Tag Archives: Anglicans

For the Joy of Reading: Bringing in the Sheaves

Richard Coles is the quintessential gay English country vicar.   If you didn’t know that, you simply have not been paying attention and you certainly have not been listening to his radio broadcasts.   At least, that is his public persona.   But there is nothing that could possibly be considered as ordinary about Richard Coles.   For a start, not many country vicars played in the Communards, one of the leading, and blatantly gay, groups of the 1980s.   Nor has every country parson received his training, and therefore been versed in the intricacies of Anglo-Catholicism, at the Community of the Resurrection house at Mirfield in Yorkshire.   Nor does every country vicar have a regular broadcasting slot on BBC Radio Four every week.   And the common or garden country vicar certainly does not receive a call from Tom Hollander, the actor, saying that he has to be quick because he is in Tom Cruise’s private jet.   So he may be quintessential but he is certainly not ordinary.

One of the things that always astonishes me is that people seem surprised to discover that Richard Coles, wit, broadcaster, commentator and one-time pop star, is a deeply religious man.   He is a vicar.   It goes with the territory.   It is part of the job description.   And although he is on the front cover of this book in his dog collar and cassock, and the sub-title is “Wheat and Chaff from my Years as a Priest” some people will be surprised by the content of this book.   They should not worry that they will be preached at.   They may find that they are preached to, but it is not Richard Coles’ style to hector or bamboozle.

This is a charming, delightful book.   It takes us through the liturgical year of the Church of England, although not in the right order as it starts with the Transfiguration, not Advent, and it includes those necessary parts of a vicar’s life in town and country – baptisms, marriages and funerals.   There are so many stories about the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of parish life that you cannot help but be charmed.   Richard Coles’ experiences make you realise that to be a priest you have to be a special kind of person.   You do not have to like your parishioners, but you do have to love them and some of them seem to go out of their way to make that very difficult.

One of the beauties of this book is that the author does not expect his readers to understand the details of church life.   He goes out of his way to explain everything in language that ordinary people will understand (and yes, I am making a reference to Cranmer’s Prayer Book).   Some of the descriptions, as you would expect from this author, are downright funny.   I particularly liked his describing a chasuble as a poncho.   Anyone who has seen a spaghetti western will understand this.

Richard Coles is a deeply religious, deeply human man, and this book shows how he copes with his calling to be a priest in the modern world.   And, in this difficult task, he is assisted by his partner David, also a priest, and by his dachshunds.

For the Joy of Reading: A Little History of Religion

The first thing that has to be said about any book by Richard Holloway is that you will want to argue with him, and this book is no exception to that rule.   And, of course, that is a good thing because it means that he has made you think.   When you are dealing with the ideas behind religion that is something that is absolutely necessary.   It is the unthinking who are dangerous, because these are the people who become zealots simply because they have no questions and no doubts, and Richard Holloway has no truck with those people.

Before going any further it has to be said that this is a very short book, given the subject matter.   Those who want to go into the depths of the arguments about the filioque clause or the divisions within Shia Islam will probably be disappointed.  I however am in awe of Richard Holloway’s ability to explain such complexities so succinctly.   In that, he is truly astonishing.

There are mistakes in the book, that good editing should have prevented.   The Assyrian Empire was not destroyed by the Persians.   Their Babylonian subjects rose in rebellion against them and defeated them.   It was the Babylonians who were conquered by the Persians.   The Persian emperor, Darius, was not the son of Cyrus the Great.   He married Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great.   Elizabeth of England did not die in 1601.   She died in 1603.   These mistakes are irritating but they do not detract from the force of the argument that Holloway is putting forward.   It is to be hoped that they will be dealt with in a second edition.

So what is the argument?   First, that this something deep within humankind – the need to explain how the Universe in which we live came into being, and the nee to explain what happens when we die.   Even those who do not believe in a creator God have a need for these explanations.   Humanists look for ceremonies that celebrate our passage through this world.   Secondly, that religion can be dangerous, especially when people forget what they have been told, and adhere to interpretations of the rules that make them forget the fundamental principles.   Holloway quite rightly refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan when explaining this argument, but that is not the only example that he gives.  Holloway argues that some people, because of their absolute certainty that they are right, abandon faith.   So they start persecutions because they are right and the others are wrong, and the others need to be saved from themselves.

The Crusades are one of the best known examples of this.   Interestingly, Holloway does not mention the provocation.   The Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site of Christianity, and the Sultan Nur-ed-din crucified pilgrims on their way to jerusalem.   But the response of Pope Urban II was not to obey the instructions of Christ “to turn the other cheek”.   It was to summon armies and to wage war because Christians, in his view, were right and Muslims were wrong.   An unchristian response was unleashed on the world, and it reverberates to this day, with President George Bush calling for a crusade in revenge for the 9/11 attack.

