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Posts by Beth Routledge

The Anglican Church in Scotland, and Justin Welby

Tomorrow, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland are going to discuss and vote on the Columba Declaration. This is a partnership between the Churches of England and Scotland that was much lauded by the hierarchy of the Church of England at its General Synod earlier this year. This week, the Church of Scotland has its turn and Justin Welby will appear at the General Assembly to speak to the declaration.

I belong to neither of these churches, and there are people in both churches who would tell me that I ought therefore to butt out. As a member of a funny little denomination called the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Columba Declaration would seem to have really nothing to do with me. Except that as a member of the Anglican Church in Scotland, it has everything to do with me. I’ve previously written that I believe it represents a border incursion by the Church of England into a realm where it has no jurisdiction.

If the aim of Justin Welby was to unite all Scottish Anglicans against him, then he has met it overwhelmingly. Scottish Anglicans are not a force known for agreeing on much of anything, but on this he has succeeded where marriage equality, an independence referendum, and the filioque have all failed.

We have been told over and over and over that a border incursion is not what that is, that the Columba Declaration allows for the Church of Scotland and the Church of England to share their experiences of being a national church.

The trouble is, it doesn’t read like that. The trouble is, it reads like St Justin of Canterbury riding into Edinburgh to rid it of its snakes.

I have no patience for that. I have no patience for this method of “doing mission”, a method that reeks of colonialism and of well-meaning but ill-informed people who went off around the Empire on a mission to civilise that was such an unmitigated disaster we’ve barely even scraped the surface of the damage that was done. You can forgive the Christian missionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it’s a lot more difficult to forgive the Church of England who, having apparently failed to learn from that mistake, can most generously be characterised as people who are well-meaning, ill-informed, and wilfully deaf.

I have no patience for any of it, and I’m beginning to be a little surprised that the Church of Scotland does. The two churches may share a status and an experience of being national churches, but commentary from English Anglicans on the first few days of business done at the General Assembly makes it plain that most people in England have no idea of and no real interest in the many many ways that the relationship of religious institutions and national and civic life is different in Scotland.

During the General Synod debate in the Church of England, a room of old white men brushed aside the legitimacy of the Scottish Episcopal Church as the face and voice of the Anglican Communion in Scotland. Afterwards, my Primus wrote that he felt as if we were the ghost at the party. I felt as people down through history have done when they have watched rooms of old white men brush aside the legitimacy of women, and the poor, and LGBT people, and ethnic and religious minorities. Those who do not learn from history are indeed condemned to repeat it.

If I were Justin Welby, I would be coming to Edinburgh tomorrow with my proverbial mitre in hand and I would be apologising sincerely to the sister province into whose territory I had so egregiously and rudely barged.

Is That Even A Word?

You know, there are the days when I ask for specialist advice, and I nod and I ask at least vaguely intelligent follow ups and I write down all the investigations that they want me to arrange and I say thank you and I hang up the phone.

There are days when that comes with a side of nerding that’s based in never having seen That Really Cool Thing before in real life.

And then there are days when I ask for specialist advice and they know things that are so weird that I nod and I ask follow ups about spelling and I write down all the investigations that they want me to arrange and I say thank you and then the conversation is over.

And then I say, “Soooooo, just for my own education. WTF?”

A Most Excellent Year (Although It Had Its Moments)

There is an FY1 at my job who I’ve worked with only once, when we happened to share a week of night shifts that were mostly characterised by me getting to know the person carrying the ICU on call bleep better than either she or I would have liked. My whole week was picking up notes / answering bleeps / walking into rooms and discovering that I had happened upon a disaster. And because we have only worked together that one time, I feel like the overwhelming impression I left upon this FY1 was of a scrub-wearing Malcolm Tucker on an exceptionally bad day.

This past year has been a little bit like that, some days.

It had — as was written truthfully in a birthday card today — its moments.

But I think when I remember the year that marked this new decade, the bits that I am going to remember most of all won’t be those bits. This year has also been about starting CMT and finally deciding which bit of medicine I love above all the other bits that I also not-so-secretly love, and about learning more than I thought I would and (mostly) coping with things that scared me. It has been about wonderful colleagues, and, in an every cloud having a silver lining kind of a way, about seeing the mighty dragon that is the NHS stand up and roar. I’ll remember a gorgeous day in Brighton when I learned just how far I can stubborn in pursuit of a medal and a plate of chips. I’ll remember the parts of the world became a fairer and more just place, and I’ll remember a bright afternoon in June when my church said that it wanted to be part of that.

It has been about all of those things and more, and in many ways it has been about the work that has yet to be done.

It has been about friendship, and joy, and adventures, and laughing until it hurts.

Today, I did nothing particularly special. I spent my day with myself and then with people who I love. I woke up early, with no alarm clock. I went for a run in the afternoon sunshine. I read books and listened to radio comedy and played with yarn.

I’ve been thinking about a sixteen year old Beth, and about how I couldn’t even begin to explain what her life is going to look like this side of the next half of it. That it doesn’t get better, it gets fantastic. I turned 31 today, and my life is a little bit wonderful.

What’s next?

Love, Which Is Always Stronger Than Death

Of the many things I have learned over the last year, one that I consider the most important is that I can now say with authority that the pain of waking up on Easter Monday morning is every little bit as bad as the pain of waking up the day after running an actual marathon. 

The trade-off for both things is that they are worth every creak of every muscle that pulls in new and interesting ways.

In the middle of Holy Week, I had dinner with a friend who is not a Christian but who has been around for the last decade of me slipping further and further into Jerusalem and knows how that goes. She asked me what it is that we do in the Triduum, exactly, and, because she is a good and generous person, sat without interruption through what I am sure was a longer explanation than she had been counting on. The way I talk about this week in the Christian year and the length at which I talk about it is because even at the end of that explanation, I hadn’t done it justice — and the point is that you can’t, not by describing it, which clearly doesn’t mean I stop trying. And because there was a time, in the not too distant past, in a lifetime that included at least a couple of years when I was worshipping at my cathedral, when I was a Palm Sunday and Easter Day sort of Christian.

Not that I had failed to realise that there was a crucifixion, but that I just didn’t really see any need for me to dwell on that.

I mean, there was always going to be a resurrection. Right? It didn’t matter whether I sat through all the unpleasantness in the middle. Did it?

Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous.

In my own defence, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that without living the terrible reality of that crucifixion, the glory of the resurrection is no resurrection at all.

That there is more wonder in the lights rising during the singing of an Exsultet when I have sat by and wept as the light of the world went out.

That the moderately hysterical giggles around the reluctantly lighting Easter fire would be less joyful in a world where the Paschal candle never smashed to the ground.

The relief of the first communion after the pain of that last one.

That the voices crying Alleluia are more glorious when those same voices have wailed their lamentations.

That being asked, at half past six in the morning on Easter Day, to manufacture a confetti cannon is probably always funny, but funnier when it is part of misery and grief finally slipping away.

That the joy of the high holy razzmatazz of a church full of loveliness glitters less brightly in a place that was never seen to be stripped of all its loveliness. That the sound of a popping champagne cork and a clanging bell is less wonderful if you have never contemplated a dark, silent, empty place that you have loved and tried to remember what it was like before all the happiness went out of it.

And that the resurrection was never ever a sure thing.

Into this world, morning is breaking,
All of God’s people lift up your voice,
Sing out with joy, tell out the story,
All of the Earth rejoice.

My experience of the Triduum is a living Passion. A tragedy, and screams of grief that pierce the festivities of a Passover, the revelry of a Bank Holiday weekend, and the indifference of a world that seems as if it’s forgotten. A crucifixion that is real, as real for us today as it was for the people of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Late on Holy Saturday, I posted this video on my social media feeds. That’s how I feel on Holy Saturday. Is there going to be a resurrection? I have no idea. This is being posted two days after Easter Day because it feels too much like jinxing it to write anything about Easter in advance of it actually happening, because, well, what if it doesn’t? My experience of the Triduum is a resurrection that is an actual miracle, every time, and that kind of joy only comes from having first gone to the most appalling depths of grief. The darkness and the light. The joy and the sorrow. The sitting in a bare church where God is not, and the glory breaking from the tomb as the truth dawns that he whom we had loved and lost is with us now in every place and forever.

The reason I talk about it the way I do is because I was once promised that if I kept Holy Week and Easter the way I now do, it would change my life and it would change the way I lived my faith. It is six years ago since the first time I decided to test that promise, and it keeps being true. And therein lies that miracle.

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Photo: Stewart Macfarlane

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

The Place Where They Buried Him

Then he took down the body of Jesus, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.

*

We keep the body of Christ here on the high altar, day by day, through the year, marked by a burning candle. It was in darkness tonight. He wasn’t there.

And so we found that after everything that had happened today, there was something left for us to do.

We went back tonight, like Joseph of Arimathea went back. We were all tired, and sore, and grieving. We were still trying to make sense of what had happened in the last twenty four hours. But we weren’t quite done yet. Just like Joseph wasn’t quite done.

