Little, Big

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for 35 years. What? You’re telling me blog posts hadn’t even been invented 35 years ago? No, of course not: back then this would have been an article or an essay. But you know what I mean…


In 1984 I was a young curate with a struggling wife and three young children, serving a tiny church in an industrial village in Bedfordshire. I had felt a strong call to take the post, but my ministry there turned out to be not what some might call ‘successful’ in terms of making converts and growing the church. I didn’t see much noticeable fruit of my ministry, and although the people of the church loved us and we had some good friends there, it often felt there was little to support or encourage my wife and me in our own spiritual life.

Then I read a book which I thought at the time, and have often thought since, ‘changed my life’. It wasn’t a book you might have expected to change the life of a minister in that kind of situation.

It was Little, Big by John Crowley.

How can I describe this book, or explain (or perhaps, even, remember) how and why it changed my life? It’s a complex fantasy novel – Ursula K. Le Guin called it ‘a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy’. It’s a love story – or better, a whole collection of love stories. It’s a family saga spanning generations. It’s a nature book, with beautifully written descriptions of field and forest, river and lake, birds and animals. It’s about architecture and literature and ideas – over and over again you want to mark sentences and whole paragraphs you think you must remember and quote. It’s full of mysterious events that you don’t understand the significance of until much later in the Tale – if indeed you ever do. It’s about the nature of Story itself: how stories are told and if they ever can have an ending. It’s a political thriller about the End Of Civilization As We Know It, when the failing democratic republic is taken over by a charismatic populist leader, whom the elite powers of the Establishment, the bankers and the media think they will control for their own purposes – but they are mistaken. (Remembering that this book was published in 1981, you have to ask yourself: How did the author come to be so prescient? What could have greater contemporary relevance for us?)

But above all, it is a fairy story. And the secret of how and why this book changed my life is tied up with this, and the old question we all remember from our days of watching Peter Pan: Do you believe in fairies? As I read this book in 1984, a time of struggling with and trying to make sense of questions of faith, again and again it helped me to learn more about just what faith means.

The Drinkwater family, around whom the whole Tale revolves, are said from the outset to be ‘very religious’. But this is not Christian or any other kind of mainstream religion: it is about knowing and living and walking with ‘them’, the inhabitants of another world, the world of Faerie. Into this family marries a young man who doesn’t share their ‘faith’, who is introduced to us in the very first wonderful paragraph of the book:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told about but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married: the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed upon his coming there at all.

Smoky is aware of and respects the beliefs of his bride and her family, but he cannot share them. He never sees or hears or speaks to ‘them’: so he simply cannot believe in them. Yet out of courtesy he keeps quiet about his lack of faith, never speaks of it, seems almost to pretend that he does share it. Suspects, sometimes, that many of the other members of the family are also ‘pretending’ because they also are too reticent to speak of it. One of the most moving moments in the book describes the conversation, many years later, between Smoky and his grown-up son Auberon, when Auberon finally asks him, “Do you believe in fairies?” And it transpires that each of them has thought that the other knew Something all along that remained a Mystery to him. What is the difference between believing, and pretending we believe, because we think that all the people around us believe something we cannot, and yet they expect us to share their faith, and imagine that we do?

In the end (SPOILER ALERT! – or maybe not?) They all withdraw into the smaller world within their one, which turns out to be far far bigger, while all the characters in our world journey into that inner world that They have vacated, and take Their places. (I think.) All of them except Smoky who cannot make that journey. But it doesn’t matter, because

how could he desire another world than this one?

and

He couldn’t go where all of them were going, but it didn’t matter, for he’d been there all along.

His life, and all their lives and the things that have happened to them, are part of the Tale. Which is now ended; and yet it’s a Tale that never ends.

I have always been most fully convinced of things not by reasons or proofs, but by imagination. It’s why the moment I came to believe was when I read the Gospels and realised that this was a Story that I could, and wanted to, inhabit. It’s why the stories of C. S. Lewis, Narnia and the were so helpful on my spiritual journey.

And Little, Big helped me too, because it taught me to imagine the truth that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”1 Some of the most important discoveries of my own spiritual journey have been deepening insights into this truth. The ‘other world’ that we believe or aspire to believe in is ‘in’ this world, or touches it at every point, or is separated from it by only the thinnest of veils. And we come to know that ‘other world’ most fully as we learn to love and know this world. If we hate this life, we will never enjoy the life of Heaven. Or whatever.

