It wasn’t clear when Pilate asked that question more than two thousand years ago. It’s even less easy to answer it today when we can all have our own ‘truth’ if we wish. We’ve seen for a long time how feelings trump facts. This can make for confusion and in some cases lead to roaring farce. More worryingly, it has lead to people losing their jobs, Jordan Peterson for one, because what they might say could offend the feelings of people who believe a different truth.
The trouble with believing ‘my’ truth is that sooner or later I will come up with people who are convinced by a different truth and then all hell can break lose.
The Duchess of Sussex illustrated this beautifully during her interview with Oprah Winfrey. She told Oprah she and Harry had been married three days before the official wedding, by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
She wasn’t lying. That was ‘her’ truth and she sincerely believed it. She is a shy, private person and she couldn’t bear the thought of exchanging her marriage vows in front of millions throughout the world on TV. So she asked Archbishop Welby if she and Harry could have a private ceremony, in the garden of their home, away from even the prying eyes of the staff.
The trouble was, that statement, like the official wedding, was made in front of a global audience. Many of the people watching knew that, at the very simplest, an Anglican wedding needs five people — the couple, the priest and two witnesses. The witnesses can be anyone, unknown but willing people passing in the street, but they must be in attendance, to sign the register and legalise the ceremony. Oh, and it has to be on licensedpremises!
The statement wasn’t really a lie; she just mis-spoke. That is bound to happen often when ‘my’ truth gets muddled up with ‘your’ truth. The important thing is that Meghan and Harry were legally married in a sacred place by a properly ordained minister before two witnesses, the bride’s mother and the Prince of Wales.
Pilate would probably have been perfectly satisfied with that outcome. No need for any hand washing.
Tomorrow is Good Friday. Many Christians will spend at least an hour in church, meditating, reflecting and praying. That will be a golden opportunity to ponder on how closely our own truths correspond with God’s eternal truths.
Sometimes a simple story appears in the newspapers that stops you in your tracks
This is a photo of six year old Siddak Singh Jhamat of Walsall, who was given a fossil hunting kit for Christmas. He was digging for worms and bits of pottery last week when he dug up something that looked like a piece of horn. The fossil markings showed that it was a Rugosa coral that existed between 251 to 488 million years in the Paleozoic Era.
That means it could be as much as 268 million years older than the dinosaur footprint found in January by a four year old girl called Lily Wilder, in Barry, South Wales.
488 million years! That is really, truly old. Certainly makes my 83 years less than the blink of an eye. There’s no way I can get my head round that. How does anyone even begin to count in such numbers? However, it is a very helpful subject for Christians in Holy Week. At least, it is if you think about it in relation to God. God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, and also of dinosaurs and rugosa corals.
I’ve thought for a long time that over the last 60 years we’ve been cutting God down to size. Just as quietly and plausibly, we’ve been turning His Son, Jesus Christ, into more of a human and less a God. Worse than that, into something closer to a universal social worker.
There are many reasons for this but two trends stand out. We — human beings — are getting cleverer and cleverer. Forget the Moon; we’re now considering the possibility of package tours of space and colonies on Mars. That may not be a good idea, given the bad press ‘colonialisation’ has been getting, for all the harm it’s done in the past. I don’t think it’s a very good idea at all, until we learn to take our rubbish home with us!
Medically we work daily miracles compared with what we could achieve even 20 or 30 years ago. It’s taken a global pandemic to show us that we’re not quite as all conquering as we were beginning to think. You will be able to think of many other examples of human brilliance.
Psychologically, we have also cut God down to size because we have convinced ourselves that we, you and I as individual human beings, are getting pretty god-like all on our own.
We used to have two sexes but now you can claim to be one of up to 100 different genders. If you don’t like being a woman become a man instead. Anything is possible. What you feel is what you are.
As a child I used to have it dinned into me by my parents that things were either right or wrong and I had to learn to accept responsibility for my own actions. Now my own truth can prove – at least to my satisfaction – that nothing is my fault. I am a victim.
Consequently, just as I become more and more god-like, God has inevitably shrunk down to a manageable size. These days we think He is only too happy to go along with what we want and the Bishops are happily re-writing the rule book.
