Friday, 2 September 2016

Shylvia Shishons, Shpinshter of the Parish of Shaint Shwithens

Following the recent death of my father, I would like to share this short reflection on his early life.  He was an unlikely priest, brought up in a largely unchurched working class family in the 1930's and 40's he overcame considerable odds to follow God's call, and ultimately, he inspired me to listen to God's calling in my own life.

Below is a piece I wrote some time ago.  I guess now is the time to publish it...

David didn’t have a good start to his life.  A few weeks after his birth in 1932, his mother died of complications from the delivery.  His father John was heartbroken.  He had lost most of his friends in the trenches of the First World War and was already a man of few words, but now he retreated further into himself, which left Granny to bring David up.

She was a formidable woman who ruled the household with absolute authority.  She was one of those strong working class Lancastrian women who had a matriarchal power which defied any gender stereotype.  And she was, to all intents and purposes, David’s mum.

They were a proud working class family living in a terrace house in Bolton, Lancashire together with their extended family.  David’s father was a tram driver by day and built wooden model yachts and radios in the evenings.

Things didn’t get any easier for David either.  When he was two, he developed a severe ear infection and was taken into hospital.  In the days before antibiotics, they were soon told that there was nothing that could be done and he was likely to die.  Granny however, was having none of it.  When the doctors had given up on him, she took him home against medical advice, and in a supreme act of will, nursed him back to life.

The trauma of the illness took its toll however. His hearing loss was substantial and lifelong.  He didn’t speak again until he was 4 years old.   When he did start to speak he had a speech impediment and would say ‘Sh’ instead of ‘S’ – something which continued into adult life.

Anyone else would have simply been happy that he could speak again, but Granny didn’t give up there, pushing him into school and through school, believing in him no matter what.

When he was 11, she made sure that he was given a place at the Church Institute (now Canon Slade School) and he began to attend Bolton Parish Church.  This was his first encounter with the Church, and it planted many seeds which would grow later.  He sang in the choir but also loved the snooker halls opposite his school which resulted in him having to re-sit his A-levels before being offered a place at Liverpool University to study Physics.  Coming from a working class family in Lancashire, he was the first in his family to even dream of going to University, and Granny must have been so proud.  Her hard work had paid off.

It was in Liverpool that his faith grew and developed at the Parish Church - Our Lady and St Nicholas.   He discovered the ritual and spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.  When a visiting preacher said, “The question is not ‘Should you be ordained?’ but rather ‘Why shouldn’t you?’” David knew God was calling him to be a priest.

In his final year at University, he went to a selection conference, where his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed, but he was thought to be too much of a ‘narrow minded scientist’ to go straight to theological college.  He was told to go and spend a year ‘broadening his mind’.  Working in a bookshop was suggested to him but here David’s rebellious side kicked in.  Instead of finding a nice comfortable bookshop in which to while away a year, he moved to Sheffield, joined the Industrial Mission and got a manual job on the shop floor in one of the city’s huge steelworks.  There in the noise and heat of heavy industry, he worked at living out his faith and calling at the sharp end of working life.

His mind was broadened in more ways than one.   Despite wondering if he was called to a celibate life, he met Irene there.  They had a lot in common – they were both form working class households – both their lives had been touched by a deeply rooted Anglo-Catholic vision of Christian faith which embraced everyone in a deeply incarnational pattern of life – and both felt called to the religious life.  Irene had been a novice at the Convent of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, and about to take her final vows when she had to return to Sheffield to care for her sick mother.  Her illness lasted for some years and Irene never did realise her dream of returning to the convent for life.

At the end of his time in Sheffield, David went to St Stephen’s House in Oxford (affectionately known as ‘Staggers’) to train for ordination but Irene was never far from his thoughts.  

David & Irene's Wedding
One Wednesday in his second year, he went to Arthur Couratin - his formidable college principal - and said “Irene is going into hospital in Sheffield for an operation and I need to marry her straight away.”  In the heavily cloistered, exclusively male environment of St Stephen’s House, he was more than a little surprised when Arthur said “Well you better go and marry her then!”  As far as we can tell, he was the first ever student to marry during training at Staggers.

