Some time ago I had a sadness with the hierarchy of the Church of England. A job I had deeply wanted was taken away from me at the last moment, thanks to one bishop’s failure to take up references, another’s failure to open a file in over three months, a third’s failure to check what was in there, and an archdeacon’s profound malevolence in secreting a malicious letter into that file knowing his bishop would be too lazy to read it. This was all a tremendous shame, as new things were on the verge of happening, both for that most excellent parish, and, I had hoped, for me.
As I struggled with a blend of deep depression and incandescent rage, a kind friend invited me to come and stay with her in a northern city I had never visited before. It was a delightful stay, and a welcome tonic in a bleak time. She is one of those friends I see rarely, but cherish much. The highlight of my visit was perhaps when her dealer called round. Yes, that kind of dealer. In parish ministry you learn not to appear surprised: “I’ve had an abortion”; “I’m leaving my wife for my boyfriend”; “I’ve never believed in the Holy Spirit”; “I was abused by the chaplain at school”; you know, that sort of thing. You may flinch inside, but outwardly, never.
Noel listened to my story. He was a man from a different sort of world from my own: a bit rough and ready; mixed-race; he had known hardship and prejudice. He made a living, I don’t suppose I can really call it an honest one, in the only way he knew. When I was done, he said:
“That’s terrible, man. This guy needs sorting out. I can do it for you”.
I said, “Oh no, I’m sure that’s not necessary”.
He said, probably looking at the threadbare clothes I was wearing (I wasn’t poor, just don’t like to throw things out):
“Honest, I won’t charge, just tell me where he lives”.
So, for a fleeting moment there lay in my hands the chance to wreak vengeance on my enemy; if not to have him killed, at least to make sure he never walked again without assistance. It was pure, corrupting, power. And do what you will with that oxymoron.
I made light of it, and the conversation moved on.
I was tempted. Not for long, but I was tempted. What stopped me was that if discovered, Noel would have suffered far more than me, or even the bishop in question. And I suspect in his young life he had suffered enough. I am not sufficiently a Christian to have worried all that much about the bishop.
But there was in that nefarious young man’s offer a variety of compassion. Wrongly expressed, and I suspect often used amiss, but it was compassion all the same. We were strangers, and he thought I had been hard done by, and offered what he could to help, in the only language he knew. It is of course a million miles from the Good Samaritan. But then, so am I.
My prayer is that his compassion will have found a better outlet, something that may bring him joy and prosperity and peace, something to pass on, perhaps, to another generation of Noels who may never even think of such things.
And my other prayer is that the wanting to forgive those hierarchs that is in my heart, may become the real forgiveness that my soul yearns for, and must find, before it can ever find its place at the table in heaven.
I think Noel will get a better seat than me; but if I ever hear those words “friend, come up higher” it will be from him.