Burton Night Shelter

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The welcome

Homily for the Service of Celebration of the 2017-2018 Burton night shelter at St Pauls

Isaiah 58 (extracts). Luke 6: 20-28

Two experiences have significantly influenced my views on the relationship between church and society. The first, more than a decade ago, was being a mentor for young offenders—young lads on last warning before being sent to what used to be called borstal. The second is the night shelter here at St Paul’s.

These experiences change me. They alter my views and values. They show me how if I condemn others I condemn myself. They lead me to be angry at the way in which society ignores or demonizes those who fall on hard times.

I’ve seen similar discrimination all my life. I witnessed it in a farming village in the 1950s. I experienced it at Cambridge coming from a northern state school. I see it in the way elite sportsmen are treated. Imagine two groups of people causing mayhem in the town centre at midnight. One is a rugby club on the piss. The other’s a group of hoodies. Do you think the two groups will be treated similarly by the justice system? In the news last week we heard from Belfast how impossible it is, despite evidence, to convict rugby players with a promising playing career in front of them, and doubtless expensive lawyers behind them.

My experiences make me question how society is organized, and the way we are forced into a competitive struggle. Our security is not to be found in dividing us from one another, but in community—to know that when difficult times come, we have a community willing to support us. It’s in looking out for one another that we find security—not in retreating behind electric gates into hermetically sealed groups of the like-minded. It’s in the mess of life, sleeves rolled up.

Young offenders and shelter guests are prophets. They reveal our values. They make us uncomfortable. They demolish our cosy assumptions. They show us what really matters in defiance of all that society admires and rewards.

Prophets aren’t nice. They aren’t popular. They don’t fit in. They aren’t sensitive to our feelings. They aren’t agreeable. They aren’t reasonable. They aren’t diplomatic—which is just a form of lying. They don’t negotiate. They don’t care if we’re offended—indeed we should be. In both readings this evening we hear prophets telling it like it is.

We humans have an enormous capacity for self-deception. We ignore the consequences of our decisions. Prophets help us to recognize that we simply must face them—we must confront the naked truth—in order to rid ourselves of self-obsession. We need to be saved from ourselves, and prophets help to demolish our selves—our pride, our arrogance, our greed, our egomania.

In this, the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, it’s time for us to be impatient.

Will the institutional churches help? They are so obsessed with obscure points of theology that I doubt it. I used to be interested in the theological why and wherefore and how, but my experiences as a clerk in holy orders serving my people, together with events in my own life over the last decade, make me impatient with all this.

What I’m concerned about now is not why or wherefore or how, but so-what? If my faith is a matter of acknowledging Jesus as my lovely friend and personal saviour while I continue being aggressive, greedy, selfish, and vain, then it is pointless, and I am all that Jesus condemns.

The institutional church does have an answer, but it’s not in services or masses or devotions or fine words. It’s in action—social and political.

There’s a story about churches working with the homeless in Manhattan. Methodists pick them out of the gutter, Baptists wash them, Pentecostals feed them, Presbyterians educate them, Anglicans introduce them to society, and then Methodists pick them out of the gutter again. Let’s hope that the experience in St Paul’s has more fruitful results.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me. Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

From Paul Laffey, CEO Burton YMCA

YMCA Burton and Burton Churches are grateful to everyone for their support for the Winter Night Shelter. We are particularly grateful to the congregation of St Paul’s Church and the PCC of the Parish of St Aidan and St Paul for allowing the use of the Church Hall as a shelter. Our appreciation is also extended to Consolidated Charity of Burton Upon Trent, Burton Transformation Trust, Burton Churches and the many individuals who have provided finances to make this project happen. We also appreciate Kerry Foods, Bretby Rotary Club and many local people for providing food for the customers that slept at the Shelter.

We couldn’t of course make any of this happen without the amazing 130 volunteers and the 8 staff from the YMCA. Our thanks to them all. We have seen much joy with our Outreach team bringing people in off the streets, and managing to accommodate and give them a new hope. It was particularly encouraging to know that when the cold weather at its worst plummeted to -7 degrees, people were able to come off the streets into the warmth, have a hot meal, and a bed for the night—at no charge.

The Night Shelter has required a significant financial and legal commitment from the YMCA and we are very grateful to Trustees and Senior Staff for making this happen. We give thanks to God for lives transformed.

Qs and As (answers provided by YMCA)

  • How many guests have come? In December there were 40 different individuals using the night shelter, and in January 46.
  • Why do they come? Relationship breakdown and bereavements are common, as is loss of benefits, unemployment, debt issues, people trafficking.
  • How many are ladies? About 15%. Some have fled domestic abuse and are brought by the police with just the night clothes they are wearing.
  • How many volunteers? Around 130. The minimum number needed every night is 6, and we are open 7 nights a week for 17 weeks.
  • Have you received all the funding you need to keep the shelter open till the end of March? We have received no funding at all for any staffing costs. We have taken this step in faith that our needs—around 30k—will be met.

Easter freedom

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Easter homily 2018

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics beloved of medical students. The stories in the gospels about Jesus expelling demons from men living in the tombs are for me about freeing them from living in their memories, from living in the past.

