Non-religious Society

An article by published yesterday on the Huffingtonpost by Andrew Copson . Comments that it’s about time Britain accepted that it’s no longer a Christian country.

And I’ve begun to think he’s probably right. Not especially because he quotes a figure of 95% of people NOT going to church every Sunday (I’m amazed and delighted that 5% of people apparently DO go every Sunday – Wow) that figure is a bit misrepresentative though when you’re trying to say how religious a person is- if they are completely honest (and one would hope that a self-identifying Christian would TRY to be) then very few practising Christians make it to church every Sunday – some are midweekers, others go once or twice a month; and many people consider themselves ‘practising’ if they go at Easter and Christmas without fail…

But forget that Sunday figure. Look instead at the deconstruction of the welfare state. Look at the aggressive focus in education on maths and English, at the sacrifice of arts subjects; and look at the endless and exhausting monitoring of children and prediction of probable ‘outcomes’ based on standardised markers…!

Look at the withdrawal of government support for the NHS, the withdrawal of vital support services and benefits, and look at the continued appalling misuse of public expenses by public representatives…

Look at zero-hours contracts and work-to-rule public servants in some areas, the forgetfulness of ‘service’ and self-sacrifice in many spheres of life, and look at the continuing cult of celebrity.

Look at the undermining of the human rights act in this country, the reduction in freedom of speech and new limitations on public assembly.

None of those things are Christian. So I’d to agree that this no longer feels like a Christian Society.

But I’d go further. I’d say that it no longer feels like a Society at all – social cohesion now seems to rely upon factors as fragile as a shared response to a photograph or a quotable remark that you can get behind.

These are sheep without a shepherd – and the trouble is that a Star trek style Utopia has yet to emerge in which humanoid life forms appreciate one another for their wondrous diversity… (by the way a great deal of time was spent in that Utopia trying to understand and appreciate other cultures’ sincere beliefs, NOT trying to reason them away with unmediated and effectively dehumanised data).

Now I believe there is no greater Humanist than the God who became incarnate and faced complete humility out of love, and that with good theology, there is nothing better to replace Christianity as Britain’s root of social cohesion… because there is no other Truth that saves.

But it may be that Andrew Copson, like many other writers, does not realise that this Country does not PAY for its faith or SERVE it’s faith… it is quite the contrary. And I’m looking forward to being MORE OBVIOUSLY a controversial minority… I’ve often wondered how the vast numbers of people who worship Christ as the Son of God crucified and resurrected, get away with holding charity bake sales and knitting premature baby clothes and volunteering at homeless shelters out of love for Christ, and manage to pretend there’s nothing peculiar about their life’s defining relationship.

It is odd. Or should I say (and please forgive me Lord, I seek to provoke) God is comparatively odd… compared to us, who want to standardise and economise and regulate and justify ourselves with outcomes and outputs and efficiency, striving to work our way back from the mad joy and diversity of creation towards a grey comprehensible median of existence… and are on our way to a homogenous hell in a handbasket. We are in a vast normalising society that is striving and failing to reach an agreement on accepted and necessary behaviours that simultaneously encompass a breadth of human existence so wide that at any given time 95% of people will most certainly be living outside of some accepted limits… I pray that the 5% within ‘normal perameters’ are NOT the 5% in church on a Sunday.

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Hope Incarnate

I can’t really write about other people specifically.

It’s a kind of code I have, part instinctive and part logical.

People are sacred, and their lives are sacred, and just as I wouldn’t publish a photo of them online or draw them without their permission, so I wouldn’t write about them. But I want to write about how a person looked like Hope to me tonight. Though even as I do, I pray that God will protect him and keep him from the path of self-destruction and give HIM hope and a way ahead.

Two weeks ago I was on my way home from church, through the churchyard, when I saw him. I think I had seen him the night before, but in the dark it had just looked like binbags under a tree. Now I could see his boots.

Other people had seen him- they’d treated his prone heap like a kind of shrine- leaving a little handful of small change; a packet of rich-tea-biscuits; a full mug of coffee; a packet of sandwiches… all a couple of feet away, in a ring. All untouched.

That was what worried me most, we have rough-sleepers, but all of the things around him were untouched and the wind was cold and the rain horizontal.

