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One year retired.

2015 September 2
by Gordon Reid

Today is  the first anniversary of my retirement as Rector of St Clement’s. It has been a year of ups and downs, but mainly ups. As some of you have found, being suddenly released from all manner of responsibilities can be an unsettling experience. Of course it is, quite literally, liberating: one is suddenly freed from many duties. But if one has been used to a daily and weekly routine, it can be odd to have the necessity of finding a new routine – or none at all. We have all experienced this in a minor version when taking vacations.

Everyone solves this in their own way. This is what I have done so far.

First I took a real vacation and went almost literally from the altar to the airport. I flew to London and saw several close friends there before traveling north to Edinburgh for a couple of weeks. I grew up south of Edinburgh, studied in Edinburgh for four years and was a Curate and then a Rector of two churches in that city for fifteen years; so many of my roots are there. But I lived and worked in London for six years, as well as  knowing it well from my four years at Oxford and three when I taught at Salisbury Theological College. So I think of both cities, really, as “home”. I also had side trips to Norwich to stay with Canon Haselock, the ever-hospitable Sub-Dean of the Cathedral, and a visit with him to Our Lady of Walsingham, that powerful shrine which I first visited in the 1960′s. I would like to have visited other friends, but somehow felt I had to get back to Philadelphia and get on with organizing a retirement house or apartment. But having done that, I now feel up to making a resolution that in this second year of my retirement I would like to go back and visit the  places where my vocation has taken me.

All this is very well and good, but do I have the energy? Well, the answer is – Sometimes. I have had four hip replacements (if I were a horse, they would have shot me!) and this slows one down a bit. And all airports are a pain in the neck, though I have friends here in Philly who seem to think nothing of hopping off to Europe or California or China at the drop of a hat. I think my job as Vicar-General of the Anglican Diocese of Europe has cured me of the wish to travel too much. However, the desire to see old friends in my former parishes is stronger than my distaste for travel, so I intend to see as many of them as is possible. Hence, I hope during my second year of retirement to visit several places in the UK as well as Ankara, Stockholm, Gibraltar and Milan .

Meanwhile, back to my first year of retirement. After my time in the UK I found a very bright, sunny loft apartment in the centre of Philadelphia and moved my possessions there from  the storage unit where I deposited them right after I left St Clement’s Rectory. The loft is just one huge space, with the bedroom up some stairs on a balcony. All my life as a priest has been spent in spacious, many-roomed Rectories or Deaneries, and I wondered how I would adjust to this one space. But I have to say I have enjoyed it enormously. Different corners behave like different rooms, so that I can still say I have a study, a sitting room, a dining room and a kitchen, as well as a bathroom and laundry room and large walk-in closets. But one difference is, of course, that for the first time in my life I have had to pay rent and things like electric bills! This would not have been the case if I had ever been a Vicar in the Church of England, since they do have to pay utility bills (and this partly explains why the C of E has been selling off the vast old Rectories that every parish used to have and replacing them with modern houses). But in the Scottish Episcopal Church and the American Episcopal Church, these bills are paid by the congregations. This is true also of the Diocese in Europe. But I must say this opened my eyes a little as to how the clergy (or some of us, at any rate) are shielded from some of the everyday realities of normal life.

I’ve spent the rest of my first year of retirement in Philadelphia apart from a four-day trip to Toronto for the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Priests, of which I am a member. This was my first visit to Canada, and I was greatly impressed by the city of Toronto. The conference was very interesting; I  gave one of the talks – on the spiritual significance of the three words in our Society’s title – and our thirty or forty participants worshipped in several of the Anglo-Catholic churches of the city. I also  had a short visit to Palm Springs and several to Washington D.C. But I am always happy to return to Philadelphia. It is a great city which is growing all the time. Some of the best restaurants in America are here, skyscrapers are shooting up, every sidewalk seems to be covered in cafe tables, the museums and art galleries are world-class (including the lovely newly-located Barnes Collection).

Church-wise, I have been very happy to be made Rector-Emeritus of St Clement’s and to be able to help Fr Alton, my successor, by saying one Mass per week, which gives him a day off. On many Sundays I also  go to St Clement’s but more and more I am being asked to celebrate and preach in other churches of this diocese and even further afield. The pressure of the full life of a Rector is off, and one of the greatest joys I have rediscovered is to be able to say the whole Divine Office privately. I love Solemn Evensong and Benediction sung to Anglican Chant and Elgar, but what feeds my own spiritual life most is faithfulness to the quiet recitation of the Office. However, if I keep to my intention to visit all my old spheres of ministry from Inverness to Gibraltar, much of the Office will have to be said in airports!

In spite of the slightly discombobulating (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a Blog entry!) experience of retirement, I have enjoyed and gained much from my first year. Now let’s see what  the Holy Spirit has in mind for the second.




Hidden Windows of St Clement’s

2015 July 21
by Gordon Reid

St Clement’s has some wonderful stained-glass windows that used to be seen only by a select few – the servers!

We have two sacristies, each one chock-full of vestments (why is that a surprise to no one?) The back sacristy, which is beside the St John’s Chapel, had six windows, depicting  the Corporal Works of Mercy. They are among the finest stained glass in the church, and I was always  sorry that the whole congregation had almost no chance of ever seeing them. So one of the last things I proposed to the Vestry before I retired was to move these windows and have them cleaned and installed in the Anchor Room, a small hall used for coffee hours, child care and classes. This would mean that everyone would get to see them.

Well, I am happy to say that this has now been completed, and the six windows are visible every week. This is not only an important aesthetic matter, but also an inspiration for the development of St Clement’s Anglo-Catholic heritage. If there is one thing  which the Tractarians and Ritualists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries stood for it was   that the beauty of Catholic worship was idolatry if it was not the inspiration and guiding force in the Church’s carrying out of the commands of our Lord. I call these “The Inasmuches” because Jesus  painted a picture of the judgement of God at the last day, listing what came to be called the Corporal Works of Mercy – the giving of food and drink and clothing to the needy, the visiting of the sick and those in prison, the taking in and shelter of the homeless – and portrayed his heavenly Father saying: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me”.  In other words, the places we meet our God are hospitals and prisons, soup kitchens and refugee camps, hospices for the  sick, hostels for the homeless.

It is only when the Church is  present and active in all such places that she has any right (and any hope of success) to celebrate the Mass and administer the Sacraments. Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar summed it up memorably when he told the Anglo-Catholic Congress in London in 1923 “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum”.

If I were more computer-competent I could show you  some of these glorious windows here, but alas the photos are on my IPhone and I have no idea how to get them here. However, that may not be such a bad thing: far better you should come to St Clement’s and see them for yourselves. (Also, I will see if they can be put up on the St Clement’s web site by our splendidly competent webmaster).


Now I have all the time in the world!

2015 June 16
by Gordon Reid

I am grateful  to someone who came to church at St Clement’s for the first time last Sunday and said to me; “I love your blog, but I hoped you would write much more now you are retired and have all the time in the world”. Well, I was pleased that this person had enjoyed my blog entries for years, as he said, but had to put him right about “all the time in the world”! It’s true that retirement has brought  more free time than  when I was working full-time, but in a way, there is just as much to do, only it is at different times and more freely arranged.

One difference for a priest is in the recitation of the Daily Office. At St Clement’s, Morning Prayer was before the 7 a.m. Mass and Evening Prayer at 5.30 every day. For  many years I have used in private recitation the five offices of the modern Roman breviary. (In Milan I used the Ambrosian office book which differs considerable from the Roman one).  Of course, when I said the office in public I used the Episcopal Prayer Book. Now I am able to choose my times much more freely than before, and also what language I use. For many years as a young priest I used to say the office in Latin; then I said it in modern Latin (1.e. Italian!) which helped me learn the language for my job as Archdeacon of Italy and Malta. I never tried Maltese, which is, I imagine,  one of the most difficult languages to learn. And lately I have taken to saying the office in Spanish, in that that is the second language of the USA and would be useful if I were asked to say Mass for one of our Spanish-speaking congregations.

