Tag Archives: Scottish Episcopal Church

Dust yourself down – Spring’s not far off….

 In my current January mood, as I sit here in my life, grumpy, with a metaphorical blanket pulled over my head, my spirit decidedly in need of dusting, these words from well-known writer, broadcaster and former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway speak powerfully to me: I offer them to my fellow January-ites out there, with the thought that the snowdrops are already proliferating cheerfully in our local Botanic Gardens….

St Magnus Cathedral Window, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral Window, Orkney

photo: Anne Whitaker

“This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioural responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…this strange duality of dust and glory.”

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(NOTE: Having googled this quotation, I discovered that it has got around, and some of the wording varies slightly depending on who is quoting! So I hope Richard Holloway will forgive me any minor errors which may appear in this version, whilst I track down the exact quote, in the precise book in which it appears….)

Richard F. Holloway (born 26 November 1933) is a Scottish writer and broadcaster and was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church. To read more about him and his writing, click HERE

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300 words copyright Anne Whitaker/Richard Holloway 2014
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Desperately Seeking Annie

Where does the longing come from?

Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, listening to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. Night after night after night. Other nights, clear cold, wintry, still. Standing on the concrete of the garden path, gazing at the clear night sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Ellison Road hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers.

(I have never seen them since childhood. It is my keen wish to see them again before I die.)

I used to ask myself : what vast Power generates the destructive energies of the wind, the visual delight of the Northern Lights? What are they for? Who performed the long, hard labour of setting upright on a Hebridean moor that great Neolithic astronomical calendar, the Callanish Stones? Why did they do it? What rites were performed there? What gods were honoured ?

Where does the longing come from?

For as long as I can recall, I have longed to know  why we are here, why the world with its staggering diversity of  teeming, turbulent life is here. I have tried to find out what our presence here may mean, whether it is random or not.

During my lifetime, the vast scale of  the Universe has been visually confirmed by the explorations of science far beyond the boundaries imagined by Darwin or Einstein. I have the Hubble images on my wall, and gaze at them every day. Their beauty, and the vastness they invoke, goes beyond the power of words to express.

We now know that our Universe is one of  many, that there may be a vast Multiverse: matrix from which arise countless Universes. We are so minute, here on planet Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, home to millions of other stars. Why am I standing here, wondering why we are here and what it all means?

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

(http://blogs.sacbee.com/photos/2009/09/hubble-telescopes-latest-image.html)

It’s a long way from the Metaverse to the eccentric Rev. Dr. de Sousa in his green plus fours and his rusty bicycle, teetering precariously from his gloomy rectory to his sombre church during the late nineteen fifties.The small island town in which I grew up, a place of some five thousand souls, was remarkably well served for churches in those days. There was no shortage of  Christian establishments in which I could place myself in an attempt to find some answers to my big WHY.

The Episcopal church was regarded with suspicion because of its uncomfortable perceived closeness to Rome.

There was the United Free Church, where Popery would have shrivelled to a cinder had it ever crossed the threshold. Serious Christianity was practised here. No flowers, no music (apart from precenting), definitely no graven images. An old testament God hung out here. Fun and laughter were not encouraged.

Then there were the Seceeders, whose precise denominational and doctrinal position remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. I knew they had split off from some other lot, and therefore regarded themselves as “a cut above” – but above what, I never quite established.

Then there was the plain old Church of Scotland. The minister, a mild, thin, bookish looking soul who had been at school with my father, bore the distinctly uninspiring nickname of “Optic” which had stuck with him since his very short-sighted schooldays. His spectacles, I was convinced, really were made out of the bottoms of milk bottles.

I used to attend his sermons with hair rollers under my Sunday hat as a mute and invisible but satisfying form of protest. He had had a charisma bypass, and took boredom to punishing levels. However, I always liked the Benediction at the end …...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” it always seemed to come from somewhere other  than him, although he was saying the words. This sense never failed to confuse me…..

We went there on our intermittent forays to Church, depending on whether inertia or guilt dominated my mother’s frame of mind on a Sunday evening. Trips to Church were usually minus my father, apart from hatches, matches and despatches.

