Wednesday 31 December 2008

Keeping silence

Sara Maitland spent forty days and forty nights in silence on Skye. It is part of a longer story which grew towards her present life in a hermitage. One of the many books to make its way into the house at Christmas is her new A Book of Silence. I’m only half way through but am already intrigued by questions such as how far some mystical experiences are part of the common phenomenon of silence rather than religious encounters as such. Meanwhile, her account of her time on Skye at the beginning has so many touching points with my far less isolated sabbatical experience ten years ago when I spent Lent in a religious community that I’ve also gone back to things I wrote then to spot a number of them.

Coquet Lighthouse seen from the Friary at Alnmouth

Being an habitual philanderer
with myself, I know how to prompt and tempt
(savouring irritations, flirting with
fantasies, enticing myself into
control and judgement) and do so with the
practised ease of a coquet’s winking eye.

Yet I am loved faithfully and can be
drawn quite another way, knowing even
acknowledged dalliances receive an
‘all is well’ as much as a ‘put this right’,
as somehow being asked to breakfast on
the shore merges with the cockerel’s call.

So, beginning intentioned silences here,
I try to see what dross my flirtations
leave, and value the metal left refined,
but find instead, at first, a single ore
whose indistinct spread is edged with joy, like
the long gaps marked by Coquet’s winking light.

The picture of tiles built into a wall are a further one from a post-Christmas walk by the Humber Bridge and the neighbouring clay pits and tile works.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Loss of Advent hope

It is a little hard, in the face of the situation in Zimbabwe, proclaiming cosy Advent thoughts about the gathering lights of dawn.

I posted on 9th June and 20th September about the parish we support in rural Matabeleland. Just before Christmas we sent a fourth donation this year of £400 (collected in Botswana to avoid the rapid reduction in value of the Zimbabwe currency) and received these greetings and thanks.

I would like to say thank you for the great gift of money you sent through my son. As we are approaching Christmas Day we will buy some few items for the elderly and orphans as they face the hardest time.

The situation is now too bad and people have lost all the hope they had some months ago that may be the situation will be better. Now people are dying of treatable diseases like cholera which has taken many lives. It is going to be a hard Christmas for many as there is no food and where you get it its unaffordable.

Again, thanks very much for your kindly assistance; without you I donʼt know how we would be surviving. HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR.

Monday 22 December 2008


Did Leonard Cohen nick his basic idea from Eastern Orthodox liturgy? The trick of finishing each verse with an Alleluia is already there in a song by John of Damascus in the burial service; John Tavener set this hauntingly to music three years before Cohen wrote his own Hallelujah. It is likely simply to be a coincidence, but I’m very struck by it.

I sometimes use one of the alternative commending prayers in the new Church of England burial service which I assume comes from the Orthodox source:

All of us go down to the dust,
yet weeping at the grave,

we [still] make our [Easter] song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

The text of Tavener’s Funeral Ikos conveys the wonderful sense that, in the face of death, we cannot know all we would wish to sustain our faith other than depending on our ability to sing Alleluia, so some verses include:

Whither now go the souls?
This mystery have I desired to learn.
Do they call to mind their own people as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Where then is comeliness?
Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

With ecstasy are we inflamed
if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Much of Cohen's song is about different ecstasy, but it takes only a slight stretch of the imagination to think that at least his final verse belongs there:

Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

Saturday 20 December 2008

One project complete

Actually the final touches to the project to create access for the disabled at the entrance to St Michael’s churchyard are still to be put in place: the replacement gates need engraving and installing; the final accounts need to arrive and be settled; the final returns to some of the funders need filling in and sending off.

Then St George’s will need to seek ways to fund work on its roof (we await the report of the assessment done last week), St Michael’s will need to seek ways to fund redecoration (what we hope is the final element of the substantial work there over seven years), and St Nicolas’ has an ambition to seek ways to fund a new heating system (we await the arrival in January of those who will assess the costs involved in this).

Tuesday 16 December 2008

A second blog

Putting all this stuff out on the internet is probably much more self indulgent than it is faith promoting. But (having discovered how easy it is to run a blogspot site) I’ve just started a different one as a access point to the parish’s different approach to Family Services in 2009, which may have more of a point to it. It is at The picture of the weathervane at the top of St Michael’s tower is part of it.

The challenge to do something like these blogs came at one of the periodic residential conferences for all the clergy of the diocese held at Swanwick in April where the focus was on our use of this sort of technology. I’m aware that several of us started a blog as a response, although I’ve settled for mine being a diary for my own benefit which, while it is open for others to read, may not be what the speakers at the conference were really getting at.

The sorts of people who might be interested in the First Sunday Thing are as likely to look for information about it on the web as anywhere else, so posting something new about it each week may be more what the conference organisers were actually on about.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Pitching it right

It is getting on for twenty years ago that I found myself taking an Infant School assembly one morning and taking a Theological College seminar that afternoon, with an inspector sitting at the back of both. I thought then, and have kept repeating since, that there are few jobs where one can be scrutinized ‘teaching’ appropriately at both Key Stage 1 and University Diploma levels in the same day. When I put it like that, the expectation that I’ll manage to pitch it right every time seems a little far fetched.

So this week I’ve walked innocently into a Sixth Form Study Day at a Lincolnshire Grammar School without having any recent teaching at that level to help me calibrate the scale. And the modest task was to provide an hour of Christian reflection for each of four groups in turn tackling ‘the problem of suffering’ after they had watched the recent BBC drama about a group of Jews in a concentration camp putting God on trial.

I took the obvious tools I have to hand (including Elie Wiesel’s Night and Andre Rublev’s icon The Hospitality of Abraham) and made the best fist I could. I tried to get them to think whether a creation free of decay and pain was actually possible. I ventured that God got involved in the world in Jesus because he couldn’t see any other way out of this problem either. Asking pairs to discuss and report back I think I was able to detect those who’d understood what I thought I was getting at (which I’m thankful was a lot of them), those who didn’t really (which I confess was quite a number), and those who didn’t even want to try (which I’m relieved was the smallest group, unlike my other Secondary School encounter this year at a Grimsby Comprehensive).

Of course, it also works the other way around. One of the others speaking at the Study Day had been at the lecture by Gillian Merron MP about which I posted on 29th November. Where I had perceived ‘the commonplaces of world development discussion’, he had been struck by innovative thoughts, particularly by the discovery that we help train customs officers in Mozambique because the development of efficient trade and revenue collection may make as big an impact on poverty reduction there as emergency aid.

Meanwhile, the picture comes from the top of St Michael’s tower during the week, looking across the Freshney river and the edge of the Willows estate to the industry along the south bank of the Humber, including the distinctive Tioxide tower.

Friday 12 December 2008

Thursday 11 December 2008

Monday 8 December 2008

First Christmas Sermon

I don’t want to say that I am amazed how many people have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas, but instead, just to be different, to say the opposite. I am astonished each year just how many people do really understand.

You’ll know the First World War story about soldiers from opposing armies climbing out of their trenches and, famously, playing football in No Man’s Land. Why did they think that on 23rd December it was fine to shell the opposite trench and that on 27th December it was acceptable to machine gun someone in No Man’s Land, but that on 25th December it wasn’t fine at all? The only answer I can come up with is that there was something about the birth of what the prophets called the Prince of Peace which they understood. They might not have read the prophet who said that when God comes among us there will be an end to war, but instinctively they knew it was true. For one day the message that God has come among us was so powerful that they couldn’t do anything other than lay down their weapons and play games with their enemies.

There is an organisation originally called Crisis at Christmas which began a number of years ago in London by setting up a shelter for a few days where those living on the streets could have warmth and good food over Christmas. Why should the welfare of such people seem to be a problem it is too difficult to tackle in October, and a problem to expensive to fund in February, but somehow be something so many people want to do something about and pay towards at the end of December? There is something about the message of the holy child born in a stable because there was no room in the inn which instinctively makes many people really uncomfortable about the idea of others being homeless, and for one season of the year the message is briefly so powerful that they are willing to do something about it.

I don’t know whether you’ve heard in the last few weeks people say something about a difficult or lonely friend or neighbour or member of the family along the lines ‘we can’t leave him or her on their own at Christmas’. Why? We know the answer instinctively. There is something about the birth of the one who is going to say ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and ‘do good to those who persecute you’ which is powerful enough on the edge of Christmas to provoke ourselves into being better people than we sometimes are.

I give thanks that the message is so powerful that something of the promised Prince of Peace, born in a stable, ready to teach us how to love God and each other, is effecting the lives of people up and down the country and across the world this mid-winter. The real puzzle is about grudging and over pious people like me who think we own this story. Why is it that the message of God among us, which is so powerful for a few days that it shapes so many people’s faith, lives, and relationship with God and with neighbours, doesn’t transform our lives much more comprehensively at this mid-winter festival and doesn’t deepen with the transforming presence of Christ alongside us day by day as the New Year lengthens?

The picture is one I took in St Nicolas’ churchyard before the morning service yesterday. The words are some old material I rehashed for an ecumenical service for the Willows estate in the closed St Peter’s Catholic Church in the afternoon.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Burial space

One of the things which gives me most unease and others most grief is simply the extreme shortage of burial space at our village church of St George’s, Bradley. I receive frequent requests to allow the burial of someone who, say, used to live in the village, has family buried in the churchyard, or worships there at Christmas or another time. Explaining carefully that the remaining burial space has to be kept for those with a legal right to it as residents or regular worshippers is rarely perceived to be sympathetic.

A dozen years ago the then acting Team Rector determined that no burial were to take place at all as no proper plan existed to show where space remaining. I now almost regret the substantial work I put in to identify where at least the next couple of dozen burials could take place because the worse part of me feels it would save angst and trouble simply to tell people that the churchyard is full and closed, and I would be able to avoid the really difficult conversations with newly bereaved people which I’ve had again recently.

The case is simple. The village only has sixty houses and the rate at which new grave and cremated remains spaces are requested from the regular congregation and residents is sometimes not even one a year; at this rate the churchyard can be kept open for at least another generation. The rate at which other requests come in is at least one or two a quarter, often with substantial links with Bradley, and each convinced that their particular single request cannot make any real difference; I said ‘yes’ to the first couple of requests of this sort I received before I realised how frequently they would come; to have said ‘yes’ to all the requests over nearly ten years would have brought us near the final closure of the churchyard, and the vast majority of the last fifty burials would have been these exceptional cases and not those with a legal right to the remaining space at all.

But the situation distresses those making the requests and each time a family puts me under particular pressure I feel bad about it for days. In every other aspect of the life of the church it is open to those far beyond the village and regular congregation: a much wider group is now legally entitled to be married in the church, Harvest and other special events attract people from far afield many of whom think of it as ‘their’ Parish Church, and we even look to this affection to support it when we have to make a substantial financial appeal. It is really hard that we can’t also offer this wider constituency burial space without very quickly depriving the village of the use of its own churchyard.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Community Pay Back

We don’t want those sentenced to perform community service becoming a public spectacle in the one of our churchyards which they help maintain. This is the reply St Nicolas’ District Church Council gave to the enquiry about the new Government scheme that those undertaking such work should wear high visibility vests labelled ‘Community Pay Back’.

The stated intention that justice should be visible seemed to us to tip over far too quickly into satisfying an appetite for public humiliation; appropriate punishment, community benefit and victim support are all vital, but loving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us ought at least to make us stop short of making a public display of those involved.

But it is very difficult to think this way. My own instinctive reaction to petty nuisances, vandalism and violence when I am a victim or encounter someone who is, is to hunger for retribution and for something which will knock sense into the perpetrators. And the comments left on media sites which have reported the Government initiative indicates that those who dislike the idea of public humiliation in these circumstances are in a very small minority.

So I’m quite proud of the District Church Council for taking a Christian position which requires us to moderate the instincts of many of us and take a position which may seem quite weak and silly to most people in the community.

Repentance (I’m reminded on another blog) isn’t about feeling bad but about thinking differently; the Greek meta-noia is 'after-perception’ which is close to ‘beyond normal thinking’ and thus ‘adopting a different approach’. We pray for that in Advent for ourselves before we pray it for others including those undertaking community sentences.

Not that anything is going on at the moment. We've been really grateful for the work in the past, but those involved haven’t been able to come to us at all this year because of problems with machinery and transport. The picture is of how overgrown the churchyard got at times this summer as a result, despite dedicated work by a number of people. We will need to wait until next February to find out whether they’ll be able to come next year. And the local organiser tells me, whatever the media reports, that there are situations in which high visibility isn’t to be insisted upon and their present vests say ‘Unpaid Work’.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Deference dangers

Your plane is more likely to crash if the senior officer is at the controls at that moment than if a junior officer is. This is a surprise given you’d expect the senior officer to be more competent and have more flying hours. But it is a fact identified in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The story of success and his agent’s publicity has been excellent because I’ve come across it several times on the radio and in print in the last week. And it is deference which seems to be the problem.

If someone junior is at the controls then colleagues and the senior officer will have no hesitation in alerting him or her to a dial reading or a danger. If the boss is at the controls other people may assume that he or she knows what he or she is doing, or simply be less willing to be seen to criticise. The extreme example quoted often from Gladwell’s book was revealed in a cockpit recording following a Korean air crash in which the extreme deference of the culture meant the junior officers are heard only to hint very obliquely that something might be going wrong.

I posted a passage of Rowan Williams’ on 10th November which mentioned ‘the spiritually damaging effects of hierarchy and deference’ which may be why I’ve noticed Gladwell’s point being repeated inn the media.

Receiving criticism graciously and appropriately is one thing. Simply seeking to remember to respond to justified criticism with ‘thank you, I hadn’t spotted that, it is useful when people point out things like that’ is difficult, but spotting when one is not even being offered the justified criticism is more difficult still.

Giving criticism is another thing, and I'm even further away from mastering the art of doing that graciously and appropriately. ‘Telling the truth in love’ can be cover for Christian ineptitude, dislike and manipulation, but, when it isn’t, it is must be much safer than deference. Some clergy have created publicity by banning I vow to thee my country at church services. Each time such a story emerges I make a point of picking it for the following Sunday, and was glad to tell something of the story of the hymn on Remembrance Sunday last month. Nevertheless, I think the hymn gets it wrong with the line ‘the love that asks no questions’; the down side to the unquestioning obeying of orders must be one of the lessons of the twentieth century.

The picture of dawn is taken from our kitchen window.

Saturday 29 November 2008

Ignoring Africa

The idea that Government and individuals should support world development and poverty reduction overseas is not as widely supported as some may think. This turned out to be the main point which Lincoln’s MP wanted to make when she talked in the Cathedral last night. When she was a Minister for Overseas Development with a brief for Africa, if ministry staff seemed to forget this she used to remind them by producing the headline in a local paper which followed a statement she’d made in the Commons about a war situation where sexual violence was endemic which was something like ‘Merron gives money to rape victims in Africa but not in Lincoln’. She kept urging members of her inevitably sympathetic audience to make tackling this one of our priorities.

She is now a Minister in the Foreign Office but still with a brief for Africa, and she responded to the Dean’s invitation to share the perspective this had given her with many of the commonplaces of world development discussion: tragically high maternal and malarial death rates can be reduced by quite simple measures where there is the money and the will; different funding routes are appropriate in different countries depending on the nature of the Government and the presence of particular non-governmental agencies; poverty reduction is in our own interests given the links with everything from crime to drug production. The issues involved have clearly taken over her own life; she spoke of the immersion experience provided by Action Aid who had sent her to live briefly in a village in northern Ghana and a further period of work for VSO which she’d undertaken during one parliamentary recess.

The picture is a view across souther Malawi from the top of Zomba Mountain at the foot of which I was born.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Rectory PR

My house (photographed by a Churchwarden when it was being built in 2005) is perfect for the job but is also probably a bit of a PR disaster. It was commented again this week (on a Funeral visit as it happens) how big it looks and how sorry people were to see the loss of the ‘scout hut’ (as it was perceived) on the site. And, since I hear these comments directly quite often, I imagine that the impression in much of the community must be that ‘the church’ has too much money, indulges its clergy and doesn’t care much about community provision.

The site was bought by St Michael’s in the 1930s, small piles of bricks were abandoned on it when war time restrictions prevented building, and an ex-RAF hut was moved to it after the war. This was replaced by a new building in the 1960s and huge numbers of people have affectionate memories of packed Youth Group meetings and flourishing uniformed organisations meeting in both old and new halls. The new hall had deteriorated by the end of the century and eventually had to be shut on safety grounds; the remaining external users weren’t willing to join in the sort of joint community project which something like a Lottery bid to do it up would have required. The money raised by selling the site has been put into the project to create proper community facilities and disabled access in St Michael’s church itself, which is where our present Youth Group meets among other things.

It is actually a coincidence that the site was sold to the diocese to build a parsonage, but it is understandable that those in the community don’t perceive ‘the church’ being divided up in this subtle way. The 1930s Rectory in which my immediate predecessors lived had its own problems and was being disposed of to a builder when I arrived; attempts through a long vacancy to identify a suitable replacement house or building site had failed and I was quite happy to move into a much smaller Curate's house. The availability of a building site at the centre of the parish a few years later was the first opening the diocese found for resolving the need to provide a proper Rectory for the future.

It is large, although the parsonage need to provide study, loo and entrance lobby, and the planning need to look like a bungalow and thus put one bedroom downstairs, makes a ground plan that looks even larger. It seems like ‘protesting too much’ to point out on a Funeral visit that this week we turfed one of the children out of the main sitting room to make way for a church meeting and scrapped ice off the windows of a car which doesn’t fit into the double garage because it is full of the things needed for the Christmas Fair at one of the churches.

Monday 24 November 2008

The plain meaning of the Bible

Does the Bible have a plain meaning? Clearly much of it does. But equally clearly understanding of things such as the nature of poetry, of Graeco-Roman biography and letters, and of changing world views, would warn anyone off such a simplistic notion, and that is just in relation to the New Testament. The idea certainly doesn’t appear to be something the Bible or the Anglican Communion has ever taught. Even so, it seems that some Anglicans think it is a required belief.

The question arises because the Jerusalem Declaration agreed by the pilgrimage event held there shortly before the Lambeth Conference is quickly being used as a shibboleth (for example, those attending the launch of the new break away Anglican Province for North America early next month will be invited to sign it). The Declaration says that ‘the Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading’.

Most of this sentence appears to be an interesting take on what have been recognised to be the cornerstones of Anglican theological reflection: scripture (the canonical Bible translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed - including the word ‘interpreted’ in this list would be equally normative), tradition (‘respectful of the church’s historical reading’) and reason (‘respectful of the church’s consensual reading’ - unless this phrase was chosen to keep the Bible hostage by meaning others should only teach what the drafters agree).

But how did the word ‘plain’ get in there? The Bible itself teaches very little about the Bible. What the New Testament does teach is that the Bible is incisive, inspired and useful, and that parts of it are difficult to understand. Anglicans have explicitly never been required to believe more than this. Yet assent is being invited to a novel additional proposition that the Bible has a plain meaning, a proposition which itself actually appears directly to contradict part of this biblical teaching.

At the end of last week I was looking at what the New Testament teaches as being unnatural (men wearing long hair was one of the very few examples), discussing what demon possession might mean (in relation to the television programme Apparitions), and reading Daniel and Revelation at Matins (including complicated plays on numbers in both); the claim that this should all be understood only in a ‘plain’ sense does appear somewhat surreal.

The picture is one I took on a previous school trip to Gainsborough Old Hall a couple of years ago; it is the kitchen roof.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

St Hugh's Day

The myth of the Magna Carta is more effective than its historical reality. In other words, it is widely assumed that all sorts of principles have been established in constitutions and law in direct succession to it, but actually its influence as an icon of liberty is much stronger than the tiny bits of historical truth behind this assumption. Where a sense of justice is strong (and in these places Magna Carta is often quoted or simply referred to) bad or inadequate constitution or law cannot stamp it out. Where a sense of justice is weak then no system of constitution or law (even one which writes in principles which genuinely echo some parts of Magna Carta) can properly secure it.

This was the most interesting thought in a lecture for the College of Canons at Lincoln Cathedral yesterday. It arose out of the experience of those who have been trying to use the Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta not only as a tourist attraction but also as a tool for opening up discussion about rights and society. The lecture strayed a long way around the nature of religious freedom, seemed to depend more than can be justified on a minority stream of liberal Islamic study, and used the word ‘iconic’ more often than I could really cope with, but this is where it ended up.

A fellow Canon drew a parallel with the Precentor’s sermon we had heard earlier: the Christ who was at home in no particular place can thus be ‘relevant’ in every place. However, noone raised the related question about how far ‘the myth of God incarnate’ depends on historical reality to have power. The Bishop of Lincoln did raise the question about whether St Hugh’s life and politics might have influenced the charter issued fifteen years after his death, and I suspect that this is less whimsical than he or the lecturer allowed.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln Co-op has launched a £9.99 Cathedral Christmas pack with a book of photographs, a bag and an application form for a free annual pass. The book was created by the simple expedient of asking the public to submit pictures, and the results are hugely attractive. I sent in two: the one at the head of this piece they did not use, but the one of the roof drainage channel which I posted in this blog on 21st June does appear.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Friday 14 November 2008

A Winter Burial

‘Is that a boat?’
whispered the child
as the coffin
was carried out.

‘Yes, in a way’
his mother said
as the fresh thought
kindled her hope.

And the low sun
flamed over it
as it drifted
beyond her reach.

The picture is an outline of a Viking boat possibly put on a pillar in Stow Minister by someone who'd seen one on the Trent.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Crosslincs caution

Richard Dawkins would have a field day if the letters page of the latest issue of our diocesan newspaper fell into his hands. The lead letter simply reproduces a discredited and self evidently impossible but nevertheless increasingly widely circulated e-mail hoax that NASA has proved that there is ‘the missing day’ which anyone who takes Joshua and 2 Kings very literally would expect. One of the two other letters (which responds to something I’d written) makes the schoolboy howler of confusing things which are genetically influenced with those which are genetically determined.

Often when something is written which assumes a liberal theological position one of the incumbents of a large evangelical church writes to say this isn’t or shouldn’t be what the church teaches. I’d find it very tedious were it not for my recognition that when something is written which assumes a fundamentalist theological position I have been known to write to say that another position ought at least to be considered.

I’ve not much idea what the best thing would be to do next. Settling down into a confrontational exchange of letters wouldn’t be very edifying. On the other hand, simply watching the diocese circulate such sub-standard apologetics isn’t very constructive. The really frustrating thing is that it is those who would most want Richard Dawkins effectively rebutted who are providing him with the open goals.

The picture is one I took at Alton Abbey last year.

Monday 10 November 2008

Retreat reading

When John Cassian famously advised monks to flee from women and bishops, he had in mind the most obvious danger of being in proximity to a bishop - you might end up getting ordained... Theodore of Pherme was made a deacon, but constantly avoided exercising his ministry, when necessary by running away...; [for him it is] as if ordination involved some sort of attempt to lay hold of a destiny that would take a lifetime of prayer and watchfulness to grow into... It is a story which ought to make all ordained people uncomfortable, if only in its clear suggestion that exercising a public role in the church’s worship involves standing in the furnace of divine action which unites earth and heaven; if we can’t see that this is a dangerous place, we have missed something essential... As for Theodore, the ordained person may be at risk because of the spiritually intense place where they must stand, but they are also at risk from the more prosaic, but still spiritually damaging, effects of hierarchy and deference...; the calling to monastic witness is not going to be easily compatible with a life in which it is easy to be ensnared by the fantasies of others and caught up in the illusory position of dignity... I wonder too whether the ambivalence about ordained ministry has something to do with the license that the ordained person has to talk - to instruct, explain, exhort, even control...; there are plenty of stories about the need to avoid both theoretical discussions and over-confidence on theological questions. Speech that is not centred upon... the painful confrontation of inner confusion [and] the painstaking making space for each other before God... makes us do stupid things.

From pages 64 to 67 of Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Retreat Bible Study

I take it that a purpose of monastic life (from the Desert Fathers to contemporary Benedictine monks) is a radical experiment to see what human life is really like when the distortions of our appetites and their consequences are removed. If so, the reports back from this frontier are much more ‘relevant’ to normal life than most people are willing to think.

The first reading at Matins this morning (from Deuteronomy 17) warned God’s people that if they had a King he should not be allowed to have too much gold, too many horses or too many wives. I take this to be awareness that given total freedom the man might want to monopolise the available wealth, power and sex whatever the detriment to others. One of the few African absolute monarchs today is known for spending more on his private jet than the country’s health service (too much gold), to sack judges who make judgements against him (too much power or, figuratively, too many horses), and to hold annual half naked parades at which to select a new wife (literally too many wives). I notice that even The Independent not only depends on its advertisers (appealing to our consuming) and focusses mainly on news of those in authority or celebrities (acknowledging to whom we choose chiefly to attend) but also now includes the word ‘sex’ somewhere on its front page banners more than once a week (being open about what will catch the attention of potential buyers).

So to take vows of poverty (no gold), obedience (no horses) and chastity (no wives) must in part be not so much simply to be disciplined about these dynamics but to be curious about what happens when they are removed. Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the use of my wealth’ but ‘I’ll not allow the acquisition and use of money to motivate me at all’. Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the decisions I make’ but ‘I’ll not insist on making the fundamental decisions at all’. Not ‘I’ll be responsible about sexual morality’ but ‘I’ll not allow sexual possibilities to influence my relating’. We do well to attend to what they then find out.

Saturday 8 November 2008