Yours Are The Hands

It’s all over.

The light of the world has gone out. For all of us who loved him and lost him and stayed with him, we stand at the foot of the cross and all I want to do on Friday afternoon is scream into the wind about the unfairness of it all. The great temptation today is to think that, in the end, there was no point to any of it. To bury our grief. To pretend that he never existed. To shuffle our feet awkwardly and avoid conversation, but, when pressed at cocktail parties and around our relatives’ dinner tables, to agree that that bloke who was executed in the foothills of Jerusalem today probably was a bit of a nutter and then to change the subject in a hurry.

I am not one of them, said Peter.

And no doubt that would be the easier path to choose, the way of least resistance.

If he’s gone — and I can’t, in these dark hours that stretch from Friday into Saturday, I can’t believe that that’s not true. If he’s gone, then what good does it to anyone to keep banging on about him?

Except, it does. Somehow. It can.

My soundtrack for the last forty days and nights has been Christ Has No Body Now But Yours, the anthem by David Ogden, based on the words of St Teresa of Avila, who is the patron saint of, among other things, people in need of grace and people ridiculed for their piety. A saint who has been with us on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem these last few days.

One of the Evensongs early in Lent, the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral singing it in my ear. It surely wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it was the first time it had penetrated like that, and I sat, spellbound, as suddenly it wasn’t the choir singing it the words into my ear at all but God whispering them to a place deep in my soul.

They have remained there for the last six weeks: a motet, a whisper, a shibboleth, a howl into the vast unrelenting wilderness.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on Earth but yours.

There is no light today and nothing good in the world. Standing in the middle of a place that was holy and well beloved and now rings in its emptiness, I keep thinking of WH Auden, too. The stars are not wanted now, put out every one. But a new day will dawn, for it always does. The sun will rise again, and when it does we will need to decide who we are now. To decide if, after all, the measure of our experience was something meaningful.

If I can find inspiration anywhere in these three days, it’s in a belief in a God who came to change the world and did, and a belief in his people, in the body of Christ left on Earth, who will carry on changing it even now that the man we knew is dead and buried and gone.

Even if that is the end of the story.

The world is a cold and dark and inhospitable place.

In these days, just as much as it was then, it is a revolutionary act to be a people who say that we love everyone, and that we welcome everyone, and that we will care for everyone. In these days it is the talk of radicals to say that everyone should have enough to eat, that everyone should have access to healthcare and education and clean water, and that no one should go to bed at night afraid that bombs will fall on their house while they sleep. In these days, if you defend the rights of the oppressed, work to raise up the downtrodden, and speak out loud of peace and justice and inclusion and radical Christian hospitality, they call you a socialist and a liberal and a radical.

In our liturgy on Maundy Thursday, we are reminded, every year, that if the world hates us, it hated him first.

The God who I believe in was a socialist and a liberal and a radical.

And today, they crucify him for it.

But that doesn’t mean his truths are not truths worth telling.

From his cross, he leaves behind a legacy and he trusts to us a world that is broken and bleeding and crying out to be turned upside down.

I do not find God in the slamming closed of borders. I do not find God in a society that lets the poor become poorer and the hungry become hungrier. I do not find God in power and greed and violent retaliation. And I do not find Christ in the actions of Christians who wish harm to God’s people and claim that it is in His name. God is not in those things, but those actions are in His world, and here he is too. I’ve found Christ in amongst the lawyers gathered on the floor at JFK Airport through a long cold night working to bring people home. I’ve found Christ in the footsteps of people who have risen up in their thousands to protest the rise of brutal and fascist politics. I saw Christ on Westminster Bridge when emergency service and healthcare workers ran without hesitation towards danger because people needed help. I find Christ in the work of a church that welcomes everyone, that loves everyone, that cares for everyone, even as the world screams hate and anger to us for daring to.

Today, he is gone.

But here we still are.

And if this was the end, the truth of Good Friday is that it is up to us to make the promised truth of the Gospel a reality for the whole Earth.

