Not just a room with a view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A room with a view…..”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why did he command it?

The clue lies in the language he used.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anglican Priest and theologian Dan Hardy wrote this:

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

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

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

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

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

Or are you just ‘a room with a view’?

We’re all in this together

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Homily for the Mayor’s Civic Service at St Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent, on 19 May 2019.

Colin, thank you for inviting me to be your Chaplain. You got in just in time, for I’m 69 in a couple of weeks, and I retire in October. I was surprised to be invited because I’m told I’ve gained a reputation for rattling cages and pricking pomposity. But you, Colin, intimated to me that was why you asked me. So fasten your seatbelts and off we go.

This is not a good time to be a Church of England clergyman. It’s not a good time to be a public representative of a deeply flawed institution that comes across as arrogant, hypocritical and inhuman: an organisation perceived to have provided a safe haven for child molesters, and one that cares more about its own reputation than its victims. Reprehensible behaviour by a few clergy tarnishes us all. If it’s the case that to err is human and to forgive divine, then to deny and cover-up and ignore belong to the Church of England. This is far removed from the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, and indeed from the wisdom of all cultures and religions worth bothering about.

Similarly, I don’t suppose this is a good time to be a politician. Worse, in fact, because unlike the church—which is pretty irrelevant to most people—politicians affect everybody. Over recent years in this country we have had politicians feathering their own nests, favouring friends and members of their families, fiddling expenses, spending public money for private gain. And now brexit: the stupidity and pride of buffoons in Westminster at their pernicious playground politics fiddling while the UK burns. Reprehensible behaviour by a few public representatives tarnishes you all.

So, council members, you have my sympathy and support in trying to do all that is good, all that is noble, all that is delightful and admirable. If I can do anything to help, even if only by listening, then here I am.

All this raises the question why we humans behave like this. What goes on in the human psyche?

Those of you brought up with some residual knowledge of Christianity might recall that Jesus’s three temptations in the desert can be whittled down to one: the urge to show off: “look at me, look at me” we are tempted to shout. Resist it! About 2000 years ago, Evagrios in what is now northern Iraq, set down some profound observations concerning these temptations. He wrote that our human frailty arises from three so-called demons.

  • The first is the demon that incites us to take more than we need. Greed. And not just greed for food or drink, but greed for emotions, for pleasure, for possessions. For power.
  • The second is the demon that incites us to take what we want simply because somebody else has it. Envy. Begrudgery,
  • And the third, the worst of all, is the demon that incites to seek the approval of others—to please other people into whose good books we wish to slither, into whose beds we wish to crawl. By the way, don’t be put off by the word demon.  These days we think of demons in terms of addictions or obsessions.

What has all this to do with councillors? The answer is everything. It’s these demons that, despite our best intentions, drag us down. It’s these demons that we need to be on guard against if we are to replace selfishness with selflessness for the sake of the common good. And I don’t imagine that, as public representatives, you are in the game for selfish reasons.

When making decisions, and weighing up options, I encourage us all to think about what motivates us. Is it personal gain? Is it revenge? Is it the common good? Which of the options before us is likely to bring delight? Which is likely to lead to misery?

All of us, public representatives and private citizens, would do well to set aside the needs of the clubs or parties we belong to, and instead concentrate on the needs of individuals. It’s the effects on individuals that make the headlines. It’s the effects on individuals that lead to misery or delight. If we get the little stuff right, the big stuff will look after itself.

The second reading today was the story of the Good Samaritan. In those days, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, I suppose a bit like the tribes that support rival football clubs. Nevertheless, it’s the enemy that stops to help—he puts compassion for another human being before tribal loyalty. Help can come from the most unlikely source. We’d do well to accept help from anybody. We’re all in this together.

The priest and Levite who went out of their way to avoid the injured man were not bad people. They were on their way to Jerusalem in order to do their jobs in the Temple. For them to come in contact with a bleeding man would render them ritually unclean and unfit to do their jobs. In refusing to help they put duty before compassion. I guess we’ve all fallen into that trap, some of us many times over. I urge you as public representatives to keep compassion at the forefront of your minds in all that you say and do. Compassion for the underdog.

We’re all in this together. All humanity. I don’t know what image of the thing called God you have—if indeed you have one. I try not to have one, because it limits me, but I can live with the idea that God, the Divine, is beauty in all its manifestations: beauty of character, of action, of intent, of the senses, of craftsmanship—whatever is delightful. Delight. Furthermore, I have no doubt that there is God in every single one of us on the planet. We are all made in the image of God. We are all bits of God, even though we often do our best to hide it.

