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 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.

The Rite to Remain Silent – on not ‘banging on about God’

There is an apocryphal prayer attributed to a university Christian Union of the 1950s which asks quite simply, ‘O God, make slack chaps keen.’


The ‘slack chaps’ are those who are perfectly happy to go to church at Christmas and Easter, and who know how to behave if they are ever inadvertently caught up in a harvest festival, but who are sadly never zealous enough for the ‘keen chaps’, the sort who get ordained, or involved in the plethora of quasi-clerical lay-ministries that constitute part of today’s strategy for keeping God’s memory green and the church pension fund in the black. It is the forerunners of this group whom Evelyn Waugh satirises as ‘those with a lay interest in ecclesiastical matters [that] is often a prelude to insanity.’ (Decline and Fall, I.8)


But the stand-off between the utterly committed and the less obviously devout is rarely a laughing matter. In the early centuries, it was partly the fear that the legalisation of Christianity would result in a lower quality of witness (now that the risk of martyrdom had ended) that led to the development of monasticism. The churches might be filling with all sorts of spiritually-negligible parvenus, but standards would be maintained by the mothers and fathers of the desert who battled with demons and wrestled with their own self-will and thus safeguarded the purity of the faith. As Plato observed in the Phaedo, ‘many bear the emblems, but the devotees are few.’


This disparity between ‘slack’ and ‘keen’ is exacerbating the current challenge to the churches. In her 2016 lecture on The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority, Linda Woodhead suggests that it is partly the expectation that people who come to church should be fully involved —in a way that, historically, most Britons never have been— that has driven a wedge between England’s Church and people. The C of E has become a ‘sectarian’ rather than ‘societal’ Church: as Britain has become less religious, ‘religion has become more so’; the people have ‘moved away from the churches’ and, by fostering a culture of conversion and wholehearted belonging, ‘the churches have moved away from them.’


This is borne out anecdotally by experienced clergy. A friend of mine recently celebrating his diamond jubilee of ordination reflected that, when he was a curate, couples came for marriage and children for baptism quite naturally and without the expectation of anything more. They were not expected to start talking about Jesus in the post office or praying with people in the cake shop. Things are very different now. Practically before they are through the church door, they are asked for their email addresses, standing orders and gift aid declarations; they’re invited to sign up for the Bishop’s Certificate, and to make at least a provisional agreement to attend next month’s Vocations Day, bringing with them three very good reasons why they shouldn’t be selected and packed off to ‘Vicar School’ forthwith.


And one can see why some in the Church might welcome the disappearance of fellow travellers, leaving behind only the true believers. The Revd @liambeadle for example has tweeted that ‘the death of nominal Christianity —moralistic therapeutic deism— is good news’ (14 April 2017), perhaps because it is felt that in dealing only with the enthusiast there comes a liberation, a scraping off of carbuncles and a shaking off of a barely-Christian half-heartedness that holds the Church back in its gospel mission.


Ruth Gledhill, the freelance religious pundit, would perhaps agree. On her ‘Christian Today’ website she recently suggested (24 April) that the way to help cathedrals turn their midweek attendance success into financial security is to ask churches like St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and Holy Trinity, Brompton (both in London) to plant their brand of religion, with its dedicated and faithfully-tithing adherents, into a cathedral. She imagines Canterbury ‘rocking to crashing drums, rhythm guitars and the fabulous Hillsong at 6pm every Sunday.’


It’s not quite Rose Responses or Howells Coll Reg. I think she also misses the point that a cathedral already is a place of great musical and liturgical variety, hosting many different national, diocesan and regional events, both sacred and secular. To hand cathedrals over to a single church constituency would immediately rob them of their broad appeal and drive away those who love the beauty of the English choral tradition, who provide the high numbers of visitors and worshippers (‘up to 40,000 a week’) and are hailed as the great success of an institution not often dripping in good news stories.


All of which explains why a recent report of a lecture by Sir Simon Jenkins (Daily Telegraph, 5 June) caught many an ecclesiastical eye. He suggests that the cathedrals are doing so much better than the parish churches because they don’t ‘bang on about God’ all the time, but ‘bang on about beauty instead’.


This is, of course, arrant nonsense. Cathedrals ‘bang on about God’ ceaselessly. Their very architecture is a massive theological statement; their extensive programme of daily worship is as abundant a theological proclamation as you will encounter, all of it either directly scriptural or based on scripture; and even the driest, most fact-laden spiel to the weary tourist will include something on the religious significance of the artefacts they are duly admiring. So cathedrals certainly do do God, and do God extravagantly, but with dignity, discretion and reserve, and in beautiful 17th century language set to sublime music, expertly performed.


What makes cathedrals different is that the congregation is under no obligation to do God back. Sitting behind the proverbial pillar, a person may be tourist, visitor, enquirer or believer: no one can tell, and no one will much care. The worship rolls on through the days and centuries, more than willing to draw you Godwards in its wake, but not at all offended if you’d rather just sit quietly and wonder. Evensong, the weekday service that pulls the biggest crowds in most cathedrals, is best suited to this sort of gentle undemanding invitation. Simply by virtue of offering everything but requiring nothing from those who attend, it provides people with the ‘social, spiritual and moral goods’ which even Linda Woodhead’s ‘nones’ desire, but in which ‘the religion on offer in late modern Britain’ is sadly deficient (Woodhead, op. cit.). Whereas much of today’s worship expects a wordy and animated splashing around (having fun and being seen to be having fun), Evensong by contrast is the liturgical equivalent of floating on your back and soaking up the sun’s rays. Your mind is free to think; perhaps your heart will be moved. Conceivably, you will utter silent, half-formed snatches of what might well be prayer. But no-one’s checking. Unlike the ubiquitous Parish Eucharist or Family Service, Cathedral Evensong makes it easy to exercise the right to silence. But be clear that something will surely be happening, even slowly, in heart and mind. The excellent Theos report of 2012 —Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals— showed that of those who visited a cathedral mainly for historic or cultural reasons (‘secular tourists’), 84% then found that a sense of the sacred had been communicated through the building, or by the cathedral’s music (79%) or through the peace and quiet of the place (56%). Clearly, whatever it is that cathedrals do, they do exceptionally well, and the Church risks much by changing it significantly.


So let’s hear it for the slack chaps. As the C of E loses 12 members for every single convert, it becomes clear that the future may well lie not with the beaming and the bold who sign up, show up and pay up. It might rather be that the mystery of God is pursued, and the concerns of the Kingdom eventually transmitted by the much broader base of those more modest men and women who jump up and down neither literally nor figuratively, but who sit quietly wondering in quire or nave, disinclined to dogma but moved by the beauty of a Gothic arch or Tudor motet. We cannot know what will develop from this slow propagation of the Word within them. But the keen chaps should know that the Spirit works wonderfully well in all ways and types and times.


Let them be patient, and let hands that would meddle be folded in prayer.

Inked in – how your reaction to summer’s tattoos tells you who you are.

He was a lovely gentle man; young, as we all were. It was three decades ago, in Australia. We probably got talking in the backpackers’ place, where speaking to others is the norm, the unspoken expectation that reverses as age sets in and the size of the hotel bill increases. Anyway, what mattered about him and what I’ve been thinking about is that he was pretty much completely covered in tattoos. I say ‘pretty much’: even backpackers’ hostels have minimum dress requirements. A sea of reds, oranges and blues, his body was a mobile exhibition of abstract art, a bright undulation of very permanent ink. Only above the neck and beyond the wrists was his skin untouched: in a suit and tie his canvas would be covered, guarding him against even the most conservative employer’s disapproval.


He has been lodged in my memory all these years, but my recollection of him is vivid now when rising temperatures lead even staid commuters to unbutton their swaddling clothes, and the carefree expose more flesh than their parents might consider seemly. Now is the time when tattoos that have slept all winter untroubled and unseen are suddenly made visible. On napes and ankles fish swim and birds fly; sprays of flowers climb up calves, and mythical characters loiter in the complex vegetation that creeps across backs. Children’s names are inked on hand and heart while starbursts fall down arms, and Celtic love-knots never fray.


For all their meticulous artistic endeavour, some people hate tattoos and hold in contempt those who wear them. Perhaps they remember them from the bad old days when tattoos were confined to sailors’ cabins and smoky pubs, with LOVE and HATE starkly emblazoned on fighters’ knuckles.


Or perhaps it is their permanence that puts people off. Despite laser treatments, this filling of pores with pigment is not intended to be temporary, easily erased like an ill-advised shade of green in a back bedroom. This feeds their reputation as the regrettable acts of foolish young men, like Neville in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, who cannot return home to the fastidious Brenda when a declaration of love for the unknown Lotte appears on his bicep after an injudiciously heavy night on the town.


But we have come a very long way since then. Tattoos now grace the pool-sides of the fashionable and wealthy, and adorn the bodies of the beautiful. Luminaries like you, dear reader, shelter an elegant dolphin or a yin-yang in a fine and private place. Even David Dimbleby at 76, limbering up for another General Election, does so with a scorpion basking on his right shoulder.


So I know there’s no excuse for me. Not having even a tiny tattoo feels like cowardice, an almost moral matter, like shying away from the top diving board — or, in my sorry history of belly flops, any diving board at all. It’s just another of the things I never did, like going to a rock concert or having an ear pierced. For me, these acts remain firmly locked behind the door I never opened, where, with flaming sword, the bookish, bespectacled choirboy in me bars my way, uttering his unanswerable No. It’s not the tattoo’s indelibility to blame, you see, but mine.


In the end, this is what all art does. It tells us who we are and what we think. Our delight or dislike (even, perhaps, disdain) for what we see and hear exposes all that normally lies concealed beneath manners and convention. But I do not mourn too miserably. There glides no inky duck across any pasty part of me, but I cope manfully with the deprivation and still have cause to rise each day.


For art is not the only fruit of dedicated endeavour. The slow accumulation of virtue and the steady exercise of love are equally fitting testaments to our nature. They shine forth summer and winter, and are never a cause of regret.