Then along comes a bit of coral which is estimated to be 488 million years old. That rather puts the Almighty Creator God into perspective, don’t you think. He hasn’t changed in all those years. He has said so and we really ought to believe him.
Psalm 8.v4 What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, followed by Good Friday; both days for meditation and contemplation and a perfect time to reflect on How Great Thou Art, my God.
For readers outside the United Kingdom, I should explain about “Blue Peter”. The Blue Peter is a flag. It was flown from a ship in harbour to show that it was about to leave port and sail away. In 1958 it became the name of what has become the longest running children’s TV programme in the world.
It was a well-chosen name. The programme aimed to sail the children watching it into other worlds outside the often severe limits of their own sitting rooms. It offered not only more exotic adventures, exiting everyday situations and an amazing number of things to do and make out of any oddments you might have cluttering up the house. Re-cycling, then in its infancy, took over where the “make do and mend” of the wartime years left off”
Animals, particularly cats and dogs joined the TV family to such an extent that John Noakes and Shep became household names. All sorts of animals made regular visits or became part of the family as pet-less children learned the ins and outs of animal care, and coped with mourning when well-loved characters died. There were all sorts of animals as well, including a turtle who joined the show regularly for 14 years. Then there was the visit of a baby elephant. That was the time the programme “went viral” in today’s parlance, when – to put it politely – if the elephant had been wearing a nappy/diaper he would have filled it!
What has Blue Peter to do with Lent? Several things. Like Lent it opened windows to new thoughts and ideas and shone light into hitherto dark, even frightening, places and situations. On a much lighter level it introduced a time honoured phrase that has entered the language. After cutting up plastic bottles, sticking yoghurt pots together, winding string or ribbon around this and that, one or other of the presenters would produce the finished item, securely glued, standing firm and true, and proudly announce, “Here’s one I made earlier.”
I wonder how many “Here’s one (of whatever it may be) I made earlier,” there will be as a result of the Dean of Canterbury’s Lent Project? Poems, prayers, paintings, crafty items or even a Fairy Liquid rocket! Above is my latest effort. A leaf of aloe vera and a sprig of a jade tree.
And here are two I made earlier! Just look at the way the Aloe Vera is sprouting new plants all around the original leaf.
I did think of calling this blog “Shush”. It’s a word I use a lot because, even when sitting side by side, my granddaughters, aged 7 and 9, speak to each other in modified roars, as if still trying to communicate across a crowded classroom.
Three word slogans are popular at the moment. Did Archbishop Justin Welby start it with his wish that the Anglican church should be ‘Simpler, Humbler, Bolder”? Last Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent, Canon Philip Ursell, in an open church in Cardiff, St Martin’s in Roath, in his sermon, suggested the three words of the title — Silence, Study, Service — as a good guide for Lent.
Silence is perhaps the last thing people want to hear at the moment when so many are living in lonely isolation, listening to the radio, watching TV and talking to the wall. However, it caught my attention because I have been watching three programmes late evening on BBC Channel 4. ‘Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery’. These programmes seemed to take silence to another level; not just lack of sound but something positive.
Have you ever been in an anechoic chamber? That’s the place to experience an utter and complete absence of sound. Alone in one, in the dark, I found it a terrifying experience. I ended up feeling my pulse and concentrating on my breath to reassure myself I was still alive!
Silence, in these monasteries, is the reverse. Apart from praying and singing in chapel and readings from The Rule of St Benedict during meals no one spoke. But it wasn’t just the lack of talk. I found myself listening to every other sound. The flip flop of sandaled feet in the long tiled corridors, the rattle of plates, the thump of kneading dough. Even a dripping tap and the slurp of honey filling a jar.
Study is a part of a monk’s daily life as is service. All kinds of service from the most humdrum tasks like cooking and cleaning to the beautiful work of an iconographer and a rosary maker. Some monks make their own clothes, others use carpentry, both creatively and DIY. One nice touch — the baker monk walked out into a wood to pick wild garlic, which he took back to the kitchen, pounded to a paste in a pestle and mortar, and created garlic butter.
I found myself more and more drawn in to this Silence. No radio, no TV, no chitchat. Every task provided an opportunity for mindfulness and prayerfulness. The value of concentration was palpable. So much so, that as I watched a young monk filling the thurible with charcoal tablets sprinkled with frankincense I thought I could smell the incense.
