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

Unknown

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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.

His Holiness Archimandrite Phillip Jefferies

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A good vicar

October 2018 St Paul’s mag

By the time you read this, the Jefferies extravaganza will be over. As someone ordained priest only 11 years ago, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like having been a priest for 50 years. How has he not been bored, year in year out? How has he managed to keep his patience? How has he managed to cope with the increasingly bureaucratic, meddling and managerial Church of England? I can’t answer for him so I’ll ask him to write something for next month’s magazine on half a century of priesthood.

It’s also half a century of marriage. Ye Gods, how has Rose managed to cope with him? I would be interested to read Rose’s reflections. I shall ask her to dish the dirt too. Behind every successful man is an astonished mother-in-law, but I guess it’s too late to ask her.

There are some terrible gobshites amongst the clergy. Phillip is not one of them. You might expect someone who has had a ministry like his, someone who has been (and is) as respected as he is, to be difficult to work with as a retired colleague. You might imagine that he would be telling me how he did things, and how I’m doing it all wrong, and generally waving it around to try and make me feel inferior.

Phillip does none of that. I hope he won’t disagree with me when I say that we have a great time. We exchange views. He gives advice when I ask for it, which is often. He answers questions honestly. I have no sense that he tells me only what he thinks I want to hear. He encourages me to take more risks than I do because, I sense, he feels he didn’t himself take enough. And thanks be to God, he is eye-twinklingly intelligent—which puts him in a tiny minority of clergy, I can tell you: him and me, in fact.

In short, I couldn’t wish for a better colleague. He had to retire when he was 65 under the terms of his appointment as Team Rector of Stafford, and here he is working with someone who’s 68. But he doesn’t take it out on me.

He will soon be submitting to the surgeon’s knife—if, that is, a heart lurks somewhere in Phillip’s thorax. I hope that his personality and inherent naughtiness will survive surgery intact, or even be enhanced, so that he and I can egg each other on to further heights of mischief.

Thank you Phillip: you’re a darling.

From Iona’s isle

213420.bHomily for Patronal Festival Evensong of the Church of St Aidan, Burton upon Trent

What attracted me, a Cumbrian village lad brought up in Chapel Sunday School, to defect to the Church of England when I was about 13? It was serious enough to lead to attempts at emotional blackmail by the Methodist minister about betraying family loyalty.

It was the liturgy and language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I may by then have developed an ear for words—I was already consuming P G Wodehouse—what really appealed was the sense that these words and this liturgy had been used for over 400 years in this place, week-in, week-out. A matter of tradition.

What makes me begin every Sunday Mass at St Paul’s with the Trinitarian greeting in Latin? It’s not because I think I’m in Rome. It’s the feeling in some small way that those words have been said in similar circumstances for give or take 2,000 years. A matter of tradition.

The root of the word tradition is trade. It implies movement, transaction, development. It is not a static, sterile thing, but active and fluid. I like to know what a tradition is, and why and how it developed. I can use bits of it as suits me. In this morning’s readings we were reminded that tradition is not to be blindly followed, but is there for our sustenance. We live in the present and make plans, drawing on the best of the past as and when.

What, I wonder, did Aidan think of tradition? What would he have regarded as traditions? He is credited with the growth of the church in Northumbria. What would he be doing here in Burton, now? At this festival last year, George, the Diocesan Director for Mission said that we might see growth in the church if we could all tell one person the story of our Christian discipleship, encouraging them to join us and see for themselves.

I didn’t say so at the time, for I had no wish to be discourteous in public, but I didn’t agree with him. I don’t think that cuts the mustard these days.

First, I think many of us would be hard pressed to articulate our Christian formation. We came to church because we were made to. We found something that kept us coming, maybe singing, maybe shared interests, maybe community. We might occasionally have listened to Scripture or even to sermons, and gradually, very gradually we absorbed something of the Christian tradition. It has been, and remains, a slow process. It’s bit like the development of a fetus from one cell to a newborn baby: it’s impossible to point to one particular moment at which something dramatic happens, but over nine months the transformation is miraculous. For many of us, that Christian transformation takes place over decades. I don’t believe that the thing that some people call conversion is an event. It’s a process. Even St Paul’s so-called conversion took place over days, rather than in a moment.

Second, the Christian story is not sufficiently compelling—or maybe is not told in a compelling enough fashion—to get people to change. In western Europe, we are, I think, too prosperous, not desperate enough. Look around the world at where Christianity flourishes—I’m not talking here of the prosperity gospel of the American evangelists: that is a perversion of Christianity.

And then there’s the public image of the church. At the moment it’s grim. Suffice it to say that the institutional church is seen by many as a safe-space for child abusers.

So I think telling people about Jesus, or telling them our personal story is unlikely to be effective. In our world, people are suspicious of institutions, and of anyone who tries to impose their point of view. Such a strategy is seen as manipulative, even abusive.

Sorry George, it’s not the way.

Rather than tell, let’s show. Actions speak louder than words. I’m much more impressed by what people do rather than what they say, and you might remember the gospel story comparing a man who says he won’t do something but then does it, with a man says he’ll do something but then fails to deliver.

We have sung a hymn written by John Bell of the Iona community. If there is something about Iona that infects people, then I like to think that this hymn has the spirit of Aidan in it—not tramping around the countryside yabbering on about Jesus, if he did, but showing Jesus in action.

Whatever else the traditions of the early church in these islands have given us, they have left us with that of confession: heart speaking to heart as we tell a friend our deepest fears. Those fears are so often about the lack of courage to change, being too comfortable, too complacent, too prosperous, as we surround ourselves with metaphorical fig leaves of luxury. Those fears lead us to live, as it were, behind electric gates, inclosed in our own fat, our mouth speaking proud things.

The words of the hymn are prophetic, demanding, shocking.

  • Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Are you prepared to be changed?
  • Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is not necessarily the Divine will?
  • Will you leave yourself behind?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is no more important that what someone else wants? The crucifixion/ascension is the replacement of selfishness with selflessness. Are you prepared to give and not to count the cost?
  • Will you risk the hostile stare? Are you prepared to be unpopular?
  • Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?Are you prepared to delve deep into your psyche to uncover your deepest darkest fears and impulses, and expose them to the light?
  • Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?Are you prepared to fight? Fighting for justice is love in action.

If we want to attract people to the Christian message we can’t do better than show them what it is. Working for justice, tending the sick in mind or body, provoking people to leave the ruts they are in, getting people to see things differently. This is Jesus in action. It’s so much more authentic than simply telling people about Jesus. It’s utterly authentic psychology, utterly authentic Christian tradition, utterly authentic Christianity.

Expectations and reality

SnailShell45Church Magazine, September 2018

I’m glad to see the back of August. It seems to have been an awfully long month. From a personal point of view it’s not been without its trials. At the risk of boring you all, I tell you again I don’t like hot and muggy weather, and it has been very hot and muggy. Then there is the continuing saga of the left eye. Earlier in the month, the pain was such that I was sure it must be eye cancer that had already invaded the skull bones, and I was planning my funeral. Like many medics—even though I practised full time for only 12 months 40 years ago—I tend to catastrophize.

I quite enjoyed sitting in the ophthalmology waiting room. It gave me a sense of superiority. I may be older than some of the other punters, but I’m not as obese as most, I’m sprightlier than most, I don’t have a Zimmer frame and I look less miserable than most. Indeed the consultant ophthalmologist said that I looked a lot younger than 68. So there.

The NHS, truly the national religion, is indeed a wonderful thing and we need to protect it from the assaults of the enemy. But let’s keep a sense of proportion. It was not invented to make up for our irresponsible decisions. It was not invented for A and E departments to be a pool of vomit every weekend as a result of leglessness. It was not invented so that people could ask for sterilisations to be reversed just because they’ve changed their minds. It was not invented to keep people alive well beyond what might reasonably be expected. It can not alter the fact that life is a terminal condition, and the longer you live the more likely you are to die. Get used to it.

We have unrealistic expectations of health. We think the doctor’s duty is to make us feel as well at 68 as we did at 28, despite the lifetime of shoving stuff into our gobs that is not good for us, despite choosing to do things that take their toll. If you are going to go running on hard pavements, don’t be surprised when you get knackered knees. And don’t blame someone else. I know this is a favourite theme of mine, but the fact is that actions have consequences, and we have to take responsibility for our actions. It’s no good praying to the sky pixie for healing when the condition results from our own genetics or activities. I know people are afflicted by disease through no “fault” of their own, but I’m not talking about conditions like that.

Anyway, healing doesn’t mean perfection. It means coming to terms with the reality of the situation you’re in. If you’re dying of cancer and accept that it is so, there’s a sense in which you are healed. Think about it. And remember that stress always results from the mismatch between expectations and reality.  Ditch expectations and live moment by moment. Yes, I know it’s difficult. I’m not good at it.

Just as we are often unrealistic about things of the body, so we are about things of the spirit. Here are some tips for spiritual refreshment from Niki Hardy, who lives with rectal cancer.

  • List a few things you’re grateful for: practising gratitude increases wellbeing.
  • Write down how you’re feeling: tired, angry, worried, resentful, hopeful or whatever. Then think about what you’ve written.
  • Put on some beautiful music.
  • Get out into nature: lots of people see more of God in a garden than in a church.
  • Find somewhere quiet and sit in silence. Remember Elijah encountering God not in storm or noise but in silence. Be still. Be quiet. Stop yabbering on.
  • Be kind to others. Remember that everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Stop moaning.

Happy Autumn.

ees crazy Mr Fawlty

parody-of-the-famous-scene-by-a-basil-lookalike_542319Church magazine, August 2018

Mental health

Several people with mental health issues have come my way recently. It’s quite clear that support for psychiatric patients in this country is woeful. Men suffer more than women, partly because it’s more socially acceptable for women to talk about this.

I was at a party recently during the World Cup when a group of men came in and immediately gathered round the TV, exchanging football banter. I was watching from the side. This meant that they didn’t have to make any effort at conversation. It’s what men do—or don’t do. We’re tender creatures under all the bravado, and have not been brought up to talk about personal issues. Sport talk is displacement activity. We suffer for it.

Staffordshire has the highest rate of young suicides in the country. You’ll know from local news how often the trains are disrupted, or the A38 is blocked, by suicides from overbridges. And they are nearly all young men.

Sunday morning recently at St Paul’s saw a psychotic man demanding help. He was talking non-stop about fighting Satan and listening to and talking to Princess Diana. We rang the police who said they didn’t want to know—we said they should want to know. We rang the ambulance service who after some reluctance eventually turned up, and so, interestingly, did the police. The man was taken to hospital.

When I was a medical student, there were asylums for the psychiatrically incapacitated. Then they were closed, replaced by “care in the community”. This might work for those who are reasonably well adjusted. It doesn’t work for people with severe neuroses and psychoses. If you wonder what these words mean, neurosis in simple terms is exaggerated worrying; psychosis is losing touch with reality. It has been said that neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them, and psychiatrists take the rent.

Asylums were not there to protect society from crazies; they were there to protect ill people from society. We need asylums and better community support. Pressure needs to be brought to bear on local and national representatives and on government. What are you going to do about it?

Mental health issues are common. I make no secret of the fact that I have been on happy pills (SSRIs in my case) for over a decade, and probably should have been before that. When I try reducing the dose or stopping them, I become paranoid. I have a tendency to that anyway, but it’s kept in check by sertraline or similar drugs. I see no reason to hide this. I’m not in the least ashamed of it. There’s obviously something about the production of brain chemicals in me that isn’t ideal. If someone’s insulin production from the pancreas is awry, allowances are made and people bend over backwards to accommodate them. If someone’s brain chemical production is awry, they may well feel ashamed and try to hide it. This is crazy.

Life is complicated. I’m pretty sure our brains weren’t “designed” to cope with the complexities we’ve invented over the last 100 years. We need to simplify our lives. I keep telling you that we are apes. Perhaps we can go back to picking fleas off each other as we sit companionably basking in the sunshine.

Which takes me to a major rant. It’s too hot. I hate this weather. Some of you may be praying for more of it. I’m praying for cold and some rain. I suppose it’s a bit like an arm-wrestling competition. Who’ll win? This leads me to wonder if praying to a sky-pixie is itself a psychosis. I wouldn’t be the first.

The world is in a mess—not just mental health services. We’ve heard some Old Testament prophets recently who wrote at a time when people had become greedy and had stopped following values of decency. The wealthy elite had become rich at the expense of others. Farmers who once served local communities had been forced to farm what was best for foreign trade. And people say Scripture is irrelevant to modern life.

Moving on 

The talk at schools recently has been about seniors moving on, and welcoming new pupils in September. Lots of emotions in the air: excitement, apprehension, finding new friends, losing old ones. Likely as not, students move from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a bigger pond. If this hasn’t happened to them before, it will certainly happen again, because that’s life, and it happens again and again.

We’ve a choice in dealing with this: we can jump into the pool, go with the flow, and take what comes, or else we can retreat into a self-contained box and do the equivalent of living in dark room, never venturing out.

Jesus’ most often heard advice was ‘don’t be afraid’ (or words to that effect), and on several occasions he advised his disciples when out fishing to put out into the deep for the best catch. There’s good advice. Jump in and see what comes. Grab life by the little round things. Young people are usually much better at this than so-called grown-ups.

Here’s some Stanley advice: give to the world what only you can give—you, with your combination of gifts and talents and enthusiasms. Your vocation is, in the words of Frederick Buechner, ‘where your greatest joy meets the world deepest need.’ So go for it, boys and girls. Take risks, jump in.

Taking responsibility and growing up

In all this, there’s more than a whiff of the need for each one of us to take responsibility for ourselves. To grow up, in fact. This process is not helped by the indulgent over-cosseting that people and organisations provide for those who should learn to stand on their own feet. The NHS is culpable IMHO in that it leads people to think that it will pick up the pieces for their irresponsible choices.

So here’s a message to all of us, myself included, who are responsible for the nurturing of young people: we’re doing them no favours by mollycoddling them. We do them no favours if we confuse love with sentimentality.

C S Lewis said (something like) ‘God wants us to get out of the nursery and grow up’, a message that reflects the teachings of Jesus whose healings always included the afflicted coming to terms with the reality of their situation. The laws of nature (‘God made everything, and it was very good’) are inexorable and totally unsentimental. And human behaviour, which could be merciful, often isn’t. We need to deal with the world as it is, not the world as we wish it to be. Then our own healing can begin. Stop moaning.

You’re no good to anyone else if you’re suffering yourself. Which brings me back to where I started. Take care of your own health; seek help when necessary.

Happy summer.