Some of you may have heard of particles in the blood called platelets. When we cut ourselves, platelets are attracted to the site of injury where they plug the hole to help stop the bleeding. Platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for, surprise, surprise, very large cells. Just as platelets are broken off bits of a megakaryocyte, so we are broken off bits of God. Just as platelets plug gaps and aid healing, so we must plug gaps and aid healing. We’re all in this together.

Finally, I ask you to look at the text of hymn we shall soon sing: And did those feet …

It’s easy to read the words of Blake’s poem as the worst sort of jingoistic piffle. And that is indeed how many people read it. But I doubt it’s what was in Blake’s mind. He was a deeply subversive writer, revolutionary, political, angry. The poem’s first verse is in fact a list of ironic questions:

  • Did those feet walk upon England’s mountain green? No, they did not, but oh that they might.
  • Was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No, he was not, but oh that he were.
  • Did the countenance divine shine upon our clouded hills? No, it did not but oh that it would.
  • Was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills (Oxbridge degree mills by the way)? No, it was not, but oh that it might be.

The second verse inspires us to work for the answers to be yes.  Inspire me to act, to work for justice without which there will never be peace. I will not cease till we have built the holy city here.

And that, sisters and brothers, is what I invite us all to do. We’re all in this together.

Resurrections

Dolly-PartonChurch magazine May 2019

Pastoral encounter 1. Slowly, slowly, the grief becomes evident. Not in any dramatic way—rather a kind of glazed-over face with voice sinking to a monotone. Gentle probing reveals miscarriages decades ago followed by the realization of barrenness. This grief is not just a mother’s experience, for fathers suffer too. It calls into question our expectations of partnership and indeed biological role. No wonder relationships break down after miscarriages.

Pastoral encounter 2. What about women who have elected to have abortions? How does that decision prey on their minds? One hears it said that a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body in such circumstances. The trouble is that in a sense it is no longer just her body. Even before she knows she’s pregnant, embryonic cells invade her tissues and migrate throughout her. We don’t know what happens to them but she is in some way changed as a result of a pregnancy she doesn’t yet know anything about. This has implications for our attitude to induced abortion. As a matter of interest, I don’t like the phrase “termination of pregnancy”. Normal birth is a termination of pregnancy. If people mean induced abortion, they should say so.  .

Pastoral encounter 3. Someone who’s edgy, aggressive, always has to have the last word,. Again, gentle exploration reveals grief from decades ago, shame even, at the way they behaved with or suffered from their then partner.

Everybody is grieving about something. Everybody is tender somewhere. Be easy on others—and yourself.

Easter messages

One of the Easter messages is forgiveness. As Jesus himself might have said when he confronted the terrified disciples after his death, “never mind the denials, the betrayal, the abandonment: we have work to do so let’s get on with it. Peace to you all”. If only we could do that for ourselves.

Possibly my favourite image for resurrection is imagination. Graham Greene said in “The power and the glory” that hatred was failure of imagination. Hatred is the opposite of resurrection whether it be hatred of one’s self or of others. Use your imagination to think how things could be otherwise. Then do it. Life is short. Do it now. Don’t take care, take risks. You’re going to die anyway.

Summer events

Easter coming so late this year means that there are three big events close together.

You probably know that Ascension Day (30 May this year) is my favourite festival—made like him, like him we rise. We can only scale the heights if we chuck out the lumber that tethers us to the earth. We can only ascend to the Divine if we recognize the gravity that pulls us down. 7.45 am at St Modwen’s provides a Book of Common Prayer mass; 7.30 pm at St Paul’s mass with bells and whistles and smoke. The preacher in the evening is Canon David Truby, Rector of Wirksworth and once my training incumbent. Anything I get right is his doing. Anything I get wrong is mine of course. He was, and is, a good training incumbent, not least because he knew when to let me make my own mistakes and learn from them. I am glad that he’s able to come.

