No. What today’s about is us, not them. Reading out names and lighting candles is about our coming to terms with loss. Today’s ceremonies are intense. And so they jolly well should be. Our love for the dead was—and is—intense. Our grief is—should be—intense and painful.

The grief will of course have different hues. Loss of a spouse, loss of a parent, loss of a son or daughter, loss of a friend: different shades of intensity. Recent loss, distant loss: different shades of intensity. Different people have different feelings today, and cope differently. You can’t judge another person’s grief by the standards of your own. Susan and I know that full well.

As well as all this, there’s something else, and this comment comes from deep within me. When somebody dies we lose not just them, but also part of ourselves. That is particularly so with the loss of someone younger than us. We have had ripped from us the emotions we projected onto that person. In my case, I wish I had been more like Hugh in his fearlessness, so I saw him as making up for my own inadequacy. We have had ripped from us the plans we tentatively made. No chance now of driving with him from Denver to Las Vegas. Loss of potential, waste of life, destruction of dreams. All this we must grieve—for them and for us.

Finally, I ask you particularly today to remember a group of people often forgotten. Remember women who have lost embryos through miscarriage or induced abortion. Pregnancy, however brief, changes a woman. It is not widely known that fetal cells invade the mother in the first week of pregnancy—before she knows—and change her ever so subtly. The notion that her body is the hers to do with as she likes is biologically questionable. The loss of an embryo should never be trivialized, and we should treat women who have suffered such loss with utmost compassion and tenderness. There are countless numbers of them, many of our nearest and dearest.

When you light candles, remember that you’re lighting them for yourself as much as for the dead. And remember that they are never not in our presence.

What’s the church for?

censer-incense-burner-01Having to write something every month for the Church magazine always comes as a shock, even though I’m kind of expecting it. This is for November. There’s nothing new.

Attendance figures published recently show that, despite the emphasis on evangelism and the money thrown at new initiatives, C of E attendance continues in freefall. The Christian message is insufficiently compelling to cause people to stop and think.

Today’s young people see the church as negative. It condemns sex before marriage, for example—an immediate turn off for a huge swathe of the population who think nothing of it (neither do I, but I’m not supposed to say so). It gets its knickers in a twist about sexuality generally, about which the Bible says very little, and yet appears deaf to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the abused—about which injustices the Bible says a very great deal. It is, let’s face it, a leisure activity for prosperous middle-aged and elderly. “Oh, you go to church on Sundays, do you? We go hiking.”

Modern people increasingly don’t believe Christianity is true. Maybe they are don’t hear a convincing version, even if they bothered to go searching—but why should they? Everything that the church used to provide say 50 years ago—companionship, solidarity, friendships, a sense of self-worth, comfort, a listening ear—are now to be had from hobby groups, sport, counselling, self-help groups, and so on, without having to grovel for being miserable sinners—which is what the church generally has you do as soon as you’ve sat down from a good sing. People don’t see themselves as sinners. They work hard, they love their families, they do their best for their neighbours, they try to stay out of the clutches of the law, and they, entirely understandably, say “I’m not a sinner”. And to cap it all, the church is portrayed as being utterly hypocritical. Just look at the contrast between what it says about child abuse, and what it actually does–or rather doesn’t do if reports are to be believed.

As for the faith, most people see it as life-denying and over-regulated. This is criminal. The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simply to teach others what he taught them. He made few if any statements about how to get to heaven, but rather showed us how to live here on earth, and he said this was heaven. He taught in parables so that listeners could come to their own conclusions. Despite this, neurotic church people have made it all into a school register, good attendance and gold-stars being rewarded with Nectar points for the afterlife. We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. No wonder people dismiss church.

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

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

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

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

During my training I visited a Hindu Temple in Leicester. It quite took my breath away. Lovely smells, colour, activity, devotions soaking the Temple. A family having a blessing here, people preparing a meal over there. Children playing here, adolescents chatting there. Religious bric-à-brac that knows nothing of middle class good taste or the appalling stifling conservation police. Facilities for hospitality, pastoral care, social action, learning and devotion. No moaning about how things used to be “when I was young,” but rather living in messy reality. It’s life affirming. I hope that heaven—if there is one and I ever see it—will be fragrantly chaotic like that Temple.

Is this an unrealistic dream: life that is fragrantly chaotic, open in every respect? Life that is fun? Not simply beauty of craftsmanship, but beauty of the human spirit, open and saying ‘yes’, like Mary was open, saying ‘yes’? We don’t need church—we need to live. Jesus didn’t come to form a new church, he came to show us how to live. He came to abolish religion.

As we prepare for another Christmas, let’s celebrate life abundant, not life resisting; life enabling, not life denying. Sin is life unlived.