Reality

In one of his ‘Four Quartets’ the poet T S Eliot says

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

I had the feeling today that we were being asked to cope with a great deal of reality in the General Synod.  I’m not complaining.  The priestly task is precisely that, engaging in the reality of the world and bringing it to the altar.  That is what is at the heart of the incarnation.  God enters into the depths of our reality and engages with it.  Jesus is the most real person, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is constantly wanting to make clear

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. (Hebrews 2.14)

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The ‘flesh and blood’ that Synod was asked to engage with today was real and painful.  We began with the response of the Church of England to the first report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). I, like so many millions of people, watched with horror the two documentaries that the BBC recently showed into the Peter Ball abuse scandal.  I watched as the stories of victims and survivors were told.  I wept, as I am sure you did, at the inadequacy, no, it was more than inadequacy, the complicit inability of the church and its leadership to engage with reality when it was presented to it.  One speaker in the debate today commented that they were surprised by the reaction of people to the documentaries, as though they didn’t know what had been going on.  It was all in the reports we were told, and that is true.  But the way in which the story, the reality was presented to us, that was new and that was so powerful.

The debate on the response of the church to the IICSA report was powerful, painful, honest.  But it left me feeling … well, I don’t know to be honest, numb, guilty, angry, sorry, all those things and more.  But what is any of that compared with those whose lives have been damaged, permanently scarred by what they have suffered at the hands of those in the church they trusted?

That debate was followed by one on the Climate Emergency and Carbon Reduction Target.  Again, it was a deeply powerful debate and there was an almost palpable sense of powerlessness in the chamber.  The issues are so huge, what can we possibly do?  I had proposed an amendment, to name cathedrals specifically in the Motion so that we work alongside the rest of the church and are challenged alongside the rest of the church in achieving the zero emissions target.  Another amendment, which was also accepted, but not one proposed by me, changed this target from 2045 to 2030.  I didn’t support that – I think we are being unrealistic.  But the decision was made and that is what we have committed ourselves too – and, in a way, good for us for being so bold. Climate change is a present reality for so many of our sisters and brothers and we must never forget that.

But the final bit of ‘very much reality’ came in the afternoon, in the debate on Paupers’ Funerals.  The very phrase sends a shiver down the spine but, as we heard there has been a 70% rise in the number of these funerals over the last three years.  You would have thought such things were Dickensian, the experience of young Oliver Twist when he is working with the undertaker Mr Sowerberry. But this is now our reality, when people go into debt to afford a funeral for their loved one, when some councils will not allow family or religion at a ‘Public Health Funeral’, when families do not get to know when the funeral is taking place and will not get the cremated remains of their loved one back, simply because they are poor and I suppose, in Dickensian terms, are ‘undeserving’ of common human dignity and respect.

It was a painful and disturbing debate.  But my mind went to the texts of the Requiem Mass where so many find their comfort in the face of death.  At the very end of the Mass, before the coffin is carried from the church, the choir sings the ‘In paradisum’

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.

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Dives and Lazarus and their changed realities

At the gate of the rich man’s house lies the pauper Lazarus.  Luke tells the tale in Luke 16:19-31.  The rich man and the pauper, the poor man, Lazarus, both die.  But the poor man’s reward is rich in heaven.  Whoever is before us at the Requiem we sing of the pauper, and that is how it should be.  The harsh reality in the parable is this, as Abraham, our father, speaks,

“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” (Luke 16.25)

Is this more reality than you can bear, the abuse of the innocent, the rape of the planet, the plight of the dead, the sorrow of the living?  But it is for this reality, into this reality that Jesus came, that Jesus comes, and this reality with which the church must engage.

Incarnate Lord,
you share my flesh,
you share my pain,
may I share your joy,
in your kingdom reality.
Amen.

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