I wouldn’t want to be without my hearing aids. I would miss the chatter around the supper table as we catch up on the day; I can still remember getting my first aid and suddenly hearing bird song. When noise gets too much I can cheat and take them out. Then it goes quieter. But it doesn’t come close to the profound and potent silence of the monastery.
“One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth,” said Dorothy Frances Gurney. That’s an encouraging thought for people who love gardens but, actually, it isn’t strictly true. It’s one of those sweet, sentimental fallacies that can creep too easily into sweet, sentimental ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ type Christianity, as opposed to the ‘Jesus shaped’ Anglicanism that Archbishop Welby is now advocating. That is something much tougher and more honest, and truly joyful rather than merely happy.
Something else that isn’t true, though the bishops have been emphasising it during Lockdown, is the fact that we don’t need our churches, nor our cathedrals. I beg your pardon, bishops; you are wrong! I know perfectly well that God, being everywhere, doesn’t need man-made buildings — but we do. I certainly do.
I can say my prayers at the kitchen table, just as Justin Welby offered the Eucharist in his kitchen last Easter. I don’t need a Vicar and I don’t need to be ‘ashed’. I don’t need pews, an altar, a lectern or a pulpit. But I do appreciate being able to sit in a Sacred Space where quiet souls have been praying and repeating the psalms and meditating at least weekly for several centuries. I don’t see visions and I don’t hear voices but I can sense an atmosphere of holy peace in the silence.
Another thing that many of us are missing keenly is the singing. In our Welsh church we have several members of various local choirs in the congregation so the singing is pretty special. But it’s not just the music. The words matter mightily. With simple words and memorable tunes we repeat the words of Scripture until they are engraved on our hearts.
This morning was a case in point. As one of the Dean of Canterbury’s “garden congregation” I listened to Psalm 87 v3. and 1 Timothy 6 v 12 and knew what they had inspired. Even just reading these hymns and singing them in your head, in the church porch or at the kitchen sink, you learn a lot of the Gospels by heart without even realising it. Which is a very good way to begin Lent.
The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury was on Premier Christian Radio today. During the interview he announced his new Jesus-shaped vision for the church in 2021. (I presume he was talking about the Church of England.) In the light of all he has learned since the start of the pandemic he has come up with the slogan “Simpler, Humbler, Bolder.”
Thank God for that, say I! It’s been a long time coming but simplicity, humility and boldness in the Anglican church will be warmly welcomed by many, if not most congregations
I will particularly welcome simplicity for a start because I have just been struggling with some more of the “Living in Love and Faith” document, produced by an assortment of bishops and others. When it came out at the beginning of November last year I tried to read the summary and then wrote an unpublished blog called ‘Loads and loads of flannel’. That tells you what I thought of it at the time.
Recently, being housebound, I have been making another attempt to get to grips with ‘Living in Love and Faith.’ That is until I got to the following sentence:
“Secure in its roots, the Christian understanding of marriage has been sufficiently supple to respond to changing cultures, and suitably rich in meaning to allow God’s gift to be received in different ages, even if its purposes have been lived out with greater clarity at some times more than others.”
Apart from being 50 words long it’s also overloaded with too many polysyllabic words. You don’t find many 50 word sentences in the Gospels. I would suggest the Archbishop begins, immediately (eufous), re-reading St Mark.
I’m still not quite sure what, exactly, the writers were trying to say. Perhaps that was the whole point. In fact, I think the whole of ‘LLF’ is a skilful mixture of gobbledegook and flannel, continuing the softening-up process until we all accept Same Sex Marriage as part of God’s new plan.
At least the six bishops in the Church in Wales, always ready to jump on any passing band wagon, seem to have taken up two bits of Justin Welby’s slogan even before he announced it. In the past I have often found them too lily-livered, slightly pompous and skilled in the art of obfuscation. Just before Christmas, simply and boldly they announced: A Bill to Authorise Experimental Use of Proposed Revisions of the Book of Common Prayer.
They blithely acknowledge that Scripture and Christian tradition have previously believed marriage to be between a man and a woman.
“However,” they say, “with new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries, we believe that same-sex relationships can be understood in a radically different way, and that the teaching of Scripture should therefore be re-interrogated.”
