Colin Heber-Percy: ‘You literally can’t get it right. Not completely. And yet, so often, we think we can; we think we should’

Although often overlooked, the Easter message is as much about making mistakes as it is about Resurrection. However, getting it wrong and letting go of our perfectionism is the key to a more contented life, says the Revd Dr Colin Heber-Percy.

Kindly offering advice, a friend once expressed to me his view that the role of a priest or any minister in Holy Orders is to ensure the sacraments are celebrated with due solemnity, that sound doctrine is maintained and the scriptures expounded and interpreted correctly. It’s a bit like Noël Coward explaining how to act on stage: simply say your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.

In short, my friend’s advice amounts to: get it right. There are lines to say and don’t fall down the pulpit steps. However, at this time of year, my friend’s words always come back to me because the Easter narrative, as told in the Gospels, is actually a patchwork of mistakes, a story about getting it wrong over and over again. Mary Magdalene makes the first error of Easter. Outside an empty tomb, she mistakes the risen Lord Jesus for a gardener. And the disciples mess up by not believing her when she tells them what she’s witnessed. Fleeing Jerusalem, two of his friends fail to recognise Jesus in the stranger who joins them on the road to Emmaus; Thomas succumbs to doubting. And who is that man standing on the shore, waiting for us? Part of the point of Easter, it seems to me, is this: getting it right will get you only so far. Mistakes are vitally important.

Reading the Easter narrative again, I’m struck by how we are able — through a process a bit like triangulation — to glimpse the ‘back parts’ of truth (Exodus 33.23) through the muddles and missteps, almost as if the power and veracity of the story is determined by the blunders and errors of its protagonists. Too often, it seems to me, we forget the value in getting it wrong. My daughter is taking her A levels this summer and my son is sitting his finals at university. For them, the Easter holidays will be taken up with revision, hours at their desks or in the library. I may manage to drag them to church; I may not. They are busy, after all, working hard to avoid mistakes, to follow the rules and rubrics, to get it right. In short, they are preparing for the world. Or rather, the world is preparing them for itself.

Christian faith offers us another way. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12.2). Religious faith — of any mature variety — lies in knowing we need rather than in needing to know. By recognising this and acknowledging it, we find there is always room for error, for the mistake. In fact, it’s the errors and mistakes that point us towards the truth whose ‘face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33.23).

“Conformity is easy and safe; we know where we are, where we belong. We’re right with the world. We do our best to avoid errors and mistakes because — deep down — we’re frightened of them”

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At first glance, this seems profoundly countercultural, putting the religious believer even further at odds with the scientist. But, actually, it draws them closer together. Like scientists, Christians are devoted to pursuing what they don’t know. So, Augustine warns us: ‘If you understand it, it’s not God.’ And Aquinas follows suit, saying: ‘To comprehend God is impossible for any created intellect.’

You literally can’t get it right. Not completely. And yet, so often, we think we can; we think we should. Of course, it’s not a problem peculiar to the church, but it’s particularly corrosive in a church context. I remember a story told to me by a chaplain at a well-known English public school. ‘The mother of a pupil came up to receive Holy Communion one Sunday morning in the chapel,’ he said. ‘Perhaps she’d never been to Communion before, because, when she received the consecrated host, taking it between her fingers, she studied it suspiciously, then popped it in her pocket.’ She made a mistake; she got it wrong. The chaplain found it funny. And I suppose it is quite funny. Yet only if you’re in the know. And, as the Easter story makes clear, to be in the know is an awkward spot for Christians.

This Easter, many of our churches will be full. Most of us know the hymns; we know what we’re supposed to do and say; we know when to sit and when to stand; we know each other. When we comfortably settle into knowing, when we turn our churches into places of knowing and cosy belonging, where we’re expected to ‘get it right’, then we allow ourselves to be conformed to the world, like Pharisees, all sound doctrine and solemn sacrament.

We’d do better to unknow it all, put ourselves back in the upper room with Jesus’s beleaguered disciples or at the communion rail with the baffled mother. Because, when we scorn or belittle or hound those who don’t know, it is the world responding — crafty and clubbable and pharisaical — through us. And we’re closing ourselves off from the offer of transformation.

Conformity is easy and safe; we know where we are, where we belong. We’re right with the world. We do our best to avoid errors and mistakes because — deep down — we’re frightened of them. They reveal the unknown or the outlines of the unknown. At the edge of the map, in the blank spaces where our knowledge runs out, are the words: ‘Here be dragons!’ In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the character of Lodovico Settembrini represents Enlightenment ideas of liberty, reason and progress. At one point, Settembrini says: ‘Order and classification are the beginning of mastery, whereas the truly dreadful enemy is the unknown.’

The Easter story bursts through all our classifications, our common sense and our attempts at mastery. The women at the tomb on that first Easter morning are confronted by the unknown, and it is dreadful, dragony. As St Mark puts it so powerfully in the very last sentence of his Gospel: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ Mark 16.8

And it’s from the terror, out of amazement and fear, that the truth emerges — beyond all our order and classification, beyond our feeble and hubristic attempts at mastery. Mary’s mistake at the mouth of the tomb, when she assumes the man addressing her is the gardener, is one of the most sublime moments in all scripture because it perfectly describes the inevitable, dreadful mistake at the heart of any human being’s encounter with the divine. Sidelined as insignificant, hysterical, erring by centuries of male commentators and theologians, Mary is actually the key because she errs. Better than any of the other disciples, Mary recognises how we’re called to follow Jesus: throwing away the map, shunning mastery in favour of risk and losing the plot.

Mary has lines to say. She fluffs them. She has furniture to avoid. She runs straight into it, falls to her knees and clings to it. But then, she’s not an actor and this isn’t a play. She has stumbled into reality.

The Revd Dr Colin Heber-Percy is the vicar of the Savernake Forest parishes in Wiltshire and the author of ‘Tales from a Country Parish’ (Short Books)