I probably should have just phoned 999. It took me 15 minutes to rouse him… I spent several hours with him in  A&E waiting… where he did not want to be, and eventually when he was seen I had to leave and go home to my family. And I felt guilty. Guilty for disturbing him when he probably wanted to slip off this mortal coil. Guilty for making him go in the ambulance. Guilty for seeing him in that state. Guilty for shepherding him like a tree about to fall, in and out of the other A&E people, as he asked for a cigarette and then nearly threw up. And guilty for leaving him after 4 hours, in the care of professionals.

My husband rounded up his sodden belongings and put them through the washer and dryer at the laundrette; and then took them back to A&E.

Two weeks later, the candles are lit inside the Minster as we prepare for evensong, the Advent Sequence, and I, like a spoilt child am all upset that I was supposed to sing the role of cantor but the choir master hasn’t spoken to the clergy and now is set to do it… and he did it well… apart from the prayer… anyway, grumpy priest has had her candle snuffed… But as we prepare there is a stranger waiting for the service… With the ominous presence of a bailiff or an angel. I pass by. And then I look back – it is really his coat I recognise, I spent so long with my hand on it then, keeping his balance, and something around his eyes… We look at each other and only as I walk further do I realise for certain… it is him and he is tall and clean and alive!

I don’t know that I would have been more surprised to see Jesus himself. Though to be frank, at certain moments, a lot of people look to me like Jesus.

I didn’t go and speak to him, because what would I say. I am stunned. I will keep praying for him; but really I hope that he might pray for me, because I felt nothing but foolish and guilty for the help I tried to offer and the little I could do. And now by his presence, he has done more for me than I did for him. I hope he lives, so much. And I hope that he finds good purpose for his life; because it would mean so much to me… isn’t that selfish?

P.S. When we were sitting in the ambulance two weeks ago, and by the way everybody knew him, in the ambulance and A&E and in all the hostels he’d been kicked out of… when we were sitting there in the ambulance and the paramedic asked him for his date of birth he joked with a sly glance at my dog collar that he was actually two thousand years old. We both knew he was joking he and I… but Christ knows too that on another level he was not.




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A time to mourn

There is a time to mourn.

Tomorrow we will have a service of remembrance in the evening for families who have been bereaved during the course of the past year. And there will be candles. And there will be hymns. And there will be mourning.

Tonight I am mourning. I am not mourning so much the dead – I pray they are at peace. I mourn the suffering of the living. It has crept up tonight like a mist and enveloped me, the aeroplane crash in Sinai; the refugees fleeing Syria, and dying in Greece and in the ocean and everywhere they flee to; the children in this country whose parents are little more than children, whose own parents are also children who have not learnt how to take care of each other and who are now more and more finding that there is no one and no money to help. The women who needed the support of refuges that have just now shut because there is no money. The children who thought they were being rescued after an earthquake and instead were traffiked and sold. This world where everything has a price and souls are traded for exclusive rights and book deals, whilst children even from safe homes dream only of one day making money from their famous or infamous identity. I mourn those scientists who shut down parts of their brain and write off parts of humanity for fear of being infected with religious beliefs, and I mourn those religious people who shut down parts of their brain for fear their image of God may not survive interrogation

I am mourning for all of us – for humanity. We are so precious and so full of tears… about two thirds full I think. Tomorrow I will be strong and speak quite honestly of hope. But I must also weep – because we all hurt so much, and because although I cannot reach or cannot help very many people, it does not mean they do not matter – and just because I am not with them does not mean I do not care. We humanise one another, we are all bound together – and tonight I weep for those I will never meet and for those who believe that no-one weeps for them. I do.


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A breath of fresh air

Well a quick update about my life before I continue and just in case you are interested.

I have moved out of my curacy (training post) and am in my first incumbency, as a Team Vicar in the Great Yarmouth Team Ministry.

Great Yarmouth Minster light

And I love this town already, with its amazing history and its windmills and its busy, scruffy bits and its medieval walls and chip stalls. But it is also a stranger place than I’ve lived before… it has attitudes of urban gloom, but a seaside position surrounded by farmland. It has an enormously diverse and young population… and it has events such as an annual Circus Festival, and a Maritime Festival… but it has a kind of self-deprecating attitude that makes no sense.

It is according to much analysis a town without aspirations, where young people find it hard to bother… as their parents before them. And where mums are young and single, because perhaps they hoped to find in a baby, the love they felt lacking elsewhere. There are a couple of parks, but actually very few gardens and people often live in very tiny homes. And although it is full of high tech industries, the inhabitants are far less technologically connected than many of their generation.  There is a strange mix of shortsightedness and stolid cheerfulness; of plodding on and of shooting for the stars… is it a town of dreamers? Perhaps.

I feel very called to be here. I felt it about every aspect of the post, which includes an extra educational remit as well as the usual priestly duties; I was excited by the sense in which the diverse community, confused spiritual identity and fishing history reminded me of the ancient Corinth of Paul’s letters in the Bible. And I was convinced that I could bring HOPE to the role and to the place… and I still think I can.

But I wonder HOW one is to gradually bring hope to a place that is in so many ways disconnected, in which the children are often wiser than their parents, and parents less responsible than their kids. In which the aim of education is still in many places to form productive human animals, and yet the end result is sometimes distorted human dreamers who were never fed or grown in the ways that might have lead them to flourish, and are now content to slip into a cycle of dependence. I don’t speak of everybody… but more by far than average.

I don’t know if I will make any difference, but I feel like it will take a long time if I do. I hope my hope lasts please God…


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Non-competitive Ethics

I have been reading several books by Rafe Esquith, who is a teacher in Los Angeles. All three books say basically the same things – and reveal that being a good educator in difficult circumstances is not rocket science – but does demand several costly things:

Long-term commitment to the same location.

Perseverance in the face of endlessly changing demands but fairly static challenges.

Self-discipline and (material rather than emotional) self-sacrifice.

A desire to learn from others and an appreciation of their gifts – be those fellow educators or children.

I kind of wish I’d just bought one of the three books – but reading the same thing three times has been helpful revision, and I expect he can use the royalties. I like his common sense, and have picked up much useful advice, however part of what this very dedicated teacher wrote felt consistently incompatible with my teaching role as a priest… this was  not a worry as though there is a large educational and formational aspect to my role it helped me to think about the ways in which my vocation differs from a school teacher.

What Mr Esquith seeks to do is educate well-rounded individuals, with a sense that they can aim higher- he seeks to equip them with tools for life, ranging from time-management and self-reflection to simple but invaluable politeness and presentation… and it sounds like he is very effective at achieving these worthwhile aims.

But I could feel that there were a couple of places where my vocation diverged strongly from what I was reading… now it is quite possible that the context of one of the books means it was rhetorical style rather than an underlying difference in attitude, but whilst reading about a school trip, and Esquith’s analysis of how the behaviour of his students compared to the behaviour of those people around them I realised that what was winding me up was the comparison itself… silly I know since it was important to draw the comparison in order for him to illustrate what he was trying to teach. Again and again it was the very use of comparison that irked me… but then I realised there was no harm in its use in teaching, even in his attempt to build young people -however his classroom rule of cultivating ‘humility’ did not quite make up for the innate self-righteousness he was growing in his students which would be unbearable in a church context (and yet which is so often found there)… I have been there myself, in fact I was brought up to it by a pair of teachers (coming from an academic, atheistic and liberal perspective as well as a religious and class-based one) … the comparative  ‘you don’t want to be like THAT do you?’ as a learning tool… it works okay to channel bright children into clever, well-spoken, appropriately ‘humble’ and subtley competitive and self-disciplined members of society… but it doesn’t build bridges and it offers little room for real turnaround redemption.

It is an attitude that has all the hallmarks of the pharisee rather than the fisherman, ‘I thank God I am not like that publican!’… but all it often means is that unacceptable behaviours and desires are subverted out of sight, in order to maintain a socially effective persona.

I strongly believe Christian ethics is not founded upon interpersonal judgement – but I realise that it is often the system we seem to fall back on.

In fact I believe that Christ taught and revealed behaviour that was radically non-competitive…

Let’s think about some of the earliest ‘sins’ in the Bible:

Cain and Abel – they both worship God with offerings – grain from Cain and a lamb from Abel – but Cain is copying Abel, and when God accept’s Abel’s offering and doesn’t like Cain’s so much – Cain is so riled – he kills his brother from jealousy. It’s not about the lamb or the grain, competitive ‘righteousness’ doesn’t work.

In fact let’s go back a bit Genesis… that fruit which is not to eat… is it humanity’s jealousy that makes Adamah and Chavvah desire it? ‘You will be like God’… not like yourself but like someone else.

Stop looking at each other and comparing your behaviour, your gains and losses, your apparent successess and failures… forget them and look to your Creator – you will only find there your true form – everywhere else, no matter how enviable or worthy, is a misdirection!

Question is – how do we translate that into something teachable… I think we have to look to Christ… Emmanuel, God with us – but even there we have to be careful not to try and emulate him, context and all – or the first step in our code of ethics would be circumcision… so it’s a good job he still lives, we need to look at what he’s doing now in the Holy Spirit not just what he was doing then, in sandles and seamless robe. And you can’t teach people to see. Can you?



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A new heart I will give you

A new heart I will give you and put a new spirit within you, I will take away from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh… (Ezekiel 36:26)

I love those prophetic words in Ezekiel… God promising to change the hardened hearts of humanity for living, loving hearts of flesh. I also picked that line today as a follow up to my last post.

My mum is back at home after her heart bypass, and coping well with first stage of the long slow healing process.

I realise that I didn’t mention in that last post the other thing that was on my mind at the same time…  having been officially signed off from my curacy at the end of three years, I had been in the process of applying for a post in a new parish!

Well I have been appointed to a new role in a parish four hours from where we live now,  and so we are preparing as a family to ‘up sticks’ and decamp to a large coastal parish in the East of England; where I will be able to work with a team of lay and ordained colleagues in an exciting and demanding ministry, in what is ranked by the Church Urban Fund as the most deprived parish in its diocese, and one of the most deprived in the country. So lots of ministry potential and a lot of Good News needed!

I’m really looking forward to moving, and to working there, but it was only really after the appointment had been announced in both parishes, that, receiving all sorts of really lovely comments from the people here whom I have come to know – I realised that my task – in the new parish, as it was in this present one – would of course be to love the people there,  to get to know them and their stories, and to find out what God is doing or could be doing in their lives.

It’ll be a bit different from the curacy of course – I am allowed to have a plan, and ideas for long term vision (worked out together with those around me) and will have to form strategies and evaluate progress, to see what’s working and how to develop it and what maybe isn’t… but primarily, as always it will be about loving, and praying, and listening and discerning… so I’ll need a new heart… or at least a refreshed one, a heart ready for new challenges of loving.

… I lay in bed the other night thinking about all the needs and potentials in the parish, and the sheer number of souls in the parish to be cared for, ideas racing round my head; and then I said to myself – ‘I can’t do this job, it’s too big!’                                                                                            And I felt the sort of Divine common-sense reply, form like the responding ripples in a pool when you’ve chucked an idle pebble in: ‘Of course you can’t do it, it’s my job! – but if you are faithful and loving, then you will be able to help me in my task.’

Which reminds me – I’d better get on and do evening prayer now…




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Heart Bypass

 At this moment, as I type – my mum is in hospital awaiting a triple heart bypass. She is seventy-five years old, ten years ago she had a series of small heart attacks and had two stents put in, and gained a new lease of life.

She is now ten years older, and the operation is a lot more invasive… I don’t know what I thought a heart-bypass was, but I’ve learned that it involves taking a vein (or two) from the patient’s leg (or occasionally arm), cutting open the rib cage, and sewing the working pieces of vein in place of the patches of those arteries or veins round the heart that are blocked. Once the veins are sewn in place, all the other bits inside the rib cage are put back and the rib cage is wired shut, and then the huge chest wound is sutured shut, as is the long scar on the arm or leg – where the donor vein came from.

My mum doesn’t know this in detail.


I’ve been reading a book recently: Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal‘  – it is a superbly thoughtful reflection on the circumstances of growing old and infirm, or becoming mortally ill, and facing the approach of death.

Looking at innovative and life-giving care homes, and less imaginative solutions to elderly living; considering the way that hospitals and hospices respond to the needs of those who come to them for care, and considering the modern way that the end of life is physically and mentally approached (or infinitely, painfully avoided).

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and Harvard lecturer (I think) and has written other books  (which I have not read), but I thoroughly recommend this one. Above all he considers the way in which accepting our mortality, and discussing our declining abilities and what makes us love this short and precious life, are all important to how we live, age, grow old or ill, and ultimately die… at best – but more and more rarely these days, peacefully and at home, with loved ones near. He shares the personal stories of a variety of people as they approached infirmity and ultimately death.

Gawande is very frank about the way in which surgeons and consultants are not always good at approaching the difficult discussions which really ought to be had very gently with their patients, and have a tendency to offer any do-able ‘fix’, no matter how painful, unpleasant, or unlikely to succeed, rather than share their own concerns and ask the patient what matters to them in life. Gawande practises in America – but most of the reflections apply equally this side of the Atlantic.


My mum doesn’t know the specifics of the triple heart bypass operation because she did not want the doctors to tell her in any detail what the operation involves… but she chose it over an experimental attempt to stent the three awkwardly-placed blockages, which would have likely taken more than four hours, and would have required her to be conscious. Understandably, she couldn’t face that. But she didn’t want to think about what she is facing. And she has been waiting now in hospital, rigged up to a heart monitor, for five weeks – for a place at the ITU in the other hospital to become available.