On second thoughts, with a sentence of 42 words, nine of which have three or more syllables, perhaps they are not expressing themselves as simply as all that. It is a bold sentence at any rate.
I’d welcome humble, too. As many readers of my blog will know I am opposed to Same Sex marriage in church. I’m afraid to say I have met with no humility on that subject. Far from finding “good disagreement” the LGBT+ Chaplain of this diocese takes the attitude ‘like it or lump it.’ Regretfully, I have had to lump it because no one even wants to engage in any sort of discussion with me; nor wish to find out why I think the way I do.
Lastly, Bolder. Oh, please! At least allow the bold ones amongst us to go into Church during Lent to pray (behind masks) and praise (internally) and meditate together if we promise to sanitise our hands and stay two metres apart. Well, distancing won’t be difficult, given the size of our church and the tiny number in the congregation.
Since some cathedrals have been open for vaccinations, complete with organ recitals, there shouldn’t be any reason to prevent spiritual vaccination as well. I, for one, definitely benefit from a god-shot occasionally.
At last, Justin Welby has spoken out in praise of the wonderful Dean of Canterbury. Dr Robert Willis now has 40,000 tuning in to his on-line services of Morning Prayer, which he has been holding in his garden every single morning since lockdown began.
I hope his Grace watches the programme; he’d learn a lot. However, he made one mistake. He mentions the Dean’s cats and other animals who “kept on making un-invited appearances.” Nonsense. The cats all come and go as they please — they are in their own home, after all. Tiger, the three legged cat (he lost a leg to cancer a few months ago) is the only cat especially invited by the Dean to accompany him when he takes shelter from the rain in a greenhouse. All the other birds and animals are invited in and often given breakfast.
Most actors will tell you never to work with children or animals. There’s certainly no room for pomposity or arrogance when you’re surrounded by Winston, Clemmie and their seven little pigs. It was an incredibly bold idea to think of sitting in a garden, surrounded by a menagerie, and simply preach the Gospel, straight to camera with barely a note. His message is delivered with simplicity. And the Dean, no mean musician and hymn writer himself, frequently emphasises the joy of simple songs and poems. Gospel stories and psalms, translated into simple songs and poems, are easy to learn by heart and remain forever in your memory. The amount of interesting information the Dean slips in is impressive. He was the one who taught me (and I bet many others) the word eufous and thanks to him I now know the correct way to pronounce ‘pericope’. (I’d been saying perry-cope.)
Simpler, humbler, bolder. Yes, Archbishop. We’re with you, and the dear Dean, every step of the way.
Bishops: I seem to spend quite a lot of time thinking about them, probably because most of them are a complete enigma to me. Why do they want the position in the first place, I wonder. Status? Power? Gorgeous robes? People to answer their letters.* I asked a friendly cleric: “Bigger pensions” was his cynical response.
Small can be beautiful at all sorts of times and for all sorts of reasons. Think of the Anglican church for example. It has around 80 million members, give or take those like me, who can’t make up their minds whether Anglican Bishops still preach the same Gospel I have believed in for the last 80 years. That Church has 77 Archbishops, with the Most Revd Justin Welby at the top, (first amongst equals) and 706 Bishops. Thinking about all that lot as individuals is way too much. So let me restrict myself to just the Church in Wales so that it can become much more manageable.
In Wales we have five bishops and one Archbishop, who has just announced his retirement next May. It was this announcement that turned my mind to the subject of Bishops in general and Welsh ones in particular.
Dr Rowan Williams, a Welsh speaking Welshman, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, the first to be appointed from outside the Church of England in modern times. But he is something of an exception.
Lord Williams of Oystermouth, as he is now, gained a starred First in Theology at Cambridge followed by a D.PHil and a DD from Oxford. He then joined the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, Yorkshire, where he both trained and lectured, before returning to Cambridge as a lecturer in Divinity, and where he was ordained in 1976. He returned to Oxford as Professor of Divinity before becoming Bishop of Monmouth in 1991 and Archbishop of Wales eight years later.
First Class degrees in Theology used to be quite normal amongst bishops in years gone by, but nowadays it’s rare to find a bishop with a degree in theology at all. Certainly, the Church in Wales bishops have studied several different subjects but theology doesn’t come high in the list, if indeed it is there at all.
The next Archbishop of Wales will most likely be one of the remaining five and rather than being ‘chosen’ it seems more probable that it will a case of Buggin’s Turn or the next most senior bishop.
That will be Bishop Andy of Bangor who was consecrated in 2008. He was born in Wales, has learnt a sort of Welsh and read Law in Cardiff but then studied Theology for two years and Pastoral Studies for a year in Nottingham. He is divorced from his first wife and has recently remarried one of his divorcée priests. He is also a champion of Same Sex Marriage.
Next in line would be Bishop Gregory of St Asaph (c.2009) who is alleged to be the most ‘orthodox’. Born in Wales but not into a Welsh speaking family, his first degree was in Law, at Oxford. Then he studied theology at Cambridge and spent a year at the now defunct St Michael’s College in Wales. He has one wife (a Roman Catholic) and three sons. He, too, is a great champion of SSM.
The next three bishops are all much more recent appointments but on the other hand they are all women which may give them a great advantage.
Dr Joanna Penberthy was appointed Bishop of St David’s in 2013. She was born in Wales though she is not a native Welsh speaker. She has a BA from Cambridge but information about her doesn’t say in what subject so I am guessing it wasn’t in Theology. She trained for the ministry in the evangelical Cranmer Hall, in Durham but her recent PhD (2019) degree was in Quantum Physics. She is married to a Vicar and has one grandchild.
In 2017 Revd June Osborne was appointed Bishop of Llandaff in Cardiff having been Dean of Salisbury. She is described as a “ground breaking” figure — perhaps because she is not from Wales and speaks no Welsh and her degree, from Manchester, is in Social Sciences. She, too, trained for the ministry in Nottingham and Cambridge and was a great committee member. She is married to a barrister.
Finally, the Rt Revd Cherry Vann was appointed Bishop of Monmouth in 2020. She is a graduate of the Royal Schools of Music and trained for the Ministry at Westcott House in Cambridge. Before arriving in Wales she had no connection with the country or the culture whatsoever but she at least broke new ground by being the first lesbian bishop in a partnered same sex relationship.
I’m sorry to sound so negative about these five people. I am sure they are exceptional human beings with all sorts of skills and talents and strengths that allow them to go about their daily lives lovingly and effectively. They undoubtedly run their offices and committees and finances much more efficiently than many of those saintly bishops of old; but they are not steeped in scripture, and they lack the deep fundamental biblical knowledge that would allow them to make wise judgements in a modern world.
I am dismissive of all of these Welsh bishops for a very good reason. Despite their limited qualifications and their tiny congregations they seem to think they have some God-given right to re-write the Prayer Book in favour of same sex marriages in church in the sight of God. They have been trying to force this on reluctant parishes for many years, most recently with —“A Bill to Authorise Experimental Use of Proposed Revisions of the Book of Common Prayer” at the end of December. Despite the tremendous opposition in the Anglican Church throughout the world these few Bishops seem to think their learning and understanding trumps the wisdom of the ages.
There is something vital here that these bishops, and many others like them, cannot understand. While telling themselves they are fighting a faith war they are merely engaged in a culture war. They have actually changed sides and it is a tragedy for all of us that this has happened.
*The Bishop of Llandaff, in these straightened times, has just appointed someone to “process correspondence.” I’d like to assume that meant answering letters, except that the clergy don’t do that any more!
“Rage, raged against the dying of the light.” Dylan Thomas
I posted a blog in January 2019 with the title “I love curry . . .” In it, I ranted on about the inadequacy of the English word ‘love’.
I also explained why Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the USA didn’t love Bishop William Love of the Diocese of Albany in the USA. The issue was Same Sex Marriages, which Bishop Love does not believe in.
Bishop Love’s problem is that the General Convention (the TEC equivalent of General Synod) has moved the goalposts since he promised in his Ordination Vows to respect the Discipline and Worship of the Church. They have re-written the Prayer Book to include the marriage of a couple of the same sex. The crafty Convention, suspecting there might be some dissent, put in a get-out clause – Resolution B012. This lets a progressive bishop move in and cope with SSMs in a diocese where the orthodox bishop disagrees. They clearly think they have bent over backwards to accommodate any bigoted bishops there may be. There were a few but they have either knuckled down or left. Therefore, Bishop Curry has been intensely irritated by Bishop Love’s intransigence.
