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The First David Scott Lecture


Bishops of the Church of England are not always known for their poetic talents. However, one bishop of London, Henry Montgomery Campbell, who was known, amongst other things, for his dry humour did once try his hand at poetry. He wrote a short poem in his will and asked that it be read out to all of his clergy on his death. It simply said: ‘Tell my priests when I am gone, o’er me to shed no tears; for I shall be no deader then, than they have been for years’.

Well, I cannot properly tell you how honoured I am to be asked to give this talk today in honour of David Scott. David obviously never worked for Bishop Montgomery Campbell because David is a priest very much alive to the world, to perception, to the numinous. Like all good poets he is one of the world’s antennae and, like so many in this church today, I have admired both his work and his humanity for many years. To be here to celebrate both of these is a real joy for me and I am very grateful to be standing here.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure too of being part of the R.S.Thomas Festival, held in Aberdaron where Thomas had served as the Vicar. It was a weekend of Thomas tribute, an RS fest, where every aspect of the great priest-poet was explored. Again I was delighted to be asked to give a talk - that delight completely fizzled however when I was told I was following Rowan Williams. ‘That’s quite a warm up act you’ve got there’ said one wag. And of course, the former Archbishop of Canterbury stood up and gave a talk that said everything that needed to be said and without one note in front of him. By the time the Q and A arrived, I was busily trying to work out how to get out of my gig to save face – a migraine perhaps? A stomach bug of projectile proportions might do it.

But then someone asked a question that distracted me. A woman asked Rowan what RS had been like as a preacher? Rowan said he had never had the fortune of hearing him preach and couldn’t really comment. A man at the back suddenly said. ‘Oh! Elsie here was in his congregation, she’ll know!’ All eyes turned to the elderly Elsie in silent anticipation, as wisdom from Delphi was about to be received. ‘You heard RS preach?’ asked Rowan. ‘Oh, yes I did’, she said. ‘Often?’ ‘Oh yes, every Sunday for 12 years’. ‘And, what was he like?’ Rowan said on behalf of us all, now at the end of our seats. ‘Oh!’, she said, ‘Dire!’

Every priest in that room heaved a private sigh of relief. Thank goodness. He was bad at something at last! R.S. Thomas of course was one of many British poet-priests. George Herbert, John Donne, Manley Hopkins, Robert Herrick, Robert Southwell and in our own day Rowan Williams, Malcolm Guite, Rachel Mann and, of course, David Scott. What is it I wonder that draws many clergy to the language of poetry? That question, in tribute to David, might be one way in to this day together because, although many of you aren’t clergy, or if you are you are hiding it well, there may be converging resonances for us.

Not all clergy, of course, are naturally drawn to a poetic shaping of language. I once saw a very large bill board outside a north London church where the vicar was trying to entice shoppers with the message rather unpoetically: ‘Tired of sin? Then come in’. To which someone had scribbled at the bottom ‘But if not telephone 263635’. However, many clergy are drawn to poetry and I have one or two reflections as to why this might be. See what you think.

The former Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne said that the effectiveness of a preacher lay not in their wit or their cleverness or their authority. The effectiveness of a preacher lay, he said, in their ‘nearnesse’, how near, how close, they felt to those who were listening. Was this a human being like them? The parish priest, like David, lives amongst his or her people, leading a congregation, yes, but also befriending a wider community, a locality, being there when, say, there is a tragedy as well as being there for people when they lose someone, love someone, celebrate a new life and so on. This nearness, being in tune with the realities of human lives, of the complexities of shared living and of the environments, political currents and events that affect us day to day for good or not, this nearness leads often to an inner need to be able to distil from time to time, to withdraw from the noise of now, to be able to read between lines, to distrust the first impression, to see where social masks have corroded into faces, to be able to read the human heart in a better light. The priest tries to stay awake and alert to our too easy fluencies, our avoidances, our bruises and our desires. To speak authentic words as a pastor is important. The language we turn to help us get there is so often that of poetry. This is the language that distrusts the paraphrase, the quick clarity, the cliché and the avoidance of difficulty. It is the language that dispels illusions without leaving us disillusioned, helping people think in a language in which they never thought.

I’m from Shropshire originally and there are a lot of sheep in Shropshire and at the back of my grandmother’s house I often see Tom who’s a shepherd. And about three years ago I saw him in the field carrying a real shepherd’s crook. So I joked with him that my boss the bishop had one of those too. And I asked him if he really used it to reach out and hook naughty sheep with and haul them in. No, he said. The best use for this is to stick in down firmly into the ground so that I can hold on to it so tight that I become still enough that the sheep learn to trust me. I have been desperate to preach at the consecration of a bishop ever since! But it’s an image for any pastor in their community. How can I find that rooted place to centre myself, to keep me still in a turning world, that I can somehow be trustworthy, authentic, plausible to those I am among? When the poet Michael Longley was asked where his poetry came from and he replied that if he knew where poems came from he’d go and live there, he implied that that poetry has the potential to encounter a strange place that somehow feels homelike. The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim, setting out, setting forth to the unknown.

