Friday, 24 March 2017

Happy Birthday to the European Union!

Today is Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation. The day falls exactly nine months before Christmas, and commemorates the message the Angel Gabriel brought to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would give birth to Jesus. So the day heralds good news, deliverance, salvation.
 
Was it by design that on this very day sixty years ago, the leaders of six European countries bound themselves together in a treaty that would bring into being the European Economc Community, what we now call the European Union? Those who originated the European project after the devastation of war were largely Christian politicians and statesmen. They fervently believed that such a treaty was the only way to save the continent from future wars and ensure that nations would flourish together by working together. They were deeply influenced by the insights of Catholic social teaching. Hopes were high as they signed the Treaty of Rome on Lady Day 1957.

So for those of us who still believe that it can only be good when nations and peoples grow closer to one another, the EU’s sixtieth birthday is a milestone to celebrate. And today's pro-Europe march in London will be one way in which this country’s Europeans want to shout it loud and clear. Happy Birthday to the European Union! We want to recognise the lasting benefits that the EU has brought, not only to the members of its own family of nations but far beyond through its capacity to influence the whole of humanity for good.

What are our reasons for celebrating today?

The economy and our global trading relationships overwhelmingly dominated the rhetoric of both sides of the EU Referendum campaign and indeed the debate since the nation voted to leave. These will be the big themes of the Brexit negotiations that are shortly to begin. We have heard far less about what I think are the best of all reasons to celebrate the achievements of the EU. These are about raising the capacity of nations to think geopolitically - which means realising that there are global threats that we can only address by working together. The founding vision of a Europe that would for the first time in centuries be spared the attrition of war was based on a pragmatic assumption about how nations tend to behave in their own interests. How to make self-interest enlightened and constructive rather than competitive and destructive was the question the Six set out to solve in 1957. They thought that if nations like France and Germany needed to trade iron, steel and coal with each other, they would be less likely to find themselves dragged into conflicts that risked destroying each other as had happened in the past.

So I want to put the tasks of peace-making and peace-keeping at the top of my list of reasons for being thankful for the EU's achievements in the past sixty years. In a world where resurgent nationalisms threaten to pull apart the delicate threads that bind peoples together for their own safety and the world's good, the EU has taught (I should say, is teaching) its member nations to transcend narrow self-interest and look beyond their own borders. And this applies to the other huge global challenges we know we must either face together through partnerships and treaty obligations, or we do not face them effectively at all. On their own, nation-states are severely limited in the difference they can make in the areas of climate change, poverty, health care, literacy, migration, inequality, human rights, corruption and all the other ways in which social justice must always be at the heart of our perspective on the world of which we are a part.

It's a bitter thought that just a few days after this diamond jubilee birthday, our Prime Minister will have written the Article 50 letter that will trigger the formal process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. At least she did our partner nations the courtesy of not dating it 25 March, though it is a great pity that she and other UK leaders declined to attend the celebrations in Rome tomorrow. Had we joined the party, it would have helped in a small way to create a positive environment in which to begin the vastly complex Brexit negotiations. This lack of imagination (not to say courtesy) is disappointing when the UK is going to need all the friends it can get in the next two years among the other twenty seven EU nations.

I am not naïve about the EU as it has evolved over sixty years. Its lofty ideals have not yet been fully realised, and the febrile atmosphere among many of its member states makes me wonder whether they ever can be in the foreseeable future. Brexit is both a symptom of this malaise, and is also helping to fuel it. The damage caused by the Euro crisis has not only been economic but reputational too. There is a real crisis of "ownership" across the Union: hearts and minds need to be won, or won back. That, as much as Brexit, may mute today's celebrations.

There is also substance to the arguments of Brexiters that there is democratic deficit in the architecture of the EU's decision-making, with not enough power belonging to the Union's elected representatives in the European Parliament. But these are not arguments against the idea of the European Union. The challenge is to make it more accountable and transparent. I'd hoped David Cameron's promise to negotiate the goal of a "reformed EU" would focus on these systemic difficulties. Instead, all that seemed to concern him was special pleading based on "what's best for Britain" - hardly a slogan that is in the spirit of Europeanism.

By contrast, Pope Francis yesterday outlined his own concept of a union of nations. At a special audience of EU leaders to mark the anniversary, he pleaded with them to place humanity, not mammon, at the heart of their vision. He told them he believed that a generous, outward-looking solidarity among peoples and nations was the only antidote to self-serving populism. And he left his guests in no doubt about their task. "Solidarity is expressed in concrete actions and steps that draw us closer to our neighbours. This is your duty: identify the path of hope."

And this is indeed a day to be upbeat and hopeful. On the day after the EU Referendum, I blogged these words on the Christians For Europe website:

During the campaign, "Christians for Europe" has tried to help frame the referendum as a matter not simply of pragmatic politics ("what's best for Britain") but also of social ethics and a theology of society. We've emphasised the central tenets of our faith: loving our neighbour, standing in solidarity with the disadvantaged, seeking the common good, promoting life together rather than apart. We've wanted to argue that the European project is based on a fundamentally Christian vision of nationhood and common life.

All this still stands. So even if, to our immense sadness, the UK will soon be walking away from the EU, it mustn't stop us from being good Europeans who will continue to work closely with the peoples of our continent who are our natural allies and friends. We must go on taking a global view of our place in the world and not draw in our horizons as if we were some insignificant offshore island. We must continue to work away at trying to create a more wholesome politics of respect and compassion both internationally and in our own country.

In that spirit we shall go on seeking the welfare of the human family and playing our part as good citizens of our nation and our world. That will involve the healing of the divisions that opened up during the Referendum campaign, and we are committed to this too in both word and action. And it goes without saying: we must now, more than ever, say our prayers. 

The Christian gospel of Jesus's death and resurrection makes us people of hope. We do not lose heart.

That was nine months ago precisely. On this Feast of the Annunciation, those words still stand, I believe. Today's party is a celebration of what it means to be good Europeans and to work together as friends and allies. The good news that the Angel Gabriel brought to Mary was about keeping hope alive for the transformation of the human family. So as we wish the EU a happy birthday, we can look back with gratitude for our own part in it, wish it well for the future and pledge that we shall go on being loyal friends and neighbours in this continent that we share together.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Europeans who Live in Britain. Europeans who Love Britain

Last night I went to a meeting with nationals of other European Union countries who are living in our part of Northumberland. We gathered in a café at Hexham's independent cinema. Others in the room were looking forward to the evening presentation - Hidden Figures, maybe, or Fences. There was the happy atmosphere of expected enjoyment.

But our gathering was not for entertainment. On the night before The Queen was due to sign off the legislation paving the way for Article 50 to be invoked and the Brexit process triggered, this group of fifteen or so was contemplating what their destiny could be after the United Kingdom had left the EU. For as we all know, the UK government has failed to offer any undertakings to non-UK citizens of EU nations about remaining in this country once Brexit is a reality.

In this fascinating, articulate group of people many nationalities are represented: German, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Greek, French, Swedish and Italian. They had lived in the UK for many years, decades even. Some were retired, some in employment. They were entirely indigenised. Their English was fluent. Their children had known no other life but in Britain. They paid taxes and social security in the UK. They owned property and had put down roots here. Most had long since ceased to feel they belonged anywhere else. Some had all but forgotten what it was like to live elsewhere.

You'll realise why I felt that my presence at this gathering was under somewhat false pretences. I am not facing their anxieties. I don't have to fear for the future of my family's or my own life in Britain. But I do know something about what it means and even how it feels when your future is not secure and you don't feel safe. Regular readers of this blog know that my late mother was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who came to Britain in the late 1930s. Her parents escaped with their lives because they had been taken in and cared for underground in German-occupied Holland. Books of German poetry, 19th century Jewish prayer books, some pieces of china, a seventeenth century map of Edam on in our entrance hall and an old Dutch cupboard in the living room symbolise that story and help keep it alive as it recedes in time from the present.

I'd been invited to attend as a known champion of the EU in Tynedale. A few knew about Christians for Europe which I co-convened during the Referendum campaign (and where a still active Twitter feed @Xians4EU can be viewed if you are not on Twitter yourself). A couple of other people from continental Europe had acquired UK citizenship. But most had not. They had assumed that in a United Kingdom that was an EU member state, there was no need to worry about national citizenship because now, after a terribly destructive war, we were at last Europeans together. Why shouldn't they make that assumption?

I heard a lot that helped me to empathise with the predicament of these good people. "We love Britain. It's our home. We belong here. We've worked here for years. We contribute to its wellbeing. We make a vital contribution to our locality here in Northumberland. We do not want to live anywhere else. We are all Europeans now - or thought we were." In all this, there was a striking lack of bitterness or self-pity. Yes, there was a lot of anxiety, together with puzzlement and hurt that their host country had not offered any undertakings about staying in Britain after Brexit when it could so easily have done so.

