This week I was at the bedside of my father as his life came peacefully to an end after 95 years. Death, loss, is never easy to deal with but I felt it was the right time for Dad to go and his ending was as good as I could have wanted. I am sometimes asked (or told!) if having religious faith helps me to cope with death, particularly of those closest to me. I think by this people mean that I have a hope that I will be reunited with Mum and Dad, my grandparents and others once I am dead. The truthful answer is rather more complicated. A few years ago, a book was published called “Heaven is real”, based on someone’s near death experience when this individual became convinced that in Heaven a detached house with a car in the drive awaited the deceased, along with his/her relatives awaiting. To be honest, this picture of Middle-America suburbia sounds to me more like a vision of hell. The classic Christain picture is that after death, the deceased sleep until everyone is resurrected in a one-off event. I can buy more into this picture, but I am also reminded of the words of the head of Cuddesdon College, Bishop Humphrey Southern, who when I was training to be a vicar once observed that in his opinion, most theology is pious speculation. He was speaking tongue in cheek, but he was making a serious point. The General Resurrection has some truth in it, but I would not want to push it too far. What I think really gets closest to the truth are the words of a great American Old Testament Scholar called Walter Bruggermann, a man in his 90s, who was asked what he thought would happen when he died. He replied that in words to the effect that he neither knew nor cared about the details; for him it was enough that the God of Life prevails, even in the face of human death. As St Paul put it almost 2000 years ago, there is nothing that can cut us off from the love of God, not even death. Rest in peace Dad, and rise in Glory.
In the light of the driest July on record, this is a poem composed in 2020 by the Rev Malcolm Guite, as part of a collaboration with the composer Rhiannon Randle. It references Isaiah 51;17-10 and Mark 13:32-42, but the words speak for themselves.
Our burning world is turning in despair,
I hear her seething, sighing through the air:
‘Oh rouse yourself, this is your wake up call
For your pollution forms my funeral pall
My last ice lapses, slips into the sea,
Will you unfreeze your tears and weep from me?
Or are you sleeping still, taking your rest?
The hour has come, that puts you to the test,
Wake up to change at last, and change for good,
Repent, return, re-plant the sacred wood.
You are my children, I too am God’s child,
And we have both together been defiled,
But God hangs with us, on the hallowed tree
That we might both be rescued, both be free.’
Queues at airports and the ports, train strikes and locally, trying to work out which roads are still open; travel at the moment is not easy. For most of us, the journey is little more than an irritation; we travel simply to arrive at our destination. But there is another way, where the journey itself is more significant than the destination; this is pilgrimage. To go on a pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, the journey is a way of travelling deeper into ourselves. Pilgrimage is open to anyone who is wants to explore their own spirituality, whatever they might call that. Abdul Rashid, the England cricketer, has recently been talking about the Haj, his pilgrimage to Mecca. Undertaking this once in a life is considered a duty for a pious Muslim and it is clear it has had significant benefits for Abdul. He has spoken to his team-mates about how it has taught him patience, self-discipline and gratitude; all important attributes for a professional sportsman. Of course, there are other ways of learning these, but I suspect the experience of the pilgrimage will stay with Abdul and will have changed him.
Billingsley Church is part of the “Small Pilgrim Places” network, but all of our churches are places where anyone can go to pause and reflect. There are many other places around us that also have this spiritual quality. And perhaps, if going to one of these, you get stuck behind a tractor or at traffic lights, that is also an opportunity to accept the delay and live in the moment, on your pilgrimage.
Yet again, America seems to be tearing itself apart over abortion. Battle lines are drawn between conservatives and liberals, often apparently between the “religious” and “non-religious”. In fact the debate is more nuanced; whilst the Bishops in the Roman Catholic church are overwhelmingly anti-abortion, opinion polls suggest there is not reflected in the pews. In the Episcopal Church (the equivalent of the Church of England), Bishop Michael Curry, who spoke at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, has spoken of his sorrow at the decision to restrict abortion.
