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?

Words from the heart

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From our Tree of Life carpet (Qum)

In my last blog I berated the Church of England for the abuse scandals; I coruscated the bishops for their apparent lack of compassion not only for victims but also for us foot-soldiers who day by day bear the shame; and I wondered if I’d wasted the last 13 years of my life as a Clerk in Holy Orders.

Never for one moment did I imagine that my words would reach a wider audience than my three regular readers. In the event, the blog was highlighted on Thinking Anglicans—a liberal blog (though I’m more radical than liberal)—and US blog Episcopal Café. It has thus been widely read, although to say that it “went viral”, as one colleague did, displays an endearing ignorance of e-jargon.

I spent my first 18 years in east Cumberland in a somewhat bleak society where compliments were almost unheard of, so I find myself brought to tears by the responses to the blog. They have been almost entirely positive. Comments have included “I think he is a breath of fresh air. Would there were more like Fr Stanley in our Church”; “Fr Monkhouse’s congregation is lucky to have someone who speaks such naked truth and whose sincerity is so apparent.” And most moving of all: “I have just sat and wept at your piece about the state of the Church. What comes home to me more than anything is … what amazingly important Godly words you are speaking to us all in Church … I am grateful for your wisdom, courage and deeply loving heart.”

I say all this not to boast, but to show how much people appreciate raw honesty from the heart. As a priest I’m struck by how when I open my heart to a parishioner, and more often vice versa, without barriers of politeness or compromise or fear of consequences, healing always follows. Liberation. Tears flow. Cleansing tears. Tears from the heart. The tears that wash Jesus’ feet. The tears that in Andersen’s The Snow Queen melt the heart of ice and bring restoration. Luther’s herzwasser.

Of course there have been one or two less approving responses. One commenter wrote “For his sake and [his congregation’s] I found myself fervently hoping that none of those congregations ever read his blog.” Sounds like a threat, perhaps, but then the commenter is the partner of a bishop, so uxorial solidarity might be a factor. As to my parishioners, many do indeed read my blog, and tell me how much they appreciate it, and others read the pieces as magazine articles.

This brings me to the reaction of a local colleague. His response put me in mind of a “jolly hockey sticks” kind of gal who’s just been made a prefect and is nail-bitingly fearful of losing her shiny new badge by being seen to associate with the winklepicker-wearing Teddy boy skulking at the school gates ready to lead her astray. (This imagery is pretty accurate for 1960s Penrith. Add in the Dunrobin café and the picture is complete.)

Here we have two models of priesthood.

On the one hand, non-confrontational, refusing to acknowledge elephants in rooms, unwilling to upset apple carts or frighten horses, unwilling to challenge complacency and hypocrisy, fearful of incurring the boss’s wrath. Desperate to be liked. Superficial.

On the other hand, the prophet, willing to open his or her heart, speaking truth to power, delving into the psyche to expose as much as possible of the grubbby base instincts that live there. An Old Testament prophet like Amos or Isaiah (when he’s not being boring) or John Baptist. Or, dare I say, Jesus.

These are many more models of priesthood. It’s up to every priest to work out which is the appropriate model. I’ve no doubt that the model one chooses is affected by genetics, background, upbringing and life experience.

I know which model is right for me and my gifts. The trouble is that it comes at a price. Emotional digging is hard work, especially when I encounter pernicious, malignant roots that threaten to strangle all else. Trawling through my psyche is utterly exhausting—much more debilitating than running or pumping iron in a gym. Like it or not, berating bosses comes with a frisson of fear, as whistleblowers well know. And, perhaps most importantly, the management of rage requires great care and judgment if it is not to destroy me.

Give me courage.

Deliver me:

  • from the desire of being esteemed;
  • from the desire of being praised;.
  • from the desire of being preferred to others;
  • from the desire of being approved;
  • from the fear of being humiliated;
  • from the fear of being despised;
  • from the fear of being rebuked;
  • from the fear of being ridiculed;
  • from the fear of being wronged.

from Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930)

Priesthood

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Agony

Homily by Rambling Rector at Robin Trotter’s first mass, 22 June 2019.

Proper 7: Isaiah 65:1-9. Luke 8:26-39

Isaiah 65:1-9, my précis based on The Message: 

I’ve made myself available to those who haven’t bothered to ask. I kept saying ‘I’m here’, but they ignore me. They get on my nerves. They make up their own religion, a potluck stew. They spend the night in tombs to get messages from the dead, eat forbidden foods and drink potions and charms. They say, ‘don’t touch me. I’m holier than thou.’ These people make me sick. But the Lord says they’ll get their comeuppance—actions have consequences.

All clerks in holy orders can sympathise with the prophet as they deal with people who appear to have ears but hear not. Robin, you will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to minister as priest to the wayward group of individuals that make up a church.

