A survivor’s guilt

Irish Famine Memorial, Dublin

We returned earlier this month from a lovely ten-day tour of Ireland, which took us from Dublin through the southern counties of the Republic, to Galway, Connemara, the Burren and the Ring of Kerry, and back through County Cork. It was a smallish tour, with 25 participants among whom Alison and I were the only English people. (Run by My Ireland Tour – highly recommended!) Tony McGoey was a our driver and tour guide, who informed us, told jokes and stories, even sang to us! And of course, there was a lot of information about the history of Ireland.

I knew about quite a bit of it. But most of what I knew was the story the British tell. So, very little about the penalties imposed on Roman Catholics for much of the 17th to 19th centuries, the attempts to eradicate Irish language and culture, the greed and land-grabbing of the Anglo-Irish gentry. We know of the Irish Potato Famine as a huge, terrible ‘humanitarian disaster’ as we term them now. What the British histories don’t tell us is, that while the Irish peasantry were starving and being driven off their land in their millions, the landowners’ fields were producing bumper harvests of grain, which they were exporting very profitably across the Irish Sea. Recent attempts to rebrand the period as not the Irish Famine but the Irish Genocide make more sense now.

Notice to Quit, served on the Widow Mary Campbell in 1849. Derry Bog Village, Ireland

It was a wretched experience to hear these accounts, along with those of the brutality of the British suppression of the protests and uprisings against the system, and know I was one of the race that is guilty of these atrocities. It’s not much consolation to think, “It’s not me that’s responsible. It wasn’t even my ancestors who were the governing classes or the gentry – my ancestors were the people Below Stairs, or if they were lucky, the clerks slaving away at their writing desks, like Bob Cratchit.”

And all this guilt, if it is guilt, came while I’ve also been reading Simon Schama’s History of the Jews, with its catalogue of the persecutions of the Jews by Christians, ever since – well, forever, really. Certainly since Christianity became the State religion under the Emperor Constantine. History is a long, long record of abominable things that powerful groups of people have done to less powerful people, and the English are among the worst offenders. History may, or must, always be written by the victors, but it’s also true that any of us who have survived (so far) are in fact the victors in the human (rat) race. Even if we are only the victors’ running dogs.

Can we atone for our share in what has been done? No. Do we need to atone? I’m hoping that Someone Else has done that, but perhaps atonement can only work for us, if we recognise that survivors’ guilt isn’t an imaginary thing, but is indeed real guilt. And recognising guilt surely means doing all that we can to avoid guilt by association in the evil things that are still being done. What genocides are the British people still complicit in? Maybe by selling arms to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, so that they can kill Yemenis or support Islamist terrorism? Maybe by paying the taxes that pay for the bombs killing people in Syria? Maybe by tolerating Governments that continue to make the rich richer, at the expense of the poorest in society?

When we stand before the Great Assize and the only plea we have to offer is Guilty, I hope it really is true that the Bleeding Charity1 is also greater than anything we have so far imagined.

  1. ‘What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
     ‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
    C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

How great is our God?

I suffer from a condition which I’m sure is not at all unique. I don’t have a name for it, but its effect is to make me allergic to certain hymns and worship songs because of the associations they have for me. Some of those associations are entirely random and personal. Example: I can never sing ‘Thy hand, O God, has guided’, with its rousing last line in each verse, ‘One Church, one Faith, one Lord’, without it being clouded by the Nazi slogan ‘Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!’

Others are associations with current trends in the Church or world events which I think are entirely legitimate: we should be concerned if our worship songs give a slanted view of God. There’s a trend, especially in Evangelical worship today, to be almost exclusively Jesus-centred. “It’s all about you, all about you, Jesus,” says Matt Redman’s ‘The Heart of Worship’. Sometimes it’s hard to find a single song in a service that’s addressed to God the Trinity, or to the Father. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the Jesus Plan, what with him talking so much about knowing the Father, making the Father known, glorifying the Father.

The other thing I’ve developed an allergy to, is too much emphasis on the greatness of God. After all those videos of Islamist fighters firing off rockets, or suicide bombers blowing themselves up, with shouts of “Allahu akbar!” I’m not interested in some inter-faith contest of “My God’s bigger than your God!” Islam places such an emphasis on the singularity and greatness of God, that it can’t accept the idea of Him (sic) having a Son – or even of the Messiah Jesus actually dying on the cross1. But for me the glory of the Christian faith, is that it tells us about a God who didn’t need to cling on to that greatness, but gave it up, and became little for us. Shared our insignificance in the face of the immeasurable Universe. Became small as a human foetus, as a baby, a child, a refugee, a man living under foreign tyranny, a falsely condemned victim crushed by the military machine. That small.

