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”.

Sanctuary of my soul

The-Holy-Eucharist4Monday in Holy Week

I suspect all of us have heard people say ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ There’s always room for one more, so they’d be in good company if they came. We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is painted as, amongst other things, a hypocrite. Today we hear him say that money used to buy oil should be given to the poor, whereas in fact he wanted to filch it for himself. And tomorrow there’s an element of ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ in the Judas story. It puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart:

I want to share something with you: the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.

I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s something of Judas in us all, about our human nature. Biology will play its part.

We left Jesus on Sunday standing at the gates of the city, facing death in the city of wrong. Jesus faces his demons in Gethsemane. We must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we can’t love these demons until we see them, and we can’t see them until we look them full in the face.

What are our demons? Let’s look at the demons in the Passion narratives. There are three obvious headings: failure to confront reality, that is to say, denials; mob justice; and evasion of responsibility.

Let’s look at them.

  • Denials. Peter’s denials saved his skin—but only for that moment. Later, he wept, overcome with remorse. It’s hard to hear today’s news without being confronted by denials. How can a head of state deny his part in a situation that sees his people starve and killed while he lives in luxury? How can a politician say what is self-evidently not the case? Is anyone guilt-free? Who has not tried to get something for nothing, or used work time for personal business?
  • Mob justice. There are so many stories that illustrate this. Children attacking other children. One news item from 2007 sticks in my mind. In March of that year, The Times reported, a young man was surrounded by a gang with wooden sticks. Witnesses say that teenage girls egged on the attack with shouts of “Kill him, kill him.”
  • Evasion of responsibility. Judas said “it wasn’t me”. Pilate wriggled out of responsibility and washed his hands. Pilate needed to please his superiors. How often have I felt like that? And look at our politicians. It’s easy to pick on them because they set themselves up for it. Look at bankers evading responsibility. Now, we all make mistakes. We all are greedy. We all want the advantages of investment dividends if we are lucky enough to have money invested, and our pensions depend on them. We are all complicit in the sin of the world, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden. I accept all that, and I can’t and don’t condemn anyone for faults that also afflict me. However, the arrogance and lack of remorse that we see in public life is something beyond all this. According to the Gospels, Jesus was censorious about very little, but always, always, always about hypocrisy and complacency.

So three headings, but in truth they can be compressed into one: the sin of Adam—trying to be what we are not. The fig leaf has nothing to do with covering up our genitals, but is about covering up our naked selves by putting on a mask, a persona, to hide our true faces. We deny the truth because of our need to save face, but it’s not the face that suffers. It is the inner self that I harm when I deny what is evident to others. This inner self that is the Christ within, the Divine within. When we harm others, we wound the Christ within as surely as any nail on the cross.

I want to give you some biological basis for the Christ within. I begin with a prayer from the Liturgy of S Basil, addressed to Our Lady.

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens. Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices; glory to you.

“He made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens”. What a wonderful image.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, theotokos. Now, just listen to this reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. The woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her. The mother is changed by this, and it happens within a week of fertilization – before she knows she’s pregnant.

All this is biology.

Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy, Jesus’ cells invade Mary. Mary does not reject Jesus. Jesus and Mary exchange material. Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity; she’s one of us. She is the type. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine spark within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote: ‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ This is astonishing.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta.  So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I shall patent it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is an example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. We can be so much more effective when cooperating than when acting alone. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it’s a different story.

Given that we have this divine core within, why do we do rotten things like Peter, like Judas, like Pilate? Why, as Paul said, do we do what we know we shouldn’t, and don’t do what we know we should? Where do the demons come from? I don’t know. I look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. The development of ego perhaos? But there are spiritual battles going on in us all the time, and these are with the demons that we need to guard against.