Yours are the eyes with which he sees. Yours are the feet with which he walks. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. 

Advertisement

And That Was Wednesday

I woke up this morning, got dressed, got on the bus to work, and sat down in what I am almost positive was urine.

That was 8.15am.

Thankfully, I work in a job where no one is going to think it’s all that inappropriate if I go about my day dressed in blue pyjamas. So en route I went into the theatre changing rooms and borrowed a pair of scrubs.

And then got in the lift to go up to my ward and stepped in the puddle of vomit that was on the floor of the lift.

I found a packet of the big alcohol wipes and wiped off my shoe.

And finally started my ward round and made a theatrical gesture and sent a patient’s full glass of Irn Bru flying.

There are days when you just have to call it good and try again tomorrow.

giphy

Sitting in ill-advised places. I’m blaming it on the Bossa Nova.

How The Light Gets In

Today, we will step onto a road that will lead, painfully and inevitably, to a hill just outside Jerusalem and to the witness of a political execution that we do not understand.

There is a busy week ahead. There are feet to be washed, and a mob coming, and a church to be made gleaming, and I am actually working all seven days of it, too, and if I were to look closely around the cathedral I’m sure I’d find that all manner of loveliness has been stashed away, in case, in a week’s time, just in case, we might wake up early and find that an impossible thing has happened.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 00.16.47

Photo: Gordon Smith

I can’t think about all of that too hard. This is a week where at least trying to take things one day at a time is the only way I can keep from going mad. One of the qualities that I least understand but most admire in my clergy friends is their ability to write an Easter sermon before the Easter Vigil.

I was told nine years ago that if I kept Holy Week and the Triduum at St Mary’s Cathedral, it would change my life and it would change the way I experienced my faith.

And I didn’t believe it.

Easter Day is Easter Day, a festival filled with joy and light and wonder, and, where I celebrate it, Prosecco. The events that led up to it were just something that happened — they happened two thousand years ago, and I knew the story and I understood generally what had gone on and I truly saw no reason to get mixed up in it any more than that. I knew what had happened, and my dwelling on it was hardly going to change that, or me, or the world.

But the following year I was around and I was a server by that time, anyway, and I thought I might as well see what this Holy Week business was all about.

“If you keep Holy Week and the Triduum in this place, it will change your life and it will change your faith,” he said, again.

Still, I didn’t believe him.

Imagine how taken aback I was four days later to taste the hot salt of tears streaming down my face as I sat on the cold tile by the Garden, as the foot traffic of a bank holiday weekend in the west end of Glasgow clattered by outside the walls and his friends all ran away and left him. And to taste them again in the empty echoing hollowness of a sanctuary that come Friday morning has been desecrated. The pain of realising that I hadn’t understood anything — and that I still don’t, not really.

The events of the next eight days are raw and real to me, every single time. The thing I didn’t understand, back then, was that the story of the events leading up to Easter Day were a story of the world we live in and of right here and right now. The thing I still don’t understand is how we keep ending up back here. That’s what I keep asking myself. That’s what I’ll spend long hours over this week thinking about: how the world keeps ending up here, and how we can make the world a better place.

And as for that thing about Easter Day and its joy and light and wonder?

It turns out I hadn’t understood that either.

That the ecstasy is nothing without the agony. That the Hallelujah Chorus is only notes on a page unless its set against the backdrop of the wail of the blues. That you can’t properly savour the Prosecco until it’s washing away the bitter taste of hyssop. And that the crack in everything is how the light gets in.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 00.22.16

Photo: Gordon Smith

That promise was true. It has continued to be true. It will be true again this week, and its truth will be in ways that I cannot possibly begin to know yet.

It did change the story, and it did change me, and, yes, if we let it, it can change the world too.

This Is My (Wonderful) Life

‪I’m sitting on my back steps, watching the sun go down on another year. ‬

I’ve spent the day running around my cathedral, and the evening running around in the glorious light of a spring evening in Glasgow, and in between I read a book and a cat went to sleep on top of me. Tomorrow, there’ll be fabulous music, and the waving of palms and cries of Hosanna — what do you mean, they don’t do that for your birthday? — and laughter and roast chicken and my people.

