Thursday, 23 November 2017

In Praise of Coffee

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes!
Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
Smoother than Muscatel wine.
Coffee, I must have coffee,
And if anyone wants to give me a treat,
Ah! just give me some coffee!

Doggerel on a morning when we're told on good authority that three coffees a day brings a whole range of health benefits. Those lyrics are by an eighteenth century poet known as Picander. His proper name was Christian Friedrich Henrici. He was one of J. S. Bach's most important librettists, supplying texts for a number of his sacred works including the St Matthew Passion. And for his secular cantata BWV211, the Coffee Cantata, composed in 1734 whose title "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" translates as "Be quiet, stop chattering". Believe me, this nonsense in praise of coffee sounds a whole lot better when you hear it adorned by Bach's glorious music.

As we know from sources like Dr Johnson and Blackadder, the coffee house was a great social institution in eighteenth century Europe. Coffee stimulated the mind and loosened the tongue. Whether they were people of science, music or letters, those who frequented them would spend hours sharing their insights and debating their implications. The Enlightenment might not have flourished so spectacularly if it had not been for coffee. How many of the world's great books owe their existence to it, whether drunk socially or through the long hours of the night in a writer's garret. At university I often used to stay up all night writing essays against a deadline of the following morning. I kept this up, though with declining results, when I taught theology and had to mark essays, and then in the parish when working on my sermons. Not good habits, maybe, but it all depended on coffee (and the Psalter - reading a psalm as each consecutive hour struck).

And now (not for the first time) we are assured that all this coffee brings added value to our physical as well as our mental and spiritual health. A peer-reviewed "umbrella study" published in the British Medical Journal concludes that "coffee drinking appears safe within usual patterns of consumption". Which is careful scientific understatement for the well-evidenced claim that coffee-drinking is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes including heart disease and strokes. It's also associated with a reduced risk of suffering from several cancers including prostate, skin and liver, and also from type-2 diabetes, gallstones and gout.

I've drunk black coffee almost all my life, apart from a couple of periods when I abstained for several months to see whether it made a difference to my quality of sleep at night. (It didn't.)  Black coffee is a virtuous drink because it is calorie-free (the report warns us not to indulge in those naughty-but-ever-so-nice treats stuffed with refined sugars and unhealthy fats like cakes and biscuits - I try not to. "Coffee is safe, but hold the cake"). And we are warned not to claim too much for coffee when the precise nature of the aetiologies is not well understood. "Does coffee prevent chronic disease and reduce mortality? We simply do not know. Should doctors recommend drinking coffee to prevent disease? Should people start drinking coffee for health reasons? The answer to both questions is 'no'."

Well, at this late stage in my life, I can't imagine that I shall stop drinking coffee unless these results are dramatically overturned by new and adverse evidence. Morning coffee - yes, three or four cups - has long been part of my habitus. In retirement, there is the added luxury, which still feels a bit deviant, of coming back from morning prayer with the vicar in church and sitting down with the daily paper over a long and rewarding coffee while enjoying music on Radio 3. I've noticed how many social media personal profiles mention coffee. What would the morning be without coffee, I've often wondered? What is it about this drink whose taste and aroma are as rich and complex as a cup of Lapsang Suchong tea (no milk), a glass of Puligny Montrachet (not too chilled) or a Talisker nightcap (with a few drops of mineral water)? As long as you buy the real thing (fairly traded, of course) and make it properly. Even the best instants are no substitute. If you're going to do it at all, do it with conviction. As Luther said, pecca fortiter! "Sin boldly."

Good old Bach. He has dispensed rich wisdom all my life. It's nice to find he could be playful too, at least when it came to his preferred drink. About coffee and so much else, the great master was never wrong. If you are already an afficionado, listen to the Coffee Cantata. Have your prejudices confirmed and your conscience stilled - and maybe, just maybe, live longer because of it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

We Need Thanksgiving - but not Black Friday

A Song for Friday. "If you go down to the shops today, you're in for a nasty surprise." Or maybe not, if you knew that it's Black Friday, that annual orgy of shopping and spending that is enough to put some of us off shops for life.

The Guardian has an editorial today that makes interesting reading. It reminds us that the Black Friday custom originated in America (where else?) as a way of filling the space between Thanksgiving on the day before, and the coming weekend. You have a great celebration on the fourth Thursday of November. Families gather not only from across the States but from all over the world to be together on this the most important day in the calendar. It's a wonderful way to enter into and keep alive the founding myth of America, express solidarity with generations past and generations to come, and all under the rubric of giving thanks. There is something deeply eucharistic about that, allowing memory to foster gratitude for blessings past, present and future.

So you are gathered by the fireside in your home with those you love best in the world. Like the eighth square in Through the Looking Glass, it's all feasting and fun. And no doubt every American family, aware of how abundant are the gifts they celebrate, will also be sparing a thought and a prayer for the many who are less fortunate, left outside the warm glow of privileged good fortune. It's a time for generosity, large-heartedness, good will. Americans are among the most kind and generous people I've ever met.

But then Black Friday dawns. Everybody, it seems, gets up while it's still dark and heads for the shopping malls. You’re among them, thinking to yourself, “Christmas shopping”. There are bargains galore to tempt you, big budget items offering eye-watering reductions. You find that some people have waited all night to be at the front of the line at store-opening time. In the headlong rush for the best bargains, people get hurt. Sometimes there are fisticuffs. Extra security is brought in. (We Brits know all this if we’ve ever been rash enough to pay an early morning visit to the Boxing Day sales.) It's as if the normal conventions of polite behaviour (such as queuing and holding the door open for others) break down. The crowd acts out unusual (to them) behaviours that in other contexts we would call feral. If you ever wonder what would happen to humanity if civilisation were stripped away, just watch TV news following an eventful Black Friday.

I'd be glad to be told that this is a wicked caricature perpetrated by liberal elites who read broadsheet newspapers and would never be seen dead in a shopping mall on Black Friday. But even if it is, there's a deeper aspect to it that needs airing.

It's what question Black Friday is meant to be the answer to. The answer is that it's a direct response to Thanksgiving. It stands with it, depends on it like a parasite for its very existence. And yet, hard on the heels of the exquisite evening before that so affirms the American founding fathers’ and mothers’ spirit of gratitude, public faith, social and family values, the importance of remembering together, how can Black Friday not be bathos of a particularly glaring kind? On this of all long weekends, who wouldn't want to share memories and laughter in long happy conversations, play sports or games together, enjoy the fresh bracing air, read, make music, indulge your hobbies. Who wouldn't want to continue the spirit of Thanksgiving into the next few days, maybe linking it to visiting someone who is sick, or volunteering for at the local foodbank or sharing your foyer with a guest who would otherwise be alone?

It's hard to see how a shopping spree doesn't trivialise much of what Thanksgiving stands for. The dead hand of monetising everything always has that effect (“knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”). It's as if Americans can't think of anything more creative to follow Thanksgiving than the emblematic cliche of going shopping. But in the UK it's rather worse. We have lifted Black Friday straight out of American culture and reinstalled it in our own country in both its physical and digital forms (except that there's nothing virtual about parting with money: it comes down to the same thing in the end). It has taken off in a big way. But what we didn't import along with it was the day before. Here there is no Thanksgiving to give it even the vestige of a larger meaning. So Black Friday stands alone, revealed in all its overt, rampant consumerism. It is a shameless day of homage to what we have largely become: a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers whose aspirations are to buy and sell, make profits and grab bargains. The infamous Greggs' sausage roll is placed in the manger where the Christ Child should be, and made an idol of for the Magi and all of us to adore.

