Robbie Low

Rude Health

MANY YEARS AGO, on one of our regular summer pilgrimages home to Cornwall, we arranged to meet my parents on the beach. Needless to say, being a family outing, it could not be at the beach the children like – the one with castling sand, a little shop, rock pools and some fifty yards of in-depth sloping shoreline – but rather at the far end of a hot gravel strand with precipitous shelving and the nearest ice cream half a mile away.

We parked, loaded ourselves with the amount of equipment required for the Marines to retake Port Stanley and began the long trudge, fully clothed, across the unforgiving Sahara.

Something in the back of my mind was niggling; and then it came to me. Years ago that end of the beach had been a “naturist” reserve – at least by day. Its nocturnal reputation was anything but natural. I dismissed the thought from my mind. My parents were never prudes but I could not imagine them, then in their late 60s, suddenly embracing nudism. My father would have regarded such an activity as the preserve of Guardian reading socialists and moral deviants; and only by claiming a sort of Hebrew parallelism would he have exonerated himself from the charge of tautology in that assessment.

Besides, I argued, under the baking sun, they had specifically said they were going there with a much younger neighbour and his new girl friend. Clearly this was now a different beach.

After two hundred yards, we ran out of normal sunbathers – no parents. A further quarter of a mile led us to the outskirts of a whole new world – two or three hundred people utterly stitchless: a moving testimony to the amazing diversity of God’s creation and his wonderful sense of humour. Finding two naked OAPs in a sea of birthday suits, most of which needed taking in or ironing, could have been a problem. (Where do you look on a nudist beach?)

Mercifully not…for there, plumb centre, under a large beach umbrella, enthroned in a comfortable portable chair was my mother clad in her dark blue two-piece suit, matching shoes and handbag! (My father was less formally dressed, but dressed nonetheless). Next to my mother, on a beach towel, was a startlingly attractive young woman who seemed, to my instant theological reflection, to exhibit far more of God’s intention in the creation of woman than most of what was sagging and wobbling in the vicinity. This, it turned out, was the neighbour’s new girl friend. My mother dispensed with introductions and merely said. “What do you think of Jane’s hat?” Call me old-fashioned, but I must confess that I had not noticed the hat which, as it was the only thing she was wearing other than a healthy tan, was undoubtedly remiss of me. My mother, bless her, had spotted my limited observation and provided me with a polite entree to that level of social intercourse which can be sustained for hours merely by avoiding the obvious.

Of course, a natural response would have been to be torn between helpless laughter at the absurdity of the situation, and an appreciative if chauvinistic response to the lady’s more than apparent virtues.

After years of rigorous Anglican training at picking up the subliminal message of the text and avoiding, at all costs, anything so coarse and intrusive as the present reality, I was more than equal to the challenge. We talked about Jane’s hat.

This particular family cameo has often returned to my mind in the years since. Not because I have a fetish for subtropical millinery; nor less (let the Editor note and be merciful) because I regarded the lovely Jane as a sort of amazonian Lyonesse. Actually our neighbour married someone else, just as lovely but whom, mercifully, I have only ever seen fully clothed. It was because the episode encapsulates so much of what is required of being an Anglican.

It is not simply that we are often to be found at the other end of the beach (allegorically speaking) doing things which others might regard as bizarre, incomprehensible or unappealing. Indeed one might argue many positive parallels between proper Anglicanism and nudism. Both are natural, enjoyable and liberating. They place man in the true state before his Maker. Anglicanism, it must also be said, enjoys the additional attraction of being better suited to the English (and Cornish) climate.

The real difficulty is that, in both clubs, there is a prevailing convention (unwritten and seldom spoken) that the one thing you may not comment upon is the overwhelming reality that confronts you.

On a nudist beach, this is perhaps comprehensible. Had I commented on how lovely Jane looked, such a remark, while true, would have provoked a frisson for her and our neighbour which would have been wholly absent had she been fully clothed. I would also, for consistency, have had to tour the beach advising some of the shabbier exhibits to cover up and, no doubt, received less than charitable comments on my own shortcomings.

But is such a convention – in which reality is suspended for an afternoon – suitable for a lifetime in the church of God? Is it good or truthful or honourable or sensible to participate, with the crowd, in the wonderful fairy story: outdoing one another in praise of the extraordinary finery of the Emperor’s new clothes? Or are we to eschew the suffocating Anglican culture of deference, and join the little boy who risks everything by pointing out the one obvious objective fact – the man has been fooled, and is bare-arsed naked.

Such a calling is almost as unpopular with the newly undeceived as it is with the emperor; and the story cannot explore what would have happened to the boy in the crowd and the emperor had preferred to remain in a conspiracy of deceit.

To return to the hat.

It is perfectly possible to observe that a clergyman is wearing a hat (in his case a mitre) and leave it at that. Indeed, ideally, that ought to be enough. But we live in strange times. Supposing that, under that hat, there reposed a man in doctrinal nakedness or, worse, in pagan vestments. What is the Christian’s duty?

What, for example, does one make of recent events north of the border?

To a diocese, minute and shrinking, governed by a bishop who should never have been appointed, to a cathedral governed and almost broken by a woman who should never have been appointed, under the primatial aegis of a man who has shed most significant doctrinal and moral Christian understanding comes – of all things – the Anglican Consultative Council.

The Archbishop of Canterbury publicly laments the notable absence of the Archbishop of Singapore, Moses Tay – who is, in fact, being entirely scriptural in avoiding the fellowship of those he has privately and publicly advised of their heretical teaching.

He then goes on to advertise that there are limits to Anglican diversity and follows this with a warm personal greeting to the very primate whose diversity is boundless and who will not be reined in by Jesus or George.

The virtues of an East End childhood with its wonderful directness have been overtaken by that careful Anglicanism that does not speak what it knows. A voice that, a few years back, damned two millennia of orthodoxy as heresy now cannot bring itself to name the real thing.

And, as Anglicans, we understand that – the constraints of the job, the culture of public courtesy, etc., etc., etc…

But the dilemma is deeper than Dundee, and more prevailing than the problems facing our own primate – for whom, ironically, an increasing number of orthodox have a personal sympathy. The fault line is a destructive part of the culture of our church. I have observed, over twenty years’ ministry, that it is possible to lie, cheat, fornicate, turn a blind eye to wickedness; to deny large sections of the creed; to ridicule or ignore Christian moral teaching; and still to be eligible for some of the highest positions in the Anglican church. The one unforgivable sin is to point out that something is wrong with, what Bishop Graham Leonard called, “THE CLUB”.

All but the most unobservant orthodox will have noted that the present and future political situation has liberated even the most ambitious clergyman from this thrall and we have the glorious freedom to tell the truth. It is not only a freedom but a duty.

One of the pleasures of writing for New Directions is that the constraints are the law of the land and Christian orthodoxy, not the culture of the church and institutional acceptability. In the very week we parted company with The Church of England Newspaper for publishing news and comment that, we were assured, their readers did not wish to hear, I was at a reception with several national journalists. One (the editor of a major church publication) told me how much he envied our freedom to print true stories that his directors and advertisers would not tolerate. Another, a senior national daily scribbler, described New Directions as an outbreak of reality in a self-deluded institution. Both men are Christians, neither of them of our constituency.

What has been fascinating is the response of those in authority. Most of us on the editorial board have been berated or “advised” on many occasions about the “rudeness”? and the “tone” (that essential Anglican virtue) of the magazine. We have explained that, in the days when the orthodox still sat at the family table, a measured tone was a reasonable demand. Now that, in most dioceses, they are locked outside the house and having to bang on the window, being heard is a challenge to the healthiest lungs.

More interestingly is the subject matter of the complaints. We can say what we like about Jesus. Being orthodox, most of this is, I suppose, unexceptionable. But print a story about a bishop or church finance and the phone line is blocked by a bevy of bristling prelates before breakfast. No kidding! My response is always the same. “Bishop, is the story untrue? If it is, we will publish a retraction or an article by you defending the situation.”

I would be a rich man if I had a pound for every time I’ve received the reply, “?That’s not the point, it’s the tone!” The rest is silence: no denial, no article. Indeed too much of the church is silent. For every story of abuse, mismanagement, doctrinal deviation or episcopal bullying we publish, there are twenty more where the victims or witnesses are too frightened to allow us to publish in case they are identified. This is a very curious culture for the Church of Jesus Christ.

But the timid have a point. Some years before we started publishing New Directions, a brave ordinand complained to his college Principal that, with the amount of extra curricular activity of all kinds going on, it was more like a brothel than a seminary. The Principal replied that if he was so squeamish about morality, he would be much happier as a Roman Catholic. When the ordinand was deaconed, he told this story to an orthodox priest. The latter took this up with the governing bishop. The response was swift and telling. The old priest was not asked for evidence, just told to drop the story. The deacon was summoned by his bishop and informed that, if it was pursued, he would not be ordained. The older priest, to his lasting regret, dropped the case. The young man was priested and then exported from the diocese. The Principal became suffragan bishop to his lord and governor. All very neat and tidy.

The case remains a classic, and I wish we had been in print then. But it is far from unique.

What remains a scandal is that, in too many quarters, the attitude is unchanged. The response to wrongdoing is not, ‘How can we put it right?” but rather, “How can we cover it up?”, and “How very unpleasant of you to mention it!”

I shall never forget being in a small meeting with a diocesan bishop once who, presented with a continuing scandal about one of his staff, actually said. “I’m afraid we’ll just have to sweep that one under the carpet.”

The response from one of the brethren was instant, fierce and accurate. “Bishop there is no more room under the carpet in this diocese. The carpet is on the ceiling and no-one can get in the room till we start cleaning up.”

Rude? or Healthy? You decide. In any event, the priest in question has never been offered another job in the subsequent ten years. The scandal was promoted.

For many of us, the choice between the Gospel and the institution is becoming too wide to span. The option of loyalty to God or loyalty to a disobedient hierarchy isn’t a difficult decision. It is no good to keep looking at the hat, and not noticing the nakedness underneath. It is not that orthodox cannot live with sinners – we are sinners too; but we cannot remain silent at the institutionalisation of dishonesty in the Bride of Christ. That is beyond offence. And is something that spreads like a stain. The culture of deference to the establishment all too easily supersedes loyalty to Christ. There develops an ecclesiastical Stalinism which only the clearly deranged would oppose. I have heard people talk like this. “It’s a pity about poor old so-and-so.” Is he mad, dead, what? No, simply opposed to the prevailing power structures and therefore out of the book of life.

Every orthodox clergyman reading this will know the experience and every parish is the poorer for the “JOBSWORTH” culture that has consequently rotted the Church of England.

In an organisation whose internal workings are almost entirely free of democratic control (and whose financial government has long, and disastrously, fought shy of any objective scrutiny and investigation) any serious journalistic enquiry is regarded as lese-majesty. What is expected and desired by those who have slid to the top of the greasy pole is the culture of the parish magazine – which has a fulsome report on the super jumble sale and whizzo parish outing, but utterly fails to notice that the organist has run off with the churchwarden, or that the vicar no longer believes in the Resurrection.

We live in a culture of secrecy masquerading as confidentiality. I believe in absolute confidentiality: but I know that it is terribly weakened when abused as a corporate gagging mechanism. What are we to make of an organisation that could not bear an open enquiry into its greatest financial scandal? What are we to make of a body that makes its most senior appointments on the basis of gossip, hearsay, political prejudice, personal malice and secret files which can never be checked or gainsaid?

What is our response when, at local level, the priest we were promised turns out to be a recycled dud the bishop needs to dump or, a “prestigious” living turns out to be just the job for a chum of someone on senior staff.

What do we say when invited to consult on a deanery plan only to find eighteen months and many wearisome evenings later that those who sit on the diocesan (confidential) committees have been working to a central office plan – the result already in a drawer at diocesan office, right down to whose quota is paying for it.

Is it rude to ask these questions – or is it healthy?

For those who love the Bride of Christ, silence ceased to be an option some time ago. But, you will ask, do we have to be quite so abrasive? My answer to that is ‘Yes’, on two counts.

Firstly, the humanly practical reason is that the establishment simply doesn’t respond to anything else. It is inconceivable that anyone would have taken notice of orthodox campaigners or, indeed, of this magazine, if we had (as frequently “advised”) become a quietist publication of academic theological reflection.

But second, and much more important, is scriptural example. Orthodox, for years while lobby groups connived and the liberals filled the seat of power, tried to follow the Pauline injunctions.

“As much as is possible, and to the utmost of your ability, be at peace with everyone.”?

“Endeavour to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.”

We went to our altars praying that “all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy Holy Word and live together in unity and godly love” certain only of two things: that more and more of those in authority did not agree in the truth of God’s word; and, consequently, that they had a raging determination to shatter the fragile unity of God’s church.

This dual corruption of the purposes of Christ can scarcely go unremarked by loyal members of His church. The long ignored private rebuke has burst into the public arena right the way across the communion and this is scriptural.

The prophets were not noticeably reserved in their criticism of establishment corruption and faithlessness. If my memory serves, Moses did not come down the mountain and accept Aaron’s new “Golden Calf” liturgy providing there was always an 8 o ’clock Prayer Book for the more old fashioned.

Nor do I recall John the Baptist using honeyed words and Anglican cadences to the professional religious who were grimly hanging on to state-sponsored power. “You brood of vipers! What made you flee from the wrath to come?” Those I believe were his exact words. Not likely to appear in a current copy of The Church Times – though curiously they would not have been out of place in a 19th century copy, when the church was alive and confident.

And, finally of course, Jesus.

Almost always gentle, generous, penetrating and compassionate with the ordinary sinner but absolutely ruthless with the religious professionals, whose placeman’s politicking and financial chicanery and love of power made any convert “twice as fit for hell” as they themselves were. Who had turned the central place of worship into “a den of thieves”.

As you will no doubt reflect, in the light of subsequent events, Jesus would have been better advised to go home and put a motion before Galilee Deanery Synod suggesting there might, eventually, be a High Priest’s Report on making the Outer Court more user friendly.

If you are old fashioned enough to remember what he actually did – for goodness’ sake, keep it under your hat.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s,