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

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Limbering up for Cemetery Road

Cemetery RoadSeptember dawns and it’s back to school. We’re all a year older, stronger, wiser and more capable. Summer’s annual ripening into autumn quickens our self-understanding as those who live in time, who grow towards a day when … When we can drive a car, buy a car, afford a flat, a house, a bigger house than yours. This is the sense of progress that motivates many. But it may not be the best on offer. As one generation comes to strength and maturity, another grows old and feeble. The young stride out towards the rising sun, while their elders limp and shuffle, wheeled or zimmer-framed, down Cemetery Road.

It’s not an image we like to dwell on; it dams our rising sap and dampens our joy. And while we cannot postpone the adult diapers indefinitely, we certainly don’t need to consider them now.

With elderly parents preparing for the move to residential care (an infirm and immobile mother and a step-father weakened by Parkinson’s), I am among the very many whose thoughts must turn constantly to these matters. And I find immense liberty and wisdom in doing so.

I drove the four hours north to visit them last weekend. My mother looked dreadful when I got there. Her hair was plastered down on either side of a no-nonsense parting, looking as if it hadn’t been washed for days, despite all the highly-expensive care contracted for. But ‘we don’t like to say anything’ about this discrepancy, apparently. (Speak for yourself, Mother. I’d love to say something, but I don’t have to live with the consequences.)

Her make-up was also just daubed on, a dull flourish of brown on each cheek. Her straggly old-lady whiskers showed several days’ growth; and she had an altogether distant look, as she has for a while: her pale milky eyes fixed on the quiet street, though the curtains had been drawn against the sun. ‘She seems to have given up,’ my step-dad told me quietly, his tremor working overtime. ‘She’s in a world of her own quite a lot these days.’

Sure enough, her conversation betrayed a wandering mind. She had not, in fact, recently helped the ladies of a neighbouring floral society with their prize-winning endeavours, neither would a priest be visiting that afternoon to bring the Blessed Sacrament and some mysterious ‘chits’. ‘I don’t think I ever did know his name,’ she mentioned en passant, placing the privileged information between us as daintily as she spooned the grapefruit from her breakfast bowl. Names do often elude her, of course; and as she flits from sleep to wakefulness a half-century can evaporate in the opening of an eyelid. Then a beatific smile or unexpected comment restores us all to who, when and where we really are.

My mother has been poorly for a few years now, since the incisors of some species of beastie first left her with a dose of cellulitis and a prolonged spell on the sofa. This was barely behind her when we learnt that she had cancer, a non-Hodgkins lymphoma that was robustly subjected to a course of radiotherapy, two lots of chemo and a final victorious onslaught of immunotherapy which may have sent the cancer packing, but not without significant collateral damage to some of her nerve-endings, which now wreak their terrible revenge in the form of continual pain which reduces her several times a day to a lamentable moaning and weeping. At night, she shuffles down the bed to escape the agony, but risks falling out or ending up precariously stranded near the edge, herself immobile, and far too heavy for my step-father to manhandle back to safety.

This near-complete immobility below the waist was brought on by an array of events and complications, and showed little sign of improvement even before her failure to practise her physio drove the therapists away to more receptive patients. I think by then she was just defeated by it all, left with only enough energy for excuses.

My mother’s appetite for fantasy has also played its part in putting off inevitable decisions about their future: the fantasy that my step-father can care for her indefinitely; or that they can go on bearing the responsibilities of home-ownership, even though she cannot actually stand. The body also has a way of delivering its own lessons in reality, for example by forcing my mother to wait patiently for her carers to come each morning to hoist her from bed to wheel-chair like cargo arriving in port; or through her occasional bathroom emergencies to which my step-father responds with a combination of miracle and perseverance that cannot continue much longer.

There was one such occasion on the second morning of my last visit. “I’m going to the toilet!” she announced blithely (yes, blithely), like it was a hop, skip and a jump down the hallway.  With some difficulty we got her to the bathroom’s pure antarctic whiteness, ‘not a moment too soon finding the place’. And as I was cleaning her up with a stack of wipes and hot flannels, there was a strong feeling in the room that the decision about residential care had been entirely vindicated. She might not welcome it, but at least there was no fight. Indeed, for the first time in my adult life, it starts to feel that there is nothing at all left to fight with my mother about; no more debates, just a gentle moving-onward; a learning to let go. Amid the pile of laundry and our three exhausted bodies (lifters and lifted, pushers and pushed) there was a recognition of where we had arrived, that it was the right place.

