by Humphrey Prideaux, to mark his 80th birthday and 54th anniversary of ordination, at St Mary’s Church, Alverstoke on 31st January 2016, the Feast of the Presentation, at 9.15 am Holy Communion
from Signs of the Times No. 65 - Apr 2017
‘Simeon came by the Spirit into the Temple’. Luke 2.27
What if Simeon had not popped into the Temple that morning? A moment that changed his life and his way of seeing. Those two small words: ‘What if’. How many ‘What ifs’ in our 18 or 80 years have changed our life and our way of seeing? If you get bored with my ‘What ifs’, reflect on your own!
December 1992 at Fareham College. I am a widower. I say to my colleague, ‘When you’re on your own on Boxing Day, what will you do?’ She says, ‘I’m going out with the Ramblers.’ ‘May I come?’ I say. Ten months later we marry.
What if I had not spoken to Joy in that tea break? Cardinal Basil Hume said, ‘When two people love, they experience in this world what will be their unending delight, when one with God in the next.’
Amazement and gratitude. Are we amazed? Amazed at us, at the ‘me’ I am? What is the chance of one particular sperm meeting one particular ovum and developing successfully into me - or you? Amazing. I have an aching knee. Over my 80 years, how many times has that knee worked for me? What engineering! Amazing.
The ninth planet in our solar system, they say, could be 19 billion miles from our sun and ten times the mass of Earth. But which is more amazing - that lump of rock, or one small grey sponge, a baby’s brain? As the Psalmist says, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’. (Psalm 139). What if my dad, a priest in South West Africa, hadn’t become ill with gall stones and gone to Cape Town for treatment? What if he hadn’t met my mum at church there? They came home and married in Hatfield, and I, plus my elder sister and younger brother, were born in Salisbury.
I am a pessimist, a ‘half-empty glass’ person; I have to encourage myself to be amazed and grateful. So our first gratitude is, each of us, for our amazing uniqueness, that I am who I am, that you are who you are. It is in that uniqueness that we occasionally glimpse God at work.
Pope Francis said, ‘God created us and let us develop according to the internal laws that God gave to each of us, so that each would reach their fulfilment.’ I said we ‘occasionally’ glimpse God at work. But God is not only ‘occasionally’ at work - that would be no god. We can’t worship an ‘occasional’ god. God is ever present, ever involved. ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17.28). As a fish can only live in water, so can we only live in God.
Joy said to a friend, ‘When we go off in the caravan, Humph takes God and Agatha Christie.’ I know my Agatha Christies backwards. I know the endings. I look for the clues she scatters along the way. How well do we look for the clues of God at work along our way? ‘New mercies, each returning day, hover around us while we pray.’ In the Radio Times the TV presenter Sue Perkins said, ‘At the end of each day I list things I’m grateful for.’ I’ve learnt from her. I now do that in my diary each night.
New mercies. When my first wife Brenda died suddenly, my daughter Anne was in Portugal. We phoned her. She was just going out. Another minute and we should have missed her. She answered our call. What if she had been out? A new mercy even on that day.
Let me go back to the summer of 1954. I am waiting to be called up for National Service in the Navy. A friend from school phones me: ‘Humphrey, my army call-up has come. I promised to go with the Franciscans on their hop-picking mission. Would you take my place?’
I had never even heard of the Franciscans, nor their hop-picking. I went for one week and stayed six. There my childhood faith became adult. Still, 60 years later, I find renewal when I meet with Franciscans - bless them. What if my friend had not phoned me? What if I had decided not to go to the hop-fields? A chance conversation, a chance phone-call, an invitation is so often God being involved in a change on our way; other people become God’s co-workers to help us.
In 1961 I went as a curate to Northampton. After 17 days our great vicar, Father Charles McKenzie, suddenly died. God is there in tragedy, sorrow and death. We wept for his wife and their family. The shortest verse in the Bible is ‘Jesus wept’. God weeps. This is not a new idea. An early Jewish saint said, ‘God wept when his children the Egyptians died in the crossing of the Red Sea.’ I moved to St. James’, Milton, Portsmouth. There I married our churchwarden’s daughter. What if Father McKenzie hadn’t died? How my life would have been different.
I’ve only been ill once - 1977 with suicidal depression. I was in my GP’s surgery in Lancaster, where I was a senior lecturer at St. Martin’s College. He rang the mental hospital. The psychiatrist said he had a cancellation. He saw me that afternoon and took me straight into hospital. I was healed by him and the drugs. What if he hadn’t been free to see me? I don’t know if he was a Christian, but everyone who brings wholeness to others is God’s co-worker. He said, ‘You need a change, but not straight away.’ Now aged 41, I had been a student and teacher of theology for 21 years. But out of interest I had also begun to study science, maths and computing with the OU, the Open University. So two years later I decided to change tack. I started to apply for new jobs; I was unsuccessful. God is there in failure as well as success. Then in March 1980 I applied to Price’s College, Fareham, as a teacher of maths and computing. But, to save money, Hampshire Education Authority had ruled that schools and colleges must make no new staff appointments from outside the county after March 31st. I was interviewed on March 31st. Some head teachers are wary of appointing a priest, but not in this case. The Principal of Price’s was Chairman of The Christian Education Movement. He said, ‘I think you are taking a risk, Mr. Prideaux, but someone should let you take that risk,’ and I got the job. What if I had missed the date deadline?
What if...? What if...? What are these ‘What ifs’? To us they appear as random chance. How does Luke describe them in our reading? Three times he says the Holy Spirit guided Simeon. We may agree with Luke, but we have a problem. Does the Holy Spirit only guide ‘occasionally’? Again - an occasional god is no god, an idol. Always, we must remind ourselves that we can never comprehend God. We are human. God is God. I lift a paving stone near my sun-lounge. A wonderful world of ants. Can those ants comprehend me? No. Nor can we comprehend God. God gives us just enough insight to keep going, like God’s gift of manna to the people in the desert - just enough. No one can show to someone else that God is. All we can do is to share with them our trust in God, and say to them: ‘Very occasionally I glimpse God at work for me, with me, in me. That glimpse is enough, most days, to convince me that God is. A glimpse of God at work at a deeper level of being than ordinary sight, a glimpse of “more”. To the power and the glory of that glimpse, that hint, I want, I need to respond.’ So, again, what are these ‘what ifs’? Are they simply luck, good and bad? Professor Stephen Hawking is wise and inspiring. He says, ‘I was unlucky to get motor neurone disease, but I’ve been very lucky in almost everything else.’ Is this luck, this random chance, compatible with our picture of God? I suggest, yes, it is.
Consider some words we might use in our picture of God. Two words: con-cern and con-trol. God is ever concerned for us. Does God also control us? God makes creation independent of himself. God builds random chance into it. This is the risk God chooses to take. Only in this way can anything, us included, be really free, and not simply God’s puppets. No, God does not control. But with eternal care, God is concerned for each atom of the universe, each atom of us. Two more words: inter-vene and inter-act. Does God intervene in our lives? Or does God interact by inviting us to respond. The picture of God intervening, however biblical, traditional and common, is a problem. If God does intervene, why does not God intervene more - in earthquakes, in man-made horrors? Wednesday was Holocaust Memorial Day. ‘Intervene’ implies an occasional god, an arbitrary god. Every second of our existence God invites us to interact with him. God has eternal patience. The Father of the Prodigal Son waited. God waits for us to respond. And, when we do, strangely we know it is not of us but of God.
And the mercy is, our gratitude is, that so many do interact with God, do respond to God in each generation, on each continent. They do not always realize that they are responding to God’s invitation. But they do reflect God’s wisdom in them. They are involved in what God is passionate about: fairness, generosity and wholeness, which together create holiness. All sorts of people build the kingdom of God - not just Christians. Brenda’s death was from a subarachnoid haemorrhage, in 1991. In 1992 an Italian surgeon pioneered a new procedure to cure this. (Insert a platinum coil up from the groin to inside the burst blood vessel.) Three years ago, my daughter suffered the same crisis as her mother. But she didn’t lose consciousness. She just managed to phone 999. She knew what had hit her. The ambulance took her straight to Southampton General Hospital neurological unit. The surgeon, who was just about to go on holiday, saved her life. So many ‘what ifs’ here. What if he had not learned that new skill? I don’t know if he was a Christian, but he was God’s co-worker for the kingdom. God’s time-scale is not ours. We want instant results. God over millennia is bringing in the kingdom. And in each millennia God has co-workers, open to God. The visionary prophets among them see more. They see deeper into the spiritual dimension than the rest of us. They take us forward to the next stage of human evolution. For us Jesus is decisive, but not exclusive. He is so open to God’s invitation, he so interacts with God, that in him and with him we hear and see and trust God at work, a different way of being, the way less travelled. Step by step we are being transformed.
And that leads to my final ‘what if’. Back in 1953 I applied to take a degree in Classics (Greek and Latin) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. My housemaster at school was related to the chaplain there. He and his wife invited me to tea. He suggested I consider Theology. The college could not offer me a place for Classics (I was not good enough) but they could give me a place for Theology. And I accepted it. What if I had not gone to tea with Christopher Evans? He was a deep radical New Testament Scholar, a deep man of prayer - the confessor and spiritual director to many. (I went to his 100th birthday party, and to his funeral aged 104 three years ago.) He helped me see that a living faith is a thinking, searching faith. Loyalty to Our Lord does not stop us asking questions. We ask questions about what people have said and believed about God and Jesus down through the ages. We ask questions to search for the meaning in our day of what he did, and said, and was, in his day. That has continued to be my journey as a person, as a Christian and as a priest.
A paradox is holding two incompatible statements as both true. Our life is a paradox. We experience sheer chance and yet we feel compelled to talk of God’s involvement and Providence in our lives. Maths is full of paradox. For example, you can’t divide a number by zero. Newton appeared to do just that. His colleagues said, ‘You’re wrong.’ But he gave us Calculus. Two centuries later that paradox was resolved. You and I won’t resolve the paradox of our faith until we are in the clearer presence of God.
One of my tutors, David Jenkins, became Bishop of Durham. He was accused of being overcomplicated in his faith. So he wrote his faith on a post card. Thirteen words, all monosyllables except one:
God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.’