Charles Wesley, as so often, has it right when he has us sing:

Our God, contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man. (Charles Wesley)

A lot of our more recent hymn writers would benefit from a little immersion in the theology of Wesley’s hymns.

  1. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them. (Sura 4.157)

Religiodicy

It’s not theodicy that’s the problem, but religiodicy. How can you justify religion, or religions, in this world where they are perceived as being part of the problem, rather than the solution they always claim to be?

Of course you can take this right back to theodicy when you start to ask, What the fuck was God thinking of, inventing this (or that) religion and starting all this trouble in the first place? Trouble is, I’m convinced God is Somewhere wringing God’s hands and saying, “This isn’t what I meant at all! I didn’t intend this intolerance, bigotry, hatred, persecution, judgmentalism, war. In fact, I spent quite a lot of time in my Scriptures telling people not to do all this. But did they listen?”

So I found myself thinking, as so often before, How can religions which are supposed to be about relating to a loving God, or a covenant God, or an all-merciful all-compassionate God, turn into such ghastly travesties of what they are supposed to be? Citations not needed.

And in a moment of what felt like a revelation, I thought I heard the answer: It happened as soon as people began to ask themselves, How can I use this incredible idea to make people do what I want them to do? 1

It’s just possible some of them had reasonable intentions. They may have started off thinking, I believe God wants us to behave in such-and-such a way. And the next minute it’s, I want what God wants (of course I do), so I want people to behave in such-and-such a way, too. Even St Paul, who at one minute is asking, Who are you to judge the servant of another and tell them how to behave? is very soon giving pretty definite lists of forbidden behaviour.

And by the time of the emperor Constantine, with Christianity being declared the State religion, we’ve come straight to the point of religion being used as a tool for the governing classes to make their underlings behave just how the powerful and wealthy want them to behave. 2 And the sad thing is, there are always enough people who buy into this, who think it’s to their own advantage to say Yes to the powerful, and accept their view of what God wants, rather than take the trouble to discover what God’s character and wishes really are.

So what’s the answer? Some people think the best thing would be to abandon ‘organised religion’ altogether. But I’ve always taken the view, If you don’t like organised religion, just try what disorganised religion tastes like. (It’s a bit like what you’ve got in North America, or in every part of the Anglican Communion where clergy and congregations think they know better than their bishops.) Humans being what we are, it’s better to have some kind of society and authority, rather than everyone just doing what seems right to themselves.

And yet, the answer is also to let go of much of what organised religion has done and said, to go back beyond it to the words and deeds of the founders, and to find in them the traces of the nature of the God we all have it in us to know. For me, yes, the clearest of those traces can be found in the life and teachings of Jesus. At the end of the day, I hope we shall see clearly whatever is true in what each of the religions teaches. For the time being, we travel in uncertainty, trying to untangle the strands of mystery, trying to catch the glimpse of God that most nearly accords with what life has taught us.

Whether we think the questions are much more important and interesting than the answers, or vice versa… perhaps that is one of the things that either justifies the ‘religion’ we hold, or casts doubt on it?

  1. Like with the Internet. Possibly the most wonderful invention, promising true knowledge and free, open-source sharing between everyone in the world, and what do people do? They start asking, How can I make money out of this?
  2. Of course, Islam got there even quicker by having a political structure almost from the word Go.

Relative to Time

Aged 20, I spent one of the formative years of my life in Germany. It was a year out from my university studies in German and French, when I was supposedly working as a language assistant in a German Realschule, and enjoying an immersive language experience.

What I ‘knew’, back then, was that I was going to be a writer. During those sometimes lonely months, I wrote two novels. The first, Hemlock, was set in an imaginary Mitteleuropa, in which the eponymous hero is fleeing from a vengeful nemesis, who is seeking to exact punishment for some monstrous, though accidental, injury. When she finally catches up with him, after many winding ways and sufferings, Hemlock learns to his horror that she has been dead all the time.

It wasn’t very good…

My second attempt, A Fractured Time, was a semi-autobiographical, stroke wishful-thinking, account of a young man who is going abroad for a year in the middle of his university course, leaving behind his girlfriend, the love of his life. Simon – was that his name? – feels that for this all-too-short period of his life he is free, but presently the System will take control of him and he will be trapped for the rest of his working life in a cycle of time-keeping daily drudgery of work. He will be a prisoner of, or in, time. But for this brief moment he is free, a freedom symbolised by the breaking of his wristwatch, the manacle which holds him in thrall to the tyranny of convention and normality. This summer, while he’s waiting for his watch to be mended, while he’s spending a last few weeks with his girlfriend before going away, is the time-out-of-time, the ‘fractured time’ of the title. It comes to an end… he goes away… but he has glimpsed the possibility that there exists Something Other than the slavery he longs to avoid.

