How would you like your Lamb of God, sir? Perfectly presented or on the bloody side?
From Brother Ivo:
So, you are stood in this trench next to a terrified 17-year-old who enlisted under-age for a bit of excitement and is probably going to be dead or maimed within the next three months. He looks at you in your Holy Joe dog collar with some disdain, but you need to break the ice somehow and you guess he is dying for a fag. You reach into your pocket and there is a packet of an addictive drug that may well kill him with cancer in 30 years, but maybe that doesn't matter so much as he needs to survive the next hour, and a fag might calm him down. You might even get to talk, so ask yourself the age-old question: "What the fuck would Jesus do?" The latter is, of course a modern rendition of what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed in times of crisis.
That was all nearly a century ago, yet things do not change much.
Brother Ivo is blessed with a solid faith. This is a fact rather than a virtue and, put another way, only testifies to his good fortune that in his life to date he has yet to face any challenge to his Christianity that has not and, please God, cannot be resolved by aligning his life practices better with the teachings of Jesus. He is probably a weakling on whom the merciful Lord has not leaned too heavily.
That is absolutely not to say that he is a good person, still less a perfect Christian, for "If only you knew.." Yet God knows, and so far He has allowed Brother Ivo's faith to ride the challenges that life throws at everyone of us and hitherto there is no part of Brother Ivo's experience that has placed his faith in jeopardy. He has never been in the trenches.
He has had an easier ride than many, and is intensely aware that of those to whom much has been given, much is required. Happily, the worst he endures at present is some robust challenges from some of His Grace's communicants: unlike David Cameron, whom he sometimes criticises, his faith has not had to contend with the serious illness and death of a much-loved child, neither has he had to follow His Grace into the flames, so he is alert to the view that all our attempts at a Christian life both vary and are measured out in a variety of circumstances.
Few know the nature and variety of that challenge better than our clergy, both male and female, as they encounter fractured lives and feeble faiths today, with all the confused conflict between theological theorising and ministering to broken humanity. Sometimes that humanity needs a touch of the human before it is ready for the enormity of the divine.
It is from that perspective that Brother Ivo is able the cut a little slack in the debate about the Cambridgeshire vicar, the Rev'd Alice Goodman, who sports that sign on the back of her car - WTFWJD. Brother Alexander reflected on its significance recently and concluded that this was linked to her unreliable gender and the liberal hegemony. Improbably, Brother Alexander probably reached this intellectual position via another ancient chain of thought which owed more to that of the metaphysical thought of Greece than that of the more practical rabbinical traditions of Israel.
Put another way, those conclusions owed more to the intellectualism of Paul than the more practical life experiences of the Disciple-Apostles, especially the fishermen who might have done their share of cursing over rough seas and broken nets.
Paul, however, was blessed through his birth at Tarsus with early exposure to the wider cosmopolitan world than the more homely provincial Galileans. He had sat at the feet of the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel and, until reality in the form of the risen Christ hit him, had managed to reason himself to an understanding 180 degrees in the wrong direction when grappling with that vexed question "Who was Jesus Christ?" - which others then and now might render in saltier form.
Paul reasoned it wrong, yet his philosophical talents were not wasted as he eventually found himself sent on missionary journeys into the world of both Athens and Rome to render the teachings of an obscure Jew comprehensible to the more sophisticated classical world which proved an unlikely partner in world evangelisation.
Reason didn't cut it: he did not reason himself to faith; indeed, left to that particular device - reason - he would have been lost. Only the bursting in on his self-satisfied certainties by the living Christ was able to turn him around. Without such inconceivable good (ie redemptive) fortune, Paul would have remained a persecuting, stiff-necked intellectual who never risked beatings, stonings, ship wreck or execution, and never in those horrible experiences was challenged by the entirely human framing of the question "What the fuck would Jesus do?" - to which the correct answer is, of course, "Carry on preaching the Gospel of Salvation unto death."
Within the bumper sticker debate we have heard contributions of what this 'truly' means, so here is Brother Ivo's two penn'orth for which some will not give a fig (is that a euphemism?).
It is all about the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, Judaea and Rome, Cambridge and Calcutta.
How would you like your Lamb of God, sir? Perfectly presented or on the bloody side?
