A tip-trip triptych —Reflections on death, life and cardboard boxes

Even the man who worked at the tip could see that dumping box after box of books into the paper skip was wrong. ‘Would a charity shop not take them?’ he asked. A well-meant question, but these weren’t airport thrillers. There’s not much demand for mouldering commentaries on the books of the Bible, still less for painstaking accounts of the revival of religious communities in the Victorian Church of England.

 

With a house-move imminent, I had done my best to find a dignified afterlife for these unwanted books. As many clergy and seminarians as I could entice had picked over the carcass of the library, but an irreducible amount of printed matter still remained. ‘They’ll maybe do some good when they’re recycled,’ I hoped.

‘Probably be cardboard boxes,’ he said.

‘There you go then.’ I was satisfied. ‘You can do plenty of good with a cardboard box.’

 

And I should know. Our house was about to be filled with them and they in turn filled with all of our possessions, or ‘worldly goods’ as the Prayer Book perceptively calls them. For even the heaviest oak table or costliest antique is no more than an artefact to serve and please us during our limited time on earth, and to suffer who knows what after our demise: perishing in fire or crumbling to dust, and finally rotting in the earth to fertilise the food of future generations. Property is certainly not an end in itself. It means something only when its matter changes from form to form answering needs and giving joy everlastingly: not only swords into ploughshares, but ploughshares into pots and pans, pens, pins. The contribution made by my discarded books was not as it had been, but it nonetheless continued. Whereas once, perhaps, they had explained the place of the poor in holy scripture, now, perhaps, new boxes would carry food to the hungry. Their life was changed, not ended.

 

 

Moving to a new town or job is also a time for recycling all that we have been in the past, as we take our skills and dispositions and put them to service in an unfamiliar context. At a time when so many seem anxious about their place on the career ladder, this notion of recycling rather than ascent may be helpful. To reflect on past experience, identifying what excites or bores, satisfies or exasperates us; recognising too those capacities we have in abundance, and those which would challenge the wildest of horses to drag from within us. This is a wise process that should guide and motivate our decisions to move or remain.

 

I have been especially grateful to this sense of being recycled as for thirty years I have negotiated the twin roles of teacher and priest, in Britain and abroad, in monastery, cathedral, parish and school. And now I move from the brash and exciting complexity of a South London parish and Church of England comprehensive school to a highly competitive independent day school in Oxford with 900 very well-motivated pupils producing stratospherically impressive exam results year on year.

 

I do not feel that this is a promotion from being a Croydon vicar or a demotion from my previous role as a cathedral canon. And the fact that my superiors will all be lay people is by no means an affront to my ordination. I’m simply being recycled, allowing different qualities to be employed in a different way, as I pray the old Mirfield Fathers’ prayer that ‘my life may be hallowed, my way directed and my work made fruitful’.

 

 

These preparations for moving have been going on amid journeys to and from a hospital 200 miles away, where my mother is struggling with an inability to retain oxygen. We obviously pray that the situation will be corrected by time and medication, but she and we have had to face the fact that she may not be returned to health.

 

This is one of the unspoken functions of a hospital, to bring us inescapably face-to-face with our own vulnerability to disease and death. It is one of the reasons we wash our hands in antibacterial foam as we pass through doorways around the building. Of course, there are practical benefits from this, but we also apply the foam like a sort of magical protective against any secret danger that may be lurking to entrap us.

 

I think this is also a reason why hospitals tend to be quite noisy places, even during the night. Like our ancestors making an infernal din to drive out evil spirits, hospitals are full of the ‘rough music’ of activity: the exits and entrances of porters and cleaners; the loud questions to deaf patients, asking how they are doing today? And the interminable beeping of a thousand machines whose tones (even if they indicate illness) are preferable to the silence that would indicate the end.

 

This end need not frighten us, though we may have legitimate worries about how those left behind survive without us. The dying itself is not an end but another great recycling, just as when we are born into active life, so ceasing to be only the longed-for fruit of lovers. Whatever else religious believers will want to say about God’s provision for the departed, it is surely the case that in death we move from an active life to a life expressed and lived in the loving memory of family and friends. All that we have been and done will continue in the fond old tales of those who have known us, and in the lives of our children, if we have them. In them we hope for a better version of ourselves, as our essence is passed on genetically to all who follow. Life for us all will be changed not ended.