There was also a good deal of irony in all those flannels waiting for the hot soak and the boiling wash. Like all women of her age and class (with apologies for making her sound like a frigate), my mother has derived her entire sense of worth from the gruelling standards she has always set herself in household management: the kitchen lino scrubbed each day with a vast green bar of Fairy soap. The washing, brilliantly white, billowing crisply on the line, visible every Monday to the whole village, communicating a sort of ‘England expects’ of domestic attentiveness. Then the ironing, the baking, the three square meals. For my mother, the real tragedy of old age, sickness, and dying is the inability to go on doing the housework.

These were never priorities that I valued or shared. When I was holed up in my bedroom trying to read, or grappling with the Wife of Bath on the dining room table, she’d be hoovering noisily outside or invading my space with dusters and Mr Sheen. I knew why. When my own father died, leaving her a single-parent at 30, her wilful energy was her sole means of survival, a medicine to her grief. If she worked hard enough at building impassable barricades against the chaos, it could all be kept at bay. We’d get through it; and that’s all that mattered.

What both my mother and step-father find most troubling about residential care is grief at giving up the great and small possessions (from tables to trinkets) that have motivated their life’s work and given them such innocent pleasure. I confess that their example saddens me, and makes me deeply suspicious of owning anything. They will learn detachment now, I guess, but at a terrible price of regret and frustration. Not that they’re alone. Most of us learn that way, relinquishing our stuff only as we learn to slacken our grasp on life itself, and prepare for the last downsizing into the accommodation we will share with no-one. I am reminded of the warning of the 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote that ‘things when magnified are forgeries of happiness.’ The joy of possession is ‘an antidote to the dread of inevitable death.’

Below: One of Philip Larkin’s Toads, helping us down Cemetery Road

ToadWhen the bright young things skip into my classroom next week, I’ll be having a serious word about death. For surely our old folk teach us that truly profitable living comes not through relentless acquisition (however comforting that may be), but with the wisdom of the final frame, viewing life from the other end of the telescope and shedding our attachment to all that we can, relinquishing the power and autonomy that we’ll certainly lose in the end; focusing instead on the corner-stone of a joyful life: love of God (or Ultimate Reality), of your neighbour (including the earth), and of yourself; it also means setting yourself and others free from all that limits, binds and distorts us, so that we may go on simply flourishing as ourselves. All of this is best achieved not by strutting along the strength-and-beauty highway, but by taking lighter and more gentle steps, as one day we must, when our strength has left us and our limbs have slowed, and we are left to walk into all that is unforeseeable, quite alone on Cemetery Road.

Not peace but a sword – reclaiming Christian baptism in an age of fun

cross crownIt is true that there can’t be many Gospel passages more surprising than the one set for last Sunday[1], in which Jesus shockingly claims that he hasn’t come to bring peace but fire and division. Or, in Matthew’s more straightforward phrase: ‘not peace but a sword’.[2]

 

Nothing in the Bible is presented more positively than peace. It’s a gift of God, an integrity experienced as a thousand blessings, from debts cleared to health restored.[3] Christ without peace is just not thinkable: a doctor without medicine, a baker without bread.

 

Yet this is his contention. No surprise that preachers can lament the impossibility of finding much ‘good news’ in these verses’ relentlessly challenging images. Indeed, the Church of England finds any negativity quite hard to deal with at the moment. As Anglican influence and numbers plummet, high-octane claims of how wonderful things really are waltz glitzily across the cortex of social media. ‘Fresh expressions’ here! ‘Missional’ appointments there! Just look at the wide-eyed, beaming positivity! (And we won’t talk too much about those other more troubling matters.)

