Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


I offer some personal reflections so I must apologise in advance for the seemingly egocentric nature of this contribution. It is simply offered as a possible source of comfort to those who may be undergoing the bereavement of loss as they move out of the active ministry.

Some years ago, I resigned from the active diocesan ministry in which I had worked for 10 years. Although the transition from cleric to layman carried its own traumas, the most profound and the most surprising experience was, and indeed has proved continuously to be, that of a deep underlying continuity in my life. A continuity which I would like to try and explain.

I remember some time before my resignation sharing my reflections with my brothers and friends in the priesthood during a day of recollection. I had been invited to lead the day. I chose for my theme that of the celibate life and its significance. I attempted to describe it as a gift designed to 'liberate for freedom’. A state of detachment for service in love. A state in which the priest is able to reflect back to the people of God that Word which is already present within them and which precedes his own coming amongst them..

Christ is present, I recalled, in his Body, the Christian community; as really present as he is during the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest accepts that presence from them and refocusses it only to return it. The demand is simply to become transparent to that presence, both in the proclamation of the Word and in its eucharistic celebration. His whole purpose is to live out the grace which has chosen him to be the medium and servant through which the Spirit of Jesus is brought into the lives of men and women.

His task is to empty himself and not get in the way. The possibility of the priest becoming such, lay simply in the extent of his capacity for self-effacement in the power of the Spirit.

On leaving the ministerial priesthood, I was soon to discover, as indeed Martin Luther had also found, that that demand was not one which was the fruit of a professional celibate clericalised status, but was a continuing commitment arising from the Sacrament of Order. If the institutional Church chose to try to limit the exercise of that commitment, so be it. My responsibility as a husband and a father and as a human being could only be to do my best to continue to exercise my priesthood within the constraints and opportunities of the new life which God had called me to. Celibacy was certainly not the indispensable condition of an existential priesthood as I came to experience it, although it clearly may be for others. Married life carries with it continuous opportunities for self-sacrificing love. If we, as incarnational Christians, are to love, serve and enjoy God in our neighbour, where else can we who are married, find him more completely than in our closest neighbour, our spouse? What, I think, is helpful, is to convince oneself that to experience change, even a quite profound change, is normal in human life. It is not simply something to be undergone, but is often desirable, is quite healthy, is indeed rooted in the Biblical experience. The God of biblical revelation is a God who calls us into newness. What is important, however, is that the change should not be dependent upon total discontinuity, a rejection of everything that has gone before. We need to build links between the 'there and then' and the 'here and now'. Those links lie within ourselves to discover. For some, it may lie in the exercise of leadership through political activity; through worship, spiritual direction or shared prayer; for others, it is expressed in teaching, social service, the caring professions. Every priest, celibate or married, male or female, must exercise the ministry within the constraints and possibilities of a particular life situation.

After nearly over a half century of living out a married priesthood, it may be a help to share some of my experiences. Like most people, I have known moments of enormous joy and also times of deep pain and sadness. After twenty years of a contented marriage which bore the fruit of four delightful children, my wife died of cancer after a protracted illness. Now, perhaps a little like Thomas More (I like to think so anyway!), I am once again happily married to Angela who herself was suddenly widowed and left with five lovely children. So there you are, this former celibate has been able to rejoice in two gorgeous wives and nine beautiful children! Although I do not think they would thank me for describing them as children! The youngest is now 35 and the eldest 43. I do hope it is a good sign that three of them read theology at University.

Now, back to my theme. In what ways has the Sacrament of Order continued to flourish in my own life? Sometimes it has done so in practical ways. I remember the few occasions when I was able to offer sacramental support and comfort to the seriously injured in accidents, etc. I remember the many times I was able to bring my first wife viaticum and the sacrament of the sick. I remember the blessing I was able to give to young children and to the new born. I recall the many occasions when in giving counselling, support and advice to my students, I have felt the power of priesthood very close. I have been fortunate in being able to teach theology in Higher Education during all these years and it is difficult to describe the satisfaction, which that has brought. My experiences in politics as a member of the Labour Party standing as a candidate for election provided many opportunities for offering christian and priestly witness.

