Three Rs for a new year

Even those of us whose schooldays are long-gone have some sense of September as the start of a new year. Barbecue charcoal and plastic chairs have vanished from the shops, replaced by the Back to School range of tiny white shirts, shiny shoes and attractive stationery which we look at with a mixture of fondness and regret. We too were once nearly five, full of hope and promise and determination. (Watch them as they write their names in their brand new books, their little hands clutching the pen, their tongues curled in concentration.)

Eventually, of course, the page is blotted, the shoes are scuffed and the lovely white shirt is creased. The wrong turning in the road is taken, the poison is drunk, the harmful words are spoken. And however much we might want things to be different, they are always as they are. We always start from here. From the controversial outworkings of democracy, to the fearful state of the nations, to our apparent inability to wean ourselves off cream cakes: all seems flawed and fallen. New Year? It’ll be just the same as the old one.

While such despairing is understandable, we must never give up our vision for the world, or give in to a version of ourselves which has no place for hope. Our value as human beings does not depend on keeping our noses clean and our lives free from error. Our goodness does not lie in attaining perfection. We are good simply because we are made in the image of a good God, made in love, made for love. If we can grasp that idea, all else follows.

We won’t ever return to the purity of childhood, neither will our lives be blank pages. But the three Rs of remembering, reflecting and resolving might just help.

Remember who you really are, full of the dignity of humankind. Reflect on your behaviour for five minutes every day, noting when you live courageously and generously and when you’re mean or fearful. Resolve to live the life you truly hope for, not the life you’re prepared to settle for. And that’ll mean keeping hopeful, even when the shirt and the shoes and the page seem beyond repair.


First published in the Lichfield Mercury, September 2011


Following the Loser Lord of Life

A sermon on Mark 10.46-52 for the Last Sunday after Trinity (Year B), preached in St Stephen’s House, Oxford, on 28 October 2018

Behold, if you will, blind Bartimaeus sitting in dislocation and darkness on the town’s dusty margin. His name is half Aramaic and half Greek and he must feel that no good has come of it. Called son of honour, worthy son: yet here he is on his beggar’s blanket so utterly devoid of honour that he is reduced to asking for small change from those who pass by on the busy road to Jerusalem. He is in the dark, alone, no doubt afraid. And so perhaps are we today. We certainly have every right to be.

Our world’s predicament requires no particular dissection from the preacher: on every level from the ecological to the political, from the international to the domestic, we appear to be mortally wounded and irredeemably dysfunctional. In the pursuit of peace, the powerful prescribe more weapons; the dogs of hatred are unleashed against any who are deemed suspect, however distant or weak they may be. The devotees of liars hail their heroes’ lies as truth and any who raise objections are jeeringly dismissed as losers. The times are out of joint in every corner of the world, most recently and egregiously in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — for the comfort and consolation of whose Jewish community let us pray to the Lord.


The Church, even just our tiny sliver of it, is torn and divided between those who appear to covet a supersmooth gleaming professionalism, seeking success above all things and valuing only what can be counted and assessed. The Cathedrals (once kindly Mother Churches dedicated to supporting their diocese and its parishes) have become corporate Head Offices, endlessly boasting about how well they’re doing or how physically imposing they are. Even the new monasticism seems designed chiefly for the young and the beautiful, which is, I confess, not my own recollection of the religious life.


Others, meanwhile, prefer to dance to an older tune, to care for the unfashionable and the fewer in number. Their heart is on the housing estate while others seem more instinctively drawn to real estate. Oh, that’s an unnecessarily pleasing phrase, no doubt; but it’s still a caricature capable of  speaking truth.


Now, whereas you and I might see all this and sink slowly into something like despair, Bartimaeus nurtures a confident trust (Mark 10.52) in the one who will liberate Israel, setting even the blind to find their way on the road from slavery to freedom and from exile in a strange land to the familiarity of hearth and home.


So when he calls from his very depths, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”, he is not just addressing the Nazareth wonder-worker but appealing to the whole of Israel’s history as it resonates with all that God has been and done. His appeal, in short, is to the very heart of reality; and his request is not just for mercy in the sense of a physical healing; still less for a straightforward erasing of the contents of a charge sheet. He desires rather an anointing with all the grace and goodness at the divine disposal. For this shout of eleison (that we echo in our litanies and liturgy, in what Seamus Heaney calls “the elision of eleisons on stone”) is the full etymological cousin of the oil of the olive and speaks with the full richness of a symbol that has had currency since the day the dove returned to Noah with the olive twig in its beak.