 

To brighten the whitewash yet more, the Ministry of Fun is working overtime, not least with one or two very popular summer events (some of my reactions are here). There are other indications, such as one northern bishop seeking to attract more clergy to the diocese with the tweeted promise that ‘We’re having fun up here!’ For fun is the one thing needful, rendering these distinctly fun-free verses of Luke 12 especially tricky. Luke, after all, is at considerable pains throughout his Gospel to present Christ as the King of Peace, with the Baptist ‘guiding our feet into the way of peace’;[4] Christ’s birth being hailed as ‘peace to people of good will’;[5] and Simeon’s departure ‘in peace’[6] being possible now that he’s finally seen the Messiah. Later, Jesus tells women he heals to ‘Go in peace’[7], while his seventy missioners are also told that their first word in people’s houses should be ‘Peace.’[8] Luke even reworks the Palm Sunday texts to celebrate Jesus as ‘the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven …’[9]

 

Despite all this, there is no equivocation in his denial: ‘not peace but division.’ Luke’s reasons for this jarring inconsistency must be good. Looking for clues in the whole of Chapter 12, we find that it begins and ends with a dramatic accusation: ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,’ Jesus warns his disciples; ‘their hypocrisy’[10] — or the coercive deceit that abandons the unleavened obedience of Moses as a primary recipient of the promises of God. When the charge is repeated at the end of the passage (verse 56), it is directed at those who can read the weather yet remain ignorant of the meaning of the times, notably the role of Christ as powerful judge of all (v. 58).

 

Between these aggressive poles, the chapter delivers a series of emollient encouragements and stern warnings, principally to offer the support and solace of the Spirit to any who might be called upon to defend themselves in court or synagogue. This would appeal not particularly to Jesus’ own contemporaries, but would provide comfortable words for Luke’s community five or six decades later as they faced serious persecution and division from religious and political authorities. Jesus the true judge (himself judged by the hypocrites of his own day) sets himself squarely on the side of those who now face the powerful pseudo-judges of their own time and place.

 

The disciples/readers are additionally taught not to fear physical death (verses 4 -5); to know their own intrinsic value (‘worth more than many sparrows’, verses 6-7), to ‘sell [their] possessions’ (verse 33), and live in alert ‘readiness’ for the master’s return (verses 38-40). Any servant bullying another will be ‘cut in pieces’ (verses 41-46), while the disobedient will be ‘flogged’ (verses 47-48).

 

These are not instructions for the right ordering of a fun-filled social occasion. They are grown-up words for dark, grown-up times. As Christ faced the vindictive vigilance of the Pharisees, so Luke’s Church lived with the consequences of Simeon’s prophetic description of Christ as ‘a sign to be opposed, set for the falling and rising of many.’[11] Luke fleshes out the bones of this opposition later: just as Mary’s soul has been pierced,[12] Christ’s martyrs will fall by the edge of the sword.[13] Jesus offers no easy, knock-down peace simply because there is none. Instead, there is fire, baptism, division.

 

Fire is a positive symbol and a dire warning. Yes, it is the chosen medium of divine punishment from Sodom to faithless Jerusalem[14], and its heat was felt by all who perished in the onslaughts of Assyrians, Romans, and other disturbers of the peace of each successive generation of Jews. Fire is also a sure means of purgation: the messenger of God is ‘a refiner’s fire’[15], who purifies God’s servants (‘salting them with fire’?[16]) until their offerings are once more acceptable. Those who refuse reform remain worthless chaff that will (in the apocalyptic warning of the Baptist[17]) be winnowed to perdition and consumed by unforgiving flame. Fire is also, however, a most welcome symbol of the powerful Spirit of God enabling and equipping the Church at Pentecost[18]. Fire and Spirit together[19]: the constituents of Christ’s baptism, without which he will remain distressed and constrained[20], unable to complete the salvific task which he has terrifyingly embraced.

 

What a long way from this immensity of purpose our understanding of baptism has been brought by the Church of Fun. What a cutesie, beribboned thing we’ve made of it. And not just for babies: even the adults ‘joining the family of Jesus’ with cakes and fizzy wine are kept a safe distance from the dying and rising, the burning and purgation. If we can persuade them into a home group and get them to sign a direct debit mandate, we’re likely to consider the job well done and pause awhile.

 

This may be no bad thing. Like ways of skinning cats, routes into the Kingdom are legion, and there is no hard border. The thing that really is needful is a recovery of the sense of the demands and danger of the life of the baptised. ‘Make it hard for them!’ a group of school chaplains was once advised[21] when talking about younger Christians and their faith. ‘Make it tough: they’ll love it!’ This means locating our emphasis in the dignity of baptism (not ordination, which can be people’s first and only thought)[22] and in finding real joy (and missional traction!) in fighting the fires and attending to the serious divisions and disunities we find on our own doorstep. Hong Kong today. Hertford, Hereford and Heckmondwike tomorrow.

