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Saturday, 30 May 2015

Holy, Holy, Holy


"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’" (Isaiah 6:1-8)


King Uzziah was, by most standards, one of the best kings of Judah - and certainly better than the ones in the kingdom of Israel, next door. He was no Prince Charles - took the throne at the age of 16, ruled a very long time. He beat up the Philistines, refortified Jerusalem - was generally a success. But he had a flaw.

Uzziah went into the temple and tried to burn incense himself there. Now, the king - however important he thought he was - wasn't allowed to burn incense in the temple. That was the priests' job. The king's job - anointed as he was - was to protect the kingdom, and let it prosper. The priests' job was to run the Temple.

According to the books of Chronicles, Uzziah got his comeuppance for his cheek. He was inflicted with leprosy for the rest of his life, and when he died, because of his leprosy, he was buried separately from the other kings of Judah - so as not to contaminate them with his uncleanness.

And that's why I think it's important that Isaiah gets his vision "in the year that King Uzziah died". The king had tried to raise himself up too high - had challenged the rules of God - and had paid. And the year a king dies is a bit, for the state of Judah, like an election year. Before a General Election, if the result looks close, the Stock Market falls. Afterwards, as the Government is formed, we wonder whether they're actually going to do the things they said. Or, if it's a new party in power, will they promptly stick up taxes, saying they hadn't realised how bad things were? So in Judah - as the king declines - will he succumb to insanity? Will his weakness cause a wave of assassinations of those who might want to push on the process? Will one of his sons stage a coup? When he dies - who is the new king? What are his policies? Will he align with Aram, with Assyria, with Egypt? The state is uncertain. But Isaiah gets to see - not the majesty of a king who ruled all the way to Egypt - but the glory of the King of Kings. The passing glory of the tainted king is contrasted with the eternal glory of the Lord.

There's no uncertainty here. When he sees the Lord in the temple, Isaiah knows exactly who it is. And he cries out something that - in our world where we sometimes see God as cuddly, as endlessly indulgent to us, may seem a bit extreme. But it's something that, if you've just seen the King of Kings, so great that just the hem of his robe fills the temple with glory, and you've seen terrifying angel after terrifying angel surrounding him, makes perfect sense:

 ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts"

This passage is a source of that hymn which is sung on average every couple of hours, I believe, at every theological college, at licensings of Local Preachers and Readers and all sorts of church ministers: "I the Lord of Sea and Sky". Its chorus is rendered by my friend, Archimandrite Simon, "Here I am Lord - Look at me, Lord!"

It can have that feeling to it. The Lord, overcome by the worries of the Lord - hearing his people's cry, feeling their pain, realises that he is not up to the job. In desperation, he turns to the sad-eyed cherubim who were among the first born of creation, who watched in wonder as he made them and then the whole physical world from nothing. The one who lifted the Pleiades into the sky and weaves the rainbow looks at the angels amd said, this is too big a job for me. Whom shall I send? And the response from a tweedy little bloke or a fresh-faced young woman comes back, "Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord?" And God turns and says, "Roger!" Or, as it may be, "Kylie! Thank goodness you are here! We'd be lost without you!"

No. If you think God has no other hands than yours, that's not true. God made heaven of earth from nothing. God is incredibly potent. I don't believe God works in ways that are blatantly miraculous very often, but then if you created the laws of physics I don't think that you necessarily need to. And if the God who made the skies offers an invitation to you to join in the great mission on Earth then it's the trembling of Isaiah, not the easy self-confidence of the English middle classes, that you need.


The thing some of us can we can forget is that God doesn't fundamentally need us at all. There was a time before this world was created. It wasn't actually a time, and in a way it wasn't "before" - because both time and the concept of "before" only really exist in our temporal universe. But never mind. Let's push on. I am a woman of unclean lips and I can't express these things very well. But in the eternal Land of the Trinity, God is complete in Godself - Father, Son and Spirit being in a state of love given, received and shared.

