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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 April 2019

Malcolm Guite is surprised to find common ground with clergy in Texas

I AM writing this from the “Lone Star State”, as the Texans love to call it, after speaking at the Dallas diocesan clergy conference. This took place at the diocesan retreat centre, which, true to the Texan scale of things, turned out to be an enormous ranch-style complex set in its own grounds, with lakes, pine-forests, stables, and horses — and, it goes without saying, a shooting range.

Indeed, my first trip to Texas, some years ago, had made clear to me how different things are here. I remember finding myself sitting nervously in what should have been the driver’s seat of a pumped-up pick-up truck, and seeing in the back window of the truck in front of us a gun rack loaded with three rifles. Just below it, there were two stickers: one said “Don’t mess with Texas”, the other simply read: “John 3.16.” I felt that something had been lost in translation.

Though, curiously enough, it was translation — and, specifically Cranmer’s translations of the Latin Offices into the rich language of the Book of Common Prayer — that provided some common ground on this particular visit. Each morning, we concluded morning prayer by reciting the General Thanksgiving together, and, even though there were some unfamiliar things in the other Offices, time and again we fell into the familiar cadences and phrases of the Prayer Book.

Over the course of the conference, it emerged that we had much else in common: all the usual vicissitudes of parish life and the kinds of things clergy enjoy complaining, commiserating, or clashing about when they meet together. But their own distinct challenges came out sharply, too: ministry to the huge number of young men, mostly African Americans, who end up incarcerated in Texas; and work with Hispanic and Latino people who are feeling marginalised and threatened in the new political climate. There was a call for more bilingual candidates to come forward for ordination.

The two most popular options for the afternoon off were skeet shooting and a “High-Low soccer match” between the Anglo-Catholics and the Evangelicals (the Anglo-Catholics won: it seems that Muscular Christianity is differently distributed here). I took neither of these options, but walked, instead, on the trails through the piney woods, while snakes slithered off the path and turkey buzzards circled above, and reflected on how remarkable it was that the poetry of George Herbert, which was what I was bringing to their table, had as deep a reach, and as much power to move and renew the soul in this strange contradictory land as it had in the little parish of Bemerton.

I had been reading “The Windows” with them. Herbert’s account of how, faced with the impossibilities of preaching, one feels like some piece of “brittle crazie glass” seemed to make as much sense to them in the brittle craziness of their divided society as it does to us in the brittle craziness of ours.

And Herbert’s resolution of that dilemma, in the image of stained glass, in the way in which the story of Christ’s life and Passion could be “annealed” into the fragile glass of our lives, the way in which the colours of his love and grace might redeem and render translucent our own stains, seemed as vital there as it is here:

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

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