David phoned her on Thursday – having already arranged a special licence for the wedding - to tell Irene that they “were going to be married on Saturday – and could she get a wedding cake?”  On Friday morning, Irene walked into Walsh’s - the big department store in Sheffield - to order the cake.  When she was asked for the date of the wedding she said “tomorrow” which caused more than a little shock, but after checking with the bakery, they accepted the order as long as she realised that the icing might still be a little wet.

After the wedding, they were apart once more as David returned to Oxford.  Women were treated with great suspicion at St Stephen’s House in those days – unless you were the principal’s sisters who acted as chaperone on the few occasions when Irene was allowed to visit.  Even though they were now married, Irene was only allowed to see David in the presence of Arthur’s sisters and was not allowed to stay at the college - having to sleep in a convent down the road instead.

David's Ordination as Priest
On 16th June 1957, David was ordained deacon in Sheffield Cathedral, and went with Irene to Arbourthorne where he was to serve his curacy.  It was a large social housing estate on the outskirts of Sheffield.  David’s ordained ministry had begun.

On his first Sunday, David was asked to read the Banns of Marriage in the service.  He picked up the book and to his horror, he found that he had to read the Banns for “Silvia Sissons, spinster of the parish of St Swithens”.   The speech impediment from his childhood had been an issue all his life.  He had received speech therapy at theological college, but this was a test that few would relish.

Amazingly he read the Banns perfectly.  The 4-year-old boy from a working class terrace house who could hardly speak – and yet had become the first in his family to go to University and had followed God’s call to ordination – found that the God who had called him would not let him down.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Re-Colouring British Politics

I seem to have upset some of my friends.

Like many others, I posted these photos from the 1980’s on Facebook as a (hopefully) witty comment on some of the differences between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron.  In hindsight, I might as well have lit the blue touch-paper and stood well back.

The exchange which followed actually took me by surprise.  The emotions which were provoked among close friends, who I respect deeply, were pretty raw.  

For this I apologise.  It was not my intention to annoy my friends.

But the exchange shows very clearly the strong, even visceral emotions which Jeremy Corbyn evokes.  Perhaps it was those same strong emotions applied in the opposite direction which got him elected with such a clear and unequivocal victory?

Let me be clear - as a politician would say - I don’t know whether his leadership of the Labour Party will work out.  I don’t know if he will rise to the dizzy heights of success or crash and burn in a ball of fire.  But what I do know is that he offers a clear alternative to the on-message-spin-doctored-collective-obfuscation which has increasingly characterised politics in the UK for the last 20 years.  That is why labour supporters voted for him in such numbers.

The last election was a wash-out.  Instead of the major parties offering clear alterative policies and politics, it was more like ’50 shades of grey-blue’ but twice as painful to watch. As Labour tried to look credible, they merely became pale imitators of the Conservative agenda.  There was little to choose between them - except why should you vote for the imitation when you can have the real thing?

It was the natural conclusion of 20 years of Labour politics.

Back in 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, I remember teasing a life-long Labour party member and Labour historian who lived in the parish where I was curate in Southeast London.  He was a pillar of the local Labour party and was one of those who nominated the Labour candidate at every election.  He was very definitely ‘old Labour’ but fiercely loyal to the party.

So I said to him, “John, I've got a problem – I can’t find a socialist party to vote for…”  Without pausing for thought, he came straight back at me and said “That’s not a problem – vote Liberal Democrat.  They’re the closest thing to a socialist party today.”  Indeed many have joked that Tony Blair was Maggie Thatcher’s most lasting legacy.

But worse than this, for main-stream politicians of all shades of grey in the last election, the need to be ‘on-message’ trumped every political interview, press release, husting and debate.  There was endless repetition of ‘Let me be clear’ echoing over the airwaves whenever party candidates and leaders wanted to avoid answering a question.  All the parties were concentrating more on not slipping up than on presenting meaningful political debate.

In the wake of the MP’s expenses scandal with trust of politicians at an all-time low, it seemed that almost everyone in politics (with the exception of the SNP) had exchanged political principle for the doctrine of political expediency.

And that is why Jeremy Corbyn captured the imagination of so many Labour supporters.

Love him or loathe him – he is a politician who acts and speaks according to his principles.  He does not simply say or do what others tell him to do or say – or change his message according to his audience – or make his decisions on the basis of the probability of success.  He has voted against his own party 533 times since 1997 and faced possible expulsion from the party more than once – hardly the actions of ambition or political opportunism.

These days, such consistent outspokenness is a rare commodity among politicians.

So in the end, I welcome the election of Jeremy Corbyn – not because I support all his views, policies and aspirations – but because we need someone who will challenge the current pattern of political sleep-walking, slavish uniformity, and the dishonesty of political ambition.

In the photos which I shared on Facebook, we see Jeremy Corbyn standing up for the rights of others, whereas David Cameron is standing in the privilege of his education at Eaton.  It is an unfair comparison, considering their respective ages at the time – but what really matters is what they have done since.  By enlarge, they have both continued to stand for the same things.

Tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor may be what the markets want to see – they may even improve the prospects for wealth generation for our economy in the long term – but they are certainly increasing wealth inequality now, widening the gap between rich and poor.

The secret of good politics is debate.  For there to be debate, there have to be two (or more) clear ideologies putting forward different solutions for the world’s challenges.  It is the difference between the two which keep both honest, and ultimately forge the compromise (or synthesis) which carry us forward.

I welcome Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party in the hope that his principled opposition will re-ignite the furnace of political debate to replace the quagmire into which our political leaders have been sleepwalking.

At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that it was a democratic vote of half a million people which appointed him by a clearer majority than any general election victory in living memory.  Democracy is sometimes problematic – sometimes uncomfortable – but we ignore it at our peril.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Sunrise by the sea

I had a beautiful experience early this morning, praying be the sea.

The sky was cloudy above but clear in the distance towards the sunrise. The effect that was spectacular. Rays of sunlight and an orange glow fell upon the distant mountains creating a magical aura of celestial beauty around the horizon while the cloud above me blotted out the brightness of the sun.

As I said my prayers,  it occurred to me that praying often feels like reaching out to that celestial scene. We see God’s awe inspiring beauty in the distance. We are at once captivated by its beauty and drawn to it. And yet we know that for now, it is beyond our reach. Our lives are lived beneath the cloud, seeing the effects of the sun all around us, and yet not fully basking in its glory.

Then something else caught my eye.

A shoal of small fish swimming near the shore, just below the surface of the water.  As they swam, some of them came up to the surface and broke the plane of the water to feed.  As I watched, some went further,  propelling themselves out of the water completely – for a moment breaking free from their watery world before plunging back into the sea.

Why do they do that,  I wondered? They gain nothing from it. They cannot live above the surface of the water for anything more that a few brief seconds. Their vision would be just as unadjusted to seeing in air as mine to seeing clearly underwater.

Then I realised that the fish and I were both engaged in the same longing.  The desire to reach out beyond our world to that which, for now, is unattainable. The world which is beyond us, of which we see but fleeting glimpses. In the words of Paul we see ‘through a glass darkly’ as we await the time when we will see God in all his glory.

In our prayers we reach out to that fullness of God which is beyond us, enthralled by the beauty we see from afar. And we long for the day when we shall see God face to face.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Reflections on 7/7

As the 10th anniversary of the London bombings on 7/7 is marked with wreaths, services of remembrance and moments of silence, my thoughts are taken back to that day in a very personal way.

Like millions of other Londoners, I caught the tube into the centre of London that morning.  I count myself fortunate that I was already off the tube and at my destination when the first bomb exploded, tearing through metal, flesh and bone with indiscriminate indifference.

I was visiting my wife, Mel at Bart’s Hospital (near St Paul’s).  She was half way through yet another 3 months in hospital after her near fatal accident in 2003.  It was not going well.  In May she began a final series of reconstructive surgery on her leg and abdomen, attempting to cover areas of flesh which had been torn away by the tarmac and the lorry’s wheels.  After the first operation she was held together with over 120 shiny metal staples which made her leg and stomach look like a giant zip, but the wounds intended to improve her appearance wouldn’t heal, and bit by bit, the necrotic tissue which resulted had to be removed, painfully and hopelessly.

I was in the ward with her when news of the bombs started to come in.  We had already heard an unusual number of sirens outside, and now the hospital was gearing up for a major incident.  Beds were being emptied of all but the most seriously ill.  Patients were being sent home or moved to less acute wards.  Those being admitted for planned surgery were being turned away, and the hospital staff were whispering the latest reports to each other.