Bartimaeus is therefore calling for light and warmth and nourishment and medicine, for the strength of the athlete and the blessings of the King. He knows the extent of his need, and recognises the source of its provision.


To Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do?” another blind man might have been forgiven for simply answering “Duh!” Of course Bartimaeus wants to see, but it is necessary to name his desire. And we also must face that most searching and perhaps frightening question: “What do you really desire?” It’s tricky, because we know the textbook answers only too well, and are adept at what we ought to say. But really to desire the God of life, and really to desire to follow in the way of our loving loser Son of David, is of course the work of a lifetime of formation and askesis and repentance. And, rather as in a marriage, it is the job of every member of a faith-community to help every other member in quickening that desire so that, as we used to sing when we were children, the Lord Jesus might ‘fit us for heaven to live with him there’.


And so it is appropriate that Mark opens the curtain on this last act of his drama with the healing of a blind man worthy of honour. It closes a bracket that was opened in Bethsaida, when another blind man was eventually given his sight. But spiritual blindness is a stubborn complaint and has a nasty habit of coming back. Three times between these two healings the Lord announces what is to befall him in Jerusalem. And three times the disciples’ response is wholly inadequate. First, Peter rebukes Jesus, only to be rebuked in turn. Later the disciples engage in a shameful squabble as to which of them is the greatest. Finally, the sons of Zebedee focus on their main chance and ask that, if Jesus is to be taken into glory, they might have the best seats in the VIP lounge.


We have more confidence in Bartimaeus, however. For his faith has been filtered through pain and purified by suffering, and when he is summoned to receive his sight he springs up with all the exuberance of King David dancing before the ark, or with the joy of John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb when he hears our Lady’s greeting. And as he prepares to move from the side of the road to follow in the Way, we are invited to permit this final recipient of physical healing to lead us that we also may go even to Jerusalem and see the things that will come to pass.


It is almost the end of the Church’s year, and we have very nearly read once again this gospel of Mark specially written for speechless and frightened losers (16.8). It is no doubt a good time to pray for the grace to be renewed in our desire and in our vision that we may have the courage to be voices of truth and joy in the Church and for the world that these days of deep darkness may be pierced by the light and the love of Jesus Christ. To whom be glory now and ever and unto the ages of ages.


Goldilocks at Petertide — An ordination reflection

With Easter behind us, the thoughts of the ecclesiastical classes turn readily from baptism to ordination. Courses conclude and colleges empty and cathedral precentors will soon be calming nerves at ordination rehearsals while photographers stand by to capture carefully-choreographed images of spontaneous joy.


We do, however, have something of a Goldilocks problem with ordained ministry, and perhaps always have had. Tending towards either too low or too high a sense of the priest’s particularity, we end up with a prosaic functionalism (with a full diary to prove it) or a mystical omniscience. Neither extreme is helpful.

Goldilocks at Petertide

No doubt some of the problem began with the Reformation, when old ways of thinking about what priests did at the holy end, confecting Christ in whispered isolation, changed utterly, shattering the sure understanding of the past.


It was with such notions of an ‘ontologically changed’ priest intact that, when I was at college 20 years ago, we knew no ruder word than ‘training’. Nor any word less accurate. Dogs and monkeys were trained. But priests and deacons were formed for the life and work set before them.


This is not a facile distinction, though it is partial and perhaps irritating. It shares with virtue ethics the conviction that what matters is not so much what we do as who we are. But being and doing are closer than cousins and inevitably cause each other: who we are informs and enables what we do. Experience, in turn, feeds our instincts, guides our reactions, and dyes within us a new and deepening authenticity.


This is true not just of Christian priests, but it should be noticeably true of them, and of any who are ‘subdued to what they work in’ through a daily focus on prayer and reflective praxis.


It is in part for this reason that I am not keen on the phrase ‘vicar factory’. I know that it is intended to be jocular and a remedy against pomposity, but it carries inescapable tones of the mass-produced pastoral operative. These are best avoided, especially as they lead by degrees from too low a doctrine of priesthood to no doctrine at all, resulting in calls for ‘lay celebration’ of the Eucharist, as if the people of God were not already the celebrants of the sacraments; and as if the president of their weekday community was not therefore the president at their Sunday altar.