 

It is surely significant that the only real divisiveness experienced by western/European Christians is within the Church, usually in response to Biblical interpretation or liturgical practice. Unlike Luke, we know nothing of the experience or consequences of standing out against political power as Christians. There is, moreover, not even much difference between me and my godless neighbours in our moral judgements and decision-making: Christianity has indeed shaped indelibly the values of the west.[23]

 

Word of God cuttingWe may therefore find that our ‘division’ is something much more akin to the ‘division’ of the Letter to the Hebrews, that speaks of the Word of God ‘cutting more finely than a two-edged sword, piercing and dividing soul from spirit, joints from marrow.’[24] We will begin with this surgical sword of decision before we come to wield a more martial sword of social division. We begin with repentance, the paring of courage from fear, action from indolence, prayerful encounter from self-absorption.

 

It is this that kindles and stokes the baptismal fire, that excites the Spirit. It is this that makes baptism not ‘something done to us,’ but ‘done by us, a willing consent to be affected by God, … to be more consciously aware of the power of the risen Christ, the invasion of the present by what is yet to come.’[25]

 

This commits us to an all-consuming way of life, and we should feel distressed and constrained whenever we are distracted from it. It is this life in Christ that is our peace. We do not begin with peace: it is our journey’s end. We begin with decisions and proceed with divisions, both fairly trivial and unspeakably painful. These form the canvas on which our baptismal life is drawn, in which we will find our meaning and purpose long after the circus has rolled out of town.

 

In the end, the good news is not that Jesus gives us instant fun and happiness, but that through taking up his cross we wear his crown and share his throne, where there is not division, but unity; not death, but life; not a sword, but peace.

 

[1] Proper 15/Sunday 20 Year C: Luke 12.49-56.

[2] Matthew 10.34.

[3] See the entry on Peace in the Dictionary of Biblical Theology ed. Xavier Léon-Dufour for an excellent survey of possibilities.

[4] Luke 1.76, 79.

[5] Luke 2.14.

[6] Luke 2.29.

[7] Luke 7.50; 8.48.

[8] Luke 10.5-6.

[9] Luke 19.38.

[10] Luke 12.2.

[11] Luke 2.34.

[12] Luke 2.35.

[13] Luke 21.24. See also 21.12-19 for the most systematic indication of the suffering of Luke’s community. The opening pages of chapter 8 of Graham H Twelftree: People of the Spirit – Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (SPCK, 2009) offer a helpful account of this question.

[14] Genesis 19.24; see also prophetic texts like Isaiah 66.15f, Jeremiah 11.16, Ezekiel 15.6f, Zephaniah 1.18, Joel 2.2.

[15] Malachi 3.2.

[16] Mark 9.49.

[17] Luke 3.17. The Qur’an is equally keen on the symbol of fire as divine punishment (e.g Sura 39.9, 16).

[18] Acts 2.3.

[19] Luke 3.16.

[20] Luke 12.50.

[21] By Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP. Conference talk at Liverpool Hope University, June 2015.

[22] Do you, dear reader, even know the date of your baptism? (I’ve now got mine on annual repeat in my diary.) Ordination anniversaries clog my Twitter feed every Petertide and Michaelmas. But of baptisms, ne’er a word!

[23] Nick Spencer: The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (SPCK, 2016).

[24] Hebrews 4.12.

[25] Ilia Delio, OSF: Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Orbis, NY, 2015), 86.

Salvation: the wedding present you won’t find at John Lewis

Wedding gifts

A gift to E and H, and other friends and colleagues married in the Summer of 2019

— and to you, too, of course, dear reader, married or not

 ‘Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.’ (Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain)

Many who are launched on the marital voyage of danger and delight hear on their wedding day the Christian story of the turning of water into wine by Jesus at a wedding party at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-11). It is naturally a story of consuming interest, a real scroll-roller, containing crisis, family tension, wonderful special effects and lashings of first-century dance-music. We certainly owe a few moments’ reflection to whoever it was who first told it, retold it, added the bit with his mum, then scratched the whole thing out for posterity on a couple of sheets of desiccated sheep. Or maybe goat.

 

cana

I take it for granted that it is not a factually reliable account of a dramatic episode in the long, distinguished history of Palestinian hospitality; it is not a transfiguration charm dislocated from the pages of Harry Potter; it is not indeed (if the late Freddie Mercury will forgive me) ‘a kind of magic’ at all, but is rather a rich and resonant meditation on the nature and cause of transformation, and a claim concerning the role of Jesus Christ in bringing it about.