When one talks of a Messiah who is both Man and God, one is inexorably drawn into that tension. One can speak the metaphysical language of Greece with which Paul was especially familiar: it is the language of transcendent perfection, purity, and reason. There is assuredly truth within that language, practice and example by which one tries to describe what is going on in the mind of the consubstantial, co-eternal God who makes 'spotless oblation' - but the restrained linguistic analyses of the Oxbridge College does does not always hit the spot in the Dog and Duck or the inner-city housing estate where the theological dialect may need to be rooted in a much earthier reality. They wouldn't know an ontological entity if it bit them.
In that environment, more akin to the trenches than the theological college, it may not be the ethereal noli me tangere Christ that makes contact in crisis, but rather he of the sweaty feet; the friend of the swearing Peter under pressure in the Palace courtyard; the gasping, naked, bleeding failure whose nailed-up cadaver was supposed to be a warning, not an inspiration.
Christians will always be in tension over this. If one regards Christ from one perspective only, especially that of transcendance, one is unlikely to see the full picture, which is why such controversies can also be paradoxical. They can be damaging - an invitation to rant, and utterly futile. Or they can invite us to examine the fullness and complexity of faith in a more rounded way.
There is much beauty in the quietness of the Christian altar, whether in its simplicity within the non-conformist tradition, or the white-laced altar cloth incarnation of those higher up the candle.
Yet both are light years away from the bloody execution-bloc altars of the Temple which Jesus knew. They are are also significantly removed from the table of the Upper Room, or perhaps some of the other environments where Peter and Paul broke bread and shared wine.
The building of our Gothic cathedrals, our carefully ordered and negotiated liturgies or the composing of complex music which accompanies our worship, were almost certainly never the answers offered by Peter or Paul to the WTFWJD question.
We have not exactly stayed with our origins in any of this. Every generation is challenged and responds as it is, where it is. Our Living God enters relationships on a daily basis, and the agents of challenge will never be of our choosing and may not be heard or recognised by all. Only Paul saw the light on the Damascus road and heard his individual call. He did, however, respond to it, teach from it and live out its consequences, often upsetting friend and foe alike in the process.
So, one perhaps ought to be at least a little guarded in taking offence at the Rev'd Goodman's rather opaque bumper sticker, and certainly not extrapolate from this to wider questions of women's ministry. Many women have an experience of bringing new life in the midst of pain, blood, travail and tears: in that reality there is often uninhibitted language. Perhaps given such experiences we should not be surprised that they sometimes bring a new yet no less Christ-driven response in their outreach to those estranged or wholly ignorant of Jesus.
Some of our ministers will be and ought to be quiet, reflective, and, to a degree, other worldly. They will stand in our midst to challenge us all to be better than we are. They can and should teach us not to be conformed to the ways of this world. Yet alongside them we do also need those of a more recognisably human character of whom the Rev'd Geoffrey Studdart Kennedy was a perfect example.
It was he who handed out the cigarettes and kept a disillusioned soldiery in touch with God in those most challenging of circumstances. He was the much loved priest who shared trench life with the ordinary soldiers in the First World War and whose trade mark tool of outreach was the proffered cigarette. His ordinary humanity touched so many lives that the streets were lined with old soldiers at his funeral.
One of them stepped forward and laid a packet of Woodbines on the coffin. That would probably be regarded as wrong on many levels today - an impious offering of grave goods coupled with a bad public health message.
Yet in a curious way it was also a holy act: a remembrance of that through which Christ touched the lives of many in the midst of unimaginable horror. The shared cigarette was the means by which those in extremis were able to allow themselves to engage with the bigger picture, even as they railed and doubtless swore at the reality in which they found themselves.
Sometimes, like Woodbine Willie, our clergy have to get a little grubby and be in places far worse than Brother Ivo ever visits. They may be sharing geographically grim places or states of mind: all too often neither is a place of comfort. They may not seem proximate to those priests whose ministry is undertaken in more cerebral or refined cicumstances but they are the salt without which Christian ministry is far removed from engagement with the real world. Jesus himself seemed much more at home with the outcast than the Temple habitués.
So, if our clergy present as outside the common spectrum of expectation, we all ought perhaps to be slow to complain, especially those who love the language of traditional hymns such as God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers.