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.

 

 

 

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Corpus Christi Sonnet I

No bread in Eden, where abundant fruit

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

until we poured our poison, sliced the root

that anchored us to an eternal bliss.

We caused the condemnation, drew a curse

consigning us to sweat for daily bread.

Thus food became a sign of sin and worse:

a sign that we were living, now are dead.

 

So you who hunger for the Bread of Life

and go to church, familiar with the moves;

perhaps related to the vicar’s wife;

who’ve read theology and what it proves:

to make Christ truly present, go and share

a sandwich with a beggar, if you dare!

Beggar sandwich (2)

31 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runcie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary, not at all Contrary

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Angela’s Lashes — in response to Canon Tilby and her detractors, concerning an ‘Evangelical takeover’

Angela Tilby’s Church Times articles have a reputation for rattling cages, indicating (if nothing else) the effectiveness of a certain sort of quiet English prose style.

This week, in ‘Deliver us from the Evangelical takeover’ (27 April), she has applied a crowd-dividing scalpel to her readership and my Twitter feed, attracting support from some, but criticism from others who have ‘liked’ seeing her piece described as ‘pathetic’ ‘dreadful’ and ‘victim-like’. Someone else has simply called it a #SloppyColumn. ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ one might well say. This way to the ducking-stool!

Except, of course, there’s nothing new to see. As we come to terms with the apparent demise of at least parts of the Church of England, there is understandably much passionate arguing about how best to bail out the water, plug the holes and rebuild the sinking boat so that it’s fit to carry the Lord across the Lake once more. I’ve done a bit of it myself, and am clear that there must be room for many different kinds of ‘church’. We know this instinctively as Anglicans and my friend @educationpriest is right to say that there is ‘no evangelical takeover’. Where ‘Catholics and others show life, enthusiasm, energy and good management’, the doors of support and funding are indeed ‘open’ to all kinds of parishes and projects.

Perhaps there’s a ‘takeover’ in the appointment of bishops? I’ve no idea. As a general rule, and as Professor O’Donovan’s CNC review recently illustrated, the usual request is that there should be more bishops ‘like us’, whoever ‘we’ happen to be. So if the evangelical churches are full, and if both of the archbishops are evangelical, it might mean a superfluity of evangelicals in purple. There are those who are convinced of it, but I cannot say.

Besides, the old labels have been inadequate for years: many evangelicals have shown an eager appetite for liturgy with all the trimmings, and while some catholics seem to be looking more conservatively at Scripture (perhaps seeking support for convictions about ordination), yet other evangelicals are reaching wonderfully surprising conclusions on human sexuality, and are consequently beginning to lighten their own hermeneutical grip.

Or so it seems to me. I’m not sure how you would ordinarily check such impressions, and it’s unfortunate that we are usually reduced to the level of the merely anecdotal. It is this, perhaps, that accounts for the threat of slight scorn with which much of the ‘conversation’ is uttered. When only the proper anoraks have any data, the rest of us rely on increasingly forthright assertion and the profile picture’s hard stare.

Canon Tilby’s concern, however (which I share), has more to do with communication between Church and society than within the Church as it arranges the delivery of its priorities. If it is the case (as she reports) that patients are flocking to their GPs with ‘existential distress’, then it means that for all our outreach, our men’s breakfasts, our cafés in the crossing and post offices in the choir vestry (all of which I entirely support), we still aren’t persuading enough citizens to look to the Church as a community among whom they can ‘open their grief’ and seek ‘comfort and counsel’ (BCP Communion).

Her article suggests that this is because of the current ‘assumption that there is simply no other way of speaking of the Christian faith’ than as one in which ‘individuals let Jesus into their hearts and lives one by one.’ (And do note that it’s not the second of those quotations that expresses her concern, but the first.) The problem, presumably, is that the enthusiasm of ‘the saved and the certain’ is scaring off the more reticent, a situation perfectly satirised by the Fast Show in their Christian Cops sketch. Again, I’m unclear how one would go about verifying that suspicion. There’s certainly nothing new in a very mixed attitude to enthusiasm in the Church.

