Wednesday 28 September 2011

The Wisdom of Solomon

One of the things that ordained people have to do - and many others are called to do - to is recite Morning and Evening Prayer: many of us call it "saying the (Daily) Office" - deriving from an older sense of the word "office" indicating the charge or trust given to an individual in a conferred capacity or calling. For clergy, this is supposed to be done every day of one's life, alone or in community with others, regardless of the circumstances, "unless prevented by illness or other reasonable cause".  When I first starting doing it religiously (as it were) I felt honoured to be among those expected to make this twice daily offering to God, and quickly learned its rhythms and disciplines.  I came, like numberless generations before and beside me, to love and rely upon those parts of it which remain the same, day in day out - such as the Magnificat or Song of Mary: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour...."; with the psalmist to ply the Lord with the timeless cycle of songs and complaints of his faithful people; to anticipate the next instalments of whichever books of scripture are being worked through at any given time; and to appreciate the variations associated with the seasons of the Church's year and the feasts of saints and other holy days.  This gave my daily life a structure which it had previously lacked: at least two points at which, whatever prayers I may have said or wanted to say during the day, I knew I had an appointment with the Lord.  Morning and Evening Prayer - and often, Compline or Night Prayer - became for me, as for others, the hinges of the day.

There are nonetheless days when I can hardly bring myself to embark on another round of endless and apparently sterile repetition; when I fear that I am merely ploughing through the words without praying them; days when I frankly cannot be bothered, and when I simply have to make myself do it.  And then there are the nice surprises: a Cranmerian collect of exquisite poetry and economy, and bits of scripture that you can't remember reading before, that you'd forgotten, or forgotten to appreciate.  

Tonight at Evening Prayer, the Old Testament reading is the account from the first book of Kings of Solomon's dream.  Solomon has just become king in succession to his father, David; and in his dream God asks him what he would like Him to give him as sort of coronation present.  Admitting his extreme youth and inexperience, David asks for "an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil".  He asks not for wealth or victory over his enemies or long life - but for wisdom.  And God gives him wisdom, plus all the things he could have asked for but didn't (wealth etc etc).  He makes Solomon the greatest king of all time - because Solomon's request comes, not out of self-regard or interest, but out of his vocation to lead God's people.  

The episode concludes with an account of Solomon's judgement on two prostitutes, one of whom has accidently killed her own baby and stolen the living baby of the other.  They dispute before the king as to who is the true mother of the surviving child.  Solomon threatens to cut the living child in half.  The one who has stolen the baby agrees (on the grounds that she loses nothing thereby) while the other begs him not to, revealing a compassion that indicates that she is indeed the child's mother.  (I remember a version of this story that I studied for German 'O' level - in Bertolt Brecht's Marxist classic The Caucasian Chalk Circle.)  This is a terrible, graphic kind of wisdom; but it is wisdom.  And where there is wisdom, love will prevail.

Friday 23 September 2011

Heaven in Ordinary

Today, as one of my clerical colleagues reminds us on Facebook, is what we call the Year's Mind - ie the anniversary of the death - of Bishop Brian Masters. He was Bishop of Edmonton (one of the all-but-independent areas or subdivisions of the Diocese of London) from 1985 to 1998, when he died in office. His funeral mass in St Paul's is said by some to have been the only occasion on which incense has been used liturgically - ie swung about in a thurible or smoking handbag - in that cathedral.

This exception was no doubt made in reference to the fact that he was - and remains - what passes for a modern hero of Anglo-Catholicism.  In a clear line of succession going back Charles Fuge Lowder (1820-1880) and the Victorian slum-priests, he represented that sort of clerical disposition dually focused on the sacraments of the Church and the pastoral care of those entrusted to him by God. This model is, at its best, characterised by sacrifice, discipline, devotion, and personal holiness of life.  Yet is is also predicated on a profound understanding of humanity's fallen condition, springing as it does from identification with a God who identified with us, by coming to earth to live among us - as one of us.  In the Incarnation, the physical has been sanctified.  It is part of our created selves, just as it is part of how those of us in that tradition worship: the incense, the bells, the vestments, and the timeless choreography of the mass signalling an acceptance of our senses and physicality; our human need to touch and smell and see and hear.  Heaven brought to earth, and earth taken up to heaven.