People who live in the past cling to resentments, unable to let go, unable to forgive, unable to move on. They are entombed. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up golf club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements before their hairy bellies started hanging over their belts.

Now think of the Easter story. Never mind if it’s literally true or not. Never mind if it’s a fable based on more ancient folk tales. It’s utterly psychologically authentic. The stone is rolled away. The contents of the tomb have escaped, flown away.

Can you not see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to learn to to move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. Forgiven.

People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise the piano. We have to keep telling ourselves. We have to brainwash ourselves. But the penalty for not forgiving is that we become like Miss Havisham or like Gollum, wizened, miserable, resentful, odious, mendacious. We think we are sticking two fingers up at the world, but in truth the world doesn’t care a jot. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

Think of people who refused to support Jesus, who deserted him, who told lies about him to save their skins or to curry favour with authority, who joined the chanting mob. How many of the Palm Sunday supporters joined that baying crowd? Now think how shocked they must have been to hear that the man they’d betrayed wasn’t dead and gone, but might meet them in the street. It’s like gossiping with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, just as you’ve made the most utterly bitchy remark, appears round the corner and cheerfully greets you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them for their calumny? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them? Does he plan some even more horrid act of vengeance?

No, none of this. All he says is “Peace to you”. It’s like he says, “never mind the past, friends, let’s get on—we’ve work to do.” Forgiveness.

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, blindly followed the crowd—every time hammering another nail into the wrists and ankles. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, you and me, now. It’s about death of pride and self in order that selflessness can ascend.

We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it like Miss Havisham. We turn masochism (all very well in its place, I’m told …) into an art form. But life is to be lived. So, girls and boys, practise forgiving yourself. Moment by moment. It doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of them for the benefit of others. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old. It helps you to live life to the full by laying down all the vain things that charm you most.

Forgive yourself. Live for the future. Happy Easter.

Plagiarized from the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Sunday 16 April 1609. 

http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/andrewes/v2/easter1609.html

Easter ramble

aasdsa.jpgI reckon that the theory of atonement that appeals to someone is dependent upon upbringing and personality. If you’ve been brought up feeling the need of rules and regulations and a strong father, you might have one view on how the atonement could work. If you’ve been brought up rigidly and with frequent beatings, then you’d have quite a different view.

Church history matters too: substitutionary atonement is a recent western thing—it doesn’t much feature in the Orthodox churches. And I can’t help but feel that those Orthodox traditions and beliefs are more likely to be in tune with the early church, partly because of locality and culture, and partly because they’ve had few if any difficulties of translating from ancient Greek.

How do I see things on 31 March 2018 (I’m not dating this for Easter Day lest my two readers think it’s an April fool).

I see JC as the example for us all – the type. We are all resurrected – that is, free to ascend – when as a result of a Gethsemane moment we let go of selfishness and ego. This is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event. We have Gethsemane moments many times a day as we are confronted by the paradoxes of our humanity and the difficulties of life on the planet. It is not easy being human.

For me, Easter resurrection has nothing to do with life after death. That was something introduced by the church as a means of controlling hoi polloi–behave now and you’ll get a club-class seat in the hereafter. Absolute pish. Death in the Passion story is about meanness of living, not about absence of heartbeat.

I’m sure that the resurrection is the thing that most makes modern people laugh at us—how can we believe such sky-pixie tripe? And it’s very difficult to get across to schoolchildren, especially so soon after Christmas. The symbolic message of resurrection–ascension is much more important than any literal interpretation, and it is incontrovertible.

I suppose there’ll be letters to the bishop from “disgusted of Burton”. Good luck with that.

Happy Easter.

Read my Easter message here.

Monday in Holy Week: letting go

hot-air-balloons-1422702946OcWIsaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11

The events in tonight’s gospel take place before the Palm Sunday procession. I’m going to take the stories in the Biblical order.

Here are some themes that strike me.

  • Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead.
  • Hypocrisy and dissimulation: Judas pretending to object to the waste of oil because of what it might have bought the poor, whereas maybe he wanted it for himself.
  • Jesus doing the unexpected: riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
  • Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation. Faces are important in this story.

Preparing for death

We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People pretend it won’t happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. The medical profession doesn’t help. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there’s some hope that we can live for ever. We may be cured of cancer today but as sure as eggs is eggs we’ll die of something else tomorrow.

This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. There’s unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her funeral homily, and characteristically witty it was too. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grave disappointments.

For six months of my life I worked in a children’s hospital just off the Brixton High Road in south London. I saw there babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. The inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Death comes to all≠. By pretending otherwise we cause grief for ourselves and for those that love us.

This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is a consequence of urbanisation. In Derbyshire and Ireland, my parishes covered large rural areas. Rural folk have a robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. One of my churchwardens thought nothing of shoving her arm up a cow’s vagina to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be peculiar: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.

I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I rather like Judas by the way—that he is being anointed for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.

Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.

Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why, despite my love of architecture and liturgy, I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.

