Playing with God

Last week I spent four days on retreat at Mucknell Abbey. Why does a retired vicar even need a retreat? I hear you ask. Isn’t the whole of his life one long retreat? Well, yes and no. I may be much more the master of my time, than I was when I was a working vicar; but there are still all sorts of ways in which the business of ‘everyday living’ can feel as if it gets in the way of being able to think about God, and spend as much time thinking about God, as you might like. Also, I’ve found myself spending the odd idle moment asking myself, What am I actually supposed to do, now that I’m nothing but some superannuated old priest?

Mucknell Abbey is one of my favourite places to be in the whole world. Just a few miles from Worcester, it’s the home of a community of Anglican Benedictines, men and women, who devote themselves to living and praying according to the Rule set out by St Benedict 1,600 years ago. They used to be at Burford Priory, but when that property became too expensive for them to maintain, they sold it and moved to their new, purpose-built monastery, in 2010. There are 12 members of the community, including two novices, and their number is sometimes augmented by a few ‘alongsiders’: young people who have chosen to share the community’s life for a short period of time. If you want to know more about them, have a look at their excellent website.

The Oratory, Mucknell Abbey

Staying at Mucknell, even for just a few days, is a spiritual tonic. Sharing in the community prayers six times a day (I never managed the seventh, the Service of Readings at 6 a.m. each day), enjoying their simple but ample (mostly vegetarian) meals, and lots of hours to read or think or wander around the grounds up there on their windswept hill.

Perhaps I hoped for some dramatic revelation, a flash of light and the voice of God telling me exactly what I have to do. One always does hope for that. Or maybe not. Instead of that kind of drama, something much better happened. In my thinking alone, and my reading and praying, and the Offices, I began to discern a common theme, which was about God being present, and near. (In fact the Rule of St Benedict has a lot to say about God being present everywhere and anywhere.)

You know how it feels if you’re in the same room as someone you really love and admire but you maybe don’t know very well – perhaps a celebrity or popstar or some other kind of hero – and they look at you, and your heart jumps? It was a bit like that. I got the sense that God was there, and that God looked at me. Not with reproach or blame or anything scary like that – it would be possible I suppose to feel terrified by the thought that God was looking at you. No, this look was with interest, and love.

While I was away, Alison posted a picture of her visit to youngest grandson Jerm. It somehow became a lovely kind of icon for me, that described my week at Mucknell. In this icon, God is represented by Alison, and me by Jerm. We’re involved together, we’re looking at each other, we’re playing together, we’re having fun.

That’s kind of how the spiritual life should be. Hang it all, that’s how life should be, and how St Benedict sets out to regulate it so it can be. Living with God, being with God, sharing God’s deep joy in all things. I’m really hoping to bring that sense home with me and hold on to it as the special revelation that God did indeed give during my retreat.

The first churches in my life

One of the most influential teachers in my life used to tell the story of how and why he was a firm believer in infant baptism. Both of his parents were somewhere along the agnostic – unbeliever spectrum, one nominally Jewish, one nominally Christian, but neither of them practising their faith with any great conviction. He was born, however, in a time when some infant rite of passage was expected. So they decided that, if their child was a girl they would bring her up as a Jew, and if a boy, they would bring him up as a Christian. So when M was born, he was duly baptized. He always claimed it worked, in spite of his parents’ relatively low level of commitment to the enterprise, because when he was an undergraduate he came to fully-fledged Christian faith, and ended up being ordained and teaching me liturgy and much else besides.

It only goes to show. Though I’m not sure what.

But the story makes me often reflect on my own childhood, and the mysterious and unknown influences of what was done for me or to me. My parents were both of the generation who had enough of religion in their childhood. Dad sang in the choir at St Bartholomew the Great. He enjoyed the singing and the pocket money he earned him, and being able to get the autograph of film stars who occasionally showed up in the congregation, but he never told us much else about the experience. Mum had a pretty difficult childhood and teenage years, much of them spent as a weekday boarder in a children’s home. I don’t remember her ever mentioning church from those years.

But they had me christened, on 23rd October 1949, at our parish church of St Aldhelm in Edmonton. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. Or at least, don’t remember anything of the experience. But that doesn’t stop me being grateful, and believing like my teacher M that it must have worked.

St Aldhelm’s Church, Edmonton

For some years Mum and Dad sent me and my sister to Sunday School, because that was the way your parents got you out of the house on a Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. There is another story about going to Sunday School and what I learned about myself in the going (rather than the being there). But I’m grateful for what I got from it, too.

And then the other church of my earliest years was St Cuthbert’s Wood Green.

 

St Cuthbert’s Church, Wood Green

This was my earliest experience of public worship, from the days of Church Parade with the Cubs. When I couldn’t think of an excuse for not going, I had to go there once a month, especially after I got to be a Sixer. There was no such thing as Family Service in those days. We got Prayer Book Matins, like it or not. There was, yes, some concession to the fact that children were present in the form of what I suppose was intended to be a child-friendly talk. But we still had the psalms and canticles and the language of the Book of Common Prayer.

How accurate, ever, are memories of when you were 9 or 10 years old, 60 years ago? What I think I remember, is puzzling over the language of those words, and feeling that I was beginning to get some sense of what they were about. And of being aware that what we were doing when we sang and prayed was Serious Stuff, so that I was impatient with my peers who kicked and scuffled under the pews, when we were expected to be somehow reverent about doing that Serious Stuff. I wouldn’t say I have loved Prayer Book Matins ever since. But I love it now, and still think there’s more solid meat and nourishment in it, than there is in most contemporary Services of the Word.

Yes, I am grateful for the first churches in my life. One ‘High’, one ‘Low’, both still seemingly alive and active, describing themselves as vibrant, friendly, inclusive, ethnically diverse, engaged with the local community: all the boxes that churches are supposed to tick.

I pray for them, their priests and congregations, that they may above all still be places where God meets people, and where children, women and men meet God. Even if they’re not paying attention at the time, or not fully understanding what it’s about. Who of us ever is?

What Else I Miss

This morning a happy collection of accidents led us to a very special service at the Cathedral. Our parish church decided not to hold a mid-morning service because they have their Christmas Eve extravaganza of Christingles this afternoon: three sittings, and every one of them packed. Apparently there were other churches in and around Oxford that made similar decisions, so those who wanted to celebrate the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and receive Communion, had to go elsewhere.

As it happened, the Cathedral’s Choral Eucharist was also the first celebration of the Eucharist by Canon Sarah Foot, the Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, who was ordained priest last Thursday by the Bishop of Dorchester. The Cathedral clearly love her, because they pulled out all the stops to make it a cracking good service.

And incidentally it reminded me of What Else I Miss. Because my last post was chiefly about quiet, often almost private prayer in a holy place. I realised this morning that a great deal of what I miss in priestly retirement is also about public worship. I realise that it is quite a while since I have felt I have really ‘met with God’ (whatever that means!) in corporate, public worship. And the things that helped me to have that sense of worship and presence and communion this morning included

  • the beauty of architecture in Christ Church Cathedral (though of course this can’t be essential, as you don’t get quite this quality in most places)
  • really excellent music – by Victoria, Palestrina and Buxtehude (ditto)

but then also some things which you might more reasonably expect in other places, even parish churches, as well:

  • real Anglican liturgy, as decently and reverently done as circumstances allow
  • Bible readings thoughtfully and well read
  • sincere, intelligent and godly preaching
  • hymns you can sing that actually mean something, that express worship and prayer, that teach the faith and give you something to think about, and aren’t the kind of candy floss piffle in the wind that so many modern worship songs are.

We love our parish church where the people have welcomed us so warmly, and we know God has called us to belong here, not least to support and encourage the clergy in their ministry. But I’m thinking that, for my own spiritual health and well-being, I need to plan in regular times when I can get away to the Cathedral or elsewhere to be ‘blessed up’, and to get the sustenance I need for the desert walking in between times.

It’s all about you, Jesus

I suppose it’s natural for the Christian Church to go through fashions and cycles in what it believes and does, just like everything else. (This is what the Tao Te Ching teaches us.) It’s just distressing when you’re having to live through a particularly unattractive and heterodox phase, which may also be unhelpful and downright dangerous.

The other day I posted a bit of a rant on Facebook about some of the modern ‘worship songs’ that are typical of the current cycle. They are so relentlessly Christo-centric — this is the essential characteristic of what I’m describing — that I wanted to stand up and shout “Jesus is NOT. GOD. ! He is the incarnate Second Person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity (ever heard of it?)!”

