“It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.” So wrote Sydney Carter, in a song which will be sung across the country today. (It’s also the fifth most popular copyrighted song in school assemblies according to CCLI.)
Carter himself called it “pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian,” and expected opposition. There’s some truth in his comments — it could be variously labelled as syncretist, universalist, Platonist and several other -ist’s as well — but the numbers tell their own story.
A lot of that is down to the catchy Shaker tune, but the gentle cynicism about the establishment and expansive cosmic vista catch the mood of the times too. What it nearly misses is the agony. “No real people were hurt during the writing of this song.” Nearly — if it wasn’t for the line I began with, where the real struggle shudders through.
And on Good Friday, it must. We’ll sing “Lift High the Cross”, but be careful to balance it with “it causes me to tremble.” We cannot sustain the pretence that Easter has not already happened that the liturgy properly invites; but we dare not pretend that Easter was and is without cost.
For me this Easter some of that cost and contradiction is personal — my father died just a few weeks ago. But it is also ecclesiastical. Strong feelings are swirling around us. Ten bishops out of ten would like to tidy them up. But the lesson of a certain un-noted report was that feelings like these are not to be tidied or managed but lived alongside. We will find God’s good future for us with them, through them, not by burying them and thinking they’re gone. The bench too will have to learn new ways of modelling and leading unity which do not bury its own diversity: something I’ve seen beginning in my days in the House and College, but something we still have to explore further and very tenderly together.
What this mustn’t be, though, is a surrender to the short-cuts of post-truth politics or populist power. If the dance of God is to go on, the choreography of the Kingdom requires all of us to be on the floor, sharing in the exacting task of listening, looking, learning, following, leading — in a pattern that will look very broken if part of it is missing. We will actually need each other to make it work.
As well as doing plenty of personal processing today, then, I’ll also be bringing some very different sorts of friends with me in my mind to the Cross, each of whom has a piece of my heart, acknowledging their hopes and their hurts, sensing the limb-breaking tensions, feeling the weight of the devil on all our backs that would seek to pull us apart: but feeling too the unstoppable rhythm of the dance that will go on.
David Thomson is Bishop of Huntingdon in the diocese of Ely.