 

There is a wonderful scene in the film Scent of a Woman, in which a blind Al Pacino invites a beautiful English girl to learn how to tango. She is naturally alarmed at the prospect, fearful of embarrassing consequences. But the tango, he explains, is not at all like life. ‘There are no mistakes in the tango. … If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, you just tango on.’

 

This is the image to imitate. As things come to the end of their usefulness, or as we find ourselves in a sort of professional cul-de-sac, or as our lives near their end, we embrace these changes not thoughtlessly, ungratefully or callously; but determined to enter into a new phase of life in which we are set free, enabled to tango joyfully on.

Advertisements

The Beautiful Name – a short poem in long lines

By those who barely utter it, but mutter it head-bowed, in cope and veil of incense cloud, lifting their biretta’s brim.

By those who thunder it with fire, a Yes, Oh Yes of Molly Bloom desire.

By those who chant it day and night, hooded and habited, hovering on the neum’s ancient melody like a bird on the constant air.

By those who sing it sublimely through the centuries, or who strum it fresh in late-night fire-lit fellowship.

By those who barely know their meaning, but say it seeking safety, a ladder and a life raft.

By those who curse it, oath it, spit it out in the green phlegm of anger, treading coarsely on its gentle bloom.

By those who’ve long known it, but sheathed in a heavy brocade the fearful shining of its scalpel blade, that cuts and slices through sinning to demand a new beginning.

By those who grieve and hurt, hunger and die at the wayside of a world that will not care; who call it croakingly, empty and dry with despair.

By all kinds and in all places, this holy name of Jesus will be said, sung, whispered, shouted, honoured, worshipped, cursed and prayed all ways, all days, while earth spins round as humans’ home and harbour.

Thanking God for Godmother

I never knew my grandparents. My father was so much older than my mother that his parents had little chance of featuring even in my earliest life; and my mother’s mother died so young, followed immediately by her father, that they too were known to me only through the somewhat unreliable mechanism of family recollection.

 

And so surrogates naturally came to fill the abhorrent vacuum left by circumstance. There was, for example, a great-aunt of whom I saw a lot, but it fell chiefly to two of my godparents, an unmarried brother and sister in their mid-40s, to adore me in my childhood and assist in my growing up, especially after my father also died, when I was just eight, and my mother only thirty.

 

It was this overwhelmingly faithful pair who came to all my birthday parties, admiring me in my fine Andy Pandy suit, joining in the pass-the-parcel and ring-a-ring-o’-roses, and all of that sweet ritual. It was my godfather who, ready to burst with pride, took cine films of me as a cathedral chorister, walking in procession through the close at Durham, one of a long crocodile of boys timelessly robed in purple-tasselled mortar-board and long black cloak.

 

My godparents themselves were far from timeless, but belonged to the grainy years between the wars. Their names, Ronald and Marjorie (or Ronnie and Madge as they were always called) rooted them firmly in the technological, economic and social norms of a century ago. Their class and way of life were equally beyond negotiation.

 

The first and third children of a coal miner, they lived pretty much all their lives in the same council house in the grand-sounding village of Witton Gilbert, a few miles north of Durham city. Their middle brother was the one who got away, a full five miles to the next village, Langley Park, where he kept the petrol station and mended the wonderful old cars that smelt of leather and could be polished to a bright sheen. Later, in 1988, this village would provide half the name of an album by the pop group ‘Prefab Sprout’. But that, as they say, is another story.

 

Ronnie and Madge were pillars of the church (in a good way), and my father had asked Ron to be his churchwarden before I was born. It was therefore on Madge’s knee (when not my mother’s) that I sat to have stories whispered into my ear during services and it was to their house that I went each week for a Sunday breakfast of sausage sandwiches and toast and marmalade. It was here that I discovered the life-giving properties of fire. In all weathers, a huge coal fire would burn in their living room. But this was no mere ornament: it heated the water and was bordered by an oven and a selection of hobs. It was here that all the meals were prepared: thus the living room was called ‘the kitchen’, while the kitchen was ‘the back kitchen’. (The room for best was known, simply and mysteriously as ‘the room’.) It was in a tin bath in front of this kitchen fire that the family classically enjoyed a periodic soak, and it was on these same coals of fire that my bread, harpooned by an extendable trident, was perfectly and patiently toasted, ready for the slab of butter that would melt into the toast as it was kept warm for the young master (for so I was treated) on the glowing hearth.

 

It was principally through food that my relationship with Auntie Madge was formed. Although, as the girl of the family, it had been made clear, I think, that her role in life was to leave school early, to remain unmarried, and to look after the menfolk, she nonetheless had a part-time job as the cook at my village school, and so it was from her hands that I first received the staples of our national cuisine, the pies and puddings, the spotted dick, the jam-pink rice.

 

She was by nature a feeder, one of that generation of women who, after the privations of war, killed off the men Hitler’s bullets had missed, with a surfeit of huge and honest lardy meals delivered punctually and without complaint three times each day. As I grew older, and my mother worked nights at the hospital to help cover the school fees, it was Auntie Madge who stayed with me, preparing a second supper for my return from school at nine o’clock.

 

The morning was likewise a culinary and calorific assault course: leaving the house without having heard the sizzle of the frying pan was not encouraged. During the holidays the cupboard doors continued to swing open. As my mother slept, I would go to Auntie Madge for lunch, a not inconsiderable plateful, consumed while watching the staples of 1970s and ’80s ITV, Crossroads, Crown Court, Farmhouse Kitchen.

 

Finally, when I left for university having supposedly attained maturity and independence, her final act of love was to make a fruit cake (or ‘spice cake’, as she called it) which travelled with me and kept me going as, for the first day or two, I was too shy to leave my room and look for the refectory.

 

All of this was a long time ago. She would have been 98 a couple of weeks ago, and it must be nearly a decade since I sang her funeral mass. But those we have loved, responding to their love, never leave us irrevocably. Our senses are always on standby, receptive to any little sacramental reminders that restore the presence of the now absent. This is never more clearly the case than when we spend time with those who have also known and loved them. So, at my mother’s and stepfather’s now for a few days’ holiday, Auntie Madge is frequently brought to mind, perhaps by a slice of ‘spice’ or a ham and pease pudding sandwich (southern readers, please Google).

 

Words and phrases she might have used also kindle happy reminiscence. Her language only occasionally revealed vestiges of ‘pitmatic’, but this dialect of the miners was never embraced. Nothing was ever said, but I suspect it had been discouraged as something not quite reputable, not something for a clean-living, churchgoing, working-class Tory family to be mired in.

 

What her speech did have in abundance was a homely and rustic quality derived from the still entirely rural village, and from her occasional experiences as a young kitchen maid on the bigger farms. Work, for example, would resume after a lull with the admonition that lazing round ‘won’t get the bairn a new frock,’ while anything placed precariously on a high shelf was said to have ‘a sly look’, an almost Shakespearean observation. She also retained a few words and phrases that were unlikely throwbacks to the schoolroom. Telling a tale would often involve a deal of ‘surmising’, while I, if I grew boisterous, was told not to be so ‘rampageous’. It’s advice I rather wish I’d taken.

 

I’m not sure why I have troubled to write these things down. I suppose part of it is the desire that my words should be a tiny memorial to someone who had no children of her own, though she did have a number of great-nieces and -nephews whom she greatly loved. I think I write chiefly in consequence of my own growing older and becoming able to understand the fundamental thing about my godmother, which is that she loved to be at home, and was wrested from it only once, by World War II.

 

Up to now, I have always derived pleasure and a sense of achievement, even a sense of self, by travelling as often and as widely as possible. But now, in the impending excitement of a final new beginning, I want to understand myself as a descendant of the grandparents I never knew, and prepare a secure hearth and home for our children now, and for the grandchildren I long to meet. These words I set down in gratitude and hope. In the end, they are the only offering I can make.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the Issue to God’s Wisdom — thoughts on patience and refraining from judgement

Proper 11A: Wisdom 12. 13, 16-19; Romans 8. 18-25; Matthew 13. 24-30, 36-43.

In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13.24ff), two things might attract the attention of some Christian readers: judgement and fire. We have an unfortunately long history of sitting in glad judgement over other people, and have always had a grisly fascination with fire, presumably because of its ability to put an end to us in an unimaginably painful way. This is no doubt why the imponderable experience of those who were killed in Grenfell Tower cut through to our hearts and minds even amid an appalling surfeit of horrific news. In a world of bad things, this was as bad as it got.

 

Alas, it is another aspect of fire, evoked by the burning of darnel, to which many minds will naturally turn. This is the use of fire by the religiously powerful to impose their might and the conviction that they are right against any who have the audacity to belong to a different tribe with a different view. Our art and literature are rich in references to the belief that the legalised incineration of opponents reflects the just actions of a righteous God. Paintings like Fra Angelico’s Last Judgement, or the frescoes that adorn the walls of a thousand Orthodox monasteries, depict such scenes of infernal agony that the living are encouraged to conform and live peaceably, keeping the commandments of God as shall be by law defined. Those who fail to do so may expect a retribution such as that described by James Joyce in his hellfire sermons. If the ‘storm of darkness’ and ‘intolerable stench of offal and nauseous decomposition’ don’t get you, the eternal heat surely will, as the blood of the damned ‘seethes and boils, the heart glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp,’ and so on (Portrait, chapter3).

 

This focus on the infernal is encouraged by Matthew, whose references to fire and hell are more in number than the other evangelists’ combined. A greater ‘precision over the judgement language is required’ in consequence. Although Matthew’s ‘Gehenna’ is often translated as ‘hell’, it refers more properly to the municipal tip outside Jerusalem, a place for the valueless to be dumped and destroyed. ‘This does not lessen the dire warning in Jesus’ Gehenna sayings: the fiery threat of the Hinnom Valley functions as a potent symbol of judgement and separation. But it does mean that the vivid medieval images of the Doom paintings recede somewhat’ (Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew).

 

It is good to remind ourselves of this, to remember that we are dealing with metaphor, not with a sort of weirdly geographical reality conjured by artists and propagated by tireless merchants of bigotry and hate. Even if the Gehenna metaphor warns of rejection and destruction, this particular gospel passage commands a patient coexistence with those of other tribes and beliefs, and a concomitant determination to leave all adjudication of our respective theological claims to God alone.

 

Like us, Matthew knew what it was to belong to a divided community. We will leave it to scholars to decide the precise characteristics of his communities. It will be sufficient for us to acknowledge the different groups who had irreconcilable understandings of what it was to be Jewish and whether faithful Jews were forbidden, permitted or required to make a faith response to the claims of Jesus Christ. These were no merely intellectual conflicts but rather a marker of identity, a birthmark of belonging. They led to antagonism, to positions entrenched and defended. Finally, they led to the conviction that some people were so far from God —weeds to the true servants’ wheat— that they needed swift extirpation and final fiery destruction.

 

The same instinct to do down our opponent is visible in all the divisions that breed fear and loathing in our world. The ill-tempered discourse about the future of the UK and its part in the EU is symptomatic of national disunity and no doubt creative of deeper rifts in families and communities. The fact that we cannot respond even to an appalling event like Grenfell without exchanging in a series of highly-politicised claims and counter claims is as lamentable as it is predictable.

 

The Church does no better. Our ongoing failure to come to terms with the diverse ways of reading Scripture means misery for many and a severe distraction for all. Consigned to an endless yelling about love, sex and gender, we become identified only by what divides us and are increasingly unable to see any goodness in those who have ceased to be brothers and sisters and have become opponents. This is not the way to resolve the mighty matters before us. Dismissing others or walking away ourselves is not the way of growing together till Kingdom come. We will need more than childhood games of goodies and baddies if we are to be instruments and evangelists of God’s Reign.

 

For this, we will need patience, to refrain from judgement, and to work tirelessly for a genuinely mutual flourishing so that all might reach fulfilment. This is the most surprising thing about the parable. It recognises that both wheat and weeds are differently productive. We must avoid the presumption of the hellfire preacher that the parable is about the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the good. The wheat ground into flour presumably enjoys no more pleasant an experience than the darnel that is cut, bound and burnt. Such matters, the parable insists, are left to God the judge, whose eternal truth sheds light on human failing; but whose mercy finds a way for all that God has created to serve God’s purpose, whether as grain ground into flour for bread or sheaves of wild wheat burnt as precious fuel.

 

Flour and fuel need each other for fulfilment and purpose and those who seek to serve the kingdom of God will not dare to impede this process, but will learn the interdependence of all human beings, however much we disapprove of them, or however little we expect of them. As Walter Bruegemann has put it, ‘the human self is not an independent, autonomous agent but is always and necessarily preceded by one radically other than us, who summons us into existence’ (The Covenanted Self).

 

This does not require us to start believing that bad is good or that injustice is tolerable. But it does mean that we must approach our divergences in a radically different way, inevitably with our own thoughts and feelings to the fore, but tempered with the humility to expect that God will shine a light on things we have not expected, causing us to look with eyes more like Christ’s, and to love with a heart more like his.