But this is to open too many cans of worms. What matters to Goldilocks is that the particular nature of the priest should not be so diluted or dispensable that s/he blends invisibly into a magnolia background; nor so dilated and inflated that we end up with a beneficent witch or magus, always knowing best, exercising quasi-magical powers over bread and wine, as if the rest of the worshipping body need never exist.


This perhaps is the consequence of too high a doctrine of priesthood, one that sees ontology changed by ordination at the bishop’s hands, followed by admission to a wonder-working caste with revelation of arcane secrets, like where to find the Extended Prefaces on the Church of England website.


The challenge for Goldilocks, of course, is to find a description of priesthood that’s just right. A strong contender, and personal favourite of mine, is this definition by the late Canon Professor DW Hardy, who sees the priest as one who ‘in some sense personifies the embodiment in the Church of God’s work to bring truth and healing to the world.’


I love its provisional tone: he speaks only ‘in some sense’, not claiming to nail what is always elusive. He then identifies the work of healing the world as God’s, not by divine over-activity (what +Rowan once called micro-management), but through embodying that work in the Church, the hands and feet of St Teresa’s famous dictum. It is this embodiment that is then made public and representative by being personified in the priest.


Priests are not the Church’s only voice, of course, neither do they replace or overshadow the people, but they are those who in some sense gather and inspire them, sharing in the bishop’s care of them, equipping them for service so the work that God purposes may be accomplished.


This will require a depth and quality formed through daily prayer, repentance and renewal; formed, too, through work and training and the inevitably busy life of the parish. But which is harder to achieve? Not the busyness, the frenetic activity, the foolish over-working on the day off. These are easy, little more than competences and signs of confidence which I recently read should characterise the priestly life.


But they should not, for ontological change (especially if it is to be indelible) is not just a smear of chrism and a touch of bishop on the crown of the head. It is the long-maturing fruit of stillness, silence and study; it is the slow drip of baptismal grace inscribing stony hearts. And it is the bit we find the hardest, for it’s where escape-routes end, pretence is unmasked, and mere performance must become sublime truth-telling.


If all of the clergy, old hands and newly-ordained, could renew a commitment to these holy and ancient disciplines this Petertide, the Church would grow in service, and the Gospel would make its mark afresh upon a desperate world. And we, priests and people, would begin to know again who we are and, in some sense, to be clear what we are for.




Categories Revisited

A London preacher has revealed that, at an Oxford College recently, a Chaplain was able to employ the therapeutic services of a dog (dogs being forbidden in College), only when the Master decided to redesignate the dog a cat.

Doggerel, of course


The pages of the Church Times are often fairly odd

in the jobs they advertise for those who work for God.

A curate for the Falklands. A canon for Brazil.

An architect in Whitley Bay. An organist in Rhyl.


But rarely were the readers more aghast, agog,

than when an Oxford college wrote a job spec for a dog.

“Must be good with people; must love climbing stairs.

Don’t terrorise the tourists! Share the Chaplain’s prayers.”


Many sent a CV, from Danes to Pekingese,

but a scruffy yellow Labrador won the contest with great ease.

And all looked rather promising, until the Bursar saw

the statutes disallowed all dogs: all breeds, from nose to paw.


The Chaplain’s heart was broken as this pastoral assistant

was very simply crucial, but the Bursar was insistent:

no blind eye could be offered — and that would have been that,

without the Master’s cunning stratagem to call the dog a cat.


“Don’t categorise the dog!” he said. “Just dogegorise the cat!

“No need to be catmatic. No-one will smell a rat.”

So the cat began its labours, in the College wheel a cog.

And it went to chapel every night to sing Magnifidog!


And it daily grows more feline, its barks almost miaows;

and its catted resolution deserves a thousand bows.

It’s lovely with the students when they have their downs and ups,

and now they’re all impatient for the cat to have some pups.

Ginger kitten, Butch, 10 weeks old, and sleepy Yellow Labrador Retriever pup

So, Reader, learn this lesson; I pray you learn it well.

A cat can always gnaw a bone; a dog can wear a bell.

So put on motley when you must, whenever it befalls.

And whether mog or Tom or dog, play the part that calls.