Using the image of God within, how do we allow this divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to the still small voice, the implanted word.
  • Mary did not resist. It’s not that we have to do something actively, it’s that we have to stop doing something, and the thing we need to stop doing is resisting.
  • Thus we let the divine core within expand to fill our skins and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

Honest self-examination is a key to this. It can melt away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the Divine light shines in our souls and we see our demons, addictions, starkly illuminated. But as Isaac the Syrian said, it is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. Only then can we repent. Isaac talks of three stages in the way of union: penitence, purification and perfection – that is to say, conversion of the will, liberation from the passions (detachment), and the acquisition of that perfect love which is the fullness of grace.

Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is a co-redemptrix. But remember, Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. At our baptisms, each one of us becomes a Christ. As the Divine within suffuses all our tissues, so we have the new creation happening in and around our cells. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Finish then thy new creation, wrote Charles Wesley, when we shall be changed from glory into Glory.

Mary enables this mystical intermingling of human and divine. It is based on sound theology and, amazingly, on sound biology. In the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, the Saviour ‘began his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb.’

The battle for salvation is not about doing stuff and ticking boxes, but rather about relaxing so that the Divine core can expand to fill our skins, pushing out the demons. Imagine these demons as imps. When you recognise one, send it on its way. There’s nothing like the light of day to make these creatures dissolve. But there is a never-ending supply of them, and they keep us in exile from that inner sanctuary.

Here is a poem that talks of this inner kingdom, the holy of holies within. It was written by 20-year old Charles H Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

From morn to midnight, all day through,
I laugh and play as others do,
I sin and chatter, just the same
As others with a different name.

And all year long upon the stage,
I dance and tumble and do rage
So vehemently, I scarcely see
The inner and eternal me.

I have a temple I do not
Visit, a heart I have forgot,
A self that I have never met,
A secret shrine—and yet, and yet

This sanctuary of my soul
Unwitting I keep white and whole,
Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care
To enter or to tarry there.

With parted lips and outstretched hands
And listening ears Thy servant stands,
Call Thou early, call Thou late,
To Thy great service dedicate.

New values

250px-VladimirskayaThe young lad went home from the first day at school. His mother asked how he’d got on. “What have you learnt today?” she said. “Not enough” he replied. ”I’ve got to go back tomorrow”.

That’s a bit like our experience with new starts as pupils in the school of the Gospel. With our propensity to cock up, we always have to keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down, and starting all over again, eventually reaching what an elderly friend once called “cramming for finals”. (I was never any good at that, but that’s another story.)

So what are we trying to achieve as we progress to finals? According to red-top weekend supplements, the chief aim of mankind is good food, a state-of-the-art kitchen, exotic holidays, a good football team, and stupendous sex,. Other supplements are more economically and socially ambitious: we are urged to aim for a good job, a good salary, a good pension and worthy hobbies. The more high-minded papers point us towards the ideal of making the world a better place; we are urged, according to taste and temperament, to become either activists, protesters, optimists, or doom merchants despairing at the state of the world.

But, said Jesus, “after all these things do the Gentiles seek” and then advised “strive first for the kingdom of God”. What are the values of the kingdom of God? What are the values that lead to newness of life?

The answer is in the Magnificat. It is the most revolutionary document in the world, and it comes from a pregnant teenager. My organ teacher writes here that when he approached his former professor of music at Cambridge, Patrick Hadley, to write a setting of the Magnificat, Hadley replied that he couldn’t possibly oblige, saying: “that Magnificat – it’s very RED, isn’t it?”

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts

A better phrase for “imagination” would be “devices and desires” since the Greek translated as imagination implies deliberate self-seeking intentions. It means “I did it my way”—the me, me, me cry of the super-confident who believe they have the ear of God, of the mock humble who plead “all I want is …” and follow up with a Harrod’s shopping list to the sky pixie, of all those who have got above themselves and forgotten that pride is followed by fall. For pride is the greatest of the sins; it arises from the serpent’s claim for Adam and Eve “Ye shall be as Gods”; it is the perverted selfishness and self-regard that spawns the other sins, the other perversions of loving God and neighbour.

But note how God scatters the proud. He appears in Christ who did not lord it over others with displays of power, but was one of us. And this, even at his death when much as he would have liked to have been spared, he put his human ego aside. We have a great capacity to deceive ourselves, to imagine that we’re doing things for the sake of others when in fact we’re just pleasing ourselves. Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of Luke’s beatitudes is spot-on: “it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.What you have is all you’ll ever get. It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.Your self will not satisfy you for long.”

