Address to West Mersea APCM 2012

I hope you are sitting comfortably. On Easter Sunday this year I had the great privilege of presiding at a service of Holy Communion at the Methodist Church here on the Island. I came away with two somewhat contradictory feelings – the first was that our differences are really very trivial, the second was: I quite like our differences! And that’s OK. Yes, it is a scandal that there are different churches and different denominations all proclaiming that they love the Lord in their own unique and special way – and yes this does very much cut across Jesus’ own intentions I am sure – but actually, I’m not sure that this is a scandal that matters all that much in the end, not compared to so many other things that go wrong. What I mean is that – as I discovered through being chair of Churches Together In Mersea for four years – our capacity for working together and simply getting along does not depend upon the doctrinal discussions and debates that take place in the stratosphere – it simply means recognising our common faith in Christ alone, and then slowly, and patiently, working together wherever we can.

Another way of saying this is to say that our unity isn’t something that we can achieve with our own efforts. Rather, our unity is already present – it is a unity which stems from our common baptism and our common confession in Christ alone – and our spiritual path is less to achieve unity than simply to recognise that it is already there – we don’t have to try quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

I have become very fond of a cartoonist who calls himself the naked pastor, and some of his cartoons can be found in the Benefice Bulletin each month. One of his great passions is denouncing “vision”, and I am persuaded that, in the sense he criticises, vision is indeed a deeply damaging thing for a church to pursue. The naked pastor is drawing on some insights that were well articulated by one of my heroes, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book ‘Life Together’ – which does exactly what it says on the tin, in that it is all about what it means for Christians to live together. Listen to this:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day?

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together–the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship…”

I think that one of the reasons why this resonates so deeply with me is that I am a man prone to visions, of trying to fix things and put things right. What Bonhoeffer is articulating does not, I believe, preclude any attempt at seeking to reform or improve our common Christian life. Rather, what I believe is being described is the right spirit in which to proceed. That is, the right spirit for seeking to develop our common life has to begin by acknowledging the gift of God’s grace in Christ alone – and that, as a result, we begin by responding and co-operating with what God is already doing. We do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

I’d like to share another quotation with you that I have found valuable – this one much shorter! One of my favourite authors is the American writer Eugene Peterson – many of you will be familiar with ‘The Message’ which is his translation of the Bible, but most of his writings are about what it means to be a pastor, and I have found him tremendously insightful and helpful as I work out what it means to be a priest in the Church of England today. He is very fond of a quotation from the American novel Moby Dick. Now I should say that I have never read Moby Dick – it’s been on my shelf asking to be read for many years – but I know it is about Captain Ahab chasing a great whale. The quotation which Peterson likes – and which he takes as teaching us something absolutely essential for what it means to be a Christian today – is this: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from toil.” In other words, if we are truly to carry out the will of God, we have to be rooted in quiet prayer and contemplation, in blessed assurance. We shall not find the will of God by striving through earthquake, wind and fire. Only when we hear the still small voice will we be able to know what it is that God is calling us to do. It is only then that we will be enabled to spend our labour on what actually does satisfy.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells us “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I am starting to believe that when we find ourselves in a state of perpetual weariness, it is a sign that we may be trying too hard spiritually, and we need to remember to ourselves that we love a God of mercy and Sabbath; that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more than He already does – or, indeed, any less than He already does. One of the implications of what Bonhoeffer is describing – of accepting our fellow Christians as a gift to us, of realising that we don’t need to achieve a unity but simply recognise the unity that already exists through our common baptism – is that it opens up a space for real and genuine love to emerge. That is, it helps us to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Over the last several years I have taken lots of weddings, and conducted lots of wedding preparation classes, and seen some marriages work, and some marriages fail. One thing that has really been brought home to me from seeing all this is that it is always a mistake to try and change your partner – that is, to try and force a different pattern of behaviour on them. The root problem, I believe, is one of a lack of respect. To seek to force a change in someone is no longer to treat them as a person; rather, they become a means to an end, whatever end that might be. I don’t believe that it is wrong to seek change – but I believe that the way to see that change come about is first to pray, and second, to be the change that you wish to see – to model it, and show what it looks like.

I believe that the same thing applies in our common Christian life together. If we take our baptism seriously then we are yoked to each other in just the way that a married couple is yoked to each other – we are here for the duration. And no doubt it is true that just as within a married couple there are all sorts of ways in which the one spouse infuriates the other, so too there are ways in which we as Christians infuriate each other – and that has led over the centuries to the many different churches. Yet when our common baptism is respected – when the marriage vows are followed – then a wholly different quality of relationship becomes possible. Suddenly there is a safe place within which to grow as a human being – safe, because here there is at least the rumour of unconditional love. A love which isn’t earned as a reward for good behaviour, but simply a gift, a grace. In other words, when we recognise our common baptism, and what it means, then we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

The implication of this, I believe, is that the fundamental Christian category is not whether you are a member of a church, good though that is; it is not whether you are a disciple of Jesus, good though that is; it is not even whether you are a believer, good though that is. I believe that the most fundamental category is the one set out by Jesus as recorded in John’s gospel – which is that of being a friend. I believe that friendship is the most fundamental Christian understanding – a friendship which seeks what is best for the other simply because it is the best for the other. There is no ulterior motive. There is no working out of issues. There is simply a solidarity – a solidarity in suffering, a solidarity in celebration, a simple being alongside one another in sorrow and in joy.

In both our Ecclesiastes and Isaiah readings this morning there is mention of the joy that comes from simple fellowship: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” We are greatly blessed in the provisioning of food and drink in this church community, and I do want to pay particular tribute to our social and catering committee, for all their hard work and the wonderful results – some of which we’ll be sampling in a little while. One of my favourite moments in church life is the breakfast on the first Sunday of the month, when people from very diverse services sit down and eat together. That, I believe, is a great blessing, and I see it as having tremendous importance in our common life. Which is why it is so wonderful to be able to say that, very soon, the Lord being our helper, we will have a new kitchen in the church hall and so that element of our fellowship will be reinforced and strengthened. I should add – if we get permission to do the work this summer – I anticipate that the first time that it will be properly used is when Bishop Stephen comes to visit us in September for our Harvest festival. Which is somehow very appropriate, don’t you think?

Of course, the good news on the new kitchen is simply a part of the good news on the financial front generally. Last year, in January, I called together all the members of this church for a service wherein I explained our financial situation. We were running in the red, and had been for several years. The situation was not sustainable – and had become a cause of significant concern. So we did two things. We launched an internal appeal to try and raise our income, coupled with a real look at where we might save money. And we also launched an external appeal to the community to help raise funds towards help with the fabric, joined with the launch of the Friends. I am very happy to be able to tell you that those efforts have been blessed by God, blessed beyond our expectations. Last year – with a very slight rounding – we broke even on our household costs, thanks to the increase in giving from this congregation. We broke even not even including a significant legacy that we received, which has been parked in a separate fund for a rainy day. Thank you for your generosity in such trying economic circumstances – and please don’t stop! I believe that we are now on a sustainable path and I would like especially to thank our financial committee led by Roland for all that they have done to sort out our situation.

More widely, as I am sure you are all fully aware, our appeal to the community has been moving forward – and we are roughly a third of the way towards our eventual target. I would like, in this context, to pay tribute to Kathy Bowman-Dines, who has worked so very hard to get the Friends up and running, with such success both in terms of the events themselves and, of course, in terms of raising money for our necessary fabric works. There are many people who have helped the Friends, with their time and money and effort, inside the church and outside, far too numerous to list, but you know who you are, and I hope you also know that you have done a great service to this church and helped move it towards a happier future.

To talk about moving towards a happier future is implicitly to acknowledge a less happy past. Our reading from Ecclesiastes, famously, says that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. I do believe that church life moves in seasons, and my impression is that in this church we have been through a season of winter, which is now passing. I am aware of so many people who have received serious knocks, often in terms of health but also psychologically and spiritually, and I see the financial problems of last year as simply one symptom of a common crisis which touched on all aspects of our life together. I know how much of a struggle it has been for so many people, but I do believe that, as with our finances, so too with our wider life, as a community we are moving into a new season – a season of Spring and new life. Perhaps it was divine promptings that shifted this Annual Meeting to the season of Spring and Easter, when we can shout Alleluia to each other as we share in celebrating the resurrection of Christ. I do think it would be good for us to keep meeting in this season each year. I believe it sends out a true message of where we are – united in our devotion to the risen Lord who has conquered death, and in whom we might rest and find peace; for whom we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease. At the risk of breaking my own advice against visions, I do believe that we have a very great deal to look forward to, and that this church community can move forward not just with hope but with confident expectation of all that God is doing on our behalf, to bless each of us and to bless our common life together as a church. Rather like Moses I believe that I can see the promised land, and it isn’t very far away. Yet, also rather like Moses, I do not believe that I will be able to get there with you.

After a lot of soul-searching, and having pondered and prayed for some time, I do believe that my time as your Rector is drawing to a close, and that you need a new Rector, a Joshua perhaps, to take you forward into a new season of your life together. I don’t have anything established as yet – and it may well be some time before God actually shows me the place where he wants this slave to go – but I believe that my sharing this understanding with you now will help our on-going conversations and our common life. The truth is that I too am very tired – and as I’ve been saying, I think that this tiredness is a sign that I need to go home to God and find my rest in Him. I, too, need to cease my strivings, and find my rest in Christ alone. To go back to the Moby Dick reference, I do not know what sort of great whale God wishes me to pursue – or, indeed, if, rather than pursuing the whale like Captain Ahab, he instead wants me to be swallowed up by one and thrown up onto a beach somewhere – but I feel as if, in sharing this with you, I am recovering my spiritual balance. There is a modern Christian aphorism which I quite like – if you are going to learn to walk on water you need to get out of the boat. Well, I feel like I’m getting out of the boat, and I’m very nervous, but also excited to see what’s going to happen.