I exaggerate of course. But The Guardian is right to argue that shorn of Thanksgiving, there is no case for this indulgence of Black Friday. Somehow the very name, a conscious shadowy echo of Good Friday, tells us that it can't be good for us. Among the seven deadly sins are named greed, lust, gluttony and wrath, all of which could describe aspects of the Black Friday Experience. A theologian might argue that the root of all these behaviours is perhaps the original sin of all, envy. (I gave a lecture on this a few years ago in which I made a case for its being the primal sin at the very core of Adam's rebellion against God in the mythical Garden of Eden.)

I don't want to be unduly portentous about this. I'm not one of those preachers whose Christmas sermons are tiresome diatribes against consumerism and commercialism. Let's be positive as Advent begins, and hopes and longings are reawakened. As Christian faith has always understood, it's thankfulness that is the foundation of a healthy, hope-filled way of life. There are more than enough shopping days to Christmas that allow us to go in search of good gifts for family and friends, not in the mad feeding frenzy of Black Friday, but in a virtuous, ethical, thoughtful, happy and above all thankful way. That will add quality and integrity to the precious act of giving to the people we love.

So don't let's encourage the worst instincts of a retail industry greedy for profits. Forget Black Friday. Make it a personal Thanksgiving Day instead. Because that's something we should certainly learn from our American friends. (And to any of them who are reading this, Happy Thanksgiving Day to you all!)

Friday, 17 November 2017

#140: Why has Twitter Changed the Rules?

Forget Brexit, that sausage roll and who's going to win Strictly. If there's one thing that's exercising social media at the moment, it's Twitter changing its rules of engagement. As I presume everyone knows, until this year you were limited to 140 characters per tweet. But now they've doubled it to 280. And some of us are grumpy about it.

I've used Twitter since the end of 2011. I blogged about it when I was very new to it and again at the end of my first year on it. Here's what I said when I was starting out.

I've been surprised how I've taken to it.  It feels a bit like discovering photography a few years ago.  Perhaps it's because they are quite similar.  Photography captures the essence of something by putting a frame around it. Composing an image is to limit the viewer's horizons in ways that 'focus' (pun intended) attention so that we see afresh and perhaps gain 'insight'. In the same way, Twitter imposes the discipline of 140 characters which requires us to put a (pretty small) frame around what we want to share and try and communicate in a sharply focused way.

 Someone once spoke of 'the sonnet's narrow room'.  That means the 'given' shape of 14 lines with rhythms that are set: the poet who wants to write a sonnet isn't free to vary its structure.  The challenge of doing something interesting, creative and beautiful inside that 'narrow room' has fascinated poets since Petrarch.  Shakespeare's Sonnets are like Bach's Goldberg Variations: they show the endless variety that is possible at the hands of a master even when the terrain on which to work is no bigger than a pocket handkerchief.

I think Twitter may appeal to people who are miniaturists.  We like the idea that much can be said in a few words.  We value understatement and reticence, where a wealth of meanings can reside at the margins of what is said, implied by nudges and hints rather than stated openly.  'Tell all the truth but tell it slant' said Emily Dickinson, one of the great practitioners of saying much in a small space.  The truth at the centre of Christianity can be expressed in a tweet: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.


That has all the zeal that goes with discovering something new. Maybe I was a bit over-enthusiastic then. I hadn't seen how social media can damage people who get addicted to it, or - far worse - become victims of online haters, trolls and bullies. We hadn't heard of fake news. I'm the first to admit that an unregulated cyberspace is dangerous and puts people at risk. And not just the young. Think of Jo Cox and Gina Miller.

Yet for all that, I still believe that used responsibly, social media is an immensely powerful tool for doing good in the world. Twitter in particular had an elegance and succinctness that seemed to command attention. No wonder politicians like Donald Trump were quick to spot its potential. To be able to say something striking (whether true or not, whether wise or not) and reach millions of people in just 140 characters offered an irresistible challenge to anyone who saw the possibilities in vivid, focused communication.

Note the past tense. Because that has now changed for the worse. Open your Twitter feed and what do you find? A never-ending stream of ponderous essays of 280 characters. Your screen is crammed with text. Your eye could just about scan 140 at one go, take in the message, tell your brain that here was something worth thinking about, endorsing with enthusiasm, being grumpy about, disagreeing violently with, smiling at. Here was something had bothered to take the trouble to distil for us. When there is so much information out there clamouring for our attention, we love succinctness. But now Twitter is sprawling like Face Book, clogging up the weirs and culverts so that the flow is turbulent and muddied, and we can no longer quickly tell the difference between what matters and what doesn't.

So what has possessed Twitter to change the rules and double the character limit? We loved the discipline of 140 characters and the sharpness it gave to our writing. Dr Johnson once said to a plodding writer something like, "strike out every other word in what you have written: it will do wonders for your style." As someone who is tempted to use too many adjectives and adverbs, I've found it's been a great reminder to try to write plain English. No, the medium wasn't broke and didn't need fixing. Except in the eyes of those who thought that the more Twitter emulated Face Book, the more popular it would be and the higher the advertising revenues. The trouble is that the 140 "brand" was such a distinctive USP. Maybe adjusting it upwards to 160 would not have mattered too much. But to double it (which is to multiply by 8 its "cubic capacity" - hugely more if in my analogy cyberspace stretches beyond three dimensions) is a big risk.

I was tempted to give up half my character allowance next Lent and stick to 140 for a few weeks - like the Lent a few years ago when I gave up colour photography and worked only in black and white. Then I thought: why wait till Lent? Let's start now. So I am doggedly carrying on in the way I've learned to know and love Twitter by continuing with the 140 limit. I've been encouraged by others who've adopted my suggested #140 hashtag in their Twitter profiles. I know that without a numerical counter on the tweet screen (again, why?) it's not so easy. But all we have to do is to stop writing when the blue line hits the bottom of the circle at the "half-past" mark. Sooner if we can.

I won't be obsessive about #140. If I stray over by a dozen characters, I'm not going to worry. But we want to keep the spirit of Twitter alive. Brevity is not only the soul of wit but the soul of Twitter too. So maybe I can encourage you to give it a go? I'll follow you if you let me know you've put #140 in your profile. There's an offer you can't refuse. I'm at @sadgrovem. I've tweeted @Twitter to say I'd be glad to have their comments and to publish them here. You may want to ask them too.

"Always the supporter of lost causes" I hear you say with a sigh. "Always the remainer." Ah well. Put it down to retirement and having too much time to think. And blog. And tweet.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 10: Where the Roman Wall Ends (or Begins)

No-one in this village needs to be told about the Roman Wall that strides above us along the crest of the Whin Sill. Sycamore Gap is beautiful, but we don’t need yet more pictures of it. The same goes for the outstanding Roman sites at Chesters, Housesteads and Vindolanda. (But it’s worth putting a word in for the newly opened National Park Centre “The Sill” at Once Brewed on the Military Road. It’s worth a visit, and there’s a nice shop and a good café-restaurant there too.)


But the antiquities in urban Tyneside offer something a bit different. I’m thinking of Wallsend north of the Tyne and Arbeia on the south bank opposite. You don’t expect to come across Roman remains where there were once shipyards and the tangle of heavy industry, or in the midst of long streets of red brick Victorian houses. Just as the lonely upland setting of the Roman Wall in our area is a great part of its appeal, so it is, for me anyway, in the gritty townscapes where the Tyne nears the sea. What they lack in scenery they more than make up for in urban atmosphere, especially on the sort of grey overcast days the North East does so well.
Let’s focus on Wallsend. If you can, get there by Metro from the city centre. I suggest this for the sake of getting off at Wallsend station. It’s nothing special to look at, but it has the distinction of being the only railway station in the world that has signage in Latin (and in English too, should you need it). A short walk under the tracks brings you to the site itself.
Segedunum (does it mean strongly fortified place?) is dominated by an unlikely looking 1960s tower bearing the inscription “Where Rome’s great frontier begins”. This is the observation tower and it’s worth starting the visit at the top (there’s a lift as well as stairs). From here you can take in the entire excavated site and its setting. You are looking west, up the Tyne that flows alongside the fort. Upstream you can see the remnants of the legendary Tyneside shipyards and beyond, the city-centre where the Roman bridge Pons Aelius once stood. This was the lowest crossing of the river, a key strategic location, and it’s likely that Segedunum was built to protect it.
The Roman Wall has a long history, but what matters at Wallsend is that it was at Pons Aelius that Emperor Hadrian began to construct his wall in 122AD. (Aelius is derived from Hadrian’s family name.) The short four-mile section eastwards, running under what is now Byker and terminating at the fort also included a spur running down to the river. This was completed a few years later. When you walk the site and gaze at the two short chunks of wall that survive, you can’t help pondering this extraordinary monument that stretches all the way to the Solway via our parish about half way along. What was this edge-of-empire wall for? Probably not to defend the empire or attack enemies. More likely it symbolically marked the extent of empire, with its many gates serving as points at which to control traffic and regulate trade between the empire and the peoples beyond it.
 

But I left you at the top of the observation tower. Come down and visit the galleries on the two floors at the bottom. There are good interactive displays about the history of the Wall, exhibits of excavated artefacts and (what school children especially enjoy), resources to help you imagine what it would have been like to live in a Roman garrison. You are also told something about the history of Wallsend after the Romans left in about 400AD. Its key role in Tyneside’s heavy industry, particularly mining and shipbuilding, is rightly made much of. This characterful area is all part of Newcastle’s hinterland.

There isn’t actually a lot to see above ground when you walk round the site. I’ve mentioned the short sections of wall that survive. The reconstructed Roman bath house is the most prominent building (not open at the time of writing). But as I’ve said, it’s more a case of setting and atmosphere. This close to the river, you appreciate its significance for this part of England, and the strategic importance of a crossing point as near to its estuary as you can. You see why Segedunum was necessary. And if it all feels a little forlorn, think what it must have felt like to soldiers from Syria, north Africa or Spain whose legions served on the Wall at different times. They would have wrapped themselves up against the keen east wind blowing off the North Sea and wondered how they ever came to exchange their azure Mediterranean skies for this bleak and lonely place.   
That’s why I say that atmosphere is everything. If you want to feel the authentic North East in all its ancient, sharp and uncompromising character, Wallsend offers plenty of scope. So does Arbeia, when it opens again in the spring. And if you want to know more about the Wall and those who served on it, the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran and the excellent exhibitions at Vindolanda will give you plenty to think about.

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 9: The Tyne Valley Railway

This month I’ve chosen, not a place but a railway line – ours. As someone who’s loved railways since I was little, I couldn’t ignore this aspect of the North East. I’ve already written about the museum at Shildon, the “cradle of the railways”. But what about the living, working railway that runs through our own village? The Tyne Valley Railway is a daily part of our life in this community – and aren’t we fortunate to have a working railway station, however basic, in our midst? But how many of us have taken in the long history of this line, or some of its fine lineside features?

Our railway is both one of the prettiest in England, and also one of the earliest. Planning began in the 1820s (the legendary Stockton and Darlington Railway began carrying passengers in 1825). While sections of the line were running earlier, the entire length of the route between Carlisle and Newcastle was opened in 1838. And although Haydon Bridge station is now only a shadow of its former self, it’s nice to think that in its way it is the village’s monument to the pioneering spirit that inspired the construction of railways across the country in those first few decades.

You can see why the railway has been branded the “Hadrian’s Wall Line”, though in fact the Roman Wall is visible from only a very few locations along the route. But the Tyne is a different matter. The railway hugs it closely all the way from its eastern terminus at Newcastle Central to Haltwhistle; even then the former Alston branch, now partly reopened as a narrow gauge railway, continues the marriage of river and railway up into the North Pennines not far from its source. (I say the Tyne, but of course I mean the South Tyne. The North Tyne had its own railway, the Border Counties that diverged from the Tyne Valley line just west of Hexham. You can still see the piers of the original bridge that crossed the river at that point.)

As I am focusing on North East England, I won’t linger on the part of the line west of the Pennine watershed around Gilsland (where there is an active campaign to reopen the station, and who’s to say there isn’t a good case for it?). Up here you get marvellous views eastwards along the whin sill crags that carry the Roman Wall, northwards to the Bewcastle fells, and westwards across the Solway and beyond, the hills of Galloway. 

Haltwhistle station has some of the line’s best buildings. My wife and I visited them recently on a heritage open day. We were able to climb up into the splendid signal box and admire the restored ticket office (the cardboard railway ticket as we used to know it was invented on this very line by an enterprising station master at Brampton called Thomas Edmondson). The water tank on its three arches is another fine feature, as is the footbridge in a design you find repeated along the length of the line.

Hexham station always seems well looked after with its air of tidiness and hanging flower baskets. The signal box, poised over the rails themselves, is one of the best on the line. Riding Mill and Stocksfield stations both have their original station-masters’ houses, as does Wylam, another station of great charm. Opened in 1835, it is said to be one of the earliest stations in the world that is still in daily use, an achievement of which the great engineer George Stephenson, born in the village, would no doubt be proud. It even features in Simon Jenkins' recent book Britain's Hundred Best Railway Stations.

Wylam marks the Tyne’s tidal limit. Downstream you leave Northumberland and enter the tangle of industrial wastelands, new commercial buildings, baffling road networks and riverside developments. The urban townscape of Tyne and Wear has created huge spaces for retail on an industrial scale. The Metro Centre, cathedral of consumerism, has its own useful but unlovely interchange where every train on the line is destined to stop. I wonder why?
Our journey has two last hurrahs. The first is the long climb up through Gateshead to join the East Coast Main Line. There’s a breath-taking climax when you realise that you are high up on the south bank of the river perched on the edge of a gorge. From here you cross it either on the King Edward Bridge or the older and more venerable High Level Bridge. This outstanding monument to North East engineering was designed by Robert Stephenson and opened in 1849. If you have never walked along its lower deck, you have a treat in store. Both bridges offer magnificent views up and down the river, and if your train is halted in mid-passage as it often is, you have an unrivalled photo opportunity too. Is there a city in Europe with such a majestic river frontage as Newcastle-Gateshead?
The second hurrah is Newcastle Central Station itself. The river crossing has already created a great sense of arrival, and it required a station to match it. Newcastle architect John Dobson rose to the challenge by creating one of the grandest stations in the country (it merits 5ive stars in Simon Jenkins' book). The vast porch (called a porte-clochère) where passengers would disembark from their horse-drawn carriages is now a pedestrian concourse. The train shed is a beautiful piece of ironwork in its own right, perfectly set off by the curve of the railway line as it comes off one of the bridges at either end and sweeps grandly alongside the platforms.
The Tyne bridges, Newcastle Central Station, the two Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and the (new) Castle make up an outstanding ensemble of historic buildings. Here at the heart of one of England’s great cities, we are a world away from the Pennine reaches of the Tyne in its remote upland valley. But each is a foil for the other. There aren’t many railway journeys that offer so much to enjoy. And all from our own doorsteps here in Haydon Village.
**The Tyne Valley Rail Users’ Group is well worth supporting. Its purpose is to develop relationships between the line and its principal train operator Northern, and the communities they serve. This includes campaigning for better services and facilities. Go to www.tvrug.org.uk 

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 8: Durham Cathedral

I've been a bit remiss about posting articles I've written about some of my favourite places in the North East for the Haydon News, our village magazine.