For Christians it is not a case of saying “I did it my way”, but rather, “I try to do it his,” being vulnerable and seeing the Divine in others. Selflessness trumps selfishness.

He has cast down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek

Some interpret this as a call to revolutionary political activity. That certainly has its place, especially in the United Kingdom at this time. But Hebrew Scripture metaphor and language should not be taken literally. This is not power to the people, nor man the barricades. For it is not God but man who is described as a political animal, that is to say man is naturally community minded. Apes like us live in community.

But Jesus deals with individuals, fearlessly facing challenges from the rich, the powerful and the hostile, ignoring social, moral and ethnic standing. He has no favourites. How could he have if the divine spark is in each of us?

He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away

Two extremes are set against each other, again typical of Hebrew Scripture. Again we should not take it literally. This is about equality: each according to his needs, not his wants. This is a vain hope, given the acquisitive nature of the psyche. Warlords want guns, not irrigation schemes, and the people starve. And just look at our thirst for oil. What of the more vital thirst for water? There will be wars over water before long.

Magnificat values are the new values. We aspire to see the Divine in everyone, to have a share in the healing work of making rough places plain, to create a level playing field, to seek the common good. To relinquish “all the vain things that charm me most”.

Prophet Micah has it in six words: do justly love mercy, walk humbly.

For this reflection I’m privileged to acknowledge my friend, the late Primrose Wolstenholme.

Christianity – is it worth it?

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Quite by chance I came across the homily that I gave at a Rotary club carol service in 2017. Here it is.

Most people don’t expect a sermon at a carol service. But since a good many of you find yourselves in church only once a year, I shan’t resist the urge to provoke you.

I hear it said that English society is losing the plot, that it’s obsessed with individualism. People think their rights as individuals trump their duties as members of society. I hear it said that the church has contributed by having failed to proclaim its message clearly, that it has colluded with the forces of secularism.

If you think this, and deplore the way in which the Church has retreated from society to become an inward-looking sect, then I say this to you: stop moaning and start going to church. Change the church from the inside.

“Ah but”, I hear you say. You say “church is only for old women and children”. “Church these days is sentimental claptrap of flowers and pet services and vicars obsessed with chocolate and coffee”. “Church is about middle class complacency” you say. “Church patronizes me with doggerel hymns, playschool prayers and infantile sermons”. “Church doesn’t connect with the joys and sorrows of ordinary people” (I suppose members of Rotary Clubs can be regarded as ordinary people. Perhaps.)

Certainly, when I look at celebrity vicars today, I can understand why people think like that.

So let me correct you about Christianity.

It’s not about chocolate. It’s not about vomit-inducing Jesus-is-my-best-friend talks. It’s not about worshipping texts written by people who thought the earth was flat. It’s not about believing fairy stories. It’s not about asking a sky pixie to sort out your problems because you’re too lazy to take responsibility for yourself.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove. The inner Christ.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s what Christmas is about. As Mary let the infant grow in her belly, so can we let him grow in ours, for we are all Mary. We don’t need to do anything—the Christ-child within is already there; we just need to let it happen—or rather, we just stop resisting. As we have already sung: O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.
  • As the Christ-flame grows within us it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully. That’s the crucifixion.
  • With all the inner rubbish now burnt up, we are resurrected; we ascend to the heights like a hot air balloon now unburdened by ballast. Our inner flame lights the way for others and consumes their burdens. Light as illumination, light as wisdom, light as less heavy.

And this with Jesus as the prototype, the model, the example, divine humanity, the Word. Never mind the theology—a fair bit of it in the western church is pernicious hogwash.

Christianity is about putting other people on the same pedestal that you’re on yourself. Christianity is about recognizing that we’re all in this together—every living creature, not just humans. Christianity is about giving away your self, because only then will you find yourself. And at this time of year it’s about remembering the importance of being child-like. Not childish: selfish, egotistical, me-me-me, but child-like: trusting, exploring, fun-loving, risk-taking.