I would like to return to where I began this morning, in talking about taking a service on Easter Sunday at the Methodist church; where the differences were so trivial. Our unity is something that is given to us in Christ alone, not in any effort or achievement on our part. When we can recognise this – and when we can recognise what it means for us simply to be friends in Christ – then we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease. The ground of our unity is our baptism and so, in accordance with the most ancient church tradition, in this great season of Easter, I would like to invite you now, my friends, please to stand, and reaffirm our baptismal vows.

An Alternative Carol Service

The Order of Service for a Carol Service that we had last week; this is what I wrote in the pew sheet: “I’ve been asked what ‘An Alternative Carol Service’ is. It is a traditional Carol Service in terms of its format (bidding prayer, readings and carols) but using one of the alternative themes and patterns of readings suggested in Common Worship – ‘Good News for the Poor’. The carols have been chosen to fit that theme, many of them simply alternative words to familiar tunes. The aim is to bring out an element of the Christmas story that I believe is often missed: ‘the meaning of the manger’. For those who want the more customary ‘Nine Lessons’ style Carol Service, Peldon’s service is at 6pm tonight (18th), and East Mersea has a traditional candle-lit service at 6.30 on Christmas Eve. There is also the Friends traditional Carol concert on Tuesday evening and our own two Carol services on Christmas Eve, as well as a wholly traditional Midnight Mass. Given the scale of the provision here and across the benefice as a whole I felt that there was room to explore something just a little different. There will be mulled wine and mince pies available after the service and I do hope people will come and join us for what I am sure will be an enjoyable and meaningful service.”

The service provoked some very strong reactions, both positive and negative, which I’m still digesting, and I suspect we won’t do it in the same way next year. I wasn’t going to post it, but reading Giles Fraser I thought that people might find it of some interest. (By the way, I think this research is relevant!!)

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Carol: It came upon the midnight clear (323)

Bidding Prayer and Lord’s Prayer (trad)

Reading: Micah 5.2-5a

Carol: When God Almighty came to earth (sheet)

Reading: Isaiah 35

Carol: The aye carol (sheet)

Reading: Jeremiah 22.13-17; 23.5,6

Carol: Inspired by Love and Anger (317)

Reading: Isaiah 11.1-9

Carol: Join the song of praise and protest (363)

Reading: Isaiah 40.1-10

Carol: God bless us and disturb us (sheet)

Reading: Philippians 2.5-11

Carol: Once in Judah’s least known city (sheet)

Reading: Luke 2.1-20

Carol: When our God came to earth (729)

Solemn Blessing

Some initial thoughts on ‘Transforming Presence’

On the whole I’m very impressed with ‘Transforming Presence’ and am very excited about the possibilities that are going to open up. I want to say a few things about item 4 in the paper, about ministry – that being a topic which is particularly close to my heart! But first, here is a fuller extract for consideration rather than just the KGH part:

“Here are some basic principles which, with our agreement, could form the basis of a more radical forward thinking look at the ministry of God’s church in our diocese –
> Ministry belongs to the whole people of God. Every person, because of their baptism, has a ministry. We must nurture an expectation that every Christian gives expression to this ministry in their daily life and in their participation in the life of the Church.
> Ordained stipendiary ministers will be thinner on the ground in the future. We need to agree what figure we are working to, communicate that figure effectively to the deaneries, and then give each of them a target to work to. If at the same time we allocate a number of stipendiary posts (say five to ten in each Episcopal Area) as Mission posts, this can give strategic flexibility at a bigger level, allow new initiatives to flourish and ease situations of painful transition.
> These stipendiary priests will need to be more episcopal in the way they understand and express their ministry. This is not new. As the Institution Service reminds us, the Church of England has always believed that the Incumbent in the parish has a share with the bishop in the ministry “which is yours and mine”. Now they will become much more obviously those who have oversight of the ministry of the church in a cluster of rural communities, or in a town or suburb. Their role will be to lead and facilitate ministry in that area, not provide all that ministry themselves. They will, of course, be involved; but their main task will be to animate the ministry of the whole church.
> For this to work, there also needs to be a huge flourishing of authorised lay ministry (especially youth and children’s workers, authorised preachers, catechists, pastors and evangelists) and ordained self-supporting ministry. And of course we already have many Readers. Alongside some priests being more episcopal we need many others who will be more diaconal, taking on a pastoral, catechetical and evangelistic ministry at the local level. Each local church needs to have some sort of ministry team and, preferably, some minister to whom they identify as the worship leader and pastor of that community. Sometimes this will be a lay person, such as a Reader, and we should encourage lay led worship and ministry in many of our churches. In many cases I hope it will be an ordained self-supporting minister, so that the sacramental life of our church continues to flourish. But where there are lay led services of the Word it will still be possible within the cluster of communities under the oversight of the (probably) stipendiary priest, for there to be regular Sunday by Sunday Eucharistic provision. Some SSM priests will themselves be the leaders (‘episcopal’ priests) in these benefices.”
“We need an end to that debilitating and depressing approach to ministry where it feels like an endless game of knock out whist: every time the cards are dealt there is one less. We must transcend this situation, by looking slightly further ahead and developing a bold ministry plan that is based on sustainability and growth. We must stop spreading diminishing resources more thinly. This has been a disaster for clergy morale and a massive disincentive to giving.”

Initial overlapping questions and thoughts:
1. There is a lot of practical thinking about models of ministry to be done putting flesh on the bones of this vision.
2. This must be shared with the laity as it is principally their expectations which will not be met.
3. Knowing where we will likely be in fifteen years time (in terms of clergy numbers) would be a great help, and would allow us to actively work towards a particular outcome.
4. Nothing has been said here about what incumbents will be expected to do vis-a-vis fabric questions, including church yard management and so on. I would want to see this brought out into the open with a view to passing these on to church wardens.
5. Are incumbents meant to be managers, pastors or missioners? Or all three?
6. If the role of the incumbent is to ‘animate the ministry of the whole church’ then the focus for allocating those resources must surely be the size of the congregations (ignoring specified mission priests who are supplementary) not the size of the population within which a particular church is placed. (This is a particular grouse of mine)
7. I don’t think that we can push effectively in this direction unless we also tackle the question of parish share and accept a different model.
8. We need to have a good hard look at the occasional offices and clarify what is expected and who is going to do that ministry.
9. How we train the ordained is going to have to change to fit with the answers discerned to all of the above.

I’m sure there will be other thoughts as time goes on, but at the moment my strongest sense is one of relief. I feel that I have been banging my head against a door that has been firmly closed against me for many years, and suddenly it has swung open. Thanks be to God.

A short story about small parish growth

Peldon is a small village of some 600 people situated to the south of Colchester. The regular congregation of the parish church has seen growth of around 50% over the last three or four years – from around 10-12 and declining, to around 18 and increasing (often in the mid-20s now). This has had a greatly positive effect in all sorts of ways, from simply increasing morale and generating momentum to finally paying our full parish share, from a position of only paying around 50% five years ago. I thought that it might be helpful to put some thoughts down about what has enabled this growth to take place. There is no one ‘magic bullet’ that can be applied without care in other parishes, but hopefully there might be some encouragement to be drawn from our story. Having said that, the one essential component in my view has been the dynamic lay leadership within the parish, in the form of a very active church warden, who has given much of the energy and impetus for the work carried out. I am certain that without this the outlook for the church in Peldon would have been very bleak.

I would pick out the following, in no particular order, as contributing to the growth of the church:
  • consistency of Sunday worship pattern, with all Sunday services rationalised to 11am and a service at that time every week. Normally there are enough ministers available (through access to benefice resources) to ensure that there is a licensed minister leading the worship, but sometimes the services have been lay led;
  • an overhaul of the fabric of the church, most especially including the removal of the pews. The pews were of no historical or architectural merit and had become a decrepit hazard to worshippers (one collapsed just before a funeral). Their removal has energised the space within the church and enabled a much more flexible approach to worship;
  • the launch of a Friends organisation, which has had two major positive consequences – financial assistance with the cost of fabric repairs, and a generally positive engagement with the members of the community who do not attend worship but who have good will towards the church;
  • hosting special events on a regular basis, such as quiz nights, suppers, history lectures and so on. This has helped to raise the profile of the church within the village and made it easier for those unfamiliar with the church to cross the threshold;
  • running a simple ‘mission’ to the parish, which involved gathering a small team together to knock on every door in the parish, asking a few simple questions and advertising the Alpha course, which ran subsequently;
  • a particular funeral, of a young man who had grown up in the village, and to which the great majority of the village came. I believe that this put the church back on the ‘mental map’ of the community.
I view growth as the outcome of a healthy church, and believe that if our priorities are right then the inherent attraction of the gospel will draw people in. We haven’t done anything particularly novel, we have simply tried to follow the best practice seen elsewhere (I’ve been particularly helped by BobJackson’s research). The conclusion that I draw is simply this: it works.

