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Interview: Stanley Monkhouse, anatomist, vicar, and musician

17 November 2017

‘Our brains are evolving; so theology must evolve’

I was told I was going to be a doctor. I qualified from Cambridge, where I read Medical Sciences for two years, and History of Art for one; then three years’ clinical studies in King’s College Hospital, London.

Things that stand out in my intellectual formation include realising that, as human beings, we are apes in the long line of evolution from primeval soup. Then embryology: we carry our structural and genetic history with us. History of Art taught me to think rather than remember.

Practising medicine wasn’t for me. The responsibility was terrible. But I never forgot my fascination with the human form; so I ended up as anatomy demonstrator at the medical school at Nottingham, and became a permanent lecturer.

In 1987, I saw an advert for Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and I applied. In January 1988 we rolled off the St Columba at Dún Laoghaire: Susan and me, Victoria and the boys. Hugh and Edward were choristers at Southwell and Ripon respectively, till they came to school in south Dublin. It was a very fraught time that affected our well-being.

The set-up for handling cadavers for dissection was redolent of a Hammer horror film, and the medical course, worse. I modernised both, and fought for the place of anatomy when medical educationalists were saying that medical students didn’t need to know facts so long as they looked caring.

The other thing that got me into trouble was my strange notion that, since medical students paid our salaries, we should actually listen to their concerns (obvious parallels with the Church). In 2000, I returned to the UK as foundation anatomist at the medical school in Derby.

I see all theology and pastoralia through the lenses of evolution, embryology, and medical science. It’s incarnational, of course, and I’ve no hesitation in saying that, if theology and biology disagree, then the theology needs to be changed or ditched. I’ve come to the view that Jesus came to show us the way, and that most doctrine is at best poetry, and at worst oppressive nonsense.

Theology is a human construct. Our brains are evolving; so theology must evolve. This has profound implications for all sorts of things, not the least of which is sexuality. My training led me to value straightforwardness and candour. I’m told that I’m frighteningly blunt.

Telling the truth is the most serious sin a priest can commit; for many people simply want you to confirm their prejudices while you drink their tea. Candour is a characteristic of Cumbrians, too, and I was born in Carlisle and brought up in the Eden Valley. I retain flat vowels as evidence.

Medicine taught me that humans, primates (apes not archbishops), mammals, chordates, all fit into the procession of life. It must be nice to be an orang-utan picking fleas out of a friend’s fur. I wonder how we’ll continue to evolve, or whether we’re the end of a road. We’ve so cocked things up that mass extinction would give the opportunity for a fresh start.

In medical practice, I enjoyed doing dirty stuff like wound-cleaning and sucking out pus from mastoid cavities in ear, nose, and throat, and plastic surgery.

I hated not letting people die with dignity. I’m haunted by an infant with biliary atresia who was repeatedly operated on merely to provide practice for surgeons.

Life in 1950s Langwathby, for a boy who was fat, asthmatic, and uninterested in farming, football, or cricket, was grey, oppressive, and often cruel. Organ lessons at Carlisle Cathedral, combined with what I’d learnt about the beauty of humanity from Bible stories at Methodist Sunday school, began to forge a notion of the divine, and the itch to seek ordination.

I started training with the East Midlands Ministry Training Course in 2004, and it was the most intellectually stimulating time of my life, thanks to the Principal, Michael Taylor.

I have three churches in Burton. St Paul’s is a big Anglo-Catholic barn in an increasingly Muslim area. Its glory has departed. St Aidan’s is on the edge of town. St Modwen’s, in the Market Square, is a lovely 18th-century church with no parish; so I’m trying to open minds to a town-centre ministry. There are too many C of E churches built by brewers in the 19th century. Presumably they thought building churches would atone for poisoning the populace with beer.

You can’t separate spirituality from the body. When Paul talks about “the flesh” he’s talking about egocentricity. Crucifixion is about the killing of selfish desire in order to become selfless.

We’re too prescriptive about what we allow in church. I see the way people approach the lectern or altar, having had all spontaneity knocked out of them as children, and I’m sad about that. I think the mass is the one time in church where we can be absolutely ourselves in the presence of the Lord.

I learnt to play hymns in Methodist chapels; so I know how to use the organ to control a congregation. I’ve been organist and singer at churches in London, Nottingham, Dublin, and Derby. I doubt I’d do either of those things now — my hearing and eyesight are not great — but I gave a concert recently, and was pleasantly surprised. The organist said: “You’ve not lost the magic.”

Bach’s six-part Aus tiefer [Not] — is there anything so profound? I play it over and over again, and find something new each time.

From a very early age, our son Hugh was a risk-taker, with an astonishing twinkle in the eye. After a music degree, he worked first as a truck driver in America, then as a hands-on worker in the oil fields. In 2014, he landed a lab-based job in Houston. Three days after his 38th birthday, in 2015, he didn’t wake up. I took the phone call from Texas at 9.15 p.m. on a Friday. It’s scorched into my psyche. He’d borne gout-like disease for some years, swallowing Ibuprofen for pain.

In the end, you have to navigate grief for yourself. There is very little to help fathers who lose adult offspring. The only book I found even vaguely helpful was Stephen Oliver’s Inside Grief. I find grief for my son to be fierce, bitter, and volcanic. For 18 months, hardly a day passed without my hearing King David’s lament at the death of Absalom.

Part of my grief is the realisation that what has died is, in part, what I wished myself to have been. I’m more cautious than Hugh. But then I’m still alive.

I’ve had a whole life of doing my best for family and children and generations of medical students. Now, I’d quite like to be ministered to by others. There’s an interesting phase of life to begin, in which I identify what would give me joy. Find a decent organ to play more often. Write more? I don’t care if anyone reads it.

I can’t remember why I started the blog [Rambling Rector]. The muse scarpered when Hugh died, and she hasn’t really returned. Occasionally, I think I glimpse her round the corner.

My anatomy teachers Max Bull and Rex Coupland, and Andrew Seivewright, my Carlisle organ teacher, have had the deepest influence on my life; and my beloveds: Susan, Victoria, Hugh, and Edward.

I pray most for justice, without which there will never be peace. Peace, in the sense we use that word, isn’t a terribly Christian concept. We need to fight.

Political correctness makes me angry, particularly that which sees working-class white people marginalised. Also, people in government who live behind electric gates in the Cotswolds or the Home Counties and have no idea what ordinary people have to endure.

I’m also angered by the anti-intellectualism and corporate managerialism of bishops, P. North excepted. The few I know are lovely people, but it’s almost as if, when they meet, their sherry is laced with Rohypnol, the effects of which don’t wear off until they leave.

The intellectual suppleness and open-mindedness of young people gives me hope. So the Church is the ideal working environment for me.

I wouldn’t choose to be locked in a church with Jesus. He’d never give a straight answer, and he’d be saying to me, as he said to his mates, “Good grief, haven’t you got it yet?” I’ll go for the Dalai Lama and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Eugene Peterson‘s The Message is fantastic; so perhaps he could join us.


The Revd Dr Stanley Monkhouse was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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