The theme of Time continued to preoccupy me. I contemplated a third novel which was going to be about a young man who discovered the Meaning of Life. He is the son of an obsessive master clockmaker, whose clocks rule the lives of those who ‘own’ them, but the son is determined that he will escape from this tyranny of Time. I didn’t write more than the first chapter, because I realised that I didn’t have a convincing answer to the question of the Meaning of Life…

What is Time? It’s the element in which we part-fleshly, part-spiritual amphibians live, like a fish lives in water. Yet even St Augustine writes, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

It was partly this reflection on Time and its meaning, that drew me to a spiritual search, and ultimately to faith in God. Years and years later, I’ve stopped worrying quite so much about Time. Time and eternity are mysteries I don’t want to hurt my head trying to understand, so I have learned simply to Let Be.

But a funny thing happened. My old wristwatch – which I’ve had for more years than I can remember – is getting a bit tired. And when I was in Ireland last week a pocket watch took my fancy and I bought it.

And suddenly I feel again that a wristwatch is a kind of a manacle. But a pocket watch is something else. It requires much more of an effort to take it out of your pocket and open it and look at it. So I find I’m not looking at it every few minutes, the way I must have been doing a lot of the time. I’m hoping this will mean I am not so much the slave to time, that Simon feared adult life would make him. Will this help me to live more in the present moment? learn how to measure the passing of time more accurately in my own mind and body and environment, like our ancestors did? simply find other ways of checking the time every few seconds, like knowing where there’s a clock in the room, or looking in the corner of my phone or computer screen?

I don’t know. I read that pocket watches have enjoyed a small revival in popularity, because of the appeal of steampunk. So perhaps that’s another new image, or hobby, or activity, for me to begin to explore?

The last sermon

It’s just over a year since I preached my farewell sermon at St Nicholas Marston, on 17th July 2016. So as I look back, and especially as the blog where I posted it no longer exists, I’m re-posting it here.

Last Sunday morning Alison preached a cracking sermon, didn’t she? I thought it was one of the best I’ve heard her preach. So, she’s set the bar pretty high, and I’m afraid I can’t emulate that, I don’t think this will be one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached (I’m feeling a bit too emotional for that). But with God’s help it will be ‘good enough’. And it will be the Last Sermon I preach from this pulpit – at least, as vicar of this parish.

Richard Baxter, the 17th century Puritan hero who was vicar of Kidderminster for many years during and after the Civil Wars, wrote, “I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” So, last sermon is good. Any sermon a preacher ever preaches could be their last, whether through personal accident or mishap, an asteroid hitting the earth next week, the Second Coming, whatever. So a preacher should always perhaps have in mind, If this is the last time I can speak to these people I love and have a responsibility for, the last time I can give them some word of encouragement, instruction, admonishment, exhortation, so that they go on growing deeper into the love of God and into all that God wants for them, what should I say?

Not all biblical texts lend themselves equally well to this, but today’s passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians is good enough. And yes, it is one of my favourite passages from St Paul. So, thank you, Lectionary.

It really starts in mid-sentence, because Koine Greek was entirely innocent of full stops. St Paul is speaking about the Son (the One by whom God has rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us over into the Son’s Kingdom) who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. It would be great if you would read this chapter yourselves, during the next few days. But for now, just stop and think about how extraordinary this whole passage is. This letter was probably written, to the young church in Colossae, in the early 50s of the 1st century AD, maybe 53 or 54. So it was not much more than 20 years after the death of Jesus. People would still be alive, who remembered and could talk about Jesus, what he was really like, and the impression he made on those who heard him. Paul himself – we don’t actually know that he had seen or heard Jesus while he was alive, but quite possibly he had – had been utterly convinced after the crucifixion that Jesus was not, could not be, the Messiah. He tried to quash the idea that he was, by killing these Jesus people or throwing them in prison. And twenty years on, here he is calling him not only Messiah, Christ, but Son of God. He is making a claim that Jesus of Nazareth, and this divine being, are one and the same. That this Being was pre-existent with God from eternity, was a party to the creation of the universe, is in fact the cohesive principle of everything that exists, the meaning and explanation of everything, the source and goal of all things.

This is A Big Claim. It was for the people of the 1st century, whether Jews or pagan Greeks; you may think it’s even bigger for us who know so much more about the scientific origins and nature of the universe, whether that’s Big Bangs or black holes or Higgs boson particles or all those other things I know nothing more than the names of. (How many of us understand more than the littlest thing about them?) How many of us fully understand what St Paul is talking about? He is not talking science. He is talking Mystery, a mystery we could not work out unless it was revealed to us, but which claims to make sense of everything. We may not grasp it, yet it can so move us that, if we give ourselves to it, our lives will never be the same. And the Mystery is that at the heart of our life and of all things, is love. The great Unknown which we hope or guess at, has a name, and the name is Love. It’s like Dante says, after his journey through Inferno, and Purgatory, and Paradise, and he finally beholds the Reality, and it is

l’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle – the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Here is the truth: I am loved, and you are loved, by the One who sustains the universe in being. And we are not meaningless blips in infinity, because that One knows us and our names are written on his hands and in his heart.

I stand here today because, some 46 years ago, Christ captivated me. And has not let me go, or let me down, in the years since then. Actually, of course, he was reaching out to me and trying to get my attention all the years before that as well, in fact as the psalmist says For it was you who formed my inward parts; | you knit me together in my mother’s womb. | I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Ps.139.13f) It just took me 21 years to catch on. And I think I’m still catching on, because of all those times when life presents us with counter-evidences. When things go wrong, or bad things happen, all the times you really can’t understand what God is doing, the times when even vicars have doubts. You know some of the things that make me most angry, and most doubting. It’s when people hate, and preach hatred, and even kill other people, and claim they are doing all that in the name of God. What kind of religion does that? What kind of God permits a religion to turn into that perverted thing, and (apparently) isn’t doing anything about it? There are other things, as well, that make even a vicar doubt. But it’s precisely in those times, that it is most important for us to know that the Love that moves the sun and the other stars is holding us. Like the shepherd holding the one lamb that wandered off and got lost, like the mother holding her newborn baby.

And this is what I want to leave you with, as my Last Sermon legacy. I want you to know, with even more assurance than you do already, that this is why we are here. Here on this earth, here in this church: to celebrate this Mystery, to know this Mystery more fully, to live the way it teaches us to live and to seek by all means to make this Mystery known to those who don’t yet know it.

Another of my great Christian heroes through the years, my patron saint almost, has been St Benedict. St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), one of the great figures of Western monasticism, author of the Rule of St Benedict which was (is!) foundational for so many of the religious orders that have sustained the Church. The Rule of St Benedict has all the qualities which I treasure in the Anglican way, the Church of England’s way: the daily round of prayer and praise to God; a spirit of moderation and pastoral gentleness; a profoundly healthy work-life balance (as we would call it now) of prayer, work, study and relaxation; the determination that all should be included, no one in the Christian community should be left behind, or lose heart and give up, or feel that they and their gifts and abilities don’t matter; the core values of stability (staying in the place where God has called you), obedience to the Word of God, and conversion of life (even though all of us are only ever beginners, Benedict encourages us to be constantly seeking to grow). The Christian community, whether that is the monastery or the parish, is meant to be ‘a school for the Lord’s service’. (Prol.45) And it is Christ-centred, through and through. St Benedict says, the love of Christ must come before all else (4.21), and (of those who follow his Rule) ‘Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ. ‘(72.11)

That’s what I have wanted, and want, for this community of our two churches here in Marston and Elsfield. And will continue to pray for, as I pray for you in the years to come.

So. Let the love of Christ come before all else, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. Because it is Christ who is in you, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead, the One in whom all things hold together. And all this is so, because the Love that moves the sun and the other stars loves you with infinite, unconquerable love.

Alison and I can leave you, sadly but confidently, because you are in good hands. And I don’t mean Rob’s, and the wardens’ (though, indeed, they are not such bad hands, either.) No, you are in good hands, because you are in God’s hands, you are in those hands which flung stars into space, but were also to cruel nails surrendered, hands from which nothing can ever pluck you, or cause you to fall.

Let us pray.

Preached at St Nicholas Marston, 17 July 2016. Tony and Alison Price’s last service before retirement.

The first book I bought

Can you remember the first book you ever bought? I can. It's not a title or a choice I'm especially proud of, but it reminds me of the way things were and have been in my life.