And God doesn't create us to worship because God needs that. God isn't a 50s starlet, buying a poodle so she can have it sprayed pink and it can adore her. God creates out of the wonder of God's creative nature, so God's love can be shared even further - and reciprocated, sure. The Trinity, not so much closed in on itself as the sort of tight geometrical shapes we like to draw at Trinity, is open to created beings. When we fall, the Son comes hunting for us, opening God up to the experience of the world as a human being - sharing our world and taking out nature back to the heart of heaven. When the Son returns, the Spirit falls, pouring out new life onto the Church, ever restless, always seeking, always trying to bring women and men to God.

But when the One that makes all things is revelaled, God's glory is such that even seraphim have to hide their eyes so as not to see God's face. And if that's true for those sinless sons and daughters of heaven, when a scruffy Jewish bloke called Isaiah sees his vision, he does the right thing. He howls out a prayer, first up, of confession. "I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a nation of unclean lips."

Funny how it's his mouth he refers to when talking about his sin. He knows, as James reminds us centuries later, that so often it's what we say that causes the trouble. The arrogant talk, the hateful words, the spite, the lying - everything else can come after that source of all troubles.

And the Ruler of the Ages does something remarkable - makes Isaiah clean, puts a red-hot coal on his lips - so Isaiah can speak God's message.

So here we are. If you are going to serve God - as pastor or guide leader, as minister or admin assistant, as Archdeacon or Superintendent or whatever - you need to start with the knowledge that you're being called as servant by the Lord of Hosts. This isn't an act of grovelling - it is recognising your position. Like Garth and Wayne confronted with Aerosmith, you are not worthy. That's the place to be. It's also the place to go on from.

Isaiah's "here I am, send me" did not come out of a conviction of his own worth, out of any idea that he was just the sort of person God would be grateful for. It came, in fear and trembling, out of the knowledge that God was awesome and he was sinful. But that God made him clean to do what God commanded.

So we approach the throne of God in worship, in our lives, in service - knowing that we're never able to claim God's favour through our own natures. But confident that the One who calls us - though terrifying - is loving, giving and true.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Baptising All Religions

A Mirror article with so many odds and ends you don't know where to start.... with the Revd Tim Hayes of St John's Dukinfield cast in the role of Evil Vicar.

"Evil vicar" from Anglican Memes.

In apparently refusing to baptise a child because his parents aren't married (the child's,  not the vicar's), Tim Hayes is quoted as saying:
“I believe marriage is God’s way... [but] it’s not so much about what I think, it’s about what Jesus thinks.”
Well, assuming Revd Tim isn't being misquoted (possibly a dodgy assumption given the rest of the article) what Jesus thinks is "allow the little children to come to me, for to such as them belongs the Kingdom of God." While the Church of England rules are pretty clear, saying that the incumbent has a responsibility to baptise children from the parish, and can't make up the rules to suit his/her personal theology.

A baptism isn't about the parents, isn't about the school, isn't about the vicar's views of modern morality. Little Roman has as much right to God's grace as the child of parents who both married as virgins and go to church twice a day.

I'm being a bit cagy here, as the mother's comments regarding getting Roman into the right school, quoted straight, seem unbelievable.
"It doesn’t matter what religion you are, but they do require you to be baptised.”
Well, I say, what, what? Are there really schools in Manchester where you can get in if you're a Muslim or a Zoroastrian, but only if you are baptised? Has anyone investigated this?  Did the Mirror interview the schools concerned? Or has it just taken the word of an apparently confused mother, who really meant "denomination"?

Obviously, the latter. Cross-checking with the schools concerned would have been journalism.

Edit: A spokesperson for the Diocese of Chester said (Daily Mail link):
'At no point has he refused to baptise the child. The Church of England believes that the best place for a child grow is within marriage.
'The vicar would be happy to help the couple be married and then to baptise their child at no financial cost to them – so that the best outcome can be achieved.
'We hope the family will receive this offer warmly, but if they would rather not be married, then St John’s church, Dukinfield, will still be happy to offer them a service of thanksgiving.'
Which I read as "At no point has he refused to baptise the child. But if the parents continue not to accept the illegal conditions he has placed on the child's baptism, he will not baptise the child". 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Definitely Not My Fault

I would like to respond to people calling for me to step down as Archdruid, in the light of the arrest of a number of druids on accusations of "cash for tea lights".

Yes, it is very easy for people to point fingers. Just because I run the organisation, and have personal management responsibility for all the people arrested, people are somehow suggesting that I should have some idea of the level of wrongdoing.

I would like to stress that, in a long line of management and politicians the world over, merely being in charge and controlling everything that happens does not mean that I had any involvement with the wrongdoings in the Beaker Folk - an organisation which I have barely heard of. And based on the way, yesterday, that I forgot the name of the popular musical that contains "You'll never walk alone" while watching "Pointless" - I am almost certainly senile. There's no way I should be held to account for anything. Though I'm sure I'll be fine to carry on running the organisation.

The Fall of Institutions

Oh, my heart went out to Matthew Parris. The Church has let him down, apparently. It should be dogmatically against Matthew Parris. Sorry, sorry. Against same-sex marriage. And instead, even the local representatives of the Catholic church have been more conciliatory than he expected. I think he's over-egged the Bible though. I'm pretty sure that it doesn't mention the Children of Israel dancing nudely round the golden calf in the desert. That's either a product of Matthew's imagination, or of some film he's seen, which he took to be Gospel. Well, Pentateuch, at any rate.

Maybe the Church is learning not to be an Institution anymore. The Institutions are in decline. Not just the Church. Most institutions. Political party membership is dreadfully low. The Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes are in freefall.

When an institution gets knocked back, it has to reconsider what its core beliefs are, and what are just accretions. The Labour Party will no doubt one again be going through 10 years of debating whether its core beliefs are the nationalisation of the coal mines, or trying to be a nicer party in a post-socialist world. Goodness knows what the result will be, but it won't be pretty. In the Church, as Christendom totters and falls - what matters? Is it the institution itself, is it pretty Church buildings, or is it the original core? Well, we've discovered time and again that it shouldn't be the institution itself. Not just the Churches but the BBC, the authorities that run care homes, the police and - shortly - the politicians have got to face that it's not the institution that needs protecting, it's the vulnerable. The Church of England could probably manage another 100 years persuading people that it's the buildings that are the important thing, but letting them all fall down will become increasingly attractive as people realise they're paying through the nose to just look at lumps of stone. And just being Church to take it out on people of other sexual orientations seems a bit of overkill. Simple bigotry can do that, without all the trouble of singing hymns and having Area Meetings.

You hope, when you come down to it, that as institutions fall we come down to the core. Why did the disciples suddenly burst out and become a Church, one sunny Pentecost morning? And the answer seems to be - because Jesus was alive, and alive in their hearts. That Jesus was welcoming, loving, prepared to deal with anyone. That he took the Old Testament law and boiled it down to two specifics - love  God, and love your neighbour.

So I know I'm being unfair. I know I'm being inconsiderate. I know I'm a right judgemental so-and-so in this. But I'm pleased that Ireland voted for same-sex marriage. I can't condemn it, just because Matthew Parris wants me to. It may be harsh, it may be putting too heavy a burden on Matthew Parris's back for him to carry. But I think he's fine as he is.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Tony War Steps Down as Middle East Peace Envoy

There was shock right across the Plain of Megiddo today as Tony War stood down as Middle East Peace Envoy.

"It's been a tricky decision," said the elder statesman, "but I've taken the peace process in the Middle East as far as I can. Frankly, there was very little need for a peace process in the Middle East when I originally got involved in Assyria, but now, largely thanks to my efforts, the peace process is a lot more needed than it's ever been."

As War stands down as part of the so-called " Middle East Quartet", he emphasised that the job was in good hands.

"Oh yes. Death and Famine are already doing great work from Syria to Iraq. And Pestilence will be having a field day one winter sets in again. No if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and count my money. Who says you can't serve God and Mammon?"


A Hollowed-Out Classic - Far from the Madding Crowd

Whinges

I'll start with the whinges, shall I?

Dorset, England is not 200 miles outside London, as the introduction tells us. Nor, in the context of Hardy's Wessex, is it "Dorset". It just looks and smells like it.

And in the 19th Century, "Crime of Passion" was not a legal defence against hanging. The one that was, was Insanity. Which, especially if you are showing signs of severe mental distress, could plausibly be proven in some cases. I'll say no more. Spoilers.

Cast

Not bad. Carey Mulligan gets nearly everything right about Bathsheba. Strong - actually stronger than in the book - feisty, veering between fierceness, wildness, tenderness and unfairness. Girlish, at times. But of course, like most Jane Austen heroines, we have a tendency to forget just how young Hardy's are. Bathsheba storms on the scene aged roughly twenty, not nearly thirty. And that, when she starts sacking bailiffs and running farms on her own, makes a difference, and would make a cinematic differnce. Enough. I've harped on too much. Mulligan plays everything well.

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak - tall, stolid, calm, dependable. Everything Oak should be in that respect. His silences speak volumes. His facial expressions great. His accent - just where in Wessex did Hardy locate Flanders? I mean, Wessex was the last place in England to preserve the "d" in the word "three", long after those of us in the Danelaw took to pronouncing our "th"s. So there's a dialectal link there. But Oak is immutable, solid, strong as a.... hang on, I'll think of a simile. He's part of the Wessex landscape. He should speak yokel, not sound like Jan Molby did after 10 years in Liverpool.

Michael Sheen as Boldwood - excellent. Treading the fine line between love, dignity, and breakdown. Really good, understated acting. He makes Boldwood look rather more attractive than Hardy paints, which makes the Valentine joke just a little less ironic.

And I really liked Tom Sturridge's playing of Troy. I liked the brittleness of his bravado, the sense that, under the charming abuser, he was actually a weak, useless flake.

Rush

Sadly, that's all the cast you can really talk about. The rush to pack the story into two hours meant we lost the light and shade, fun and yokel strangeness of Hardy's book. In jumping from set-piece to set-piece where Gabriel Oak, Action Man, saves the day again and again, we lose the things that make early Hardy so much more than a retailer of cow-pat melodrama. Joseph Poorgrass isn't dim enough. Jan Coggan - firm friend of Oak, provider of a room and a listening ear - gets barely a mention. Susan Tall, an absolutely cracking minor character in the original, not even mentioned - I think I may have heard her useless husband, Laban, mentioned at some point. Fanny Robin is so beautiful, so tragic and yet the poignancy of her life is sketched in so briefly. Without a bit more back story, the way Bathsheba takes the coffin into her house makes little sense.

The rush means we lose scenes that are important as well. The early scene where Bathsheba saves Gabriel's life, gone. The drunkenness in the tavern at Roy Town, where Joseph is declared unfit to drive due to a "multiplying eye". The circus scenes. And two scenes in particular. That weird, tragic event where Troy is overcome by the wreckage the gurgoyle has made to Fanny's grave - shedding light on the depths of passion Troy has for Fanny, and giving him some sympathy and more support for his heading out to sea sans culottes, as it were. And then the telling moment when Oak save's Bathsheba's harvest from the storm, and Oak discovers that Boldwood couldn't be bothered to protect his own. Key clues, chucked away for brevity.

A hollowed-out classic

So we have a hollowed-out classic. A love parallelogram sketched in, in front of some glorious scenery. It was like watching a filmed version not of a Hardy novel, but of the Hardy Plot Generator you can find on the full-screen version of this site. Smashing acting, lovely scenery, but no soul. I don't think it's unfair to judge a film on the book it's based on. We can make allowances for brevity, we know things have to be cut and rearranged. But to lose story and meaning for no purpose let me take the example of the singing at the Harvest Supper. In the original, Oak is asked to play flute while Bathsheba and Boldwood sing their duet. It's a symbolic moment - they are apparently to be married, while he is to play the supporting role he always does. But the song itself is "On the Banks of Allan Water". The story of a young woman who is stolen away by a soldier. It's prophetic. The mashup of "Seeds of Love" which is sung in the film, is at best rueful. What was the point?

Enough. If you like costume dramas and flying sheep, nice scenery and good acting, this is the sort of thing you'll like. It'll be on Sky Movies soon. I'm off to read both volumes of The Dynasts. That'll teach me to moan about things being rushed.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden

It was Stephen Fry, I believe, many years ago, who criticised the sorts of people who quote authors' characters and then tag them with the authors themselves. The example he gave was the sort of person who would say "Neither a borrower nor a lender be - Shakespeare!" and forget that the person who says it, Polonius, is an idiot.