It is sometimes said that the inroads made by Anglo-Catholicism in working class areas between the late 19th century until the Second World War can be explained by the fact that the poor liked the experience of colour and richness of the Catholic religious experience, which took them out of the squalour of their daily lives into an intimation of heaven itself.  I have always rather doubted this.  I suspect, uneducated though they were, they were not stupid.  I'm guessing that they knew that vestments are coloured cloth and incense is burning resin.  What drew them was the lives led by the priests; men who, very often, lived among their people as one of them; in devotion and discipline and simplicity, but most of all alongside them in all the messiness, danger, pain, and human-ness of their lives.

Brian Masters liked a drink (white wine, please) and the company of his priests (perhaps one of what Richard Coles describes in today's Guardian as "nature's bachelors").  He lived simply, but believed that self-indulgence was an inevitable consequence of our human condition, and could and should be forgiven.

He once came to my central London flat, of whose view over the modern architecture of the City I am modestly proud.  He stood on the balcony, sniffed and said: "What a terrible view!"  I laughed and refilled his glass with Sauvignon Blanc.  

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

How do I look?

"As I was walking by St Paul's...." began a smutty rhyme when I was at school.  In fact I wasn't grabbed by any part of my anatomy - just approached tentatively by a man who saw my dog collar, as I walked home after saying lunchtime mass (traditional language) at St Bride's, Fleet Street.  "Excuse me", he asked, "do you know any prayers for a brain tumour?"  Now I know I'm shortish in the clerical tooth, and self-supporting to boot; but I'm also aware that when people in pastoral need ask a priest a question, it's not necessarily that they want or expect an answer.  They often need to tell you something, and the subject has got to be raised somehow.  And, as it happens, I don't know any specific prayers for brain tumours.  "Do you know someone who's got a brain tumour?", I asked.  "Yes", he said, "my girlfriend".  "Would you like me to pray for her with you now?"  "Yes please".  I asked her name and his, and we stood in the shadow of Wren's masterpiece, and in the lee of M&S Simply Food, office workers streaming past us in the early autumn sunshine, and prayed.  We asked God for healing if at all possible; but if not that, then at least for courage, strength and peace.  Her name is Suzette, she's 45, and the prognosis is not at all encouraging.  He's knows he's going to lose her and, in all likelihood, quite soon.  After I'd given him (and her) a blessing, he went his way down Ludgate Hill, and was soon lost in the crowd.  I suppose I shall never see him again.

I have to tell you that I have ordained colleagues who dislike being seen out and about in clerical dress.  And, to be frank, I have days when I'm a bit flaky about it.  People do look at you - sometimes out of curiosity or interest, and occasionally with a warm smile or even a greeting; but also sometimes with discomfort, incomprehension or hostility in their glance.  Mostly they just look away.  You are of course a soft touch for beggars, Big Issue sellers, and religious nutters of every conceivable hue (the last often on buses or trains where escape is impossible).  You represent something by which some have been hideously damaged, rejected or insulted.  For others, you represent a reminder of their weakness, guilt, or faithlessness - a walking rebuke.  For others still, you are a momento mori; an outward and visible sign of a non-material world which they will go to considerable lengths to avoid facing or even contemplating.

But you also represent something that quite a lot of these same people need at some point in their lives.  The man who stopped me today needed a priest.  He probably did not know any, and may not have had the confidence to go into the cathedral or other place where one might be found. He was upset and frightened.  He saw me, and trusted I would not ignore him and walk on.  That's what the collar is for; and that's why we have to wear it.

