What’s your little helper?

drugs-and-addictionSo, girls and boys, out we go for a walk with Bella the Staffy.

As we approach the Trent and Mersey canal, a young man walking purposefully in the same direction overtakes us. We exchange pleasantries. Then, surprisingly, he stops. We catch up with him just as another young man approaches from the opposite direction. With sleight of hand the two guys exchange something. They retreat whence they came.

User and supplier, we mused? Which was which?

What does it take you to get through the day?

  • Nicotine/tobacco. The sense of calming and release can be blissful, I gather.
  • Alcohol? At a funeral of a wealthy 40-something year old who died of alcoholic liver disease, I said from the pulpit that anyone who ever encouraged him to “just have one more” was complicit in his death.
  • Exercise, fitness? The endorphins released are addictive.
  • Sex? Porn? Likewise.
  • Golf? I’m not old enough to play golf, but I’m told that it’s quite popular amongst the brain dead.
  • Other drugs? Cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol. Cannabis rice krispie cakes are delicious.
  • Religion? Yes. The ecstatic trances of mystics are well known to be comparable to—even equate to—orgasm.

Am I saying that for many people religion is merely a prop to help them get through the day, on a par with smoking or drugs or booze?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Here are some other things we can be addicted to: money, power, controlling others, pleasing people, wanting to change people, gambling, internet, social media, books, buying stuff you don’t need, gossiping, criticizing, moaning, being miserable.

Some are financially more expensive than others, but there isn’t one that’s any worse than any other. They can all destroy us. It’s as hard for you to let go of your addiction to new clothes, or whatever, as it is for someone else to put down the drink or the syringe.

They’re like demons. They steal our personalities and stop us being ourselves. They deny us our freedom. They make us obsess about ourselves instead of serving others.

We’re all wounded because of stuff that’s happened to us. We all need something to dull the pain. We develop patterns of behaviour to protect us from these hurts. Whatever “pain relief” we choose—substances, attitudes, activities, religion—can be dangerous. We become addicted to them.

We’re all addicted to something—several things in my case. Look at your addictions. If you think you haven’t any, you’re blind.

All the vain things that charm you most—accept that they are part of you. Think of them as controlling different versions of yourself. Then give that version of yourself a cuddle. You begin to love the hell out of yourself. You might have to accept that some will stay with you till you die.

This is not easy. But even beginning the process is a kind of renewal. Nobody is perfect. Nobody has a perfect upbringing.

We are all in recovery.

Horses for courses

Art (Manuscript) - variousAs is now well known, Church of England bishops have recently covered themselves in glory and ordure by reiterating the church’s teaching that hanky-panky is permitted only between people of contradictory gender that are married to each other.

Polygamy, entirely Biblical by the way, is out. Same-sex sex is out—no question. Opposite-sex sex if you’re civilly partnered rather than married is out. Adolescent fumbles behind the chip shop, or bike sheds if you’re at school, are presumably out, out, out. For heaven’s sake, how is a decent upstanding teenager to learn the ropes? And what about the Archbishop of York who said of a royal couple living together before marriage that people would be wise to “test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow”.

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Church of England bishops, it seems, have a view on lots of things. People ignore them. They had a view on how we should vote. People, even their groupies, ignored that. They had a view on brexit. People, even their groupies, ignored that. So they changed their view.

It comes as no surprise, then, that at the forthcoming General Synod the agenda include discussion on the carbon footprints of churches. On the blog Thinking Anglicans, a correspondent has recently suggested tongue in cheek that each church should review how its carbon footprint is affected by people travelling to church. He points out that so many people came to one of the large evangelical churches in Bristol by car—Chelsea tractor I expect—that Sunday parking outside his house was a nightmare.

This set me thinking.

I wonder how many people attend services on foot or by public transport, well known to be reliable on Sundays. I see horse and cart soon becoming a necessity and imagine the conversations between the Mrs Proudies and the hapless Archdeacons when a new bishop arrives, to say nothing of discussions on the quality of locks and keys.

This would enable the appointment of diocesan stable-hands, grooms and cleaners-up-after to add to the growing army of diocesan posts—only these people would actually be useful.

There are many other benefits that I can imagine, not the least of which is a general slowing down, for I doubt the horses pulling clerical, nay episcopal, carriages would be capable of running at Ascot (a horse worthy of an episcopal employer would surely not be entered to run at Aintree: do they have champagne that far north?).

Another consequence would be that since it would take longer to travel between palace and parish, bishops would perforce visit the parishes less often. This could be seen as a bad thing, or a good thing.

There would have to be a position paper written on the carbon hoofprint of increased horse dung, but maybe not, for it might be that horses were merely redeployed such that it was not necessary to breed more of the elegant equines.

Having said that, breeding more would benefit the artificial insemination industry and enable bishops to produce episcopal guidelines on what was and was not permissible in that reproductive activity. And if there were more dung, just think how the rose gardens and vegetable patches would benefit—this latter being significant in carbon footprint reduction and “woke” ideas about diet.

Which brings me to a dietary question: why is the fare offered at church events so unhealthy? Chocolate, pastry, flour, sandwiches, cakes. General Synod should discuss this.

There is so much about which the bishops have yet to opine: as Alan Bennett remarked in his monologue Bed Among the Lentils, the role of the church is unclear in so many hitherto uncolonised departments of life—underfloor central heating for example.

But they need to get their fingers out, for soon there won’t be anybody to opine to.

The Holy, Blessed and Glorious Onion

220px-Moscow_05-2012_StBasilCathedralEthical veganism having been declared a philosophical belief (here) provides me with the new religion I was seeking for retirement.

The onion has more than twelve times as much DNA as you or me, so I shall worship the Holy, Blessed and Glorious Onion. I can set up onion temples with onion domes. I can invent liturgies in which clouds of incense mask onion odours. I can make garlands of onions, wear them, and do with onions what SWMBO does with them when she stuffs a chicken.

I can still eat chicken, of course, because in the US it’s considered a vegetable. Some people are vegetables, so I can eat them too. To quote Jonathan Swift, who proposed eating babies to alleviate Dublin’s poverty problem (A Modest Proposal), “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.” I’m sure that well-cared for adults would be just as succulent.

A vegan was recently reported are saying that he didn’t like using buses because of the possibility that insects would be harmed in the making of the journey. Surely, that’s a certainty, not a possibility? Not only do I feel for the insect collection that develops on the windscreen and bumper, but also the poor dears that are squashed under the tires. I am well-known as holding the view that the only proper place for a cat is under the wheel of a heavy truck, but the possibility of an insect being squashed there is much greater than that of a cat being so flattened. Unfortunately.

Vegans need not only to ensure that they ingest enough protein, but also give serious consideration to what happens should they find themselves with an infection. You see, the things I really feel sorry for are our fellow inhabitants of planet earth, bacteria and viruses. The way that we use antibiotics in the genocide of these poor defenceless creatures is deplorable and indefensible.

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.