It is Canon Tilby’s last two paragraphs that most closely reflect my own experiences, and attracted my eager support for her unpopular article. She juxtaposes two worlds: one, a warm, smiling, Messy world of cutting and pasting, chatting and sharing, with perhaps a few choruses before home-time. The other, a more austere and reserved, silent and private world of ‘the slow nurturing of the person through unconsciously memorised texts.’ This is much more self-consciously RS Thomas-type territory, the way ‘church’ used unapologetically to be. The parson wasn’t a chat-show host; the organist wasn’t a pop star. And one’s existential anxieties were kept at bay by the sure and certain hope that God was in His heaven, and that all would be well with the world.

Now, whether we should have been playing with tea-lights and cutting out paper flames all along; or whether our failure to do so is the reason some of the churches are emptying, the quieter days that Canon Tilby describes are surely gone now. And it’s perfectly possible to mourn them with nostalgia, sorrow and regret (which Tilby pours out in abundance) without for a moment being guilty of ‘unhelpful bleating’ or victim-like writing. She’s not ‘dreadful’. She’s just not dreadfully happy.

In the end, it’s surely all a matter of psychology, certainly once you’re retired or safely beyond the siren bray of ambition. For everyone convinced that the mission of an accessible and brightly smiling Church is the only way ahead (sans vestments, sans ecclesiology, sans Canon B5), there are others who are certain that only a liturgical diet of lacy albs and Palestrina, or a relentless programme of protest marches and Iona songs are capable of communicating salvation. Why? Because these are the things that they need to avoid their own existential crises. But what gets you through the day gives me nightmares. What soothes my soul is like fingernails down a blackboard to yours.

Yet, to miss what has gone and to be unimpressed by what has succeeded it is no crime. To say honestly what you discern or fear does not make you pathetic. And if it gets other people thinking and talking, planning and praying, then so much the better. Indeed, if you’ve done all that, you’ve performed a truly Evangelical takeover of your own.

Preaching in red ink

Of the various congregations I have addressed over the years, it is my current flock of teenagers that poses by far the greatest homiletic challenge and opportunity. Usually, in a parish, the people voluntarily turn up, are more or less signed up, and generously put up with whatever preaching is set before them as nourishment for the week ahead. Theological depth is by no means universally valued. One often gets the impression that what people really want from their preachers is a joke, a heart-warming story and a vignette of vicarage life to make everyone feel involved in the compelling soap opera that is sometimes the Church.

 

This is not my current experience. Working in a school that retains a tradition of compulsory daily chapel, I do not unfailingly encounter a breathless zeal among the masses to hear the Word of God. That said, there is a generally high degree of willing participation in singing, listening and engagement with chapel, suggesting that, provided certain principles are not forgotten, a school’s constituents are likely to accept the essential premise that the Christian tradition in which a school was founded (in 1480 or 1840 or whenever), is one we gain more by maintaining than abandoning, even if we are no longer a recognisably ecclesiastical institution or Christian society.

 

But the provisos I alluded to are fundamental and quite unforgiving. You can’t, for example, simply iterate the tenets of the faith (even from a high pulpit) without saying exactly what you mean by them. To preach that ‘Jesus came down to earth to save me from my sins’ (the staple of so much Passiontide teaching) simply won’t do when delivered without a single word of commentary. An audience that has the blood-red instruction to ‘SAY WHY’ blazoned across its essays every week is unlikely to be understanding of any unsubstantiated glibness in a preacher.

 

So phrases like ‘God so loved the world …’ are to be used with particular care, avoiding the landmines of the anthropomorphism that can so easily turn God into Santa Claus, while steering equally clear of the cosmological vagueness that uses ‘God’ only as code for whatever incomprehensible physics permeates the star-spangled cosmos.

 

Where then do we turn to find words that are true and helpful? As always, the best words will be those that are rooted in people’s daily experience. If we’re talking about God’s love, we might find a way into the concept by thinking about the nature of the world as capable of the endless invention and re-invention that allows us (for example) to experience restoration after loss and reconciliation after discord. It is true that this outpouring of love will require for God a role in creation greater than many will be happy to yield; but if we can start to pick a hole through that muddle, it will allow preachers to talk of a God of love when other registers may sound too sing-song, convenient, infantile.