In some ways perhaps our state as married priests is a little like the hidden years of Jesus' priestly life. What I want to say more than anything to those whose wounds are still raw from experiences of rejection and shame, who perhaps also feel an emptiness in their lives deep down, is this: rejoice in your continuing priesthood and the eternal commission which Jesus gave to you through His Body, the Church. That commission is still laid upon you and its exercise will be surprisingly possible in all kinds of unexpected situations. In your liberation from the restrictions of clericalism, comes your freedom to be incarnated fully into human existence. I remember an occasion when the partner of a friend who was on the point of leaving the ministerial priesthood, said that she was dreading the day when he would say his last Mass, because it meant so much to him. My response was to say that such a day need never come. Whenever he is actively present during the celebration of the Eucharist, no matter how far down the Church he happens to be kneeling , he will be a concelebrant and offering that Eucharist as a priest. Nobody can ever take that away from him.

Monday, 17 June 2013

My Old Elm

Above my head

The tall wych elm

Sheds its little packets of seed.

Carefully packaged one-by-one in a gentle transparent sheath.

Down they come

By the thousand

Blown by the wind of June.

Why such ridiculous abundance?

Is it simply a generous

And boastful affluence?

Does it know something that I do not?

Is it a sign of fearfulness for what maybe to come?

Should I too cease numbering my grandchildren

With such pride?

And maybe substitute anxiety in its stead?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013


We are each one of us sharers in the priestly office of Jesus Christ through  incorporation into the Body of Christ through our Baptism and Confirmation. How we exercise that priesthood may perhaps be determined by our circumstances and lifestyle. As Paul suggested, some by teaching in schools or pulpit or College, some by our community concern as carers, social workers, visitors of the sick and housebound, some by our capacity for political action as community leaders,etc, etc. Priestliness should not be manifested by our 'religious persona', but rather by our love and service of our fellow human beings. 'Professional' clergy should be anathema to the Ecclesia. Leaders should emerge from our local communities by their capacity for goodness, gentleness and capacity for service and wisdom and their drawing of all into unity.The very notion of 'hierarchy' is nowhere to be found in the example and teaching of Jesus.

Friday, 7 June 2013


Bends round and over

The rusty archway.

Holds the metal framework up in its embrace,

Tickles my scalp

As I bend to pass.

Tendrills reach up to the sky.

Promise of bud, of flower

And perfume.

Such perfume!

For what

Does it so anxiously reach?

Is it a higher plane?




An old man.

How's things, old sod, at eighty two?

Pain without,

Joy within.

Head bent,

Shuffle below.

Sorrow for the past,

Hope for what's to come.

So much still to enjoy,

Just listening,

Just looking,

Just loving,

Just being.