Of course this was a bit of an exaggerated reaction, as some of the comments pointed out. But when you’re protesting about bad theology, you probably have to use somewhat intemperate terms. (cf. some of Martin Luther’s descriptions of the Pope.)

Diagram of the Trinity

Of course I believe Filius est Deus, as it teaches in the popular medieval Trinity diagram. But of Jesus I would prefer to say he is the Son of God, or the Son of the Father. (Or even, as he preferred, the Son of Man, which some of my scholar-friends would like to explain as the Human One.) The problem with many of today’s worship songs is, you could almost believe Jesus alone was God, there was no Father in sight, and the Spirit was, of course, the Spirit of Jesus only. Now, the reason I’m a Christian at all is that I love Jesus — he captivated me and won my heart when I first seriously began to read the Gospels. But, though I may sometimes pray to Jesus, when I fall down to worship, I mean to worship God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This has been orthodox Christian practice for ever.

It turns out that many of the songs I find difficult come from the same source: they are copyright Hillsong. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Hillsong Church, where they originate, you may well wonder why so many of the mainstream churches would want to use them as much as they do? It turns out they are a Pentecostal Evangelical church with some very reactionary attitudes.

An example from last Sunday is the popular Your grace is enough, which has the chorus

Lifted on high from death to life
Forever our God is glorified
Servant and King, rescued the world,
This is our God.

Sure, I want to say “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.” But it’s much too much of an over-simplification to say of Jesus, “This is our God”. And I’m not sure Hillsong Church really looked at Jesus when they drew up their list of beliefs. I can more easily imagine Jesus looking at this list and shaking his head and saying, “Hey, that’s not what I meant at all!”

Lots of their songs also have a heavy emphasis on the Second Coming:

He shall return in robes of white,
The blazing Son shall pierce the night.
And I will rise among the saints,
My gaze transfixed1 on Jesus’ face

At a time when so many world leaders and their followers seem to be intent on pursuing policies that could destroy the human race, all life on earth, the whole planet, it’s particularly unhealthy and unhelpful (and frightening!) for Christians to be promoting an end-of-the-world mentality — even hope, God help us. It just encourages the crazies who seem to think that by destroying the earth, they could precipitate the longed-for Parousia. It would be much better to have a generation-or-more moratorium on thinking about the Second Coming at all. Yes, don’t expunge it from the Creeds, but don’t preach about it or give anyone the impression we’re expecting it imminently2.


The Bishop of Oxford has just written a hymn to accompany his diocesan focus on the Beatitudes. I applaud his creativity, which is way beyond what I could do, and also that his hymn is way more literate than the Hillsong lyrics I’ve quoted. But I note, as well, that it’s a hymn to Jesus. No harm in that per se: there are lots of great hymns about Jesus. But the words suggest that the kingdom, the earth, the church, the Spirit, are all Christ’s; the Father doesn’t get a look in (except by implication that the Son of God must be Son of somebody.) And in the light of the present climate of Christolatry, it would be good for some of our best hymn-writers to be working on correctives, and good if all the hymns we sang were more about God the Trinity.

When I mentioned this to Alison she said, “Yes, but it is about the Beatitudes, and the theme is about us becoming more Christ-like.” But in fact the Sermon on the Mount has a different emphasis from encouraging Jesus’ followers to be more like Jesus (desirable, and uncommon, though that would be.) A couple of years ago I made a detailed study of the Sermon on the Mount, while I was in the process of learning it by heart in order to tell it at the Scholars’ Seminar of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. And I’m clear that the major theme of the Sermon on the Mount — you could say the major theme of Jesus’ teaching altogether — is: You have a Father in heaven – God. Live, then, as God’s children.”

That’s much more of a Jesus Agenda than modern worship songs are promoting, for all their claimed devotion to Jesus.


  1. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  2. Martin Luther again had the right attitude: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.”

Children’s worship songs (2)

And then there’s that Hillsong Kids worship song I mentioned in my last post. Alison came home complaining about having the words and tune stuck in her head, so like any loving husband, instead of saying “Don’t expletive well give it to me, then!” I googled it.

These, it turns out, are the lyrics:

He’s the one who makes the sun shine
He’s the one who puts the moon in the sky
He’s the one who hung the stars
One by one

He’s the one who makes the birds sing
He’s the one who makes your dreams so high
He’s the one who makes me smile
Day by day

Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend
Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend

Better than Spiderman Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Superman Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Batman Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than anyone Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend
Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend

Better than Yu Gi Yo Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Barbie Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Action Man Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than anyone Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

You can listen to it here on YouTube, if you dare: Jesus you’re my superhero.

Now, I don’t have a problem (at least, not more than any other grumpy old man) with the cultural effect this may be having on our grandchildren’s generation… though it does seem inferior in quality to a lot of what’s available on CBeebies. What I wonder about, is the spiritual effect it may be having. Are we really wanting our children to get the idea that Christianity is a Christo-Unitarian faith, without Father or Holy Spirit, in which Jesus alone is the Creator God? And as if giving them a false idea of what the faith is, isn’t bad enough — what effect will it have on the likelihood of them believing at all? Will they grow up thinking, That Jesus is so cool, I’m really going to be a Christian? Or will they more likely pretty soon reach the conclusion, That was so patronising and juvenile, there’s no way that as a teenager, still less an adult, I’m going to carry on believing what those people were trying to sell us?

One of the curious things is, that while Christian children’s evangelism, or teaching, or holiday childcare (whatever this counts as) is dumbing down the message, many of the actual superhero comics and films are tackling really deep, important themes: good and evil, sin and guilt, retribution or redemption, how people or the world can be ‘saved’, and such. It’s as if, when popular contemporary Christianity is trying to turn itself into some emotional-sensual form of entertainment, popular entertainment is stepping up to fill the gap by exploring spiritual issues of eternal importance.

Maybe I’ll stop going to church, and start watching X-men, Spider-Man and Batman instead.

Children’s worship songs (1)

I recently came across a song from Hillsong Kids, which was being sung at a local Christian holiday club for children. I was concerned enough about what it might be doing to the spiritual development of the children (more about this in the next post) to reflect on one of the first hymns I remember from primary school, Percy Dearmer’s Jesus, good above all other. My love for this, which persists to this day, is a product of both the simple yet deep words, and the simple, ancient tune to which it’s sung, Quem Pastores.

Jesus, good above all other,
Gentle child of gentle mother,
In a stable born our brother,
Give us grace to persevere.

Jesus, cradled in a manger,
For us facing every danger,
Living as a homeless stranger,
Make we Thee our King most dear.

Jesus, for Thy people dying,
Risen Master, death defying,
Lord in Heav’n, Thy grace supplying,
Keep us by Thine altar near.

Jesus, who our sorrows bearest,
All our thoughts and hopes Thou sharest,
Thou to man the truth declarest;
Help us all Thy truth to hear.

Lord, in all our doings guide us;
Pride and hate shall ne’er divide us;
We’ll go on with Thee beside us,
And with joy we’ll persevere!

I notice a number of things as I reflect on this. First, in spite of my recent rants about the almost absolute Jesus-centredness of much contemporary Christian worship – amounting almost to a Christo-Unitarianism – Dearmer’s hymn is also addressed to Jesus. But this is a very incarnate Jesus: the emphasis is on his stable birth, his refugee status, his death and resurrection, his human suffering as he bears the sorrows of the world. His human example, and his disciples’ imperative to learn from it. There’s none of the Cosmic Christ who seems almost to make the Father and the Spirit redundant, that we see in some current songs.

Secondly, although the language is simple, it doesn’t offer any hostages to modern usage among primary school children. They tend to be even less familiar with ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ than we were in the 1950s, to their loss. There are quite a few ‘poetic’ changes to normal word order, which would keep a child on their toes. And what about that strange word persevere? Who uses that?

I conducted a little experiment with two of my granddaughters. First I asked Tilly (almost 5 and about to start school), “Do you know what ‘persevere’ means?” She didn’t. Then I asked Libby (aged 7, just finished infants), and she gave me a pretty good definition: “It means trying and trying until you do it.” Apparently Perseverance is one of the school values they’ve learned. So it’s a word that children need to learn (like all the rest) but well within primary school capabilities.

Thirdly, although it’s obviously a hymn written with younger Christians in mind, there’s enough substance, or spiritual meat, there, to nourish a person into late adulthood, as it has me.

All of that seems like a pretty good recommendation for a children’s worship song, I think.