(Through thick and thin, for over fifty years I have usually used the form of Compline in the  1929 Scottish Prayer Book. It never changed, so I soon knew it off by heart, and I have said it late at night, walking home from visiting a parishioner or a pub or a police station! I admit I just put in police station because it begins with a “p”, but I was for four years what Americans would call Commissioner of Police and we Scots called “Convenor of the Lothian and Borders Joint Police Board” (what a mouthful!)  This meant that I had many evening engagements on  police business, and when they were in Edinburgh and not all over the South of Scotland, I would often refuse the police car and walk home, specifically to enjoy Compline on the way.)

Anyway, after that little excursus, my point is that the Divine Office still takes up about a couple of hours of my day out of “all the time in the world”. Then there is the change from having a large Rectory to living  in one’s own apartment. It would seem at first sight that that would reduce domestic matters. But no; in my colleges and rectories and deaneries I have always had domestic staff, cleaners, sextons, whole congregations with many skills who were always on hand to come to Father’s rescue, especially when Father was as clueless as this one in regard to  anything mechanical or, indeed, practical! It is true that I still have many friends nearby who are willing to come to my aid when I get really stuck. But I do have to do far more for myself in practical matters than before. For example, I shop and cook, either for myself or for guests. This is a pleasure, but it takes time. Keeping the house clean, laundry and other household chores also consume quite a bit of time. This has made me even more aware of how heroically many young mothers (and increasingly in these enlightened times fathers) cope with having full-time jobs, keeping a house and garden and bringing up children.

Then there is the fact of simply being a priest, with almost as many demands on my time as I had in  a “full-time” position. I have stopped hearing confessions at St Clement’s , but am still spiritual director for quite a few clergy and others in the Philadelphia area. And now that my fellow clergy know I am available, I have been asked to preach and take retreats and conferences here and there, all of which need preparation work. So there goes “all the time in  the world” again!

However, having said all that, retirement has meant that I have been able to change pace considerably. Anyone who has lived in a Rectory knows the continual ringing of the telephone and the front doorbell, the almost daily visits to hospitals and homes, the stream of interviews and classes for baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. Now that others are looking after all that, I am left with a good deal most time, and am enjoying that very much.

What to do with that time? Well, writing in this blog is one result. Another is the completion and expansion of an autobiography, which may never,  of course, see the light of day.  If it is ever published, I would like to call it “Have Biretta, Will Travel”! I am encouraged in this by the example of Colin Stephenson who never really expected his churchy autobiography “Merrily on High” to be published. A third use of this extra time is to be a more faithful friend and to visit friends I have not seen for many years. I began my retirement doing some of that, when I had a few months in Scotland and England, and I am beginning to make plans to visit many of my former parishes in Europe, such as  Gibraltar, Stockholm, Milan and Ankara. But not all at once!





Fr Geoffrey Evans

2015 May 3
by Gordon Reid



Fr Geoffrey has died. He must have been one of the longest serving priest of the Diocese in Europe. When I joined that Diocese in 1988, the Bishop asked me to go to Turkey and help Fr Geoffrey. I said: “Why does he need help” and Bishop Satterthwaite said “Because he is the only Anglican priest left in Turkey and he’s the Archdeacon of the Aegean and the Danube”. Well, how could I resist that?

At that time, the Church of England had only three chaplaincies in Turkey, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, and Fr Geoffrey was the Chaplain in the last of these. But the Chaplain of the British Embassy in Ankara had moved, and the Chaplain in Istanbul had died suddenly, so only Geoffrey was left. I flew with the Bishop to Istanbul and we went to the British Consulate-General where we were staying. It is a majestic collection of buildings dating from the time of the Ottoman Empire (much grander, in fact, than the Embassy in Ankara).

