A Sign for Our Times

One of the things I’ve been doing with myself in retirement, is trying finally to get to grips with the I Ching, a book that has intrigued, fascinated, baffled me and constantly drawn me back again and again over more than a quarter of a century. I have no interest in it as a book of divination, which I simply don’t believe in. But as a book of wisdom, guidance for many different situations and circumstances of life, and a self-help manual for developing character, it speaks in ever alluring yet mystifying ways.

It fascinated Leibniz with the binary nature of its lines and hexagrams. Jung wrote a kind of nutty fan-foreword to the Richard Wilhelm translation. Hermann Hesse used it as a theme in The Glass Bead Game, another of my favourite books. Philip K. Dick consulted it when he was writing The Man in the High Tower. It’s full of the strangest poetic images and symbols, which seem to invite you to meditation or reflection along the lines of “It surely must mean something. If only I could fathom what?”

It is a very ancient book, supposedly having its origin millennia ago. The Chinese classic par excellence, the origin of all Chinese philosophy and literature. To a Westerner, it is profoundly strange. But perhaps that’s why we need it.

After all, we’re living in a time when Western thought and civilization have borne the fruit of a United Kingdom entangled in Brexit negotiations which will likely take us back to the Dark Ages without even any bombing. And in the USA, a Donald Trump presidency; the thing we were told was so outlandish and unimaginable it could not possibly happen. Nationalism and bigotry, prejudice and neo-Nazism are on the rise throughout the West. Our technology and reckless waste are damaging the Earth’s fragile ecology; may already have harmed it beyond repair. Each passing day brings new illustrations of that story of what Gandhi is reported to have answered, when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization. “Western civilization? It would be a very good idea.”

One of the things that I find helpful about I Ching is its underlying idea that the only permanent thing is change. Each thing, each event that happens, bears within itself the seed of its contrary, so that even as something reaches its fullest realisation, it is already beginning to change again. I’m not sure whether I really believe that the cycle of the year and the changing seasons is the model of the whole of human life and history; but it’s certainly a theory that has a lot of evidence to support it.

And today I came upon one of the hexagrams which really is a sign for our times.

Pi / Standstill or Stagnation

☰ above CH’IEN / THE CREATIVE, HEAVEN
☷ below K’UN / THE RECEPTIVE, EARTH

This hexagram is the opposite of the preceding one. Heaven is above, drawing farther and farther away, while the earth below sinks farther into the depths. The creative powers are not in relation. It is a time of standstill and decline. This hexagram is linked with the seventh month (August–September), when the year has passed its zenith and autumnal decay is setting in.

THE JUDGMENT

STANDSTILL. Evil people do not further
The perseverance of the superior man.
The great departs; the small approaches.

Heaven and earth are out of communion and all things are benumbed. What is above has no relation to what is below, and on earth confusion and disorder prevail. The dark power is within, the light power is without. Weakness is within, harshness without. Within are the inferior, and without are the superior. The way of inferior people is in ascent; the way of superior people is one the decline. But the superior people do not allow themselves to be turned from their principles. If the possibility of exerting influence is closed to them, they nevertheless remain faithful to their principles and withdraw into seclusion.

THE IMAGE

Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong. Therefore the superior man knows what he must do under such circumstances; he does not allow himself to be tempted by dazzling offers to take part in public activities. This would only expose him to danger, since he cannot assent to the meanness of the others. He therefore hides his worth and withdraws into seclusion.


With people like Trump, Farage, Murdoch, Hunt, Rees-Mogg and the like in the ascendant, it’s not hard to recognise the description of what I Ching calls ‘inferior people’ (it uses the words in the sense of moral character and worth, rather in the way the Hebrew Bible uses ‘fool’ to mean a morally stupid or foolish person, rather than one with a low IQ).

What should the ‘superior person’, i.e. the upright, the sage, the wise person, do? I Ching seems to say, withdraw into retreat, keep out of it until the situation changes back to something remotely resembling sanity. But it also, often, talks about taking the right kind of action when the time is right. The trick is to discern when that kairos, that right time, is.

Though I’m very far from understanding more than the tiniest part of this, I think there’s a wisdom in this ancient Eastern book that we desperately need, here in the embattled and threatened West.

