I wasn’t raised in the church, and knew little about Christ or Christianity outside of what were then school assemblies with traditional hymns, and films about Jesus over Christmas and Easter.
It was 1973, I was 14-years-old, and had my first encounter with death. Teenagers are immortal, and rightly so, which meant than when a schoolfriend was hit by a car and killed, I had no idea how to react and what to feel. The funeral seemed so foreign to me, like a sickening interruption in my emotional diary. Sorrow, fear, or just profound confusion? I didn’t know what to think, feel, or do.
As I was leaving the cemetery, looking at the ground and trying not to cry, I found myself walking alongside the local Anglican priest who’d taken the ceremony. He saw my obvious discomfort, and asked if I was okay. I replied with a teenage mumble. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I won’t try to convert you. Here to chat if you need to. But never think you’re on your own in this. If my faith tells me anything, it’s that. We’re in this together.”
Not profound, perhaps even banal in a caring way, and I certainly didn’t consciously reflect on what he said. Yet I don’t think I ever quite forgot it either. I later found out that the young cleric was a noted classicist and scholar. He could, therefore, have given me all sorts of theology and philosophy, little of which I would have understood. He said what he did because it had a pristine and fierce wisdom.
Mine is a late vocation and I’ve been ordained for less than four years. But in that time, I have taken 24 funerals, some involving the most biting tragedy. I’ve also seen pain and suffering more times than I can count, and behind most of it is invariably the same sting—loneliness.
Just like that priest, I don’t usually give people arguments for the historical reality of the 1st-century Jewish teacher Yeshua, or for the veracity of the Christian narrative. In my experience, witness is preferable to apologetics. What I do and will say is that the need for community, for the centrality of human solidarity, has seldom been more important or as scarce as it is now.
The cult of the individual holds unelected office. It infects our politics, media, and even psyche. Racial inequality still punches away, new generations can’t depend on long-term employment or their own homes, or even afford rent, and we feel monitored as potential purchasers or even criminals rather than respected as unique and precious individuals.
Most religions present some sort of antidote, as do some secular alternatives, but I’m here as a Christian, and as a priest. So, if I believe anything it’s in a seamless garment, a sacred thread of continuity, from a man who preached love, justice, and peace down to a cynical, fractured, angry world centuries later. The Gospels are as proudly revolutionary as any political text, and they’re as much about a lived life as an afterlife, where we’re told to follow a code that roars at its epicentre a form of holy selflessness—love God, love your neighbour. What at first glance sounds so simple is, in fact, bulging and bursting with complexity.
Fast forward almost fifty years from that clumsy, awkward teenager. Now I’m a 64-year-old man, a husband, father, and grandfather. I’m back in Britain and at a high school reunion. Lots of old—and, sadly, I mean “old” faces—and the girls with whom I was in love at school are now grandmas themselves. Over there in a corner is a man likely in his mid or even late 70s wearing a clerical collar. I look harder and realize I recognise him. Different but not dramatically so, it’s that priest from the funeral. He’d apparently helped and stayed in contact with some of the classmates of the boy who’d been killed, and was here to say hello.
I approached him. “You probably don’t remember me,” I said. He smiled. “Yes, I do. You’re Michael. I met you back in 1973 at the funeral. I told you we’re not alone in this, and have prayed for you ever since.” A pause, as I stand there amazed and speechless. Then he says, “I know you’re a writer, and I’ve read some of your work. But I also heard that you were ordained.” I say I was, I am. “That’s good”, he says. “That’s really very good.” Yes, it is. Not alone, never alone.