It was there I first met Fr Geoffrey. Those who knew him will  appreciate that I was underwhelmed by the rather scruffy, spare figure with wild hair, clutching an enormous bag, full of strangely shaped objects. But it did not take me long to know that under that outward appearance, Geoffrey was a very special person. The first indication of this I had was when we went to the apartment of the priest who had just died. It was sparsely furnished, but all over the place, in drawers and cupboards and stuck between files, were large sums of money in British pounds, German and Swiss Marks,  American dollars, and other more obscure currencies. Geoffrey saw nothing unusual in this, but simply scooped it all up into his shapeless bag. ” I can do lots of good things with this”, he said. Later on, I saw some of it disbursed to many needy people.

This followed from the fact that first of all Geoffrey was a priest. H head done no other job: straight from University and Theological College, he was ordained. And his whole life had been devoted to the Church, whether in his native Wales, or in the wilds of Guyana, or in his beloved Turkey. I’ll never forget his tale of when the Bishop visited his parish in the jungle, the little boat collapsed and Geoffrey and His Lordship were left struggling in the murky waters of the great South American river. Geoffrey said, with that wicked grin of his: “I was worried about crocodiles and snakes, and all the Bishop could do as we swam for the shore was shriek that  his precious mitre had sunk to the bottom!” “Silly ass”, he added.

Geoffrey had a love/hate relationship with Turkey. On the one hand he loved the country and its various peoples, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t learn the language properly. He would shout or mutter the primary form of any Turkish word, and then express incredulity and impatience that no one understood him. But whether they understood him or not, they loved him. His own parish was Izmir, and during the times I stayed with him there, I saw countless people shake (or kiss) his hand, tell him their troubles and ask a blessing. They may have been Muslims or unbelievers, but they recognized a holy man. Most of his ministry was quiet and unremarkable, but there were high moments, such as the time when he saved St John’s Anglican Church from being demolished to make way for a wider road: he confronted the workmen sent by the town council and physically lay down in front of the bulldozers.

To see Geoffrey celebrate Mass was an experience. He was perfect in all proper Anglo-Catholic ritual, but he could never be still. If a lesson was being read, Geoffrey would rush out into the sacristy and come back with a purificator or a book or nothing. Yet again this did not detract from the fact that here was a man of God doing what he was ordained to do, and which he thought was the most important thing in the world. I was often left to say the next bit of the liturgy while Geoffrey rushed up the aisle to welcome someone who had just come into the church.

On the wider Church scene, Fr Geoffrey was known not just as the Anglican Archdeacon of the Aegean and the Danube, a title which he mischievously cherished, but also in the wider Church in Turkey. He led many pilgrims, including several Archbishops and Bishops, to Eastern Turkey to visit the Syrian  Orthodox communities which were often in grave danger and openly persecuted. Many of them fled and relocated in Sweden, and when I was Chaplain of the English Church in Stockholm, I was very moved at an ecumenical gathering to be told by the Syrian Archbishop how much Fr Geoffrey had done for his community. “Without Fr Geoffrey”, he said “many more of our people would have perished.” I knew he was always collecting money for the Syriani, but had no idea it had been so vital.

And now he has gone on into the eternities, which will be a merrier place for his arrival. I doubt if he will be able to rest in peace, but have no doubt that his limitless energies will be put to even greater use.




SCP # Tractswarm 2 – the Resurrection

2015 April 17
by Gordon Reid

I must have preached on the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ a hundred times, but I don’t think I have ever tried to write a short piece on what it is.

I have always emphasized that Jesus appeared (with one great exception, which I believe ultimately was no exception) only to those who already loved him and believed that was the Messiah of Israel and/or the Son of God, to those who had put their trust in him.

He appeared quietly and intimately to Mary Magdalene who loved him dearly. He appeared to his terrified apostles in the upper room where they had four days before eaten the Last Supper. He appeared to Thomas, who loved him but could not believe he was alive. He appeared to two disciples (and I vividly remember G.B. Caird in a lecture in Oxford in a throw-away line saying “And I don’t suppose it has occurred to many of you that they were probably a married couple”!) walking sadly away from Jerusalem  to Emmaus, grieving his death.

And the results of these appearances were all the same: they found that their grief was dispelled, their doubts were gone. Mary Magdalene’s tears were dried and she was wild with joy. The frightened apostles, huddled behind locked doors were liberated from their fears and turned into the bold, confident men we see teaching the Good News of the Resurrection “in spite of dungeon, fire or sword”. Thomas turned from sad doubt to joyful certainty, which led him to shout the first Creed of the Church “My Lord and my God”. All those who saw the Lord would certainly have maintained the reality of his rising from the dead, but what really convinced them that this was not just an inexplicable miracle was that these experiences brought them not intellectual certainty, but a deep sense of joy and peace that only the assured perpetual presence of the Lord could bring.

Equally important is to remember those to whom Jesus did not appear after his Resurrection, Pontius Pilate or Herod, the chief priests, the scribes and the pharisees. He appeared to some frightened men and women, some disillusioned fishermen, some heart-broken friends. His Resurrection appearances were never intended to force belief – the devil tempted him to do that in the desert (if angels caught him when he threw himself from the top of the Temple, the people would have to believe he was at least someone special); the pharisees taunted him to use the same ploy as he hung on the Cross (“Come down and we will believe your claims”). But to them all he said “Get behind me, Satan”.

And that brings us to the seemingly glaring exception to what I have been saying: the appearance of the risen Lord to Paul on his way to Damascus. Paul hated the followers of Jesus and wanted them all in jail or executed, and yet the Lord Jesus appeared to him and, as we put it, converted him. But (to take an example from a widely  different time and age) those who want homosexuals persecuted or imprisoned or even put to death are often the ones most likely to be gay themselves, some deeply repressed, others hypocritically practicing until led in handcuffs from a public restroom! So I think it was with Paul – he was a deep scholar and knew all about the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah. I believe he must have seen him in Jerusalem, perhaps even on the Cross: it was a small society. He had heard Stephen’s testimony to Jesus the Christ, and watched him die bravely proclaiming the Resurrection. I believe the “sudden” conversion on the road to Damascus had been brewing and tormenting Paul for years, and that it took only a few days of earnest and exhausting conversation with loving disciples in Damascus before the scales fell from his eyes and he saw why Jesus had said he was persecuting him. He saw that if he persecuted the followers of Jesus he was persecuting him because baptism made them one Body. This great doctrine is all over his epistles, as is the doctrine that God chooses the weak and seemingly foolish things of this word to confound the strong and seemingly wise.

Paul saw Jesus risen, ascended, glorified, and began a life of joyful toil to proclaim the Resurrection. He was tortured and died for that as were thousands of others, because they all believed love was stronger than death. And really that’s all we need to know about the Resurrection.

Spring Break.

2015 April 17
by Gordon Reid

To help me recover from my latest hip operation (which has been very successful, thank God), I decided to visit some old friends for a couple of weeks.( I have to confess that I am enjoying being able to say this so casually, without any thought of finding priests to fill in for me while I am away, and the hundred and one other routine matters needing to be foreseen in running the parish.)

I first went by train to Washington, D.C. The two hours on Amtrak are very pleasant, and it was especially interesting at this time to see the green appearing on the leaves of trees in the woods, with here and there a tree in full white blossom. There are also three crossings of bits of the Chesapeake Bay where the water can be calm and full of little boats or grey and choppy with just a few gulls braving the wind. The saddest sight on this particular journey is the back view of some awful slums in Baltimore. Thankfully, since I started riding this route, many of them have been torn down and replaced with new dwellings, but there are still too many half falling down houses which remind me of bits of the so-called Third World.

