What’s in a name?

I’m a regular reader of the blog Thinking Anglicans (yes, I know there are very few of them ….). It keeps me up to date with the lamentable politics of the Church of England. 

There’s been an interesting discussion about whether contributors should be allowed to use fake names, as some do. The consensus is that real names are ideal but some people must hide their identities for various reasons. For example, a cleric using his/her name might feel obliged to stick to an official church opinion. That never bothered me for so much official church teaching is utterly bonkers and needs to be changed. I rather hoped that I might be hauled up before an ecclesiastical court – it would have been fun – but alas I seemed not to have been offensive enough. Must try harder.

Anyhoo, back to names, I am William after father and his father, Stanley after mother’s father, and Monkhouse because here at present we use the patronymic. Quite why my second name was routinely used I know not. 

I wonder if there is such a thing as a “me” that can be adequately encompassed in just one name.  You see, girls and boys, there are several “mes” living in my body. 

There’s adolescent me discovering things, 6 year old me playing in the sandpit, finger wagging me that gives out shoulds and oughts, 71 year old me that is angrier about injustice and more subversive than ever before (whoever said we get less revolutionary as we age was wrong), dutiful me that serves, eye twinkling provocative me, emotional me, fearful and inadequate me, depressive me that spends money as therapy, and more. 

Add to these the millions of creatures that live in and on me, bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, even maybe parasites, many of which produce chemicals that affect my thoughts and behaviour – we’re all at the mercy of circulating chemicals from whatever source, so is there really free will?

Having three official names to choose from I give different names to these various “mes”: Stanley, Stan, Will, William, Billy, Willy, Monk, Monkey (inevitable school nickname), fat git (used by one of my sons with then some justification). I like all these “mes” and love them even though some cause problems. Interestingly, the “mes” with the problems tend to be creative and good fun, and I wouldn’t be without them. 

As I reflect on these “mes” I return repeatedly to the profound question “would the child I once was be proud of the adult I have become?”

I am put in mind of this exchange on Life of Brian between Stan and his mates.

Stan wants to be a woman called Loretta so he can have babies. 

It is true that many men as they age and lose testosterone develop tits and become more female-like. Changing sex during the life cycle is not unknown in the animal kingdom.

I’m not there yet.

Easter freedom

An Easter homily if I were giving one. It’s based on the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Easter Sunday 1609.

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

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

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

Can you see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to let go and move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. It is forgiven.

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

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them?

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

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, or blindly followed the crowd. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, yours and mine, NOW. It’s about death of pride and ego and self in order that selflessness can ascend. We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—if there is one—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it, turning masochism into an art form. But life is to be lived. People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise any skill. We have to keep telling ourselves that we are forgiven. We have to brainwash ourselves. This is important as we get older, for it’s easy to dwell on the past and less easy to imagine the future. At least, I find it so.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of — that is to say, confront — the hole you’ve got yourself into. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old.

The penalty for living in the past is that we become wizened, resentful, odious, and mendacious. We risk becoming deeply unattractive miserable gits. If we behave like that, people will avoid us, and rightly so. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

As Andy and Red say in Shawshank, “get busy living or get busy dying”. The choice is yours.

Happy Easter.

Even my own familiar friend

A repost of a 2019 blog.

Michael Burrows (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) inspired this reflection and Michael Ipgrave (Lichfield) directed me to Mynheer’s painting. Thank you.

Do you know this picture by Nicholas Mynheer? (used with his permission).

Two women embracing. Look at the background. The artist names the women as the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas. Such sadness at the death of their sons.

I have a soft spot for Judas, bravado and posturing imploding to catastrophe. I’ve been there. Telling fibs to wiggle out of trouble. I’ve been there too. What was in his mind?

Was Judas disappointed with Jesus? Did they hatch a plot to have Jesus arrested deliberately in order to increase the profile of the “Jesus movement”? If so, it went horribly wrong.

Was Judas angry with Jesus? Perhaps Jesus did not live up to Judas’s expectations of being enough of a political revolutionary? The truth is that we never live up to the expectations of others because they’re not ours.

Was Judas Jesus’ special friend – a second disciple whom Jesus loved? There is no doubt about it, they were friends. And when Judas realised the enormity of his actions he couldn’t live with the shame and guilt. Just think how much hatred came into the world as a result of the way in which the Judas story was written up in the Gospels. I don’t know how the church can live with that shame.

Whatever was in Judas’s mind, his actions liberated Jesus. He started the process that allowed the Christ-imago to break free from the earthed cocoon.

I’d like to give Judas a cuddle. There’s a lot of him in me. Thinking about the distraught and desolate mothers makes me wonder about the fathers. Men grieve too.

You may know this story: the Vicar visiting the school asked, after some discussion of Easter story, “why did Jesus descend into hell?” After a silence, a small voice piped up “to rescue his friend Judas”.

Saints – who needs them?

In the church calendar, it’s All Saints.

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

Being a saint is not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, perseverance, determination, self-knowledge. It’s about disturbing the comfortable and not being swayed from the cause of right. It’s about being real and authentic.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right. One day you’ll be dead, and it could be very soon, so live life to the full: justly, mercifully, humbly. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place, are saints in Prophet Stanley’s book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, forget it. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be in with a chance—if that matters, which it shouldn’t. 

It’s trite to say that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, but its true. Prophet Stanley goes further and says that you’ve no chance of living life to the full unless you’ve cocked up in the past—cocked up often, and learnt from it. The words of an All Saints hymn “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine” are wrong, wrong, wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because we have feebly struggled, and continue to feebly struggle.

We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return. Nature gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Certainly, nothing is wasted.

Earth. Humus. Humility is the key. Feet planted firmly on the ground, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young.

People come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. And, get this: 

we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who’ve been before us; we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who will follow us: we are never not in the presence of past and future.

One of my former churches was often visited mid-service by a vagrant. He tended to arrive “tired and emotional” during the sermon. I welcomed him from the pulpit and told him to sit down and shut up. After some chuntering he did. He enjoyed the wine. We chatted afterwards.

That man suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more than I shall know, for he died recently. He coped with life as best he could without the insulation I enjoy that comes from stable relationships, employment, a roof to sleep under, and a pension. His addictions more often got the better of him than do mine of me. His courage was all the greater. He added colour and earthiness to a narcotic and entitled church community. I shall miss him.

Is there a saint in this story?

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.

My Christmas homily if I were giving one

3306734280_7aeb48a6d5_z-e1573696472514Imagine the birth. Mary pushing, shoving, moaning, yelling.

Imagine the placenta, umbilical cord, blood, fluid.

Imagine the mess.

Imagine, for a moment, that the stable and animals are not fiction.

Imagine the noise, the animal dung, the hay getting places it shouldn’t.

Imagine the mess.

The nativity is messy. The infant is born into mess. My life is messy. Your life is messy. If you say it’s not, I don’t believe you. Being human is messy. But being human is what the nativity is all about.

People try to clean up Jesus. People try to clean up God. But the truth is that God is not present only in things that have to be cleaned up. God does not demand tidiness or purity. God does not demand cosmetics or fig leaves to cover up bits of us that we think will thus be hidden. God does not demand that we pretend.

God is present in your mess and mine — the mess of the world.

We have no need to pretend. As it says at the beginning of St John’s Gospel, every single one of us is a child of the Divine. Just as I am, just as you are.

The message of the incarnation is that you and I can be like Mary — agents of the divine, of God, of Jesus. Let Jesus grow in you as Mary did. As it says in verse 4 of “O little town”, O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today. Everything you do to make life a bit better for somebody else is you acting as God’s agent. Everything you do to make life more difficult or unpleasant for somebody else is you acting as Satan’s agent. Choose well.

Enjoy being human. Help others to enjoy being human. Help others to glimpse joy and delight, even if only for a moment. Then, you are letting the holy child be born in you again and again.

The Christmas message is not about making yourself sick on chocolates, or stuffing your face with turkey, or arguing about what to watch on TV, or about reliving your childhood. It’s not about going to church so that you don’t have to go again for another twelve months.

It’s about bringing joy to the world — and helping others do likewise.

Happy Christmas.

Response to Retirement 1

c2RR writes: not long after I’d posted Retirement 1, I had this response from a retired priest. I have her permission to post it — it’s worth reading.

I can relate to a lot of what you say. I’ve been out of Church now for about 15 years and it took me an awful long time to get rid of enough rage to be able to recover the sense of the divine chuckle at the silliness of most of it.

When I went forward for ministry, women were not ordained at all, just licensed as Deacons, so I spent much of my time being regarded as the freak, and forcing a pathway to acceptance. Of course now the C of E is so desperate for ministers that women are accepted because they are willing, as a result of cultural pressure, to fill the vacancies. That, of course, will change as new generations of women, my children’s generation, no longer see that women have to be submissive, willing to do anything, to take on a job.

The saddest thing I’ve witnessed is the retreat of the Church from engagement with the world as it is for most people. When I was ‘called’, liberation theologians from South America were essential reading for us. David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, and constantly in the media for standing on the side of the marginalised. In our own diocese, the then Bishop of Stafford was out on the streets marching against Thatcherism. I suppose this is what you mean by “being Jesus” rather than “talking Jesus” – the latter being something that makes me nauseous.

As you can see, the rage is still present.

As for speaking out—it takes its toll. The state of the Church Rampant (irony alert) now makes me sad. I see rural clergy with six churches and no ministerial help, up against all the things you mention in terms of nonsense from the institution. I would like to get involved but, as I’m constantly reminded by my partner, it is no longer my problem.

Maybe this is just as well, for beyond the confines of the institutional church there is plenty of life, and contributions to “The Kingdom” can come in other ways.

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?