When I began this series, I said I wanted to explore some less well-known places in the North East. So why have we come to Durham? I don’t suppose there is anyone reading this who hasn’t been to its mighty Cathedral, probably many times. It’s famous the world over as one of the greatest of all Romanesque buildings. It’s often been voted Britain’s favourite cathedral. Bill Bryson called it “the best cathedral on Planet Earth”. Having been Dean there, and lived in its shadow for nearly 13 years, who am I to disagree?
 
But even if you’ve been to the Cathedral, there may be things you have missed. It would take a lifetime to get to know it in every detail and unearth all its secrets. So here are some corners of the place and its surroundings you may not have taken in. And if you have, let this reawaken enjoyable memories.
 
1 The Sanctuary Knocker
This fierce monster greets you as you approach the main door. In the middle ages, if you had committed certain crimes such as unintended manslaughter, you could save yourself from the rough justice of the mob by fleeing to the Cathedral and grasping hold of the knocker. One of the monks keeping watch from the room above would let you inside the church where you would be kept safe for thirty-seven days. This would give you time to choose whether to give yourself up to the authorities and face the consequences, or choose permanent exile, in which case you would be escorted to Hartlepool and placed on a ship, never to return. (What you see is a copy of the original twelfth  century knocker which is kept safe from corrosion or vandalism in the Cathedral’s collections.)
 
2  The Shrine of St Cuthbert
How can you go to Durham Cathedral and not take in the shrine that is the very reason the Cathedral exists? Well, quite easily as it happens. I did it myself on my first ever visit as a schoolboy in the 1960s. If you don’t know it is there, you might miss the stone stairs up to the “feretory”, as it’s called, where the remains of St Cuthbert are buried. Since our churches at Haydon Bridge are dedicated to him, I don’t need to tell how his remains were taken on a long journey around the North (passing through what is now our parish, we believe) until they ended up on the peninsula and the Cathedral was built around them. On the wall outside the shrine, you will see the red Banner of St Cuthbert, a replica of the one that hung there to welcome vast crowds of pilgrims in the middle ages.
 
3  The Neville Screen
The great screen behind the high altar is one of the jewels of the Cathedral. It was given by the Neville family of County Durham in gratitude for the English victory against the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Unlike the rough sandstone the Cathedral is built from, the screen is made of a beautiful white limestone from Caen in France. If you have field-glasses with you, look at the intricate detailing of the pinnacles, and the marvellous carvings of angels and animals above the canopies on each side. Once, the niches contained sculptures of the saints. These were taken down and hidden for safety just before the Dissolution in the 1530s. No-one knows where they are to this day though that doesn’t stop the choristers from guessing.
 
4  The Transfiguration Window
If you haven’t been to Durham since 2010, you won’t have seen this magnificent new window near Cuthbert’s shrine. It was installed in memory of Archbishop Michael Ramsey who had been both a canon and a bishop of Durham and who is still remembered with huge affection there. The design is by Tom Denney. It shows the Transfiguration of Jesus, one of Michael Ramsey’s favourite New Testament stories. Light pours down on Jesus on the mountain top, accompanied by the disciples Peter, James and John. Nearby the lonely figure of St Cuthbert stands by the sea saying his prayers, and you’ll also notice the Cathedral itself bathed in light. The window with its rich textures casts a radiant golden light when the sun is high in the middle of the day.  
 


5  The Cloister
Here’s another part of the Cathedral I missed when I first came as a boy. On the opposite side from the main (north) door, you come out into the cloister. In the middle ages, this would have been the hub of the monastery’s life, because it connected the principal buildings where monastic activity was focused: the church itself, the chapter house, dormitory, refectory, treasury and the kitchen. All these buildings survive and are still in use, making Durham Cathedral the most complete surviving monastic site in England.
 
6  The Monks’ Dormitory and Great Kitchen
You reach these splendid buildings from the cloister. The size of the dormitory tells you how large the monastery was in its heyday. This majestic room has one of the most remarkable timber roofs in England. The nearby octagonal kitchen is another precious survival from the medieval Cathedral with its remarkable stone vault. Both these spaces now form part of the Cathedral’s new exhibition Open Treasure which tells the story of Christian faith in the North East from Roman times to the present day. The Great Kitchen now houses artefacts associated with St Cuthbert including his famous pectoral cross, his wooden coffin and his portable altar.
 
 
7  The River BanksToo many visitors rush away without taking time to appreciate the Cathedral in its gorgeous setting. When you walk alongside the river, you appreciate what a remarkable site the Cathedral occupies, perched unassailable on its acropolis high above a great loop in the River Wear. The gorge was carefully landscaped in the eighteenth century to show the buildings to best advantage above the abundant tree canopy. It is beautiful at all times of year, but I especially love it on winter afternoons when the Cathedral glows through the bare trees by the light of the setting sun. And when you’ve enjoyed the walk, where better to reward yourself with a cup of tea and a cake than in the Cathedral restaurant off the cloister?
 
*******
 
Space doesn’t allow me to write about the font canopy, the Daily Bread Window, The Venerable Bede, the mysterious line in the floor, a mason’s mistake in one of the piers, the Durham Light Infantry Chapel, Frosterley Marble and much else. Maybe another time…

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

On All Saints' Eve: Six Best Books from the Reformation Era

Five centuries ago today, Martin Luther posted ninety five theses on the legendary door of the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg. I can't let the day pass without writing something. It's a crowded field with many people contributing insights about the Reformation, not least on Thought for the Day this morning and in a leading article in The Guardian.

How do we get the feel of the Reformation? Best of all is to let them speak to us in their own words. So I thought I would blog about some of my favourite writings from the Reformation era. Amid a plethora of books about the Reformers, I think it's vital to go back to the sources themselves. This was an approach the Reformers themselves constantly advocated. Ad fontes! they would say, don't just read the secondary literature. It's original texts that need to inform our thinking and correct the distortions that inevitably colour so much of the narrative and the commentary.

What you find when you go back to the Reformers' writings is how lively and fresh they are. There's a bracing quality about these books that makes them a joy to read - and often, they are far easier to read than we might have thought. They knew how to write as well as how to think. They understood that they needed to harness the potential of the new media of their day, the printed word. (How they exploited this new "information technology" is a rich study in itself. Parallels with the digital era in which we now live are pertinent and worth thinking about.)

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So here are six of my favourite books from the Reformation era. They are all easily accessible (in translation where necessary), whether in hard copy or on the web.  How the Reformers would have loved the idea of online accessibility!

Martin Luther, Commentary on the Letter to the Galatians
There are so many Luther texts to choose from. Why do I go for a biblical commentary? Because his Galatians goes right to the heart of the central issue of the Reformation, how humanity is redeemed by the grace of God. This epistle, along with Romans, is where St Paul sets out most explicitly the insight that we are justified not by any amount of good works we can do, but through faith in a God who accepts us on the basis of what Christ has done for the salvation of the world. Galatians is among Paul's most passionate letters, and Luther's commentary is among the most passionate of all his writings, full of wonderful rhetoric that help us understand not only Luther's thought but his temperament as well. I once listened to one of my theological teachers read aloud from his commentary on the third chapter of Galatians where Paul says that Christ became a curse for us. It was spellbinding.

Philip Melanchthon, Common Places
Melanchthon was Luther's collaborator in the German Reformation. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting, for their personalities were very different. Melanchthon was a methodical thinker who was the first of the Reformation theologians to organise the concepts of Lutheran Protestantism into a coherent body of thought. I have a special fondness for him, having as a student bought for a song three massive volumes of his writings in an edition of the 1560s (which I still have). Sixteenth century writers often compiled "common places" as a way of summing up their thought, and Melanchthon's Common Places or Loci Communes are his own succinct survey of his principal concepts. They have (I think) been in print ever since he wrote them. Deservedly, for here is the quintessence of Reformation theology distilled in a wonderfully accessible and humane way.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion
Calvin gets a bad press in much of the church, partly because his own thought tends to get conflated with the more rigorous "Calvinism" of his followers and successors. We might not have relished living in Calvin's Geneva. But I have no hesitation in saying that the Institutes are among the great books of western Christianity, and one of the most magisterial (and influential) systematic theologies not only of his age but of any. It's not a book you will want to read from cover to cover, but nowhere else will you find the leading ideas of the continental Reformation set out so clearly and with the flair that only a lawyer trained in classical rhetoric could bring to it. Where to begin? Not with predestination and election, I suggest, but with the opening chapters that explore how we come to know God.

Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance the Prayer Book has had for the English speaking world. Along with Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, it did for the English language what Luther's Bible did for the German: gave it a literary sophistication and rhetorical directness that we are indebted to today. Cranmer's Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552 uniquely embody the liturgical and spiritual vision of all the churches that look back to the Reformation. Especially is this true of the Communion Service, to understand which is to have the key to a eucharistic theology that, far from being reductionist as was alleged, is in fact extraordinarily rich and subtle. I have blogged about Prayer Book Evensong before. And we should not forget the Psalms of the BCP whose much-loved translation by Miles Coverdale, another key figure in the English Reformation, has been sung the world over.

The Heidelberg Catechism
This little book was published in one of Germany's most beautiful cities in 1563. It was written for the instruction of the young in the Reformed faith. It is done with a charm and elegance that have never been surpassed, not even in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. It is divided into fifty-two "Lord's Days", i.e. one section for each Sunday of the year. Here's part of the first one to give a flavour. "What is your only comfort in life and death?" "That I, both body and soul, am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood has fully satisfied for my sins and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head...who, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me sincerely willing and ready to live for him." I visited Heidelberg on the River Neckar earlier this year and thought of those cherished words.

Martin Bucer, On the True Care of Souls
To follow two books that focus on Christian formation in the church, my final choice is a classic of pastoral care that deserves to stand alongside the famous books of pastoral theology by Gregory the Great and Richard Baxter. Bucer, a former Dominican, was the leading reformer in Strasbourg (where again this year, I visited his tomb in the protestant Church of St Thomas not far from the Cathedral). His exile in England, where he died, led to his having considerable influence over Cranmer's second Prayer Book of 1552. A man of ecumenical and eirenic temperament, he wrote this endearing book out of concern for the welfare of ordinary church members, recognising the need to  develop a pastoral theology to express through lived experience the Reformation's beliefs about the character of the Christian community.

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"Of the making of many books there is no end", even of books about the Reformers. This is no more than a personal selection. But these volumes have in one way or another played a part in my own shaping as a Christian and as a priest. It's been good in this anniversary year to revisit some of them and recognise the debt I owe to these great Christian thinkers and writers of five centuries ago, and indeed to the movement we call the Reformation that has so profoundly influenced our continent, our country and our peoples.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Crumbling Cathedrals?

Well, if they're not crumbling yet, they will do one day. I once preached a sermon for Advent in Durham Cathedral in which I said this.

"We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t marvel at wonderful stones and buildings, least of all when we are sitting among them in a World Heritage Site.  But that doesn’t mean that they last for ever.  Buildings, like people, are mortal. What Jesus says about the temple is also true of this place.  We can hardly bear to think of these wonderful stones and wonderful buildings lying toppled one far-off day in a heap of rubble.  And yet, in aeons to come, when the sun is in its death throes and planet is swallowed up in a vast red expanding disc, and the history of the human race is done, the Cathedral, like everything else we have built and cherished, will be dust and ashes.  To claim anything else would be idolatry.  St Paul says that what is seen is transient; it is what is unseen that is eternal. We need to judge accurately where eternity belongs. Temples have their day and are gone: in the celestial city, says the Book of Revelation, there is no temple."
I was making the point a trifle dramatically, I suppose. But we need to remind ourselves, religious people especially, that we must look at things sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of what lasts for ever. We wander among the stones of Fountains Abbey or Glastonbury or Tintern and see how history and the relentless flow of time have their own way of crumbling mighty buildings and anticipating their ultimate destiny.
But a recent news item in The Times headlined Crumbling Cathedrals was, I think, a little premature (how sub-editors always fall for alliteration!). Deans are right to claim that their cathedral buildings have probably never been in such good condition since the days they were built. This is thanks to assiduous care and oversight by cathedral chapters, architects and surveyors, fabric advisory committees and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE). It's hugely costly, but it's a labour of love. Simon Jenkins' recent book on Cathedrals is only the latest to pay tribute to this magnificent collective effort. A cathedral may merit one star or all five in that book (why have star ratings at all, I want to ask?) but the care invested in it will be to exactly the same standard. Having worked in four different cathedrals, I've seen for myself how imagination, hard graft, technical skill and eye-watering amounts of money are willingly expended out of the love people have for these great national institutions.
These great national institutions. That's a point I want to underline. Cathedrals belong not only to their diocese or city or county. They belong to the nation. Like bishops, cathedrals are there to serve the nation and in the case of the medieval cathedrals, this idea would have been embedded from the outset in how they were understood. It's obvious that Canterbury and St Paul's are national institutions. But it's not so obvious even in the case of York, Durham or Winchester, let alone the smaller or younger cathedrals. And the legal definition in the Cathedrals Measure 1999 rather colludes with a more localised understanding when it speaks of "the seat (cathedra) of the Bishop and a centre of worship and mission". Cathedrals are not less than that, certainly. But they are a lot more than that too. And this becomes evident every time there is a crisis in a cathedral. It's always big news in the national media. It's assumed to be a matter of nationwide public concern.
Let me warm to my point. The "crumbling cathedrals" headline is largely about the parlous financial position cathedrals find themselves in. And here there is no argument. The funding regime under which cathedrals operate is ludicrously inadequate to serve their present mission, let alone respond adequately to the ever-increasing expectations that are laid on them. Some cathedrals - a few lucky ones - have enough recurring income to service their day to day operations. But even they are only "just about managing". A large number are so constrained that they are not able to invest as they should and as they want to in the liturgy, the spirituality, the music, the arts, social service, intellectual activity and the architectural heritage that makes them such popular destinations for both visitors and pilgrims. Large-scale fabric is ravenously hungry for resources. And that greed is never satisfied.
Our country is proud of its cathedrals. They are among the glories of our land. Cathedral towers and spires populate the British landscape of the imagination. They feature prominently in the way this country is branded and marketed to visitors. I don't need to go on. So my question is, why is the nation as hesitant as it is in helping to fund these institutions that contribute so significantly to our collective wellbeing? Why doesn't it do more to lift the heavy financial burdens they struggle beneath so that the funds they hold can be allocated to the mission they exist to serve in their localities, their dioceses and the nation as a whole?
It's true that "the state" does provide some help, up to a point. The Heritage Lottery Fund has supported many a cathedral development project, including at both Durham and Newcastle. The former Chancellor's First World War Centenary Cathedrals Repair Fund offered two tranches of £20 million for cathedrals to develop fabric projects associated with the memory of the Great War. Historic churches and cathedrals have had access via English Heritage to funds for fabric maintenance, though sacred buildings are no longer ring-fenced. But whatever the route by which money is made available, the funding environment is highly competitive. Need far outstrips available funds, and the evidence is that resources are becoming scarcer than they used to be. The effort involved in submitting bids is hugely intensive, not to mention the challenge of voluntary fundraising to match offers made by funding bodies or private benefactors.
I've wandered round cathedrals in continental Europe for most of my life. I know France best of all. France has a secular constitution that rigorously excludes any blurring of the boundaries between church and state. Laïcité is a sacred principle. But when it comes to its architectural patrimoine or built heritage, the French are European leaders in investing in their priceless legacy. Cathedrals and greater churches (and a fair few lesser ones of historic importance or beauty) are maintained by the state to a very high standard. You look at the hoarding outside a cathedral that is undergoing restoration and you find that while the church and local commune both contribute a little, it's the département, the region, the nation and the European Union that fund most of the work. The ministry of cathedrals goes on without the burden of prohibitively expensive maintenance. You can read how it works here.