Monday, 27 May 2013

I have been asked to share some of my memories of their father by his children. Gerry Bell, their father, was a close friend during my teenage years in the Nineteen Forties and subsequently became a friendly contact after I had moved away from my home in Harrogate. I remember him saying once in later years, that he looked forward to the day when we might regroup, Keith, Gerry and myself in our home town. The town which contained so many happy and formative memories of the mid to late post war years. Gerry I first met when he moved with his family from Hull , a very dangerous place to live in during the war years. It cannot have been in the primary school since Gerry attended the Technical School In Bower Road, studying building construction I believe, and I was attending the Jesuit School in Leeds. Since we both came from Catholic families, it was probably through parish activities, especially the Parish Youth Club. (more about that later). We lived close by in Robert Street and Gerry lived in a house to the rear of the Church in Belford Place, number 3, I believe. I got to know it well. Carved by him on a tree in the front garden were the letters R H . Rita Heyworth was his current heartthrob at the time. I wonder if they are still there. There was a time when Keith, Gerry and myself were inseparable. I well remember the miserable time on Sunday evenings when Gerry and I would sit in his front room after an enjoyable weekend contemplating the miserable fact that we had forgotten to do our homework due to be submitted the following day. For myself it meant the impossible task of trying to complete it on the 8.15 Leeds train the following morning! The possibility of receiving the 'ferula' from an athletic Jesuit scholastic was motive in itself. Cruel days. That house on Belford Place became an interesting meeting ground. It was also where I met the rest of his family although not often his dad who was a Major in the British Army. It was a fairly devout Northern Irish family. Gerry I remember would always bless himself with water from the little font by the front door and say the little prayer to the Sacred Heart on the picture by it. I remember noticing that the habit stayed with him for life. To the very end. I recall that it was the attic there where Gerry had a dartboard. We created a complicated game on which the FA Cup and the Leagues would be played out. Gerry's team was Arsenal and mine for some strange reason was Portsmouth. Probably because they held the FA Cup, having won it against Wolves (4-1) in 1939. Games might last quite a long time without animosity but just a little crowing from time to time! Outside, sport continued. Two lamposts on Avenue Road provided goalposts for some very intensively fought encounters between teams of various sizes drawn from the local streets.. Passing cars were not very common (petrol rationing) and were greeted with some derisive annoyance. There was also cricket practice in the alley beside the houses with the occasional forays into somebody's back yard. It was on the Stray at the end of Tower Street on West Park that we managed some proper cricket although usually shortage of stumps meant only one at the other end. It was there that one of my proudest boasts was that Don Bradman had showed me how to hold the bat! During the Headingly Test they stayed at the Prince of Wales nearby. Though that must have been before the War before I met Gerry. As for our recreational activities were concerned, our choices was quite ecumenical. We were happy to ingratiate ourselves into the Presbyterian (where I was introduced to the Beetle Drive), Congregational and Methodist Youth Clubs. Although when our basic R.C. affiliation was identified we were invited to find such outlets among our co-religionists. Mind you the Methodists on Station Parade (now a Coop) had very good table tennis tables, and the Congregationalists on West Park had good refreshment facilities. A major and continuous focus for a good period of time,was the YMCA on Victoria Avenue. It was well run and the premises were first class. They catered for football, dances on a Saturday evening, two tables for chess and draughts, even a place for quietly listening to classical music in a quite room. Their refreshment bar was excellent and kept us supplied with food, soft drinks and cheap cigarettes. It was run by the Sheriff and by Les Alcock. I never did find out the sheriff’s name but he was very quiet and gentle. But most of all there were three full-size snooker tables. It was the start of a life time love of the game for all of us. One particular year I managed to win the handicap. Gerry was very sceptical about it and assured me that three blacks start was far too generous. On Sunday evenings the local Vicar would visit for prayers. It was strange how so many members seemed to have very important business to attend to elsewhere at that time. Our local Catholic priest felt that it was a sin to belong to the YMCA. But we decided that unlike the Pope, he wasn't infallible. Another keen activity in the early teens that Gerry and I had, was the Scout Troop, 4th Harrogate (St. Robert's) For some time it almost became an obsession We met in a hall over the garages behind the Solicitors on Victoria Avenue, alongside the railway line. We had two patrols with 8 members in each. We had no official Scoutmaster, though the curate would drop in occasionally to give the troop some status. The organisation and running was left to us alone. Gerry was the patrol leader of the Lions and myself of the Foxes. I wonder how we chose the names? We became avid readers of the handbook “Scouting for Boys”, which incidentally is a fascinating read. We arranged the evenings with care, nursing the members of our patrols through the various tests and learning the appropriate skills, knots, camping skills, etc. The night would contain one session of British Bulldog, of which the rough and tumble rules were well defined. For Gerry and myself, unfortunately, it became a personal quest for status by acquiring as many qualifications and badges as we could. I'm afraid it became a bit of a competition between us. Our arms became covered with badges. We even acquired our national service badge for lighting fires for the auxiliary firemen to practice putting out. We became ambulance men, swimmers, athletes, pathfinders, cooks, etc. etc. We became First Class Scouts, and the supreme accolade King Scouts. Someone once described us as badge hogs. They were right. We particularly enjoyed the camping both at Burn Bridge and also in a field at Bishop Thornton. I remember being chased by some ducks as we brought water from the farm. It was a bit worrying when having closed the gate with relief the ducks came under the gate and chased us up the next field. I am sure that those years were very