When I was a child in the 1950s, ours was not a very bookish household. I remember one shelf of books in the dining room, and some other books on the top of the bureau. There were a couple of single-volume reference books, a large five-volume pictorial encyclopaedia called I See All,

some books which I think Mum had as a girl, including Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. There were a few that Dad had won as Sunday School prizes: Adventures of a Three-Guinea Watch by Talbot Baines Reed is the only one I can remember the title of. There was E. V. Rieu's Penguin Classics translation of The Iliad. From later years (probably), I remember Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and Sir Richard Burton's translation of Kama Sutra, a bright yellow paperback. Both of these looked like books I wasn't supposed to read, so I naturally looked inside them and found them too boring to tolerate. What was the parents' interest in them?

But, books of my own? I really can't remember the first book I read or was given as a present. But The Book as a thing, an idea – it compelled me like nothing else. I longed to have, to own, to read.

I think I was 8 that year, when we went on our summer holiday to Greatstone in Kent. Mum and Dad gave me five shillings holiday pocket money, so naturally on the very first day I was in the small village shop, looking how to spend the money that was burning a hole in my pocket, looking at the books on the shelves. The selection was small in the extreme. The book I had to have cost, I think I remember, three shillings and fourpence. That was two-thirds of my allowance for the whole fortnight. My mother was horrified. That five shillings was supposed to buy me sweets, ice creams, buckets and spades, rides on dodgem cars, all the important things I was going to need while on holiday. And I had spent nearly all of it on a book!

And the book? It was, alas, The Boy Next Door, by Enid Blyton.

All I remember of it, the very first book I ever chose and bought with my own money, is that I had finished it by the end of that day. I learned something about disappointment that week, because I didn't read it again and again (it wasn't that good), and the village shop wasn't going to function like a lending library where I could trade in my finished book for another. I probably wouldn't have wanted to anyway: it was my book, my very own, my precious.

Since then I have bought, and owned, many books. Most of them I have wanted and loved more than that one. But, even though I can't remember an iota of the plot – even reading the summary on the Enid Blyton website stirs not the least memory – I will never forget that longing, that agony of choosing and sacrifice, that having and owning. That book.

Taking a back seat

I guess lots of average churchgoers struggle, more or less, with the church they attend. Some may have shopped around for a church that was the least worst of options in their locality – or, if they were lucky, perhaps even the best match with what they hope for in a church. Others may not have the luxury of choice, and end up in the only church it’s at all feasible for them to attend. And they end up putting up with whatever’s on offer. I suspect that most lay people assume that, even if they have to compromise and make sacrifices, at least the clergy and other worship leaders have it just the way they want it to be.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Even though the clergy may have the greatest influence on what the worship is like, most of them would say there are so many variables, that it’s still never 100% how they would like it. The involvement and enthusiasm of the congregation are never in your control. They don’t sing with enough enthusiasm, they say the congregational bits too fast or too slow, they don’t arrive early enough to get into a suitable prayerful frame of mind. The layout and furnishings of the building may have been fit for purpose 500 years ago, but today!? The quality of the music depends on who is available to provide it, their skills and interest and personal preferences. So the clergy too have to make compromises, and put up with the way things are.

Nevertheless, I was more than happy with the worship at Marston and Elsfield. It wasn’t perfect, but it nourished me and many others during the 25 years and more that I was responsible for it. The music in particular was a joy, thanks to the dedication of the four organists I worked with, the choir(s) and music group. When we started a Junior Choir, it was a huge boost to the whole of our music, and numbers of those lovely young people who started in our choir have gone on to other things, singing in Oxford college choirs and even cathedral choirs. I was proud of the way the music developed during my time as Vicar, even though I had little to do with actually making it happen.

And then, of course, you have to move on, or in my case retire. And suddenly you’re not in the driving seat any more, you’re just another bum on a pew.

The one thing I’m sure I can say without contradiction, to any soon-to-be-retiring clergyperson, is: Wherever you end up in church, they won’t do things properly. I suppose it’s remotely possible you may find yourself in a place where something in the worship is so amazing that you say to yourself, I wonder why I never thought of doing it like that? But it doesn’t happen very often.1 So there’s a steep learning curve, about Letting Go and Letting Be, and learning either to put up with or love the way it is done in your new place of worship.

There are blessings along the way. We have learned some new things, and learning new things is good when you retire. We’ve found a loving and friendly welcome, from lots of people who are not only nice but good – their compassion and generosity put me to shame. We always preached the importance of being part of one’s local parish church, rather than looking around for something more congenial, and we have been blessed to be able to do that (in spite of some of the niggles). We have been touched by the way that the clergy value us simply being there; as if our mere presence is an encouragement, a support to them.

And so, we are here because this is the place we believe God has called us to be. Which is the best way, and the best place, to be.

  1. It happened quite a lot during my last two years in the parish, when I was blessed with a brilliant young colleague and was constantly thinking, I wonder why I’ve never done it like that?