The happiest days of my life

I have a strange relationship with films and those who know me well would agree with that.  I often make the ridiculous statement ‘I can only watch a film I’ve seen before.’ People, rightly, look at me with incredulity.  But I know what I mean.  I like what I like and I know what I don’t like – violence, horror, blood, suspense, things like that.  I do, however, trust my sister’s choice of films.  While I was staying with her and her family after Christmas they made me watch ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’.  I loved it.  If you haven’t seen it I recommend it.  And I have watched ‘The Two Popes’ – I thought that was great – honest, moving, heart-warming (never I thought I’d say that about watching anything to do with the contemporary church!).  But one of my favourite films is the 1950’s classic, ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’.  It’s a film similar to the St Trinian series, set in an out of control Public School, and stars Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford and is completely devoid of violence, horror, blood or suspense.  Perfect!


Fab film

The Church of England is facing a crisis, another crisis.  This one is all to do with training for priesthood.  Flicking through this week’s Church Times there are a number of articles about the problems being faced by Westcott House in Cambridge.  They have specific problems and I am keeping them in my prayers but there is the wider issue the church has to face about the fate of residential training.

It is 40 years this year since I arrived at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield.  I looked at two other colleges before accepting a place there.  I went on a visit to Ripon College, Cuddesdon, which I thought seemed lovely but there was something not quite right for me, and I looked at Westcott.  I had a miserable few days there but I think that was because the previous weekend I had been to the College of the Resurrection and had had a ball.  I had thought that the Cambridge Federation would expose my little Anglo-Catholic self to something of the wider church but when I experienced that I knew that, at that stage, I needed something more solidly catholic.  So that is how I ended up in the Calder Valley for three years.

I hadn’t read any theology and barely done RE at school.  But I had been to church all my life with no gaps for teenage rebellion – those years passed me by.  But I had achieved a good enough first degree to enable me to read Theology at Leeds University under the professorship of David Jenkins.  So for my first two years I was a ‘Leeds Man’ as we were called.  Each day a few of us on the degree course piled into one of the College cars and drove off to Leeds, leaving our cassocks and scapulars behind and being proper students.

But after lectures we would head back to reengage with the ‘Common Life’.  We talked about that concept a great deal, and sins against it.  These were the days before ‘devices’ and you were not allowed to have a tele in your room as that was anti the Common Life, so the only way of watching the box was by going to the TV Room and entering into negotiation with those already there.  It was an experience similar to what you used to have in boarding houses by the seaside or on wards in hospital where you had to agree with a bunch of strangers whether it was to be BBC or ITV.  Of course, during my years at Mirfield ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was being shown and the TV Room was packed out with those who wished to be the reincarnation of Sebastian Flyte!


The journey between College and church

Living the common life was part of what we were there to do, learning how to be alongside other people, with all their quirks and demands.  We had to serve at table and clear the pots; we had to clean the toilets and do the gardening; we had to rehearse serving and the chant, clean the chapel and meet all the requirements of an academic institution.  Above all we had to be in church.  There was no choice about this.  You went to Morning Prayer and Evensong each day.  You had to be at Mass on Sundays and Feast Days and the College Mass once a week, but most of us were at Mass every day.  And you had to be in church meditating and you had to have a Spiritual Director and there was an expectation that you would make your Confession.  There was very little resistance to any of this.  We simply followed the rules.  We knew that we had to be in our cassocks and scapulars most of the day, for church, for meals, for lectures, that we would wear black shoes or sandals.  We got used to being strange and living a dedicated life.  To put it simply, we were being formed for priesthood.

I cannot begin to tell you how much that has made me the priest and the person that I am. I found the place and its tight structure strangely liberating. I began to understand who I was and I was able to build a resilient prayer life and a pattern of committed worship that continues to see me through each day.  It was a hard thing to express to my family but these were the happiest days of my life.

The strange thing is above everything else a priest needs to learn resilience.  Of course you need to know how to properly lay out and fold a corporal on an altar – essential.  And some theology and biblical knowledge helps.  But if you are to survive then you need a disciplined life of prayer and worship and you have to know how to relate to a bunch of people, lay and ordained, who you think will share your views and beliefs and priorities and often don’t.  Parish life is not easy, nor is cathedral life to be honest, but then college life wasn’t always the bed of roses that I have so far suggested.  But there is a real sense that wherever God places you, wherever God calls you, to whomsoever God sends you you have to get on with it.  If that sounds less than life-giving then I have expressed myself badly.  The structure I was given day-in, day-out, in residential training equipped me to survive and to flourish.

