Saint Mark as Sherlock Holmes or Article I of III on the Present Ecclesiological Culture of the Anglican Church: Whitterings, March 2006

Article I of III on the Present Ecclesiological Culture of the Anglican Church

I have recently acquired the complete DVD collection of Granada Television’s dramatisations of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The dramatisations are a joy to watch because they are well done and primarily because of the delightful portrayal of Mr Holmes by Jeremy Brett. Mr Brett’s Holmes is considered by many aficionados to be the quintessential portrayal of the great detective. He is quarrelsome, addicted to cigarettes, pipes, and cocaine. He sleeps late, lacks almost all basic social skills and is terribly moody. He is arrogant beyond all measure. It is Dr Watson who gives pastoral care to Mr Holmes’s clients and provides the necessary social lubricant for the plots to unfold. Mr Holmes’s strength lies in his ability to absorb huge amounts of information from simple observations and through analysis and logic to understand the essence of situations. As a historical aside, the character of Sherlock Holmes is based on a real person. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle studied Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and later modelled Mr Holmes on his Professor of Anatomy. To commemorate the birth of Mr Holms in Edinburgh there is a beautiful statue of him at the East end of Queen Street across from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Pub.

What redeems Holmes is that despite his superiority and self centeredness he actually cares deeply about his clients. He is unable to show it in any normal way. His profound sense of responsibility and duty is what drives him to go to extraordinary lengths to save the unfortunate people who seek his help. It is in the subtle acts of kindness that you see underneath Mr Holmes’s formidable exterior. His compassion is implicit in his actions and not his words. It you do not look closely you will miss this. He is a good example of the important maxim that you should always pay more attention to what people do than what they say.

I find that Jesus, as He is portrayed in Mark’s Gospel, is another example of this. It is not that Jesus is portrayed as arrogant or self centred but a he is portrayed as frustrated, impatient, and sometimes irritable and often angry. He seems consistently annoyed that few seem to understand what he is saying, especially his closest disciples. His treatment of some of those who come to him for help, such as the woman with the haemorrhage and the Syrophoenician woman whose child is possessed by a demon, is certainly less than gentle. The Jesus I perceive in Mark’s Gospel is very human. He does not always seem particularly gentle, affectionate, or patient. However, even in these episodes, he strikes me as profoundly compassionate.

It is this compassion that is often misunderstood. Many try to overlook the ‘negative’ aspects of the personality of Mark’s Jesus simple because it makes it difficult to retain an image of Jesus as a gentle, loving, fluffy Christ. You have all seen the Sunday School posters of Jesus with a frilly perm in a pinkish robe, running through a field of flowers with children of many different ethnicities. Different people show compassion in different ways. Many enter into the suffering of others emotionally and share the tears and fears of their brothers and sisters. They “feel the pain” of others. This is a necessary part of compassion and can be healing. However if that is the only kind of compassion shown it can be enabling and weaken those trapped in destructive lifecycles. Too much empathy can reinforce the particularly North American obsession with navel gazing found in the popularity of the self help phenomena and the ‘Dr Phil’ approach.

Another aspect of compassion is frustration and irritation. Let me give an example. A great deal of suffering is brought upon ourselves because of a lack of moving in the right direction (Sin: technically meaning “missing the mark”). Often people hold onto their suffering like a comfort blanket or out of fear of liberation. It is like a weakened, stooped, man burdened by a sack full of rocks on his back, stumbling down a long road in great pain. Hey complains that the rocks (Sin: guilt, lack of forgiveness, lack of thanksgiving, lack of spiritual discipline, hatred) are destroying him. He feels that they can not keep stumbling along like this. Then in the middle of this articulation he sees a nice new rock and seizes it and throws it into the sack with the others. You can respond to such pain by showing gentleness and listening to their experience. For others their compassion for such a person will be shown by irritation and even anger. “Stop picking up bloody rocks you’re hurting yourself!” It can come out in many variations: “Stop sticking pins into your eyes!” “Stop letting others hurt you!” I am certainly not suggesting this as a universal pastoral model! However I do believe that it is sometimes necessary to shake people out of their complacently to, and collaboration with their own sin. Most of all I assert that such a response comes as much from compassion as any other approach. It is love that leads to righteous anger and the fight for social justice. If everyone just cried with the impoverished of the world nothing would be accomplished. I thank the Lord that there are enough people that see injustice and cruelty and respond in anger and frustration to fight the darkness. Often these people sacrifice their own peacefulness for the good of the weak. It is a heavy price to pay. It is commonly observed that those who fight for social justice the most are often the least to show forth the peace of God in other aspects of their lives. This anger and irritation must be constantly analysed to make sure that it does not lead to judgementalness and hatred of the enemy. Once the anger leads to demonification we have already lost because we have become like the darkness that we set out to fight. Yet it is love that makes one want to shake the complacent out of hurting themselves or letting themselves be hurt. It is love that wants to fight for a new social order.

The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is compassionate in both ways and as such is balanced. He is gentle with some and irritable and angry with others. He also despairs when people who need to hear him can not, but he still walks away. So why is the church not balanced in this way? Why does the modern Church elevate only one side of compassion as acceptable to be used by the Baptised? There is a Political Correctness associated with the 1970’s and 1980’s Clinical Pastoral Theology Model. This is seriously weakening the witness of the church and is handicapping the church in its ability to ask hard questions and make hard decisions. There is a Pollyannaish tyranny abroad that has thrown the church off balance. I would say that it is best summed up by the word “nice”.

The Diocesan guidelines for the discernment of vocations to the Ordained Ministry are such an example. At the end of the document there are guidelines and clues for discerning a vocation for ordained ministry. There is nothing wrong with what has been laid out but it is unbalanced. It is based on a model that has arisen from the somewhat dated CPE model. It speaks a great deal about personal limitations and realistic acceptance of weakness, openness to God, willingness to doubt, cooperation, ecumenism, inter faith dialogue, having an affirming nature, being joyful, having a balanced lifestyle and having a life outside of the church community. There is some language that I can only guess the meaning of such as ‘Family of Origin work” and ‘personal faith story’ and ‘small group prayer” (unless this includes the offices and the Eucharist). There was no such language in my British Theological education. These are all things necessary for the Minister’s health and are all part of the Alban Institute clergy wellness guide. However there is not as much about the core nature of priesthood. There is limited language about strength, intellectual and emotional discipline, sacrifice, the price for standing against the darkness, the defence of the weak, the teaching nature of the ministry, or the prophetic and radical nature of priesthood. The lack of balance in today’s ecclesiological culture leads to the very real danger that only one type of vocation will be recognised by the church. This could leave us without any shepherds strong enough to fight off the wolves. If I had my say I would add that a good sign of a vocation is the presence of an abhorrence of committees.

That is what I enjoy about Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes; he is an example of compassion in action that has none of the characteristics associated with the “nice” model so often found in today’s church. That is also why I am most attracted to Mark’s Jesus, he show’s divine compassion that balances care and affection, with strength and determination. He is a shepherd that can save by attracting others to himself by affectionate compassion as well as bringing them to himself through warning them away from the world.