So for five weeks I have been going back and forth to see her-  taking her news, fruit, digestive biscuits and drawings from my daughter every two or three days. My father has travelled in to see her every day. We do crosswords, talk about the other patients, discuss the family and the weather and the view from the window…  but we are not allowed to talk about the operation – as she does not want to think about it – it is too frightening and painful, and the only way to cope for my mum, is denial.

It is very hard. It was especially hard today – a handsome young hospital radio volunteer came round to ask for requests… my mum’s mind went blank but I remembered two of her favourite songs – Ronald Binge ‘Sailing By’ which always comes after the shipping forecast and which used to help her go to sleep when she lay awake in the night for hours listening to the radio, and Neil Diamond ‘beautiful noise’ – which my mum used to put on the CD player and turn up really really loud and dance around to when I was a teenager and she was angry and unhappy but wanted to be joyful. Perhaps it was a mistake to ask – but I just thought of them and she agreed.

The lovely DJ said he’d play them between 9pm and 10pm… and I left to make the long journey home at 7.40pm. I thought of his kindness, and the memories that music awaken and said as I left ‘I hope they don’t make you cry’. And at 9.40 she sent me a text ‘I cried a little bit’.

And I cried too.

My mum and I haven’t always had the easiest relationship – (that is such a stock phrase that I’m sure you’ll understand the understatement dear reader). I realise that denial has always been her way of dealing with things that are too frightening or painful to face… and the more afraid she gets, the more she gets short-tempered with the people close to her… about random things,  as though their very presence, and their kindness, were a wicked enticement to face the rude monster that she has determined to politely but firmly ignore.

I don’t have a solution about how to deal with difficult truths, or how to help other people to face their fears; and I don’t even know if that is always the best thing to do – perhaps not in these particular circumstances. But I know that the fear doesn’t really subside or back off if you ignore it – I can see that she is afraid and unhappy, but she has decided not to be afraid, and so she can’t talk about it, it just seeps out in little tears and anger.

Well I’m afraid. I’m afraid first of the post-op recovery – of how demanding and depressing it will be for her – of how my father will cope with her fragility… I can be there to look after her – but it will be volatile and I am afraid of that – I have not lived at home since I was 18. I am afraid of how afraid she will be when she comes round and has not thought about the consequences of the op, and is not really ready to work hard to live again, let alone to face the suffering. I am afraid that she might die, and that my whole family would then have to move from her denial and glib conversations about the weather, and judgements about “thewomaninthenextbed”… To loss and total bereavement, without any preparation. I am afraid that although I think I am in some ways the strongest in the family – ready to tend wounds, hear confessions, even prepare services… that in fact I am perhaps the weakest of all. I am afraid that my father will wear himself out with the methodical busyness that passes for emotional concern in his partitioned life, and that he might manage to accidentally die before mum does!

But I am also hopeful.

I am hopeful that a bed will soon become free and that mum will be able to go ahead and have the op. I am hopeful that the experienced surgeons will manage well, and that the operation will be a success, and I am hopeful that my mum’s good lungs and muscles and strong mind will all help her to physically recover well. I am hopeful that she will not contract an infection, and that we as a family will be ready for her when she comes home several days later. And I am hopeful that I will be able to care for her for those first few days, as dad cares for the house, and I am hopeful that, though I may not be able to take the pain away or stop her feeling low – still I will be able to gradually ease things emotionally and physically, and rub along cheerfully with my dad. I am hopeful that she will regain her health and improve, supported by her family, and live to become an interfering old pest for many years, and will see my sister’s new baby safely born, and my own family all settled in a new house and job.

Yes – I think that is the way to cope with fear… voice it thoroughly, and then see what’s really left, what lingers. And what lingers on is hope…. not optimism, but hope,

HOPE, because no matter what – God loves us, and one day, when my fleshly clothing has been destroyed, then I will see God – and my own eyes will see him – and not another… and perfect love will cast out all fear. Hope because we will all die eventually, but God has sorted that out, and it’s not as bleak as all that, but it is fair… very very fair. And even though I rarely think of heaven, I think of eternity a lot, and eternity is already underway… so somewhere, on some level, I am already dead, and God has not abandoned me… and I have a sneaking suspicion that, that is where a lot of the hope is seeping through from.

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