Our first reaction was fear.  They wouldn’t try to send Mel home, would they?  With the number of tubes and machines she was linked to, it would have been a nightmare.  We need not have worried.  Mel’s situation was too serious for that to be an option, and so we settled into waiting in the largely empty ward – waiting for whatever would follow.

By now the streets outside were eerily quiet.  Traffic was almost non-existent cut off by the many road closures.  The only sound of traffic was the wail of sirens from ambulances, police and fire trucks, often travelling at high speed along the empty roads.

A television was brought into the nursing station, and hospital staff gathered there in every spare moment to try to glean more information in the confusion which followed the blasts.  Mixed in with the unfolding horror of what had happened, there were fears of more bombs, more attacks.

In the end only a handful of victims were brought to Mel’s ward, and only one stayed beyond a few days.  But the effect on that victim’s life was clear and dramatic.  In the bed next to Mel’s was a young woman with severe lacerations to her face, arms and legs.  She too had parts of her body held together with stiches and staples.  She too had to endure painful changes of dressings and wonder at the long term effects on her life.  But her wounds had not been caused by accidental negligence – they had been coldly and deliberately inflicted in a planned and co-ordinated attack designed to kill and maim as many people as possible.  Mel and I heard her crying with her fiancĂ© and family, day after day as they came to terms with what had happened.

At the end of the day, I remember having to walk home to Brixton – along with many other people for whom it was the only means of getting out of the centre of London.

I also remember all the security alerts on the tube in the days that followed.  In the heightened levels of alert, every suspicious bag or situation was met with trains being stopped, and announcements over the tannoy asking passengers to exit the station immediately.  I remember the calm and stoic way in which commuters responded each time, without panic as we made our way to the surface and tried to work out how to complete our journeys.

Finally, I remember the shooting and killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station – one of our two local stations – by police who mistook him for a bomber because of bungled intelligence and the puffer jacket he was wearing.  Yet another victim of the bombings.

Today, 10 years on, what has changed?

For the UK, the focus has shifted from Al Qaeda to ISIS, but the threat remains the same.  Around the world, acts of terror continue on an almost daily basis.  Suicide bombers have become common place and lone gunmen still wreak havoc in people’s lives, claiming allegiance to some misguided creedal cause.

Over the last 10 years, the terror of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza have been met with the terror of missiles and artillery rounds fired from Israeli jets and tanks.  Iraq and Syria have descended in to the anarchy which has allowed ISIS to grow and impose its brutal power on millions.  The lives of people in hotels and shopping centres in Mumbai and Kenya have been devastated and hundreds of children and young women have been abducted in Nigeria. In the USA, marathon runners were blown up in Boston.  In Europe, cartoonists, journalists and Jews have been targeted with bullets designed to exact retribution on  anyone who believes that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In recent days, tourists were gunned down on a beach in Tunisia, mosques were bombed in Kuwait and Nigeria, and a young white man killed worshippers at a Bible study in the ‘black church’ which had welcomed him in Charleston, USA.

So what is the answer?

Certainly not the law of revenge which seems to dominate the conflict between the Israeli Government and Palestinians.  Certainly not the spiral of violence that we see in some parts of the world as different communities become more and more sectarian, demonising those who have hurt them to the point where retaliations are just as inhuman as the acts which led to them.  Not even the ever higher levels of security and surveillance which affect all our lives and yet cannot detect every threat.

In the long run perhaps the only way forward is one which at first appears weak – yet demands huge inner strength.

It is the path which family members of many Charleston victims have courageously sought to embrace when they faced the murderer of their loved ones in court.

People like the daughter of victim Ethel Lance:
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again.  You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you. I forgive you.”

Others acknowledged how hard it is to forgive and yet spoke of beginning that journey, “For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I'm very angry. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won't be around when your judgement day comes.”

In such forgiveness, there is a powerful challenge – the challenge to change.

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told the killer, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. … We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now.”

Nor is this simply a Christian response.  Malala Yousafzai hit headlines around the world after miraculously surviving being shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan when she was just 15.  Two years later she became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

When she addressed the UN on her 16th birthday, she said these words,

“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.  Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him.  This is the compassion I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and the Lord Buddha.  This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali Jina.  This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa… That is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”

In the end, hate can never conquer hate – costly, committed, forgiving love can.