 

Or, as Bishop Westcott has beautifully expressed it in prayer,

 

‘O Lord God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open our eyes that we may behold thy Fatherly presence ever about us. Draw our hearts to thee by the power of thy love. Teach us to be anxious for nothing, and when we have done what thou hast given us to do, help us, O God our Saviour, to leave the issue to thy wisdom. Take from us all doubt and mistrust. Lift our thoughts up to the heavens; and make us to know that all things are possible to us through thy Son, our Redeemer Jesus Christ.’

Being Christ among the exiles: reflection for Week 13/Proper 8

Jeremiah 28.5-9; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42

Today’s gospel reading concludes the tenth chapter of Saint Matthew, in which disciples are given their role of presenting Christ to the world. In last week’s passage (verses 24-39), they were given the task of speaking words on the Lord’s behalf, proclaiming aloud all that had been taught in secret. They were also to suffer with him, embracing his ‘unavoidably divisive’ gospel and facing the cross in consequence (Benedict Green).

 

This week, the disciple hopes to be ‘received as Christ’, representing him in the world just as he represents the Father. It is on those who welcome a disciple as Christ, even with so little as a cup of water, that Christ will bestow his own reward.

 

During ordination season it is tempting to think that this imitation of Christ in public is the proper work of the ordained, leaving the laity to busy themselves with their own professional and private lives. This would be an error. We all participate in the apostolic task according to our ability and disposition, being Christ in our communities not through theatrical impersonation or caricature, but by a process much more like the formation of a musician through assiduous daily practice.

 

In Romans 6, St Paul is clear that this process of growing recognisably more Christ-like begins with a decision as fundamental as Moses’ invitation to ‘choose life and blessings’ (Deuteronomy 30.19), or Joshua’s declaration that he and his household will ‘serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24.15). For Paul, Christ’s followers have been set free from sin, whose end is death, so that they might, under grace, be slaves of righteousness, whose reward is life (Romans 6.14-18). Disciples have exchanged one master for another; an old life for a new. And death shall have no dominion.

 

Those who have grown up inhaling the final fumes of Christendom will find this a challenge. Since Constantine, people have ‘just been’ Christian, without any need to stand out from the crowd. But today’s readings suggest that for the Church, as for the Church-goer, this is an inadequate response. Once we have decided for Christ, we must rally to his banner and ‘present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness’ (Romans 6.13), living as heaven’s exiles in the world.

 

Like those taken in captivity to Babylon, we cannot predict when our exile will end or how our life will be. It might be hard to distinguish between Christ’s command not to be afraid, and the Prophet Hananiah’s confident optimism that all will quickly come right. Jeremiah’s more cautious view, vindicated as events unfold, is that things will turn out in their own and God’s good time, as God uses unexpected people as instruments of the divine will. As the exiles must live and prosper under the foreign rule of Nebuchadnezzar, caring for their temporary city and making it fruitful, we too must make a home in this fallen, fragile world, never forgetting whose slaves and disciples we are, nor where we have come from. When we authentically demonstrate for our neighbours what the ruler of our true homeland looks like, they may welcome us for the sake of such a King, and in turn be blessed by him.

On Cassocks and Celebrity; and to #NewRevs a blessing

For the Christian Church in the West it is once again the season of Petertide: the celebration of the apostles Peter and Paul (29 June), one of the principal times in the Church year for making deacons and ordaining priests. We gather the harvest of colleges and courses, giving thanks for the ability, transformation and grace seen in those to be set apart for public ministry. We celebrate and focus on God’s provision, trying not to be lured into making ourselves the centrepiece. We recall the extraordinary fact that the leaders of the Church are drawn from the wounded and fallible, just as God’s chosen people and Christ’s apostles were themselves needy and problematic.

 

And how else can grace shine, except out of weakness? How can eloquence be measured or vision marvelled at if not heard and seen in those who, without God’s grace, would miss the mark, squint and stumble in the world’s dark morass? It is perhaps this sense of humanity being salvaged for divine usefulness that imbues ordination services (and the parties afterwards) with such immense joy. For the newly-ordained themselves (or #NewRevs as we are invited to call them), Petertide is a time of understandable and undiluted happiness, usually the culmination of years of struggle with discernment and faith. It is also an exciting moment of departure as they begin the rest of their lives with no certainties ahead of them except an immediate training parish and eventual death.

 

So there is absolutely no need to subvert our celebration of ordained ministry by celebritising ordained ministers. I am fearful that there is some evidence of this in the pictures of ordinations published by the church press, especially on their front covers. Now, this subject divides us as surely as Marmite and Shine, Jesus, Shine. Some undoubtedly welcome the fashion for showing clergy in cassocks running exuberantly through the hills or leaping into the air like A-level students on results’ day, as if ordination were (as one twitter wit has put it) a ritualised form of midlife crisis. It is even true that the hearts of some are strangely warmed by shots of new deacons buddy-punching their ordaining bishop, but for others such sights are painful, and no amount of Anglican compromise can help us to a common mind.

 

These are largely questions of opinion and taste. I myself have never enjoyed the sight of anyone frolicking in a cassock. I think we’re wise to preserve the beauty of holiness, lest it lose its capacity to nourish and heal us. Yes, I see that a picture of choristers abseiling for charity or enjoying a snowball fight is made all the more vivid if they are wearing robes. I understand that the costume frames the story, and that my objections can be capricious, pompous and humourless, a disproportionate level of emotion to be aroused by a simple black coat.

 

But then it’s not a simple black coat, but a sacral tribal garment deeply embedded in the theology and psychology of those who do or don’t make use of it. Church choirs are closely wedded to theirs, and would rather change the doctrine of the Trinity than the precise shade of maroon in which they’re vested. Some cathedrals are well-known for the colour of their cassocks: Durham purple, Salisbury green, Lincoln blue. Many go for red, often trespassing on the crimson scarlet that is ideally the preserve of Royal Foundations.

 

The cut of the cassock also reveals much, as it were. Low and broad churchmen traditionally favoured the double-breasted ‘Sarum bag’ tied with a leather belt, like Elijah. Those who opt for these will rarely be too bothered by their ecclesial appearance. Swathes of stocking or trouser-leg will frequently be visible beneath the hem. They may even be worn, however scandalously, with brown shoes.

 

At the other end of the spectrum is the full thirty-nine-button single-breasted soutane. This is, or was, the preserve of the Romish, and is often ornamented with super-cuffs and over-sleeves, or augmented with a cape. It tends to have a heavy hem with a kind of bristly draught-excluder round the bottom, the type (as we used to say) that beats as it sweeps as it cleans. Those proud of their figure prefer the five-pleat rear view. The rest of us make do with three. The number of buttons is no doubt the result of a gradual settling of practice. In Anglican circles, they are said to represent the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, though if a button were removed for each rejected Article, the sort of clergy likely to wear the soutane would be reaching for the leather belts of their more Protestant colleagues. (More piously, the buttons are thought to refer to the number of lashes one is able to endure without dying. If the dog collar is a symbol of slavery to Christ, the cassock is a reminder of persecution.)

 

There is incidentally a wonderful irony of double-cream delightfulness that this increasingly obsessive interest in clerical clothing (to which I gleefully contribute) should be happening just as Synod rescinds the requirement to officiate at church services only in garments hitherto stipulated by canon. The message is mixed, but clear: pole-vault, pancake-toss and piglet-chase in cassocks for the photo-opp; then change back into unthreatening tracksuits for worship. We live in interesting times.

 

And there’s more. This concerns not only a perceived glamorising of clergy but deals more importantly with their place among the whole people of God. My fear is that after decades of insisting that ‘going into the church’ refers to baptism and not ordination; after reports like All Are Called, and ceaseless vigilance against clericalisation and the infantilising of the laity, we do now seem to be in danger (I put it no more forcefully) of yielding to a culture in which the clergy take pride of place, with a duty to court celebrity as successfully as they can, aided by the technology in every pocket and handbag that makes us all a film director, broadcaster, publisher — even an occasional essayist.

 

I am not speaking of that entirely proper concern to use all available resources in the task of telling the good news. I do suspect, moreover, that the gospel is better communicated in the slow quiet drip of conversation than by the sudden viral whoosh of a telly vicar juggling for Jesus or doing unspeakable things on Britain’s Got Talent. And the fact that, if I were a juggler and invited onto The One Show, I would be there before you could say Sue Lawley, only makes matters worse. When we who are worried can see our own susceptibility to what worries us, our worries grow.

