Body and blood

lastsupper.jpgHomily for Holy Thursday

People of the Book are much more at home with parts of the body and bodily functions than we are. They think nothing of talking at length about blood, guts, bowels, wombs, circumcision, hearts, body, eyes, ears. They are much less prissy and much more down to earth than respectable Anglicans.

Let’s start with blood.

The film Gandhi has Charlie Andrews on a crowded train, hauled up to sit on the roof. An Indian says to him ‘I have friends who are Christian: they eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday.’ It’s a friendly greeting, though with today’s flesh-eating zombie and vampire films and video games, people might think otherwise.

We can bleed to death. As the blood seeps away, so does the life-force. Lack of blood equals death, so blood equals life. Ritual preparation of meat to eat involves draining all the blood so that diners are not guilty of consuming the life force. (I like black pudding so am doomed.) The blood that marks the doorposts in the first Passover signifies that the house will be preserved: blood equals life. The blood of Jesus, the blood that flows from his crucified side, gives life to the world.

First biology.

  • Blood brings nutrient to the cells of the body. What more nutritious than the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Blood contains red cells that bring oxygen to the tissues. Get rid of the polluting smoke of duty and should, and instead take up the oxygen of freedom from worldly burdens. We are in the world, but not of the world.
  • Blood has white cells that fight disease and maintain health. Think about that.
  • Blood removes rubbish from tissues of the body, and contains platelets that plug holes in blood vessels. Think about that too.

When I hear of the ‘blood of the lamb’, I understand it as, quite simply, the life of the Divine. As St John’s Gospel has it: ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you’ (John 6:53). And in the passion gospel we hear that when Christ’s body was pierced, blood and water flows out to sanctify the earth.

Now body, and specifically on Holy Thursday, feet.

For most people on the planet, feet are even more important than they are for us. Bad feet means no work. Feet need to be cared for. Washing feet is service. And I know that naked feet of the very rich look pretty much like naked feet of the very poor.

Imagine Jesus and the disciples’ feet. No stout brogues, and I doubt that they would have been so lacking in fashion sense as to wear socks with their sandals. Who knows what they trod in. So in washing their feet, Jesus was taking a bit of a risk.

This is a cleansing, like Baptism. A washing away of the dust on our feet, that is, washing away the past. It’s a confession. And as we wash each other’s feet we might confess our weaknesses to one another. In truth, we should be washing each other’s feet as a preparation for every mass.

Now bread.

Companion means [taking] bread together. That is a sermon in a sentence. Bethlehem, Bayt Lahm, means house of bread. Another sermon.

And finally, an invitation.

I could end with George Herbert’s invitation (Love III: Love bade me welcome …), but instead I opt for Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ play on the word ‘come’ in his Christmas Sermon of 1620.

In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engrave, to show us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, ‘Come.’ And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, ‘Come.’ And let them who are disposed, ‘Come.’ And let whosoever will, take of the ‘Bread of Life, which camedown from Heaven’ this day into Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of life, – of that His life which we hope for in Heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another venite come unto Him in His Heavenly Kingdom to which He grant we may come, That this day came to us in earth that we thereby might come to Him and remain with Him for ever, ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous.’

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.

Inadequacies of ministerial training

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A good vicar

Two phone calls

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

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

“St Aidan’s.”

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

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

“They can’t help” says he.

“What exactly do you need?” says I.

“Car’s broken down outside church.”

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

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

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

*******

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

“It is.”

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

“Which church?”

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

“Well, I’ve come a long way.”

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

Eventually I drive there.

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

I am not welcoming.

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

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

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

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

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

*******

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

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

 

Stand well back

Unknown

Eyjafjallajökull

Eruption alert!

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

And that’s the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two examples suffice.

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

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

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

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