Sunday 25 February 2018

Seconds out... Round 2

Crossing the Line - part 16

I went back to Oxford with a plan.

In college, I would go to the Christian Union every Wednesday and the Chapel for the main Communion service each week, which was on a Saturday.  In Oxford more widely, I would go to OICCU (pronounced Oy-Cue) and more importantly, I would find a church that suited me.  There was nothing wrong with St Aldates, the church I went to in my first term.  It was full every Sunday with lively worship and world class preaching, but it wasn’t me. 

I started the term by attending a different church each week.  I went to student churches whose ministry revolved around attracting and meeting the needs of students.  I went to local parish churches which were much more like what I was used to at home.  I went to quirky churches who didn’t really care who came – they just did their thing.  I prayed as I went along and in the end, my decision surprised me.

Worship at Pusey House
Pusey House was a shrine to the Oxford Movement, which had attempted to reshape the Church of England in a more catholic direction in the Victorian era.  There was a team of priests there who celebrated all that was good about an Anglo-Catholic approach to worship and theology.  The congregation was small on a Sunday, often only around 40 or so people.  They had a choir which sang anthems and provided the backbone for much of the congregational singing.  Sermons were short, often by guest preachers, some of whom were famous in the Anglican world.  The use of incense was profuse, with one thurifer feeling he had not done his job if he didn’t set off the fire alarms in the college beyond.  Three priests would robe in elaborate vestments and process surrounded by a phalanx of servers and acolytes.  They celebrated communion with their backs to the congregation.  Everything was very formal, choreographed to perfection, and woe betide any server who put a foot out of place.  It was definitely not charismatic or evangelical and yet something spoke to me in the worship there.

Being in the congregation there was more about being than doing.  However you felt, the worship went on around you, enveloping you in God’s presence like sinking into a deep luxurious cushion.  So much of my busy life was about doing rather than being and this was the balance I needed.  I didn’t have to be enthusiastic, engaged, or even sing if I didn’t want to.  I could simply go and be carried along by a river of prayer and sacrament.

Some of my friends in the Christian Union were surprised by this decision.  Most of the people I was getting to know in OICCU were shocked, but that was ok.  I was not conforming to what was expected.  I could be at OICCU on a Saturday night for the main Bible Exposition of the week and in Pusey House on Sunday morning for High Mass.  I was learning to cross lines and to inhabit both spaces, whatever they thought of each other.

There were also others in college who were attracted to Pusey House.  There were two Jonathans in the same year as me in Brasenose, who were also involved in the Chapel and Christian Union in college and they began to worship at Pusey House.  One became the Sacristan there, living above the chapel and providing the practical logistics for the daily services.  We became prayer partners, meeting to pray for each other every week or so.  The other Jonathan … well that’s the next part of the story.

Then towards the end of my second term, there came a complete surprise.  Each college had two Christian Union leaders and they were appointed by OICCU.  Technically they were the ‘OICCU Reps’ in each college, although the reality was a little more complex.  Our reps needed to find their successors, and have them approved.  To our astonishment, they invited Jonathan and me to take on the role and lead the CU in college for 3 terms, starting after Easter.  Jonathan was a Methodist by upbringing but was definitely discovering a more Catholic spirituality at Oxford.  I can’t remember who we talked to before agreeing to do it, but we accepted the invitation.  OICCU didn’t usually have college reps who worshipped at Pusey House.

Brasenose College Chapel
Our first term was spent largely delivering the programme that our predecessors had planned but we did began meeting with our college chaplain, Jeffrey John, for croissants and pain au chocolate after early morning communion once a week to foster a closer relationship between the CU and the Chapel. 

In the summer break, Jonathan and I met together to plan the term ahead.  Independently, we both came with the same Bible verses in our minds, from John’s gospel where Jesus is praying for all believers before his betrayal and crucifixion.  After praying for his disciples, he continues,

“My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for all those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21)

We both took this to heart, and built a programme for the term around these verses.

When we got back to college, another surprise greeted us. The Christian Union and the Roman Catholic Society had always been a bit tetchy with each other.   The RC Society liked drinking, enjoying life and not bothering anyone else; the CU liked to appear holy, earnest and evangelistic.  There was very little overlap between the two, but now a new RC Committee had been elected with a more open attitude.  In particular, there was Sarah, who was a devout Roman Catholic (alongside enjoying life, a drink and not bothering anyone else).  Sarah also came to Chapel & CU and was now a leading member of this new committee.