Corpus Christi (20 June this year) brings another special event. As some of you may know I’m the accompanist for Rolleston Choral Society and I invited them to provide music. We will hear Byrd’s Four part Mass, Byrd’s Ave verum and Bairstow‘s Let all mortal flesh keep silence. Bairstow was my teacher’s teacher’s teacher and so rightly or wrongly I consider myself part of the Bairstow tradition. He wrote some wonderful music still widely performed in Anglican musical establishments. He was a Yorkshireman through and through, and therefore not known for diplomacy. He said of himself that he had been invited to adjudicate all the major music festivals … but only once. He was never invited back. He viewed this as a badge of honour. So do I. The preacher at Corpus Christi will be Trevor Thurston-Smith, Rector of Wigston and sometime Phillip Jefferies’ curate at Horninglow. Booze and eats will follow the Corpus Christi event. I’ve invited people from the choral society and St John’s to help with serving and I hope that people from “my” parishes will join them. You don’t need XX chromosomes to serve tea and coffee.

Finally this summer comes Robin’s ordination as priest on Saturday 22 June at 4 pm in Stoke Parish Church (I refuse to call it a Minster: it just isn’t one). In one sense it’s the end of a journey for Robin, but in another it’s a beginning. If he does it properly he will find it challenging for all sorts of reasons that he and I have discussed. Please do your best to support him unobtrusively. Do not complain to him about the new Vicar. Do not abuse his good nature and his desire to please. That is one of the quickest ways to breakdown. Instead try and do as much as you can to have as good a time as possible and enable him, and others, to do likewise.

In the words of St Matthew “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven”. In words which might have come from the lips of Dolly Parton—a truly great American—“if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” I prefer the latter.

Inadequacies of ministerial training

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A good vicar

Two phone calls

“Can you help? We’re at the church—Irish family in a bit of bother”. Man, County Wicklow accent maybe.

They’ve got the wrong St Modwen’s, thought I: they need to ring the Catholics. “Which church?”

“St Aidan’s.”

Not the wrong church, so. I make another assumption: they want money or accommodation. The first I can deal with, the second I can direct them elsewhere.

I suggest they ring YMCA and was just about to give yer man the number when:

“They can’t help” says he.

“What exactly do you need?” says I.

“Car’s broken down outside church.”

I laugh. “I can’t help either” I say. If they knew me they’d know that I can barely find the oil doodah.

Phone slammed down (or the equivalent for a mobile).

I know a fair number of Irish priests, not one of whom would have been able to help. Maybe I know the wrong sort.

*******

“Is that Dr Monkhouse?” Man, posh accent, a bit smarmy. Hackles rise.

“It is.”

“I’m at the church and I’d like to see the monuments.”

“Which church?”

St Modwen’s in the market place it transpires. A car trip necessary. I ask him if he expects me to drop what I’m doing to open the church for him (yes, I agree, it should be open all day, but don’t get me started on that).

“Well, I’ve come a long way.”

“You could have rung to arrange this” says I. No response. I tell him he’ll have to wait maybe 30 minutes or so.

Eventually I drive there.

Tall, a bit dishevelled, in his 60s I guess. Bohemian unkempt longish hair. At least he has some.

I am not welcoming.

“I wasn’t ordained to care about church monuments, you know, and I have better things to do on a Monday morning than this”. Like watching a film on Netflix – I’m always exhausted on a Monday. I didn’t say about Netflix—merely thought it.

“I’m sorry. I should have rung in advance.”

“Yes you should. I have no time for memorials. They’re all about the past—egocentric people with notions above themselves.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

“When you’ve finished, let yourself out and shut the door behind you.”

*******

Car mechanic? Expert on memorials? Neither topic covered in training.

Because of this, Susan returned from walking the dog to find the car not there, so that discombobulated her day.

 

Stand well back

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Eruption alert!

Retirement date set. This had to be done for I was wasting energy prevaricating. But now I want it to be yesterday. I’ve given myself permission to feel that I’ve had enough. I’ve stopped pretending.

And that’s the problem.

Everything that frustrates and dismays and angers me about parochial ministry in the Church of England—things that I’d kept down in order to do the job—now rises to the surface like methane bubbling from the seabed ready to bring conflagration and catastrophe. How can I direct this energy so that calamitous eruptions will not harm me or those around me? Though some parishioners are uninhibited in telling me what they think of me and what I ought to do, I can’t tell parishioners what I think of them. Well I can, but the fallout would be cosmic.

It’s inevitable that a shrinking and insecure organisation should turn inwards, wagons circling. It feels like what I imagine the last days of the Soviet Union must have felt like. The Politburo gathers on Lenin’s tomb, swaggering in their be-medalled uniforms and über-pompous titles, patting each other on the back in faux bonhomie and watching the parade of institutional paraphernalia. Onlookers, numbers dwindling year by year, are dejected, depressed and increasingly elderly. Party big knobs visit hoi polloi, smell fresh paint, and go from one venue to the next along routes lined by empty facades—Potemkin displays. Meanwhile the great unwashed turn their backs on all this flummery and get on with their lives as best they can.

The Church of England has stopped listening and talking to ordinary people. It now talks only to cult members with words that are unintelligible except to the initiated. It’s self-referential newspeak. Decision makers seem to have the attitudes of the 1950s—OK perhaps an exaggeration, the 1970s then—so people, even their own groupies, ignore them. For someone like me who has put a bit of energy into a civic role, despite not being naturally gifted with hail-fellow-well-met attributes, this is disappointing at best and despairing at worst. And as for the institution’s attitudes to sexuality, I am ashamed to be part of it. Reports of how the institutional church has treated those abused in any way by its minions lead me to wonder if there is deep-seated evil sustaining its protect-the-organisation-at all-costs mentality. The last days of the Soviet Union again.

At a recent church meeting we considered briefly some reasons why men so often find church unappealing. (Yes, I’ve read David Murrow’s Why men hate going to church.) We looked at the choice between making a commitment to a football club and a church. Both provide a sense of community. Both provide ritual. Both provide colour and chanting (words might be different, but I’ve always liked profanity—it’s so euphonic). Both have priests and acolytes. Both provide physical expressions of “worship”. Sport is good for the body, church with its emphasis on chocolate and all things farinaceous, is most definitely not: no wonder so many church people are overweight. But only the church provides finger-wagging moralising that, coming from an organisation so rich in hypocrisy and pretence, is hard to stomach.

Then there’s the sense of competition: winner and loser. Scripture, about which more later, can easily be interpreted as encouraging repression and condemning competition. Now look, girls and boys, we are animals. We are driven to a large extent by testosterone, women too. Competitiveness is hard-wired in. It is not to be suppressed—very dangerous—but channelled. Sport does this. Church does not. People are not stupid—they might not be able to articulate this, but they intuitively know it and make their own choices. (Having written this I admit there’s plenty aggression in the church, much of it passive: don’t sit in my seat, don’t interfere with the flower arrangements, don’t change the hymns, don’t use the crockery in this cupboard unless you’re a member of the Mothers’ Union.)

Of course I think the Christian Gospel—the teaching and example of Jesus—is entirely worth promoting. Its psychological authenticity is unquestionable. That’s one thing that has kept me in the job. That’s why I think everybody could benefit from hearing it. And that’s why to be part of an institution that continually shoots itself in the foot is so frustrating. The other thing that is profoundly authentic about religious experience is liturgy which to my mind is not about worshipping God, but celebrating humanity.

Some clergy complain about the burden of administration. Without doubt it’s worse than it was ten years ago, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with that of a job in the real world. These clerics should just get on with it and shut up. Anyway, as I’ve said before, the wastepaper basket is the handiest accessory in my study. So no, girls and boys, it’s not the volume of administration that is so dispiriting, it’s the futility. It doesn’t lead to change for the better. It doesn’t lead to performance being rewarded in any tangible sense.

Two examples suffice.

  • Attendance statistics. How many people have joined/left your worshipping community this year? What’s a worshipping community? This is impossible to answer in an inner urban setting with a constant flow of casual visitors, churchyard sleepers, temporary workers, Eastern Europeans who think S Paul’s is RC. How many people aged 60-70? over 70? As if I or anybody else is going asking old women their age.
  • Mission action plans. Oh God. What do you intend to do over the next year? five years? How will you do it? Who will be in charge? It’s like being back in infants, answering questions set by people less imaginative than you. Sometimes they ask what resources you need—as if they will be provided. Ha bloody ha! I could go on but I’ll stop for the sake of my blood pressure. Every worthwhile development in almost 13 years of my parochial ministry has been serendipitous. Not one could have been planned for.

I suppose these things keep people employed in diocesan offices, checking up. Lichfield diocese is on the whole reasonable (Derby was grim), but it feels as if one is living in a totalitarian regime keeping apparatchiks happy in the land of make-believe. Soviet Union again.

As I said, the psychological authenticity of the gospel is peerless. The way in which it inspires individuals to bring life abundant—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless—is priceless. The church has been a wonderful patron of the arts for almost 2000 years, thereby giving people a vision of the divine. But the more the institutional Church of England promotes this cultic control-freakery, the sooner it deserves to die.

