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 poetic tales if said ‘if you have the ears to hear, then hear’. Might that be, have you tuned in right? This is not the news, you see. This is the good news – and language has gone into a state of emergency to help us get to the kingdom. From the moment the music starts in a service you sing a poem called a hymn, you recite a poem called a psalm, you pray prayers of metaphors, similes, allusions. A priest in her church is a person immersed, living, in a poem. No wonder poetry feels natural.
If I were to try and get to the heart of my belief as a Christian, I would say that believe that God has given everyone here a great gift. It is your being. And we are all asked to give a gift back in return – our becoming, who we become in our lives. Put it another way: God loves us just as we are but God loves us so much God doesn’t want us to stay like that. Therefore we need a language in our faith that is not so much about information as about formation, a language that helps us become. We need, and the stories of the poet Christ are this, a language that doesn’t set out to answer all our questions so much as questions all our answers. We need a language that enlarges the heart, the mind, the humane and our understanding of the divine. Poetry is often hard. But that is because difficulty is important. Life is hard. Belief is hard. Difficulties there are important. Both poetry and true spirituality (not listening to whale music during a massage but the serious business of assaulting the ego) know that only difficulty can change us. It’s the only way, apart from love, that our full stops can be turned into commas.
Just a final note about language: religious types easily slip into thinking language imitates or reproduces reality, what I say just is. Actually the poets remind us that language doesn’t do this. Language re-presents reality. They allow us to see that language may be truthful even when it is not descriptive in the strict sense. We can claim to be speaking truthfully about our realities without actually trying to imitate them. For the poet, the use of language permits us to celebrate the fact that there will always be much more to discover then what we think we see. And that is why poets and people of faith have a conversation to pursue. As RS Thomas told us, poetry ‘is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart’.
Let me finish. I’m here to pay tribute to David Scott. I’m here to thank him for a life’s work of nearness, of being an ambassador of humanity to the divine and a carrier of sacred perceptions into the human. I’m here to thank him for his faith, that assured reticence that took upon it the mystery of things as if he were God’s spy. His is a poetry of receptive insight. I’m here to honour the poet who wrote that ‘sometimes we can walk in Eden’, the poet who is able to see the longing in a life, like that of St Teresa in his poem, a longing for ‘more of the wounds of love and for the darts that score the heart’. And when I read David’s work on faith and God I’m always reminded of the Manley Hopkins lines: ‘I greet Him the days I meet Him and bless when I understand’.
My guess is that there are people here now who would call themselves believers in God in one shape or another. Others here will not believe in God and others will not be sure one way or the other. Quite a few may sympathise with Graham Greene when he said ‘the trouble is I don’t quite believe my unbelief’ and some will, like Julian Barnes, want to say ‘I don’t believe in God but I do miss him’. And maybe most of us are a mixture of all the above. And my other guess is that for all this range of commitments, this daily landscape we live in of questioning and positioning, there is something most of us do feel drawn to - to cherish words, to celebrate their sacramentality, their ability to form us and so the world we make. People of faith and poets must both, together, do all in our power to ensure words remain fresh, true and honest. The person of faith believes that God is in this world as poetry is in the poem. The poet believes that reality is so excessive that only poetry can touch those intimate immensities and its immense intimacies, that a poem’s work sends ripples out towards our shores, shifting the sands and stones for a purer truth. Both believe that if human beings have a soul-language, then this is it and that the poet’s work is so vital that - should it be lost - the soul and maybe the world itself would be endangered.
I want to end with a poem by David which he wrote in memory of another priest and lover of poetry Donald Allchin whose work greatly influenced many of us who carry on the exploration of faith and poem.
Give them some poetry
(i.m. Donald Allchin)
When first we met I saw a lightness off the ground in him;
the air of outside, high up, the world all sides of us,
had space to breathe the meeting into life.
A meeting that would last both in and out of time,
and all this as I saw it. It may quite well
be fixed inaccurately, but the height and the space
at the first, is sure. He in a cassock. I not.
He just back from America; I coming to the end
of school. I liken it now to other meetings,
other heights, grander and more biblical,
keen not to miss the precedents, and the connections:
Mt Alverna, say, or wherever light takes over from the dark.
Of the world he was not; born somehow
to have that extra inch or two which left him in the air.
So many ideas that others could organise,
which they did, and happily, on the whole.
He liked his spirituality corporate;
serving solitaries, he was not one himself.
Our common thread was Merton,
That English-American-Nowhereboy. Donald,
returning from Kentucky met the monk
the day that Martin Luther King died,
which left a generation seething, grieving.
I with a volume of some early Merton poems
newly spread with gravy from reading them
at meals and a term away from A-Levels.
From America, Donald wrote about an emptiness
of saints, and of a space unfilled by holiness.
Through all the years he came by saints and scholars;
scholars and writers and poets; and religious and hermits,
and poets: and rarely by children, but once he came by Lucy
in her cot, whose heart was not yet strong, and he prayed
and I saw him unusually paternal, and now she bikes up
mountains, and down again, in Wales.
And then came Wales for him, and how fresh it looked
upon the page away from English tightness.
He was forever inviting us to ‘do Wales’,
and got the words from Merton: ‘Let’s do Wales,’ said Merton,
Donald did Wales avidly: so many poets, so many saints,
so many friends. Bardsey, in its distance, in its beauty,
a metaphor for death, for passing from one realm
to another. The journey had begun.
The handwriting turned frail.
The phone call said he was enjoying Traherne.
I was about to conduct a retreat.
‘Give them some poetry.’
Well, David, you have given us some poetry. You really have. And we hope you know, within you and around you, always, the gratitude, admiration and deep affection for that poetry and for you – truly, a priest and a poet.
Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral
Lcture first given at St Lawrence Church, Winchester on 25 November 2017 as a part of Comfort Me With Apples