Having said so, please pray that I may have the courage to practise what I preach.  And, of your goodness, pray for Suzette.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Of doves and serpents

More seasoned bloggers than I may be familiar with the sense of having a suitable subject for a post kicking round the consciousness for a while without anything resembling the outline of one of these neat blocks of print being crafted, or indeed a single actual sentence being typed.  Something needs to be said or done to tease it into being: to co-ordinate the thoughts and, with luck, to link or “theme” them together into a half-coherent narrative.  Like a sermon, you’re supposed to know “where you’re going” with it, before committing it to… whatever you’re committing it to.

I’ve been perplexed for a long time now about the Church’s public image.  This image, it is widely acknowledged, and without wanting to put too fine a point on it, is not as good as it might be.  There are probably all sorts of reasons for this, and I do not pretend I can adequately identify them.  But I was prompted to draw my thoughts together by a report in the Telegraph following the recent public conversation at Canterbury between Rowan Williams and comedian Frank Skinner: “Atheism is cool, says Archbishop Rowan Williams” runs the headline. 
Now as headlines go, it’s quite a clever one: ++Rowan did actually use the words “atheism is cool” - but as a description of what others think, rather than what he thinks.  Yet the headline’s clear intention is to invite those who do not go on to read the article to believe that atheism is something the ABC admires – just as, as a result of a radio interview in 2008, some now believe that he unequivocally favours the introduction of sharia law in the UK.  Politicians and others for whom dealing with the media is a part of daily life, are wise to these little tricks and traps, and try to avoid saying anything that can be taken out of context and exploited to create a row (which is what the press thrives on).  You could argue that the ABC should similarly wise up.  Or you might think he shouldn’t have to.

Friday 16 September 2011

The News Where You Are

I've heard it said that, in the early years of BBC radio, it was not uncommon for the announcer to say at 12 noon or whenever a news bulletin was scheduled: "There is no news today".  No news today.  Can you imagine there being no news on any day?  We are saturated in, bombarded with, buried under news - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  On my TV, I can get at least half a dozen channels that broadcast nothing but continuous news (in English) from differing national, cultural or specialist perspectives.  There is always news because the schedules of these channels have got to be filled with something; and if nothing very momentous appears to be happening anywhere (nightmare scenario!), the space must be filled with the unmomentous.  The flipside of this seems to be that when something big does happen, all other news - no matter how important - is pushed to the margins.  Today's big story is the Welsh mine disaster; Libya (where battle rages today no less fiercely than it did yesterday) and the global economy (which this morning moves an inch or two closer to the precipice) are pushed down the news agenda to the point where they get about equal coverage with sport.

And how ready we are to go along with this!  We tacitly accept that the relative importance of news is accurately reflected in the order in which the broadcasters arrange it.  When an issue drops off the ticker, it must be because it doesn't matter any more.  It has properly yielded its claim on our attention to today's big story. We've moved on.  If there is some particular issue that concerns us, that we want news about after the news channels have forgotten it, we have to make our own arrangements.  That will apply to the Welsh mining incident when it, in its turn, has given way to something more exciting.  There may, God forbid, still be miners trapped underground, but they will have ceased to be big news.

It seems to me that we must learn and teach our children to be aware of the way in which our attention is manipulated by the news media; that the top story isn't necessarily the one that's most important.  There's something about TV that's utterly passive; and something worrying in our unquestioning trust in the way in which news is presented to us in this medium (particularly when it's via the BBC).  In due course perhaps we will come to see TV news in the same way as we have learned to see newspapers.  We know that most papers have their own agendas and hobby-horses, and we come to know what those are, and to laugh, sneer or take comfort from them.  Most of all, we know that they need to sell papers, printed or online, by attracting our attention and by building a following.  We read them, but we don't automatically believe or accept what they tell us in the way I suspect we believe or accept what's on TV (or indeed radio).

Perhaps this dawned on others long ago, and that they have already made the necessary adjustment in their heads.  But I bet there are still many to whom it doesn't occur to question whether the relative importance of events as presented to them by Huw Edwards is pretty much how important they must actually be.