The solution to many problems in medicine is masterly inactivity. There is a lesson in that.

Enough

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The perfect pastor

I’ve been scathing about clergy who after a few years in parochial ministry suddenly discover they are being “called” to sit behind a desk. I become incandescent when I see more and more parishes dumped on fewer and fewer parish clergy, while at the same time noting the cancerous growth in the number of staff in diocesan offices.

It was similar in academic life. Forty years ago one of the pleasures of being a university teacher was that apart from academic work there were ancillary tasks to be attended to, such as admissions, and student pastoral care. Since then, these have been taken from academics and put in the hands of people employed solely for the purpose. Whether or not this improved the student experience is questionable, but it certainly made my life less interesting. Coupled to this, the staff-student relationship was destroyed as Orwellian algorithms replaced discretion and discernment. The reduction in the number of people at the coalface, and the pestilential growth of faceless administrators, are common to both.

Now, after thirteen years in parochial ministry I must eat my words. I understand why clergy desert parish ministry for administrative jobs and chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons and such like, where professional standards apply, and employment is governed by law.

I’ve had a varied life. I learnt survival skills as a fat and bookish boy in a rural community where only sport mattered. I survived—enjoyed—university life on the edge of the fens despite a northern accent (no, I’m not a professional northerner). I was moulded into a career that I didn’t particularly want but found a niche for myself in one of its side streets. I ministered to people in towns, villages and cities, including Camberwell and Brixton. I learnt Machiavellian skills of university politics and wielded them with some distinction. I developed a feel for what people need if they are to flourish. I dealt with happy students, sad students, needy students, independent students, crazy students, manipulative students, delightful students, apprehensive students (I was one myself). I can recognize chancers and charmers. I coped with being an Englishman in the Republic of Ireland. I survived the death of one of my sons. I’ve dealt with all sorts and conditions of colleagues, many of whom were and are egomaniacs.

But nothing, nothing, compares to the pressures on my psyche that come with front-line parochial ministry: the frustration and helplessness when confronted by almost malicious bureaucracy, the way it impinges on innocent people trying their best, and having to deal with mendacious, manipulative and occasionally psychotic church people.

Two things sap my morale more than anything else.

First, cowards who complain to others but lack the courage to complain to whomever they’re complaining about—me. There have been only two or three (that I know of) in my ordained ministry, but it takes only one to drip poison. I know they’re doing it because people tell me (that of course raises more questions). The poison is like acid that becomes more destructive the further it spreads, so that by the time it gets back to me, it could corrode steel.

The force that breaks down and splinters—diabolic—is much more potent than that which builds up—anabolic. The tendency to entropy rules every bit as much as in thermodynamics. I know in my head that complainers are in a tiny minority, but they are vocal. They are deeply disturbed, and part of me is concerned for their welfare. But first I must look after myself. People say I need a less porous roof over my head. And I do.  But I don’t know how to grow it, and if I did, it would change me. Perhaps I need to change.

Second, people who are incapable or unwilling to think for themselves. They think that because someone from former millennia said something or propounded some theory, the old view must prevail, the implication being that people of a former age were more intelligent and better informed than we are. I know of no evidence for this.

Such people are obviously frightened. They need the security of the straitjackets woven by others. They sit like abused children, cowering in the corner of the room. They are sad. And I am naive to hope that they might change.

I’m heartily sick of hearing that my views on such-and-such are heretical and of little worth because they are out of line with those of say Paul or Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Wesley. If the church is to regain any kind traction in society, it has to come to terms with the realities of life here and now, not there and then. It has to think afresh. I’m on record as saying that if there is a conflict between, say, biology and theology, then theology must either be ditched or changed. But I feel as if I’m pissing in the wind.

As I get older I find it increasingly difficult to cope with stress. At present I feel much like I did shortly after Hugh died: exhausted, drained, anxious, with barely enough energy for myself, let alone others. A year ago I thought I might seek a year’s extension and stay in post till I was 71. I was enjoying the job. I’m shocked at how quickly the feeling of having had enough has overwhelmed me.

Remembrance Sunday 2018

thiepval-memorial-missing-2Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.

Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.

That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.

Let’s move on 100 years.

Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.

Why do we humans behave like this?

We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.

The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”

We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.

I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.

I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.

What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?

In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.

If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.

The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.

When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.

Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.