Sunday, June 26, 2011

Better Questions

A conversation with friends this week left me searching for a paragraph in a book I read forty years ago as a young student. I found it, as if I always knew it was there. It's from Voices in the Wilderness by John Bowden.

There is a point, he writes, at which our ultimate questions turn round and question us. He then goes on to quote Peter L Berger:

A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream, and finds himself surrounded by darkness, alone, beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible, and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother. It is hardly an exaggeration to say at this moment, the mother is being invoked as a high priestess of protective order. It is she (and, in many cases, she alone) who has the power to banish the chaos and to restore the benign shape of the world. And, of course, any good mother will do just that. She will take the child and cradle him in the timeless gesture of the Magna Mater who became our Madonna. She will turn on a lamp, perhaps, which will encircle the scene with a warm glow of reassuring light. She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same - 'Don't be afraid - everything is in order, everything is alright.' If all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality recovered, and in this trust he will return to sleep.

Bowden then continues:

A common enough scene, yet it raises one of those questions fundamental to our very existence. Is what the mother says true, or is she lying to the child? The mother's actions are true only if there is some truth to the religious understanding of human existence. For if reality is limited to the natural reality that we see around us, then the reassurance given to the child, as it may be given to other people in other situations, even on a deathbed or by a graveside, is ultimately a lie. For all is not well. The terror which the child is experiencing is the ultimate reality, and the reassurance given is no more than a diversion. At the heart of the process which is essential to the making of a human person, at one of the most crucial moments of trust, there is a lie.

Since my earliest years as a student of theology and throughout my training for ordination in the Church of England it has seemed to me as though psychological forces have been at work to deflect attention away from this ultimate and existential kind of question and towards issues pertaining to society and politics. Religion has come to be seen as valuable only insofar as it enables human beings to live together in peace and with justice - the more peace and justice in the world, the more firmly established, the less we need religion at all.

The above quotes from Berger and Bowden go some way to explain why I have never quite been won over by this new theology. I think that the older questions were better.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ain't No Cure

Sally Vickers, the writer, is quoted as saying that there is no cure for being alive. I find these existential reflections ever more appealing. We have recently had a new baby born into our already extended family. I've come to see being born as being volunteered - for life.

At the same time my wife's eighty-nine year old father proudly, if naively, declares that he has never volunteered himself for anything. I suppose it could be said of his four children: he volunteered them.

The Makings of a Vicar

It was over forty years ago. I was leading worship in the parish where I served my first curacy. Two old ladies sat together in the congregation. One turned to the other and, slightly louder than seemed strictly necessary, pronounced, "He's the makings of a Vicar."

I have been striving manfully ever since to live up to that early acclamation. The burden of expectation, imagined and real, has sometimes been trickier than you might think.

For a while now I have not been what I would call a Sunday Christian. I haven't been in church regularly on Sunday for over ten years, since indeed I retired from professional ministry. I have been instead a kind of Tuesday Christian, until recently offering the Eucharist at noon in a local parish church and giving pastoral support as chaplain in a hospice and, more lately, a cathedral setting.

But not usually on Sunday.

Sunday feels to me like a day of celebration - resurrection, confidence, strong affirmation - a day to stand up and be counted - to fly the flag - a day for Christians to be at their best.

I feel that I am more of a Tuesday Christian - a marginal believer - a devout sceptic - a displaced person - a disappointed priest.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


When Chris Jefferies, landlord of Joanna Yeates, was being held for questioning about her murder, a crime of which we now know he was entirely innocent, our daily tabloid newspapers wasted no time in revealing details about his hair-style, his dress, his manner, his taste in literature, his love of the Christan Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in a blatant attempt to link these 'eccentricities' to the suspicion of his guilt.

Compare this with the lead story in today's Times, Young girls lured with drink were 'sold for sex'. The nine men accused are photographed and named. They are clearly of Asian background. What their religion might be we are not told. The seven teenage girls who were abused are simply described as from the small Staffordshire town of Wellington, near Telford, again without reference to their religion or ethnicity.

A word of advice to Mr Jefferies might be: If you don't want to attract the wrong sort of attention from the press, choose your religious affiliation more carefully - or at least keep quiet about it.