Easter ramble

aasdsa.jpgI reckon that the theory of atonement that appeals to someone is dependent upon upbringing and personality. If you’ve been brought up feeling the need of rules and regulations and a strong father, you might have one view on how the atonement could work. If you’ve been brought up rigidly and with frequent beatings, then you’d have quite a different view.

Church history matters too: substitutionary atonement is a recent western thing—it doesn’t much feature in the Orthodox churches. And I can’t help but feel that those Orthodox traditions and beliefs are more likely to be in tune with the early church, partly because of locality and culture, and partly because they’ve had few if any difficulties of translating from ancient Greek.

How do I see things on 31 March 2018 (I’m not dating this for Easter Day lest my two readers think it’s an April fool).

I see JC as the example for us all – the type. We are all resurrected – that is, free to ascend – when as a result of a Gethsemane moment we let go of selfishness and ego. This is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event. We have Gethsemane moments many times a day as we are confronted by the paradoxes of our humanity and the difficulties of life on the planet. It is not easy being human.

For me, Easter resurrection has nothing to do with life after death. That was something introduced by the church as a means of controlling hoi polloi–behave now and you’ll get a club-class seat in the hereafter. Absolute pish. Death in the Passion story is about meanness of living, not about absence of heartbeat.

I’m sure that the resurrection is the thing that most makes modern people laugh at us—how can we believe such sky-pixie tripe? And it’s very difficult to get across to schoolchildren, especially so soon after Christmas. The symbolic message of resurrection–ascension is much more important than any literal interpretation, and it is incontrovertible.

I suppose there’ll be letters to the bishop from “disgusted of Burton”. Good luck with that.

Happy Easter.

Read my Easter message here.

Tuesday in Holy Week: love your enemies

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The welcome

Isaiah 49:1-6. John 13:21-33, 36-38

I suspect all church people have heard ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ The usual response is ‘well, there’s always room for one more, so you’d be in good company.’

We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is, amongst other things, accused of being a hypocrite. Judas wasn’t a particularly bad man, just weak. His weakness is part of the story, just as are Peter’s denials. Maybe if Judas hadn’t killed himself he’d be a saint like Peter—maybe he should be, since he was the agent of Jesus’ liberation from earthly form. Yesterday we heard 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 all puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart. Homer says: 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.

As it happens I think Homer’s a great guy. For all his faults, he’s a kind of innocent, and he certainly loves his family. But enough of these insights into my depraved televiewing habits. I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s Judas in us all, in our human nature. Once again, biology plays 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. As we go with him, we must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection, enemies of imagination. 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. Three are obvious:

  • 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 three quarters of his people starve 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 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. It’s easy to pick on politicians 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. In this regard, we are all complicit in the problems that afflict us, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden of the mistakes our generation has made. 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 staggering. 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, in my theology, 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.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, QeotokoV. 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. After giving birth, 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. 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 for 1614, without knowledge of reproductive biology.

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 have patented it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is a wonderful example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. In cooperation we can be so much more effective than if we act singly. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it is 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 look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. But as Satan—however we choose to interpret that—entered into Judas, so Satan enters into us sometime during our exposure to life on this planet. There are spiritual battles going on in us all the time with demons that we need to guard against. There is a whole subject opening up as I speak: our biological urge to reproduce, our biological need of sustenance, the need to survive at the expense of competitors—all this set against community and common good. This is for another day.

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

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to God. We do this by listening to God within, the still small voice. This is the implanted word. Conscience.
  • Mary did not resist. Honest self-examination is a key to this. It’s not so much 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. The pilot light flares within. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

God became man so that man might become God, said St Irenaeus.

Self-examination melts away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the light shines in our souls and we see ourselves 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. 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.

Charles Wesley was thoroughly grounded in this theology. His most astonishing hymn is Let earth and heaven combine. Here are some lines from it:

He deigns in flesh to appear, Widest extremes to join; To bring our vileness near, And make us all divine: And we the life of God shall know, For God is manifest below. … His love shall then be fully showed, And man shall all be lost in God.

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.’

My point is that 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, and 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 that I suggest needs to fill us from the inside. It was written by a 20-year old C 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.

