On the 0832 from Paddington to West Ealing. Various announcements, including an interesting variant on the now all-too-common ‘if you see anything suspicious call the Transport Police: See it. Say it. Sorted’. This is usually said over the London Underground's PA system in a bit of a ‘cor blimey’ voice. Today, on the overground service from Paddington, it was more Hyacinth Bucket. And it was slightly different in detail: If you see something you not happy about, contact the…’. I was looking out of the window at the time, at a c1970s brutalist sky-grabbing tower block, feeling sympathetic to the poor sods living in it. I was not happy about it. Taking the good woman at her word, I got on the blower….
For some years I have played with the idea of SSM (unpaid/volunteer) clergy and their stipendiary (paid clergy) friends meeting from time-to-time in the upper room of a pub where we might experiment with – learn to hold – conversations. The working title for this gathering was to be ‘Chapter & Verse’. It would be an Undergroud Seminary of sorts. There’d be none of the popular ‘theological expert’ speaker stuff followed by questions; instead we’d seek new ways of sharing knowledge, learning from one another, caring for one another, seeking God and reading the signs of the times. We’d aim to retake theology back from the academy and the ‘experts’ (or at least from its specialised annexation from our lived lives) and seek to learn afresh what it means to be stewards of the mysteries of God as Paul rather invitingly puts it [1 Cor 4:1].
Can I attempt a summary? I love so much about life and the world. I am often moved by responses within me which can be captured by the words awe, compassion, reverence and wonder. In equal measure I experience horror, shame, fear and contempt. I can be very patient in some settings, very impatient in others. I know moments of wonderful peace, and moments of an internal rage. I am largely unmoved by many plays, novels and popular drama, finding them all less interesting than the drama I experience life to be.
Mission and Vision Statements are a boil on humanity's backside. I keep meaning to collect some of the more ridiculous examples often sighted on vans, letterheads and websites. Churches have fallen prey to them, too. But new to me are post-dated offerings. Spotted one today, from a church in the UK: "Our vision statement: We believe that in five years time, God is calling St [X]’s to be a vibrant, welcoming presence seeking justice and serving the community by offering friendship, hospitality and worship." One shouldn't rush these things.
I've been re-reading some of William Stringfellow; always a provocation and inspiration. One such text: "I continue to be haunted by the ironic impression that I may have to renounce being a lawyer, the better to be an advocate" (1) What shakes me rather about this is its closeness to something I have said several times to friends and which I have far more often thought to myself over the years: that for some church people there may come a time when it may be necessary to distance oneself from the institution the better to apprehend the Gospel. Put more simply still: necessary to leave the institution the better to follow the Nazarene. I suspect this sense, dilemma even, is more common than we might think, and might especially afflict professional Christians (clergy, monks and nuns; who knows, even bishops). It can be a lonely position to be in.
When I have said this, some hearers look highly nonplussed. Such is the correlation in our minds of church and Gospel. Others are interested in the underlying assumptions. Some understand exactly. And 'church' here means the institutional form, not the status of being part of the church by virtue of baptism.
(1) William Stringfellow, "A Lawyer's Work", Christian Legal Society Quarterly 3, No 3 (1982)
'Ageing is a privilege, not a predicament' (Attributed to Martin Firrell). Too many friends have died in the last year or so, and it has depleted me. Some of them were 'getting on' as they say: John was in his 80s, another John his 90s, Dick and Bill were up there too. Joe went early, in his 70s and soon after retirement. Colette in her 50s. The death of those we know and care for takes a toll. It is not just the loss of access to them, of their being there. More chilling is the ferocity of the question that arises by the fact that they no longer exist. For how is that to be lived with? We usually do, of course. But it remains: how could that astonishing composite of a unique and loved person no longer exist?
Come, ye thankful people, come, / Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in, / Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide / For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God's own temple, come; / Raise the song of harvest home!
I was driving to the next village for the paper and some provisions when BBC R4 started its Harvest Festival Sunday Worship. I've always had a sense that the broadcasting of church services does not really work. To say its like overhearing other people having sex isn't quite the thing, but has a hint of it. In both cases, I'm happy for them, but don't wish to be an aural partner to the proceedings. And whereas the latter don't (usually) want you to hear, and are not addressing you as an attendant third party, the church gig is addressed to you. They are polite and welcoming, as if you were visiting their house.
Church services are alien events to the majority. The players in broadcast services tend to be keen to talk of welcome (fair enough of course) and also of the ever-present God with whom they are on intimate terms. A common ploy, I've noticed, is to talk of their church buildings as where 'prayer is valid' (cf. T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding) and where the very walls are saturated with it. The implied message is that God appears to be domiciled in churches, and one is left with the impression may not often venture out. But the Gospel is not concerned with what happens inside churches, but what one makes of life in light of the claims and accounts of the man Jesus. And when did you last hear a church service broadcast that featured intelligent, sharp accounts from faithful lay Christians about being the church beyond the building?
