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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

At the Dangerous Edge of Things

Robert Browning spoke about ‘the dangerous edge of things’. Today’s New Testament lesson speaks about events that take people to the extremes of their experience, and it does indeed feel edgy and dangerous.  The disciples in their boat on Galilee struggle against the storm.  The waves crash over the flimsy craft and it threatens to capsize. The Lord, asleep in the hold, is woken by terrified cries of panic: ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ He rebukes the chaotic wind and waves and there is a great calm. Safely on dry land, it’s the same story in another guise. Jesus takes on the chaos in human life: the Gadarene man and other victims whose lives are being possessed by demons, or by disease and disability that reduce their victims to chaos. As on the lake, mortals clamour desperately for help, beg to touch even the hem of his garment.  Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, demons, sickness and death and they obey him?
Just before the reading from Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, we learned how ‘the earth was a ‘formless void’: tohu wavohu, a rare moment of Hebrew rhyme.  That first creation story in Genesis 1 tells how shape and order emerge out of the chaotic deep: light and dark, sea and dry land, vegetation, the different orders of life in earth, air and water; and humanity as the crown of God’s achievement.  This patterning of time, space and the material world is fundamental to a cosmos that is stable and trustworthy.  In this universe that is ‘very good’, chaos has no place. And although the lesson we heard from Genesis offered us a much earlier story of creation, what scholars call the Jahwist’s version, with the Bible as it now is we can’t help but read the second story in the light of the first. When we do, it echoes the same primordial pattern. God is at work to shape a world like an artist or craftsman. When Michaelangelo forged a sculpture, he said that the shape was already there in the stone; it was simply a matter of revealing it. I like the idea of God chipping away with infinite skill to bring out the fundamental shape and structure of reality from the undifferentiated chaos of matter.
In the ancient world, order was experienced as precarious. There was an ever-present fear that the chaos might return to overwhelm hard-won civilisation.  In the psalms, Yhwh is king over cataract and flood who has crushed the heads of the monsters of the deep; in today’s, he ‘stilleth the raging of the sea: and the noise of the waves and the madness of the people.  And that madness tells that the threat is not only natural but human.  The raging of the enemy is personified as an overwhelming force which only the mighty power of Yhwh can subdue: ‘why do the nations rage so furiously together?’  In a bleak vision of Jeremiah, the formless void appears again:  ‘I looked on the earth and lo, it was tohu wavohu, waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no-one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger’.  This is Genesis wound backwards from cosmos to chaos, its artistry unravelling to a terrible, anarchic collapse. 
If once, people doubted that atavistic fears like these had been banished by the onward and upward march of progress, this last century surely dispelled the fantasy. Tohu wavohu does not only belong to the ancients.  A century ago, an unsuspecting world sleep-walked into a Great War. Seventy years ago, the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau were opened to reveal the unspeakable horror of what had gone on under the Nazis. I was brought up under the shadow of the Bomb: the Cuban Missile Crisis taught me how deeply untrustworthy the world is. I learned to be afraid. Now we have Al Qaida and Boko Haram and Isis, not to mention climate change, human trafficking, the abuses that drive asylum seekers to our shores. They all point to tohu wavohu as a present reality for us, both as nameless fear and felt reality, consequences most of them of what the Prayer Book collect calls ‘the unruly wills and affections of sinful men’. 
The history of this Benedictine cathedral reminds us how in the 6th century St Benedict set about creating communities of stability and order when the Roman Empire was in its final descent into anarchy.  Perhaps his Rule saved Christian Europe from the dark ages.  His enterprise could be a model for mission today: intelligent religion marked not by easy successes or showy drama but by the sustained spiritual imagination and commitment to live with complexity.  In his book A Staircase for Silence Alan Ecclestone offers clues as to how we might set about this.  He says that only a radical deepening and broadening of our vision is equal to the task of bringing to birth and nourishing a spirituality strong, generous and inspiring enough to help men and women…. grow up as truly human beings in the immensely complicated world that lies ahead. That spiri­tuality must provide a disciplined way of living in which growth to the fullest possible stature of each is made the concern of all. It requires a spirituality [that] relates the creativity, the humanising and the unification of mankind in one growing experience of mutual love. The world may well be entering a yet darker age than any known before. The demands laid on the spirituality needed during such time will be correspondingly greater.