My question is very simple. If France, a wholly secularised state, can enter into this kind of funding partnership with the church, why can't it happen in the UK?

Let me talk about England for a moment. Here, the majority of Grade 1 listed churches belong to the established church. So there is (or ought to be) a presumption that church and nation exist in a symbiosis that enhances the role of each for the public good. I think it is time that the Church of England presses the case hard for substantial state funding support for the fabric of its cathedrals. The principle of direct state aid has already been conceded by the First World War Fund. I don't deny that when public funds are so contested, it would perhaps be controversial to begin with. But the sums of money that would be involved, say £50 million a year, would be paltry compared to the budgets for health, education, social welfare or defence. But they would make a substantial difference to cathedrals. And I don't simply mean Anglican cathedrals, though I would expect the Church of England to take the lead in negotiating such a scheme. All church buildings that satisfy heritage criteria and are understood to be "cathedrals" within their particular tradition would qualify. And whatever scheme is devised for England would also of course apply to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I don't know if church leaders have the stomach to open up this conversation. But there are compelling reasons that it's urgent. Negatively, I'm not alone in fearing that cathedrals are facing a crisis of financial sustainability. They are amazingly inventive when it comes to levering in funds, but the best initiatives in the world are not sufficient to address the problem globally. Visitor admission charges make a difference only when a cathedral already has more than about a quarter of a million visitors. That rules out half the English cathedrals, and these are inevitably the less well-resourced.

But I believe that any deal should be based on a more positive perspective. The value cathedrals add to the national and local economy is well researched and documented. We can put figures on the contribution they make to employment, tourism, visitor spending in hotels, restaurants and shops, uplift in local property values and so on. Their indirect and intangible benefits are incalculable but real. I doubt that anyone in government would dispute this, or question that cathedrals are indispensable heritage assets that belong to the nation. There's no reason why a public that increasingly values its built and landscape heritage would not think such a scheme well worth believing in.
At present, a Cathedrals Review Group is looking at the governance and management of cathedrals and how they can become more sustainable. I hope its report, due in the new year, will be bold in asking the nation to rise to the challenge of contributing realistically to the necessary maintenance of its cathedrals. Of course there would need to be carefully designed structures of national oversight and accountability to make sure that public funds were being administered properly. Chapters might groan at the idea of yet another layer of scrutiny on top of those to which cathedrals are already subject.

But I think it's a price worth paying for the kind of security such a "heritage contract" would offer both cathedrals and the nation. If worries about premature crumbling (take that both literally and metaphorically) were to be lifted, it would set cathedrals free to exercise their mission in wholly new and wonderful ways. They are already very good at it. This would help them to become even better.


Let's say it again. Cathedrals are great national institutions.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

What's Happening to Radio 3?

If you don't listen to Radio 3, you can skip this blog. But if you do, read on.

I owe BBC Radio 3 a huge debt. It helped to form me as a child. At home in the 1950s and 60s, the radio would always be playing classical music wherever it could be found. Radio 3's predecessors Network Three and the Third Programme were the station of choice (unless it was time for The Archers). When it was silent, as it was for much of the time in those days, European stations closest to the UK would stand in. Hilversum had the honour of being picked out with a sticky label on the tuning dial. The hums, wheezes and whistles of short wave and AM were the unforgettable noise behind of my first experiences of music, as were the skips and scratches of the 78s I would play on my wind-up gramophone.

How vivid those early memories are of the music that emanated from that big brown valve radio in the corner of the sitting room! Mozart symphonies and piano concerti, and Schubert Lieder laid down the foundation, I recall. Next came Beethoven symphonies and Bach's keyboard music. Opera was represented by Bizet's Carmen and Wagner's Flying Dutchman. My mother listened keenly to chamber music and my father to the big romantic symphonies and concerti, though it wasn't till I was a teenager that I began to pay attention. By then I'd become a chorister, so I began to devour choral music on the radio, beginning with Bach's St John Passion, Mendelssohn's Elijah and Brahms' Requiem. Choral Evensong, radio's oldest outside broadcast now 90 years old, became a weekly staple - when I was home from school early enough on a Wednesday afternoon to catch it. Like many people, I could tell my life story through the music I've come to love and which I've found to be not just inspiring but life-changing. Much of that is thanks to Radio 3. It has to be one of the most inventive and rewarding music stations in the world.

Now that I'm retired, we have Radio 3 on in the house most of the day (in different rooms that each has its own interpretation of "real time" when it comes to picking up the same digital signal). It's an immeasurable gift to have great music playing all day long. But I've noticed a shift in the style and content recently. There seems to be more and more of what I call pot-pourri programming these days. That's to say, the kind of talk-show scheduling that fills large parts of the day by giving presenters a studio, a CD player and sometimes guests to talk to and live performers to listen to.

Tomorrow, for instance, we shall have Petroc Trelawny on Breakfast duty from 0630 to 0900. Rob Cowan takes over with Essential Classics until noon. In Tune with Katie Derham runs from 1700 to 1900, and for half an hour after that, a new feature called In Tune Mixtape in which assorted tracks are played back to back without being interrupted by speech. This latest baffling invention, just a few weeks old, partly replaces the daily evening repeat of Donald Macleod's admirable Composer of the Week, once required listening at the supper table here in Burswell House. In total, that makes up a full eight hours of free-flowing (I almost said stream of consciousness) programming during the daytime.

