I was ordained 34 years ago today. A clichéd observation, I know, but it seems like only yesterday. It also seems a very long time ago. The newly ordained tend to be overwhelmed by the experience; indeed, it is a wildly significant moment and transition, usually the fulfilment of several years hard work and preparation, spiritual and intellectual. For all but the die-hard evangelical ‘minister’ type, it marks a transition of an ontological kind: something that fundamentally alters one. It is not a job taken on; it is a new life embarked upon.
I am very far from being a die-hard evangelical. Nor am I a high Anglo-Catholic. I did reckon the moment of ordination to be of significance, and to represent a radical (i.e. far-reaching and irrevocable) handing-over of who and what I was – and who I might become - in the service of the Nazarene and His church. That has not changed, though time, observation and experience have changed my view of the church. Interestingly, it has deepened and simplified my following of the Nazarene.
Inevitably, the years have shown me the unattractive (but not surprising) aspects of the church-as-institution: egoism, careerism, corruption, mediocrity. They have also acquainted me with the contrary: humility and loving kindness, modesty, faithfulness and superiority of character and conduct. I am grateful I actively served the institution for more than three decades whilst concurrently working in so-called secular jobs. Hugely grateful. This ‘dual’ aspect rooted me.
After a monumental struggle, I finally got a face-to-face appointment with a GP. But it turned out that Dr XXXX did not go in for much face-to-face contact except with her computer screen. I wondered if she might in fact be an automaton or an AI bot for the amount of personal interaction she engaged in with me. I didn’t think to check her for a pulse, and anyway, I was the patient. I asked if we might also do the ‘repeat prescription review’ which was booked for the following week – for a medication that was not unrelated to my presenting symptom. I was promptly, and I thought rather harshly, told that an appointment can last only ten minutes, and which did I want her to deal with, the symptom or the repeat prescription review? I opted for the former, but felt slapped down. Indeed, the whole experience left me feeling rather atomised, an easily separated collection of bits rather than a single human being. Is this what General Practice has been reduced to?
I got what I had hoped for: a referral to an ENT specialist. And since we had two minutes left, I asked if she might do the repeat prescription review. By her own time-and-motion logic, there was no obvious escape route for her, and she said she would mark the request for release.
Altogether an unhappy experience of being treated as an object to be processed. She did not examine me at all. But I examined her, with all the close attention of a patient treated as an inconvenience.
IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY - John Betjeman
This is, of course, a satirical composition in which John Betjeman imagines an upper class woman attending Evening Prayer in Westminster Abbey during WWII. It is clever, and uncomfortably true. True not only of the class and disposition represented, but of the distorting mess so many of us make not only of our prayers but also our ideologies and professed attitudes. It is a lifelong process of interrogating ourselves before we begin to see, then transform, our often self-centred positions. Surely one of the purposes of prayer. Click Read More
"Get over yourself", when said to us by another, is often (usually) said as a rebuke, in anger, and is hurtful to hear. But the useful thrust of that perspective, when we can say it to ourselves, lovingly, is about the need to transcend our ego (something we all have). I found this helpful approach from Bertrand Russell:
"Make your interests gradually become wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being."
Visitors to these pages (that may only be me) will have spotted various posts that excoriate sentimentality. It is a fake and devaluing response to the challenges of life. It is rife. And so I was glad to come across this in Roger Scruton's 'Confessions of a Heretic':
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation. 'Kitsch,' he wrote, 'causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!' Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this: it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, 'look at me feeling this; how nice I am and how lovable'. That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens's most sickly death-scenes, said that 'a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell'.
I admire William Stringfellow and have written about him before (links below). Here is what he says about the corrupt use we too often make of language - what he calls Babel which he says "means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumour, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy. And, in all of this, babel means violence…" In short, this is how we use language - personally, corporately, institutionally.
Who amongst us is guilt-free in this corruption of communication?
Also in William Stringfellow's words, hints of the antidote: “Listening is a rare happening amongst human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to another’s word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word.” from his Count it All Joy.
Every night, as I fall asleep, I pray for people I know (and some I don't know) and always ask for an ending to suffering – human, animal - in all its forms. And invariably I ask God (the assumed recipient of these thoughts) why suffering should exist at all. No answer has arrived.