You may not like Little, Big at all, it may leave you completely cold. But I hope that, if you do read it, you catch a glimpse of the same mysterious, wonderful truths that so captivated me and continue to do so.


  1. Variously attributed to W. B. Yeats, Paul Eluard, and even Rilke ↩︎

Henry Tanner’s Annunciation

One of the things I love about the Web is that there are so many wonderful things to find and learn there. It’s also, of course, one of the things that’s most frustrating: there is so much to discover that you will never do more than scratch the surface of it. (And what do people do with it? Well, I was going to have a small rant about pictures of cute pets, but I’ll resist the temptation.)

It’s worth it for the gems you find. An American friend shared a link to an article about the American painter Henry Tanner, in the context of the racial inequality and injustices that have been once again been brought so violently to our attention. Henry Tanner (1859-1937) was the first African-American artist to win international acclaim. As the only black student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he suffered discrimination and violent abuse – which his fellow-students would no doubt have called ‘just a prank’. It was partly in response to this casual and not-so-casual racism that he left the United States and spent most of his adult life in Paris, where society was much more tolerant.

I didn’t know anything about him or his work, but Wikipedia has this image of his beautiful picture of the Annunciation.

The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Many of Tanner’s works are deeply religious, inspired by a Christian faith that longed for society to recognise everyone as a child of God. I love the way that he doesn’t make any attempt to delineate the Angel, so that all our attention is really directed towards the Girl who is so illuminated by the messenger of God.

I’m grateful to American friends for sharing this.

Merton on Contemplation and Action

May 21st, 2020. Ascension Day. Today’s retreat topic is how Merton’s contemplation drove him to a life of activism, as he wrote and spoke advocating peace and social justice. In chapter 37 of Seeds of Contemplation he writes:

God does not give His joy to us for ourselves alone, and if we should possess Him for ourselves alone we would not possess Him at all. Any joy that does not overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God does not come to us from God. (But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

Merton’s first calling was to be a contemplative; for years he struggled against what his monastic superiors were asking him to do – like being the novice master of the monastery – and fought hard to be allowed to move into a hermitage in the woods, away from the community. But at the same time his contemplation gave him a passion for justice and peace, so that his writings in books and articles were a prophetic cry against much of what he saw in the world around.

He was against war, but also against the violent protest which he saw in the United States, directed against the Vietnam War. Instead, he argued for a Gandhian non-violent protest and resistance. The problem is, in a world where non-violent protest has a poor track record of overthrowing war, tyranny, and injustice, most people who are passionate about justice have little patience for the Gandhian or Christ-like approaches. However much I sympathised with the aims of Extinction Rebellion, I found the violence of their protests hard to accept, in their interference with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, many of whom also would agree with XR. Merton may have been anti-violence, but could his writings have been partly responsible for the violence of the anti-war protests?

In the end, Merton is right that true contemplation, true knowledge of God, must lead us to hate all forms of injustice, violence, and oppression. But the question of how to turn that hatred into proper action has no easy answer.

With a guilty feeling I opt out of the afternoon’s session which is to be more interactive and conversational about the balance (if that’s what it is?) between contemplation and action. I feel I’m not interested / have little of use to contribute / won’t find it particularly helpful. I’m afraid that some of my fellow retreatants will want to spend the time agonising about how age or ill health or frailty prevent them from being as active as they would like to be, or about how the protest and action of individuals seems so ineffective. Why can’t we change the world? Why can’t we right all its wrongs? And why can’t we do it now?

So instead I walk on the North Shore again, reflecting on how I may become more contemplative in my own prayer. I confess with alarm (I won’t call it shame) that my faithfulness in praying the Daily Office has often felt like going through the motions. Saying the words because I had to – and wanted to! – but often in a distracted way. The words progressed from the page into my eyes and out of my lips, without engaging much of the conscious brain. That’s to say, I would often be running an inner dialogue about How much more of this was there? What were the pressing things I must do when I was done here in church? How could I deal with the problem of how to manage X or Y? How soon can I stop this and get on with the things I’m really looking forward to?

Lord, teach us to pray

It’s as well that the intention to pray is more important than the depth or quality of our praying. I hope. And perhaps the process of prayer over the years has given God the opportunity to help me as I’ve thought through some of the questions in that internal dialogue. But still, I would like to concentrate more, and be more whole-mindedly conscious, of the content of the psalms and prayers I’m saying. What I seek and pray for now is greater mindfulness as I pray the Office: to be present to what I am doing, with my whole mind as well as my body. I wonder how I can possibly have reached my advanced age without knowing all this and having sorted it long ago. It’s a good job we have an extraordinarily patient (long-suffering!) God who knows that his children have always been slow learners at best.

Let’s head back then, it’s nearly time for Evening Prayer. Back to the prayer desk, and we’ll give it another go.

What a difference a year makes

If you were reading my blog about this time last year, you’ll remember that I wrote quite a lot about the health problems I was having. After my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy) I developed osteomyelitis of the symphysis pubis – a bone infection of the pelvis. This is such an unusual complication of the surgery I’d undergone, that it was some time before it was recognised and diagnosed, by which time I had been in real pain, practically unable to walk, for about five weeks. The treatment prescribed was three months of antibiotics, and about the time of the spring equinox last year, I had been on ciprofloxacin for a week, and not yet seeing noticeable easing of the pain. I noted in my diary that I went out for a walk – aided by my two walking poles – and managed about a couple of hundred metres and back.

It was a grim time, and there was further unpleasantness to come, in the form of acute urinary retention which required a urethrotomy. One of the things that helped me cope with this whole months long ordeal, was telling my story. I told it to anyone and everyone I thought would listen. I told it so often and in such horrifying detail that it probably drove my family and friends to distraction. Fortunately they had the wisdom, the patience, and the grace to listen, because telling your story is a healing thing. Victims of far worse traumas than mine – rape, war, genocide – have all testified how telling their story can help, even if there’s an element of it forcing you to relive the bad time.

For me there are still ongoing maintenance procedures I have to do, chiefly intermittent self-catheterization, which sounds terrifying but proves to be manageable even for someone as squeamish as me. It’s amazing what you can do when there’s no alternative. But as 2020 began, we began to think that this year we could get away for holidays and breaks again, in a way that was impossible in 2019. Nothing as ambitious as overseas travel, because foreign health insurance was likely to be difficult to obtain. Instead, we planned a progress north to see some of the cathedrals and medieval abbeys we we have never visited or would like to revisit. This was to finish with a week’s retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, one of our very favourite places. A thin place, a place where you really feel that you can draw near to God.

And then came Covid-19.

It has turned the world upside down, in a way that seems more extraordinary and frightening than any of the other disasters that have befallen the world in the 70 years I have known. In October 1962, when I was only 13 years old, the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced many people that we were on the brink of a Third World War which would destroy us all. I have hardly any recollection of it – certainly not of being unduly terrified at the time – though I know some of my contemporaries who were more aware of world events shared that great fear. The Vietnam War was terrible, but far away from being an immediate threat to our survival. Likewise the Gulf War(s), 9/11, and all the subsequent Middle East horrors. Suddenly an invisible killer is out there in the world, and all the powers we have been accustomed to look to for help seem powerless against it.

Each day that passes brings news of further restrictions, as the Government struggles to find the least worst way forward in dealing with the crisis. It often has the look of people thrashing about in the coils of a monster that is dragging them inexorably towards destruction. Apparently our Prime Minister was driven by enormous ambition to reach the place he is now. I’ve found myself wondering whether he regrets that now… Or would it be worse if he’s sitting in No. 10 thinking he really is the man for this hour?

We’re hoping to stay well, and if that doesn’t happen, we’re hoping to survive (what a thing to come to!) Perhaps we really are coming to a time when Bishop Ken’s hymn becomes real:

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
And live this day as if thy last…?

How would my thoughts, words, actions be different, if I considered that every journal entry, every blog post, every phone call, every conversation, might be my last? Not many of us are ready to think like that. Maybe we should cultivate how to be.

Re-enchanted Christianity? I don’t think so

Two important and challenging reads from this week. First, in the New Statesman, from Anthony Sheldon’s review of A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.

Susskind asks the right question – what will replace the dignity work gave? – but falls short on answers. The building of relationships, family, adult education, communities, the arts, sport and volunteering are barely mentioned. Oddly, religion too is dismissed as no longer giving meaning to lives. But in this century there has been an explosion in people searching for meaning in spirituality and religion.

Where are those people going to look for, and find, meaning in spirituality and religion? I’ve given the whole of my working life to the hope that the answer might be: in the Church of England. But how likely is that, I’m now asking myself, when it’s clear to people that the Church of England is more interested in telling them who’s allowed to have sex, than in telling them how they can know and experience God?

And then, in the Church Times, an opinion piece by the pseudonymous Ines Hands, entitled We are failing the next generation of Anglicans.

The loss of confidence in traditional worship stems from the fact that its tenor (solemnity, ceremony, and repetition) has few if any parallels left in modern life. Interpreting this as a barrier to participation, the response has been to adapt the life and worship of the Church so that it more closely resembles life outside the Church.
Certainly, the Church should have its eyes open to wider society. But it is absurd for the worship of the Church to be dictated by what we imagine those outside the Church want. I recently asked a friend, another lifelong Anglican of about my age, whether he expected other faiths to adapt their worship to outsiders. Without hesitation, he said that he would expect no such thing.
Likewise, for change to be dictated by the presumed tastes of children is frankly, bizarre. If children are routinely excluded from the eucharist and other liturgical rites, if the term “all-age” is applied only to patronising forms of worship, what children implicitly understand is that the way adults worship is boring and incomprehensible when they should infer that it is rich and sustaining. All worship is all-age. It is involvement and exposure that breed attachment. We cannot afford to disregard how much children learn from the attitudes that adults – parents in particular – unconsciously enact. If adults have little confidence in, or respect for, traditional worship, then it is already as good as lost.

You never heard of “Messy Synagogue” or “Messy Mosque”, did you? How is it that we have so lost confidence in what we do in church that we have virtually killed the dignity and beauty of worshipping and encountering the Mystery?

What went wrong?

I’m re-reading some of the spiritual and theological titles that have meant most to me over the years of my spiritual journey and ministry, and today I came across this paragraph in A. M. Allchin’s The Kingdom of Love & Knowledge. This was published in 1979, so over 40 years ago:

… the developments of the last ten years, both in North America and Western Europe, have suggested that we are faced with an undeniable spiritual hunger, a renewed thirst for the experienced knowledge and love of God. We observe a desire to rediscover suppressed or neglected aspects of man’s being, his search for the transcendent, his capacity for delight and wonder, for a non-exploitative attitude towards the world around. We see a desire to re-integrate the body into the totality of life, not least the life of prayer and worship. The problems of ecology, the rediscovery of the sacredness of the material world, the nature of spiritual, indeed mystical, experience, these are questions which are alive now in a way in which they were not ten or fifteen years ago.

That spiritual hunger and thirst is just what I’ve tried to convey with the strap line to this blog: Enchanted by God: Looking for a re-enchanted Christianity. Yet 40 years have passed, and it sometimes seems that most of what the Church has done and tried in the mean time, most of its new schemes and initiatives and projects and other good wheezes, have had precisely the opposite effect. They have trivialised the Gospel, dumbed down worship with inane lyrics to (some) new worship songs, managerialised Church structures, tried to make Church ‘relevant’, ‘entertaining’, ‘appealing’ and simply made it look stupid, and generally robbed worship and God of mystery.

The only notable exception I can think of is the ordination of women, which has hugely enriched the ordained mystery, but not yet allowed the dangerous gifts of women to re-enchant the faith.

What went wrong with Allchin’s vision? How can we put things right? If, indeed, it isn’t already too late?

Abuse in the Church of England

If you haven’t yet watched Exposed – The Church’s Darkest Secret, I urge you to do so, right now. Broadcast on BBC2 earlier this week, it will be available on BBC iPlayer for another 28 days. It is harrowing and horrifying viewing, but I would say it’s essential viewing for anyone who cares, and believes that any and all forms of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual – should have no place in the Church of God. They need to be identified, rooted out, offenders removed from office and brought to justice, and above all, victims believed and supported.

The programme examines the scandal of Peter Ball, formally Bishop of Lewes and then Gloucester. In 1993 a young man told the police that, when he was a novice monk, Ball had taken advantage of his own position as mentor and director, to abuse this young man on numerous occasions, forcing him to strip naked together with the then bishop, and submit to physical embraces, beatings, and mutual masturbation.

Ball was arrested and questioned, strenuously denying the allegations, and exercising his right to remain silent. (Why is it that courts of law don’t reckon “No comment” as an admission of guilt, and find the accused Guilty immediately?) One of the most chilling moments is when Ball is asked about the naked beatings, sadly shakes his head and murmurs, “You wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes you wonder whether he ever even knew he had done something evil…

The Crown Prosecution Service told Gloucestershire Police not to prosecute, and Ball accepted a caution and resigned as Bishop. Within two years he had been granted Permission to Officiate again, and was able to minister in churches and as a school chaplain: a clear sign, then, that in spite of his own admission of guilt – that’s what accepting a caution means, for God’s sake – the church hierarchy believed he was the innocent victim of false accusations.

It becomes clear, however, that the pattern of abuse was persistent and long-lasting, going back to the 1970s, and continuing after his short-term suspension and reinstatement. He emerges as a man who loved his position of power and influence. Vain and arrogant, he deliberately courted the friendship of the powerful, wealthy and important. Margaret Thatcher was a frequent host, often inviting him to dinner. Prince Charles was a supporter and admirer, who went on believing long afterwards that Ball was innocent, that “monstrous wrongs” had been done to him by “that dreadful man” who was making accusations. As Bishop of Lewes Ball was a friend and supporter of several of the other notorious paedophile priests in Chichester Diocese, not only colluding with them, but on at least one occasion taking advantage of one of the teenagers who had been groomed, and was being systematically abused, by one of those priests.

Lots of people knew about what had been happening, but they were not important or influential enough to be believed. When a small number of heroic people – the newly appointed Safeguarding Officer for Bath & Wells, and a former detective turned professional safeguarding consultant, and a former victim of clergy abuse – began to investigate, they were hampered again and again by powerful men taking them to task. Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other would phone them up and give them a rollicking, telling them that Ball was a wonderful saintly chap, and his accusers were liars, losers, only out to make money out of the situation. The ‘smoking gun’ in the end was the Tyler Report, compiled by the Revd Brian Tyler, a former CID officer and now private investigator. Eric Kemp, the Bishop of Chichester, had instructed Tyler to carry out the investigation in order to defend Ball and discredit his accusers. Instead of this Tyler became convinced that the accusers were telling the truth, and Ball was in fact guilty. His Report seems to have been quietly filed away within Chichester Church House, until this ‘second generation’ of investigators brought it to light.

It wasn’t until 20 years after Neil Todd first came forward, that Ball was finally tried, pleading Guilty to a token number of charges, in order to avoid a longer charge sheet, and was sentenced to 32 months in prison, of which he served only 16. The greatest tragedy was that when the investigations were finally being reopened, Todd could not face the ordeal of being questioned all over again, and forced to relive what he had suffered. He took his own life. Ball was never charged with having indirectly been the cause of his death.

High-up figures in the Church, including former Archbishop George Carey who had spent years telling the police he was ‘unhappy’ about the suffering the investigations were causing to Ball (!), finally admitted they had been wrong, and gave a sort of apology.

Has the Church learned anything from this sorry, terrible story? There are signs it has learned something and is trying harder, but Phil Johnson, a former victim and now a member of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, says there are still times when he thinks ‘they’ wish he wasn’t there.

And what about me? I found these two programmes disturbing and challenging. I never knew Ball except by reputation. When I heard about the first allegations back in 1993 I didn’t want to believe them, so I didn’t believe them. I suspect that was how many people reacted. But those who were in a position to find out the truth, and to know, should have known better. And I know now that I was wrong, and the present emphasis on caring for the victims of abuse, helping them, trusting them and above all believing them, is the right one. Never again will I grumble about the mandatory safeguarding training we’re required to undergo periodically. Instead, I mean to welcome it and suck every bit of learning from it that I can.

There are other questions I’m sure we should be asking, too. Should a monk really be so ambitious for fame, position, and influential friends and contacts? What about humility, obedience to the abbot, conversion of life, contentment, lack of ambition? Ball and his brother, not content with joining an existing monastic order, founded one of their own: that ought to ring alarm bells. It’s like in the United States where it’s common for men (usually men) who feel called to the ministry to start their own churches, rather than join established denominations, and that has led to numerous instances of abuse, immorality, fraud and loss of faith. Spiritual leaders need to be under authority, under the oversight of superiors, and where that oversight is absent or lacking, it’s all too easy for them to go astray. Where was the oversight over George Carey? Who oversees the Archbishop of Canterbury anyway, and was the lack of any such oversight partially the reason for his terrible misjudgement in the Ball affair? And, how do we disempower the Establishment, which allows the powerful men (usually men) like Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other to continue to close ranks, defend their own kind, prevent justice from being done, and victimise the vulnerable and powerless?

Please, do watch these programmes. And weep, and think, and pray, and let your default position ever hereafter be to believe anyone who has the courage to speak about the abuse they have suffered, no matter how powerful or godly their abuser may seem to be.