In my work, sometimes I am the person who is asked to go into a room where a person has recently died and to formally confirm that they are gone. I try to wake them up. I do the things that you do to confirm that this person is not here anymore; that this is just their body. And it is just their body, but I sit with them for a couple of minutes and I try to make sure that they’re comfortable. I understand the impulse that made Joseph come back.

In this church, we receive those who have died into the sanctuary on the night before their funerals. We bring them back to this place where they belong, and here they stay, safe with God. And on All Souls Day, when we remember all our dead, we name them and we bring their names to this place, to this altar, where they stay throughout the year, safe in this beloved place, safe with God. We understand the impulse that made Joseph come back.

It’s about wanting to do right by our loved ones who have died.

And that was what we did for Jesus.

We took the empty ciborium that used to hold the essence of everything that we believed him to be and took it to the High Altar, where we keep the names of our dead safe. We lit a candle, a flicker of light in the darkness of a cavernous empty building. We left him there, with them, safe in the sanctuary of the place where we have witnessed the reality of his passion and crucifixion.

We remember Christ who at this hour lies in his tomb, and with him we remember all those who have died. We remember particularly those who have died in violence, those who have died in pain, those who have died alone, those who have died and have no one else to name them, and all those who will die tonight.

Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord.

On The Road To Jerusalem

I’ve had an odd start to Holy Week. On this Palm Sunday, instead of singing my hosannas, waving a palm frond, and reverencing to a baby goat (no, really), I got up and went to work. My first steps onto the road that will this week lead us all to Jerusalem were taken not by wafting incense in front of the riotous crowd, but through this job that I do by day and by night. And when at half past five I’d not yet eaten lunch and the only available food in the building was what was in the vending machines, I thought that God wouldn’t mind too terribly much, even on Palm Sunday, if I broke my Lenten abstinence from chocolate to eat a Twix.

Not where and how I would normally begin this week.

This is a week when we will find God in unexpected places.

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon sitting on an Any Questions panel for a band of pilgrims who had come for the day from their churches around the diocese back to their mother church. They had some thought-provoking questions. I told them what hymn I most want at my funeral, what the worst sermon is that I’ve ever heard, and of my not-so-very-secret yearning for more young laity to be encouraged into church politics. And in answer to a question about whether we delude ourselves about the long-term practicality of impractical, expensive, elderly church buildings, I told them that although I have a deep sentimental attachment to at least three impractical, expensive, elderly church buildings, one thing I like to remind people of is that God isn’t only in churches.

I worship God in a church on a Sunday morning. I find him in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers, and in the singing and dancing, and in the bricks and stone that make up the fabric of that particular building. But I would have no time for a God who I thought stayed behind in his sanctuary when the church doors closed on his people on a Sunday afternoon. I believe in a God who could have stayed high on his throne, separate and exalted, but didn’t, and who when he revealed himself to humanity could have been elite and protected and worshipped, but wasn’t. This is a God who is in the world and of the world and in the living, breathing body of Christ, and when the Eucharist is ended and his people go in peace, God goes with them.

This week, we encounter God in his suffering and we find him in the unexpected places. We will find ourselves in those places, too, and be surprised by what we learn about who we really are.

We will find God betrayed by his friends.

In a garden with self-doubt and burdens that are too heavy to bear.

On the steps of a palace where he willl be arrested and bound like a political prisoner.

On the road, hurting and exhausted.

We will abandon him, and when we come back it will be to the foot of the Cross and to mourn him and all that we have loved and lost.

He will be with us in our darkest places, because he has been there too.

As the dawn breaks on Sunday, we will look for him in the place where they buried him, and who knows yet what we might find there but we will never ever be the same.

Dunblane

I have a very clear memory of being ten years old and turning on the television in my grandparents’ spare room to watch Newsround, the BBC children’s news programme, and of the newsreader Julie Etchingham telling her audience, mostly primary school children, that she had some very upsetting news.

That was twenty years ago tonight.

It was years before I’d lived in Scotland, or worked in Forth Valley, or heard of a small town in the Central Belt called Dunblane, but I’ve always remembered it. The world was never the same after that; for the children who were there that day, or for the families whose children never came home, or for the teachers and emergency services who saw things that they can never describe or forget.

A friend offered a prayer today for all those places whose names have become synonymous with tragedy.

Columbine. Rwanda. Omagh. Lockerbie. Dunblane.

And countless others.

In their name and their memory, Lord we pray.

Entirely Bonkers (But All The Best People Are)

It was quarter to eleven on a Sunday evening, a year or so ago. I had spent the weekend in one of the busiest of the old hospitals in Glasgow, and a half hour earlier had finally handed over the medical receiving bleep to my nightshift colleague. I talked to one of the nursing staff, checking on the management plan for a patient who hadn’t yet come over from the emergency department with their notes.

I’d come back to my department to document a few things that existed in my head but not yet on paper. I looked over a few blood results. My post-work plans were to attend with all due urgency to the food that was waiting a mile down the road for me and my FY1 before seeking horizontalness.

And standing at the nurses’ station at the end of the thirteenth hour of my Sunday, I blinked.

“I could do this forever,” I thought. And then: I can do this for a job!

And then: “I’ve gone mad.”

I was mentally and physically exhausted, bursting with joie de vivre and exultation at the sense of a job done to the best of one’s ability. I was flying high and obviously preparing to crash. It was clearly not the moment to make life-altering decisions about my career path, and so I fetched my coat and went off to my pizza and my bed.

But over the next few weeks that thought kept coming back to me and I kept poking at it, like a bruise that won’t go away.

The remit of acute medicine is (and here I’ll paraphrase from the JRCPTB website) that it concerns the first 72 hours of assessment, diagnosis, and management of adults who are admitted to hospital with a medical illness — the definition of “medical illness” being a very broad church but essentially meaning anything that couldn’t, in theory, be fixed with a scalpel. The idea of being a person who is trained in acute medicine with a view to that being the thing they have expertise in and then does it as their whole job is a very new one. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been possible when I started medical school in 2007. In the autumn of that year, I was given a tour of the recently opened acute medical unit in one of the local DGHs and the fact that that existed was considered hugely innovative. It didn’t become a specialty in its own right until the mid-2009.

I did an acute medical job in FY1, and loved it. I did an acute medical job in FY2, and loved it. In the year I took out of training last year, I spent 80% of my working hours in a really lovely job that I honestly enjoyed and for the rest of the time did locum shifts in my old receiving unit where I bounced around like the Energiser Bunny on steroids before ending up in my car at midnight marvelling that people were actually paying me to do something that I loved so much. All the career options that I’d mulled over and not been able to settle on during FY1 and FY2 had one thing in common: the part where I’d kept saying, out loud, even, that my priority was to be able to keep doing acute medicine. My favourite thing in the world (other than chocolate, maybe) is the part of my job where I start with a completely white piece of paper. And then from various sources there’s a whole muddle of information that doesn’t make sense, may not all be relevant, and more often than I’d like contradicts itself, and I get to try to organise it into a coherent narrative and work out what to do next and, on the very best days, actually fix it. And to a certain extent all of medicine is about that, but acute medicine is about that.

And a part of the reason that that was my priority was that I couldn’t choose an organ. My internal narrative went along the lines of: “I like the idea of endocrinology but haematology is still super interesting and the lungs and heart are kind of important and do things that I’d like to know more about but the liver is cool too and the kidneys work by magic which is amazing.” My personality is best described as Definitely An Adult Physician, But Eternally Indecisive About What Kind Because The Medical Specialties Are All Brilliant.

I like getting to start at the beginning. I like unpredictability. I like that even the things that are about pattern recognition aren’t the same, because people aren’t the same. I like listening to peoples’ stories. I like talking to patients and their families, and trying to demystify things for them. I like doing simple things that make big differences. I like doing practical things. I like being busy and useful. I like lists of problems and complicated things that I can start to unravel. I like teaching. I am fond of the occasional shot of adrenaline in my coffee.

Just before Christmas, I was involved in a Twitter conversation organised by the Society of Acute Medicine. A consultant who evidently has more poetry in his soul than the JRCPTB described the specialty as, “It feels like you’re standing in the hospital’s engine room every day.”

That’s it. That’s what I want.

As someone who is not yet in specialist training, the most frustrating thing about it is the number of people who look at you as if you’re having a psychotic break when you tell them that it’s what you want to do. I get why it isn’t for everyone, I do, but it’s for me, I think. In retrospect, the most surprising thing about my epiphany at the nurses’ station on that Sunday evening was only that it had taken me so long to have it. And if I am a little bit mad, I think that’s okay. As the Cat said to Alice, we’re all mad here.

The Columba Declaration

I have spent the afternoon watching the debate in the General Synod of the Church of England, on the Columba Declaration between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

Those of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church have had concerns about the Columba Declaration ever since we were blindsided by its being reported in the media at the end of last year, and we have not been particularly reassured by reading the report in full. My general experience of the Scottish Episcopal Church is that we are not of one mind, we are not obliged to speak with one voice, and we consider one of our greatest strengths to lie in our respectful diversity of opinion and of action. And so it is not a matter of agreeing for agreeing’s sake that leads us on this subject to be absolutely united in our concerns about this agreement and our feeling that those concerns are well founded.

When the initial report of this agreement was released on Christmas Eve it was done in a manner that Synod have now acknowledged was “cack-handed”. It was disrespectful and has caused a great deal of hurt and anger in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Those communication errors have been profusely apologised for in this afternoon’s debate (although I note that it didn’t stop people continuing to get our name wrong while standing in front of microphones), but Justin Welby has missed the point completely if he thinks that our concerns are about style and not substance.

The Columba Declaration is being sold as a triumph of ecumenism between two churches that ought to develop a special relationship because of their identity as “national churches” within regions of the United Kingdom. The lightest scratch of the surface reveals that it is really about mission and ministry, and really mostly about the Church of England grievously overstepping its authority in a sister province of the Anglican Communion.

In the full text of the commitments within the agreement, it states that the Churches of England and Scotland will:

  1. contine to pray for and with one another;
  2. welcome one another’s members to each other’s worship as guests and receive one another’s members into the congregational life of each other’s churches where that is their desire;
  3. explore opportunities for congregational partnership, formal as well as informal, in those cases where there are churches in close geographical proximity;
  4. enable ordained ministers from one of our churches to exercise ministry in the other church, in accordance with the discipline of each church;
  5. identify theological issues that arise from growth towards fuller communion and be prepared to allocate resources to addressing them;
  6. work together on social, political, and ethical issues that arise from our participation in public life and be prepared to allocate resources to joint initiatives in addressing them.

Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, who was the co-chair of the Joint Study Group which proposed the Declaration, said in the Daily Telegraph that it was “catching up with the Queen”. I think that probably is its true intent, but I’m not sure he realises how discourteous that intent is — even after being told so in no uncertain terms by Mark Russell and Andrew Foreshew-Cain during debate today. Frankly, this is a border invasion by the Church of England into a realm where it has no jurisdiction.

The declaration is named for St Columba, the fourth century Irish missionary who brought Christianity to the pagan Scots. I am uncomfortable with that parallel.

I feel that this is a step in the Church of England trying to make the Scottish Episcopal Church substantively irrelevant to the Anglican Communion.

And doesn’t that sound sinister?

I was disappointed that the Synod approved the Columba Declaration, rejecting an amendment put forward that would have given all three Churches affected time for reflection and discussion before bringing it back to Synod. I note with gladness that the mood of the Synod was split and that the vote was by no means the overwhelming approval that had been called for. I believe there is a conversation to be had now by the Scottish Episcopal Church about what this means for our relationship with our sister province in England.

Dust and Ashes

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At last week’s CNN Town Hall for the Democratic presidential candidates, a rabbi from Nashua posed a question to Hillary Clinton. He related the oral teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa, who said that everyone must have two pockets and must keep a note in each pocket, so that a person in dark times might reach into their right pocket and find the words, “for my sake the world was created”, but that in times of success and plenty they might be able to reach into their left pocket and be reminded, “I am but dust and ashes.”

“I want you to think about what you would tell us about your two pockets,” said the rabbi in the audience.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

The first place I heard that story was in an old article in the BMJ, based on advice that had been given to the inaugural students of the Hull York Medical School in 2003. I’ve never forgotten it. As doctors, the contents of our two pockets are together a contradiction and a truth that we carry with us every day of our lives. The right pocket, to carry the weight of profound responsibility and an awareness of incredible privilege. The left, a gentle reminder that we can do only what we can do and that it almost never feels like enough.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

In my religious tradition, the season of Lent is about the realisation of these truths that are Gospel and the acceptance of what they mean for each one of us. The dust of Ash Wednesday begins a journey that will end on Good Friday, and at the end of that journey none of us will ever be the same. Today, we come to God in all of our humanness, with all our flaws and our imperfections, with none of the sparkle or the razzmatazz, and we are told that God loves us anyway. And that there is nothing, nothing in the world, that we can do to change that. And maybe we won’t believe it yet. But maybe when we have met God in the breaking of the bread and in the tears that we shed and in the fear that, somehow, is always real, and then when we have met him again in the rising sun on Easter Day, maybe then we will start to believe it. A contradiction that isn’t a contradiction, but the most straightforward and profound of truths: that you are loved, and you are blessed, and nothing and no one can take that away.

Remember you are mortal, formed of the Earth; from dust you came and to dust you will return. And remember too that God so loves you and so loves the world that he will give his only Son.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.