Poems, Piety, and Psyche: Progressive Poems for Rebellious Christians by retired vicar and progressive theologian Reverend David John Keighley is a collection of poems with the gloves off, calling for a complete overhaul of Church theology and structure to ensure the survival of Christianity in 21st century Britain.

By Gwyn Rees

I suspect that there are some people who might quickly scan the title of this new book and turn away, thinking it’s ‘not for them’. If so, then think again, because Poems, Piety, and Psyche is exactly the sort of thoughtful, inspirational and educational work that will benefit us all— Christian or otherwise.

Penned by Revd David John Keighley, 72, a retired vicar and leading progressive Christian theologian, the book provides a comprehensive collection of poems that, while undoubtedly spiritual and reflective, are also driven by a passionate, and reasoned, critique of Christianity in its current form.

Among the glowing testimonials that preface his collection is a term that perfectly sums up the author: “confident doubter”. Having served as a parish priest for almost 40 years, the Revd Keighley has become increasingly concerned with the Church of England’s obstinacy in refusing to reform its teachings and practices to fit modern times.

And while he may no longer be in the pulpit, his raw, powerful poetry is the perfect medium to express his concerns which, he firmly believes, are contributing to the continued decline of the Christian faith within the UK.

Among the vast collection of 130-plus poems, then, we find polemics on the Church of England’s continued failure to come to terms with female priests and bishops, sex outside marriage, and the LGBTQ community – all while society at large walks by without a second glance.

For instance, apparent misogyny within the Church is decried in ‘Mother Love’:

Shame on the men

hiding behind laws canonical,

and dubious theology,

to justify rejection

of those whose biological state

is not recognized.

In elegant, eloquent style, the verse also, among other things, slams the Church for its poor leadership, for the sex scandals that have exploded under its watch, and for the distortion of young minds with anachronistic and manipulative ideology.

Perhaps more shockingly, it launches visceral attacks on the literal interpretation of the Bible, which is still favoured and taught to the faithful, and declares, in the preface, that bishops who have promoted this interpretation should “hang their heads in shame”.

As a progressive Christian, the Revd Keighley is firmly against the mythical and magical elements of the faith that have long-since been undermined by modern scientific understanding.

To him, and other progressive Christians, taking such things as miracles, Adam and Eve, and talking serpents as actual historical facts is woefully out of step with the 21st century, and only serves to obscure the valid truths contained within the faith while pushing away a new generation of believers by expecting them to suspend rational thought and accept the unbelievable.

This is summed up neatly, and with a fine wit, in his poem ‘Angelology’:

Biblical postmen before iPhones

linking up and down,

Heaven and Earth

in a flat-earth world,

And…

As real as the tooth fairy,

or those hiding at the bottom of the garden,

but not as scary as aliens.

The author’s aim is to transform the way Christianity is taught, moving away from make-belief to a more robust doctrine aligned with our greater understanding of the universe.

It is a crisis of faith, as outlined in poem ‘Believers in Exile’:

My faith becomes an irrelevant side-note

in the light of Christian thinking,

as Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein

enter our consciousness

And it also spells the end of understanding God as some kindly, bearded patriarch sitting aloft in Heaven, as the poem continues…

Suddenly he is not out there in the sky after all

to be met after death if we have been good.

But while painful, sweeping away the cobwebs of faith is a necessary act to ensure that the Church is still a suitable home for modern worshippers, as the poem concludes:

As the Jews could not return to the old days and the old ways,

neither can believers in exile pretend

our postmodern world doesn’t exist.

We are in exile in a new land

and believers in exile face the death of the old God,

which may not be the death of God at all

but rather an opportunity to ask will he now grow

or die.

Revd Keighley’s central point within the poems is to make it clear that he is not seeking the death of the Church but, instead, to deliver a reformation that will bring Christianity, Jesus, and God – now better understood as an impersonal, universal energy — back into the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

The Gospels still contain the ‘Good News’ they always promised, says Revd Keighley, but with the recognition that humans are on an evolutionary journey of improvement, guided by the prime mover of eternal love.

I would suggest the best way to get a quick summation of the ideas behind the poems is to read ‘Leaving Home’, which was the author’s first published verse and is an effective statement of intent (for instance, “I must leave the stifling theology, the patriarchal structures”).

Revd David John Keighley, progressive Christian theologian and the author of ‘rebellious’ poetry collection Poems, Piety, and Psyche.