I leave you with this question: would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become? If not, use this Christmas, this festival of childlikeness, to do something about it.

Prophecy

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The absent centre

In Dublin I worked with surgeons who in retirement taught anatomy two days a week to medical students. They’d found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves. Here, I work with retired clergy who’ve found an agreeable church community with which they can develop a pastoral relationship, without the hassle of being the Vicar. They’ve found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves.

Now my retirement beckons: I have to go before my 70th birthday on 6 June 2020. Can I survive that long? I’ve been looking at an outline plan for 2019 liturgical events, civic events, meetings, administration. My heart sinks, especially since I have no administrator: it’s all up to me. I dread the prospect of the reigning monarch and/or her consort dying—not only because of the extra work entailed as Vicar of the civic church, but also because she just about holds together the nation in a way that nobody else does, and that I suspect her successors will not. But that’s another story.

I am incredibly tired—mentally, not physically. I look at the prospect of another Lent course, another Easter, another set of Harvests (ugh!), another set of Christingles (ugh, ugh!) with gloom. I feel as if I’m keeping the show on the road merely to give those whose hobby it is to attend church on a Sunday morning the illusion that things are more or less as they were when they were children, a few of whom resist with every ounce of their being anything that challenges that view. I am thus complicit in perpetuating a land of make-believe. I am complicit in keeping people infantilized. It doesn’t help that my vision of ministry is sneered at by the Lambeth politburo. I wonder how many of them were in multi-church ministry with no administrative help.

Church people have expectations of what a Vicar should be. I don’t meet them, thankfully. Church people are rarely open and honest with the Vicar: they tell him what they think he wants to hear—or should want to hear. Exchanges are therefore guarded and sometimes dishonest. I want to give them hugs and suggest that they relax. Sometimes I do, no doubt at the risk of being accused of inappropriate touching. I try to liberate them by being human and outrageous so as to give them permission to do likewise. It sometimes works.

Conversations with non-church people are something else altogether: open, honest, and often astonishingly revealing. They find it refreshing that the Vicar does not meet their expectations. It opens all sorts of doors. They say they like what they hear, for he is not institutionalized and doesn’t talk in Christian-speak jargon.

The volunteers that serve the YMCA night shelter at St Paul’s are by no means all church people. Many of them find it hard to articulate why they do it, but they restore my faith in humanity in a way that some church people with “a proud look and high stomach” do not. Such generosity seems to me to be Christianity in action. I don’t get that same feeling at the weekday masses attended by a handful of people.

I look forward with apprehension. I grieve the loss of plans, hope, prospects. It doesn’t matter that they may not have been well-formed, I’m aware that something is being lost, that things are slipping through my fingers. More than likely they were never actually in my fingers—but I thought they were. I thought I was beginning to get a grip on them, but when I look at my hands, I see they are evaporating. And it’s not principally a matter of deteriorating eyesight and hearing.

I could help occasionally with services at other churches. We’re staying in Burton, but many of its churches are not to my taste. They tend to be conservative theologically and undisciplined liturgically, whereas I’m for radical theology and traditional liturgy. For entirely understandable reasons, I’m not allowed to set foot in the churches I currently serve..

Music? My addiction to music developed in my teens as sublimation for erotic and sexual impulses driven by increasing circulating testosterone. Given the culture and family in which I grew up, that was pretty revolutionary. Music still brings me to heights and depths of emotion and I will enjoy it as long as my senses allow. I could play for services, but the number of clergy who want organists is rapidly decreasing as muzak replaces music. I am thankful for Rolleston Choral Society.

Writing? Who cares what I think? I’ve read again some of my recent blogs and have deleted them—exercises in self-indulgence and hubris. I suppose this is another.

Volunteering? Burton YMCA might be able to use me. I’m deeply concerned about the mental health of young men.

“Might be able to use me”: that phrase is a bit of a give-away. What does the real Stanley want? Is there such a thing?