Wallace Stevens, a poet I’m drawn to more and more, once said that we ought to like poems as children like the snow. And that air, the stark, clear, striking, warm-chill of poetry where we can see our own breath, as it were, and, immerse ourselves in a world reimagined, a truancy from the prosaic and the surface, is why many a priest reaches for the pen or opens the book of poems. Like Celan’s image of poetry as ‘a message in a bottle’ or Graves’ notion of it as ‘stored magic’, poetry promises more of you at the end than at the beginning. This nearness to what matters, as human and as poet and priest, is exactly the quality so admired in David Scott. And when poetry mesmerizes time and captures, not imprisons, reality’s nearness in the poem, life’s immensities become so intimate and life’s intimacies become so immense. In David’s poem ‘John Keats’, he writes ‘He leaves whole bits of life completely satisfied in words’. It is the poet’s work to find the words from which we can’t retreat.

The novelist Nicola Barker, winner of this year’s Goldsmith’s Prize, was asked recently what she made of religion. ‘I’m interested in the spirit, the soul, and in suffering and transcendence’, she replied. ‘I’m interested in paradox. It’s my thing. I think people are full of contradictions. It’s partially to do with the division between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We are mysterious beings, a mystery to ourselves, often. We are full of hypocrisies but are psychologically resistant to accepting this….I can see a strong demarcation between pleasure and joy. One is fleeting, the other is infinite. Sometimes I’m at my most happy while doing without. Desire can often be the enemy – though I rarely say no to a dark chocolate digestive.’

Ah yes, I was once a naughty student who said to my theology lecturer – ‘for all your doctrinal headaches, take paradox’. But now I see what he was pointing to in both life and belief. The priest’s and the poet’s nearness to human complexity and chaos, to secrets and the things that we know but as yet have no words for, brings them close. Perhaps one of my favourite poems by David is his ‘Written in Juice of Lemon’:

Some poems I write in ink

and they get written with a lot

of furrowing of the brow, and often miss

but some I write in juice of a lemon

quickly in my heart

and hope that one day someone’s

warmth will iron the secrets into poems

with effortless art.

Ironing the secrets into hearts means that the priest is concerned with the nearness of our language, wanting words that are not just learned but felt. This is not an easy time for words. To begin with we are living at a time when we are spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like. And so consumerism makes words seductive rather than truthful as they lure us towards our wallets. Technology for all its brilliance now also gives us too many words, we trip over them as they come at us from every direction, and the danger is that our care for words decreases as they proliferate. Listen to them all on the TV debates, social media, opinion columns: the first person to draw a breath today is declared the listener. The danger is that words become cheapened, as disposable as anything else.

And then, there are our political leaders who, in many parts of the world, now campaign in graffiti and govern in tweets. At the moment the way words are being used by some powerful leaders, with continual talk of ‘individuals’ rather than ‘people’, of ‘losers’, ‘swarms’ and ‘sad’ failures all makes a world where we see ourselves as competitors not citizens, consumers not communities. It leads to a world in which if you are not at the table you are probably on the menu. Nations at the end of the day are largely the stories they feed themselves and if fed lies they will, in time, suffer the consequences. Words become flesh. If words are used cynically, cheaply and as ammunition, if they are not respected as carriers of truth and meaning, then it quickly leads to human beings not being respected either. Note how similar those two words are - devil and drivel. And the same ears that listen to politicians, salespeople and news commentators are listening to the person who is trying to point to the rumour of God, to a sense that ultimately reality is trustworthy. Sadly the language with which we do this can reflect the superficiality or clinical vocabularies of the newsroom or the boardroom, the Church at the moment often sounding as simply offering you the choice between ignorance on fire or intelligence on ice.

This is another reason why priests often become poets. Because as well as being often local to a community, among people in their devotion and dereliction, reverence and rebellion, they are also, like it or not, ambassadors for an institution, an establishment and organisation called The Church. Some do not find this a comfortable role. It’s my experience that at the moment many people, especially younger people, realising that there is something of a wisdom deficit in the world, are actually often very serious about religion, spirituality and the search as to whether reality might be worthy of faith and why that might be. But these same people do not find the Church to be a part of their spiritual adventure. In fact, the irony is that spiritually serious people today often find the Church to be too secular, too much like that from which they are trying to escape – cautious, compromised, politicised, discriminatory, or at best the bland leading the bland.