You quickly discover that most of the poems are non-rhyming and, in fact, many don’t read like traditional poems at all. Another of the testimonials in the book describes them as ‘word grenades’, which seems particularly apt.

They are, however, supremely impactful, with every word chosen carefully to get across the point in the most understandable and direct way possible.

The author describes some of his poems as “naive” , and perhaps they are to some academic theologians, but it is that directness and commitment to conveying frustrations, fears, and fallacies in ways that the everyman will understand that make them so accessible and potent.

As Revd Keighley states early on, “I write for the person in the street who should be sitting in the pew.”

Some poems are also quite funny, in a sardonic way that the ‘person in the street’ will readily appreciate and agree with.

Take ‘Seven’, for instance, which questions the literal interpretation of how God made the world:

Two by two, all the dinosaurs went on board

what must have been an enormous boat indeed,

even though the Bible records its size—in feet.

Or maybe Noah collected eggs or baby dinosaurs?

Taken as a whole, Poems, Piety, and Psyche offers a collection of brilliant broadsides that dismantle with aplomb the ‘accepted messages’ of Christianity, as interpreted by the Church, with only the Church’s, and followers’, best interests in mind.

Their author is an inveterate questioner who is unafraid to be rebellious in tone and is resolute in his call for urgent Church reform, while also being a man in mourning over society’s increasing divide from the moral compass of Jesus’ teachings.

Perhaps most importantly, he does not shy away from the many issues besetting the modern Church and provides a clear and constructive path ahead for bringing the venerable institution back into people’s lives, and in accordance with the original Christian values of compassion, forgiveness and love.

Poems, Piety, and Psyche: Progressive Poems for Rebellious Christians by Revd David John Keighley is published by Resource Publications and is out now on Amazon priced £20 in paperback and £7.69 as an eBook. Visit www.davidkeighleywriter.com

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH REVEREND DAVID JOHN KEIGHLEY

We speak with the Reverend David John Keighley about why he believes urgent reform of Church theology is essential to its survival, how his concerns about the Church have inspired his new poetry collection Poems, Piety, and Psyche, about his planned one-man show, and about how returning to his first career as a therapist has informed his writing, among other things.

Q. How do you see the future of the Church?

A. In dire danger of dying out if current decline continues at the same rate as the past three decades, with clergy, congregations, and income all nose-diving. It must change its theology and its structures if it is to survive and recover from the bashing it received during Covid, when it locked God out for the nation. It must close the majority of its churches, perhaps up to 75% (still leaving 4,000), centralise parish worship on one remaining building, and use income for community care projects and some for housing the homeless, based on the

Christian theology of love and Christ’s example. It must start to live up to its mantra: ‘The church is the people not the building’.

The dependence on buildings is now unsustainable. As an example of costs, the four churches in the three parishes of my retirement village in Hampshire have an annual Parish Quota paid to the Diocese of £70,000. There are on average three weekly services in the churches on a rota basis, led by clergy. Each service costs the church £448.70, excluding the additional costs to be raised for church maintenance, clergy expenses, lighting, heating, insurance, etc. To keep only one church for the combined four congregations would reduce the Quota cost per service annually to £147.43.

Q. What were inspirations for your new poetry collection?

A. To address the decline in millennials’ rejection of both church worship and it’s archaic —and unbelievable in today’s world — theology. Also, the Sunday school level of theology in its aging congregations. The writings of so many dedicated churchman and theologians whose progressive Christian message has been ignored since the ’60s also inspired and motivated me, e.g. John Robinson, Don Cupitt, David Jenkins, “Jack” Spong.

Q. What do you hope to achieve from the collection?

A. A renewed debate on the future of the church, and a renewal of its structures and taking on board progressive theology as culturally more acceptable for our society. Also, I’d like this collection to become a resource for Christian education in our schools and churches. Finally, I’d like it to make a connection with the post-Covid recovery of the church re-establishing its essential message for communities.

Q. What were the main challenges you faced in writing the book?

A. Too much material, with so many topics in theology. Making sure the teaching point came out in the poetry was a challenge, and using poetry as a medium for theological debate. More generally, there is a resistance in the UK for change.

Q. How has the Covid pandemic brought Christian teachings into relief?

A. When the church closed its doors and priests retreated behind computer screens, the nation took on board for itself the fundamental teachings of Christianity: love your neighbour; care and compassion for the suffering; sacrificial care for others despite all measures of race, creed, sexuality, wealth, which the church is still preoccupied with judging. Nurses and lorry drivers and cleaners and community workers became the new priests.