 

As does our concentration on the numbers of the ordained: another worry. On the one hand, it is thrilling that a call has been recognised, discernment fruitful, selection successful, and formation begun in another new deacon or priest. And I, who adore being a priest, pray that all the ordained will be fulfilled and blessed as I have been. But surely the important statistic (if there is one) is the number of baptisms, or of those otherwise participating in the Church’s life within the community. A concentration on the folk in fancy dress has just a slight whiff of the Roman Empire in decline. It’s as if we’re shouting “The numbers are up!” because we fear our number’s up.

 

I’m not the only one to think like this. But neither would I want us to flee from the catwalk only to reinvent the heroic, solitary, all-enduring slum-priest in battered biretta and egg-stained soutane. Last week a blog post invited us https://aleteia.org/2017/06/25/a-cassock-work-clothes-not-a-dress-uniform/amp/ to wear salt-stained cassocks (salty on the front from tears; on the back from hard labour). And for all its trowelled-on piety and deeply purple prose, this portrait of the cassock as death-shroud will speak eloquently to many.

 

But this too is a road I cannot take. I went through most of my deacon’s year wearing my old Mirfield cassock. It was sewn up the side to turn it into a habit, with a high collar that meant I didn’t need to wear a clerical shirt. I thought I was the last word in radical poverty and monkish chic. I probably just looked weird, and achieved no more for the gospel than if I had worn a sensible black shirt and dog collar, with a plastic suit from Tesco (competitively priced and machine washable). It is not, admittedly, the sort of uniform from which strips can be torn to improvise bandages, as the Aleteia blog recommends in a hyperbolic flourish. But bandages are happily available in all pharmacists; they are clinically clean, and won’t spread disease. So there’s absolutely no need for the clergy to start shredding their clothes and wandering the streets like Tom o’ Bedlam. Dress and behaviour that are simple, sensible, and unexceptionable will do very nicely indeed.

 

And that, perhaps, is all I want to say. It is wonderful that men and women respond to the Lord’s call to labour in his harvest-field in all sorts of ministries, including the ordained; and we rejoice in the gifts given to them, to be perfected by grace. There is no need for anyone to disappear down alleyways of nostalgia and mediaevalism, or to fashion a culture of celebrity. The faithful daily walk of prayer, study, labour and the building-up of community is more than enough for any of us. It is our proper business and will be joy and health to us and to the world around us.

 

I conclude with the best description of a Christian life I’ve come across. It is on a plaque in Southwark Cathedral, erected in the early 19th century in memory of the Revd William Winkworth, who was said to be ‘Pious without Ostentation, Zealous with Discretion, Active in the Cause of Distress, Humble and Laborious in the Ministry of the Word. He fell asleep in Jesus, a Debtor to Grace.’ None of us could hope or pray for more, in cassock or track-suit. As we all rejoice with the newly- and almost-ordained, we wish you many years of such joyful and fruitful service. God bless you, and those among whom you will live and work.

 

Broken bread, broken curse: thoughts on Corpus Christi and the fire at Grenfell Tower

There is no bread in the Garden of Eden. The menu is confined to the fruit of plants and trees, with bread appearing only after the Fall[1]: as part of the consequences of human disobedience and our ejection from Paradise, we will earn our bread through hard labour and the sweat of our brow. Bread is therefore contentious stuff, tainted by banishment and curse, a constant reminder of what should have been, and of the need to get things right.

 

Admittedly, the Hebrew Bible does offer a variety of images in which bread is entirely positive. It ‘strengthens the heart’[2] and symbolises God’s blessing.[3] It expresses gratitude, mercy and love;[4] or contains an invitation to safety and security as Boaz draws Ruth into marriage through the age-old allure of a picnic[5]. So the curse of the bread can be broken, though never for long. It is never universally positive. Its status as the hard-won food of rebellious humanity is echoed by the Prophet Hosea who denounces faithless Israel as a mother who takes bread from a succession of worthless lovers.[6] In similar vein, the bread given with the ‘mess of pottage’ by Jacob to Esau in exchange for his birthright, is a symbol of betrayal, of loosening the ties that should be held in highest honour.[7]

 

But by far the most potent reference to bread in the Old Testament is the unleavened Passover bread eaten by the Hebrews before their escape from slavery in Egypt to life in the Promised Land.[8] Then, as the wilderness brings hunger and complaint, God provides them with manna (the superabundant ‘daily bread’ that returns symbolically in the New Testament in the stories of the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus.[9]) But even this gift goes wrong as the travellers try to hoard it, perhaps fearful that the Lord will not manage to maintain the supply. To no avail: their personal stash goes bad, ‘breeding worms and becoming foul’.[10] If the curse is to be lifted, hoarding is not the way.