No dissimulation

As the donkey procession (allegedly) arrives from the east, history books tell us another procession arrives from the west. At Passover the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the Egyptian oppressors. But here they are now under Roman oppressors. A recipe for civil unrest. The Romans were nervous. So the Roman governor rode to Jerusalem from the ‘capital’ Caesarea on the coast, with military reinforcements in case of trouble. The procession from the west was one of Roman imperial power. Pilate rides a war horse, Jesus rides a donkey. Empire versus individual. Mockery of imperial power. Turning the tables of convention as much as turning the tables in the Temple. Wisdom from a donkey. There’s a scene in Attenborough’s film Gandhi which always catches my attention, and that is when the ship docks in Bombay, some British bigwig is disembarking in full dress uniform to the sounds of bands and military display. At the same time, Gandhi dressed as a local is disembarking further up the quayside. The crowds are with Gandhi.

I wonder which procession we will be part of? Will we part of the naked emperor’s procession that lusts for power, that fawns over those who have it? that fiddles expenses claims? Will we like them go for the puffed up image like an overstuffed balloon that will soon burst? Or will we be part of the procession of straightforwardness, of humility, of service? Will we be in the procession that faces stark reality, that embraces death in order that something much more glorious can rise? Death of worldly ambition. Look at the contemporary church and see how the power-lust of bishops leads them to put the needs of the institution before those of the individual.

Renunciation

Facing the future mindfully means killing all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others see us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:

As larks, harmoniously / And sing this day Thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be so passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. A couple of humdrum examples. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on! (How many books do we all have for show, unread and likely to remain so?) In my teens, cathedral music introduced me to beauty, lifting me from a drab village existence. I allowed it to rule my choices for too long. Now it sustains me without, I hope, dictating to me.

These are not evil things in themselves (though many clergy harbour evil thoughts about church musicians—or is it the other way round?) but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of “me” and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by things—we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. The view from the road from Sleaford to King’s Lynn is an image that I have in mind for this wide view. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. I like the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments—or hatred, which is just negative attachment.

Eternal not everlasting

There is a kind of renewal in all this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use eternal. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.

Back to death

If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia—the vain things that charm us most. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by weighty impedimenta from the past.

Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the divine. ‘It is finished’. This is a renunciation that we recall every time the priest utters the consecration prayer at Mass. It is a renunciation that we join in this week, and every week. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on his journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.

From beyond the grave

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From Beyond the Grave – a great film

Two funerals the week after Easter. I’m not available for either.

The first is for a woman who back in the mists of time was christened in St Semperviridis, married there, and so must be buried from there. She has not attended said church for decades, and I know none of the family—indeed they live in a different county and different diocese.

The second is for a woman who has been a member of St Semperviridis for many years past, but whose family have opted to avoid the church for this final ritual and go instead for a crematorium. This causes some distress to members of the congregation who would like to be present in church for the obsequies, but since none of the family is a churchgoer, I guess that won’t weigh heavily on them. Despite not wanting the church building—here’s the interesting thing—the family wants the Vicar of St Semperviridis to do the honours at the crematorium. Since I’m on leave, I arrange for a retired colleague to take the service, but before giving the go-ahead, the family wishes to approve (or not) my choice.

Let me be clear about this: the first family wants the church building but isn’t bothered about the priest; the second wants a priest known to the dead woman but isn’t bothered about the location, or about acknowledging her church allegiance.

Underlying all this is the attitude of the undertakers (two different firms). Would it be unreasonable, if a family wants a particular church or a particular priest, to expect undertakers to establish availability before going ahead with diary bookings? Apparently it would.

What’s going on?

In one case the church building is a tribal temple, like a Masonic Hall. It doesn’t matter who does the incantations so long as they are done in the right place—or in this case the place that was “right” for the woman’s early life. This is the sociological church, the pagan church, the geographical parish church, the established church, the Church of England as it used to be before clergy bothered too much about being friends with Jesus. My three years in the Church of Ireland taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the church as tribal temple, in that case the temple of protestant landowners on whose lives Christian teaching impinges hardly at all.

In the other case it’s not the temple that matters, but the person of the witch doctor: the place where the shaman utters the magic words is of no import.

Of course one doesn’t know what’s going on under the surface. One doesn’t know about the difficulties of fitting a funeral into busy diaries, even though ministers may be expected to change theirs. One doesn’t know how much “getting things right for the funeral” signifies guilt at ante mortem neglect. This is something to which I allude at every funeral when I say that one day everyone will go in a box “like that”, and you never know when, so get your lives in order now so that when that day comes there are as few regrets as possible.

Just for the record, here’s what I’d like to happen to me.

  • cut into bits and fed into a septic tank—environmentally useful; or:
  • burnt, with ashes chucked onto the West Coast Main Line from a bridge just off the road between Orton and Tebay;
  • I’m not bothered about any religious rituals at all;
  • most important of all—a good party.

But really, I don’t care two hoots. They, whoever they are when the time comes, will do just what they want and that’s exactly right. No shoulds, no oughts, no expectations from beyond the grave. I don’t want any physical memorial whatsoever: I don’t want there to be any sign of my having existed.

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.