 

And when this talk of loving turns to the ‘only-begotten Son’ of John 3.16, we will need to avoid anything that hints at family trees and sexual reproduction, replacing them with the poetry that speaks of Christ as ‘radiance’ and ‘imprint’ (Hebrews 1) or as ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15).

 

As for enjoying ‘everlasting life’, I am not hopeful that many of my listeners would be able to imagine themselves as eternally-experiencing subjects (as my colleagues in the philosophy department would say), but this need not lead us to jettison all attempts at identifying that quality of human life that reflects deepest reality (what we might call divinity), and that enjoys the sort of ongoing significance that could be considered permanent.

 

Now, I know that none of this is news. Using words that can be understood and defended is fundamental to any educational or homiletic task; which is why I suffer such despair when prominent voices address matters as complex as the Passion in markedly unhelpful ways. Consider this Good Friday tweet, for example: ‘From the cross, Jesus cried ‘It is finished.’ That means that every sin you ever committed or ever will commit has been paid for. Your worst secret is known to God and the price has been paid. The only thing left to decide is: Will you accept this gift?’

 

Thus Mr Farron, the former political leader who has already given us a pretty shrewd idea of what he considers ‘sins and secrets’ to include. Leaving aside the question of how healthy it is to conceive of human life as an agglomeration of supposed failings (and I’m clear that it is generally unhelpful and damaging to the point of abuse), this mechanistic account of salvation is strong on certain readings of the Cross, but rather weaker on questions of how and why salvation occurs.

 

I certainly do not want us to go through life thinking that we are immune to all failings and devoid of any faults. That would be an opposite but equal sort of abuse. But I do want a person’s knowledge of Christ to be based on more than a reductionist concept of him as a kind of moral Mr Muscle who removes the grime of sin, leaving everything sparkling clean and good as new.

 

By all means let us talk of sacrifice, but let us begin by considering the sort of reparation we recognise and rely on when our trust is broken and our own relationships falter. Anything else will be in danger of making Tarzan-leaps across gaping chasms that only the already-convinced will find remotely comprehensible.

 

Now, I am aware that in making these remarks I may either sound churlish or simply be stating the obvious. All I can observe from my corner of the vineyard is that being clear about theology (and open to its awkward questions) is the indispensable first step in engaging in faith-talk with lively minds. Too often, the supposition seems to be that, if only we can get the message slick enough, the marketing strategy well enough directed, the teeth white enough and the participants drop-dead cool enough, everything else will follow. This is not my experience.

 

Of course, we who belong to a supposedly life-giving community wish to commend it to others by welcome and example. But this work cannot take place in a theological vacuum. We must seriously and rigorously address pressing intellectual matters if we are to commend to a new generation the faith once delivered to us.

 

Just saying happy stuff from time to time is unlikely to be sufficient.

Mum’s the word … thoughts for Church and World on Mother’s Day

The flower-and-chocolate trade has been in full spate as Mother’s Day is used to plug the nasty retail gap between St Valentine and Easter. All over the country, stereotypically inept husbands and small children wrestle with toasters as they aim for the perfect breakfast-in-bed for the woman of their lives. Motherhood is honoured, as in millions of kindly acts we say thank you to those who have borne us, and quite probably done most of the nurturing, too.

The English Church has historically taken a wider view of this day, seeing ‘Mothering Sunday’ as an opportunity to focus not only on our own mothers, but also on our ‘mother’ the Church, and on Mother Mary. Biologically the Lord’s mother, Mary is by pious adoption the mother of all humanity, the lowly one whom all generations will call ‘blessed’ (Luke 1.48).

But such mother-talk is at best ambiguous, at worst obsolete, at least in the New Testament. Unlike John, who happily depicts the disciple sharing a home with Mary after the crucifixion (John 19.27), the synoptics are less willing to accord her any unequivocal position of honour (‘My mother, brother, sister are those who do the will of my Father,’ says Jesus a little huffily —Mark 3.35; Matthew 12.49; Luke 8.21). Perhaps this is the voice of the far-flung Apostolic Church reminding his blood relatives (notably in Jerusalem?) that belonging to Christ is not through blood but baptism — a lesson the Church of England, with its dainty devotion to ‘family life’, still tries hard to forget. It was with good reason that the mediaeval Church emphasised the role not of parents but of godparents, not simply officers of nature but signals and witnesses of divine adoption and new life.