Celebrating Joseph the Worker and wondering why the church is so little interested in ordinary working lives
I keep the feast of Joseph the Worker because my own vocation to serve as a priest arose in the context of my ordinary, paid, work and, with the support of the church, led me to become a ‘priest in secular employment’ as that same church rather sadly describes it (I say ‘sadly’ because, really, there can be no distinction in the Christian mind between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, for all is God’s and God is in all). Here
Once upon a time, when travelling on a train, an announcement would be made about 'the next station'. A few years ago, announcers started speaking of 'the next station stop'. This week, on LNER, it had become 'the next calling point will be...'. What I want to know is where all this linguistic incontinence and showiness is formulated and decided upon?
It is getting on for ten months since I finished paid work. 'Retired' in popular thinking, but not in mine. The word is misleading. I tell people who ask that I have moved into 'post work liberation' - PWL. That could not be more fitting: the overwhelming experience is indeed one of liberation. I speak as someone who has been in paid employment since the age of 17, save for four years at university in my twenties. So it has been a long working day of just shy of fifty years.
Not long after I began social work it was common to hold generic caseloads comprising children and family cases, older persons, mental health clients and various supervision order cases. I liked the variety, though it was soon to be replaced by specialism as part of the response to greater concern about child protection.
Older persons' cases were often for assessment, followed by various services such as Home Help, Day Care or respite or residential care. An assessment would cover a range of psycho-medico-social aspects. One aspect to address was continence, or rather incontinence, and whether it was single or double. I know, exciting stuff.
Many years later, after I had opted for specialist children and families work and had no continuing professional cause to consider incontinence of any kind, the term suddenly found a new use in my thinking. I have often reflected on the endless volume of words some people spout, and in a flash I saw this as a new and pernicious form of incontinence. 'Incontinent of speech' became an apt (but private) description for various people I encountered. They seemed unable to shut up, and mostly inept in the ability to listen. I later came across the wonderful term, to 'overtalk' and posted about that here.
Some people link the overtalkers - those who are 'incontinent of speech' - with the arrival of social media platforms. For sure these provide additional avenues for endless gas-bagging, but the condition was already at epidemic levels. What is it that makes a substantial proportion of the human race gas on so much and listen so little? They have as little control over what constantly spouts from their vocal chords as the traditionally incontinent do over their sphincters.
Oh, you thirsty of every tribe
Get your ticket for an aeroplane ride
Jesus our Saviour is coming to reign
And take you to glory in his aeroplane
I did not know of The Watersons, or of this fab song and sentiment. "....in the 1930s, [you'd hear] what they call a “brush arbour hymn” in the backwoods districts of America. Itinerant evangelists of a kind too modest to use a big tent might select a clearing near a spring and get helpers to build a “tabernickle” consisting of a framework of poles roofed over with leafy branches and lit by kerosene or petrol lamps. Advertisements seen at mountain filling stations as recently as 1976 say: “Please come and bring a carload of unsaved”... What gets sung is a mixture of standard hymns filled out with punchy choruses and more or less local compositions of touching naivety. Hymns using symbols from the world of mechanical transport have a venerable enough lineage. The long-lasting favourite Life's Railway to Heaven was widespread on broadsides in both USA and England in the mid-nineteenth century." Listen (above), and follow the lyrics (below). Have your Boarding Cards ready.
And a happy Christmas to us all.
Oh, one of these days around twelve o'clock
The whole wide world will reel and rock
The sinner will tremble and cry for pain
And the Lord will come in his aeroplane
Chorus (after each verse):
Oh, you thirsty of every tribe
Get your ticket for an aeroplane ride
Jesus our Saviour is coming to reign
And take you to glory in his aeroplane
Oh, talk of rides in automobiles
Talk of fast times in motor wheels
We'll break all records as we upwards fly
For an aeroplane joy ride in the sky
You must get ready if you take this ride
Leave all your sins and humble your pride
Furnish a lamp both bright and clean
And a vessel of oil to run the machine
When our journey's over and we all sit down
At the marriage supper with a robe and crown
We'll blend our voices with a heavenly throng
And praise our Saviour as the years roll on
"Anthropathological enmeshment the common experience of (i) finding oneself in a difficult, painful situation; (i) recognizing the high costs, perhaps impossibility, of extrication, and (ji) experiencing a sense of impotence. An example might be that you are stressed by working conditions but are trapped by financial constraints and, even as you visualize an escape, such as downshifting, you recognize that such a move will simply enmesh you in a different set of difficulties.
Most of us are enmeshed in the conditions of capitalism but recognize that the alternatives of homelessness, voluntary austerity, communism or anarchism also have their unattractive aspects. Arguably, we are all systemically enmeshed: the whole world is faking it, and everyone is complicit in everyone else's frauds" (Miller, 2003, p. 120). Paradoxically, the ensuing sense of impotence may save us from worse anthropathological loops.
Have you noticed how, in recent years, an obsession with 'leadership' and 'leaders' has crept into much discourse (and fantasy) about business, the third sector, the public sector and even the churches? It's a great bore. Organisations need competent managers at every level, and those in such roles will, inevitably and necessarily, influence, shape and 'lead' developments in those organisations. But what seems to have happened is that this essential function and aspect has now become personalised into 'a leader'. This is ego-talk. Many find it irresistible.
In the church (I am mostly familiar with the Church of England) the 'leadership' fetish has grown apace. A small example is the growing number of church websites that now list the clergy as 'the leadership team' - and I have seen some that locate them in 'the senior leadership team'. Frankly, it's all so desperate. What should be fellowship often seems now to be follower-ship.
To have leaders, you need the led. There is a place for this where it is operationally and functionally necessary for tightly defined outcomes (think uniformed services and organisations with precise functions and outcomes). But in Christian communities it can only produce drone-disciples who surrender responsibility for their own Christian life to the 'experts', the leaders. And don't think that the ghastly cliché about 'servant-leader' avoids the pitfalls and dangers.
I recently attended a mandatory safeguarding course, attended mostly by clergy and with some churchwardens. The (very competent) facilitator had, as part of her input, referred to the role that power and power-imbalances play in church abuse, and had illustrated this by some high-profile cases. As the event progressed, I was struck by how often 'leader' and 'leadership' were used by participants - in a sometimes slightly self-aggrandising way ("As the leader of my parish..."). I pointed this out, this link with what we had been told and how the conversation was going. There was some agreement, but others thought the two things were quite separate.
Mainline church denominations 'embody' power relations and differentials in various ways, some subtle. Priests and bishops over laity, for example. Church architecture is another (the sacred sanctuary and altar, with the laity in their theatre-like pews). And another is found in who may speak and who is required to 'reply' following a set script. These are aspects of liturgical exchanges and liturgical life.
I set these matters out bluntly to illustrate dimensions we often don't see clearly. There are many clergy who operate within these structures with attentiveness, humanity and sensitivity, and who mitigate the more dangerous aspects of the leadership fetish. They focus, first, on being disciples. But there are some clergy who don't. And there are laity who like to be 'led'. That does not make for mature Christian explorers.
Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday in the UK. I shall call to mind the uncle after whom I am named, who was shot down over the Netherlands on 20 September 1943. I shall remember also the countless souls not known to me, who died as a result of human ambition and violence.
Here is a telling voice: that of Jacob Bronowski. It is the concluding sequence of his 1973 BBC series The Ascent of Man. It is said that this scene was unscripted and unrehearsed by him. "The words just came to me" he was quoted as saying.
I do like it when new descriptions bring to light realities one had sensed but not consciously 'seen'. "Quiet Quitters" for example, defined as those who become disillusioned with their jobs and workplaces and give up putting in additional effort. They do the bare minimum. I used to think of them as 'time servers', but quiet quitters sounds useful. And now we have "loud labourers". Yes! We have all encountered them, and now the penny drops! These are the people who spend more time talking about the amount of work they do than doing it. Braggers about their busy-ness. My, I've met many such people in a variety of settings. Tiresome people, and rather easily seen through.
Today I visited one of my favourite silent places (see this post) and as usual found it empty, and so welcome and welcoming. Although it was around 1pm, I said the Evening Office, made easy by some app on my iPhone. The wonder of it all. Before entering I walked around the churchyard, reading such headstones as remained legible. I came across this one, and the text that clamoured for attention read "Gone but not forgotten".
This is almost certainly no longer true. The person had been born in 1819 and had died in 1900. Remembered for a while, no doubt. But those doing the remembering - who knew the deceased - are themselves long dead. I read the inscription as a statement of hope and comfort, and of unexpressed fear. We shall all be 'forgotten'.
I have long suspected that at the root of much human difficulty, evasion, maladaptation and anxiety is fear of our death and oblivion, our being forgotten. This is hardly ever faced (truly, hardly ever faced), and so we remain unaware of the cause but routinely suffer the consequences.
Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death (1973) deals with this matter directly. It is a sobering but strangely liberating read. See the wiki summary here. Socrates advised that we practice dying (that is, face it, meditate upon it, live with its inevitability) in order to become morally serious (authentic) persons.
"Human beings are mortal, and we know it. Our sense of vulnerability and mortality gives rise to a basic anxiety, even a terror, about our situation. So we devise all sorts of strategies to escape awareness of our mortality and vulnerability, as well as our anxious awareness of it. This psychological denial of death, Becker claims, is one of the most basic drives in individual behaviour, and is reflected throughout human culture. Indeed, one of the main functions of culture, according to Becker, is to help us successfully avoid awareness of our mortality. That suppression of awareness plays a crucial role in keeping people functioning – if we were constantly aware of our fragility, of the nothingness we are a split second away from at all times, we’d go nuts. And how does culture perform this crucial function? By making us feel certain that we, or realities we are part of, are permanent, invulnerable, eternal. And in Becker’s view, some of the personal and social consequences of this are disastrous." (Source: The Ernest Becker Foundation).
Acquainting ourselves with the certainty of our death and our eventually being forgotten only enhances life. Its something we should practice.
We maybe chose the hottest time to visit Florence. I'm not built for heat. That aside, it was a memorable trip. A full two weeks allowed unhurried sightseeing, in Florence and beyond.
We stayed in a flat at St Mark's English Church: no air-con, and 99 steps to reach it. The reward was this balcony (right) and its view of the church of Santo Spirito, designed by Brunelleschi and begun in 1428. Our days were bookended by it's bells. To my ear there is something wonderful about the slightly discordant and chaotic sound of continental church bells that makes English ringing sound like a corseted aunt.
This church houses something that, of all the artefacts I saw on our trip, made the greatest impression: a crucifix believed to have been carved by a 17 year-old Michelangelo. The story is that he was allowed to make anatomical studies on the corpses coming from the convent's hospital; in exchange, he sculpted this which was placed over the high altar. It was thought to be lost, then resurfaced in the early 1960s, heavily overpainted. Today, cleaned up and restored, it hangs, suspended in mid-air in the octagonal sacristy off the west aisle of the church.
I met Chris in 2005. We were attending a forum of Clerks and Directors of endowed London charities. We each found the occasion uninspiring, rather Dickensian in tone. We began our own group, just the two of us, and met every few months to discuss work, life, and the universe.
Chris held firm views and liked an argument. In the early days, I found this hard work. But we soon became friends, shared ideas about how our respective foundations might effectively help those who were held back by material poverty, and talked about much else besides.
We were both Northerners and the same age, save for three weeks. We had both worked in local government, and each had some direct experience of the lack of opportunity we now sought to address for others through the foundations we worked for. I admired his thinking and focus, and his skill as an artist. His art, I pointed out to him, often addressed metaphysical matters that his rational mind liked to dismiss - themes such as identity, meaning, loss, heroism and sacrifice . He only half accepted that. He was more sensitive than he sometimes let on. His was a sharp and purposeful mind in a sector where sometimes sentimentality appears to reign. I valued that, and his friendship. His sudden death is a great loss.
Below are images from his website (click images to enlarge). It is typical of his ironic approach to include his Chain Saw Proficiency certificate...
Who says the Church has no sense of humour? This, from General Synod Written Questions and Answers
The Revd Barney de Berry (Canterbury) to ask the Chair of the House of Bishops:
Seen this morning, Lambeth North tube station. "Behind every money transfer there is a dream". Really? What about money laundering, divorce settlements, unexpected, crippling bills? What goes on in the minds of these copywriters—and the outfits that commission them? They seem to specialize in the casual debasement of language and thought.