And on this most holy of Towel Days, I remember this quote from Douglas Adams:
"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"
This is often quoted as a kind of counter to those of us who are deeply committed to both science and faith. I think there are three things wrong with this:

1. Wouldn't it be great if there were fairies at the bottom of the garden? It wouldn't diminish the garden's beauty one jot.

2. These words aren't directly Adams's views (though they may reflect them). If you take everything that is thought or done in Douglas Adams's works as being directly his thoughts, you would also think that stealing space ships is a good idea, going across zebra crossings is dangerous, you should stick fish in your ear and that nobody should ever talk to you about life.

3. They're actually attributed, as thoughts, to Ford Prefect, in response to Zaphod's belief that he has found the lost planet of Magrathea. In context they're funny, quite profound, and absolutely right - up to the point that they realise Zaphod has, in fact, discovered the lost planet of Magrathea. After that point, Ford is merely a cynic who was proven wrong. Turns out, in the context of the book, that the bottom of the garden was exactly  the place that the fairies were.

Towel Day

Archdruid: Does anyone know where Marvin is?

All: He's in the car park.

Archdruid: What's he doing in the car park?

All: Parking cars. What else does one do it in a car park?

Marvin: I don't know. Brain the size of a planet. And they won't let me in the Church of England "Talent Pool" because I'm "too Catholic." Just because I'm  shiny and silver. That, and the way the depression means I don't necessarily believe that the way forward for the church is to invest in leadership. After all, if you want leaders - here's some leaders. Captain Scott was a leader, and look what happened to him and his followers. Froze to death in a lonely Antarctic landscape. Columbus was a leader, and his leadership led to the enslavement and death of entire innocent races.John Franklin's men would follow him to the end of the earth. All died tragically somewhere in North America.  Call that leadership? Because I don't. I'm not getting you down, am I?

Archdruid: Not at all, Marvin. Is there anyone more cheerful joining our liturgy?

Zaphod Beeblebrox: Archdruid! Hi! Now, you don't mind if I miss out that "confession" bit do you? Only I'm such a hoppy frood that I don't have anything to confess to and if I did I would only be saying sorry to myself....

Zaphod Beeblebrox III: .....and to me. If you'd not been fooling around with that contraceptive and time machine....

Zaphod Beeblebrox: Grandad! Shhh! There may be Catholics reading!

Archdruid: Can I refer you to the birth rate in Italy to suggest that may not be a problem? OK, Burton. Rap me the God-word, coin-captain!

Burton: The what, Eileen?

Archdruid: Read the Scripture. Gee, you accountants are so un-hip it's a wonder your bums don't fall off.

Burton: Our what, Eileen?

Voice of the Book:  In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Archdruid: Precisely. The creation of the Universe was a bad move. Let's face it, we're born, we grow, we struggle to build fairer societies. We'd allow that to give us hope for the future of all lifekind.

All: Except of course we know it hasn't got one.

Archdruid: Exactly. And the fear is that when we die, instead of going to heaven, we end up at Milliways...

All: Not so much an after-life, more a sort of apres-vie.

Burton: Does anyone know what happens if I press this button?

A bowl of petunias and a sperm whale materialise and plummet to earth.

Archdruid: Oh well. That's another piece of creative liturgy that didn't quite work.

Hnaef: Archdruid, there's an infinite number of monkeys out here want to talk to you about a Giles Fraser piece they've just knocked up for the Guardian.

Archdruid: You know, it's at times like this that I really wish I had listened to what my mother had told me when I was young.

Ford: Why, what did she say?

Archdruid: I don't know, I didn't listen.

Arthur: Does anyone know where I can get a cup of tea?

Archdruid: You're in an English act of worship. You can get one at the end, in a green Beryl cup, just like anyone else. OK, everybody. Wave your towels in the air, to mark the wondrous genius of Douglas Adams.

Burton accidentally wraps the towel round his head, falls into the Total Perspective Vortex, and is tragically eaten by little pink creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Charlii: I thought you said that this liturgy was foolproof?

Archdruid: That's the trouble with fools. They are so ingenious.

Hymn Number 42.

Archdruid: Go into the world, don't try to disprove God's existence, and be careful on zebra crossings.

God: WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.