Holloway also argues that religions develop.   Neither the Bible nor the Qu’ran condemn slavery, but in 1688 the Quakers of Pennsylvania decided that slavery was wrong and launched the abolitionist movement on the world.   But the more interesting story to me is that of Abraham not sacrificing Isaac.   In the Bronze Age Middle East, human sacrifice was the norm.   Moloch demanded it.   Ashtaroth demanded it.   But not the God of the Hebrews.   He rejected it.   The Abrahamic religions have represented this as Abraham’s submission to the will of God.   Holloway says that the story of Abraham shows that religion is a moving picture, and that the ability to change is one of the hallmarks of religion.   What has occurred to me, and this is something that Holloway does not consider, is what if Abraham was lying, and he did not hear a voice telling him to spare Isaac?   What if he just could not go through with it?   Which, for the religious, is the voice of God telling Abraham that it is not necessary.   Holloway points out that we are not told what Isaac thought of all this.   Nor are we told what Abraham’s community thought about him imperilling the welfare of their crops and herds but not sacrificing Isaac.   It speaks volumes about Abraham’s authority as a patriarch of his people.

There is a lot more that could be said, especially about Holloway’s comments on the religions of India, China and the Americas before Columbus, and of the religions that have emerged in the USA in particular over the last two centuries.   If I have not commented on them in detail, it is because my knowledge of them is sketchy and I therefore cannot really add anything useful to what Holloway has written.

The point about this book is that it makes you think, as I hope that I have shown in my responses above.   It will certainly infuriate those who have a limited approach to religion, and who are not willing to think about what they believe and why.   It will make you see the similarities about religions, and clearly sets out the areas in which they are different.   It is very clear that religion is important in the development of our humanity, and in the rules of civilisation that have arisen from it.

I would argue that this is an important book regardless of whether or not you believe in the concept of godhead.   This is essentially a book about us, an examination of our psyche and any book that helps us to understand ourselves is useful and important.   This book does that.

Michael Lapsley: Redeeming the Past

When you lose both hands, an eye, and part of your ability to hear in a letter bomb attack by an agent of the apartheid state, it would be reasonable to assume that you would find it difficult to forgive the people who were responsible for the attack.

Michael Lapsley did not respond in that way.   This is what makes him both remarkable and at the same time deeply human.   To understand what happened, it is necessary to know his story, and that is what this book sets out to do.

He was born in New Zealand, and at a very young age he realised that he had a vocation for the priesthood.   At 17, he went to an Anglican Seminary in Australia and it was there that he was ordained and became a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission   His order sent him to South Africa in 1973, when he was only 24 years of age.   This was the furthest he had ever been from his native New Zealand, and he knew that it was going to be a challenging experience.   What he did not know was how challenging it would be.

[I am of the same age as Michael Lapsley.   At 24 I was actively involved in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, but I was safe.   Events were to show that he was not.   He soon became a target of the apartheid state.]

Michael Lapsley soon found himself involved in two kinds of conflict.   There was the conflict with the apartheid state, which his conscience demanded of him more or less as soon as he set foot in the country.   Then there was the conflict with the members of his own order who wished that he would keep quiet   The only thing that I can find to be said in their defence was that coming into conflict with the apartheid state meant that he was not safe.   The truth is probably closer to their finding his commitment to principle embarrassing.   This was no different to the way in which other Anglican clergy in South Africa were treated if they opposed apartheid.   Trevor Huddleston was called home by his order because Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was embarrassed by his open opposition to the National Party government.

Michael soon found himself forced out of South Africa by the government, and he continued his ministry in Lesotho and then Zimbabwe.   It was in Lesotho that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and so attracted the absolute loathing of the apartheid state.   It was this that made him a target.

The ANC was unbanned in February 1990.   The bomb attack on Michael Lapsley took place in April 1990.   It was one of the first signs that the apartheid regime did not intend to go quietly and, in the subsequent four years of negotiations, something like 10,000 people were killed.

For Michael Lapsley this was a new beginning.   He had to learn how to live without his hands.   We take them for granted when we do simple things like go to the toilet, wash, eat, write, shake hands.   All this had to be learned again.   And for a priest there is the whole process of celebrating the Eucharist – making the sign of the cross, elevating the host and distributing the wafers – without hands.   There was the interminable surgery, the physiotherapy, the adapting to life.   It was the discovery of simple things like door handles could be opened but doorknobs could not.

But most of all there was the way in which Michael Lapsley chose to deal with the psychological damage.   He chose not to hate.    He chose to forgive.   Most of the book is about that process of forgiveness, and especially about his new ministry of the healing of memories.   He now spends his life bringing victims and perpetrators together to talk through their brokenness, and to recognise that they are all damaged.   He uses the visibility of his own brokenness to facilitate the process, whether it is in Southern Africa, Rwanda, Latin America or, closer to home, in Northern Ireland.   In  all these places his compassion has made a considerable difference.

Michael Lapsley does however recognise his own needs and limitations.   Adriaan Vlok, the Minister of Law and Order, who probably ordered Michael Lapsley’s bombing and the murders of many others, has had a Road to Damascus experience.   He now recognises that what the apartheid state did to preserve its power was wrong, and has apologised for that.   But he is claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he did not know what was happening on his watch, and that he was not responsible for it.   [It could be argued that not being in control of his own department means that he was responsible].   Michael Lapsley wants people like this to go much further than they have and to face up to the consequences of what they ordered or let happen.

What we have in this book is an astonishing account of what one person can do if that person sets his or her mind to it.   He says that he is not a saint.   He says that he is very human.   But he has taken the option of not taking the path of hatred.   He has recognised that hatred does not hurt anyone other than himself.   He is trying, through his work at the Centre for the Healing of Memories, to get people to make themselves better, to heal themselves of whatever trauma they have been through.

He is a remarkable man.   His is an astonishing story.   This is a necessary book.