Wednesday, 22 December 2010


There's a young woman who was something of a pain to people I care about. Or there was. Early today she killed herself after threatening to do so for years. I don't know any of the details. I was far from being a friend of hers, and in fact because she brought someone I am close to such a great deal of trouble, my opinion of her was negative to say the least. But to anyone who didn't have to spend a great deal of time with her, I get the impression she came across as charming, idealistic, talented and moral. 'She wasn't evil', said my friend who suffered most from her problems, 'she was just ill'. The illness would have been clear to anyone but the poor screwed-up girl herself, but she positively refused to get help, worrying about the stigma of being labelled mentally ill. Christians usually think of the Devil trying to nudge us to do things that will land us in hell, but I doubt whether the Enemy knows how the details of salvation or damnation play out in any individual's life any more than we do. I certainly don't believe Ms L's suicide will, by itself, pitch her into the fire. But the damage it wreaks on all the people who loved her, and even those who didn't have anything to thank her for, and the waste of any of the good she might have done, is a result for him. It hurts the world, when our job is to try to heal it. Please God to remember the times when that was indeed what L tried to do.

Christmas Cheer

I went to make my Advent confession on Monday. The snow is melting now, but two days ago it still lay deep and thick if not very even across the middle of Surrey. I caught a train which was twenty minutes late and then crawled its way to the city where it terminated, despite being scheduled to go on to Waterloo, because of some undefined technical fault. At least it got that far, it seemed touch and go at one stage. (The train home was amazing - jam-packed to a degree you usually only find on the Tube, literally with no room to move, at least in the carriage I was). I toiled up the hill to the cathedral and told my spiritual director all. He advised me to turn my negative thoughts into positive prayers for parallel virtues, and to be thankful for these insights into my faults, and gave me the Benedictus to read as my penance. I was on my way out of the chapel full of gratitude for this encounter with the Lord's mercy when S.D.'s voice rang out behind me. 'Don't worry', he called, 'Life just gets worse and then there's death'.

Bring on the Sub

There were only six of us at the 8am Mass at snowy Swanvale Halt on Sunday morning. The curate was presiding, and having got to the end of the prayers looking increasingly pink choked at the peace and lost her voice completely, so I had to step in. I'd been so weary, under-the-weather and generally pissed off when I got up that I nearly didn't go at all, there being no actual need for me to be there. Lucky I did, and got the experience of presiding at the Holy Sacrifice in an overcoat and wellingtons.

Something similar happened to me when I was looking after Goremead a couple of years ago. There it was the midweek service when the bout of food-poisoning that had been threatening me all morning finally sent out a conquering wave of nausea. Luckily a) the congregation included two retired priests one of whom stepped in from the Creed onwards and b) there is a toilet adjoining the vestry where the other retired priest found me a minute later with my head down the bowl. Fully vested in fiddleback and maniple too.

Another instance: at the confirmation service in November the bishop managed to choke and only recovered slowly and with a great deal of concentration. The trouble with a confirmation service is that nobody else can do it. Churches tend to have rather few retired bishops lying around for this sort of emergency.

Friday, 17 December 2010

All Flesh is Grasse

You wouldn't expect me to enjoy humanist funeral services very much. Perhaps 'enjoyment' isn't the right word for funerals anyway, but you know what I mean. I've been to a couple and always find them 'thin' compared to Christian funerals. I haven't warmed to any of the officiants who've taken the ones I've been to, but that's probably no worse than Christian ministers of different sorts. Of course you daren't, daren't so much as suggest any negative feelings, because what can you do with them? But what I most dislike came in front of me on Wednesday. That afternoon I took a funeral service at the crematorium and noticed a folder on the table where I was putting my things. This turned out to be the notes left by the officiant at a humanist funeral earlier in the day. Usually humanist funerals spend the vast bulk of their time waxing lyrical about the heroic achievements of the deceased, but there was no trace of a biography in the notes, so I assume somebody else had read a tribute or something of that sort. Instead there was a passage from Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and some heartwarming statements along the following lines.

For those of us who hold that the individual life concludes with death, it is nevertheless not the end. ... Arnold may be gone, but he lives on in your memories.

It is nevertheless not the end? Yes it is. In any commonly understood sense, for Arnold it definitely is the end. This particular celebrant didn't say 'his life returns to the earth', as I have heard on other occasions, but it doesn't do that either. At best, the incinerated remains of the minerals that made Arnold's physical body return to the earth, but not 'his life', his consciousness. As for Arnold 'living on' in his loved ones' memories, no he doesn't. They may have memories of him, but those memories are not 'him living', they're a set of synaptic responses in the brains of those who shared some aspect of his life when it was a life which will themselves decay and come to an end. Call me simple-minded, but all this is metaphor, not truth. I never, ever use language like this.

