Bishops. Lukewarm, Apathetic or Missing the Point?

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, I myself, 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 Bishop of Oxford

“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.

Royal Stoke University Hospital

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?

Faith not Angst

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.

The Dean of Canterbuy, the Reverend Robert Willis in the greenhouse in the Deanery Garden

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.

The Dean among the irises – May 20th, 2020

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.’

The Dean with his cat.

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