I hoped the final outcome would demonstrate that “good disagreement” was a genuine, honest concept and that it was possible for the ‘new ideas’ and the ‘traditional’ to continue to exist in the broad, Anglican Church. However, I didn’t hold out much hope.Now it has been made abundantly clear. ‘Good Disagreement’ means you don’t have to do something which you know is wrong but you have to stand by while someone does it in your place.
It’s taken TEC nearly two years to judge Bishop Love guilty as charged, and he now awaits the verdict. I expect they were hoping, maybe even praying, that he would go over to the ACNA. Better still, that he would give in after a token fight. But Bishop Love is made of sterner stuff and lives up to his name. No Jayne Ozanne “Just Love” for him. He believes that “marriage” is between a man and woman — just like it says in the Bible; in the Gospels; in Lambeth 1.10; and in the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the equivalent of C of E Common Worship. All of which he believes in.
I don’t know what punishment Bishop Love will receive nor what he will do in the future, but I pray for him. He is a brave and honest man.
Does it matter to us, over here? Of course it does. The wily Archbishop Welby is a firm supporter of the Episcopal Church in the US. He was over there quite recently preaching in one of their great cathedrals, and he has no intention of having Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church of North America anywhere near the next Lambeth Conference.
I checked with a wise clerical friend: “Could Synod re-write the book of Common Worship over here?”
“Of course they could. They could abolish the Nicene Creed if they felt like it.”
I always seem to be ranting about bishops, but I also complain about shoddy service, low standards and a ‘whatever’ attitude. I’m sure, since that catastrophic decision to lock all churches, the bishops have been scurrying around, wondering how to pick up the shattered pieces. They have certainly succeeded in turning many of their clergy into successful on-line technocrats though some of the more meditative and spiritual priests may be finding it hard to cope.
Perhaps, rejecting modern methods, those have been reaching their parishioners by that good old fashioned gadget — the telephone. A voice-to-voice call could be every bit as effective as screeds of written pious thoughts.
Of course they’ve gone on working in as weird a world as we are all living in and I’m not blaming them when they appear to be less than firing on all cylinders. That’s the way it is.No matter how much we train or practice some of us rarely come first and ‘I did my best’ sadly, may rarely be ‘good enough’.
The bishop of my diocese wrote in his last newsletter about “Patient Endurance”, an attitude of faith which is described in several places in the New Testament.
He quoted verses from Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, and a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.”
I have been hanging on to those words through thick and thin although, in my case it wasn’t so much the earth being moved that worried as me, Imyself, being moved! I was turned, every three hours, day and night, to save me from pressure sores, from the moment I got on to Ward 227. Initially it took five nurses to move me, without causing any damage to my spine but after a while one nurse and I could manage together. I used to complain that I felt like a sausage being turned to brown nicely on all sides.
The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, took a similar line when he spoke at his diocesan conference last month. He didn’t mention ‘patient endurance’ but he focussed on the humility and gentleness of Christ. The only sort of Christ who appeals to the Woke Brigade.
“This is the kind of leadership which draws alongside people . . . liberates the gifts of others. . which does not overwhelm. . . the leadership of gentleness and tenderness and patience.
“The humility of Christ is not weakness, finally, but strength, tenacity and determination to effect change for the sake of the kingdom of God, stepping into difficulties to seek to resolve them, not stepping away. But that strength, determination and power will need to be mediated through humility as we face the challenges ahead.There will need to be a great deal of listening as we explore how best to re-open our churchesThere will need to be a great deal of listening, especially, as we seek to rebuild our ministries.
I’m sorry, Bishop Steven, but in the present state of our nation that is nowhere nearly good enough.
For five long weeks in Stoke I watched what was going on around me.
Outside the NHS I doubt you’ll find that amount of getting alongside people anywhere. Everything from high tech procedures and highly skilled techniques to the most fundamental care. There are amazing machines that can detect everything going on in your inner body but only a person, male or female, black or white, young or old, can get right alongside you to cope, with complete empathy, with a ‘below the waist waste’ problem. The same people will grip your hand and breathe deeply with you when pain becomes intolerable and get together to make you laugh when you’re feeling blue.