A spiritualist medium, describing my father’s wayward character to me with remarkable and eerie accuracy not long after his death, said he was a man “who knew his God.” Wherever Dad’s God hung out, it was not in any of the establishments on offer in our mid-20th century small Scottish town.

Personally, long before my encounter with the medium, I always thought my father’s God was out there in the distant hills where he went to poach deer, or in the eye of a storm at sea.  Not that we ever talked about such matters. The only time we ever discussed my spiritual life was when, aged twelve, I realised that I could not face replacing the utter tedium of seven years of Sunday School with the probable continuing tedium of Bible Class, which is where you went on entering secondary education.

An epiphany prompted my nervous and tentative approach to my father. We had recently aquired a Readers’ Digest World Atlas, a huge book which I could barely lift. I was riveted by a double page spread of the whole world, with countries coloured in according to religion. I realised that day how many world religions there were.

Although Christianity appeared to hold its own across the world, it was visually clear  that the great majority of the world’s population – which was a mere two and a half billion in total when I was doing my big religious sums – believed in something else altogether.

I then looked for the tiny isles of the Outer Hebrides, coloured Christian pink. Next, the top island where I lived, barely discernible in the context of the whole world. A wave of inescapable logic washed me away that day. It simply did not make sense that a few thousand members of eg the Free Church of Scotland considered themselves to be right and saved, leaving almost the total remaining population of the world wrong and damned regardless of the integrity and sincerity of their differing beliefs.

My mind buzzing with this powerful realisation, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to Bible Class. I now wanted to do some of my own reading and work out religion for myself.  “Fine” he said. “Don’t go, then.”

At the age of twelve, that was it for me and Christianity, for a very long time, although I continued under pressure to attend church intermittently and always enjoyed singing the hymns at hatches, matches and despatches.

The longing, however, continued, like a barely audible ghost of a sound, echoing my heartbeat….

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1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Cheer up, it’ll soon(-ish) be Spring!

In the last year I have intermittently been reading my way through the work of  that well-known writer, broadcaster and former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway. Whilst leafing through a slim collection of  poems sent to us supporters of the charity ZANE at the end of last year, I came across the following quotation from his work.

In my current January mood, as I sit here in my life, grumpy, with a metaphorical blanket pulled over my head, these words speak powerfully to me: I offer them to my fellow January-ites out there, with the thought that it really, truly, will soon be Spring….

St Magnus Cathedral Window, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral Window, Orkney

photo: Anne Whitaker

“This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioural responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…this strange duality of dust and glory.”

***************

(NOTE: Having googled this quotation, I discovered that it has got around, and some of the wording varies slightly depending on who is quoting! So I hope Richard Holloway will forgive me any minor errors which may appear in this version, whilst I track down the exact quote, in the precise book in which it appears….)

Richard F. Holloway (born 26 November 1933) is a Scottish writer and broadcaster and was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church. To read more about him and his writing, click HERE

*******************************

300 words copyright Anne Whitaker/Richard Holloway 2011
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Desperately Seeking Annie: Swimming in a secret sea (iii)

Where does the longing come from?

Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, listening to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. Night after night after night. Other nights, clear cold, wintry, still. Standing on the concrete of the garden path, gazing at the clear night sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Ellison Road hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers.

(I have never seen them since childhood. It is my keen wish to see them again before I die.)

I used to ask myself : what vast Power generates the destructive energies of the wind, the visual delight of the Northern Lights? What are they for? Who performed the long, hard labour of setting upright on a Hebridean moor that great Neolithic astronomical calendar, the Callanish Stones? Why did they do it? What rites were performed there? What gods were honoured ?

Where does the longing come from?

For as long as I can recall, I have longed to know  why we are here, why the world with its staggering diversity of  teeming, turbulent life is here. I have tried to find out what our presence here may mean, whether it is random or not.

During my lifetime, the vast scale of  the Universe has been visually confirmed by the explorations of science far beyond the boundaries imagined by Darwin or Einstein. I have the Hubble images on my wall, and gaze at them every day. Their beauty, and the vastness they invoke, goes beyond the power of words to express.