In a way I sympathise, because what on earth can you say? A truly honest humanist funeral would state, if it said anything, 'Arnold is dead and we are here to dispose efficiently and cleanly of the collection of carbon, phosphor and other elements that make up his body. Some of the things he did were good and some were bad. You will remember him for a while, less and less accurately as time goes on, and eventually you too will die and nobody will remember him at all.' What we have here is an attempt to accommodate through linguistic sleight-of-hand what the officiant believes, or doesn't believe, with the perceived need to comfort Arnold's family and friends with the thought that in some way he 'lives on'. Shouldn't atheists be brave enough to combat this weak-mindedness? Or perhaps it doesn't really matter?

Sound and Fury

Aeons ago the Heresiarch posted about the 'debate' between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens in Toronto on whether religion benefits the human race, the world, and the universe. I hadn't bothered with it until a few days ago when I heard it broadcast on Radio 4; even then I couldn't manage more than the opening statements by both participants before boredom got the better of me. You know exactly what the protagonists are going to say in these circumstances; the only interest lies in discovering exactly how it's going to be said and, as the Heresiarch points out, Mr Hitchens's contribution was far more elegant.

My main conclusion was that the discussion was not merely sterile, but entirely wrong-headed. I find myself continually insisting that there are such things as 'religions', ideological structures and traditions based on various propositions, but 'religion' is usually too vague a category to be helpful. And the outset of this debate made the point. The core and heart of Mr Hitchens's argument was this, wonderfully modulated and beautifully delivered phrase:

"Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well. I'll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well."

The repetition shows how important it is in Mr Hitchens's thinking. But it seems to me that it's a criticism not of religion in general, but of Christianity. The tension in Christianity between the doctrine of the inevitable human tendency to sin and the command to be holy generates huge theological difficulties and, it could be argued, psychological stress which human beings can do without. But it is, I think, unique to this particular religious tradition. Allah, for instance, demands only that human beings follow a few easily-enumerated rules; the deities of many animist traditions make no moral demands on their adherents at all; Buddhist or Daoist traditions again have very clear statements of what human beings have to do in order to live the good life which fall well within the bounds of possibility. Only Christianity has this inescapable tension between divine perfection and inborn human frailty, and even then there have been Christian heretics who've thought differently.

Religions are different and teach different things. Atheist campaigners prefer to tackle a single phenomenon, 'religion', but what they think religion is seems usually to be their own creation drawn from real ideologies - Christianity, for instance - and arguing about that construction seems to me to be the merest pointlessness. It's as sterile as discussing whether 'politics' is good for the world.

Monday, 13 December 2010

A Little Light Art

I've posted before about the Crypt Gallery space at St Pancras Church in London and also about Illumini which organises artistic events around the capital. This Sunday we combined the two by going to Illumini's charming 'Cryptmas' event at St Pancras, which spattered the whole space with fake snow and filled the niches and corridors with a series of light-based artworks inspired by Christmas customs, present-giving, angels, and the whole of the festive season. Even the gigantic glowing animatronic winged skull wasn't particularly eerie, I thought, and instead it was all rather innocuously delightful.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Calling

Today is St Ambrose's Day. I told our small congregation the famous story of how Ambrose moved from being a Roman governor to Bishop of Milan after trying to restore peace in a particularly rowdy public meeting called to elect the new bishop, and a child's voice calling out from the crowd, 'Ambrose for Bishop!' Quite something when he wasn't even baptised at that stage.

'I've always liked that story about Ambrose', said Fred, who is our longest-serving server and who usually serves the Tuesday mass, 'because it happened to me'. He then told me how he went to church when he was little, but stopped as he got older and then a bit later was walking past the church when a voice called out 'Fred!'. There was nobody there and he thought nothing of it, but then it kept happening whenever he went past the church, and only stopped when he started going again. Fred's great-grandson was confirmed last month, so there are now four generations of his family involved with the church. Of course there are any number of natural explanations, but that doesn't really matter. From Fred, a story like that was very unexpected.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Cemetery Looked Lovely

A friend asked why I haven't put up any photographs of Swanvale Halt in the snow. It hasn't been particularly picturesque so far and in any case I have little to thank the bad weather for, as a saucepan resting on a towel sit in my kitchen to catch the drips coming through the ceiling from what is presumably a ruptured pipe. But I wish I'd had a camera with me this afternoon, or that it would have been decent to use it. We had a funeral of a popular local man, with probably something around 200 people in the church, and for the first time in days the sun came out for the occasion. The Council had gritted the steep hill to the cemetery specially, and by the time we got there the sun was straking across the hilltop turning the snow a beautiful blue-white. The cemetery staff had even cleared the snow to make a path to the graveside, revealing the dark green of the grass underneath. It's usually a bleak, windswept place, but never looked lovelier than it did this afternoon.


... which means, in New Testament speak, something revealed rather than something concealed. I forgot to mention that at Widelake House the other day as I came round bringing the residents communion one lady was crying and murmuring, 'That poor girl, God bless her, that poor young girl'. I sometimes tell people that the Eucharist involves a collapse of time, a movement of humans into God's eternal time in which sequential chronology is no longer paramount (which modern physics and neuroscience suggests may be close to scientific, as well as intuitive religious, truth), and have heard about the similar collapse of time and sequence in people with dementia or in the final stages of life. On this occasion both ran together. I don't know what was going on in the lady's mind, though of course God does: it is both mysterious and Mystery.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

More Persecuted Christians, Poor Dears

You may know I have a thing about whingeing Christians. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey's reappearance to sponsor 'Not Ashamed Day', the launch of a campaign encouraging Christians to be Out and Proud about their faith in the face of "well-meaning political correctness, multiculturalism and overt opposition to Christianity", has prompted me to post about something that came under my nose the other day.

The local churches in this area tend to swap newsletters. We don't as such, because we have a parish-wide newsletter that gets delivered to shops, institutions and homes, but we do get the magazines produced by the others. One headed a piece 'For the first time ever, the Christmas tree in the White House will be called a Holiday Tree this year. The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary' and there follows a considerable number of words attributed to Mr Stein, the right-wing US Jewish commentator and sometime comedian saying how, as a Jew, he has no objection to the Christian Christmas and rather approves of it as a sign that the American nation has not abandoned God, because we screw up when we do.

It was the bit about the White House Christmas tree that caught my attention. Was this really true, or was this another instance of Obama-bashing rumour-mongering by the US Christian Right? You only get one guess. According to Snopes, this rumour has been circulating since mid-2009 and has apparently kept going this year. This year, as last, the Obamas received the Christmas tree in a horse-drawn wagon emblazoned with the words CHRISTMAS TREE (bit of a giveaway, that) while a military band played 'O Christmas Tree'. Get the message? It's a story that neatly encapsulates the absolute conviction many US Christians have that Mr Obama is hell-bent on subverting the Constitution, banning Christianity, nationalising people's underwear, baking their babies etc. etc. It also helps British Christians work themselves into a frenzy about how the world is turning against them, and how everyone kowtows to the Muslims instead (when Christians moan about being 'treated unfairly', what they really mean is 'those Muslims get special treatment, what about us?').

But it's worse than that. This particular church is not full of frothing fundamentalists, but presumably they don't mind carrying a piece by Ben Stein because they haven't checked who he is - if they had, they'd have discovered he is a pro-life evolution-denier who once declared 'science leads you to killing people'. In fact his views are interestingly varied, but you can't say he is an uncontroversial figure.

AND not all the words quoted are even his. The second column-and-a-half is described, again, by Snopes as an anonymous coda which began circulating and being attributed to Mr Stein in about 2006. Though our local version misses out the offensive and untrue stuff about Dr Benjamin Spock, which you can read in the Snopes article, should you want, it does compound the error by adding 'My best regards, honestly and respectfully, Ben Stein' at the end. But I don't doubt that it's just been lifted wholesale from some website, or received in an email, without actually being checked.

None of this, for heaven's sake, took a lot of digging out; it required just a few minutes with Google, and a basic scepticism of the claim that Christianity is being systematically marginalised and 'pushed around'. Anyone could have found out very easily that virtually nothing in the article is true; anyone to whom it might occur that there could be any doubt about it, of course.

Sadly British Christians are now all too willing to believe this dishonest rubbish without checking, because it fits in with their own sense of being marginalised. It's claptrap. I continue to marvel, as an ordained priest of the Established Church, at the colossal degree of privilege I enjoy even on the most informal levels. A trivial example: a shop in the village is being redeveloped. I called in yesterday to find out what was happening. As I asked I could tell the foreman was a bit suspicious until I pointed out I was the vicar (sic) whereupon the suspicion cleared and we got into a conversation about his church- and school-going habits of years ago. It was assumed (rightly I like to think) by this non- or at least inactively Christian person that as parish priest I have a legitimate reason for wanting to know what's going on in the community I'm responsible for. This is the real world rather than the one imagined from the newsdesk of the Daily Mail, or Bishop Carey's study for that matter.

Thankfully some important voices in the Church of England are not going unquestioningly along with this. The Bishop of Croydon simply swept all the Not Ashamed! nonsense aside on Channel 4. 'I hardly think that we're a beleaguered minority. We're everywhere'. Quite.

Ah, It's Yourself

Here is a small photograph of Jesus looking rather sorry for himself.

I was taking the service at Widelake House and turned the page of the service booklet to find a consecrated Host laser-bonded to the paper. It's not what you expect. Presumably on a previous occasion one of the residents half-sucked their Saviour, didn't fancy him much and deposited him back on the booklet, to be dutifully gathered up and put away for several weeks. Procedure in these circumstances is to bury or burn the Host. Weather conditions make burying a little impractical, so incineration was the order.