Looking back, I'm astonished how little I was taught about money. Of course, I remember the stuff about compound interest but otherwise my formal education (and informal for that matter) was silent about things like debt (and the cost of debt) and the options for reaching financial independence at the earliest opportunity. The expectation was mortgage (30 years+) and gainful employment until retirement age (40 years+). Then a few years ago I stumbled on the so-called FIRE community (Financial Independence Retire Early). Its an amazing source of ordinary wisdom about alternatives to these taken-as-gospel shackles of human existence.
To a large extent I made these discoveries too late (already a 30+ year mortgage, though now paid off). But I have benefited by discovering ways of investing at low cost, and of discovering the often hidden or at least camouflaged fees that the so-called financial services 'industry' siphon off (a modern day scandal).
So go exploring: try Mr Money Mustache's blog (USA), The Escape Artist (UK) and PensionCraft. And more here about other FIRE sites. Don't be put off. Starting early is the great thing. Spread the word.
EPICUREAN 4 FOLD REMEDY The ancients took memorizing maxims very seriously: it was viewed as a first-rate spiritual exercise for moving principles into one’s character. The Epicureans, for instance, boiled down their entire philosophy into the famous fourfold remedy, which students could easily recall whenever they were faced with difficult situations:
The gods are not to be feared,
Death is not to be dreaded,
What is good is easy to acquire,
What is bad is easy to bear.
I knew about Montaigne’s Cat. Now, Murphy (the Dog) teaches me about prayer and living. Strange how these things happen. He lives entirely in the present moment; he never bears a grudge; he is capable of devoting his entire attention to a single phenomenon – a toy, a scent, a breeze, me. We go for a walk and he is light as a feather, free of earthly care. I almost shuffle along, unconsciously carrying with me the accumulated worries, regrets, anxieties of the tangled mind. Combining the walk with the Office of Evening Prayer I silently intone ‘O Lord, open thou my lips..’ but without much joy. Murphy jaunts ahead and every step betokens delight. His gait provides the response ..and our mouths shall proclaim your praise’.
It is simply amazing how organised religion can bugger up prayer. It is not just the often sterile content. The sheer quantity of it is distressing. Endless, endless words.
I am an admirer of the American William Stringfellow (1928-1985). On prayer he writes: “The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations. That is not only the case with the obscene performances, which pass as public prayer, at inaugurations, in locker rooms, before Rotary luncheons, and in many churchly sanctuaries, but also the practice of private prayer is attended by gross profanity, the most primitive superstitions, and sentimentality which is truly asinine…. When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance” (A Second Birthday, pp. 99, 108-9).
And not unrelated, a recently found comment on prayer by A J Heschel: "The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods" [my emphasis].
'Committed suicide' or 'took her own life' rather than, plainly and more accurately, 'ended her life'. And 'lost his faith' rather than simply, and again quite possibly more accurately, 'stopped believing', or even 'gained new understanding' or even simply 'changed his mind'. I have an amateur's interest in language and especially turns of phrase, and these examples, in their common form, irritate me, as does 'committed Christian' (rendered useless by association with the fervent end of things) and 'self-confessed this or that'.
John died at the very end of 2017. He has been a friend and an inspiration. He is properly described as a worker-priest and he realised that unusual calling to a far greater extent than most of today's self-supporting priests. His experience of selling his labour (he worked for most of his life in Truman's Brewery on East London's Brick Lane) eventually made the church, as conventionally understood, a difficult environment in which to operate. This is an extract from a 2010 document John wrote, and recalls something of the tension he felt and the challenges he squared up to, as well as the clarity of his thought.
"So my quarrel with the Church is not at the level of this evidently fascinating, but unproductive issue of "whether there is a God" or not. It is, rather, about the claim of the Christian religion to represent Jesus and the "values" and norms of the "Kingdom of God" which he embodied and served. This is not a new complaint. But, perhaps for any Christian such as myself, who has always wanted to know how to devote himself more genuinely, there's a natural "term" to the business of being committed to an association which, in effect, trivializes its own awesome objectives and speaks so relentlessly in a language nobody else can understand.
In case anyone is interested (after all, someone reading this may well ask "What's the big deal? why all these words, only to arrive where so many of our contemporaries have long since ended up?) the question I feel obliged to face is: in the short time that remains to me, how am I to fulfil the obligation to Jesus and his "Kingdom of God" which I am unable to shake off despite my repudiation of the Church's theology? Certainly I cannot pretend that the Church has no value or never comes near to the Kingdom of God. The churches are often to be found doing, with a good will, the things which, as Jesus said, ought not to be left undone.
Perhaps the same sort of claim could be made for the many movements of protest that are available. Should I not be content with the opportunities of the present times for political involvement? My natural commitment is to the anti-war, anti-nuclear (power as well as bomb), anti-imperialist movements. I share the widespread revulsion against what amounts to a Zionist hegemony in Palestine. There is no end to 'progressive' causes and to aspects of the campaign to deal adequately with global warming. These sorts of commitment were associated, in the past, with the socialist hope. Why should I not be wholehearted about one or more of them now?
It may be because I have come to see that protest inevitably implies a sort of self-righteousness. Who can honestly face the dubiousness of his own self-interest – the possibility that there are grounds for surrendering the privileges and securities by which he makes himself irreproachable as an independent citizen? In fact, it is precisely as an "independent" citizen that I might, for example, come forward to protest that others should not lack the same sort of amenities as I enjoy. But, when it came to the crunch, how much would I allow my security to be threatened by the consequences of this kind of advocacy?
So, knowing myself, I am not likely to abandon altogether either the Church or my favourite causes. However, I am on the lookout for some better way of (and some deeper reserve of courage for) affirming the Good News than "by word and sacrament", or by public demonstration - some authentic and unromantic way of joining those who, being society's rejects, are, unknown to themselves, the passport-holders of the Kingdom of God."
I was privileged to meet Bill - Father Bill as he was universally known - in 1987. I was on placement with him as part of my ordination training. We became friends. His priestly work was beyond the church-as-institution though firmly rooted in the church as a spiritual reality. He took the church seriously but was never a prisoner within its confines. He died in January 2018 after a dreadful ten years of suffering a psychotic illness compounded by dementia.
He is probably best remembered - and loved - for his work with those living with and dying from AIDS, in Earls Court, London in the 1980s and 90s. His early training had been in nursing and the spiritual dimensions of care were very important to him. He accompanied and supported countless people as they approached death. It seems a terrible tragedy that his own decade-long illness of mind prevented him from being able to fully receive such support in his final years. His books included AIDS: Sharing the pain, Cry Love, Cry Hope and Going Forth: A practical and spiritual approach to dying and death. What a wonderful man.
Father Bill Kirkpatrick; 16 June 1927 - 4 January 2018
Click 'read more' to see tribute
Today the Executive Director of the Aston Business School sent me a cheery email, addressing me by my first name (we have never met) and beginning: "I hope you’re well. As a senior professional at [my place of work] are you looking to take your role to the next level and become a thought leader in your field? If the answer is 'yes', then the Executive DBA (EDBA) - the highest internationally recognised business qualification available - from triple accredited Aston Business School could be just what you're looking for."
I replied: "Dear Ann: No, I’m not, but thanks for asking. I have no wish to become a ‘thought leader’ and rather regret that any sane person might even think in such terms. I do understand the pressure on universities to market themselves, but it can make for very dispiriting reading. And no mention anywhere of improving one’s skills for the common good or in the service of others..."
I once viewed universities with respect. Something pretty serious seems to have overtaken them.
I sent an email today, and in describing someone I thought less than bright, used the fine term bonehead (Cambridge online dictionary: a stupid or silly person). On hitting 'send' I immediately received a message saying my email had been quarantined because "Words in body triggered rule "CONTENT POLICY: Block Sexual Content" (Words found: bonehead)". I suppose whatever turns you on.
At the junction of Cirencester and London Roads in Cheltenham is a Victorian Drinking Fountain. It carries - as you might expect of pious Victorians - a carving of Christ with the woman at the well and the inscription "Praise God from whom all blessings flow". What I especially like about it is this further inscription on its north face: "The Public are expected to protect from Injury that which was erected for the public good". It made me think of the NHS. It is a remarkable and marvellous conception, a credit to the United Kingdom and its people. And one being injured by muddled public policy and the interested of private providers and their shareholders.
I wonder very often at the pervasive presence of violence and violent impulses in our species. Think here less of outward and physical violence but of harmful intentions and responses and the myriad ways in which these permeate so much of human encounter: suspicion, gossip, denigration, undermining, sarcasm, blaming, cold-shouldering, false witness. What is the root of all this? I have long suspected that our species transmits violence, from generation to generation. If so, this explains its endurance and persistence. Perhaps it is a delusion, this idea many of us hold, that we are reasonable, rational and well-adjusted. What if we begin with another premise - that virtually all humans sustain harming traumas and experiences during our formative years, and that these remain at work in us, largely unconsciously, throughout our lives? In the more extreme cases, we see these - they are made manifest. But what if the situation I have described is endemic, and in most of us largely 'contained' (or so we might think) and so disguised? And what if we never find ourselves able to join up the dots - the 'standard' reactions we observe within us, the ways we conduct ourselves at work, in groups, how we handle intimacy, how we react to adversity and (often imagined) threat - and so remain unaware of enduring wounds which clamour for healing?
For the record, this has no connection, in my thinking, to so-called 'original sin' - a doctrine I cannot take seriously. But what if very many people suffer some kind of 'original harm' in their developmentally vital years, say from birth to early adulthood? Such events are vitually unavoidable, however loving our care givers: experiences of separation, of various forms of abandonment, of 'friendly' teasing or sarcasm, of rejection by other children in the way typical of other children. What if all these and more - things virtually inescapable in this world - leave negative imprints, things that shape us and remain alive as we move into adult life, even as (perhaps especially as) 'well adjusted', 'responsible', socially adept and outwardly 'successful' humans? Just a thought.
I saw jesus on the cross on a hill called calvary
"do you hate mankind for what they done to you? "
He said, "talk of love not hate, things to do - it's getting late.
I've so little time and I'm only passing through."