Trigger’s Broom and Living Traditions

In one episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Trigger is boasting about having received an award from the local council for having used the same broom for twenty years – and he then reveals that in that twenty years the broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. Is it the same broom?

This is actually a new form of an ancient philosophical argument, first written down by Plutarch in the first century, where he discusses ‘The Ship of Theseus’ – a ship where all the different planks and masts and so on have been replaced over time, so that not one original piece of timber has remained. Is it still the same ship?

This is one of those questions that occupies philosophers for a very great deal of time, and I don’t plan to get very technical in this column (I have been known to learn a lesson. On rare occasions). The reason why I mention it is because it cuts right to the heart of the various changes that are going on in and around Mersea at the moment. Is it still the same Island?

My view is that Trigger’s Broom, and Theseus’ Ship, are the same, despite the changes. That is because there has been a continuity of use over time. Trigger has been using a broom to do his work in a consistent fashion for over twenty years, and each day he has taken the broom from the same place, and at the end of the day he has put it back in that place. The fact that on several occasions parts of the broom have changed has not affected the identity of the Broom – at any one point, people could have pointed to the one object and truthfully said ‘That is Trigger’s Broom’. In a similar fashion, there was a sailing vessel crewed by a community of sailors that achieved certain travels under the command of Theseus – and at any point people could have pointed to that vessel and truthfully said ‘that is Theseus’ Ship’. In other words, the identity of the object (the broom or the ship) rested as much in the continuous use by the community as in the continuity of any particular physical element.

This is a debate that often comes up when considering churches. The parish church here in West Mersea has seen vast changes in its history. The origins of the Christian community there are likely from the early seventh century, and the importance of that community (as what was then called a Minster church) was such that the King of Essex, Saint Sebbi, built the Strood in order to gain regular access to it. Almost nothing physical from that time now remains (there is one very small Anglo-Saxon carving in the church and that’s it) but I would argue that the church now is the same as the church then, simply because there has been a continuity of use on the site ever since. Similarly, the various physical changes to the church – building the tower using old Roman Tiles, the expansion of the different aisles, the massive re-ordering through the Reformation period, and more recently the installation of memorial pews and so on – all these things are simply like replacing the decking on Theseus’ ship. For some 1400 years the ‘sailors’ in the church have continued to share bread and wine while telling the story of Jesus. It is that which gives identity to the church, rather than any one particular configuration of the church fabric.

In the same way, when we are considering the various things about Mersea which may or may not be changing in the future, we need to remember that what gives Mersea its identity is not any one particular physical feature so much as the nature of the community that lives here – and that too has seen many great changes over time. The issue is perhaps not so much ‘we need to preserve that particular set of decking’ as ‘will this help us to keep sailing’? So in the context of Mersea, the questions are – what will best enable the population to flourish fully? That includes the environmental and historical questions; it also includes questions of employment and local amenities. Judging the balance between these elements is a complex task and I don’t envy those who have the responsibility for making the final decisions. I do however believe that decisions are best made at the level closest to those affected – which means, for many issues, that decisions need to be made by the Mersea community and not in Colchester.

What I am trying to describe here is the reality of a living tradition. When a tradition and a culture is alive then it is open to ongoing evolution and development in response to different circumstances – in other words the ship is kept seaworthy. It is when a tradition has begun to die that different elements from that tradition get broken off and held up as totems, the ship is only good for salvage value. At that point there is no longer a living tradition, there is a museum full of relics – and museums are wonderful and important places, they can tell us the story of where we come from and therefore help us to know where we are – but I wouldn’t want to live in one, or on one.

Bad sign

Leaving aside all the ways in which this wobbly, decrepit and fading sign is in need of renewal (agreed by PCC and in hand) – why on earth was it ever considered sensible to make such a point of conveying the identity of the Rector? It is George Herbert syndrome embodied in wood and pigment.

Voices

So I had a good holiday – not very restful, but definitely a healthy change of horizon – and one that provided a lot of context, and managed to get me out of the spiritual fug in which I had enmeshed myself.

Let me describe what I am talking about. I had problems with my passport so was not able to journey out with the rest of my family – my wife and children had to drive off to the Loire leaving me behind, which was good neither for them nor for me. Why? Three weeks before the due departure date I had dutifully filled out all the forms for my passport and for three children’s passports, and paid for the expedited applications through the Post Office. Two days before we were due to travel the children’s passports arrived but mine didn’t. On telephoning the passport service I discover that my application had been ‘flagged for review’ as my previous (out of date) passport had not been included in the application – and my forms had then sat in someone’s in-tray for two weeks, as this was ‘the busy period’. When I explained my context, my forms were pulled to the top and the application went through, and I flew out to join the rest of my family on the Wednesday.

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So what is the spiritual fug? Listen to the voice of the accuser: why didn’t you sort out the passports sooner? Why did you leave it to the last-minute? You have let your family down and ensured that your wife and children have a much more stressful journey without you. You’re not very good at this parenting lark are you? You’re not very responsible at all really. It was your laziness that was the problem, that and your lack of attention to detail, your general carelessness. You just don’t care enough. Frankly you’re not a very nice person at all. Why don’t you pull yourself together and make more of an effort? It’s like what’s happened with your ministry on Mersea. They don’t like you any more, you know that don’t you? People feel so let down by you, that’s why they don’t come to the services that you take any more. Why don’t you give up on being a parish priest, it’s clearly not what you’re any good at, and go and find something academic to do instead? Or if you can’t do that, because you’ve been such a failure academically, just get a job somewhere else, somewhere other than Mersea. Because you’re crap, you’ve been a disaster. And if you can’t get a job somewhere else because you’re generally useless, find some other method to get out of our way. Abandon everything. Abandon your family – you’re a pretty poor husband and father anyway. Just go. If all else fails, you could always kill yourself. The world will be better off without you taking up space.

This is spiritual warfare, no more, no less. This is what it is to struggle with the demons. Thanks be to God, I do have some gifting in this. And the unexpected separation from my family and freedom from work gave the freedom for this struggle to come out into the open – and the enemy overplayed his hand. He always does in the end. The Father of Lies cannot stop spinning the web of lies and in the end, even the more stubborn and obtuse of pilgrims realises the truth, and is then set free.

~~

It happened that Abba Moses the Ethiopian was struggling with the temptation of fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Abba Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, “Abba, I cannot.” Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, “Look towards the west.” He looked and saw hordes of demons flying about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba Isidore said to him, “Look towards the east.” He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, “See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are.” Then Abba Moses gave thanks to God, plucked up his courage, and returned to his cell.

~~

I had a very remarkable dream on holiday. It was in several parts, and even though I woke up in the middle of it, I was able to resume it quite easily, until it reached a natural conclusion.

The first part of the dream was based around the Yacht Club on Mersea. There was some sort of Boat Show going on, and there was a remarkable new motoryacht on display (I can remember the design very clearly – it was more of a spaceship than a yacht and it was not very seaworthy). I joined a queue of people who had lined up to see it, and realised that I was standing behind John Richardson.

~~

Several people have said to me – in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Sir Humphrey Appleby – that they see me as brave for being as open as I am on this blog. I can understand why they say that. It is indeed a risk – but a risk of what?

There is a cult of misplaced manliness that has hollowed out leadership into an empty shell. The formalities of the stiff-upper lip had much to commend them – but that was because in a living and sophisticated culture there were ways of signalling the underlying passion, without overwhelming the decencies. Now we live in a sodden flood-plain of disordered emotions, with several vessels washed up on the grass. The task is to make those stiff vessels sea-worthy again, which means wrestling those passions into submission. This is spiritual warfare, no more, no less.

We are enjoined to take the good shepherd as the pattern of our calling. He wept at the death of his friend. I believe that the disciples were helped by this.

~~

I suppose that writing these things is a way of helping me to take off the clothes of social respectability. I become naked.

And the weaver said, Speak to us of Clothes.
And he answered:
Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment, for the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.
Some of you say, “It is the north wind who has woven the clothes we wear.”
And I say, Aye, it was the north wind, But shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread.
And when his work was done he laughed in the forest.
Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.
And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind?
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

~~

I found myself in the Palace of Westminster. I was in the commons chamber, sat next to a friend from University who is now an MP. I then moved into one of the halls in the Palace where I was queuing with an ex-girlfriend waiting to go into a black-tie/ball gown event. This rather rapidly segued into a scene in a dormitory, which was at one and the same time still in Westminster and also one of the dormitories I slept in at boarding school. There was a couple from Mersea in the dormitory at the same time. I realised that I didn’t belong there, and I left.

~~

One of the blessings of not going on holiday in a timely fashion was that I was able to attend the funeral of my friend, mentor and therapist. That was good on many levels, one of which was simply to receive a good solid dose of Anglo-Catholic devotion, something which I feel short of.

In one of our last conversations we had talked about stopping therapy, and reverting to spiritual direction. Therapy is a very good thing, but it is no substitute for the hard spiritual labour which is the prerequisite for personal growth. I am feeling the need to concentrate more on that. I said to him that I felt therapy was starting to feel constraining – a requirement to navel-gaze when what I feel the need to do now is look outwards and engage. He said ‘therapy could help with that!’ – but I wasn’t convinced.

The Lord has taken that decision out of our hands. I’m not going to seek another therapist. I am going to seek a new spiritual director, someone to walk with me on the way.