Posted in Tao

The Naked God

I know Vincent Strudwick and have met him socially on numerous occasions and enjoyed his company. I have the greatest respect for him, and admiration for his learning and opinions, even though I haven’t had the opportunity to learn from him as much as I might wish. So reading this book has been a real treat.

The premise of The Naked God is that every age and generation clothes God in their own particular way, in doctrine, dogma, liturgy, religious institutions, and ethics. They do this in order to make the Mystery that is ‘God’ somehow comprehensible and accessible to themselves and their contemporaries. But of course, the clothes are not God, and when that generation passes (possibly even before that) these ‘clothes’ actually obscure the Mystery, rather than make it known. The underlying reality of God is still there, present and underneath the ‘clothes’ that have been laid upon it. Each new generation has the task of discovering that reality for itself. Ideally, I suppose, we might continue to know the naked reality. In fact, that is impossible for us, so we will always find our own way of clothing it, if we go about the business of God seriously.

In this book, the fruit of Vincent’s life of wrestling with God and seeking to understand how God should be known in the world of today, there are too many ideas to take in all at once. Although clearly stated, they are sketched in in broad outline. This is, after all, a book for the general reader, though it includes a useful bibliography and notes for further reading.

It has been a lifetime in which the institutional Church has pretty much lost the plot (cf. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead’s book, That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English People – though it is a global, not just an English, phenomenon). This isn’t just the Church’s fault, because the last several decades have been a time of rapid and turbulent social, political, technological and cultural change. In times like this – there have been several during church history – the Church has usually at first resisted the changes, then floundered as it is widely seen as irrelevant, then succeeds in adapting to the new understandings and idioms, leading to a time of renewed growth in influence in society.

It is a hopeful, though urgent book, addressed to desperate times. But it also makes me think that much, if not most, of what I was doing during my ministry was contributing to that inward-looking irrelevance of the Church, rather than the new directions that Vincent calls for. The only times I was kind of on the right lines, with the good guys rather than the villains of the story, were being in support of women priests and bishops, and (alas, somewhat more slowly) of same-sex relationships and the full acceptance of LGBT people by the Church. I may have tried to keep up with some of the social trends, but a great deal of what I did in the church was keeping the show on the road, rather than making the church truly the embodiment of Christ serving the world.

I commend this book to lovely friends and colleagues who are still working – including the brilliant young clergy and ordinands I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Read it; and don’t weep, as I’ve felt like doing, but carry on the wrestling to find the ways of doing it.

Visiting Lichfield

On the spur of the moment, booking just the day before, we decided to visit Lichfield for a couple of nights. We may have driven through it or round it once before, but I don’t remember ever stopping or doing a proper visit. So, as a pilot for the project: Visiting Cathedral Cities We Don’t Know, we went to Lichfield. It’s only 90 miles from home, and apart from the usual unpleasantness of driving on the M42 round Birmingham, it only took a little over an hour and a half.

We stayed in the Cathedral Hotel in Beacon Street: a bit cheap and cheerful, and our room on the top floor looked out on the street and was a bit noisy, but the breakfast was good, with all the components of a Full English freshly cooked, the bacon especially nicely done. So it was good value for money.

The Cathedral is spectacular, built of red sandstone and the only three-spired medieval cathedral in the UK. It was built on the site of the tomb and first church of St Chad, the apostle and first bishop of the kingdom of Mercia. In the Civil War it suffered severe damage when Royalist troops fortified it against the attacking Parliamentary forces. I don’t know of many cathedrals which have been battlefields as well as holy places…

George Fox the Quaker was famously prompted by God to stand barefoot in the market place in front of St Michael’s Church and cry out, “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!” One version of the story tells that the bemused townspeople, far from being offended, were filled with compassion, “George, where hast thou left thy shoes?” Asked to give an account of the reasons for his protest (other than, God told me to do it) he said it was because of a great massacre of Christians in the city in the time of the Emperor Domitian. Certainly there had been much more recent bloody martyrdoms. Two plaques in Market Street record:

The following martyrs were burnt at the stake in this market place during the reign of Queen Mary: Thomas Hayward Sept. 1655 John Goreway Sept. 1655 Joyce Lewis of Mancetter 18th Dec. 1557

and

Edward Wightman of Burton-on-Trent was burnt at the stake in this market place for heresy 11th April 1612 being the last person in England so to die.