Sarah made the suggestion that we should have a joint Christian Union/Roman Catholic meeting in college to set aside any previous animosity and meet each other as equals.  It was a wonderful opportunity and we began to plan the meeting.  We agreed that our college chaplain, Jeffrey John would be a suitable speaker, respected by both groups.  We set a date and started to advertise it.  That is when the shit really began to hit the fan – and in case you are wondering, that really is the only adequate way to express what happened next.

OICCU's HQ - The North Gate Hall
I foolishly mentioned our joint meeting at an OICCU prayer morning, expecting at least some understanding of why this was a good thing.  Quite the opposite!  At the end of prayers, I was pulled aside by members of OICCU’s Executive Committee to tell me why it was a bad idea.  Things quickly went from bad to worse.  After the next OICCU committee meeting, Jonathan and I were told that the joint meeting could not happen; that it would compromise the clear Evangelical identity of OICCU; that we had to cancel it.
When we said ‘no’ the response was equally swift.  If the meeting went ahead, we would be sacked as OICCU Reps in Brasenose and other reps would be appointed to lead the CU in college. 

We were astonished.  So were others. 

Members of the CU in Brasenose started to say that if they sacked us, it didn’t matter who OICCU appointed, we would carry on as before.  We started to get messages of support from some OICCU Reps in other colleges, saying that if we were sacked, they would resign, potentially taking their college Christian Unions with them.  It was all getting out of hand.

Jonathan and I knew that we couldn’t cancel the meeting, even if we wanted to.  The damage if cancelled would create a greater divide than the fracture we were trying to mend.  It would send all the wrong signals to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and further entrench divisions.  For me, this epitomised everything that I had come to hate in my first term and had decided to challenge.

I also recognised that escalating confrontation and further division was not the way forward either.  I began a kind of negotiation with OICCU.  There were some reasonable people on the Exec and we began to explore a way forward.  Eventually after a great deal of shuttle diplomacy, a compromise was agreed.  OICCU would not take action if we renamed the meeting with the snappy title “A meeting for all Christians in college organised by the leaders of the CU and the Roman Catholic Society”.

It was a fudge of course.  OICCU could then say it wasn’t a ‘joint meeting’ and we could go ahead as planned.  The posters were already out around college and the date was only a few days away, so in practise this simply meant me writing the ‘snappy title’ on the blackboard in the porter’s lodge which announced events on college.

The evening went ahead and was a great success.  Some of the old prejudices from each group were challenged or melted away.  Jeffrey John spoke well and we prayed together before enjoying a glass or two of wine together.

Why should something like this be so hard?  I still don’t know the answer to that, except that it usually happens when people become too religious to the exclusion of others.  I find this particularly annoying because it is the opposite of what I read about Jesus.  He constantly crossed the lines of control which criss-crossed his world. Eating and drinking with sinners; calling nationalist zealots and traitors (tax collectors) to be among his closest friends. Going the Pharisee’s house but then letting a prostitute wash his feet with her tears to the disgust of his host.  Healing the centurion’s servant, even though he was part of the occupying army.  Overturning the tables of the free-market capitalists in the Temple.  Talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, breaking 2 taboos in one go.  Indeed, shaming his Jewish brothers and sisters with the story of the good Samaritan who does what their religious and political icons failed to do.  I could go on.

Standing up to such sectarianism can be difficult.  In some places in the world it can put you at risk of violence or even death, but then Christians do follow the man who gave his own life to bring others peace.

Round 2 had been fought and won – but there was more to come.

Sunday 18 February 2018

Dreaming spires?

Crossing the Line - part 15

I arrived in Oxford in October 1982 with my grant cheque, luggage and  music – a collection of vinyl & cassettes, a powerful amplifier and huge speaker bought from my friend Neil who hand-made the speaker cab himself.

My parents drove me down and we went to the porters lodge to find out where my room would be.  I was given 8:2 – Staircase 8 Room 2 – and shown where to find it.  Most of the staircases were in Old or New Quad, but staircase 8 was tucked away between the kitchen and dining hall, up narrow stairs and room 2 was just below the roof.

The view from my window
I was amazed to find that I had been given a suite of rooms!  There was a large living room with a three piece suite, an old fashioned desk & captain’s chair, a welsh dresser and coffee table.  Then there was a small bedroom and a loft room, which would come in handy for storing my kit during the holidays.  There was a pleasant view over the ridiculously named Deer Park (a piece of lawn half the size of a tennis court) and the dome of the Radcliffe Camera beyond.  On a mild October afternoon, I thought I had been granted a taste of paradise.  What is more, there were just two rooms on Staircase 8. With no other bedrooms nearby, I quickly realised that if my neighbour was out, I could turn my music up as loud as I wanted!

8:2 up at at the top
The downside of 8:2 quickly became apparent.  The nearest toilet for students was on the opposite side of Old Quad which meant getting soaked in the middle of the night when it was raining.  Later I discovered the staff toilets for the kitchen which I could sneak into at night, as long as I didn’t mind sharing them with a few cockroaches.  There was a shared sink in a cubby hole half way up the staircase but no bath or shower nearby which meant another long walk for anything more than washing your face, but by far the worst thing was the heating – or lack of it.  For this big suite of rooms I had one 2-bar electric fire mounted on the wall and nothing else.  It was the kind of heater which toasts whatever is within 2 feet of it, but does nothing to warm the air.  Added to that, 8:2 was at the top of the oldest surviving part of the college, dating back to the 15th century with no insulation in the roof above me.  Through the winter it was freezing!

My living room with the useless 2 bar electric fire
During my year in college, I learned how to make the most of it.  I bought a fan heater which sat next to my bed.  I could lean out to switch it on when I woke up and wait for the bedroom to warm up a little before getting up.  Even then it was not unusual to find ice on the inside of the lead lattice windows.  I also decided that, as there was no bath nearby, I was going to find the best bathroom in college to use.  Soon I discovered the sumptuous bathroom in Heberden staircase above the JCR (Junior Common Room).  I had a huge Edwardian bath, green tiled walls and unlimited hot water.  Bliss.

The first week was a whirlwind of new experiences. 

First, I had to obtain a gown and mortar board for matriculation (the act of joining the University).  Fortunately, there was an easy way to do this.  Every student was assigned a scout – an employee of the college who looks after you and cleans your room on the one hand, while acting as eyes and ears for the college on the other.  Writing this, I am amazed to find that the system still prevails today.  Gowns and mortar boards are bread and butter to scouts, and provide a handy income on the side as they supply second hand ones for a fee.  Gowns also had to be worn at formal dinner each evening, at the main Sunday service in the college chapel and at exams, so getting one was a priority.

Students were also required to wear something called ‘subfusc’ to matriculation, celebration dinners and exams.  For men this meant a black dinner suit, a white wing collar shirt and white bow tie topped off by the gown and mortar board.  I felt like a stuffed penguin from a cartoon.  Gowns were also graded by success and ability.  Scholars and Exhibitioners wore full flowing gowns reminiscent of teachers in the Harry Potter films.  Commoners wore something which looked like a half-shredded prop extra for a servant in a Dracula movie.  I was a Commoner, of course. 

The Matriculation ceremony itself consisted of being marched into the Sheldonian Theatre, listening to a few mumbled words in Latin, and then being marched out again.  Was that it, I thought.

Class of 1982

Brasenose was a fairly small college with about just over 100 new undergraduates arriving each year.  That meant that you came across almost everyone in your year – from the public school toffs who didn’t much care for anyone outside their social class to the more ordinary students like me.  I didn’t much care for the toffs and there weren't many, so that wasn’t a problem and I did discover that money doesn’t always make you objectionable.  In my first week, during an evening at the college bar, I had a wonderful conversation with a final year student called Henry.  He put this naive fresher at ease and made me feel welcome and listened to. When the conversation came to a natural end and he moved on, someone else came up to me and said, “Do you know his father owns most of Hertfordshire?”

I got to know my fellow Maths students.  We were a pretty disparate bunch of people but I formed a lifelong friendship with my tutorial partner Anne.  Nick, a friend from Bolton School also went up to Brasenose and through him I got to know the lawyers who were a much more interesting group!  I signed up for rowing, much to my regret at 6am on cold winter mornings in the dark.  I also joined the college record lending library which had two categories of LPs on offer – Classical and CRAP (Contemporary Rock And Pop).  I always borrowed CRAP.

The place where I thought I would feel most at home, was in the huge variety of Christian churches and organisations which buzzed around Oxford.  The Mathematician who had hosted us when we came for interview was also the co-leader of the Christian Union in college, so an invitation quickly came to that and OICCU (the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union).  I went along and met some nice people, but also felt that some were a bit intense.  I went to St Aldates Church which was the biggest Anglican charismatic church in Oxford at the time and had a famous preacher and author as its vicar – Michael Green.  I went to the college chapel where I met someone who was to become a major influence on my life and faith.  He was the college chaplain – Jeffrey John.

I even started going to Maths lectures, although I gave that up in later years.  I found walking into the Maths Institute was a sobering experience; finding myself surrounded by Mathematicians, many of whom were geniuses was quite overwhelming.

The central method of teaching at Oxford is the tutorial.  A couple of times each week, we would meet with our tutors in pairs.  Our tutor would give us work to do between tutorials which led to regular all-nighters for me and Anne before tutorials, to get the work done, fortified by Martini and Death Burgers from the all night van near the college. 

If we had a Monday morning tutorial there was a problem.  Anne’s boyfriend would often come over for the weekend and catch the early coach back to London for work on Monday morning.  Just after he left, I would arrive, so Anne and I could get ready for the tutorial later that day.  Invariably, Anne’s scout, Armando would see her boyfriend leave and me arrive.  He was Italian and although he had lived in Oxford for many years, he still spoke with a thick accent, sounding like an Italian version of Manuel from Faulty Towers.  After a few Mondays, he would pull me aside on the way up to Anne’s room and say, “I know sir, itz-a-right, I know” and tap his finger against the side of his nose as a promise he wouldn’t say anything!  No amount of persuasion would convince him that he had got it wrong.   My scout and I also developed a healthy relationship during my year in college.  I didn’t mind if he didn’t clean the room that well, and he didn’t mind if I broke a few college rules.

My biggest shock however, was the way different Christians viewed and treated each other.  I encountered a culture where Roman Catholics were not seen as Christians; where people were questioned to see if they were ‘sound’; where there were more churches and chapels than anywhere I had ever been and yet most tended to retreat into their own cosy silo, looking down with suspicion or derision on the other silos around them.   I know that Universities are hot houses of opinion and heated discussion.  I know that Oxford is probably one of the more extreme versions of this, with institutions like the Oxford Union embodying polarised debate.  But this ran deeper.  The latest intake of new Christian students seemed to be pushed into choosing an allegiance, then called on to defend it against all-comers, and recruiting more people into their religious silo.  It was more competing spires than dreaming spires.

I felt caught between silos. I was an Evangelical Catholic Charismatic Christian and I didn’t want to pick a side or be backed into a corner.  Coming from a year in the open environment of the Scargill Community where all views were valued and our commitment was to live together in diversity, I found myself way out of my depth amidst a clamour of different voices, vying for my attention.

At the end of my first term I returned home for Christmas and after a few days my father took me to one side.  He had noticed a weariness about me and wanted to know how I was really doing.  As we talked, he said to me “You look like you have lost your first love.”  Knowing the Bible verse in Revelation, I knew exactly what he meant.    In the visions for the 7 churches, the believers in Ephesus are commended for their hard work, perseverance and endurance, but then God says,

“Yet I hold this against you; you have lost your first love” (Rev 2:1-7)

I realised he was right.

While trying to navigate my way through the contesting voices, I had lost my first love of God.  I was becoming more wrapped up in issues than people.  Theological disputes were replacing life-giving faith.  I was becoming infected with a version of faith where being right was more important than loving others.  I had lost my first love and for someone who felt called to be a priest, this was serious. 

Paul’s words to the Corinthian church rung out in my head.

“If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Whatever I did when I went back for my second term, I had to rediscover the love that is at the heart of the Gospel.  I had to resist the divisive intellectualisation of faith which I was encountering.   I had to find a way to be counter cultural.  I had to find a way to cross the lines that were being laid out for me by others.

It felt daunting; I worried that it would be a lonely road; but I knew it was what I needed to do.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Moving on

Crossing the Line - part 14

As sixth form progressed, I had to decide what to do next.

In one way this was easy.  I wanted to go to university.   When I was about 15, I had made the audacious statement that I wanted to go to Cambridge.  I say audacious because I had only just made it off the bottom of my class into the dizzying heights of mediocrity at the time.  Somehow, my teacher managed not to burst out laughing and told me that if I worked hard, why not?

I only said Cambridge because we had visited it on a family holiday.  The rarefied atmosphere of the colleges won me over, from the grand to the quaint.  The thought of living in one of these ‘other worldly’ quads captured my imagination.

This was all fine until I mentioned it to Lesley who was my girlfriend at the time, and she said, “But I want to go to Oxford.”   So when I saw a young vocations weekend advertised at Jesus College Oxford, I knew I had to go.  What a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – I could go to a weekend about ordination and see Oxford properly at the same time. 

Two things stood out for me over the weekend. 

First was the morning I spent with the chaplain at Oxford prison.  It was a time of extreme overcrowding in British prisons and the sight of Victorian cells designed for one or two prisoners, but crammed with up to four inmates was shocking.  There was so little space that if anyone needed to get to the cell door, the others had to jump on their beds to allow him through.  It was also in the days of slopping out where the toilet consisted of a bucket with a towel over it, which was slopped out each morning before breakfast.  The smell must have been unbearable at times.

Second was an afternoon wandering about the colleges of Oxford.  I decided that I would walk around as many as I could and see if any of them ‘felt right’.  This was not a very scientific approach for someone looking for somewhere to study maths, but as I have since discovered there is an intuitive side to my personality which sometimes has the upper hand. As I walked around the colleges, I came to a very definite decision that there was one which felt right.  Brasenose College was a smallish college on Radcliffe Square and as I walked around I could imagine myself living and studying there.

So I came back to Bolton and told Lesley the good news that I had decided to apply to Oxford – except that when it came to filling in our applications, Lesley applied to Cambridge!  Perhaps there was something she was trying to tell me?  Our relationship actually lasted over 3 years, ending during the summer holidays just after A levels.  It was a happy time and through lots of ups and downs we made it work – a romantic relationship between two Christians which helped us both to grow without falling into the usual teenage pitfalls.  Lesley applied to Cambridge, and I applied to Oxford.

Then came the question of what to do with the time I would have off between the Oxbridge exams in November and starting university the following Autumn (wherever that might be).  During childhood, another place we had visited often was Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales.  Set in the picturesque landscape of Upper Warfdale, Scargill was a Christian community of about 30 people who ran a conference, holiday, and retreat centre for about 90 guests.

 For most people the words ‘Christian community’ bring visions of pious looking monks or nuns in religious habits, but Scargill was nothing like that.  Most of the community at Scargill were in their 20’s and wore jeans not habits.  When a member of the community was invited onto local radio to try to explain what it was like to live in community, he began by saying, “We do everything together; we work together, we eat together, we...” and everyone wondered what he was going to say next!  Thankfully he finished the sentence with “We pray together.”  This religious community was predominantly a group of young people who chose to live there for a time to find out more about themselves and deepen their faith, joining for anything from a few months to a several years.

Scargill Community 1982

 We certainly worked together and looking after the guests involved cooking, cleaning, as well as managing the 96-acre estate under the leadership of a Chaplaincy Team.  We also took turns to be on the Guest Team, leading whatever conference, retreat or holiday was on the programme for that week.  This involved making everyone feel at home, leading worship, drama or meditations, and accompanying our guests on walks around the Dales.

Scargill has the most beautiful modern chapel which somehow set the ethos for the whole place.  It is in the shape of praying hands under a huge wood shingle roof.  We sat around the altar on its large stone dais which doubled as a place to kneel for communion or as a stage for drama or dance.  Each end of the chapel was completely glazed in clear glass, revealing the beauty of God’s creation with views of across the dale or up into the forest behind.  Every morning we would meet there for prayers after an early breakfast.  It set the scene for the day.

I applied with excitement and got an interview.  It was the week after Easter and I borrowed my parents’ motor caravan to drive up in.  As I set off from Bolton it started to snow.  By the time I reached the Yorkshire Dales it was a blizzard.  The last 15 miles from Skipton to Kettlewell were going to be a real challenge, and one which proved too much.  I finally gave up when the snow plough I was following stopped because the snow drifts were too deep.  Returning to Skipton, I phoned Scargill in bitter disappointment, only to be told, “Don’t worry, we’ll pick you up!”

Sure enough, about 40 minutes later a land rover arrived driven by a member of the community who was an ex-royal marine commando.  I quickly learned that his strategy for snow drifts was simple; the bigger the drift, the faster you drive at it!  We arrived in one piece just in time to find that the power had gone out and there were 70 guests to look after.  It was an eventful weekend with the snow 2-3 feet deep in places.  After managing on emergency power overnight, the electricity came back on in the early hours of the morning and I spent most of the weekend in a team shovelling snow from the long driveway to make sure our guests could leave.

So it was that I was offered a place on the community and immediately after my Oxbridge exams, I left home on a new adventure.

Of course, nothing is ever what you expect it to be.  For me, the most important lesson of going to Scargill was to begin at the bottom again.  I left my church in Bolton and the youth group where everybody knew me and often looked to me for advice and leadership.  I arrived at Scargill where nobody knew me, and I didn’t know them.  The first week was spent washing up.  The second week, I was moved to House Team who cleaned the house from top to bottom every day.  Any romantic notions of the joys of living in community are quickly dashed when you are sent off to clean the 30 or so toilets around the house before 11am!  Then there was changeover day, when one group of guests left and another group arrived.  Every bed in 50 rooms needed changing, before cleaning and setting up just right for the new arrivals.  It was hard work and there was a ‘Scargill way’ of doing everything, from folding the sheets to arranging the furniture in the large meeting rooms.

Looking back, I learned there what it really means to serve people in Christian ministry.  Not up the front with everyone looking at you, like being a priest at the front of a church, but in the simple unseen acts of service which no one notices, except if they are not done – like cleaning toilets.  It was a good lesson for me to learn.

A few weeks after I arrived at Scargill, I had to go to Oxford for interview.  It was another cold and snowy few days, trudging through the snow from college to college for interviews.  When I looked at the other candidates I didn’t think I stood a chance.  There were only 6 places for Maths at Brasenose and there were 12 of us there.  All of them appeared to be much smarter than me.  At one interview, after we had talked about maths for a while, I remember being asked about my application.

He showed me two consecutive lines on the application form.  The first asked for my chosen subject – mathematics. The second asked what career I wanted to follow, and I had written “Priest in the Church of England”.  He looked puzzled and said, “So you don’t want to do anything with your maths after you finish then” quickly followed up by “So why do you want to study maths?”

I remember saying that I enjoyed maths and didn’t want to be the kind of vicar who didn’t know about anything apart from theology.  He smiled.

Looking back, I am sure that this question got me a place at Brasenose.  It was the only thing which set me apart from other applicants, the only thing which would have been memorable when the time came to choose who to offer a place to.  I think it was just after Christmas that I got the letter inviting me to Brasenose College Oxford.  It took me a while to really believe it.

The time at Scargill passed all too quickly.  As I got used to the work there it became more and more fun.  I shared rooms with Simon who was mad about pot-holing and climbing, even taking me down the wet and slippery Providence Pot on one occasion.    As a community we welcomed everyone from Bishops to borstal boys.  Music, art and drama were a normal part of our weekly activities alongside cleaning the house, day in, day out. I even got used to the ‘Scargill way’ of doing things.

During one summer house-party when I was on the Guest Team, we organised a cross between ‘It’s a Knockout’ and a commando course around the estate complete with being drenched by fire hoses and a zip-wire ride!  Everyone had to complete the course in pairs and it started with a three-legged race, tied up with strips of old pillowcases.  “Keep hold of the pillowcases when you untie your legs” I said, “You may need them to staunch the blood later!” - trying to add to the excitement.  Imagine my face then the guest speaker for the week arrived at the finish line needing several stitches with blood dripping from the old pillow case wrapped around his arm!

I did start to think that Scargill would be the place I would end up, but then some of my youth group from Bolton came to visit and said “No – you need to be out in the world.”  So in September 1982, I left for Oxford with something of a heavy heart.  It was like finding somewhere you felt you belonged, but then knowing you have to move on.