In Washington, I stayed with a friend whom I have known for almost fifty years. We met in Europe and have kept in touch ever since. He is a generous and welcoming host, and the kind who just includes me in whatever he is doing – but only if I want to be included. A long-term member of St Peter & St Paul’s, the National Cathedral’s congregation, I went with him to some of the glorious services there for Holy Week and Easter. The High Mass on Easter Day was packed to the doors, and they can seat 3000. The choir and organists were, as always, superb, and there was a splendid sermon from the Bishop of Washington on how we must be “poised for resurrection”.  It was not St Clement’s  (where is?) but it was beautiful Catholic liturgy, with the Dean and two other priests celebrating, incense being used in all the proper places, and a joyful (and swift) distribution of Communion to all who came to the several Stations. Of course I disliked the  streaming ribbon at the end of a bendy pole, but there were also many beautiful traditional banners carried in the procession.

After six days in D.C. where the cherry blossom was out in its glory, I flew to Palm Springs, California, changing planes in Denver, Colorado, and was soon flying over arid desert land criss-crossed with canyons. The only running water I saw was the river in the Grand Canyon, which I believe never dries up. Palm Springs and the other desert places such as Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert are an astonishing green when the plane crosses the San Jacinto Mountains and swoops down into the little airport. Everywhere there are green lawns, waving palms, bright beds of flowers and many beds more sensibly planted with desert cactuses, some in flower. The temperature was in the nineties but the air was dry and my friends met me at the airport with their car minus its roof, so that we drove to their house with a lovely warm breeze keeping us cool (if you see what I mean).

I stayed a week with these friends, one of whom I went to school with at the age of eleven, so even more long-standing friends than my host  in Washington. Both are retired and have also a very charming house in London, off Clapham Common, so they have six months in each. I caught them in Palm Springs just in time before they went back to London for the summer  and, not having seen them for quite a while, we had a lot of news to catch up with. I confess I did little but swim in their pool and lie in the sun, and I’m sure both of these did my hip a world of good. Of course we went out to dinner with other friends’ homes and to great restaurants, but on the whole I simply read the Divine Office (in Spanish, to brush up my Spanish) and a few mystery novels, and that was all. A great rest with good old friends. I did my bit for the Californian drought by drinking wine instead of water wherever possible.

And now I am home, having flown (rather oddly) via San Francisco, and I must say it is great to be back in Philadelphia and my new loft apartment. The city is full of vigor, with every cafe and restaurant getting their tables and umbrellas out to cover the sidewalks. The more I live here, the more I love Philly. In my eleven years here, I have seen so much growth, with fine modern skyscrapers rising to form a changed skyline, and so many wonderful restaurants  opening up all over the place. And then there is St Clement’s, where I will be sitting in Choir on Sunday, happy to see the congregation developing and grasping new opportunities for mission and outreach. Like Philly itself, it is  growing and opening up the old rites and music of the Church to both the local community and to people who travel quite a distance to be there.  I am happy to worship with them in the beauty of holiness.

Philly processions.

2015 March 15
by Gordon Reid

What an alive city Philadelphia is. There are always half a dozen things going on at the same time.

Today there was a bizarre clash of cultures, with Center City being jammed to capacity with green-clad Irish folks celebrating their  Patron Saint, St Patrick, whose feast is on Tuesday. Having just had a hip replacement last Tuesday, I was hoping to have my usual very short bus journey to and from St Clement’s. But no way! Buses were rerouted to the most improbable routes, and eventually I had to take a cab both ways. My benevolence towards the Irish crowds was much tested by the time I got home.

However, an hour or so after returning home, a quite different kind of procession wound its way past my apartment. It was a procession to mark the end of the Chinese New Year, and was made up of the most colorful costumes. There were golden and scarlet dragons, a complete Temple on wheels, fearsome giants on stilts (unless there are some extremely tall Chinese guys in Philly), marching bands and lots of girls in ribbon-bedecked dresses. This was all accompanied by the beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals.

Reflecting on the two celebrations, I was far more in tune with the Chinese one than the Irish one. In the latter, there was no sign of St Patrick or a Catholic priest (though they may have been one somewhere else in the procession). The people were often dressed as red-haired green-clad leprechauns (which is an Irish fairy). It all seemed very secular. Yet Patrick wasn’t secular: he took the Irish by storm, making them give up their heathen ways and turn to Christ. This is hinted at by the legend that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, though a priest friend of mine said once “Aye, he certainly did, and they all went to New York City and became policemen”!  (And no, it was not the late Canon John Andrew – he would never have said Aye”.