That’s how NHS staff are. That’s how the Bishop of Oxford wants us to be. That’s how, as Christians, we’d all like to be within our own talents.
Sadly, gentleness and humility are NOT enough. Nothing like enough anymore, because the Christian foundations of our country have been destroyed. As well as love and understanding and commitment NHS staff have years of training. Do we? Do we read our Bibles, study theology, and discuss our beliefs? When we do get alongside someone do we know what to say? Do we dare to say it? Would Christ’s miracles have been enough without his words.
In my weeks in hospital I had plenty of time to think and pray. But there was one person missing.
On the first Sunday I was at pretty low ebb. I was alert and fully conscious but a bit befuddled with drugs and I couldn’t remember my prayers. I even had to have several goes at the Lord’s Prayer before I got through it without getting muddled. So I asked if I could see the Chaplain, but s/he didn’t come. When I asked again a week later one of the nurses told me a chaplain might be able to pop up on Wednesday. They didn’t. There was something called a Faith Centre — I saw on a trip to X ray — but there was no clue as to what it might really be. Three more Sundays went by, plus all the other days in a week, but I never saw sight or sound of anyone claiming to be a cleric.
They are scared of Covid19 of course. Probably all the rest of the staff were, too, though I never heard the word mentioned. I had a broken neck not a virus. In any case, as a hospital Chaplain — a paid appointment, not a volunteer job — shouldn’t they try to rise above their fears of the virus, don the necessary PPE and trust in the Lord for the sake of the sick?
The Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury, has been lifting my spirits, restoring my soul and making me feel far less of a Misfit every day since just after lockdown. The team at Canterbury Cathedral who appear daily on line from various places around the cathedral precincts provide Morning and Evening Prayer as well as the Eucharist and Compline. However, it’s the Dean who has stolen my heart.
Every morning, no matter what chaos has been caused getting the day started — six of us in a three generation family, plus two puppies — the Dean, in his garden, gives me sanity, security and the assurance that God is in his Heaven and all’s right with the world, really. With consummate skill, he draws together the reading for the day, the needs of the day, a special person or event of the day and the wonders of the Deanery garden in a particular spot every day. All these elements are woven into the fabric of Morning Prayer, directly, simply and with eternal truth.
On Wednesday morning I found it unusually powerful. The reading was Luke, Chapter 7 vv. 2-10.
It is a story about a Roman officer in an army of occupation and his sick servant. However, the soldier, a Centurion, is a man of wisdom and understanding. Far from being a hated enemy he has taken a keen interest in the local people, their culture and religion and has even built a place in which they can worship their God. He also keeps abreast of local affairs and has the sensitivity to listen when he hears of a remarkable man doing remarkable things. As a man of authority he recognises authority in another.
As the Dean tells the story it is all about Faith. Jesus himself says as much. “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Even as I was listening to the Dean amongst the irises the memory of another sermon on this story was bugging me. At the same time, as I tried to concentrate on the prayers, two words from a poem were buzzing in my brain. ‘Fools’ and ‘traps.’
Later, over a cup of coffee, my brain cleared and I remembered both the elusive sermon and the poem. The sermon had been given in Liverpool Cathedral by Revd Jeffrey John in May 2016 and the poem was “If” by Rudyard Kipling.
After a lot of history about homosexuality in the Roman Army the point of Dr John’s sermon was not faith, but, because Jesus would have known the Centurion’s servant was gay, proof that Jesus loves gays.
Here is the bit of the poem I was remembering:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools . . .”
What I remember now of Dr John’s sermon was a complex convolution by an angry man. I still find those two lines of poetry most apt.*
Long may the Dean, in the company of his cats, continue to preach wisdom and faith amongst the flowers.
UPDATE Saturday, 23rd May
Oh, Joy! This morning the Dean was in the Wild conservation part of the garden. And we had pigs!
They are called Winnie and Clemmie, in honour of Sir Winston Churchill. He liked pigs. Cats, he said, look down on you and dogs look up to you but pigs look you in the eye. As well as the garden and the animals I also appreciate the fact that the Dean wears a cassock. No casual mufti for him. He is a priest, he looks like a priest and as a priest he looks you in the eye.
*I blogged about this sermon in a blog entitled “More than just good friends” on June 11th 2016