Q. You are planning a one-man show. Tell us about this…

A. My lifetime interests are teaching, psychology, spirituality, and poetry. My poems reflect these interests. I have led a fascinating and interesting life following these pursuits. I have been a teacher of Environmental Science; have been involved in farming; and had a 40-year career as a country parson. I am now a counselling psychotherapist specialising in crisis relationship therapy, and in this line I have previously worked with teenagers in an adolescent psychiatric hospital, and have taught PTSD therapy to RAF personnel during the First Gulf War. I’ve also undertaken a world tour studying Christianity as a minor religion and during this experienced earthquakes in Japan, survived Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, and was aboard a truck for the Bishop of Lango in Uganda with an armed escort in the face of the rebel group Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). I’ve also witnessed protests in Cornwall over former PM Tony Blair’s beef-on-bone ban and rural policies; have helped save a Cornish village from destruction by quarrying; have clashed with church authorities and have won a court case over episcopal lies. All this, while watching the church decline over the years and trying to address the issues. These all form the basis of my one-man-show, called “Poems,

Piety and Psyche”, as I present the overlap in my life of human spirituality, the human mind, education, and culture, all linked through my poetry.

Q. How does your career as a therapist inform your Christianity and writing?

A. When interviewed for theological training I was asked why I didn’t remain a Christian therapist rather than train for the priesthood. My answer was that psychology only answers part of the human condition and I felt called to address the spiritual dimension as well. The two are complementary. Psychology, and more recently neuro-psychology, provide great insights into how we tick and can run alongside how theology offers its own explanations into the human condition. In today’s culture, however, traditional Christian theology and practice are failing to make the essential Christian message, agape (selfless love), real. It must change or die. This combination informs my poetry and writing.

Q. You are a vocal critic of the UK’s education system. Can you explain what you see as the failings with the current model?

A. Our education system is geared for success, competition, achievement, wealth, and consumerism— but not happiness. Knowledge is, of course, indispensable but it also gives the impression (illusion?) that if educated we have the intelligence to meet and cope with the challenges of life. The human psyche is neglected in this process and thus discards what it is that makes us human. We don’t stop to ask the question ‘Why’ we are being educated. We are taught to depend on others and their knowledge to tell us what to think or know, not to look inward for this internal understanding of ourselves.

A good example of educational failure is the recent cancelling of the poetry option in GCSE English. The idea that educating the left brain only is obsolete when looking forward educationally from Covid. Since Maggie Thatcher, the arts have been downgraded and this has prevented the natural flow of creativity which comes from within. Gardening, cooking, music and PE (playing fields all sold off) have all been downgraded in the past decades yet are all now top TV viewing. Meditation has yet to find a place as an essential item on the curriculum. My counselling practice is full of successful, educated, qualified, wealthy but miserable, unhappy people and society is increasingly full of broken and damaged relationships. More and more people are seeking the service of therapists as an answer to their discontent, although many make the mistake in thinking psychology holds the solution. Much of this can be traced back to the educational process they experienced, and their parents’ and society’s expectations of them.

The lessons learnt about human need during Covid provide an opportunity to change this for the next generation, but at present the conversation is all about how they make up lost knowledge. Spirituality and the value of the arts take a back seat. It is pure ignorance to totally disregard the nature of our own mind while cultivating knowledge about ‘subjects’. The saddest thing for a therapist is a successful, wealthy, and famous client who looks back and feels they have wasted their life. Life is extraordinary and sacred.

Q. You are also concerned with the modern, consumerist society. In what ways does this trouble you?

A. Consumerism, and the consumer society, presents a false goal as an objective for a successful life. Many marriages break when the balance between working to live and living to work get reversed. The drive for the next big job, more status, bigger house, better car, and higher salary fails to eventually meet the human need of happiness, contentment, and harmonious relationships. Yet ask any parent what they want for their children and they will tell you: to be happy. They then revert to pestering them to work hard at school for their exams.

Q. What’s next for you as an author?

A. I’m currently working on volume two of my poetry anthology. This has a focus on the future and is equally challenging but less critical. It will cover themes including how the church needs to change; how a new progressive theology has to be incorporated into church life and liturgy; how the priority of love over judgement has to permeate church life, not the judgemental church we have seen up to, and including, now; and how the church has to regain its place in the nation as a fount of human resource, based on the essential requirement of love and relationship in human happiness.

I am also working on ‘A Guide to Survival in the Countryside’, based on my life as a country parson and the misguided belief that moving to a rural idyll from an urban nightmare is all plain sailing.