So we must not be paralysed by the storm, hide in the bowels of our ship, never venturing on deck to get the measure of the tempests that rage outside and within. At those times when we stand on some dangerous edge of things – in personal life, in world crises, the first thing is to imitate the mariners at the start of the Tempest and cry out, ‘to prayers, to prayers!’: like the disciples, the vessel we are sailing is so tiny and the sea is so terrifying and big. But as we face our fear, assess the danger, say our prayers and help one another to find strength, we find that Christ was hidden in the darkness all along, and is there beside us, rebuking but also cheering us: ‘where is your faith?’

The tornados and tsunamis of life put hard choices to us that call for hard decisions. When the crisis comes, do we have the spiritual resources to respond?  Even in the storm, especially then, we need to keep the doors of perception open so that God can come anew to us, as he did to the possessed man by the lake and to the disciples in the boat. The Lord’s Prayer that we utter every day has as its focus how we fare in the time of trial, how we endure Gethsemane when we cry in despair, ‘let this cup pass from me’. When it comes to our great ordeals, what would we do? What shall we do?

This is where Christian character is tested. And I wonder, as I hear the news day by day and feel profoundly despondent about it, whether my Christianity is being called to some test of resilience and maturity it has never had to undergo before. This is no time for easy religion, play-acting our Christian profession. Our faith needs to go to the heart and change us. This is why we need those Benedictine virtues of stability, obedience and conversion of life in our churches and our personal lives.  They shape us to live by the values of the gospel, so that life is transformed and we begin to make a difference in the world: as Benedict did, holding on for dear life as the world fell apart around him, yet never despairing of the mercy of God. Which is why, when big storms break against the shores of our complacency, and we are shaken by earthquake, wind and fire, we need to hear the voice that calls out to us, ‘where is your faith?’, the still small voice that gives us the strength not to be afraid. And then, God willing, we shall live to praise his name, and tell how much he has done for us.

Durham Cathedral, 8 February 2015, Genesis 2.4a-end, Luke 8: 22-39

Friday, 6 February 2015

In Memoriam Michael Perry: a funeral sermon

I only knew Michael Perry in his retirement. I first met him after evening prayer one night in the Cathedral. I had been installed just a few days. The choir was away so the service was said, not sung. There were only a few of us in the quire stalls. I had noticed an elegant white-haired man further along on my side, decani. He was reciting the psalms with vigour – and fast as if trying to arouse us slow clergy out of our languor. In the crossing afterwards, he headed in my direction. He made as if to walk past, but stopped by my right ear. An arm curled round; a hand took mine and held it very firmly. A voice said something like this. We haven’t met, but I am Michael Perry. In days of yore I used to be a member of the Cathedral Chapter. I have retired now, but they are very good at bearing with me while I go on coming to evensong because I can’t bear not to. You will come to love this Cathedral as I do: there is nowhere in the world like Durham. I shall never meddle or give advice as yesterday’s man, but if you ever need help, I am there. I am so glad you have come. God be with you. 

This was Michael: modest, courteous, immensely kind, a shrewd man of few words and wry humour, wickedly so at times. He was a highly intelligent man who, you sensed, could see through your fancy speeches: when you were talking rot, he knew it and could say so. He was not one for lingering: his attitude to the psalms was true of his whole life until illness forced a change of pace. There was work to do, things to get on with: new lamps to be lit, new tasks begun. When he came to rely on oxygen to survive, life went on. He would come to evensong carrying his cylinder in a large plastic bag. I expect he reckoned that it was good for all us to be reminded every day of our mortality.

Michael was ordained in 1958. In 1970 Bishop Ian Ramsey, a man whom Michael revered, appointed him Archdeacon of Durham. It came with membership of Durham Cathedral’s Chapter, its governing body. There is a photograph of a Chapter meeting in the Deanery in a 1970s guide book. By then it was led by Dean Eric Heaton. Michael is there at his right hand, the youthful canon who was said to be the youngest archdeacon in the Church of England. A forward-looking man, he approved of Heaton’s reforming views and once said to me, apropos of developments in the Cathedral today that they were exactly in line with what the Chapter was beginning to do in his day. At the same time, as Archdeacon and later, as the Bishop of Durham’s Senior Chaplain, he earned a respect and affection in the diocese that lasted. He knew and cared deeply for his parishes and clergy, an outstanding listener in hard times, a wise counsellor and a pastor who was trusted completely. His sermons were, and still are, remembered.  He did not believe in the charm school doctrine of niceness for its own sake: he could be astringent sometimes. Like Ian Ramsey, he valued ‘disclosure’ because it was part of the pursuit of truth, and this called for honesty in personal and professional relationships. This is all part of understanding why Durham was lucky in its senior clergy. He contributed much to a leadership that was enterprising, visionary and theologically intelligent and that lived out the Anglican ethos and values he cherished. 

Michael’s long interest was in parapsychology, the investigation and study of paranormal and psychic phenomena. He believed that it was important to shape a proper Christian understanding of it and not banish it to half-crazed practitioners with bizarre and even dangerous opinions and practices. He became editor of The Christian Parapsychologist in 1978 and president of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies in 1998. Asked what had most influenced him, he quoted a writer who had explained how poltergeist phenomena were usually caused, not by external spirits, but by inter-personal tensions amongst the people at the scene of the disturbances. ‘That revolutionized the way I dealt with poltergeist cases, and has proved enormously helpful.’ He applied these insights into his practice of what we now call deliverance ministry. He did not believe we should make a song-and-dance about strange psychic events but draw on the insights of theologians and mental health practitioners (of whom Margaret his wife is of course one). When he was honoured with a Lambeth DD in 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about ‘understanding questions of faith without devaluing spiritual experience, and most of all by studying Christian writings through prayer, meditation, and regular worship’. Michael valued this honour: it gave recognition to an aspect of pastoral theology and ministry that he believed was badly neglected.

In our best moments, our faith and our humanity are one. You can’t separate a person’s Christian identity from their human character and personality. Michael lived this in both his personal and professional life. His generosity and warmth, his intelligence and humour, his zest for living, his curiosity about God and about life, his love of music especially Beethoven, these were all part of the rich hinterland out of which he worked as a priest. His family, of course, were at the heart of this human flourishing in the life of God. He and Margaret were married for 51 years. She and Michael, Andrew, David and Gillian made for a lively family where a great love abounded, though Michael did not wear his heart on his sleeve. He was convivial but also valued solitude. You sense that he knew himself, was comfortable in his skin. ´Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. says St Paul in our reading, but when they are truly alive and wholesome they bear witness to it. Michael did.

In that great chapter from 1 Corinthians, Paul is speaking about the resurrection of the dead. How many have had hope restored, found the darkness lifting at those words ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory: where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’. They transfigure life’s lesser deaths, and finally this last enemy we all have to face, as Michael did with sturdy equanimity, as Margaret and their children must do, with their families and all  who loved him. When Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, it must have helped him face his own death too, and to understand what lay beyond it. 

Michael had made the resurrection his special study. His first book was called The Easter Enigma: an essay on the resurrection. He knew better than anyone that a funeral is an Easter liturgy, especially when it is a Requiem. Here at this altar, the risen Christ comes among us to keep us thankful and expectant, to set in a larger context the loss of God's gift in the man he loves whom he has now taken back to himself.  We see him held within the memory of God’s own son, lost in death, found again in resurrection. It is the heart of our eucharistia, our thankfulness. It changes everything, gives us back our lives, renews our solidarity with all whom we love, living and departed in the Lord Jesus. ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ says Paul. 

Here are some words of Michael that celebrate Easter as the truth by which he lived and died. He was speaking about the church and parapsychology, and how important it is to deal wisely and lovingly with departed souls. Our service here is, in a similar way, work we do both for and with a beloved departed soul. ‘Christians know that the resurrection of Jesus turned the whole world upside down. The Resurrection showed us that God is the God of earth and hell and heaven, and his rule knows no bounds. The communion of saints is not bounded by earthly, physical, parameters.’ Here at this eucharist, living and departed are one in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. Even at the grave, we sing alleluia.

St Oswald’s Durham. 
At the funeral of Michael Perry, 6 February 2015