I don't want to be misunderstood here. Radio 3 presenters are a splendid group of people: interesting, personable, articulate, urbane, amusing, skilled and musically intelligent. I've interacted with many of them on social media and had many a thoughtful or witty reply that has made me feel that we Radio 3 listeners belong to one of the best clubs in the country. And apart from a few exceptions, it's not a case of "dumbing down" the high art for which Radio 3 is justly renowned. I think we may be hearing more of Bizet's Pearl Fishers duet, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (first movement only) and Pachelbel's Canon than we used to, but on the whole, the musical range is as extensive and stimulating as ever. You only have to listen to Classic FM for a day to realise that the stations are very different from each other in that respect.

But pot-pourri programming inevitably falls back on the well-tried formulae of popular radio. This means above all having an easy conversational style ("as if they were sitting in my own kitchen"), a relentlessly upbeat tone, and maintaining as much musical variety as possible by playing single movements or excerpts from longer works. These days you don't often hear a complete symphony, chamber work or song cycle outside the official "concert slots" in the afternoons or evenings. Is it unkind to hint at "easy-listening" here, easy in the sense of not demanding too much of the listener whose attention spans are presumed not to exceed a few minutes? Or does cost come into it? It's not that there isn't a place for this kind of broadcasting. But there's too much of it. We still need the properly constructed programmes whose shape and grammar are dictated by more serious aims and content than entertaining an audience and keeping it going cheerfully through the day.

"Retirement is making him grumpy" I hear you say. I hope not. I'm not giving up on Radio 3. It's one of my oldest friends. But I do admit to turning aside from it more than I used to (how horrified my late mother would be!), switching the tuner to AUX and finding other means of playing serious music. This morning, when I got back from taking the early service in church, I played four Bach cantatas one after another on YouTube where I've learned you can find almost anything you want musically speaking. I'm not suggesting Radio 3 could or should have done that (though to broadcast the day's Bach cantata on the morning of every Sunday of the year might be an idea to run with....).

I'm simply saying that I looked for something a bit more intentional than the Sunday Morning offer from 0900 to midday ("music ranging from Gluck to Debussy by way of Schubert" announced the website). But as I gratefully streamed from the ever obliging internet, I also realised that making my own choices is not the same as live radio. When I choose to play music, I tend to stay within my own musical experience, my comfort zone if you like. Radio's gift is to take me beyond my well-honed musical preferences and prejudices, and challenge me to discover the new, the different, the surprising, the hard and even the alien. It invites me into a community of listeners, and there's something about enjoying music in the company of a worldwide audience that strikes me as precious and important, and a necessary antidote to individualism, so much a tendency of our age.

If someone in the BBC picks this up, maybe there could be a good conversation about the aims and style of Radio 3's scheduling. The world has moved on since my childhood. It's right that Radio 3 responds to change. In particular, widening access to great music and art must always be among its priorities. And yes, pleasing an audience involves compromises. It's not a case of elitism - God forbid! But maybe - maybe - there's scope for looking again at the daily schedules and asking whether the balance is quite right any more, whether there's been a decline of seriousness, or a loss of confidence in the well-tested mission of this wonderful radio station. I'm saying: don't weaken a strong brand. Please. "Discuss."

I hope it's clear that this blog is written out of affection and gratitude. I really don't want to be grumpy. Better to say it openly and see what happens.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Balliol, the Freshers' Fair and the Christian Union

At Balliol College Oxford, the ban on Christian Union students taking part in the Freshers' Fair has been lifted. No doubt there's a lot more to this story than has been reported in the media. But on the surface the original decision emanating from within the structures of the JCR not only looked foolish and naive, but it was guaranteed to provoke an outcry not only from evangelical Christians but from all fair-minded people, including the students in their own College who quickly condemned it.

I'll come clean. Balliol College Oxford is my alma mater. I went up in 1968 to read maths and philosophy, and stayed on to do a second degree in theology. I went back as a postgraduate in 1974 and was ordained priest in the College Chapel in the summer of 1976. So you'll see that I have a lot invested in the place. You won't be surprised if I say I loved it and still do. My years there were deeply rewarding. I suppose I began to grow up at Balliol. I'm more grateful than I can say to have been a member of such a progressive, open-minded and enlightened institution.

In particular, I owe a great deal to the College Chapel and the Christian Union. I doubt I would have become a priest at all had it not been for Balliol. The Christian Union, part of the University-wide Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union or OICCU, laid down important foundations on which to shape my life as a Christian. And although that thought-world belonged unreservedly to the conservative evangelical tradition, I did not experience it as narrow or exclusive. We were ordinary members of the College alongside students of many different faiths and of none. Most Christian Union members attended College Chapel regularly, some every day. Its traditional Anglicanism helped set our fervent evangelicalism in a broader, more liberal, context. We were certainly low, hearty and happy in our churchmanship. But we were part of mainstream religion.

It's true that I now blush to think of some of the convictions I held in those far-off days. I could have defended such doctrines as the inerrancy of scripture, a literal Second Coming and the predestination to their fate of the elect and the reprobate. Everything turned on the hardest version of belief in substitutionary atonement as the only way to understand the Cross. But Balliol was a tolerant place where you could try anything intellectually, test ideas and belief by the cut and thrust of robust debate. If you believed something wildly ridiculous, your friends would smile gently and without ridicule, ask you with what logic or on what evidence you drew that conclusion.

I owe a lot to that tolerant, liberal attitude. It's what made Balliol an intellectual force to be reckoned with in modern times. This it owes largely to the vision of its legendary Master, Benjamin Jowett, one of the most eminent of Victorians. A priest of the Church of England, he got into tremendous trouble for contributing to a notorious but highly influential book called Essays and Reviews. In it, he argued as a classical scholar that the Bible should be interpreted like any other text from the past, using the same rigorous tools of textual and higher criticism and of literary interpretation as he would apply to his beloved Plato. It was, he claimed, through such ordinary processes of study that the word of God would be discerned among the words. This radical approach was not well received at the time (and the book's other contributors were not spared the opprobrium either). But today, almost all biblical scholars apart from the most conservative would endorse his approach.

Jowett's legacy at Balliol was of a College in which dons and students alike were generous and  tolerant, modern people of their own century, open to new ways of thinking, unafraid of debate. Looking back fifty years, having been at a school founded on similar lines, perhaps I unconsciously chose an Oxford college that would continue to foster these liberal ideals and teach me to practise my faith in a setting that modelled the real world where beliefs are not privileged or protected. This kind of learning is an inestimably important preparation for adult life in a contested secular age. We may not know it at the time but later we realise how its values have shaped us in hugely important ways. My faith is very different now from what it was then. I suppose I echo whoever it was (David Jenkins?) who said that as he grew older, he believed more and more in less and less. "Be tentative in theology but be sure in religion", that is, don't invest more in the speculative particularities of doctrine than you do in knowing and loving and serving God which is the heart of all good religion. That is what I shall always regard as the core of what I learned about Christianity at Oxford.