formative anyway. Apart from our schooling we seem later to have had a very busy life elsewhere. Saturday night at the Sun Pavilion in the Valley Gardens became an essential necessity for some time At the interval we were wont to slip down from the Sun Pavilion, to Hale's Bar at the corner of Crescent Road. It was possible to order a half pint of cider for sixpence and to quietly sip it among the barrels around the back. We were still conscious of being under age. One half of cider from the barrel would give us the courage to ask a likely girl for a dance when we returned after the interval. Two young ladies were also regulars at the Dance, Kath and Dot. (I withhold the full names for fear of libel!) Dot and Gerry became mutual dancing preferences and likewise myself and Kath. Dot and Gerry were quite impressive as they jived together. I was never quite so proficient and chose a more smooth style. It was also the gentlemanly custom to walk the young ladies home after the dance ended. Kath and I became regular partners, I used to see her home the other side of Skipton Road, so it was quite a trek. Lots of love and kisses was the reward. No hanky panky mind you, It was long before the permissive days of the sixties!. Dot and Gerry were not so close and they sometimes chanced to look elsewhere for comfort. Kath worked in Taylors, the chemists at the shop on Parliament Street. Every Friday evening,we used to meet up when I got home from School on the train and go to the Pictures. We would also go swimming occasionally at the Municipal Baths on Skipton Road. We became close friends. Gerry and Keith did not seem to have such close friendships. Indeed in retrospect I realise that they had some resentment that I seemed to have a regular girl. It is a great pity that I allowed them to persuade me that I was being tied down and that I should look around. They arranged for me to spend one evening at the dance almost exclusively with a blond girl. Kath was very upset and our friendship came to an end, I was very upset when I subsequently discovered that she had had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the Retreat at York. We did meet up at Church afterwards and went to the Pictures but it was not the same. Her vitality had gone. I do hope that she found some happiness. There are times when I feel so guilty. She was a smashing lass with an enormous amount of goodness in her. As a practising Catholic, Gerry was quite loyal. Confession every week, etc. Bit over scrupulous though. I remember his telling me of an amusing incident when he had asked a girl if he could see her home. On the way as they chatted, she told him that she was married. “Married!” cried Gerry in distress,. “Yes”, she said “but I'm separated from my husband.” “Separated from your husband !!” shouted Gerry and hotfooted it for home. Another major presence in our late teenage life was the Catholic Youth Club opposite the Church in Robert Street. It became quite a highly organised affair with a good number of members. It was held on the second floor of the house opposite the Church. As well as regular dances and organised entertainments (including Irish dancing!), the women of the parish provided tea and refreshments.. In time we had a football and a hockey team ( of which I was a member). We played a number of local teams, including Wetherby (an all female team!) and the Army Apprentices on their hard core surface at Pennypot. We organised a number of competitions: darts, singing, etc. We had a very active committee, of which I was chair. We even produced and published a regular newspaper, with articles, puzzles and editorial, etc. One of our members, Bobby Nash, worked in an Estate Agents on Rutland Street. He informed us that he had cleared it with his boss to allow us to make use of the Office and its machinery, typewriters, duplicating machine, paper, etc., to produce the next issue on the following Sunday afternoon. So there we were, all busily occupied. Keith and others on typewriters. Someone on the copier and the rest of us writing up material for subsequent publishing. The noise of the door opening at the bottom of the stairs and footsteps ascending. Bobby's face drained of colour. Silence reigned,. A nervous voice said “Mr. Nash, who are all these people”. It was obvious to us that the Boss knew nothing of Bobbie's arrangement! Horrified, we all crept out quietly and left by the front door. As we made our silent way up the street we anticipated hearing a police siren at any moment. But nothing happened . We could have willingly killed Bobby. However the newspaper survived. The Youth Club continued to flourish and many former members are still in touch. This was evident at Gerry's funeral service some time ago. I and Keith were privileged to read the lessons. Anyway back to our teenage years. Another formative experience particularly for myself was my membership as Ordinary Seaman Bebb, in the Harrogate Sea Cadet Corps. I cannot remember Gerry figuring in that but I could be wrong. The night I entered and signed on there were two others. Our names were Bebb, Pimp and Dibb. I think the recruiting officer thought we were having him on. Apart from marching up and down outside Christ Church and being shouted at by an officer it was an enjoyable experience. The week's camp in the submarine base at Blythe in Northumberland was an interesting learning encounter with reality. Although the hours spent being violently sick in rough seas in a small vessel was sufficient to put me off the Navy for life. I stood beside Gerry when he was married to Kathleen. I have to confess that I was a little uneasy however. The evening before on our way back to Belford Place from the Club,, he turned to me and said “Do you think I am doing the right thing?” My answer was simple: “Gerry if you can ask me that at this point in time, you really are not.” He simply said : “ but I cannot turn back now, everything is arranged.” In retrospect it was sad. But there you are. When I visited him at the time he was living a married life, the atmosphere was not a happy one. So I cannot say I was surprised that things turned out the way they did. I thought God help them both. I visited Gerry off and on a number of times over the years as he struggled to raise his children on his own. He was always glad to see me and we had happy times playing snooker at the venues where he felt at home. The Starbeck Mens Club. The Home Guard Club on Avenue Road. and other places including the Post Office Savings Club at the top or St. Georges Road. I remember when I was able to spend some hours with him when he had not too long to live, he told me that he had no bitter feelings over Kathleen. H e understood her actions and that he did not judge her for it. He was full of forgiveness for her. He didn't feel he was such a good catch anyway.