 

dionysosThose who encountered the story first, with eyes and ears attuned to the ancient myths of Greece, would immediately recognise the lineaments of Bacchic or Dionysiac ritual, and the promise of irrepressible new life vouchsafed by the god of wine. (This was akin to the restorative qualities attributed by maiden aunts to bottles of Sanatogen kept in the kitchen cupboard, or by past generations of General Practitioners to the beneficent effects of Guinness on pregnant women). Belief in the power of alcohol was celebrated each year in the festivities surrounding Dionysos, such as those at Elis (near Olympia) in the North-Western Peloponnese, where, on the eve of the feast, empty vats were placed behind the sealed doors of his temple, only to be discovered next morning filled miraculously to the brim with ‘beaded bubbles’ of invigorating vintage.

 

Jews, on the other hand, would hear in the Cana story echoes of Psalm 104, with its praise of God for the creation of ‘wine to gladden the human heart’, along with an entire banquetful of oil and bread, animals and plants.

 

zarephathThose, meanwhile, who have accepted Christian teachings interpret the astonishing sign of Cana as the revelation that Christ is the perfect and glorious ‘icon of God’ (Colossians 1.15), the one ‘without whom nothing came into being’ (John 1.3). He’s much greater than Moses, therefore[1], who struck the rock and managed to bring forth only a fountain of water (Exodus 17.6); he is greater even than Elijah and Elisha, who secured impressive supplies of olive oil for worthy women in Israel, performing other notable feats besides (I Kings 17.16; II Kings 4, 5). Yet Jesus alone is the true vine whose wine-red blood is poured out on the Cross and in the Eucharist; he is the unmistakeable sign of God’s kingdom, power and glory; the dispenser not only of wine at a wedding, but of the salvation that the wine symbolises.[2]

 

The idea of salvation is difficult, evidence to the liberal intelligentsia of another slipped theological anchor; to religious exclusivists (among them some Christians and Muslims), a bone of contention about who qualifies for heaven.

 

It neeadam eved not be like this. Salvation may more helpfully be regarded as the fullness of the divine gift of identity, the process of becoming so thoroughly myself (the principal gift God wishes to give me) that I need no longer tolerate the counterfeit versions to which I become accustomed, and of which I grow proprietorially fond. The startling news for spouses on their wedding day (true also for any who are engaged in committed, covenanted relationship, either marital or monastic) is the way in which each becomes an agent of salvation to the other, not only responding to a sense of incompleteness (that, as God memorably puts it, ‘it is not good to be alone’ — Genesis 2.18); but helping (perhaps dramatically, perhaps imperceptibly) to heal and re-set past fractures, confirm present health and strength, and build buttresses against any future sense of futility or fragmentation that life may bring.

 

iris-murdoch-the-life-of-the-mindTo state the obvious, this process of assisting each other to come to fuller life, inaugurated by desire (falling in love) and ratified by decision (marrying), is and must be mutual and gentle, one in which both partners accept their own intrinsic absurdity as the life of each is reflected and contrasted in the life of the other. It is never a legitimation of bullying or coercive nit-picking. It should rather enable each spouse (assisted by the other) to plot an exodus from the thraldom of their own imperfection through practising daily habits of ‘serious attentiveness’[3] in small, apparently insignificant ways, depriving ‘the fat, relentless ego’ (Iris Murdoch) of the unchallenged free rein by which it dominates and diminishes all that we might otherwise become.

 

 

irrigation‘And the pools are filled with water’ (Psalm 84)! The love that grows between spouse and spouse spills over into love of family; perhaps children; certainly friends and colleagues. And these pools are filled in turn by common concerns and shared delight; and in turn they too spill over and fertilise wider concerns (professional, ecological, global, political). And before too long the love that ignites the attention of a pair of overjoyed human beings, finds itself at the heart of an irrigated complex of supportive relationships and fruitful endeavour.

 

Barker_ParableOfTheGreatSupperWe are reminded by such thoughts at this point that not even the image of the recklessly abundant wine of Cana can alone contain the Christian understanding of divine intent. A more expansive scriptural metaphor expressing the salvific reality of God’s purposes is that of a Great Supper or Wedding Banquet[4]. In St Luke’s account of it, some of the A-list invitees make paltry excuses and fail to appear for the meal. In a critical swipe at the religious élite of his day, whom Christ condemns for their failures of duty especially towards the needy, the no-shows are swiftly replaced through invitations to the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. But still there is space at table, and the host sends his slave into the ‘highways and hedges’ to bring in anyone at all to fill his house to capacity. This radically promiscuous understanding of inclusion insists on the dignity of all as suitable recipients of wholeness and healing.

 

Spouses on their wedding day are particular votaries of this mystery. As spouse mediates to spouse the fullness of life that is divine salvation, they draw more closely together and, with all of creation, gather around the table of the Great Supper of the Messiah. Drinking deeply of the wine of Cana, they begin to experience the intoxicating sobriety of real joy, and desire that others should be attracted into the same orbit of love, in order to heal disease, banish discord, and bring salvation to all who desire the deepest-down reality of God.

 

I pray that all who have been married this summer (in whatever combinations of human diversity) find endless happiness in living together, being to each other ministers of Christ’s wholeness and healing, feasting at his table, and raising high salvation’s cup. You have done a beautiful thing in your marriage, instructing a world bent on tribal hatred how to reconcile difference and utter distinctiveness through love alone, and how to speak words of truth at a time when all is fake, contested, uncertain.

 

May God bless you all, now and in the long years to come.

 

 

This is a version of a homily preached in Ely Cathedral, 10 August 2019

 

[1] A strong but never unanimous body of opinion interprets the appearance of the story’s superior and abundant wine in the ‘six stone water jars used for Jewish purification rites’ as Johannine code for the supersession of the Old Covenant by the New, written at what was a time of significant tension between Church and Synagogue.

[2] Some readers will recognise my debt to the early 20th-century biblical scholar Sir Edwyn Hoskyns in his book on The Fourth Gospel (1940).

[3] Peter S Hawkins, Church Times, Features, 19 July 2019 https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/19-july/features/features/iris-murdoch-atheist-but-unapologetically-anglican) observes that it is the Abbess in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell who displays in large measure what counts for sanctity to Murdoch: what Hawkins describes as an ‘unfantasised, modest common sense, delivered to people she attends to seriously.’ Such quiet, serious attentiveness is surely the basis of any covenanted partnership.

[4] Luke 14.16-24; Revelation 19.7-9. Any who are lucky enough to visit the enchanted town of Croydon will find a beautiful 1934 depiction of St Luke’s scene, The Parable of the Great Supper, a triptych by Cicely Mary Barker, well worth a visit to St George’s Church, Waddon, where it hangs.

A lot of balls at Rochester

I’m not a bit squeamish about what can and can’t be done in church buildings. I know that naves were medieval thoroughfares of commercial chaos. I myself have endured or performed in cathedrals art works that have ranged in quality from the sublime to the trite to the frankly diabolical. I’ve put pool tables and bouncy castles for birthday parties in churches — though unlike an impeccably traditionalist friend of mine I’ve never yet tied balloons to the Stations of the Cross ‘to cheer up a sad story’; I have organised sleep-overs and jumble sales, dramas, dinners, dances; I have even proclaimed the Islamic Call to Prayer from the west window of an English Cathedral. (YouTube makes muezzins of us all.)

 

But I am less than persuaded that the decision to install a crazy-golf course in the nave of Rochester Cathedral is a good one, despite robust defences including that by Liz Dodd here. My eyebrows find equal levitation in the plan for Norwich to house a 40-foot helter-skelter for eleven days next month. This isn’t because I think Jesus can’t cope with invasions of sacred space. If he can survive the scandal of crossed legs and brown shoes in quire, my guess is that the divine forbearance can readily accommodate mashie niblicks in the crossing.

 

Desperation

So, what do I object to? Mainly, I think, to the idea that religion must be fun; and then more particularly to the often quite narrow definition of what such fun might look like. The Archbishop of Canterbury is, I know, a great believer in having fun in cathedrals: ‘If you can’t have fun in a cathedral you really don’t know what fun is,’ he’s quoted as saying, sounding like a children’s entertainer, or a funny uncle running rich, valiantly trying to get the party going with a bang. But are mine the only ears that detect a note of desperation here? Such appeals for fun always strike me as laboured, a sort of middle-class fun-by-numbers – eliciting not so much explosions of natural gutsy laughter as a genteel smiling that seems designed to show off expensive dental work. It’s the same approach to happiness that results in that dilated rictus on the faces of clergy who insist on smiling at you (yes, You: Jesus loves YOU!) throughout sermon or even Eucharistic Prayer. It’s the tragically laboured insistence that ‘We’re all having fun!’, without the surreal ‘big fish, little fish’ of Bob the Builder’s anarchic video to carry it off. I’m not opposed to fun, you see, but we don’t need to go chasing it, or try to squeeze it into a mould. If we’re living life properly, all manner of amusement will arise quite naturally and unforced, in church and out, along with all other manifestations of the human condition. And if we want a game of golf, there are always golf courses.

