There is more to life than this!

So many people over the last year or more have told me I ought to read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward that I finally gave in. It is, indeed, well worth reading if you are serious about undertaking the spiritual work of later life, which is what I aspire to. At first reading (a phrase which rightly suggests this book feels like wisdom you should re-read and then re-read again) I would say it’s all very well, but it doesn’t actually tell you how to do this work. But Rohr insists it isn’t something we do. It’s something which is done unto us. The book, then, is perhaps more of an encouragement to the older spiritual seeker. It’s saying: Don’t worry, what you are experiencing is perfectly normal. You’re not going mad, or losing your faith or your marbles. This is all a natural part of that further journey we are all invited to make, provided we are open to it.

The second-half-of-life work that Rohr talks about is not literally confined to the last forty years of a fourscore year life. Some people embark on it earlier, others later or never. The crossover point is always some experience which Rohr calls necessary suffering: grief, bereavement, failure or falling, wrestling with our own shadow. “But often (it may be) just a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves’, for something more, or what I call ‘homesickness’.”

The desire for something more, the obscure sense that ‘there must be something more than this’, certainly rings true. Are there any Christians at all who come to faith at some point, and then happily stay at that point, or make steady spiritual growth without a second thought for the whole of their lives? It seems almost a ‘given’ of contemporary Christianity, that we feel something’s missing. Have we been sold short? Is it our own sin or failure that we don’t seem to enjoy God more than we are doing? This is the longing, surely, that fuels the Charismatic Movement, the tradition of renewal or revival meetings, and all the attempts long-time Christians make to find that elusive ‘something more’.

“Is there more to life than this?” has even become one of the main slogans or straplines of Alpha; and when I read this part of Rohr’s introduction, it was a kind of revelation of another part of the reason I don’t like Alpha. It’s great if it’s a slogan which attracts genuine outsiders to the church, spiritual seekers who have really had no acquaintance with the Christian faith, for whom Alpha could be a really life-changing meeting with God. But I suspect that for many – and certainly in the churches where I’ve experienced Alpha – it’s not actually like this. In many of these places, the people who come to Alpha, who loyally support it because the vicar asked them to, are the folk who’ve been faithful Christians for years. And, yes, many of them possibly come because they self-identify with the question, Is there more to life than this?

My big doubt is around whether they will actually find that ‘more’ by sitting through what is effectively another Christian basics course, like so many they may have sat through before. Or will they again go away disappointed, doubting, secretly asking why it hasn’t ‘worked’ for them the way they imagine it has for so many others?

What they need is something that will recognise and build on the knowledge and faith they already have, rather than treat them as if they have to simply make yet another decision or act of commitment to Christ. I believe that something can be found in one of the Church of England’s best kept secrets, the Anglican Cursillo Movement.

Cursillo is a Spanish word meaning a ‘little course’, for the origins of Cursillo were in post-Civil War Spain, from where it spread to Latin America, then to the United States, then to Britain. It provides a method, in some ways similar to early Methodism, by which established Christians can live a more intentional life of Christian discipleship, around the areas of Prayer, Study, and Action. The usual way of becoming a cursillista, a member of the Cursillo movement, is to attend a long weekend which is a refresher course in Christian faith, practice, and prayer. Many participants will testify that it is an immensely affirming and even life-changing experience, when their faith becomes re-awakened in an experience of God’s love for them, and theirs for God. And it doesn’t end with the weekend. The Cursillo ‘method’ involves continuing an active member of one’s own church, but also becoming part of a regular Reunion Group with other cursillistas, to support and pray with one another.

Alpha really may be the best thing since sliced bread for the unchurched person who wants to find out about the Christian faith. But for the many who have done it because they were looking for a renewal or revival of the faith they already have, they would do much better finding out about Cursillo and seeing what it can offer.

In another of Cursillo’s quaint little expressions: Ultreya!1

  1. Spanish for Onwards and upwards! The words that pilgrims say to others to encourage them on their pilgrimage.

(Tell me why) I don’t like Alpha

Well, not so much, ‘don’t like’, as ‘don’t really believe in’, ‘am not sure what use it is, or what good it does’, even ‘am afraid it may be doing more harm than good’.

It’s not that I’ve never tried Alpha. We ran several courses of it in the parish, but the results were frankly disappointing and discouraging. I’m pretty sure we weren’t doing it right. For example, we never managed to get it established as a rolling programme, which would be constantly attracting and making new members who would then become involved in running later courses. We never had enough ‘passing trade’ of new inquirers coming by, whom we could invite. The existing members of the church – well, some of them came several times, it was almost as if they were a kind of Nicky Gumbel fan club – but they didn’t seem to want, or be able, to invite friends or neighbours to take part. You’ve got to ask, Why not? You would almost think they were so lacking in confidence in the product we were trying to sell, that they didn’t think anyone they knew would be interested in buying it. Or maybe, it was the marketing that they weren’t confident about? They were confident enough about the Christian faith, but maybe found the Alpha packaging a bit naff, embarrassing, something they didn’t really want to impose on their friends and neighbours?

Clearly Alpha is very popular in many many places, and presumably has been ‘successful’ in growing some churches numerically. (I haven’t seen any statistics about how many churches it has helped to grow, and how much, and in what way, and for how long.)

But I’m still left asking the questions: What sort of growth? And what sort of churches or Christians is Alpha producing?

Somewhere near the root of my unease is a question about what kind of a thing Christianity actually is. There’s something about Alpha which makes it feel as if Christianity is a set of ideas or beliefs we are invited or encouraged to take on board. Is it?

I would much rather we talked about the way of life that is involved in being a Christian: what we do because we are followers of the Way. This was one of the earliest ways that the disciples of Jesus described themselves: followers of the Way. So what does being a Christian involve doing?

First, it means we put our trust and faith in God, rather than in anything or anyone else. Then, we meet together with other believers day by day (week by week is a bit slack, but better than nothing) to take the bread and wine as Jesus told his friends to do, in remembrance of him, and to listen to the Word of God. Then, to do all we can to live ‘good’ lives, by imitating Jesus and growing more like him. Bearing in mind, all the time, that we never will be good: we are and will remain muddled, flawed, works-in-progress, always dependent on the Grace of God. Not much else to it, really. All the superstructure of Christian dogma and morality is well, superstructure, not the heart of the matter.

And now, this autumn, our local churches are working together to run an Alpha Course in the town. I can’t in all honesty offer to help run it, with all the doubts and questions I have. Perhaps it will be a wonderful success and will really grow the churches in our town both in numbers and in confidence in what they believe. A part of me hopes that all my misgivings will be proved wrong and confounded. But I’m not really expecting that to happen. Come on, God, prove me wrong.

Leaving Alexandria

Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway, is subtitled ‘A memoir of faith and doubt’. It is a timely book for me to be reading, at this time when I’ve recently retired, and am reflecting very much on my own ordained ministry: what did it mean? What was it all about?

Richard Holloway was born in a working class family, north of Glasgow. As a young teenager, he was persuaded by the local vicar to sing in the church choir, and there the beauty of holiness, the magic and mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship, captivated him. With little prospect of getting a good education through the local schools, let alone being able to gain a university place, he was encouraged at the age of 14 to go to Kelham Hall, at that time the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, whose vision was to educate working class boys for ordination. Holloway never joined the Order, but he was drawn to its ethos of total commitment and self-sacrifice to Christ. (The founder of SSM, Herbert Kelly, used to say of the altar in Kelham’s chapel, “We sacrifice young men on this altar.”) For the whole of his life, Holloway felt both unable to give himself so totally to Christ, and at the same time guilty for being unable to do. His abiding feeling was of being “a disappointment”: to God, to his superiors, to the churches and congregations he served, to his wife and children.

His drivenness to become the best priest he could, led to some extraordinary works of ministry, in serving the homeless, the poor, the alcoholics and drunk addicts, AIDS sufferers, in parish after parish. Yet in spite of these ‘successes’ and heroic achievements, which led to his eventual call to be Bishop of Edinburgh, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Holloway continued to feel he was a disappointment. He wrestled, too, to believe in God in the way his Anglo-Catholic background seemed to require. His belief in the place of human reason and experience led him to embrace the liberal theology of the 1960s, and the supposedly liberal agenda of women’s ordination and the full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church. This made him feel increasingly at odds with large sections of the Church, which regarded him as a dangerous liberal and heretic.

The last straw was the Lambeth Conference of 1998, the one that was hijacked by the more conservative, reactionary bishops of Africa and elsewhere, who forced through the infamous motions condemning homosexual practice and gay and lesbian people. Holloway knew that he could not continue to serve a Church which he believed had departed so far from the message of the Gospel. He had written a book called Godless Morality, which advocated conducting discussions on morality, without recourse to religious imperatives which could so easily be used without realism, reason or compassion. Many critics (including plenty who had not bothered to read beyond the title) condemned the book as heretical, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Since he was a guest of the Scottish Church at the time, Holloway was not the only person present who felt this was not only wrong, but also bad manners. The ABC had no business to be issuing what was effectively a fatwa against a fellow primate who was also his host.

Soon after this incident, Richard Holloway resigned from his position and retired, after famously throwing his bishop’s mitre into the River Thames.

This book is a fascinating memoir of one man’s experience of a lifetime’s ordained ministry in the latter half of the 20th century. It is honest, challenging, often laugh-out-loud funny. I think that anyone who has been involved in ordained ministry in the Church will recognise many of the questionings and wrestlings the author describes. It is also, at times, almost unbearably sad, as here when he describes his final sermon.

In the spring of 2000 I announced my resignation. At the end of October I preached my last sermon as Bishop of Edinburgh in Old St Paul’s, and I used it to look back. I told them that when I arrived as their Rector thirty-two years before I had just emerged from a period of radical doubt and had fallen into a very common trap. I reacted against my own uncertainty by attacking doubt and uncertainty in others. A closet sceptic, I condemned in others what I had been afraid to look at in myself. My first book, written in the attic at Lauder House thirty years ago, was an attack on the kind of theology I myself now wrote and was condemned for. It was the deepest irony of my life that I had ended up the kind of bishop in my sixties I had despised when I was a priest in my thirties. Now I had come back to where I started from and knew the place for the first time. I could no longer talk about God.

My heart goes out to a man who has made this decision. I am currently still presuming, or daring, to talk about God. But really, it’s with a growing fear and doubt: how can we speak about the Unspeakable, the Mystery beyond and behind all things? So much of human speaking about God amounts to little more than a blasphemous exaltation of the idols we set up and name as ‘God’. Usually with the principle motive of massaging our own egos, or shoring up our own power over others. Richard Holloway’s memoir challenges us and invites us to a more honest caution and modesty about what we take upon ourselves to say about God. Lest

“The Word made flesh is here made word again.”1Edwin Muir. I think. If you know the exact source, please let me know.

Songs for babies

Jeremy wasn’t having a very good day yesterday, so his mummy wasn’t, either. It was probably her own fault, really. She just didn’t seem to be able to understand what Jeremy was communicating to her – quite clearly, he thought – about what was the matter with him, and what he wanted to put it right. You see, she’d told him that Granny and Grandpa were coming to see him today. And – where were they, then? They weren’t there! He got himself quite worked up, he wanted to be wide awake when they came, but then he got more and more tired and fussed and didn’t know what to do with himself.

What eventually got him quietly asleep on Grandpa’s shoulder

was Grandpa singing to him. The song went like this:

Oh, the green wothe botheth every day
The green wothe keeps on bothing
It botheth in the morning light
And it keeps on bothing –
All the livelong night.1

When Grandpa got home at the end of a long, tiring day, he thought he would sleep really well all night long. But instead he was awake before the alarm, suddenly remembering how he used to sing to Jeremy’s Uncle Tom when he was little. It was a different song, because Grandpa was quite learned in those days, and he remembered singing it in the JCR at Cranmer Hall. It went like this:

Thoberamus Bobaramusque, what are you doin’?
Thoberamus Bobaramusque, you’ll be my ruin.
Thoberamus Bobaramus, aut semper aut tunc,
Thoberamus Bobaramus, dic mihi Quod nunc?

Jeremy wonders if other people’s grandpas sing nonsense songs to them, too?

  1. Devotees of James Joyce will recognise that this is the young Stephen Dedalus’s song.

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.