 

We left Jesus standing at the gates of the city and confronting reality. We are standing at the gates of the inner kingdom. Let us love our enemies, our demons. Let us embrace them and expose them to Divine light and watch them dissolve.

Monday in Holy Week: letting go

hot-air-balloons-1422702946OcWIsaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11

The events in tonight’s gospel take place before the Palm Sunday procession. I’m going to take the stories in the Biblical order.

Here are some themes that strike me.

  • Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead.
  • Hypocrisy and dissimulation: Judas pretending to object to the waste of oil because of what it might have bought the poor, whereas maybe he wanted it for himself.
  • Jesus doing the unexpected: riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
  • Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation. Faces are important in this story.

Preparing for death

We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People pretend it won’t happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. The medical profession doesn’t help. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there’s some hope that we can live for ever. We may be cured of cancer today but as sure as eggs is eggs we’ll die of something else tomorrow.

This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. There’s unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her funeral homily, and characteristically witty it was too. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grave disappointments.

For six months of my life I worked in a children’s hospital just off the Brixton High Road in south London. I saw there babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. The inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Death comes to all≠. By pretending otherwise we cause grief for ourselves and for those that love us.

This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is a consequence of urbanisation. In Derbyshire and Ireland, my parishes covered large rural areas. Rural folk have a robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. One of my churchwardens thought nothing of shoving her arm up a cow’s vagina to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be peculiar: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.

I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I rather like Judas by the way—that he is being anointed for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.

Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.

Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why, despite my love of architecture and liturgy, I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.

No dissimulation

As the donkey procession (allegedly) arrives from the east, history books tell us another procession arrives from the west. At Passover the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the Egyptian oppressors. But here they are now under Roman oppressors. A recipe for civil unrest. The Romans were nervous. So the Roman governor rode to Jerusalem from the ‘capital’ Caesarea on the coast, with military reinforcements in case of trouble. The procession from the west was one of Roman imperial power. Pilate rides a war horse, Jesus rides a donkey. Empire versus individual. Mockery of imperial power. Turning the tables of convention as much as turning the tables in the Temple. Wisdom from a donkey. There’s a scene in Attenborough’s film Gandhi which always catches my attention, and that is when the ship docks in Bombay, some British bigwig is disembarking in full dress uniform to the sounds of bands and military display. At the same time, Gandhi dressed as a local is disembarking further up the quayside. The crowds are with Gandhi.

I wonder which procession we will be part of? Will we part of the naked emperor’s procession that lusts for power, that fawns over those who have it? that fiddles expenses claims? Will we like them go for the puffed up image like an overstuffed balloon that will soon burst? Or will we be part of the procession of straightforwardness, of humility, of service? Will we be in the procession that faces stark reality, that embraces death in order that something much more glorious can rise? Death of worldly ambition. Look at the contemporary church and see how the power-lust of bishops leads them to put the needs of the institution before those of the individual.

Renunciation

Facing the future mindfully means killing all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others see us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:

As larks, harmoniously / And sing this day Thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be so passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. A couple of humdrum examples. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on! (How many books do we all have for show, unread and likely to remain so?) In my teens, cathedral music introduced me to beauty, lifting me from a drab village existence. I allowed it to rule my choices for too long. Now it sustains me without, I hope, dictating to me.

These are not evil things in themselves (though many clergy harbour evil thoughts about church musicians—or is it the other way round?) but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of “me” and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by things—we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. The view from the road from Sleaford to King’s Lynn is an image that I have in mind for this wide view. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. I like the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments—or hatred, which is just negative attachment.

Eternal not everlasting

There is a kind of renewal in all this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use eternal. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.

Back to death

If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia—the vain things that charm us most. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by weighty impedimenta from the past.

Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the divine. ‘It is finished’. This is a renunciation that we recall every time the priest utters the consecration prayer at Mass. It is a renunciation that we join in this week, and every week. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on his journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.

From beyond the grave

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From Beyond the Grave – a great film

Two funerals the week after Easter. I’m not available for either.

The first is for a woman who back in the mists of time was christened in St Semperviridis, married there, and so must be buried from there. She has not attended said church for decades, and I know none of the family—indeed they live in a different county and different diocese.

The second is for a woman who has been a member of St Semperviridis for many years past, but whose family have opted to avoid the church for this final ritual and go instead for a crematorium. This causes some distress to members of the congregation who would like to be present in church for the obsequies, but since none of the family is a churchgoer, I guess that won’t weigh heavily on them. Despite not wanting the church building—here’s the interesting thing—the family wants the Vicar of St Semperviridis to do the honours at the crematorium. Since I’m on leave, I arrange for a retired colleague to take the service, but before giving the go-ahead, the family wishes to approve (or not) my choice.

Let me be clear about this: the first family wants the church building but isn’t bothered about the priest; the second wants a priest known to the dead woman but isn’t bothered about the location, or about acknowledging her church allegiance.

Underlying all this is the attitude of the undertakers (two different firms). Would it be unreasonable, if a family wants a particular church or a particular priest, to expect undertakers to establish availability before going ahead with diary bookings? Apparently it would.

What’s going on?

In one case the church building is a tribal temple, like a Masonic Hall. It doesn’t matter who does the incantations so long as they are done in the right place—or in this case the place that was “right” for the woman’s early life. This is the sociological church, the pagan church, the geographical parish church, the established church, the Church of England as it used to be before clergy bothered too much about being friends with Jesus. My three years in the Church of Ireland taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the church as tribal temple, in that case the temple of protestant landowners on whose lives Christian teaching impinges hardly at all.

In the other case it’s not the temple that matters, but the person of the witch doctor: the place where the shaman utters the magic words is of no import.

Of course one doesn’t know what’s going on under the surface. One doesn’t know about the difficulties of fitting a funeral into busy diaries, even though ministers may be expected to change theirs. One doesn’t know how much “getting things right for the funeral” signifies guilt at ante mortem neglect. This is something to which I allude at every funeral when I say that one day everyone will go in a box “like that”, and you never know when, so get your lives in order now so that when that day comes there are as few regrets as possible.

Just for the record, here’s what I’d like to happen to me.

  • cut into bits and fed into a septic tank—environmentally useful; or:
  • burnt, with ashes chucked onto the West Coast Main Line from a bridge just off the road between Orton and Tebay;
  • I’m not bothered about any religious rituals at all;
  • most important of all—a good party.

But really, I don’t care two hoots. They, whoever they are when the time comes, will do just what they want and that’s exactly right. No shoulds, no oughts, no expectations from beyond the grave. I don’t want any physical memorial whatsoever: I don’t want there to be any sign of my having existed.

Blessed George

George_HerbertAdapted from the Church Magazine for this month

Lent is so early this year I haven’t had time to do anything much for a Lent course. I’m not impressed by the mediocre churnings of what passes for the minds of contemporary bishops and theologians, so given that the Church of England kalendar celebrates him on 27 February. I’m introducing my little darlings to George Herbert, a man at the top of my list for canonisation.

He was born in 1593 to a wealthy family in Montgomery. After Westminster School where he was tutored briefly by Lancelot Andrewes, another truly great mind, he went to Trinity Cambridge, became University Orator, and attracted the favours of King James I/VI. Then in his 30s he gave up this glittering life and was ordained priest, serving near Salisbury. He was feted for his care for parishioners and for providing food and clothing for the needy. (Oh to be a priest serving only one church and a miniscule population.) He survived three years of this, dying of tuberculosis in 1633. Do you suppose TB resulted from over-zealous ministry to the sick?

He left us his reflections on pastoral ministry A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson, still regarded by some as a kind of works manual, though hardly relevant to today’s multiparish clergy, and a collection of poems The Temple. It is thanks to John and Charles Wesley that some have made it into our hymn books: Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing; Teach me, my God and King; King of glory, King of peace; The God of love my shepherd is.

Richard Baxter (theologian, Puritan, hymn writer) said, “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books”. Through his fellow poet Henry Vaughan, Herbert influenced William Wordsworth. His poetry has been set to music most famously by Vaughan Williams, and by others including Berkeley, Britten, Weir, and Walton.

There is something about Herbert that intrigues, fascinates, enthrals, and speaks to me heart-to-heart. His poetry is full of humanity, rantings, depression, perplexity, joy, ecstasy, Biblical allusions, theological concepts, and references to science and culture of the day. I’m not really much into poetry, so it’s presumptuous of me to make any comment, but nevertheless, I can’t resist a few.

In Teach me, my God and King he writes of the famous stone that turneth all to gold. The idea of being able to turn base metal into gold has long been a part of intellectual inquiry. In mystical terms it’s about something that can turn base humanity into the divine: an elixir that cures all ills—indeed this poem is called The Elixir. And Lewis Carroll must have taken his inspiration for passing through the looking glass from this poem.

In Aaron Herbert compares unfavourably his unworthy thoughts as he vests for Divine Worship with the vestments worn by the high priests in the Jerusalem Temple: rich, colourful fabrics with bells attached at the hem.

The God of Love my shepherd is: this is quite the best metrical version of Psalm 23. Why did H W Baker think he could improve on it? Maybe he didn’t know it, though I find that difficult to believe.

The Pulley: am I alone in hearing resonances of Pandora’s box?

Redemption: why does this put me in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s shocking The ones who walk away from Omelas?

Love bade me welcome. Look at the third line from the end: My dear, then I will serve. Who is speaking? Is it Love who speaks, ready to serve the meal? Or is it, as I increasingly think, “me” speaking, acknowledging that unworthy though I may be, I’m not so stubbornly proud as to refuse the meal set before me by the prodigally generous father? If so, ‘serve’ is used as we might say ‘OK, I’m not very good but I’m good enough: I’ll do”.

Perhaps his most striking poem is The Collar. This can’t be a reference to the clerical collar, for that wasn’t worn by clergy until the nineteenth century. It’s about a collar used to restrain an animal. The very human Herbert, like all clergy, chafes time and again at the restrictions that come with being a clerk in holy orders: things you can’t do, things you’d like to say but just can’t, things you don’t want to do but must, ways you have to bite your tongue, ways you must put the needs of others before your own, ways you have to bottle up your emotions for the sake of doing the job well (I still find it dreadful to do funerals of people with parents living). In this 36-line poem Herbert rants and raves at God until four lines from the end, when he’s brought up sharp:

But as I rav’d, and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Me thought I heard one calling, Child: / And I reply’d, My Lord

A lump to my throat every time.

A Vicar’s Life

revYou may have seen Rev (BBC1) some years ago, with Tom Hollander as Adam Smallbone. Fiction, but said to be based on reality of being an urban Church of England priest doing his tortured best in the face of an apathetic culture, self-obsessed clientele, and a hostile church establishment interested only in careerism and managerialism.

You may more recently have seen Broken (BBC1) with Sean Bean as Michael Kerrigan. Again fiction, but more obviously (to me) based on the reality of being a Catholic priest in a deprived inner city of the north of England. Priest and people in this come across as somehow more genuine than the stereotypical cartoons of Rev. It’s heart-rending stuff, entirely authentic I assure you. It put me in mind of Jimmy McGovern’s Priest (1994), a truly prophetic work.

You may be watching A Vicar’s Life (BBC2) about four real Herefordshire Church of England clergy. Two episodes down at the moment. There’s no comparison with Sean Bean’s Broken, or even Tom Hollander’s Rev. At least the fictional priests lived the agonies and ecstasies of real humanity on the edge. The Herefordshire programme is all about buildings and the institution. I see nothing in it so far other than middle class complacency, and gimmickry to try and get people to support the organization. There is nothing about the inner life. There is nothing about transcendence.

This is odd in somewhere like Herefordshire where you would think that beauty would be a way in. I remember my Methodist minister uncle, who had served in Carlisle, Sedbergh, Leeds and Stockton before retiring to his native Langwathby, telling me toward the end of his life—rather courageously I thought—how his view of God was not what it used to be, and how increasingly he was attracted to a Wordsworthian panentheism, possibly even pantheism. Who could not be so attracted in the gently luscious Eden Valley, more so even than in the Lakes next door in my opinion?

4123Of course, my views say something about me. Others are sure to disagree with me. Good—I like disagreement, for only through being challenged do we grow and develop. But IMHO there is far too much emphasis in the Church of England these days on Jesus and not enough on “The Divine” – which, as a Greek scholar pointed out to me years ago, is a better translation of theos than “god”. No wonder the Hebrews would not speak the word. The sentimentality, emotional indulgence and self-obsession of Jesus as my lover is something in the contemporary church that I find utterly repellent. I need to look out and beyond, not in and around. Thus I prefer facing east at mass, all of us fixed on “the other” beyond, rather than the inward-looking, closed and self-congratulatory circle of “me and my mates” as I stand as at the shop counter facing the congregation.

Pub and church used to be the principal facilitators of social cohesion in a community, the price for the ordinary punter being to have to endure a talk of variable quality week in, week out. I bet the publican’s was way more interesting than the Vicar’s. Those functions have slipped away from church to other structures and organizations such as social services and hobby groups. I don’t think that is anyone’s fault, it’s just what’s happened. It’s not recent—it began with the invention of the printing press that enabled people to read for themselves (if they could).

But I’m certain that, as with Old Testament figures time and again, the answer lies not in frenetic activity in the hope of getting people to come back to church, but in inactivity: retreating to the cave to pause, to reassess, to allow or even hasten death in order that rebuilding might begin. Not for nothing is Siva the Hindu God that regenerates after destroying—Phoenix from ashes, the work of the spirit, the blazing bush.

The Master advises against flogging dead horses (Matthew 10.14, Mark 6.11, Luke 9.5). We ignore this by switching on life support when we should be letting events take their course. Close churches. Demolish them. Sell them.

Perhaps future episodes of A Vicar’s Life will reveal more to my taste, but given the state of the Church of England these days, I shan’t hold my breath.

Venerating flesh

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_007

Rembrandt got it wrong

The Vatican has forbidden the sale of would-be saints’ body parts as relics. That momentous news set off a train of thought.

As attitudes to dead bodies go, I guess mine is—let’s be neutral here—unusual. Since 1976 I’ve been handling embalmed bodies, cutting them up, chopping off bits and pieces, sawing heads in half, removing brains, and so on and so forth.

Embalmed bodies don’t really look like human flesh, and they certainly don’t feel like it. Anatomy departments need embalming fluid that preserves for years—three is the normal legal limit—while funeral directors use a different chemical mix that preserves for only a few weeks, but gives a better cosmetic result.

When I was in anatomy we went to considerable trouble to show our appreciation to the families of those who left us their remains. We kept them informed, organised the funeral, and held memorial services to which relatives were invited. In Dublin most students were non-Christian, always keen to be involved. They and I were immensely grateful to the relatives.

In the 1990s there was controversy about body parts removed for future study and retained in hospital labs. After this came to light, funerals were held for the specimens—a liver, a heart, a lung or whatever—despite obsequies having already taken place for the people from whom the specimens had been removed. I pondered how big a body part had to be in order to necessitate a ceremony months or years later. If a separate funeral was required for a liver, say, then what about a sebaceous cyst that had been removed? Should a malignant tumour have a separate funeral? Is it necessary to have a funeral for my nail clippings? What about all the flakes of skin that fall off every day? Pus from an abscess?

Is it possible that compensation culture was rearing its head? Surely not. Why did clergy condone this nonsense? It’s not as if they get the fees—at least not in the C of E they don’t.

In any case these events led to a revision of regulations. Up to that time anatomical donations were governed by the 1832 Anatomy Act, brought in to deal with the Edinburgh body snatchers, so it was overdue.

Coincidentally, as the controversy was kicking off in Ireland and the UK, retained body parts of Thérèse of Lisieux were on a world tour, soon to land briefly in Dublin. I wondered how many of those who flocked to pay them homage were at the same time agitating for separate funerals and/or compensation for a relative’s retained organs. I wondered if they had ever given thought to what Thérèse’s parents would have wanted.

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking the veneration of body parts of saints. If such devotions help you in your passage through life, good for you. It occurs to me that I do it in a different way: I venerate dead people’s intellects and personalities by reading what they wrote.

When I last saw my father in the flesh in his coffin in 1986, the undertaker said to me that it was just a body, it wasn’t really him any more. A cadaver is just dead meat. When I last saw my elder son in the flesh in 2015, a certain finality hit me when I noted the circumferential skull incision through which his brain had been removed for post mortem examination. I don’t know if it was retained. They would have been welcome to take what they liked.

I write this on Christmas Eve. The incarnation is all about flesh. Look after it. Life is short.