Back to the headlines where Balliol has unwittingly (and unwillingly) found itself today. I spoke earlier about its character as a "progressive, open-minded and enlightened institution". I don't know the Christian Union today so I can't speak for them. But somewhere in the JCR decision-making structure, there seems to be a mighty fear of them if these heavy-handed tactics of airbrushing them out of the Freshers' Fair are any indication. What we are told in the media reports is that out of respect for the vulnerabilities of its new students, there was a need to create a secular space that is "safe". Religion, it is argued, does not belong in such a space, least of all when it comes freighted with homophobia (an allegation that is merely stated without any evidence or justification).

Yes, no doubt religion can be oppressive, and is in many places. Homophobic too. But it won't do wildly to accuse Balliol's Christian Union of it. (And by the way, were Jewish and Islamic groups also refused permission to have a Freshers' stall and be present at it? I genuinely have no idea - please tell us. It's important that we understand the background here. There's a lot we don't know.)

This unhappy episode is all part of the debate about the limits of free speech in higher education. There are no easy answers to the question of who should and shouldn't be given a public platform to promote their beliefs in a university or anywhere else. But in a fair-minded society there should be a presumption of trust that those who publicly share their vision and ideas will do so responsibly. No-one has quoted any evidence that the Christian Union intended to do anything other than the likes of the Balliol Music Society or Rowing Club: share what they had to offer and invite anyone interested to find out more.

One final thought. If I were a fresher at Balliol (happy days!), I'd be pretty annoyed if I thought that anyone was trying to "protect" me from notions that might challenge or disturb or (God forbid)  corrupt me. I'd have said: "I'm a legal grown-up now. I have the right and the duty to make my own choices. I have come to Balliol of all colleges because I want to be in an environment of bracing exploration and debate that will form me intellectually, ethically and as a person of faith. This is the very thing you are denying me. Please stop infantilising me in this way."

Well, common sense has prevailed, thankfully. I gather that the JCR as a student body has been as outraged by what has happened as anyone. Maybe we should put it all down to the naivety of youth. Making a mistake and learning from it is no bad experience. I hope this episode helps all students to think about and absorb their College's values and treat their fellow students with respect. What's happened will have cost Balliol in terms of its reputation for diversity and inclusion. That grieves me. But what matters now is that trust is quickly restored and Balliol continues to be recognised as one of Oxford's brightest, most generous and most humane institutions.

Oh and by the way, I'm looking forward to being back at Balliol next month to preach in the College Chapel.

**I have made some minor amendments to this blog in the light of conversations today with Oxford people who are close to the events behind the media reports.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Last Words from France: a rite of passage

Well, these are possibly not my last words ever from France, a country I have loved since childhood. But for the time being. This summer we went to our beloved hill-top town of Vézelay for one final visit. We have sold the little house I inherited seventeen years ago near the Basilica. Why did we decide to part with it? It seemed like the right time. In retirement it becomes necessary to simplify things.

But there's no denying the sense of loss. Not least the associations it came to acquire of peacefulness, spirituality and retreat, happy memories of family holidays, rites of passage it had been present to in our lives like the marriages of our children, the births of our grandchildren, our retirement, the breaking news of family deaths, the preparation for their funerals. When say farewell to a house you have had a long connection with (in this case, longer than any other I've known), things become charged with symbolism. To take a final cup of coffee in such familiar surrounding, switch off the lights, turn off the boiler, shut the front door, lock it for the last time, get into the car and drive away - what significance those everyday actions suddenly acquire!

I've blogged about Vézelay before. So I won't write about the landscapes of northern Burgundy, its Christian history, the golden limestone churches that adorn the villages, the wines (of course) and our life in the village. But let me say something about the Basilica where we have worshipped so often, and in particular, a carving just outside the north door that seems to me to symbolise life's transitions, not least how we let go, lay aside and travel into a new and unknown future.

The marvellous Basilica of the Madeleine that crowns the hill is one of the treasures of Romanesque architecture in Europe. It is to France what Durham Cathedral is to England, an incomparable masterpiece. In the middle ages pilgrims flocked here both to reverence the relics of Mary Magdalen (long story, that) and to set off on the Camino to Compostela. After the Revolution it been allowed to fall into decay. It was fortunate to find in Viollet le Duc a gifted young architect who set about restoring it - a major commission that brought him fame, fortune and some critical opprobrium too.

The west front was so decayed that much of it had to be completely rebuilt. So only one of the original Romanesque sculptures remains visible on the outside. But that single survivor on the south door jamb of the north portal is highly significant. It depicts Jacob struggling with the angel in the famous story in Genesis.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?”“Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”  Jacob said, “Tell me your name, I pray.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  (Genesis 32.22-30 NRSV). 


It's a mysterious story with many layers of meaning. But the symbolism of placing the sculpted capital right next to the church door helps explain it. It is clearly about travelling across a threshold, facing the risks and uncertainties of transition and liminality. Jacob is facing a journey and an encounter that he knows will be crucial in his life. He needs to be reconciled to his brother Esau from he stole both his birthright and his inheritance. He is all alone, and frightened of this imminent meeting that could prove to bring with it great suffering, even death. The awful journey through water in the dead of night, his struggle with the nameless adversary, his emerging as the sun rose with a new name to mark a new identity, and a limp to remember the ordeal - it all speaks of a rite of passage from one stage of life to the next. Interpret it as you will: Jacob facing his demons and (partially) overcoming them, or encountering God in all his numinous mystery and grace (or both of these) - it is one of the most powerful narratives in the Bible.

The sculpted capital and its story came to mean a lot to me in that final week in our house not many metres down the hill. I kept going back to it to contemplate it and photograph it (difficult to do because it stands, literally and figuratively, at the junction of light and shadow). While not comparing myself to Jacob-Israel, I recognised that even a little rite of passage like saying goodbye to a place and the home you have made there is still an ordeal to be faced up to and travelled across. I guess that it felt significant partly because saying goodbye to my working life as a priest, closing the door of the Deanery at Durham and walking away from the Cathedral and all that it stood for in my life was - still is - all very recent. Just as one bereavement triggers memories of others, so it is with saying farewell to a place and its people and the home you have made there and the friends you have got to know.

And, I have to say, getting on the ferry and leaving France behind did feel like our own personal Brexit. It wasn't of course, and still isn't now that we are back in Britain. But there's no denying that it was often on our minds during our summer on the hill. We frequently discussed it with both French and British friends, the latter mostly expats living in Burgundy, far from certain what the future after Brexit will mean for them. One of them told us about their son's recent visit to the UK in his (French) car. On parking it in a place he knows well in England (I'd better not say where), he realised that his French number plates had drawn attention to the car, and that he was being subjected to a volley of booing and hissing. Is this the generous decent country we were brought up in, the England that has shaped and nurtured us? - that was the unspoken thought. The Referendum was itself a rite of passage for Britain and for Europe, for all of us however we voted, I thought as I gazed on Jacob and the angel. And we have emerged on the other side unhealed, limping badly, more broken than we were before, not with a hope-filled sunrise to walk into but a gloomy sunset to walk away from as it gets dark.

Ah well. We are where we are, in a truly liminal place. But whatever our future in Europe, we are grateful to have glowing memories of our Burgundian adventure to bring with us. On our last day, I wrote to the Mairie and to the Jerusalem brothers and sisters whose spiritual home the Basilica is, to thank them for these wonderful years in Vézelay. It will always have a special place in our hearts. Adieu. And Deo gratias!