What else is a retired gentleman in lock-down to do?
What else is a retired gentleman in lock-down to do?
Last Edited: Mar 25, 2020 2:01 PM
It seems strange when I remember it now. When I retired at the end of August 2016, and for some months afterwards, I quite often found myself having anxious, fearful thoughts about different kinds of disasters and apocalypses that might happen.
Some of it, I’m sure, was the stress of something I had never experienced in my life until then: the burden and responsibility of living in a house that we actually owned. Say what you like about living in a tied cottage – such as a vicarage is – but you don’t have to worry much about maintenance. You just pick up the phone to Church House and get the Diocesan Surveyor to send someone round to fix it. It’s also true that the Diocesan Surveyor got a bit fed up with phone calls from Marston Vicarage (which has since been demolished and a new one built.) Starting with the leaky flat roof, and progressing through numerous cracks in the walls caused by alternating heave and subsidence from the huge willow tree about ten metres from the house, rebuilding of said walls, and at the last water leaking from the pipes embedded in the concrete floor… Now I write all that, I wonder how we put up with it for 25 years, unless it was something to do with the wonderful parish and people. But at least it kept us entertained, and was really the only thing we had to complain about in the whole of our wonderful time there.
But when all that was left behind, I would often find myself – chiefly in those sleepy moments of doing the washing up – thinking what it would be like when you turned the taps on and no water came out… or when there was no electricity… or when rats crawled out of the toilets. Like in Raymond Briggs’s terrifying When The Wind Blows. Or when bands of brigands roamed, terrorising neighbourhoods, or tanks rolled along the streets. This was in the months following the Brexit Referendum, with that sense of dread over the divided country we were suddenly living in, and the possibility, that I imagined, of actual civil war or some similar calamity.
Never, in my wildest fantasies, did I imagine an apocalypse in the form of a global pandemic. Clearly I needed a more fertile imagination.
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.
That’s not MY National Anthem…
… It’s too small. It’s not about the nation or the people at all, but about one over-privileged individual. Its whole ethos is one of the causes of the mess we’re in today. (Unless, like me, you reckon Her Majesty’s real enemies are Her Majesty’s own Government, and it’s their politics and knavish tricks we are praying will be confounded…)
This is MY National Anthem…
… It’s national and international, it’s European, it’s joyful, it’s for the people, it’s for the brother/sisterhood of all humankind.
Yes, that’s MY National Anthem.
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?
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?
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.