to help you discover the God you already know

Month: November 2015

Thoughts on Paris

I’ve been thinking about the terrible events that have taken place in Paris and have found myself wondering why we are so stirred up about them. Don’t get me wrong, it has been a terrible tragedy, but why are we so shocked?

Innocent people were killed and that’s awful, but it’s not uncommon. Only two weeks ago on Remembrance Sunday we were honouring millions of innocent people who were killed in wars. Today people in horrifyingly large numbers are being killed in Syria and in other wars around the world. Others are dying of hunger. Daily, innocent people are killed in car accidents. So why does a relatively much smaller number of deaths so horrify us?

In Paris a small group of men and women carried out this killing and then died themselves, and that’s not so unusual either. Again, on Remembrance Sunday we were honouring men and women some of whom set out to kill large numbers of innocent people knowing that in all probability many of them would die in the attempt. It happens regularly in times of war. So why are we so horrified at the events in Paris?

Again, don’t get me wrong: the events in Paris were a terrible tragedy and it’s appropriate that we ask ourselves why they happened and how we should respond.
But there seems to me to be a much deeper question that is being asked of us and which we are not wanting to hear.

We in the West live in a very materialistic culture: it is all about having things, now; it is about the immediate gratification of our desires. We shop for things ‘to die for’, like chocolate, not recognising the irony of our language. For what it’s not about is any serious consideration of the reality of death and dying. We avoid death like the plague [which of course is very much how we view it] or we trivialise it.

We prefer people to die out of sight; and when they do die we don’t want to attend a funeral and witness the burial or cremation of their body. We prefer a thanksgiving service which celebrates their life and makes little mention of their death. It’s not wrong to celebrate someone’s life but it is not healthy to avoid the reality of their death with all its implications for us: namely that we too will die; that life for all of us is finite; that shopping and pleasure seeking will one day end and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Death may well take us totally by surprise and quite unprepared, but it is the fact of our death which most powerfully asks the deep question of the meaning and value of our life.

Faced with the prospect of imminent death our priorities change, and we realise what is really important to us, often they are things that we have given insufficient time to before and that are not much valued in our materialistic culture. A nurse in Australia who cared for dying people wrote a book about her experience. She wrote about the five chief regrets of the dying. In her experience men and women faced with imminent death said:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

Now the events in Paris portrayed on our television screens and in our newspapers have thrust the reality of death, the precariousness of our grip on life, and the shallowness of our materialistic preoccupations, right full in our faces, in our own backyard, and we don’t like it. It challenges some of our most dearly held assumptions. It obliges us to face something we otherwise spend a lot of time avoiding: this might happen to us; there is no hiding place. No wonder we are so shocked and angry. No wonder we vent our anger on those who have made us look at these things. No wonder we want somebody to blame for having done this, and of course those who did the killing are an obvious target. They must be punished, not only for their actions, but even more because they are drawing our attention to an achilles heel that we prefer to ignore, thank you very much. It won’t be long before we are blaming God!!

But we could respond differently. We could see this as a ‘wake up’ call. We could allow God to use it as a ‘wake up’ call to us. And the upcoming season of Advent would be quite a propitious time to do that, n’est pas?


On holiday in Falmouth this summer, and wandering through the town, I was irresistibly drawn in to a bookshop, as I sometimes am. And there on the shelf I saw a book by George Monbiot who writes for ‘The Guardian’ on environmental matters. In it he makes an eloquent plea for the re-wilding of some of our moorland areas.

But what drew me was the book’s title: ‘Feral’. I wasn’t sure why I was drawn in until I read his definition of ‘feral’ as being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” And then the lights came on.

Of course I am a feral priest: called to escape the captivity of the institutional Church many years ago by God, and who has since exercised a ministry mainly in spiritual direction outside its domestication. I remember well how scary it felt to leave. A friend described me ‘as a man about to jump off a cliff’ and so it felt. And yet it also seemed that there was no real alternative. And I remember to my great surprise how no longer being a stipendiary clergyman of the Church of England felt a huge relief. I was free: scared but free! I remember how it seemed as if scales fell from my eyes and I beheld a world in glorious colour which previously had been in black and white. And I realised something of what captivity and domestication had done to me.

As a feral priest I had to learn a different set of skills. I had to learn to place my trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that I should trust the institution and its leaders. I had to trust God to provide, through the agency of Her children, enough money to survive, a roof over my head, and the means to exercise the ministry to which He was calling me.

I also had to learn to trust myself, my own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. I often talk about ‘internalised’ priesthood as the state in which I have learnt to trust that because God has called me to be a priest there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about me and that if I try to be truly myself then that priesthood will flow out through me without much conscious effort on my part. I no longer need the external props of ‘priesthood’ as once I did. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to enjoy leading worship and preaching when invited to do so, but my priesthood is not dependent on my doing those things.

Jesus, of course was ‘feral’. He exercised His ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which He had grown up, and by implication challenged it. So did Francis of Assisi. So do increasing numbers of men and women today: and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. It is one of the joys of spiritual direction to see someone escape the domestication of what they’ve been taught they should think and do, for the freedom of what they know deep down themselves. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose. George Monbiot might be encouraged. The process of ‘feralisation’ is a bigger one than he perhaps imagined.

I’m reminded of a phrase of, I think, Richard Holloway, who spoke about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. But the two phrases don’t carry the same sort of energy for me. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for me it also meant a sense of call rather than exclusion, and it points to a sense of discovered freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered. It’s a place of precarious, gracious joy.

%d bloggers like this: