The Revd Richard Howells
19th May 2019
I imagine some of you are presently involved in finals, or coming to the end of your research projects, and so you are approaching one of those moments when change is inevitable. In a few short weeks you will be moving on, things will change, and so will you. Some may experience this change as unsettling, others may be more than ready for the next challenge. Either way a moment to reflect.
In a few weeks I mark my silver anniversary as a priest – and yes it hardly seems possible, but another moment to reflect. I guess I have been a priest longer than many of you have been alive, and it’s never easy for us to see ourselves as others do. I look around and reflect on the time I was sat in my own college chapel, and try to recall the people who were important to me then, and who now I perhaps see fleetingly on Insta/FB. You most likely look at me and wonder if I will live to the end of the sermon, and what is for dinner! I can tell you it’s unnerving when college friends end up as bishops – forget the police looking younger!
So with apologies for the induIgence, but I want to reflect a little on my journey. After University I attended Westcott intending to enter full-time parish ministry. Toward the end of that course I realized two things. Firstly that compared to many I was very young, and wondered what on earth I could say to those whose life experience was so much more than my own. And secondly, and those were very different days, that being a young gay man who was hoping to meet someone didn’t sit lightly with society, let alone with a church which was – albeit perhaps out of a kindly intent in some instances- outwardly hostile yet secretly tolerant of gay people. I can illustrate this by telling you that later when I was ordained my bishop, a man I liked very much, told me in the private interview all receive the evening before, that although he was happy to ordain me, if there was any scandal then I could not rely on his support. Society has changed a great deal, sadly the Church is yet to catch up, but then in so many moral matters that has been my experience – we follow when we ought to be leading.
I did find my love, and 34 years on having been supported by the love of several parishes, and not having caused scandal, I am glad I took some time out to re-think. What happened was that I entered into publishing, and when I was 30 I was eligible to be ordained into self-supporting ministry [no pay], and have been happily a priest ever since. What might have seemed a compromise at the time has turned out to be a blessing in many ways. Our plans are sometimes subverted for very good reasons. It is obvious to most people that the vast majority of Christians live, as clergy say, ‘in the world’. We have [in the awful phrase] secular callings and occupations. Well true, but I for one have to say that I wouldn’t have survived in full-time ministry, not because I had scandalous intentions, but because what has informed my ministry has been the interplay between my life in the church, and my life of work and home. And that seems to me the normal and natural experience of most Christians. Often those whose calling is to be ‘in’ the church, can become – without I think ever wishing to be – part of an insular world of a large institution. Institutions have strong attractions, the human desire to be an insider to be in the know is powerful, and easily we can lose focus, failing to see ourselves as others see us.
For example, a church that has, as ours does, a legal exemption from all discrimination law is setting what kind of example? A church that spent literally decades debating whether women could be ordained, and then more decades about whether they might be bishops – in a world where the experience and contribution of women was centrally important in much of contemporary discussion, what credit is there in being dragged reluctantly across the line? So the first thing I want to commend is don’t compartmentalize your life into church and non-church, if what you believe and do in one is valid and holy, it will be valid and holy in both. Let your whole life inform your living.
I am a reader of obituaries, they are full of amazing things and lives we might otherwise know nothing about. I was struck recently by a line in an obituary of Prof Mary Warnock. She was asked how given her work as a professional philosopher she was still a faithful attender at church? She is reported to have said “ I have always found the Church of England a metaphor I cannot live without”. This speaks loudly to me, for one of the things I have struggled with over these years is what religion is for? I enjoy it, but is it really good for me? The rhythms and patterns of worship, praise and prayer are wonderful, they can sustain and indeed challenge. But there is always the danger of making the church and religion itself ‘ a thing’. People always have wanted certainties, they instinctively dislike or fear uncertainty, incompleteness, what used to be called mystery. Firmly held dogmas, metaphysical claims, all are meant to bring peace of mind, surety. Many modern churches thrive on certainty, you have a question, they have the answer, often printed usefully for you to take away. I have come to believe faith, that simple trust in the hope and promises of God and his love and mercy isn’t really enough for most people. They have to adorn it with rituals, and rules, insiders and outsiders, rubrics and factions. And these are not to my mind faith, and so often they get in the way. Marriage is a prime example, we say we want people to marry,– if they are a man and woman that is, but don’t get me started – yet we are apt not to celebrate with them and rejoice in love and its transformative powers, no we lecture them about banns, eligibility and if you are a photographer it’s a wonder you haven’t taken up Satanism long ago. Being able to use the wonderful richness the church has to offer, while not allowing yourself to become religious, hung up on answers and certainties, now that is a calling worthy of the effort.
At a clergy retreat in France, some years ago we were fortunate to have as our resident speaker Jean Vanier who has just died aged 90. The son of a governor general of Canada who had also fought through the second world war, he was a very clever man, a student of philosophy. He found himself in 1945 in Paris as the war ended, at a moment of great change, wondering where his life would lead, and how his experiences of conflict, and his continued experience of God, could be brought together? He answered this by founding the L’Arche communities where building inclusive communities for the marginal and vulnerable, where they were radically included and where living alongside each other in mutual service they discovered the beauty not of the perfect and the relentlessly happy, but the beauty of the fragile, and frequently of the broken. Befriending all strangers always. And for me this is central to faith, it is a lived thing, far more than a practiced thing. We are called to embody, to make real the things we claim. At the heart of juggling our lives with our faith, with all that brings, is this ancient idea of being and doing, and balance. At the end of three remarkable days, having despite his large physical presence seemingly melted into the fabric of our retreat, and enriched so many by his words and even more by his listening, Vanier was asked if he would join us for the last evening meal. He was then in his 80’s and said he couldn’t, he needed to get home as he lived in community where there was a disabled teenager who would bath unless Jean asked him too, and was there to help him and he was sure he must be needing it by now. Being with God and with others at all times is a rare gift. Nothing must come between that, not the church and not religion. There are no outsiders, only fellow companions in the journey.
In his dying hours Vanier was asked what he hoped for, and I am sure many waited eagerly for this servant of God to offer some kind of proof, or statement of belief. What he in fact said was:
‘I am deeply peaceful and trustful. I’m not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you.’”
Vanier put trust, love and kindness at the heart of his response to God and others, sitting happily and fruitfully to the side of religious institutions, never ordained, not seeking certainty. His life illustrates what I hope I am continuing to strive for. It is after all a pilgrimage…