We now know that our Universe is one of  many, that there may be a vast Multiverse: matrix from which arise countless Universes. We are so minute, here on planet Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, home to millions of other stars. Why am I standing here, wondering why we are here and what it all means?

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

(http://blogs.sacbee.com/photos/2009/09/hubble-telescopes-latest-image.html)

It’s a long way from the Metaverse to the eccentric Rev. Dr. de Sousa in his green plus fours and his rusty bicycle, teetering precariously from his gloomy rectory to his sombre church during the late nineteen fifties.The small island town in which I grew up, a place of some five thousand souls, was remarkably well served for churches in those days. There was no shortage of  Christian establishments in which I could place myself in an attempt to find some answers to my big WHY.

The Episcopal church was regarded with suspicion because of its uncomfortable perceived closeness to Rome.

There was the United Free Church, where Popery would have shrivelled to a cinder had it ever crossed the threshold. Serious Christianity was practised here. No flowers, no music (apart from precenting), definitely no graven images. An old testament God hung out here. Fun and laughter were not encouraged.

Then there were the Seceeders, whose precise denominational and doctrinal position remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. I knew they had split off from some other lot, and therefore regarded themselves as “a cut above” – but above what, I never quite established.

Then there was the plain old Church of Scotland. The minister, a mild, thin, bookish looking soul who had been at school with my father, bore the distinctly uninspiring nickname of “Optic” which had stuck with him since his very short-sighted schooldays. His spectacles, I was convinced, really were made out of the bottoms of milk bottles.

I used to attend his sermons with hair rollers under my Sunday hat as a mute and invisible but satisfying form of protest. He had had a charisma bypass, and took boredom to punishing levels. However, I always liked the Benediction at the end …...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” it always seemed to come from somewhere other  than him, although he was saying the words. This sense never failed to confuse me…..

We went there on our intermittent forays to Church, depending on whether inertia or guilt dominated my mother’s frame of mind on a Sunday evening. Trips to Church were usually minus my father, apart from hatches, matches and despatches.

A spiritualist medium, describing my father’s wayward character to me with remarkable and eerie accuracy not long after his death, said he was a man “who knew his God.” Wherever Dad’s God hung out, it was not in any of the establishments on offer in our mid-20th century small Scottish town.

Personally, long before my encounter with the medium, I always thought my father’s God was out there in the distant hills where he went to poach deer, or in the eye of a storm at sea.  Not that we ever talked about such matters. The only time we ever discussed my spiritual life was when, aged twelve, I realised that I could not face replacing the utter tedium of seven years of Sunday School with the probable continuing tedium of Bible Class, which is where you went on entering secondary education.

An epiphany prompted my nervous and tentative approach to my father. We had recently aquired a Readers’ Digest World Atlas, a huge book which I could barely lift. I was riveted by a double page spread of the whole world, with countries coloured in according to religion. I realised that day how many world religions there were.

Although Christianity appeared to hold its own across the world, it was visually clear  that the great majority of the world’s population – which was a mere two and a half billion in total when I was doing my big religious sums – believed in something else altogether.

I then looked for the tiny isles of the Outer Hebrides, coloured Christian pink. Next, the top island where I lived, barely discernible in the context of the whole world. A wave of inescapable logic washed me away that day. It simply did not make sense that a few thousand members of eg the Free Church of Scotland considered themselves to be right and saved, leaving almost the total remaining population of the world wrong and damned regardless of the integrity and sincerity of their differing beliefs.

My mind buzzing with this powerful realisation, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to Bible Class. I now wanted to do some of my own reading and work out religion for myself.  “Fine” he said. “Don’t go, then.”

At the age of twelve, that was it for me and Christianity, for a very long time, although I continued under pressure to attend church intermittently and always enjoyed singing the hymns at hatches, matches and despatches.

The longing, however, continued, like a barely audible ghost of a sound, echoing my heartbeat….