The Meaning of Life

[Just a taster of my #NaNoWriMo effort this year.]

How fortunate we are to live in times when, faced with difficult questions, we can turn to our digital friends and helpers.

Siri, what is the meaning of life?

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

OK Google, what is the meaning of life?

“The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life’s meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question…”

(Oh, come off it, Google, you’re just reading from Wikipedia!)

Alexa, what is the meaning of life?

“42”

(Make what you will of these differences between different operating systems, MacOS, Google and Amazon.)

But is it true that contemplating a thing – a blade of grass, a cockroach, a lover’s face – for long enough, will convince you that life has meaning? Without having read his book, I’m attracted by the story of Victor Frankl. He was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, whose experience of some of the worst cruelty and brutality that has ever been inflicted by supposedly civilized human beings upon their fellows, led him to the conclusion that a person’s sanity and even survival in adversity, will depend on their ability to find meaning in their suffering. Man’s Quest for Meaning, he called his book, and with it he developed his concept of logotherapy. In contrast to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure, Frankl bases his theory upon Kierkegaard’s will to meaning: that the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human life, is the need to find meaning. I’m guessing that whether it helps us survive or not, may depend on the value of the meaning we find. “Trying to live in harmony with other people” may work better than “42”. Just sayin’…

Language and Mystery

Most people have a favourite psalm or psalms, perhaps one that they have become familiar with at some special moment in their life, or that means a lot to them for some other reason. For many people it might be Psalm 23, just because it’s one of the shortest and best-known. When I was at primary school, many years ago, it was one of the pieces of verse we were encouraged to learn in our English class. (I never learned it: even at the age of 10, I was the bolshy child who wants to learn ‘A Poem of Your Own Choice’, rather than one that the teacher had chosen for us.) Or it might be Psalm 139, at some moment in our lives when it’s especially important for us to learn that God knows us intimately, and values us:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (verses 14-16, ESV)

My ambition is to get to know all the psalms so well, that they are all my favourites for their own unique reason. In the meantime, there are lots that stand out for me. One of the recent additions to my ‘list of favourite psalms’ is Psalm 85. For a number of years, I would say Evening Prayer on Christmas Day, using the Book of Common Prayer order for Evening Prayer. The traditional lectionary lists Psalm 85 as one of the psalms appointed for the day, and I came to love the verses which explain that, in the coming of Christ into the world, God’s mercy was satisfied, and God’s righteousness and justice also.

For his salvation is nigh them that fear him:
that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together:
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (verses 9-10)

Whenever I say Psalm 85 in the daily course of psalms, it reminds me of that message about the Incarnation. So I have a great affection and concern for these words. Imagine my dismay, then, when I find that the Psalter used in Common Worship Daily Prayer, and the translation that appears in the New Revised Standard Version, reads

9 Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth are met together, *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;

Where has that his come from? How has it crept in before the word ‘glory’, when my guess is, it’s not present in the Hebrew? And why does it make such a difference to me, and grate so, and feel that it has taken something away from the meaning of the line?

It’s because there is something about modern translation – in the Bible and in liturgy, too – that wants to over-specify, over-define. By making it crystal clear, what it wants you to understand by the words, it takes away ambiguity, and the possibility of reading different things in the text, from what the translators want you to read. This impoverishes Scripture and liturgy, where it is often the ambiguity of a phrase, its ability to bear many possible shades of meaning, that leads the reader or the worshipper deeper into the meaning and reality of God.

Thomas Cranmer, and the translators of the King James Bible, often had a better sense of this. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the different meanings: what they knew was, that if there were several possible meanings, it wasn’t their job to define any single one as the meaning

Clearly, language is supposed to communicate meaning; but if the meaning of a thing is mystery, then it is mystery that the language ought to convey. That’s one of the reasons why I find some of the more traditional formularies of liturgy and hymnology so much more satisfying than modern attempts to update them.

Impossible Gestures in Worship

Somewhere I remember reading an account of an earnest young curate who caused amusement to his congregation by exhorting them: “Let us take our hearts and look them in the face.”

Apparently this kind of spiritual contortion has now become part of the vocabulary of modern worship songs, too. Today I found myself being invited to sing

All who are thirsty,
all who are weak,
come to the fountain,
dip your heart in the stream of life…

Google Images unfortunately couldn’t find an illustration of this startling feat, so this will have to do instead: