A CACTUS OF PANIC

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I WANT UPFRONT to grant that I may be a useless parish priest – plain idle, maybe. Uninspired, too tired, too old (at 54) or impractical – head in the clouds. In need, after 30+ years of “the ordained life”, of a zeal injection, a business management course, something to gee me up a bit so that I, in turn, can set about geeing-up others – get “a heart” for Mission (as though I’ve never had such a novel frame of mind – or heart – before).

All of the above are real possibilities. And of course I have noticed reports of the dear old CofE’s apparently being in steep decline. People have been talking about it, and agitating about it for years. (Though not half as many, I suspect, as the remnant church-folk have enjoyed imagining – because for contemporary talkers and agitators there are, it seems, so many other interesting things to talk and agitate about). Nonetheless, I find myself drawn to an unlikely hero, in company with Tania Ahsan …

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Yoda is my hero. Not because he’s a Jedi master or because he ignores the rules of grammar, more because Yoda is an oasis of calm in the face of crisis. When I’m hit by a crisis, I get flappy handed and shrill; I am pointedly not an oasis of calm, more a cactus of panic.

Tania Ahsan
The Brilliant Book of Calm

Flappy handed and shrill. Oh dear. I wish it wasn’t so, but that sounds too alarmingly like my belovéd Church of England for comfort. Too alarmingly like the jaded religious institutions – many hundreds of them – that have spent much too long spouting noisy hot air about who’s in and who’s not, whilst endlessly passing round either a “collection plate” or another invitation to a Jumble Sale to “keep the Church thermometer heading in the right direction”. Too much “mission planning” seems to me to have lost the plot. It troubles me that diocesan retreat centres up and down the land are being closed (even Gloucester’s glorious Glenfall, aaaarrrgh!) – whilst the Church pours millions into maintaining crumbling old Victorian barns whose dwindling congregations would be better equipped for Christ’s mission by a single weekend in a quiet retreat house.

We’re really going to have to let go of the dry rot. Sooner rather than later. And let go, too, of the embarrassing ecclesiastical talk of decline – as though said decline were a mildly irritating phenomenon just beginning to appear on our horizon. Less than 5% of the population of some dioceses attend Church at all. The rest of the population has moved on. Years ago now. One diocese reports the “loss” of 25% of adults and 60% of children during the 1990s. These people are just not interested in our crumbling buildings (with a few notable and worthy exceptions of artistic and historic merit and interest) – and our long past their sell-by-date and very embarrassing arguments and insistences. Some of our “growth planning” and mission talk makes this parish priest squirm, so heaven knows what it must sound like to a casual “outsider”.

Is the Church taking note of the large numbers of weekday visitors flocking to the “deep silence” of our ancient cathedrals? What’s their appeal? Should more of their “turnstiles” be cast out of the temple – thereby, incidentally, increasing both footfall and willing donations – as Chester has done? Could the Church clarify, please, exactly what is meant by throwaway garden-centre-advert lines like “we’re seeking to grow disciples of Our Lord Jesus”? What, precisely, is a disciple? And who is Jesus, let alone “Our Lord”? And what, if we succeed in growing disciple plants, is to be their purpose and function in our fractious world? Clarification please. Sharp, calm, clarification.

And yet it is obvious to me and to many that the Divine Oasis lives in, and through, and for, and all around all of us. Jesus stills models “the silent music of praise” and what it might mean for the world if all The One God’s children could work at their vocation to be “an oasis of calm in the face of crisis”. Surely the Divine Silence invites all humanity away from the flappy handed and the shrill. Surely a child of God, still less a whole institution, ought not to be a “cactus of panic”. How about a bit (or a heck of a lot more) of silence? How about a bit of sabbath (and weekday) stillness? Gardens, public parks, the trees and the fields are great – if not better than some “places of worship” – for that. Looking out over Ullswater I never feel that the Divine is in decline. And is that Jesus over there on the fellside? Wow, that’s quite a crowd of peacefully attentive picnickers. Isn’t this place gloriously quiet? Healing.

God can cope with losing a few more Church buildings. God loves outsiders – with a special affection, apparently, for those deemed unworthy by the religious certainties of the world. What God calls us to, now as always, is the ultimate Oasis of Calm – what might truly be called his “Kingdom”, and the sooner – for all of us in our currently brutal, brutalised and noisy world – the better.

O sabbath rest by Galilee
O calm of hills above
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love

That’s the real mission.

5 thoughts on “A CACTUS OF PANIC

  1. Oh- Oh – Oh – Simon, I love this post. Truly, I do. And I could not agree more. Modern humans have become much enamored of structures and buildings built on the premise that they somehow ‘glorify God.’ As far as I can see, they glorify architects and builders, and I’m all for architects and builders (my dear husband is one), but let’s be honest.

    Thanks for endorsing one of my most valued temples – the out of doors. It doesn’t need endorsement for me to value it; I’ve long worshipped Creation by getting my hands in the soil – it keeps me humbly in touch with what sustains all living things. And silence? It’s as essential for me as air. If one cannot sit with oneself in the stillness of a beating heart, how then to contemplate the continuum of eternity?

    Blessings in your quest to rediscover your source(s) and fount(s) of enthusiasm. Somehow I’m certain you will discover it in the least likely of place(s).

  2. What a great and thought provoking post. I am currently being heartened by Alan Billings’s book Lost Church. Without jumping to his conclusions, he spends much of his time talking about a category of people who the church has lost and with whom they need to reconnect. These are the people who belong, who might not attend, and who might or might not believe. They are the sort of people who might look for an en church in which to sit and reflect from time to time. We do seem to be inclined to forget them in our preoccupation with ourselves and our survival.

  3. Thank you :). Humbly in touch. That’s how I shall think of you. As of Mary Oliver. Here’s a snippet from her glorious book Long Life (p13)

    “One hour at the edge of the waving sea is a feast of opportunities. Every morning, tumult and quietude marry each other and create light. The sun rises like a rosy plum. Birds, floating in the water, turn to watch. Sometimes, also, or so it seems, does the wind.”

  4. Thanks David, very much, not least for the pointer to Alan Billings who now has a home in my Kindle. I haven’t really had a lot to do with the aforementioned Yoda – but am much struck, as obviously Tania Ahsan has been, by the stillness and what seems to me to be the most extra-ordinary compassion in his gaze. That deep-reaching gaze reminds me of someone …

  5. You quote one of my favorite poets. What perspective she possesses! One of my very favorite poems of hers is Wild Geese, from which I quote:

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

    All the best,
    Bela

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