~~

I walked out of Westminster and found myself on the Hard – which is the harbour area near the Yacht club. The place was crowded, it was like the Regatta, and there was a game of football going on. I joined in with the football, but when I kicked the ball I discovered that it was a papier-mache sculpture (possibly a skull), and in kicking it I had damaged it. I am now very unpopular with the crowd, and I leave.

~~

The story is told that at the Monastery of St. George the Abbot was blessed with monks who did not have beautiful voices. The annual pilgrimage on the feast day of St. George was not very impressive with the rather awful sounds coming from the choir. So the Abbot called together all the monks and said, “Look, this year I am going to invite the famous choir from the cathedral for the feast.” Word went out and thousands of people came to the Monastery of St. George for the feast day, and it was a glorious event. The famous choir from the cathedral was in superb form and used its best voices. The Abbot was thrilled and even the humble monks who were not allowed to sing that day were thrilled. Following the day’s festivities the monks went off to sleep, and the Abbot was soon sound asleep after all the excitement of the day. While he was sleeping, St. George came to him and said, “Father, I think you missed my feast day! Today is my feast day and here you are, you didn’t do anything. Have I not blessed you this past year?” And the Abbot said, “O, Saint George, I do not know where you were, but we had a glorious feast today. How could you not be here?” St. George said, “I was in the church and I saw a great multitude of people, but I heard nothing.”

~~

The holiday was thoroughly restorative, not least because I was with people who had known me for a long time, for whom my recent angst and troubles meant very little – they were simply a few paragraphs in one chapter of a long story. I need my friends, and I need to make more time to see them. They help me to remember who I am.

~~

I find myself in an odd, dark church, and meet my training incumbent there. I make a slightly cynical remark about Archdiaconal duties and receive a frosty stare. I turn and see a small group of clergy kneeling at the altar sharing communion. I receive alongside them – but then the president starts to recite the prayer of consecration, having forgotten to do this earlier.

~~

“To uproot sin and the evil that is so embedded in our sinning can be done only by divine power, for it is impossible and outside man’s competence to uproot sin. To struggle, yes, to continue to fight, to inflict blows, and to receive setbacks is in your power. To uproot, however, belongs to God alone. If you could have done it on your own, what would have been the need for the coming of the Lord? For just as an eye cannot see without light, nor can one speak without a tongue, nor hear without ears, nor walk without feet, nor carry on works without hands, so you cannot be saved without Jesus nor enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” St, Macarius, Homily 3.4

~~

I watched ‘The Rite’ recently – very good – but I loved this bit of dialogue from Anthony Hopkins: “At times I’ve experienced total loss of faith—day, months when I don’t know what the hell I believe in—God or the devil, Santa Claus or Tinker Bell. Yet there’s something that keeps digging and scraping away inside of me. Seems like God’s fingernail. And finally, I can take no more of the pain and I get shoved out from the darkness into the light.”

~~

One of the things that I have been working on most, in therapy and privately, is overcoming my fear of social disapproval. I’ve got the theology sorted, it’s letting the lessons sink into the crevices of the heart which is difficult, and which takes time. I have no doubt that I am making progress, but like an old war-wound it occasionally flares up and I am plunged into old anger and darkness. This is spiritual warfare, no more, no less. This is the nature of the spiritual quest – to take our stony hearts and allow God to break them into flesh. It is not a simple or linear process. Then again, nor are trees – and they are beautiful in all their gnarled and weather-beaten complexity.

~~

The demons “are treacherous, and are ready to change themselves into all forms and assume all appearances. Very often also without appearing they imitate the music of harp and voice, and recall the words of Scripture. Sometimes, too, while we are reading they immediately repeat many times, like an echo, what is read. They arouse us from our sleep to prayers; and this constantly, hardly allowing us to sleep at all. At another time they assume the appearance of monks and feign the speech of holy men, that by their similarity they may deceive and thus drag their victims where they will. But no heed must be paid them even if they arouse to prayer, even if they counsel us not to eat at all even though they seem to accuse and cast shame upon us for those things which once they allowed. For they do this not for the sake of piety or truth, but that they may carry off the simple to despair; and that they may say the discipline is useless, and make men loathe the solitary life as a trouble and burden, and hinder those who in spite of them walk in it.” (Athanasius)

~~

I have a bad habit of often withdrawing in the face of hostility, of avoiding conflict. That might seem false to those who only see the combative side of my character, but it is true nonetheless. “Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself! I am large, I contain multitudes.” I am coming to see that this is a significant root to one of the key challenges I face in the parish, and that deafness and introversion are contributory factors, not the determining ones.

The naming of demons is the first step in casting them out. In other words, there are things that I can do about this, and things that I will enjoy doing about this.

As for the combative side – it is somewhat exhausted now, and is resolved to rest for a while.

~~

I find myself being shown around a possible Rectory. It is in a poor area of Manchester, near where I spent a few months on placement. It is a flat, on the first and second floor. In talking to the parish representatives I feel full of enthusiasm for what can be done to grow the church and yet, as I walk around the flat, I realise that it would be impossible to make it a home for our family. I realise that the parish is not right for me.

~~

I have been restless and exploring my options but what is becoming ever clearer to me is that it is the accuser who seeks to drive me out. God, St Benedict and Eugene Peterson are unanimous in calling me to stabilitas. I think my family want that too.

Abba Isaiah said, “A beginner who goes from one monastery to another is like an animal who jumps this way and that, for fear of the halter.”

~~

On holiday, I had one of my sleepless nights – one where I wake up in the small hours and find my brain processing at high speed. I am pondering Robert the Bruce’s spider. The story is told to show how are to emulate the Bruce, and not be downcast at failure but simply to pick ourselves up, cast off the dust from our feet and move on. Yet I ponder the spider at the heart of the story. In truth, the spider doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. It has no capacity for changing its nature, and so it will simply keep on casting the web until it either succeeds or dies.

I take a lesson from this. We human beings are confused in our self-understandings. We think that our natures are infinitely malleable according to the pressures of our ego or wider society. We have not that creativity or strength. We are as God has made us and called us, from beginning to end.

I sometimes think that what I have been trying to be is a bird, because people have wanted me to build a nest out of twigs and leaves, somewhere in which cuckoos can be comfortable. This is difficult, because I am a spider, weaving a web of fine strands liable to be blown apart by a single flap of a bird’s wing. The web is a fragile structure, and yet it can catch flies – even the Lord of the Flies. To be a spider and pretend to be a bird – I have a suspicion that this is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I need to reverence God’s intentions more than I have been doing.

In other words, I need to concentrate on spinning the web, until I either succeed or die.

~~

John Barrowman, what a fine looking man.

~~

I have come to a place of much greater equanimity and spiritual calm. That is not to say that there are no longer any weeds in my spiritual garden – it is to say that after the thunderstorm and the rain the sun has come out, and it is time for me to start weeding and tending the flowers.

At previous times in my life, when I have been in a similar place, I would have said ‘a new start!’ ‘new plans!’ but now – I can’t. I am realising that I am a passenger in my own life and I have no capacity to determine the course. My dream was all about vanities, and I believe those vanities have run their course. For now.

~~

In the last part of the dream, I am walking down a street in South London trying to find a funeral. A friend from school is giving me advice on a mobile phone, and promises to come and get me in his taxi if need be. But I find the church and go in. It is a calm and clean place. There are candles and incense. I realise that the deceased is my training incumbent, and the service is being taken by the Bishop of Colchester. The service is simple and traditional and I feel ‘this is it’ – this is what church must be. I leave the service feeling both satisfied but also wounded from two sudden bereavements.

~~

In all my wanderings through the spiritual darkness I have not felt separated from God. For most of my life I enjoy what could be called an ‘HDTV’ access to Him – guidance for the way forward has often been very clear and intimate. Yet through this recent darkness it is as if the connection has been by telegram – much reduced in information, yet still clear and understandable.

And what has God’s message to me been, consistently through all this time. What has the voice of God been to me?

“Trust me.”

~~

~~

Short thoughts 3 – "New Atheism"

UPDATE: this is starting on Saturday; if any Mersea people want to join in there are a few places left – just let me know.

This is just a plug – I’ve agreed to do a course, spread across two Saturdays next May, exploring the “New Atheism” – what it is, where it’s from, what’s wrong with it, how Christians should respond to it, etc etc.

It will run 10-4 on Saturdays 14th and 21st May, at West Mersea Church Hall.

Details:

PURPOSE / AIM of module:
To familiarise students with the main arguments and methods of the “New Atheists”, to understand where they stand in intellectual history, and to have renewed understanding of – and confidence in – the classical Christian intellectual tradition.

General – including COURSE CONTENT
Six main teaching sessions spread over the two Saturdays, plus time for small groups and plenary discussions. The six teaching sessions are expected to cover:
Introduction/Overview, with especial attention to Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’
Philosophical roots 1: Hume and Logical Positivism
Philosophical roots 2: Locke and the ethics of religious belief
Theological roots: the Christian origins of atheism
Different types of theism: classical and personal
How should a Christian respond to an atheist?

TARGET GROUP – including prior experience needed etc.
No prior philosophical expertise will be assumed for this course, just an interest in the subject matter to be covered – all technical terms will be fully explained. It would be helpful if participants had read Dawkins’ ‘God Delusion’ or a similar book before coming on the course.

For a flavour of my approach to these questions, have a look at my ‘Reasonable Atheism’ series of posts, which are listed here.