My thoughts will eventually turn to the year ahead and all that I hope to accomplish during it.

But for this weekend, I’m simply breathing in the air and giving thanks for this, my improbable, blessed, wonderful life.

These Are What We’d Call ‘The Basics’

In February, when I was sitting on my hotel balcony in Madeira, my phone pinged with an email from Oriel, the system that coordinates recruitment to NHS training programmes. I had unsynced my phone from my work emails, and given them my personal email address, because paranoia is a valid thing. They had received my job application and I would hear in due course whether I’d been shortlisted for interview.

I was. My interview is on Friday.

Increasingly nauseated, and thank you for asking.

The email had admonished: “Most candidates prepare properly for interview. Please make sure that you are one of them.” 

It turns out that interview preparation is to get gems like this out of the way with before accidentally saying them out loud when it counts.

The scene is Nandos, on a Monday night.

We have not yet been interrupted by a man who has read the title of my book and wants to quiz me on the future of the NHS under a Conservative government, so in that sense we’re one up on the last time we tried to do interview prep in this Nandos.

*

Friend: You are the medical registrar. You have been fast paged to a surgical ward. On arrival, you are told by a nurse that the patient is two days post-op and has been found unresponsive. Go.

Me: I would ask the nurse to put out a 2222 call if one hasn’t been already, and to come back with the arrest trolley.

Friend: Yes.

Me: I would conduct an A to E assessment —

Friend: The patient is unresponsive on the floor, what would be the first thing you would check for?

Me: I would conduct an A to E assessment, so I would start with A and check whether their airway was patent.

Friend: What would be the first thing you would check for?

Me: *flustered* I am conducting an A to E assessment.

Friend: They are unresponsive on the floor.

Me: Well, I — oh, shit, I WOULD CHECK THAT THEY WERE ALIVE.

*

Er, please give me a job?

Marriage, Rainbow Feather Boas,  and Hands of Friendship

It is Lent. For those of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church, part of our penitence is to attend our Diocesan Synods.

The United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway met today in Dumfries, and on our agenda was a debate on whether to approve proposed changes to Canon 31. If you haven’t been paying attention, these are the changes that would allow those members of the clergy who wish to do so to celebrate marriages between same sex couples while also protecting the consciences of any member of the clergy who does not wish they celebrate any marriage for any reason. There are debates in all seven dioceses this month, and the outcomes will doubtless inform the debate when General Synod meets again in June for its definitive vote.

The Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway approved the proposals today with a 64% majority, voting as one House.

This is what I said to Diocesan Synod:

*

I would like to express my gratitude to both the Committee on Canons for their work in putting the proposed Canon together, and to the last two years of General Synods for the work they have done on it so far.

I want to be part of a Church that is for everyone.

I believe that the majority of people in the Scottish Episcopal Church want that too.

The thing I remember most about the process that we’ve gone through to get here is the day at General Synod in 2015 when we were first asked what it was that we wanted to say about marriage. We were given various options. On the one hand, we might have chosen to say something about marriage that was in many ways even more rigid than the current Canon 31, that would have left people who have broader ideas about marriage very much on the outside. I remember there being not much appetite for that. On the other hand, we might have chosen to explicitly define marriage as something that can be between two people of any gender. And I remember there being not much appetite for that, either. I remember that the overwhelming mood in Edinburgh that day was a real want to find some middle ground, to not only accept but celebrate the fact that ours is a Church where there are lots of different opinions and that that is one of the things that makes us a little bit wonderful.

I was so proud, that day.

In a lot of ways — and this isn’t what most of you will expect me to say — I think I was prouder than I would have been even if the whole of Synod had got out the rainbow feather boas and broken into a chorus of I Am What I Am.