Now to imagine that its clergy are immune from feeling such things would be naïve. Many clergy long for more poetry in their Church. They long for a reclaiming of mystery, of beauty, of the humane. They know that at the evening of life we will be judged on our love not our systematic theology. They long for a humbler Church, more concerned to be kind than to be right. They – and why don’t I show myself and say properly ‘we’ – we long for a Church that imaginatively commits itself to the God who is not an object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder. This means accepting, as poetry does, that some things are far too important to be literalistic about – love and God for instance – and that therefore any fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint by numbers is to art. Such priests understand their religion as poetry plus not science minus. Church, for us, is a school where we try and relate a bit better to what is true, to ourselves, to each other, to God. It is not the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Sealed Knot, dressing up on a Sunday morning to re-enact a former world. It is not the organisational equivalent of the character in the Goon Show sketch who always knew what time it was because someone once wrote it down for him on a piece of paper. It is a community trying to settle around a fountain from which wisdom emerges with patience and prayer, where we accept we are given just enough to look for God but never enough to fully find God for desire is the pulse of faith, if that dies so does the relationship. What we long for most must elude us. Such a priest it is, I think, found here in David’s poem 'A Priest at Prayer' which always reminds me of George Herbert’s poem 'Prayer':

From prayer to prayer involves

a dwindling, a way of being

that accounts for weariness, a regular

drawing in and letting out of breath;

the planting of a word and its forgetting,

a close examination of what is there

until it isn’t, a candle flame beating air,

love meeting Love before the house wakes up;

space body-shaped, time vacated,

the passive tense, a waiting to receive,

out-of-bounds of what is right

or wrong, subject to being surprised

by God on briefest sight.

One of the tests of faith as opposed to bad religion is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and life-giving when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought. The test of faith is how much more it lets you see and how much it stops you denying, resisting or ignoring aspects of what is real. Poetry has the same testing criteria. Poetry and faith are both disciplines of attentiveness.

My last reason as to why a priest might be drawn to poetry is that it is the language that most feels like a soul-language. And clergy, as they go about their work in churches and chapels, are indeed local poets in residence because poetry is their native language if only we can see it.

If I said to you now ‘Here is the News’ you would probably sit up and expect to hear the facts of the day, events that have occurred and some commentary on them. But if instead I said ‘Once upon a time’ you would probably be equally expectant for truth but you’d tune in differently and be ready to receive it in a different form, story, where meaning is communicated without summarising it. Now, when you walk into a church or a place of worship how do you tune in your ears? Have you got your newsroom ears on? Have you walked into a Google temple of facts on tap? Or, have you walked into a poem? You see to walk in with expectations of the one and to get the other might mean you miss something very important. It might even mean you think the whole thing implausible. Category errors like this cause a lot of frustration in the brain and heart. Now just in case you think this is all a bit Radio 4, a little too ‘I wondered lonely as a Canon’, let’s just remember the ancient traditions of the great world faiths and the place poetry has in the heart of each.

The earliest sacred texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, are in effect thousands of poems, then the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita or Song of God, composed in verse. In China, the classic Tao Te Ching was written poetically in the 6th century BC, the opening verse referring to the ‘gate to all mystery’. Then the Hebrew Bible, fully of poetic exploration: the psalms, the noble language of Job, the imagery of the Song of Songs, the riddles of the Proverbs. And the prophets warning people what they’ve turned into, doing it through intense imagery and metaphor. It’s a message today’s church needs to be reminded of, that prophets always call us to a proper vision with poetic hope and never with prosaic plans. I’ll come back to the Gospels in a second, but let’s jump now to the Qu’ran, where God is the poetic author of a text so beautiful that Muslims developed particular chant styles for reciting it. Listen to its much repeated line that has become the key statement of Islam’s shahadah or confession of faith ‘There is no god but God’ in the Arabic transliterated as la ilaha illa Allah, repeating the double consonant il between the open a vowels gives it rhythm and emphasis to translate into your life. In these spiritual traditions truth is expressed through poetry for the faithful. Poetry isn’t a better way of saying truth, rather truth is found in poetic form.

The Christian Gospels are not so obviously poetic until you study them closely. You then see the artistry of each of the four writers, or evangelists, as well as the persistently figurative preaching of Jesus himself. Jesus often left people often wondering, it says in the gospel, what on earth he meant and yet being intrigued and drawn by his parabolic language that hovered rather than came into land. At the end of his poet