The Chinese procession was much more clearly religious, though a religion rather different from my Anglicanism. They beat drums and clashed cymbals and sounded gongs to keep devils away from their homes. The temple was full of incense and was clearly more than just a stage prop. And come to think of it, I have seen very similar processions through the streets of Spanish and Italian towns and villages. Once I was invited by the parish priest of San Colombano near Milan to follow the head of the saint (in a beautiful jeweled casket) though the streets of his village on that saint’s day, and the noise and the costumes were as joyfully religious as today’s Chinese procession. Interestingly, St Columbanus was one of the first Irish missionaries to move out from his island to help the missionary work in Italy. But I’ll tell you about that great day when his festival comes round again.

SCP #Tractswarm – Sacrament of Reconciliation

2015 March 6
by Gordon Reid

I have been going to confession since I was twelve, and have been hearing confessions since I was 25, when I was ordained priest. Well that is the official story. But in fact, I heard one confession the year before, when I was still just a deacon.

Shock, Horror! I hope not.This is why. In my first parish, the unlikely named St Salvador’s in Edinburgh, the Rector and I were the Episcopalian Chaplains to Saughton Prison. I visited every week and got to know some of the prisoners well. One was due to be transferred to another prison in the north of Scotland and when I went to see him, he asked if I would hear his confession. Of course I explained that I was just a deacon, and that I would tell the Rector to come in, though it would be a week or so, since he was unwell. The young man said “No, I have to do it now: they are moving me tomorrow.” So I heard his confession and absolved him with the  words “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power in his Church to forgive all sinners who truly repent and unfeignedly believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee all thy sins. And by his authority WHICH IS ABOUT TO BE COMMITTED UNTO ME I absolve thee from all thy sins; in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen”. He went off the next day to his new prison in peace of mind. I, however, went to see the Bishop and confessed what I had done. He listened to the whole tale and then said, with a twinkle in his eye “Well, I suppose I’ll just have to ordain you priest now, or that absolution will never take effect!” Since then I have heard confessions for the 47 years of my priesthood, but have never been as sure of God’s merciful presence as in that first “illicit” one.

That is not a typical experience of the Sacrament of Penance but it points me in the direction of not being too  eager to make hard and fast rules about the sacrament. It is a sacrament that fell into great disrepute in living memory. In Scotland, I can remember men who would regularly get roaring fu’ (in England this is referred to as “awfully drunk”) every Friday night after getting their wage packet, which often resulted in domestic violence when they got home from the pub. And there they would be every Saturday night at the local RC church in long lines waiting for a couple of minutes in the Box, where they would confess the same old sins and be assigned three Hail Marys for their penance. Some would say: “Well, that was surely better than never going at all”, but it wasn’t – it gave them a get-out, that God took their sins as lightly as they (and the official Church) did.

Thank God that fewer people are going to confession now than used to, or that they go less frequently. My RC priest friends tell me what a weight has been lifted off their shoulders that they no longer have to spend long boring hours listening to weekly confessions, where almost everything that was confessed was a minor fault or no sin at all. We Anglo-Catholics never had the very long lines that the RCs did, since we never said that this sacrament was compulsory, though I have been in churches where I dared not take too long with any one  penitent because of the queue forming in the pews. And one great advantage we had over our RC brethren was that we hardly ever needed to question the sincerity of anyone who came to confession, since they almost all came from a great need and not out of sheer routine. Now, most of us hear confessions only at the great seasons, before Christmas and Easter or on Shrove Tuesday, though I hate to see a church notice board which says only “Confessions by appointment”. That can be one step too far for some tormented soul. Even half an hour a week, if advertised, is a very good thing.

Finally, since I am sure the Society of Catholic Priests wants only a variety of short reflections on this subject, I am happier calling this sacrament the Sacrament of Penance rather than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Reconciliation with God needs no sacrament; it can be effected the minute a soul turns back to God and says “I’m sorry”. But sin is not just something between a soul and God: it has repercussions on the whole community, and especially the whole Church. So this public owning up to sin is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace that has already happened before a person entered the confessional. The Form of this sacrament is the confession of sins, the absolution pronounced by the priest, and the penance imposed by the priest on the penitent. And the three Hail Mary’s for a penance are often not a good idea. Of course, it is right that the penitent should say some prayers in thanksgiving for his absolution, and I often tell them to say the General Thanksgiving from the Prayer Book (whose page number I have long ago memorized!), but in some cases I have suggested that a real penance might be to go and do a kindness for someone. After all, kings and nobles were sometimes told to go on a barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem for their penance – so calling on some poor lonely person or sending a gift to someone in need is not such a hard task.

“All may, none must, some should” is a great Anglican slogan. Those of us who should know who we are.

Since then I have heard confessions for the 47 years of my priesthood, but I have never forgotten that first “illicit” one.


Chariots to Heaven

2015 March 5
by Gordon Reid

I am re-reading some of George MacDonald’s novels, and this sentence (from “Robert Falconer”) caught my attention: “When Miss St John would worship God, it was in music that she found the chariot of fire in which to ascend heavenward. Hence music was the divine thing in the world for her; and to find anyone loving music humbly and faithfully was to find a brother or sister believer”.

This is true of many of those who worship at St Clement’s. Since my retirement I have had the privilege of sitting in Choir and thus being able to listen, without the distraction of having to think about playing my part in the liturgy, to the glorious music produced week after week by our organists and choir. And truly, the mind set free and  elevated by such music is a “chariot” which carries one closer to the perfect beauty  and harmony of the “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus” of the angels in heaven. Before the final chariot swings low to carry me home, the music of St Clement’s has often swung me high (well, it is St Clement’s!) into the ante-chambers of heaven. Whether it be a Mozart  setting of the Mass, or the haunting tones of the Latin propers, or the rousing hymns of Charles Wesley, the music is indeed a divine thing.


Christian Unity in Philadelphia

2015 January 23
by Gordon Reid

In my eleven years as Rector of St Clement’s, there was never a service in our area marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. But this week there was, and the hero of the change is Father Gill, the new Rector of the Basilica of St Peter & St Paul. He took the initiative and called the local clergy together, inviting them and their congregations to a service of prayer for Christian Unity last Tuesday evening.

I have been to dozens of such services all over the UK and Europe, and some of them were tedious and banal! Bt this one was admirable both in its presentation and sincerity. Rather than trying to get all the participating churches to do bits of their own tradition, which usually results in a liturgical mess, Fr Gill used a beautiful form of service prepared for this Week of Prayer by the Atonement Friars. The music was sung by a splendid choir, and included the Herbert Howells’ anthem “Like as the heart desireth the water brooks”. The psalm was also sung beautifully to Anglican Chant.

Fr Rick Alton and I represented St Clement’s, and we processed in with a monsignor and the curate of the basilica, the minister of Arch St Methodist Church, the minister of First Presbyterian Church and Mother Erika Tacaks and two other priests from St Mark’s, Locust St.  St Clement’s was also well represented in the congregation. Fr Gill conducted the service, and several of the clergy took various parts of it. Fr Gill’s sermon dwelt on the wonderful fact that we were all baptized into the Body of Christ, surely the first and most important thing to be recognized in Christian gatherings. Pope Francis himself said the same thing this week. The congregation was small, but of course the size of the basilica and its chapels dwarfs all but the vast congregations who gather for great feast days. Also, this was, as I said, the first observance of the Week for a long time in our area. The service itself was so moving that I am sure many more will assemble next year.

At one stage I mused on the extraordinary service on top of a Norwegian mountain when I thought I was about to become the first martyr to Christian Unity, when I was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Church of Norway. But that is another story, which you will find if you scroll back in this blog to the entry  for January 27, 2010.  I think you will find it amusing!

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