The proposal for amending Canon 31 is a result of the decisions we made — decisions to be truthful about who we are and to go forward in a way that we can, I think, all live with.This process does not lead us to something that will end with winners and losers, but the hands of friendship extended and an outcome that will be better because we did it for everyone and we did it together. 

Honest to God, this is what “good disagreement” should look like. We can be a model for good disagreement and mutual love for our sister provinces throughout the Anglican Communion.

Now, yes, I do look forward to the day when same-sex couples can walk down the aisle in my cathedral and be joined together in marriage. Of course I do.

But I want this to be a Church that is for everyone, and I believe that the proposed Canon is something that will allow us to be that Church. 

Off

img_0311-1

Last night, after a long day of walking and reading in the sunshine, I watched the sun go down over the Atlantic while listening to The News Quiz and pondering dinner options.

This has been a good week.

img_0424-1

The Bishops’ Report: Working Against LGBT Equality In The Church of England

There are days when turning on the news or opening Twitter induces a kind of writer’s paralysis. The last 48 hours have been something like that. It’s not that I can think of nothing to say; if anything, it’s that I’ve got too much to say. The atrocities and oppressions that I can see rolling out across the Western world are so much, it’s difficult to know where to begin. And if I talk about the House of Bishops in the Church of England, will it read as if I’m ignorant of or indifferent to the troubling things that are happening both on the far side of the Atlantic and in Whitehall?

I am going to talk about the Church of England.

On Friday, the House of Bishops released their report on same-sex marriages following on from the Shared Conversation process that has taken place in the Church of England over the last two years. This came from the work of the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality, and then a facilitated meeting of the whole House of Bishops. Their work has produced a document that I do not find particularly helpful, and I do not particularly discern the hand of God or the Holy Spirit at work within it.

In summary, the House of Bishops has no intention of allowing the Church to explore any possibility of change to its marriage doctrine, nor to Canon Law, but it thinks it is important that the Church is seen as being nicer to its LGBT brethren than it is at present. The sticking point is that the suggestions for the ways in which the Church might bring itself to be seen as being nicer to its LGBT brethren do not include actually being nicer to us, as the report accords us neither equality of status nor recognition nor the right to be spoken about in language that doesn’t stink of insidious homophobia.

It is, then, difficult and draining reading, but I do recommend reading it all anyway.

My heart breaks today for my LGBT sisters and brothers in England and their allies who trusted and hoped in the process of the Shared Conversations. I am disappointed for them, but I must confess that I am not in the least surprised.

We had our own version of shared conversations in Scotland in 2014. They were called the Cascade Conversations. I have been heard to say that I thought the Cascade Conversations in Scotland were a dangerous and abusive process, and I was horrified when the group that planned them went around telling other Provinces that it had been wonderful. I never had the expectation that it would lead to good things — and looking at where the Scottish Episcopal Church is now, I still don’t believe that I was wrong. I am prepared to acknowledge that on an individual basis there were some people whose experience was different to mine and who found the process helpful, and I am certain that the same is true in England. I have, for whatever it’s worth, and I am certain that the same will also be true in England, not found that those people have been prepared to acknowledge that for some of us the process was frankly damaging. But it is my view that largely the good things that have happened in furthering the cause of equality in the Scottish Episcopal Church since the Cascade Conversations have been in spite of that process, rather than because of it. The people who were most critical of the process persistently made it clear — privately, publicly, and through Synodical processes — that we did not trust it and that there would be consequences for the Church if it were used as a delaying tactic. We are now in the middle of a process that we hope will advance the cause of equality in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and that is a process of which I have been very proud. The situation in our sister province in England is plainly now much bleaker.

The question is raised as to why these things are still important, right now. There are other injustices in the world, injustices that are being celebrated on the front page of the newspapers, and those things seem objectively to be bigger than this thing, and certainly more imperative.

And it’s not a stupid question.

But the answer is that this is important because they are all part of the same thing.

I gave a speech to the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church eight months ago, and in it I called on us as a Church to play our part in dismantling systems that have kept the oppressed oppressed.

I was criticised for that line: I was accused of crying “homophobia”, and told that it wasn’t fair to claim that people who were anti-LGBT equality were furthering the cause of the oppressor, and I stand by it anyway.

This latest from the Church of England is about more than who can walk down an aisle hand in hand with their beloved. It is about an abusive policy in an organisation that is charged with the care and education of thousands of children. It is about allowing an organisation that chooses an anti-equality agenda to continue to claim charitable. It is about formally endorsing the idea that this particular employer can behave abusively in how its employees are treated and will be treated in the future.

The anti-equality agenda of the House of Bishops and the anti-equality agenda of the President of the United States are all part of the same thing. It doesn’t matter: it’s about marriage, it’s about gender equality, it’s about allowing scientists to report science, it’s about interfaith relations, it’s about who we welcome across our borders and into whose face we allow our governments to slam the door. These things are all part of tearing down the world of freedom and inclusivity and justice that so many of us and so many who went before us worked so hard to build.

In the world we live in now, you can be for equality or you can be against it, and you can help me fight for the forces of freedom and inclusivity and justice in the world, or you can get out of my way. It is time for all of us to choose which side we are on.

Epiphany, The Qu’ran, and The Cathedral

As regular readers are aware, I am a member of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow. I am a server at the altar of the Lord in that church, and I am elected as lay representative of the congregation.

St Mary’s Cathedral is no stranger to conflict, and no stranger to calling out injustice where we see it or causing trouble where we see that it is needed. We proclaim ourselves to be open, inclusive, and welcoming — and proud.

It is fair to say that I did not see the events of the last week coming.

Last Friday, I was at the Epiphany service that has been widely misreported largely by segments of the right wing media. I was there as we celebrated the birth of Jesus and the incarnation of the Word of God, and as we received the body and blood of Christ, and as we proclaimed the Gospel of the Lord. It filled me with great joy to send clouds of sweet smelling incense up to heaven in praise of the babe born in Bethlehem. I was there when one of our Muslim sisters in God sang for us the story of Mary and Jesus as it exists in the Islamic tradition of the Qu’ran. In our cathedral church which we dedicate to her, it means a great deal to us to know that throughout the world people from all kinds of traditions are singing songs to honour Mary.

I have been astonished at the subsequent furore, and at the vitriol and intolerance that has been unleashed on St Mary’s in response to our Epiphany service.

As Christians who consider ourselves called to the practice of neighbourly love and radical hospitality, this is quite simply what we do and we view that as thoroughly unremarkable.

I confess that I am uncertain what the “Christians” whose response to this has been hate mail and threats thought they were being called to. Theirs is not a form of Christianity that I recognise.

When I attended our Eucharist this morning, I took messages of love and goodwill that had been passed to me from all over Glasgow and beyond. From friends who worship in the Baptist tradition, and the Greek Orthodox tradition, and the Roman Catholic tradition. From friends who are Muslim. From friends who have no religious tradition at all but who see the work we do at St Mary’s and think that it is a good thing. From fellow Anglicans and Episcopalians too.

This week has been a difficult one, but here we still are and our business goes on as usual; our business of proclaiming to Glasgow and to all the Earth the Gospel truth that God is love, God is love, God is love.

Welcome to Glasgow – Ten Years On

It had been a good conversation. We had had a good rapport. We talked about what he liked about where he worked, about the book we were both reading and our mutual love of Sebastian Faulks, and about my microbiology research and what I thought I wanted to do when I grew up.

At the end, we shook hands and said how nice it had been to meet each other and then it was time for me to venture back into the dark cold evening in a strange city.

“Have a safe trip home,” he said. “Are you driving back to Geordieland tonight?”

I paused in the act of gathering up my things. “I’m on the train and I had a sodding disaster of a journey to get here, so heaven knows what it’s going to be like getting back,” I said.