As for ‘Mother Church’, the notion of a maidenly global gaggle, even one protected by the Spirit’s outstretched wings, is one that might easily grate. ‘Reveal her unity’? Guard her faith’ (Prayer G)? Surely, for better or worse, ‘we’ are the church, and we had better say so. Not driven sheep or sheltered chicks: just people, baptised. Perhaps when we’ve had a thousand years of leadership from people who aren’t straight white men, we may be able to revisit the idea of Church as Bride and Mother, but for now these metaphors represent (and maybe even cloak) such an unjust reality for half the world’s population that their use requires vast numbers of footnotes and riders, and might for now be best abandoned.

Secular Mother’s Day is also far from uncontroversial. In addition to those who find the day difficult because of various sorts of maternal experience given, received or denied, there are many social matters to address. Who best provides children with the love they need, and what sort of domestic arrangements best secure it? Solving that question brings the left and the right in their boxing gloves striding towards the ring. For some, the one thing needful is the love and security children require to grow and prosper. Who gives it (and in what combinations of committed carers — two mums, a dad and a grandma, whatever) is inconsequential. For others, only a man and wife spliced together in holy wedlock can be entrusted with the task, and no number of child cruelty stories begin to shake that fundamental view.

So should Mother’s Day be shelved until we have greater consensus? By no means. We have all been carried by a mother and, no matter how that child-bearing was experienced, we should be grateful to her or to any others who have shown us a mother’s love. It is something to celebrate, without reinforcing gender stereotypes or claiming to identify spurious complementarities between the sexes.

Some mothers will have inspired the admiration of their children by a gentle constancy at home, always ready to feed, bandage or celebrate as appropriate. Others will have been remarkable for resilience and determination in the professional sphere, by labour and ability resourcing their family’s life, freeing husbands or partners to stay at home with the sewing and the school run. Still others will not have been mothers at all. Yet, by accepting (like Mary) an unlooked-for role, they have come to be loved like a mother by their unintended children. Relations and friends, old and young, men and women: they have all with indefatigable love assumed as a willing responsibility of care that which was first known as a biological need to suckle. And now love calls out to love in the ungovernable joy of gratitude.

Some people inevitably paint any social change in colours of deep perturbation. But, more cheerily, I find this particular move away from sexual and gender-governed expectation to be wonderfully liberating. It seems to be evidence of humanity at our best, when we receive what evolution bequeaths us, and evolve it further in response to our needs and legitimate desires. Although motherhood has been for centuries a prime opportunity for malign collusion between biology and culture (learning to mistreat women because we could: the loathsome ‘barefoot in winter, pregnant in summer’ trope), we are finding surely better ways of providing for the perpetuation of our species and recognising the delightful diversity of human love and the scope it gives for permanent, faithful and stable relationships. Alas, we are still scoring negligibly on the violence and ecology papers (so ‘perpetuating the species’ suddenly looks a more questionable act), and we must aim to do urgently and significantly better.

If hardship and sorrow are ever present, we need the guidance, affirmation and support of mothers of either sex, those who know us well, and are committed to us for the long haul. There are relationships that can afford to be virtual, trivial, temporary. But this isn’t one of them. It has to be right. And where nature has failed to provide, inventive humanity must make good the lack.

‘Man hands on misery to man,’ says Philip Larkin. ‘It deepens like a coastal shelf.’ With his analysis we might be content to agree, but his solution is grim and wayward. ‘Get out,’ he says, ‘as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.’

The way to make global progress is not by abstaining from living in committed relationship, but by being boldly involved. For most of us, love will not be particularly heroic or newsworthy, but will be made up of small daily kindnesses, like breakfast on a tray. But even these most basic acts are mother­-and-father to new beginnings: they warm hearts till stone turns to flesh. Any kindness communicates the stuff of God, and that’s why Mother’s Day matters. I pray you’ll have a good one, whatever your circumstances.