IF I MAKE IT TO “NORMAL RETIREMENT AGE” I shall thank God for an extraordinary miracle of Grace. For months I’ve sought to continue the “conversation” I’ve so valued through this blog – and found that I haven’t known where to begin. The blank screen has prevailed – though I’ve wanted, always, to send love, hugs and encouragement to those, near and far, who lovingly and frequently share in this conversation with me – and do so tonight! Lent begins on Wednesday next and I’m thinking of 40 days and 40 nights as an invitation at least to try.
55 this year, 32 years in Holy Orders (yes, yes, I keep hearing about the grumpy old man) – a thankful, if surprised, recipient of a clear sense of vocation to serve the Church as a priest at the age of eight, I’m writing today after service as an assistant curate, a bishop’s domestic chaplain, and parish priest of five very different parishes. Writing this reluctantly because I have no appetite (nor ever have had) for a fight. But …
I am ashamed of the Church of England today – for many reasons, but chiefly for its blithe – one might almost say cheerful – reporting of a whole generation’s routinely referring to it as a “toxic brand”.
“Oh dear. We can hear you spluttering, Simon. ‘How dare they call us toxic?'” – but you’ll have misheard me, misunderstood me. My problem is not with our having been called “toxic” – it’s with the growing sense I have that the critics are right: the self-absorbed and narcissistic “dear old Church of England” IS toxic at times – poisonous in some places, the very opposite of Christ-likeness, and possessed of a degree of self-interest and self-importance that beggars belief. Far, far too interested in its own reflection in a stagnant pool. Far, far more interested in what “we like” or “we don’t like”, “we approve of” or “we don’t approve of” – and almost completely blind to Christ’s call to “Eucharistia” – to the sort of perpetual thankfulness that binds and unites – building up a “holy communion” amongst all people, at all times and in all places, of every faith and of no faith.
If we’re still here at all in ten years time it will only be because we’ve been brought (in company with some of our sister churches, it has to be said) – literally – to our knees. I’m convinced that Jesus of Nazareth would weep over the Church of England every bit as copiously as, it is said, he wept long ago over Jerusalem.
For every occasion I stand at my parish church door greeting and delighted by the presence of “returners” or newcomers, I’m knocked almost punch drunk by the – yes, “toxic” – whining of a tiny minority who “don’t like” this, that, or the ruddy other. Deeply grieved in keeping company with too many priests who tell me that they feel themselves “broken”, or “ignored” and even “despised” – public representatives, as we are, of the so-called “toxic brand” – a brand that still keeps advertising “house for duty” (unpaid, for the uninitiated) posts in “exciting” parishes.
I’m sick at heart as I watch the Church of England’s painful machinations creaking and clanking like a redundant steelworks falling to the ground. Wishing like mad that the Church Times would STOP printing its depressing photographs of General Synod sessions. Angry with the people who tell me “we don’t need more services – we don’t have enough social events.” Furious with the jumped-up theologically illiterate buffoons who are adamant that they’d rather see the Church collapse and die than extend Christ’s embrace to women, or gay people, or poor people, or any kind of different people. And I’m tired of being angry. And tired of being tired. So you see why I’ve thought it might be better not to blog? Better to keep my thoughts to myself? “I wish Father Simon wouldn’t take it all so seriously” said one dear old well-wisher the other day. “It must be so exhausting for him.”
But here I am anyway. Here I am. Wanting to call out into the ether my belief that the only cure for this kind of TOXIC is a world-wide response of gratefulness. Thankfulness. Eucharistia. Longing prayer for God’s Spirit at work in the world, for “holy communion”, for a humankind healed and united. That’s what I’m going to be banging on about this Lent – to myself, primarily. Thankfulness. Thankfulness. Thankfulness. The kind of “religion” that Jesus lived and was willing to die for. “Not my will but your will, Lord”. “Not my favourite hymn or half-got theologising Lord, but yours.” Jesus Christ’s vision was not for a “holy communion” for the Church of England, or for the Roman Catholic Church, or for the Orthodox, or for “bible-believing” Protestants. Jesus Christ lived and died for the cause of a “holy communion”, a holy-oneness, for each and every soul on earth and in heaven.
Join Pope Francis, join Archbishop Justin, join me this Lent in insisting upon unity, and upon “Eucharistia” – thankfulness, thankful prayer and deep gratitude in the face of the most determined opposition. Thankful people unite. Thankful people need each other. Thankful people, only thankful people, utterly, utterly unselfish and thankful people will build the New Jerusalem “on earth as it is in heaven”. And nations will flock to it singing the songs of the redeemed. But the time to begin is NOW – within or without the creaking church.
Toxic brand? Oh, dear God, grant us the grace to be ashamed of ourselves – and learn a new way. A Thankful Way. I’ll try during Lent to explore by way of this blog what such a Thankful Way might look like. At the outset I hold up my hands to admit that I’m not thankful enough, often enough. But I’ll try especially to enunciate why I do sincerely believe that A Thankful Way – a Eucharistic Way might really be the only way for the future of my parish church, for the Church of England, for the Church Universal, for other faith traditions, indeed for the whole world. If you’ve read thus far you’re a marathon runner. And … I’m thankful!