A couple of hours earlier, I had been disgorged from the Edinburgh to Glasgow train onto the platform at Queen Street. My journey to Scotland had been delayed by a tree on the line outside of Kings Cross, leading to an hour of pacing back and forth beneath the departure boards at Newcastle Central Station. On a train, finally, I made a flurry of phone calls, making frantic promises that I was still planning to be there that afternoon. Just north of the border, an announcement was made over the PA that due to unforeseen technical difficulties, which I would later discover was a felled power cable in the Central Belt, the train, which had been scheduled to take me direct to Glasgow Central, would terminate in Edinburgh. Edinburgh Waverley is a labyrinthine behemoth of a train station and I’d only been in it a couple of times, and always for a leisurely stroll to the Playhouse. As we pulled in, I was first off and barrelled past the crowds of people swarming around the station on the mid-January afternoon, squeaked apologies and little old ladies flying every which way. I made it onto a train to Glasgow with less than thirty seconds to spare.

I blurted this story out. The filter between my brain and my mouth was plainly lying scattered in pieces somewhere along the tracks of the East Coast main line.

“Oh,” said the man who had been interviewing me for a place at medical school. “Well, good luck.”

That was ten years ago this week.

I am still occasionally asked why I chose a medical school in Scotland. There were 25 medical schools in England during the application cycle in 2006-2007, after all. My usual answer is that I was running out of places to apply to, which people take as either a joke or as a sign that they’ve committed a social faux pas on a par with starting up a dinner conversation about how much they liked the Twilight series.

I applied to medical school for the first time in 2002, when I was in sixth form. In the UK, the maximum number of medical school applications that could be made in one cycle at that time was four. I applied for the second time in 2005, at the beginning of the final year of my BSc. My third application was going to be in the autumn of 2006, when I was in possession of an honours degree, my old room in my parents’ house, and a customer service job in the public transport industry that I hated. It doesn’t take Alan Turing to realise that by the time I whittled down medical schools to places I hadn’t already been rejected by, places who accepted graduates, places whose graduate admission criteria didn’t include A-level requirements that I didn’t meet, and places that didn’t require me to live in either Keele or Hull, the list was getting quite short. “What about Scotland?” asked someone, and the rest is basically history.

That first day, I saw the medical school, the fence surrounding the ancient university buildings, Queen Street station (twice), and a bit of Sauchiehall Street out of a steamed up bus window. And when I say that I saw them, I didn’t arrive until half past three in the afternoon and it was January 11th, so I didn’t really see them. And then I got on a train back to Newcastle.

I already had another interview booked. It was for a four, not five, year degree; a graduate entry programme with all but the first year of tuition fees and a good chunk of living expenses funded by the NHS. I had two good friends already at the university. It was not in a city that consistently feels like the rainiest place on Earth. On paper, it was perfect.

I returned to England and spent the next two days going quietly crazy. On the third day, I called my mum on my lunch break at work. “I know this isn’t logical,” I said. “I know that it’s an extra year and it’s more debt and I don’t think I care. I’ll go to Warwick for my interview, of course, but if Glasgow offer me a place then I’m moving to Glasgow.”

Now, it is the case that if a person wants you at their university even after you conclude the interview by reciting a monologue on the black hole of twenty-first century rail travel, the laws of good karma and good British politeness do dictate that you probably ought not to turn them down. It wasn’t that, though. Anyway, they hadn’t offered me a place yet. In retrospect, it was a bold thing, and not in a sensible way, to start making plans for what I’d do if I was made not one but two offers. It would have been bold for anyone, but for a person who before this had been rejected by nine medical schools across what was by then three application cycles and who had concluded that interview in that way, it bordered on foolish.

It was, however, exactly what ended up happening, and eight months later, just like I’d said, I packed all my worldly possessions into a Transit van and moved here and I’ve never left.

It has been a decade since I first fell off a train into the arms of this place that I knew nothing about.

Bold. Foolish. Rash.

Maybe.

In that decade I’ve not had a single regret.

I can’t explain any better now than I could have then what it was that happened that day — something that tugged hard on my instincts, that paired me to this glorious city and told me that we were for each other. How do you explain what home is? I don’t, but I knew it when I saw it.