Lichfield was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, and the museum in the house in Market Street, where he was born, is definitely not to be missed. Boswell’s Life is one of the big books on my To Be Read list that I may get around to OOTD… Quite a lot of places in Lichfield decorate their walls with pithy Johnson quotes. I particularly liked “You can never be wise unless you love reading.”

The other museum you should, absolutely should, visit, is the Erasmus Darwin House. Here you can learn about the polymath doctor, scientist, inventor, poet, who was the grandfather and forerunner of Charles Darwin, anticipating the development of the theory of evolution by a good 50 years, and a member of the Lunar Society of scientists and thinkers who drove forward many of the new discoveries of the Industrial Revolution. They were regarded by Church and State as dangerous freethinkers, and especially at the time of the French Revolution, several of them came under attack from violent mobs because of their views. Stirred up, I suppose, by the 18th century equivalents of the Daily Mail and Express. All to the shame of Church, State and popular opinion. It’s fascinating that Erasmus Darwin’s poems, which are probably unreadable nowadays, and included such titles as The Botanic Garden, setting out in rhyming couplets the results of his research. Coleridge was greatly impressed and acclaimed Darwin as one of the greatest poets of his age. Other Romantic poets including Blake, Goethe and Wordsworth were influenced by him, and his theories of galvanism were part of the inspiration that led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

St Chad’s church is also worth a visit. It’s thought to be the site of Chad’s first oratory in the city, and when you enter the present church building (always open during the day) there is a real ‘good feeling’. It’s a place that is loved and cared for, and provides a good worship space for its congregation. They have produced a helpful little prayer guide for some of the places around the church that suggest scenes from the saint’s life.

Places to eat

We specially loved The Olive Tree, an award-winning independent restaurant, which was reasonably priced, pleasantly small and intimate, and serving excellent food. Good for lunches or teas was Chapters, the Cathedral cafe in the Close. Lots of these Cathedral refectory kind of places are very good value, offering fresh home-cooked dishes for very reasonable prices, in pleasant and peaceful settings. Chapters was specially nice because it wasn’t ridiculously crowded the times we were there.

Lichfield is definitely worth a visit.

Retirement Joy

And on the other hand…

Retirement is also fantastic, joy day after day like being on holiday for ever. Lots of times since ending those ’37 years of parish ministry’ I keep banging on about, I’ve found myself thinking, “This, at last, is the life I was born for!”

After you’ve stopped being a vicar, you no longer have to go to all those meetings: Parochial Church Councils, deanery synods, chapter meetings, diocesan synods if you’re unfortunate enough that it’s ‘your turn’, parish sub-committees on finance, buildings, stewardship, tiny charity meetings… and on and on. I was singularly blessed that most of those meetings were with lovely gifted faithful altruistic people, many of whom I counted as dear friends. But there were all kinds of things I would rather have been spending my time doing: like drinking in the pub with those friends, instead of sitting round a table in a draughty church hall, looking at balance sheets and wondering what to do. Some vicars must like meetings (else why would they make so many of them?), and I’ve even wondered if they prefer the ones that turn into bitter interpersonal wars, on the grounds that this makes them more interesting. But if this is the case, they must be a funny kind of vicar.

After you’ve stopped being a vicar, you no longer get all the stuff from the diocese that sometimes feels like people making work for parish clergy in order to justify their own salary… Gosh, that sounds appalling, doesn’t it? And it’s quite wrong. The lovely people who work in Church Houses up and down the land are lovely servants of the Church, without whom we would not be able to function. It’s just that sometimes you wonder: Why does that lovely person’s job of faithful service to the Church involve making more work for me in the parish? Counting beans and filing reports, when I might be visiting or pastoring or studying or even just passing an hour in quiet contemplation, spending time with God? When you’re in the thick of it, you feel guilty even asking the question. But someone ought to be asking it.