Scargill became somewhere I went back to many times.  The chapel there became the place where I would return when I really needed to hear from God.  In the stillness, enveloped in those praying hands, surrounded by the beauty and majesty of creation, I always knew I would meet God there. 

It is some years now since I last went back, but I hope to visit again soon. 

You never know, perhaps I will hear something new?

Sunday 4 February 2018

The New Normal

It is now 7 months since I first knew I had cancer.

Although at times the days and weeks have dragged by, the months seem to have gone so fast.  As I look back, I find it hard to fully appreciate how much my life has changed.

Before then, being healthy was simply a case of watching what I ate, trying to get enough exercise, not drinking too much and taking my daily vitamins.  That was normal life then.  Some days I would do better than others, and some days I would fail completely!

Since then, being healthy has been turned on its head.  What would have been considered deeply unhealthy before, is now a staple part of my life. Things which normal human beings would avoid like the plague have now become part and parcel of extending my life.

In the bleakest terms, this new normal consists of chemical castration by hormone therapy, subjecting my body to radioactive bombardment, and having poison pumped into my veins every 21 days.   That is not to mention all the tablets, blood tests, x-rays, scans and medical appointments which have become a normal part of life. 

I wonder how many people know that the average CT scan exposes you to ten times more radiation than two weeks in the Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan and almost twice as much as an hour in the grounds of the Chernobyl power station in 2010.  Radiotherapy treatment is measured in many more multiples again, which is why radiologists don’t just go behind a screen, they have to retreat to a separate room down a corridor before flicking the switch.  

Then there are the steroids given to ward off an adverse reaction to chemotherapy; a low daily dose and then a blitz of 2 weeks-worth of steroids in 2 days around each infusion.

It’s hardly what I would have called normal before and yet, for so many cancer sufferers, this is the new normal.

There have been other changes too.

Before cancer, the kind of church service I looked for would have been full of lively worship, with a band rather than an organ, lots of spontaneous participation, modern prayers and a sermon peppered with humour to liven it up.

Now (and I amazed that I am saying this) the service I best connect with each Sunday is 1662 Prayer Book Communion.  I have never been one to do away with BCP services (Book of Common Prayer) in the churches I have served in, but it has never been my cup of tea.  Since my diagnosis, that has all changed.  There is something about the gravitas of a 1662 Communion service which now feeds me; something about being carried by the liturgy which sustains me; something about the stillness which offers no answers but assures me of God’s presence.  They are the things which meet my needs now.

It has given me a new understanding of those who faithfully and resolutely come to church, often early on a Sunday morning when the church is still cold, to bathe in the 450-year-old language of this act of worship and prayer.

Then finally, there is a new awareness of those around me, who are also battling cancer – friends & neighbours, colleagues & those I network with via social media.

It is a bit like being inducted into a secret society, then having the doors opened wide to reveal a whole crowd of people in the same club, many of whom you knew, and yet didn’t know.

It seems that there is still a subtle taboo in talking about cancer, particularly among men, despite all the media publicity.  In the news this week were new statistics which show that more men now die from prostate cancer than women from breast cancer.  Yet breast cancer has achieved a national profile that prostate cancer has not.    I have become accustomed to a man drawing me aside to reveal in hushed tones, that prostate cancer is part of his life too.  It’s almost like a confession of some dark secret or clandestine conspiracy.

Discovering this wider community leads to sharing in other people’s journeys too, for good or ill.  On the same day a few weeks ago, I received two Facebook messages.  One from a friend who has been given the all-clear, and another from a friend who has been supporting me through chemo, to say that her treatment was no longer working.  She now has just months to live.  Joys and sorrows walk hand in hand.

This is the new normal. 

It’s a world where drugs and needles, poisons & radiation, spirituality & community, elation and grief are all integral parts of our day to day journey. 

So to all who are touched by cancer, I wish you every blessing as you navigate these very different paths in life, both fellow sufferers and their loved ones.  On this World Cancer Day 2018, let's break the taboos which still keep people silent and increase everyone’s awareness of a road better travelled together.

Let this be the new normal.

Many readers will know that my wife, Mel Hazlehurst, is having her head shaved to raise money and awareness for Prostate Cancer UK.  If you would like more information or want to donate simply visit

and a big thank you to all who have already given so generously.

In Mel’s words – you Rock!

PS  Back to Crossing the Line next week...