*************

To read the first two parts of “Swimming in a secret sea” click HERE

The next episode will be

(iv)

Not Finding

Fortunately, it was a peat bank we hit. That cushioned the impact, saving the car from much damage. Uncle Patrick had stopped singing “Abide with me”: for once, he was completely silent. Perhaps he was wondering how to get the car out of the ditch. Aunt Maria, white faced, was leaning over into the back of the car where I had been jolted onto the floor behind the driver’s seat. No one had heard of seatbelts  in the 1950s. “Are you all right, dear?” she said anxiously. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe I’ve bruised my knee, that’s all.” ….

to be continued

(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle)

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1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Favourite Quotes: Richard Holloway on Doubt

Along with most people in Scotland who have more than a passing interest in matters spiritual, religious and theological, I have known about Richard Holloway for a long time. (see below this quote for biographical details) However, until recently I had not got around to reading any of his writing.

I had, however, listened to a eulogy for my late mother-in-law, written by Richard Holloway for her funeral service ten years ago. She had been a Samaritan volunteer and churchgoer in Edinburgh for many years and as such knew Richard Holloway, then Bishop of Edinburgh, quite well. I was struck by the straightforward fluency and honesty of what he wrote, delivering an admiring and affectionate word portrait, but not shirking mention of the more problematic aspects of her character.

I have always appreciated honesty which avoids unkindness, but values truth more than comfort. That is what came across during the eulogy, revealing itself again as I work my way through Holloway’s deep probing writing on questions of faith and doubt as they thread themselves though the ever-present gifts and frailties of humankind – admiring his blend of humour, erudition, compassionate feeling and dispassionate analysis.

If  you appreciate and are challenged by this quote, join me in reading through his books!

Light - and Dark....

Light - and Dark....

Because there is such an intrinsic connection between faith and doubt, the Church ought to be big enough to contain both sympathetically.This is the kind of theological magnanimity that is important for itself, but it is also important for secondary reasons. Since it is possible to believe and to doubt for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones, and we don’t always know the one from the other, we need the constant challenge of the other tendency to keep us honest. This will make life uncomfortable, of course, but the work of our purgation demands it. Growth is painful, but no element in our nature is exempt from the process of  sanctification. The Church….should be as inclusive as possible. It should be big enough to hold Thomas the empiricist, as well as John the mystic, and Peter, who was often baffled and confused…..the paradox of justification by faith is that it is God’s faith in us that ultimately matters, and not our faith in God. There is a faith beyond faith, which is deeper than trust in our own trustfulness and is an abandonment to the ultimate graciousness of the universe….This is the trust beyond trust that says ‘yes’ even to the night.It is close to the dereliction of Good Friday….

Light - and Dark....

Light - and Dark....

(from Anger Sex Doubt & Death by Richard Holloway, SPCK Publications, 1992, UK, pp 81-82. I realise this is quite a lengthy extract! Should Richard Holloway or SSPK object, please let me know how many words I can quote and I will edit accordingly….)

Richard F. Holloway (born 26 November 1933) is a Scottish writer and broadcaster and was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church. To read more about him and his writing, click HERE

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500 words copyright Anne Whitaker/Richard Holloway 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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A book for Advent: “Things Seen and Unseen” by Nora Gallagher

“ Things seen and unseen
A year
lived
in
faith ”

by  Nora Gallagher

“ Faith is not about belief in something irrational or about a blind connection to something unreal. It’s about a gathering, an accumulation of events and experiences of a different order….” (pp 78-79)

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It was just such an “accumulation of events and experiences of a different order….” that led me in mid-life, after an odyssey of spiritual exploration, finally to take the Dalai Lama ’s advice. If you can find a corner in your own tradition, he said in one of his books, why adopt anyone else’s? So it was that I found a corner in the Scottish Episcopal Church, fifteen minutes’ walk from my house.

All the sacred stories, Christianity being one, have at their core the ability to offer humans collective ritual practice through which to affirm that persistent sense, endemic to the human psyche, that we are all tiny sparks in a great blaze of divine light. We need to celebrate that together, with humility and awe. I needed to have that celebration in my life. And to find a mode of entry, despite my innate resistance to any form of doctrine or dogma.