 

Distraction

As with jokes in sermons, I do also find a danger that much of what is meant to be a ‘way in’ to Church will instead be considered way out, a terrible distraction resulting in a stampede for the exit before you can say ‘cognitive dissonance’. I see that the point of fun events is to draw people across our strange threshold, to begin a tentative conversation towards whatever depth of relationship with the Church they might finally come to desire. But I find that what is meant to encourage free flow can all too easily clog things up, as the listener gets so hooked in to the joke that it’s all they remember; or as the fun activity becomes so absorbing (‘We’re all having fun!’) that the next phase of ‘doing business with God’ is indefinitely postponed. This can happen dispiritingly easily whenever kids’ activities never quite get to the religious bit and Messy Church tumbles into just another Parent & Toddler group: “Now, Shane, colour in the nice map of Bolivia and hang it on the Prayer Tree. On the Prayer Tree, Shane. ON THE SODDING PRAYER TREE”.

 

A further danger is that people with an underdeveloped sense of jolly japes are quite likely to find a Church that doubles as a golf course too trivial to be trustworthy in helping to make life’s bigger decisions.

 

Delusion

Now, what I cannot persuade you to see or not see is the saturation of the crazy-golf idea in Emperor’s New Clothes delusion. I suspect, more generally, that this is the sort of plan, news, idea to which one has an immediate emotional or instinctive reaction, for which one may feel obliged to find more intellectual support later on. I certainly cannot see any good reason to suggest that hosting a crazy-golf course is necessary work for a cathedral to do (even when leavened with the educational purpose of encouraging girls to take STEM subjects). There are plenty of other laudable events that do draw families and individuals through the doors. A cathedral can host cultural displays like the Staffordshire Hoard or Diplodocus; the anniversary of the moon landings has likewise proved paradoxically fertile ground; then there are the hardy perennials of Music Share, carol concerts, Christmas markets, arts and Christmas Tree festivals, sound and light shows, radio and TV broadcasts. All of these have intrinsic worth, community value and theological heft in a way I don’t find crazy putting to share.

 

Dilution

My strongest objection to golfgate, however, is that the Christian faith doesn’t need tricks or gimmicks to draw people into the orbit of the Church. The gospel is quite strong enough to commend itself. And what a blessed thing it is, that in the depths of fake news and the post-truth society, we can proclaim our way of truth. At a time when liars, cheats and racists are enthroned; when justice is unattainable for many, and hunger is a daily reality for the marginalised of even wealthy societies; when lives continue to be ruined and destroyed by drugs, alcohol and violence, we can draw invincible confidence from our gospel of abundant life, without resorting to ha-ha-so-very-funny antics, as if we are clamouring for attention, displaying an edgy relevance that, what?, reality doesn’t quite manage to give us? I am happy to say that I have more confidence than that; confidence in who we are and in what we are given to proclaim.

 

Now, I don’t much buy the conservative trope that armies of Bright Young Things are tweedily storming our nation’s churches demanding the English Missal and polyphony. But it does seem clear that our liturgical, theological and spiritual practice must be coherent, resonant and challenging. There must be a deep and proper seriousness (cue Larkin) undergirding all that we are and do. I put it to you, dear reader, that crazy-golf and helter-skelters have no place in this endeavour. We don’t need them; and they take far more from us than they can ever give. As the eponymous and Educated Rita puts it, ‘There must be better songs to sing.’

 

There surely must. Let it be our joy to learn them!

I’m all right, Giles. (Pull up the Brexit ladder.)

eu-freedom-of-movementI thought back in 2011 that Giles Fraser was as wrong as could be with Occupy and the cathedrals. But today I find him talking Brexit gibberish, most recently in “Why won’t Remainers talk about family?”, his latest piece for UnHerd.com.