And after you’ve stopped being a vicar, you don’t have to be there every week. You can actually go away for something called A Weekend, like normal people do. You can go to a different church for a change: something that as a vicar you don’t like to encourage people to do, but actually you find it mightn’t be all bad. (It might even make them appreciate what they have in their home church, though normal clergy paranoia always makes you fear this is unlikely…)

And, after you’ve stopped being a vicar, much as I loved sharing people’s lives at the life-turning-point moments of births, marriages and deaths, you can take a break from doing that too. Taking these ‘occasional offices’ is a wonderful privilege that makes the job worth doing more than almost anything else, but sometimes I found myself thinking, Do I have to start another year’s round of publishing banns of marriage, marriage preparation, rehearsals and managing the day itself? Like lots of clergy, I often found funerals more ‘enjoyable’ (or fulfilling? or worthwhile?) than weddings.

And, of course, retirement joy is more than just all the things you no longer have to do. Much more, much better, are all the things you can now do that you didn’t have time to do before. Visit children and grandchildren. Take holidays. Read the books you’ve never got around to reading, or have long wanted to reread. Study and learn new things. Walk. Life being what it is, you don’t get around to doing half as much as you could do or would like to do. There are still constraints like whether you have the time or the money. And then, we’ve not yet been doing this Retirement Thing for a whole year. We’re still learning, still a bit stunned by it.

But one of the things that came to me when I was out for a walk one day, not particularly praying or being holy, was a new watchword, mantra, daily prayer, whatever you like to call it.

IT’S GREAT TO BE ALIVE.

Of course it is. But when you’re working full-time, you don’t always have the time or the space or the energy to remember it. Being retired means you don’t have that excuse. So, day by day, day by day: It’s great to be alive.

Retirement Angst

Is it normal for retired people to look back over their working life and ask themselves, What was it all for, anyway? What did I actually achieve? Was it all worth it, after all?

Or is it just retired clergy who have that kind of problem? Perhaps it’s something to do with vicaring being the kind of calling where it’s very difficult to see and measure results. Some clergy can say, When I came to this parish there were only two old ladies and a cat, but now the Sunday attendance is over 800! But not many, I suspect. For most of us, it’s more like: I tried to love and minister faithfully to these people for 25 years, but really attendances declined over the years as people grew old and died and were not replaced… many people in the area knew and loved me, and valued me taking their family weddings or funerals, but mostly they had other things they preferred to do on Sundays, and indeed on every other day of the week, than have much to do with God.

And meanwhile… When you raise your eyes from the furrow you’ve been ploughing, and look around at the wider landscape1

It suddenly seemed to me, as I reflected on that landscape at the weekend, that the Christianity which seems to be being believed by large numbers of people in the world, and the one that is perceived by many more, isn’t the religion that i believe in. It’s not that I’ve abandoned Christianity, but that what passes for Christianity has abandoned me. It’s become something dogmatic, bigoted, judgmental, death-dealing, joyless, trivial, irrelevant, narrow, exclusive. Not what I signed up for at all. So here I have been, toiling away for 37 years in the parish, trying to make the world a better place, and I look around and the world is a much much worse place than when I started. And ‘Christianity’ (please do note the inverted commas) must bear quite a bit of the blame, along with most other religions.

And here’s one of the really dismaying things: there are ‘Christians’ in some places who are happy that the world is a much worse place. Because it means that we really are in the kind of end times they wish for. When things have got bad enough, it’ll be the end of the world, and Jesus will return to make everything right.

It looks like it’s time for me to take a healthy dose of letting go and having faith (not in the Church any more, but in God) and trusting that everything will be all right. Where’s that Dame Julian when you need her? “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

  1. Yes I know this doesn’t work: if you want to plough a straight furrow you don’t look at the furrow, but the far end of the field that you’re making for. Just bear with me, I’m only a townie.

Bear with

WordPress has changed since I last used it, so the new blog and its control panels are taking some getting used to. I think the stats panel is showing me that people have read some of my posts, and two have even commented. But the process of approving comments, and making sure they don’t get thrown into Spam, is still opaque to me. So if you comment, and it hasn’t appeared after what seems like a reasonable time, don’t be afraid to contact me some other way and ask me what’s happening.

I live in hopes of understanding what’s going on; though it does look like another case of technology getting so clever that it increasingly leaves behind people who were previously more than confident about working it.

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.