Wealands Bell

3 June 2018

Corpus Christi Sonnet I

No bread in Eden, where abundant fruit

grew round with rainfall, warmed with sunlight’s kiss;

until we poured our poison, sliced the root

that anchored us to an eternal bliss.

We caused the condemnation, drew a curse

consigning us to sweat for daily bread.

Thus food became a sign of sin and worse:

a sign that we were living, now are dead.


So you who hunger for the Bread of Life

and go to church, familiar with the moves;

perhaps related to the vicar’s wife;

who’ve read theology and what it proves:

to make Christ truly present, go and share

a sandwich with a beggar, if you dare!

Beggar sandwich (2)

31 May 2018

Alexa, what did you think of the sermon? (On Alexa, Anglicans and Alabama.)

“I’m always angry when I’m dying,” says the ‘Father’ in John Mortimer’s play A Voyage Round My Father. And so is the Church of England, it seems, with fractures and irritability liable to break out at regular intervals. If it’s not Angela, it’s Alexa.

The allegation of our dying is itself hotly contested. Some gleefully announce the imminent end of it all, reeling off statistics like a malign diagnosis. Others jump valiantly up and down insisting that it’s not too bad at all. Look! It’s just a flesh wound. What about Cathedrals! Evensong! On-line! Messy Church!

And now, Alexa! I confess that my spirits slumped the extra mile when I saw the story break. It felt so woefully wannabe, wilfully cool, nuzzling up to the IT giants with a sort of ‘love me, love my Jesus’ simper. But my reaction was wrong, misplaced. It is, in fact, a notably conservative device, principally designed to connect people with their parish church. The Delphic software might seem gimmicky, and certainly cannot meet people where their faith deficit lies. (There can’t be many writing to their bishops to say that the only thing keeping them from belief is a more vibrant Anglican web presence and greater clarity on how to organise a church wedding.) I do see that Alexa could effect an introduction to faith for some and maintain links for others (notably the housebound), so as a means of communication it is to be warmly welcomed. It’s just the bullish optimism that’s so very exhausting.

Another one in whom hope cannot be extinguished is the Most Revd Michael Curry, a man thrust into an even brighter spotlight in the last fortnight than that illuminating Alexa.

The fact that an African-American preacher preached a sermon in an identifiably African-American rhetorical tradition is not in fact a story until you add the detail of where and why and for whom he preached it. And this juxtaposition of Bishop Curry’s style-and-substance and a gathering of the chieftains of the British Establishment has given rise to some interesting comment amid the journalistic bilge, including this Theos piece by Simon Perfect (@SimplyMrPerfect).

His main thrust is that there was significantly more Christianity in Bishop Curry’s sermon than we have come to expect on State and Civic occasions, where overt references to faith are passed through the Church of England embarrassment filter, leaving a wash of warm words that are patient of any broadly positive interpretation. This reflects the more general shift that has taken place, principally post Welby. Once distinguishable by a hallmark of subtle understated proclamation (dismissed by the more fervent as scarcely Christian), the Church is now “flexing its missional muscles and becoming more vocal in its message.” A sort of Evangelical takeover, if you will.


But this is not a caricature that quite fits. The idea that the Church of England habitually delivers a diluted Gospel on State occasions and that the congregation is bewildered by anything more potent is false. When Church of England bishops preach, they speak in a manner markedly different from an African-American raised on the memory of Birmingham, Alabama. But this does not make them Christianity-lite. Even Archbishop Runcie (whose undulating parsonical voice gave him a wickedly unjust reputation for being wishy-washy), preached a rich and entirely orthodox homily for Charles and Diana in 1981, talking precisely of the difference between secular and Christian views of marriage, emphasising that a wedding is not a fairy-tale ending but the beginning of a life in which the couple cooperate with God in the divine task of renewing creation. (He was also hauntingly prophetic in his reference to future ‘miseries’ and ‘setbacks’.) For William and Kate, Bishop Richard Chartres quoted not Dr King but St Catherine of Siena (“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”), speaking of the path to truest selfhood that is reached through following Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Again, at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Archbishop Rowan Williams focused on dedication and sacrifice as complete availability to God. Rooted in St Paul, he observed that ‘we live less than human lives if we just think of our own individual good.’

But if it’s unfair to caricature Civic religion as just Iolanthe with prayers, it’s still reasonable to say that many expect it to be dull. All too often church is, and it was Bishop Curry’s subversion of this that proved risible for some. Others will have found his words full of grace and truth, genuinely transformational, made all the more so by the heightened emotion of the wedding itself.

You can never quite tell what’s really going on. An audience that looks passive, unreceptive or bored may in fact be pondering a sermon intently, eyes tightly closed but ears wide open. By the same token, a congregation being whipped into an emotional frenzy may enjoy a spectacular ride while the service lasts, but when the show is over and the shine evaporates, all that they experienced and resolved may also have vanished strangely. (Alexa, what are the roots that clutch?)

Simon Perfect leaves us with the question of whether the Church of England can perform these discrete rôles successfully, combining the broader “task of serving the whole nation, with its task of calling people to God.”

I am clear (as David Jenkins used to say) that we can. People recognise that the Christian past of our nation continues to contribute to our present identity. They understand that for the foreseeable future it is within the cultural and theological norms of the Church of England that part of this identity will be expressed. Most even seem to rejoice that it should be so. They are consequently open to any thoughtful and attractive presentation of that faith, which can be authentic without being exclusivist, confident without jarring, and competent without descending to the merely flashy.

As we’re saying frequently in these difficult, sometimes short-tempered days (and relax, I won’t be saying it again for a while), prayerful discernment and mutual respect remain critical, as is the good sense not to abandon the best of our past as we embrace our always unknowable future.

Shrine, Mary’s Shrine (a little something to sing on the bus)

Shrine, Mary’s Shrine,

Destination of hopeful pilgrims!

Foretaste of heaven, open wide your door!

Shrine, Mary’s Shrine,

Holy House! England’s Nazareth: our

Lady is [t]here, and we honour her name.


1. Mary, child of the Father’s giving;

Mary, mother of all the living;

Mary, wisest of all human teachers;

Mary, gentlest of all human creatures:

Pray for us! Pray for us!


2. Mary, called by an angel’s vision;

caring not for the world’s derision;

prayed at once for the grace of obedience:

‘Let your will be my only allegiance!’

Pray for us! Pray for us!


3. Mary, praising the Lord, the holy

God, whose pow’r raises up the lowly;

Mary, Mother of Christ, yet his daughter;

sees his glory as wine flows from water:

Pray for us! Pray for us!


4. Mary, pained in your Son’s last hour,

seeking sign of the Father’s power;

Mary, hearing the women’s announcement:

‘Christ is risen!’ O joyful pronouncement!

Pray for us! Pray for us!


5. Mary, Mother enthroned for ever:

pray for us, that we may never

fail to follow wherever Christ leads us,

always serving wherever he needs us:

Pray for us! Pray for us!

Mary, not at all Contrary

Many today will be in Walsingham, a tiny village near the north Norfolk coast, made famous for the simple reason that the Mother of God once went there. I say ‘went there’, though it was no doubt a bit more mysterious than that. Whatever she actually got up to, the local lady of the Manor, Richeldis de Faverche, became convinced in the 11th century that she was being asked by the Virgin Mary to build in Walsingham a replica of the home in Nazareth which Jesus shared with Mary and Joseph. And so the house was built, and pilgrims have been going there ever since.


The holy house visited today is a 20th century building, surrounded by a Shrine Church with all the paraphernalia of Anglican religion at its most exotic. Yet at the heart of it all is the very simple Christian belief that God is so committed to us that he is prepared to share our lot, to move into our street and plunge himself into human life. As we know, it’s a costly business, and as Jesus hangs bruised and broken on the cross he must wonder if it’s all worthwhile.


But his coming to us in only half the story. It was Ascension Day a couple of weeks ago, the fortieth day of Easter, on which Christians celebrate the return of Jesus to the Father’s side. His stay on earth is over, humanity has done its worst and killed him, and God has responded as he always does, raising Jesus to life and lavishing us all with light and hope and endless possibility. So Jesus does not ascend to the Father alone: he takes us all with him, planting our lives firmly where they belong: deep in the heart of God.


This is what gives us human dignity and morality. We humans have been given gloriously high status by our Creator, something made possible by his loving nature and the willingness of Mary to co-operate with his plan. It is in cooperation with the divine will that we also find fulfilment and peace: like Mary, we will discover ourselves only by saying ‘Yes’ to God’s challenge and invitation to abundant life.