 

His essential thrust is that Brexit (preferably no-deal) will terminate the ‘neoliberal’ idea of freedom of movement, putting an end to our right to work anywhere we choose, ‘enabling’ (sic; he means forcing) ‘bright working-class children’ to remain in their communities, forming large extended families and looking after their old folk without any state support, so that all may live happily ever after, reclaiming “the most effective form of social security the world has even known: family and community life.” He doesn’t actually mention choruses of Knees up, Mother Brown or casks of Watneys Red Barrel (with a tooth-mug of Sanatogen for Grandma), but they are not very far from the picture he paints.

 

On one level it is a beautiful vision (despite the sloppy polemic), and one quite understands the nostalgia that imbues his manifesto. Yet it is a deeply unsatisfactory piece despite that, for three main reasons:

 

  1. The stay-home policy he advocates is not to be applied to all evenly. His ‘conservative-Muslim GP friend’ (purveyor of convenient anecdotes to support the Fraser thesis) is presumably in the UK as a result of immigration at some stage in the past, and the large groups of Asian diners whom Fraser approvingly encounters in a curry-house in Tooting are also very far from the family-members that must have been left on the other side of the world when they or their forebears followed their dreams to a chilly UK.

 

But neither has Fraser felt it remotely necessary to take his own vow of stability. ‘Bright working-class children’ must be denied opportunities to leave home to pursue self-advancement, though for him, the Public School boy, it’s fine to have stints of study in Newcastle and Lancaster, or to pursue professional opportunity in Staffordshire, Oxford, London and Ghana, none of which is entirely within hand-holding distance of any elderly relatives who may remain in his native Hampshire), but then the rules aren’t for him, it appears, so that’s okay.

 

  1. The idea of the fixed community may be attractive, but it cannot be a work of central planning or forced social engineering. Neither can it be held as a higher good than the freedom, say, of going to university (even as far from home as Newcastle, Lancaster or Oxford). Here people will mix and perhaps fall in love and even marry, and settle where and with whomsoever they please. And if freedom of movement is the Remainers’ chief desire, it is so with good reason: in the past Europe has seen too much limitation of movement through cultural, ethnic and physical barriers. (Even the dung-beetle is free to wander all its livelong day.)

 

  1. For all his self-conscious championship of the poor, Fraser’s new recipe for societal health penalises the poor in general, and women in particular. As he ought to know as a parish priest, people forced to work long hours in multiple jobs (thus making their families more dependent on state support) do so through sheer financial necessity. It naturally suits him to cite feckless or self-centred individuals (who won’t even wipe their parents’ backsides) as part of his ‘case’. The reality is rather more varied and nuanced than that. He must know (despite his shameless misrepresentation of Luciana Berger’s Independent piece on Brexit and the Social Care sector) that some women are unable to provide care for their elderly not through avaricious fear of “lost earnings”, but simply through having too many other pressures to withstand. “Interestingly never once in the piece did she mention the word family,” he claims smugly, glad to have skewered his victim. And he’s right. Not once, but three times is family mentioned: ‘relatives’ in the first paragraph; ‘family members’ in the second; ‘families’ in the third. It is a telling and characteristic error: the cocksure laziness of the zealous.

 

Of course, things were no better in Fraser’s now-Golden Age when the women stayed put and neighbours were their own welfare state. My godmother, born in 1919 in Co Durham, was expected not to move or marry and to look after her brothers and their parents until their death. She would have made a wonderful wife and mother but ‘our Madge’ did what was required. When her own childless end came, it was the care of a niece, supported by the State, that saw her through. Apart from Yorkshire in the War, she had been nowhere, denied by circumstance not some self-absorbed ‘neoliberal’ quest, but the basic freedoms that Fraser takes for granted for himself, but not for others in Brexit’s dark regime.

 

Oddly, I have no trouble with his starting point that children are responsible for their parents. Or, as I would prefer to put it, families should be communities of mutual care and concern. But the idea that this should be enforced by a refusal to let people work beyond the border of their country (why not county?) is a wickedness that should have no place in a free, let alone Christian society.

 

Now, no-one is saying that it is desirable to abandon one’s old folk to the care of the state (until euthanasia becomes the norm?) while one swans off round the world in solipsistic luxury. But to imagine that this would be everyone’s choice, or to suppose that it is only by restricting freedoms and closing borders that one can assure a well-functioning society betrays a worrying but unsurprising totalitarianism in the Brexit mentality. It is truly a doleful path, a folly they’ll still be regretting when my generation are food for worms and fertilising Easter daffodils.

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.