Friday, 1 June 2012

Turbulent Priests

For thirty years I earned a living by renting out the mouth for money. As a result the mouth was a great traveller. I scarcely left my armchair but ever week the mouth went all over the world.

Frankly I am glad of the practice because any day now I am going to be standing knee-deep in clouds and deafened by the incessant harp plucking, shouting over the noise, explaining to God I never had any problem with Him. The evidence of His existence is so obvious it would be foolish to deny it. Such a complex thing as life could not possibly be an accident.  It was religion I had come to think of as evil and, frankly, if any of its various versions of God came to live next door, I would move.

Oddly, some of my best friends have been priests; indeed one of them is an archbishop. Though Barry Morgan was still in the ranks, a rural dean, when we met, and chiefly famous for the wonderful creamy gateaux he used to make to relieve stress and share with friends at jolly parties.

He was Bishop of Bangor when I was invited to chair a discussion at the Hay Festival on the Disestablishment of the Church with top theologians including Rowan Williams.

I went to Barry for advice and admitted I knew little about the subject.

‘Never stopped you in the past,’ he said.

‘Do me a favour,’  I said. ‘Your mate Rowan Williams is one of the debaters and he’s got a brain bigger than your cathedral.’

‘You tell him, if he isn’t kind to you,”he said” the next Synod it’s croziers at dawn.’

As I got to know him better I was awestruck by the simple faith which was at the golden centre of his being. When I got the Big C and you couldn’t put the odds on paper for survival, I am not ashamed to admit I rang him to ask him to put in a word at Head Office.

As bishop, he took a very relaxed view of one of his priests, Geraint ap Iorwerth, who opened his own branch of religion in his church at Pennal on the Welsh coast. He founded the Order of Sancta Sophia (Holy Wisdom), dedicated to the Wisdom of God, the feminine side of the Godhead.

Over the lychgate of his church he carved ‘My house will be a house of prayer for all nations’. Inside the church was a sanctuary. Under an icon of the Holy Wisdom from the Byzantine Church, there were paperback translations of the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Hindi Upanishads and the Koran. There was an Ashram, or meeting place, in a converted barn and in the graveyard a Celtic cross and a picnic table that doubled as an altar. Nearby was a barbecue and a bonfire site where fires were lit, as they would have been in pre-Christian days, to celebrate Midsummer (the feast of St John the Baptist) or Celtic New Year (All Hallows’  Eve).

He told me: ‘I don’t think there is one true faith. The cosmic Christ is beyond all religions, including Christianity. He came to teach humility and we are arrogant if we say there is no true love in other religions. How can we have an exclusive line to the Mind of God? Every religion gives you a different perspective of the Truth. God must be daft if He left it all for the Christians.

‘I don’t advocate a mishmash. It’s not realistic to say you can bring religions together. But you can create an atmosphere where you can share prayer and join in the search for the truth.’

I was glad when he offered to say a word at Tumour Time. God will remember what a busy week that was. Another very close friend, a Roman Catholic priest, Brian Jones, said a mass for me. He was a lovable rascal in many ways, gourmet and lover of good wine, with an eye for a pretty girl. A gifted raconteur and always in trouble with his bishops. One year for his Christmas mass he invited the children to bring their toys. He was delighted when one small boy in a cowboy suit marched down the aisle, drew his toy revolver and shot up the Grotto.

When the Pope came to Wales Father Brian took his flock to meet him. He couldn’t resist hanging on to the Papal umbrella he was loaned. His Bishop spotted him leaving the ground with it.

‘Brian, Brian, what are you thinking of?’ he reproached him. ‘Take five, they’ll think you are collecting them.’

When from time to time he was disciplined and moved to a new parish as a punishment, his parishioners were bereft and always threw a magnificent farewell party. They knew at the sick bed or when anyone was dying he was the man to have at your side.

He had a great faith in his God. Once when my car wouldn’t start in Menai Bridge as he was passing he muttered a few words over the bonnet and it started at once.

Looking back, they all shared a deep belief in God but a very relaxed view of Princes of the Church.

Oddly enough, it was a priest who prompted my rejection of religion. By a mile the holiest man I have ever met, he was a Sri Lankan and his name was Father Tissus Belasuniya. I interviewed him when he was excommunicated because of a book he wrote “Mary and Human Liberty”. He argued that Mary and Joseph were political exiles and Christ was a revolutionary. The pope of the day took particular exception to his belief that Christ could be debated, just like any other leader. What really sent the cardinals a-flutter was the way his book reinforced the words of Luke: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree.’

I much preferred his views to the insistence of the nuns at my wife’s convent that whistling and sitting with her legs crossed made Our Lady blush. And I have to point out that there is no record of pederastic priests being ex-communicated. And I do wonder why so many fine young men have lost their lives partly because of the plight of women in Afghanistan. I have an increasing dread that we are about to lose more of our golden youth in Syria as politicians take us into another war we cannot win to pursue the fiction that we are still running the world. The Anglicans don’t want to allow women to become bishops and the Catholics won’t allow them to marry priests or hold any religious office.


If I ordered a pint in a pub and when the landlord pulled the pump nothing happened he would return my money. I made a contract with Anglian Water that in return for a handsome sum they would satisfy my water needs. If I cannot get all the water I want because they’ve lost so much through their inefficient delivery pipes, ought they not give me my money back?