I have always been suspicious of people who like to speak of their 'integrity'. I have observed how often this indicates something else, a rather overweening self-preoccupation. Treat these integrity-claimers with great caution. People of true integrity display that fact obliquely. They evidence it, rarely, if ever, claim it explicitly. They are to be trusted.
To Clinic 12 (Retina), Moorfields Eye Hospital, London for the (roughly) biennial check on my right eye where a haemangioma, a vascular oddity, lurks. It was first discovered by the zealous students in the ophthalmology clinic of the university I attended, and when I moved to London in 1983 Moorfields took an interest. I have never needed treatment to it (‘we will leave it alone until it causes trouble’) and their interest was as much a teaching aid for their own students. I’ve been going for an astonishing 38 years. And today, I was discharged. Quite a rupture to a relationship if you ask me. And without warning. I was discombobulated only for a few seconds. I admire and value the NHS (concept and reality) and have no wish to tie up resources unnecessarily.
Over the years, I have come to know the professors, though the students turn over quite quickly. Clinic 12 is in the basement of the building that dates from 1899, a warren of corridors that are hard enough to navigate with decent vision. Others have to be guided. Over the decades, I have seen improvement in medical photography and diagnostics (Fluorescein Angiography was the only one I found disagreeable). At the start of our relationship, photographs were hard copy. Now they are available on screen, and with remarkable depth, seconds after being taken.
My abandonment was done in a kindly way, and they will see me again whenever necessary. Of course, it was no abandonment, just the proper use of resources and a decision based on reasoning. I’ll get over it. Thinking about this, I concluded that the relationship with Moorfields over these years has represented, in some way, being cared for (always the same lead medic), and that this stands in contrast to my experience of GP practices nowadays. Thanks Moorfields. It’s been great knowing you.
Related post — The Eyes Have It
The tendencies and inclinations of organizations have always interested me. Not from some academic angle — far more pressing than that — but because they are such powerful shapers of human experience. I have sold my labour to them, volunteered for them, encountered them as customer, client, patient, penitent, complainant, consumer — beggar, even. The lives (open and hidden) of organizations provide fodder for the social sciences and for journalism, and for popular over-the-fence expressions of discontent and resentment. How could we survive without them? They can provide purpose (good ones, bad ones), meaning (of various shades), and wages (sometimes high, often cruelly low). They can drive innovation and bring things 'to market'. They can enhance (or deplete) our cultural capital, achieve a redistribution of wealth (in different directions) and get things done.
For the purposes of my point, they have their dark side. They can reduce people to robots and objects, they can crush and consume lives, they can come adrift from their original purpose, they can become a means to an end.
As we can't live without them, we best learn to be alert to their dangers and committed to making them human, as far as that is within our power.
These observations apply to the churches as to other organizations, and they present some unusual aspects to consider. One is the tendency to 'spiritualize' power (to suggest that its hierarchy is divinely licensed, for example, or possessed of spiritual gifts others don't have). It can embody attitudes that cause harm (examples include traditional attitudes to women and their roles and to gay people and their place in the life of the church, indeed, the world). Churches have tended in some matters to be socially conservative, when you might expect them to be leading change. They have taught (implicitly for the most part) that their followers should be pure and free of any chaotic, troubling thoughts or desires. It is not impossible that this kind of institutional repression creates the ground for abusive practices now uncovered in many of the denominations.
As noted, all organizations have a dark, or shadow, side. The question is, how are these managed, how are the risks mitigated, how can organizations be vehicles of value for the common good? Part of the answer is in checks and balances. Another is a true egalitarianism in the spiritual adventure that is following Christ — an end to clericalism's traits (I've written about this elsewhere). Jung wrote of the unintegrated shadow side and its potential for harm: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” (Psychology and Religion, 1938, Collected Works 11).
This line of thought does not write off the achievements of the churches, and it certainly does not deny the countless men and women, lay and ordained, who have brought light, love and multitudinous good things to others. It is a call to be alert.