 

The Passover was transplanted into the Christian Church as the celebration of the Eucharist —reading the scriptures and sharing in broken bread together.[11] For the first two hundred years or so, the Eucharist was a real meal, shared by all members of the socially-diverse Christian community. Sadly, it did not take long to be subverted: within a few generations, the remembrance of the Last Supper was divorced from the shared meal: rich and poor could apparently no longer live together and drink from the same cup. Even as early as St Paul’s day (50s CE) things were going wrong. He berated some of the Corinthians for coming to the common table with bulging hampers from which they ate and drank to excess without any consideration for the poor around them. This was eating and drinking to their own condemnation.[12] If hoarding brings rottenness, greed brings judgement. The curse remains.

 

The whole question of rich and poor equitably sharing the resources of the community was thrown into unbearably sharp focus last week as dozens of the poorest citizens of our capital city were visibly and audibly incinerated (the day before Corpus Christi) as a tower block in North Kensington was engulfed by fire.

 

It was noted that Christians and Muslims were among the very first to open their doors to offer food and shelter, and to coordinate the distribution of clothes and other gifts that came from all corners of an openhanded community. This was not surprising. Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast know as surely as Christians fed by the Eucharist that the bread’s curse can be erased only by generosity. This is what St Paul taught at Corinth: Christ is made present only in the sharing of bread with the hungry and the maintenance of community with all neighbours in their need.

 

This is the fundamental truth to which we must cling as we try to digest the events of a horrific year (from Westminster to Finsbury Park, via Manchester, London Bridge and North Kensington).

After the initial horror and the swift response of kindness at Grenfell Tower, there now follow justifiably angry questions concerning the sense of priorities that allows such diverging outcomes for rich and poor in a magnificently affluent city like London in 2017. The prosaic detail of the tragedy, with its litany of absent sprinklers and hoses and composite cladding priced at so many pounds a square metre, illuminates with cruel banality the obscene fact that some human lives merit a greater price tag than others. We have drifted so far from a basic recognition of the dignity of all people, to establish a set of values by which some are provided with the last word in luxury and fire safety technology, while others are reduced to living in accommodation whose standards of health and safety do not begin to approach acceptable levels of adequacy.

 

This appalling event followed just a week after a general election which saw a completely unexpected rise in young voters, and an equally surprising demand for a society run on very different lines. New voices emerged, seeking government ‘for the many not the few’ and a functioning safety-net of housing, health and social care to be provided by a taxation system that recognises the immense disparity between rich and poor.

 

Now this is a tale as old as civilisation and those who have followed the politics of our nation will have seen governments of all parties come and go with little or no lasting change to the status quo. It is even tempting to find strange comfort in an exhausted pessimism. But tragedies like Grenfell Tower (the public enquiry may find other words to describe it) can play a part in changing things. It seems that this has not been the experience in the US after New Orleans, but things here do begin to feel different after a spring and early summer of unsettling, heart-wrenching events. People are talking with urgent and unsilenceable voices about ‘love’ and ‘support’, of watching out for each other, whether in the sphere of national security or the quality of our welfare state. And while all of this requires the foundation of a strong and healthy economy, the old electoral mantra of ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ may well be changing (as the bishop of Burnley recently suggested) into ‘It’s the relationships, stupid’. The prospect of a fatter wallet may be losing its hold on us as we maybe, just maybe start to envisage a radically reordered society. It’s the sort of society some have called the kingdom of God.

 

Perhaps, then, there has never been a more important time to observe and reflect on Corpus Christi. We have seen that bread hoarded goes rotten. Bread eaten greedily brings judgement. Only bread shared joyfully with all our neighbours lifts the curse of Eden and brings Christ into the world.

[1] Genesis 1.29; 3.19.

[2] Psalm 104.15

[3] As in Genesis 14.18.

[4] Exodus 2.20, Genesis 21.14; 45.23.

[5] Ruth 2.14.

[6] Hosea 2.5.

[7] Genesis 25.34.

[8] Exodus 12.8.

[9] Exodus 16.8; Matthew 6.11; 15.35.

[10]  Exodus 16.20.

[11] Acts 2.42; Matthew 4.4; 26.26.

 

[12] I Corinthians 11.20-29.