The 40th anniversary of a feral priest’s priesting

30th September 1979-2019

Forty years ago today I was ordained a priest by Bishop Mervyn Stockwood in Southwark cathedral. That I evening I presided at Communion for the first time with the congregation of St George’s Camberwell, where Geoffrey Beaumont and Eric James had been previous incumbents. The Georgian Revival church was closed and derelict – the congregation worshipped in the 1960s school hall. My friend Stephen Peters preached. I had been ordained deacon less than a year earlier in December, replacing a curate who had been forced to leave in unfortunate circumstances.

I have never marked the anniversary of my priesting before. This year I’ve become acutely aware that I am unable to mark the anniversary in the traditional way. I do not have a Bishops’ licence or permission to officiate. I do not ‘go to’ church. I haven’t worshipped with a congregation for eighteen months. I have no group of people with which to celebrate or a building in which to do it. I will celebrate on Tuesday with the first couple I married, thirty-eight years ago, when parish priest of St Faith’s Wandsworth. We will celebrate around their dining table with a stiff gin and tonic followed by good food, wine and conversation.

What does it mean for me to be a priest now - a priest unable to preach, lead worship or preside at communion? I ensured last year that I cannot be authorised by my bishop by marrying my husband. I identify myself as a feral priest, a contemplative, trying to complete the book I began researching fifteen years ago while maintaining a deep spiritual practice. The theme of the book has evolved dramatically from my original conception. I am still trying to free myself from the mindset of the contemporary Church of England, trying to recover the radical imagination that inspired me six decades ago in Southwark, still opening my awareness to the divine landscape of creation.

Evolution, Brexit, Boris and Trump

As a feral priest, I am trying to make sense of where I find myself at the age of 74 in relation to the Church of England, of which I had been a loyal if challenging adherent until last year, and at the same time trying to make sense of the increasingly insane political climate in which we find ourselves, burdened with leaders devoid of integrity or wisdom, unable to speak the truth or enact truth.

Ten million years ago the first great apes began to evolve from smaller species of apes. Fossil remains show that the more obviously characteristic modern human anatomy and skull shape evolved in Sub-Saharan Africa around 200,000 years ago. Seventy thousand years ago our planet was remarkably rich in terms of its human variety. The ingrained notion that there has only ever been one species of human being, Homo sapiens, is a latter day fiction born of our own self-important view of ourselves. From around 40,000 to 10,000 BCE, the desire to create art, sculpture, engravings and music seems to have developed and flourished, evidence of ritualistic behaviour and religious expression. We became self-aware; language evolved. Between 10,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE most of the global human population transitioned to an agricultural pattern of life. Five thousand years ago our ancestors began to lay the foundation of civilisations. We moved into settlements that became towns that became territories that expanded into empires. We developed writing, politics, and religion. We codified ideas. Religious systems evolved independently of each other on different continents. Our capacity to develop technologically has increased exponentially over the past 150 years. My reading of the political and economic times is that we are, as a result, regressing in our emotional and relational skills; either that, or our technological developments are outpacing our human capacity to deal with change, complexity and difference and the challenges we face as members of a single global community.

The evolution of religious, cultural and political systems with which we identify strongly has brought us to the point of deeply polarised conflicts: Hindu/Buddhist; Christian/Islamic; Catholic/Protestant; North/South; black/white; democracy/authoritarianism; capitalism/socialism/communism.

It’s all too easy to see today’s evolutionary movements as being defensive, regressive, and self-protective. People are insecure, anxious, and fearful that their personal identity is under threat. A minority is able to travel freely and frequently while a growing mass of people seek safety and asylum away from their homelands. An evolutionary change is taking place in our species. We are becoming more defended against ‘others’, those we categorise as different. In response, movements to contest the climate crisis, to impeach the US President and to legally constrain the UK Prime Minister are hastily developing.

Where next evolution?

Where do we find the transformative evolutionary movements that will open us to adventure, to risk-taking, and new vision? Where are today’s radical wisdom and spiritual energies to be found? Where do I find the Mystery of Unconditional Love? There are very few people visible to me who are living in faith, living ‘as if’ the divine, sacred, holy presence of unconditional love infuses the whole of creation and every member of the human species, integral to the evolutionary process. If I speak of God today, feral priest that I am, commemorating my anniversary, this is what I speak about.

I am hanging on in as a member of the species Homo sapiens, living a feral pattern of life, opening myself to the universal spiritual practice of dwelling in love and truth, sustaining myself despite the attitudes and practices of religious institutions on our planet.

But two questions pursue and haunt me.

Where do I find the transfigured, crucified figure of unconditional love?
Where does the transfigured, crucified figure of unconditional love find me?