That is my concern.  I am sure that courses in all their forms are great and that they provide excellent training but there is nothing that they can supply that can replace the experience of being residential, being formed in a particular environment, for a peculiar and particular priestly ministry.  But the church has to decide what she wants from her next generation of clergy because the truth is, you only get out what you put in.

Thinking of all this makes me pray once more the prayer of the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold.

For all that has been, thanks.
For all that will be, yes.

In memoriam

When I arrived at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield to begin my training for the priesthood there were various bits of induction that we had to undergo. As far as I remember, we seemed to spend a lot of time learning how to serve at the various services – that was very important because every one was very particular that things were done correctly. We also learnt to sing plainsong. That meant a rehearsal on regular occasions at first and then once a week going though all the chants and antiphons for the forthcoming days. We learnt about what living the ‘Common Life’ meant, how we were to live considerately with one another. We were given our various roles and responsibilities in the College. You aspired to be one of the College Officers but began as one of the many gardeners or with various cleaning responsibilities – I had a number of loos to look after at first. It was a lot to take in before you began studying the things that you needed to study!

But one of the other things that happened is that you were assigned to one of the priests, usually one of the brethren of the Community of the Resurrection, who would then be your Spiritual Director and Confessor. It was expected that you would make your confession and that you would meet regularly with your Director. It wasn’t just that both of these roles were something that was important in developing in the spiritual life and building resilience for priestly ministry, it was also because there was a lot that was happening to you as you began to go deeper into God.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One was because we were reading the other day Psalm 42 in which verse 9 says

‘Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls.’

And the other reason was that the priest to whom I was assigned died a few days ago.

I was told to meet Fr Simon Holden who would look after me. I continued to meet with him until he moved from the Mother House and I, still being in the area, needed to change to someone who was still at Mirfield. But going along to see Simon over the years was a real joy and an inspiration and, looking back, helped form so much of what has subsequently been important to me.

A rather traditional view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

One of the things that Simon said over and over again was that God loved me. He must have seen in me something that really needed to hear that simple truth, that God loved me for who I was and who I am. It was his gospel for me, his good news for me. And it was good news. And being ordained and then going into parishes and the Cathedral and other areas of ministry it is something that I have discovered lots of people need to know, lots of people who have gone to church for a long time as well as those who have recently arrived in the community of faith. It was a going deeper into the reality of God who is love. But then, as now, so much of how we hear faith interpreted was condemning. This was affirming, and in its own way challenging. As I was understanding myself and who I was as a child of God, Simon was telling me what God told Peter on the roof of the house of Simon the Tanner in Jaffa

‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 9.15)

It is too easy for us to hate what God has created as good, to call profane what God has made clean. But Simon would not allow that and his repeating time after time of this simple truth that ‘God loves you’ changed my view of God and changed my view of myself. It was a lesson I would never forget and as I look back at the sermons I have preached from being a curate onwards, Simon’s message to me is there beneath it all.

So I thank God for Simon for that profound and life changing truth and I thank God for something else as well. As the church thinks about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Seal of the Confessional and safeguarding, something I have spent a great deal of time thinking about in the last few years as a member of the Church of England’s working party on the subject, I give thanks that it was Simon who taught me how to hear confessions as I was making my confession.

I still use a handwritten card as a prompt for the words that I have to say. I wrote it all out as I was preparing the leave the College. I remember asking Simon if he could dictate the words to me as I wrote them down. At that stage there were no ‘official’ texts available in the CofE so we learnt from our spiritual teachers. There was a particular prayer that Simon always said after the absolution, the traditional words ‘I absolve you’, ‘ego te absolvo’. He would pray

The passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of Our Lady and all the saints, whatever good you have done or evil you have suffered be to you for the remission of sin, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life.

Those who have made their confession to me and received absolution will have heard those same words, they were handed to me as gift and I happily hand them on. They thrilled my heart then, they thrill it now.

Our teachers always give us gifts, but not just to keep to ourself. Thank you Fr Simon for these gifts, to know the love of God and to know that all is grace, even the good I have done and the evil I have suffered, all is caught up in the loving purposes of God as I now pray that you are caught in the everlasting arms of the one you taught me is love.

Simon, may you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

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