The issue is complex and difficult; it raises questions of both science (when does independent life begin?) and ethics (how do we balance competing rights and duties). I would not presume to tell people what they should think; I am not really sure of what I think. Perhaps this is one of those times I draw strength from the Bible. Not by using it as a text-book of embryology; something totally alien to the spirit in which it was written, but by seeing how its writers argued and disagreed. We can follow how individuals struggled to live Godly lives over the best part of a millennium, how different views, sometimes quite contradictory, were held in tension. Disagreements could become heated as views were strongly held, but somehow people found ways of living with each other. It is that spirit which we need to learn from.
I recently reflected on the ministry of the Rev Richard Cole, broadcaster, one-time pop singer and recently retired parish priest. He has now written a detective novel, “Murder before Evensong”, featuring Daniel, a vicar as the sleuth. I have not read this, but very recently an extract was published in the Church Times, which I have slightly adapted below. Daniel is about to say Compline, one of the services the Church of England took from the monasteries and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer. It is said late in the evening, when all the joys and tribulations of the day are done. (Once a week I say this service over Zoom, if anyone wishes to join with me).
“He opened [his prayer book] but he needed not the text, for the order was always the same and he knew it by heart. As an invariable prelude he said silently the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. Each petition was slow, measured, geared to his breathing and as his mind and body stilled [the arguments of the day] began to fade from his thoughts. And in the vacated space silence unpacked itself and through the static and hiss, a deeper silence came like the depths of the sea”. (Sarah Meyrick, Church Times, 17-6-2022).
I pray to hear the deeper silence.
How far should religious figures be involved in politics? The father of Theresa May was a vicar; he would not allow his daughter to display election posters in the vicarage as he thought these might act as barriers between him and his parishioners. At the other end of the spectrum was Bruce Kent, the former chair of CND who has just died He served as army officer during his national service in the 1950s and then was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic church. He could have achieved high ecclesiastical office, but he set it aside for his commitment to what he understood to be the Gospel of Christ; in particularly, a passionate belief that possession of nuclear weapons was a moral evil. He worked tirelessly for nuclear disarmament. Eventually he resigned from the priesthood, convinced that his calling as a Christian meant he could not in conscience abide by the strictures of the church. Bruce Kent had no time for those who though religion and politics could not mix; for him, his faith had to be lived out in the political world. In vicar-speak, he believed he was called to speak with the prophetic voice, just as in Old Testament times, the prophets spoke truth to the corrupt rulers of Israel and Judah.
Whilst I incline to the views of Theresa May’s late father on trying not to impose my own views on others, I always fully supported Kent’s right as a Christian to become involved in politics, although I did not share his analysis. I am glad today that Christians are still prepared to enter the political fray and argue for policies or parties based on their Christian convictions, even when I disagree with them. What I do ask is that they do so with humility, however strong their own convictions. I have always been impressed by the attitude of a Quaker, who I once heard praying. Quakers are famously pacifists, I was in no doubt he stood on nuclear weapons, but he finished his prayer by asking for humility, in case he was wrong and those who disagreed with him were right. Perhaps this is an attitude many politicians could learn from.
I have been much struck to the tributes to the Rev Richard Cole, TV and radio presenter, former pop star and Church of England vicar, who has retired from parish ministry at the age of 61. The journalist Caitlin Morgan has written “I am as godless as a person can be, but I admit now, when I have gone through bad times… I have often wished he preached in a church near me so I could go and take part in something comforting. Cole’s life, the struggles, the grief, but also the impulse towards joy and love, make me trust his take on faith, charity and generosity…”
And to bear that out, some of his words, given a couple of weeks ago in an interview with the Daily Express, about his reaction to the death of his partner, David, when the interviewer suggested it was unfair: “It’s not about fair. What you get is not about your just deserts, fate, chance or whatever. I never thought being a person of faith meant you got a golden ticket. When David died, I didn’t feel I had been cheated out of anything. I just thought it was a terrible thing.”
This coming Tuesday, 14th June, marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War, the conflict between the UK and Argentina. I suspect for those of us of a certain age, this is poignant. I was a 20-year old university student at the time. A few weeks before the war broke out, I was at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford when, coincidentally, a Vulcan bomber was brought into land; retired from service to join the museum collection. Whilst the Cold War was very active at that time, this seemed a throw-back to another age. Little did I imagine thatsix weeks later one of the Vulcans still in service would be used in anger, flying half-way round the world to bomb an airfield on the Falklands. For the first time in my life, I lived in a country that was, effectively at war, albeit in a conflict very remote from Cambridge where I was living. As students, we would wait on the nightly briefings from the Ministry of Defence, with a mixture of anticipation and fear.
War always raises difficult questions for people of faith. Christ chose a path of non-resistance to the powers of his day, to win a once-for-all victory over evil. Even in that simple sentence, there is a clash between actions of peace and words that speak of war. The same Jesus who went peacefully to his death used a whip to clear the temple of money-traders. Whilst there are Christian traditions that reject war under any circumstances, the majority of voices accept that in a fallen world, sometimes we do need to resort to arms to prevent or correct injustice. Whilst there were some dissenting voices at the time, I suspect most would now accept that the conflict in the Falklands was a just use of force, to liberate the islanders and reverse an act of violence. I think it was Oscar Wilde who wrote “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”; sometimes we have to muddle through moral decisions as best we can and pray that God will forgive us if we get them wrong.
For most of us, it is all we have ever known; the Queen on the throne. To have any real memories of George VI, you will need to be at least 80. It is a period that has seen remarkable changes both nationally and internationally; for many of us, the 1950s seems another world with the Second World War still fresh in the memory. The Queen has been the symbol of the nation through good and bad; both good and bad in the life of the nation but also in her own life.
The coronation in 1953 was fundamentally a religious service with connections to enthronement services described in the Old Testament. Like a priest at ordination, the Queen was marked with oil as sign that she was called and set apart by God for her role. Like a priest, she made promises before God. Even in 1953, I doubt many people paid much attention to this; the country had long before effectively left the church of “all gas and gaiters” (Under 60s, Google this…) behind. But one person did take seriously the anointing and the vows made before God and that was the Queen herself. Almost alone of our national figures, she speaks openly about her faith as a Christian, whilst at the same time respecting the beliefs and convictions of those around her. Her faith underpins her life and she is open about this.
One of my favourite hobby horses is how, as a society, by rejecting organised religion, we are in danger of turning our backs on something that is actually part of our very nature, our spiritual life. That isn’t really about whether we believe in God or not, it goes instead to the heart of how we live our lives, what our values are, how we relate to other people and the world. It seems to me that many people have lost the language to talk about this and they are diminished as a result. By contrast, this 96 year old woman remains at the heart of the nation because she has not lost that language. Long may she reign as an example to us and to our political leaders.
Why do we seek God? Assuming that if you are reading this, you have at least some interest in the question… Those a certain age may know a song released by Heaven 17 in 1981; it was all the rage when I was a student and has the lines “Come and join the fun on the way to heaven, Come and talk to God on the party line. If you can’t be bothered, we don’t need you; We’re going to live for a very long time”. It was an ironic commentary on what can seem to be a common attitude amongst some people of faith; a motivation that is ultimately rooted in self-centredness. I recall a former local vicar, whose favourite line in a sermon was to warn all his hearers that they faced “a lost eternity” if they did not believe. I am uncomfortable with an approach that on the one hand threatens hellfire and damnation and on the other, is just another way of looking after ourselves. This seems at odds with so much of Jesus’s teaching, who commanded us to love one another because God first loves us. In a recent book (“Humbler faith, bigger God”), one my favourite theologians, The Rev Dr Sam Wells, has addressed this issue in a way that speaks to me.
“If we seek God because we want heaven, we don’t deserve God. If we want God because we want to avoid Hell, we’re headed for Hell. But if we desire God because we want nothing other than to be in utter relationship with the source, origin and purpose of the universe and if we trust the God who came in flesh and died emptied of all but love and rose, because in the end love is stronger than death and will never ultimately be separated from us-if that’s what it’s all about, all about for ever, for us- then God will give us that relationship for ever”.