You will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to do as you promised yesterday: to teach and to admonish, to resist evil, support the weak, and defend the poor. Note the word admonish. This is more than warn, or premonish as the Book of Common Prayer has it; you are to rebuke, to challenge bad behaviour—and there is plenty of that in churches.

Did you notice that people in tombs feature in both readings? In Greek, tomb is mnema, which gives us memory, memorial, mnemonic. People living in the past, people who moan constantly that the solution to all the church’s problems is to have things as they were when they were young—it’s piffle, of course, because things never were as they imagine. There is plenty of that in churches.

The priest is to pull people out of the tombs they live in. It is often said that the Lord loves us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us festering there.

Demons

The things I want to explore in the rest of this homily are demons, like those driven into the pigs as we heard in the Gospel—in our world today, addictions, obsessions, fixed false beliefs.

The three demons that afflict us, and that do untold damage to us as priests, are those that we hear of in the Lord’s wilderness temptations:

  • the demon that incites us to seek personal gain;
  • the demon that incites us to want to be worshipped;
  • the demon that incites us to be in control.

Desire for personal gain. This isn’t likely to affect you much, Robin, since, quite frankly, you’re already pretty long in the tooth—OAP soon—and anyway there’s nowhere for you to go. It would have afflicted me had I been ordained younger. I would have hankered after promotion of some sort, for that was part of who I was. But ordination at the age of 56 meant, thanks be to God, it was too late.

Desire to be worshipped, to be known, “look at me”. This afflicts so many clergy. They want to please people, they want to fix people—like you used to do when you were a GP. They don’t challenge bad behaviour. They can’t cope with being wrong. They certainly don’t admonish. As a result, they leave behind them a trail of dissatisfaction and resentment, for they never actually do what they say they will. I know such a bishop, now retired.

Rather than aiming to be worshipped, priests must cultivate an air of detachment. They can’t afford to be too friendly with any group of parishioners, for then they will be seen as being partial. This will be difficult for you, Robin, having being known in these churches for 30 years and more, but you must work at it. You need to have friends who have nothing to do with church or religion. They will ground you in reality rather than in the la-la land that the Church of England has become. My own experience is that it’s easier to be open with non-church people—and vice versa—than with many church people who have expectations of what the Vicar should be, and I don’t meet any of them, thank God.

Desire to be in control. This is a truly evil and pernicious beast. It leads you to think that you should fill your diary, that you are very important, that you should pursue success (see how all the demons merge into one another?). It leads you to underestimate the value of masterly inactivity, the solution to many problems in life as in medicine. After all, if what they say is true, this is God’s church, not yours, not mine, not even the wardens’, and no amount of flapping around like a demented hen will achieve anything of value. If in doubt, do nowt.

Incompetence

Embrace incompetence. Theological training prepared me for critical study of scripture and introduced me to the riches of speculative theology, but it did nothing for me liturgically (being an organist did that); it did nothing to prepare me for wedding legalities, building maintenance, fundraising, financial management, being an entrepreneur … the list is endless. It certainly did nothing to train me, or even interest me, in managing flower arrangers.

I am an incompetent priest. I stand at the altar celebrating the holy mysteries aware of my selfishness, hypocrisy, uselessness, fickleness, laziness, arrogance, and yet there I am, not ashamed but accepting of all this, just me. I may have 26 letters after my name, but not one of them means anything of value. A priest is a doorway between the terrestrial and the Divine. My imperfections gather up those of my people and point them to the Divine—and vice versa: made like him, like him we rise.

In words of, I think, Chesterton, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Indeed, Robin, if you don’t think you are rubbish at priesthood, then you haven’t properly understood it. A former Director of Ministry, now an Archdeacon, said “I used to tell ordinands that if they didn’t find a tension between the job they were asked to do and their personal integrity, they were brain-dead.” You are not brain dead. You will find that tension. It will hurt.

Finally, don’t be tempted to think that things are either right or wrong. Polarisation is hardly ever appropriate, not even in science, not in cosmology or particle physics, and not in pastoral ministry where either/or is actually both/and.

From Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Priesthood is that ruined house in which is a wellspring of Divine grace.

Spurn success. Embrace incompetence. And may the Lord be with you.

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.

Even my own familiar friend

NicolasMynheerTwo bishops have inspired this reflection: Michael Burrows (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) and Michael Ipgrave (Lichfield) – the latter directing me to Mynheer. Thank you, Michaels. I hope you’re not embarrassed to have your names associated with this.

Do you know this picture by Nicholas Mynheer? (I have his permission to use it).

Two women embracing. Look at the background. The artist names the women as the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas.

Did Jesus and Judas 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 because Jesus did not live up to his expectations? 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 Judas realised the enormity of his act. He could not live with the shame. 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, Judas 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.

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”.