As I struggled with my defiant heart in the first few months of churchgoing, a friend gave me Nora Gallagher’s fine memoir to read; the narrative begins in the season of Advent. It proved a great support and comfort.  Most importantly, it aided my entry into church life. A re-read followed about two years later, and again this month – for our church community’s book group.

This time, I resolved to write an appreciation for my website. This is THE memoir to read for anyone returning, as Nora Gallagher did, to a church forsaken a long time previously; anyone with spiritual needs to be met who doesn’t quite know how to go about it; anyone who is prone to sitting in the back of the church and crying without quite knowing why – as Nora Gallagher did, for the first year of her return.

 

Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara, USA

She writes beautifully, with stark honesty and directness at times: What is a priest? she asks a friend, a canon.  “A person who is too fucked-up to do anything else” he replies drily.

She can also convey her experiences with spare and moving simplicity, for example in describing a totally unexpected encounter with the presence of a beloved friend who had recently died, Lois, at a time when Nora herself felt especially vulnerable and in need of consolation: “…. I felt, particularly, the skin of her hands. They felt dry and sunny, as if she were holding a piece of the sun….The overall feeling of this whatever-it-was was of detached kindness, without emotion, clarity without sentiment, the purity and refreshment of a sun-dried sheet.”

She is able to communicate the ordinary day to day failings and inadequacies of herself and her fellow community members as they travel together for a whole year from one Advent season to the next. The texture and turbulence of church life is rendered with forensic accuracy and unfailing humour. The despair and exhaustion of supporting terminally ill friends and, most painfully, her beloved brother Kit, through the gruelling business of dying, is not shirked.

Central to the whole book is her developing understanding that the beauty and nurturing of liturgy as spiritual practice has an inseparable partner: service to others. To this end “A couple of us started a soup kitchen in the parish hall”, which grows and develops throughout the church year, feeding all levels and groups inhabiting the underside of  American prosperity – people who for many and varied reasons have fallen through the cracks. For them, the Trinity community kitchen is a lifeline.

 

 

Gallagher does not glamourise the usually thankless and occasionally dangerous business of feeding those folk upon whom ordinary society has turned their backs. She writes about the vicissitudes of such service with unfailing honesty, humanity, and just the right seasoning of humour.

The church to which Nora Gallagher returns is not the same church that she left – had it been, she clearly states, she would not be there. She is supported by wonderful women priests: realistic, humorous, humane and compassionate. In the partnership between ordained and lay ministry which is strong at Trinity, she takes on such tasks as serving at the Eucharist: “The mysterious and irrational Eucharist….that fed my mysterious and irrational life.” In attending to this task, she sees “the fallen-down helplessness in people’s eyes….” but also “….bits of hidden life, something about to emerge…. ”

A thorny contemporary issue finds central place in this vividly evoked year in the life of Trinity Episcopal church. Mark Asman, the temporary priest in charge, is an openly gay man. Should the community call him as their Rector? They love him and appreciate his strengths, especially his ability to pull the community closer by bringing out the best in people. But is this enough to cope with the controversy such an appointment would surely bring? The way the Trinity community deals with this process, and their eventual arrival at a decision – Mark was called, and said “Yes” – is beautifully woven by Nora Gallagher into the tapestry of a vital, painful, joyful, tempestuous and inspiring year.

I love the way she ends the book. She and spiritual director Ann Jaqua are lunching in a favourite cafe, discussing their latest creative project which is meeting with some resistance. Nora observes that there are times when she can’t stand church life. Ann responds that she can either put up with it, or start a new one. Just then, “a crazy man with dreadlocks” who used to come to the community kitchen strolls by. Nora can’t finish her sandwich and is wondering aloud what to do with it. The crazy man pauses, asks if she wants the half sandwich, she says no, and without a pause he takes it. Ann Jaqua grins. “Nothing is lost.”

Do choose “Things Seen and Unseen” as your Advent companion!

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1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2009
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page