Indeed, I think it was the not-knowing that was the worst thing. Some said that British friends and neighbours had tried to reassure them by telling them that they wouldn't have to leave, even if they would have to wait to be told. Nobody said they had experienced hostility from locals; indeed they spoke of the warmth and friendliness of Northumberland people. (As a southerner blown in from London, I could identify with this.) But wonderful though this all is, anyone can see why it isn't enough.

Listening to the members of this group, I couldn't but feel a sense not only of profound sympathy but of shame. Many of them spoke about what it was like to contemplate being treated as "bargaining chips" in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. They believed it would not have cost the UK much to take the generous, moral high ground and offer unconditional undertakings to long-standing European citizens from other countries who have made their home in these islands. They spoke about Britain's famous traditions of welcome to people from overseas (not simply continental Europe of course).

I didn't think I should say too much as a native Brit, but I did want to tell them that many of us, even some Brexiters I'd spoken to, were completely on their side. We understood their fears. We wanted to do all we could to help. And many of us were, I also said, ashamed that our country had treated them so badly, not just because of all they were contributing to the UK but, more basic even than that, because they are our fellow human beings and as the Hebrew Bible says, we have a responsibility to care for the stranger in our midst. Only they aren't strangers any more. They are our friends. And that makes it all the more shaming.

I understand the arguments about UK expats who live in mainland EU countries. A number of them have become friends through our regular visits to France. They too are anxious about their future after Brexit. I sympathise very much with them too, not least with those who have lived long enough outside Britain not to have qualified to vote in the Referendum (a particularly mean attitude on the part of the government, I thought). But two wrongs don't make a right. I believe that if the UK had behaved in a principled way and given the undertakings our fellow-European friends needed, it would have created a more propitious environment within which to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Generosity begets generosity: the other 27 EU nations might just have felt more inclined to behave generously towards Britain as a result.  This country badly needs friends abroad right now. So it would have been an act of enlightened self-interest to say to my conversation-partners last night, "Yes, of course you must stay in Britain. This is your home, and we wouldn't have it any other way".

But we didn't say that, despite the best efforts of some in Parliament. And to that extent, Britain has shown itself to be a less kind, less generous and less fair nation than I thought it was. With less heart, you become less great. This is why I am ashamed. Aren't you?

So I'm going to show solidarity. I'm sure many others will do the same. We must change this situation, and give back to our friends with whom we share this continent, our brothers and sisters, the future they want in our midst and have a right to expect.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Bearing Witness to Europe: a day in Newcastle

Yesterday I got on the train and went to join the North East March for Europe in Newcastle. For a couple of hours I stood with a crowd of several hundred at the Monument in the city-centre. There was a home-spun party atmosphere with banners, flag-waving and singing. I felt a bit underdressed, not sporting the celebratory attire of yellow stars on blue. Even a well-dressed canine looked better suited for the part than I did. But it didn't matter. I was glad to be there.

"Celebratory?" you ask. Hang on, who actually won the EU referendum? No-one was denying the way the vote went. But far from rendering everyone despondent, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. This was a crowd that was energised and enthusiastic, eager to do our best for Britain and Europe, and confident in affirming all that we valued in the EU. Yes, and determined to try to win hearts and minds in the aftermath of the Brexit vote by urging our country to look again at its consequences and prevent lasting damage not only to ourselves but to our European friends and neighbours.

I'd decided to go for two reasons. The first was simply to show solidarity with the millions across the land who voted to remain in the EU. At a time when the momentum of Brexit seems unstoppable, there's a lot to be said for turning out on the streets en masse in order to show our political leaders that they can't assume that Britain has given them an "overwhelming" or even a "clear" mandate to drive us to the cliff-edge. And even if we had, we would still have the right to change our minds as a nation. That's what democracy means.

In the vocabulary of Christian faith, I call this kind of public activity "bearing witness": telling our story, sharing our experience, and inviting others to make it their own and become part of it. Getting out there is to become active rather than passive, not to be a bystander but to do something. And that changes for good the consciousness not only of those who take part but of the many more who watch or listen or read news reports and social media. Becoming participants makes a difference. Maybe a bigger difference than we can know at the time. Standing at the heart of Newcastle, this great cosmopolitan city that voted to remain in the EU, I think we all felt empowered.

The other reason for going was that I wanted to hear the speeches. An impressive line-up of speakers represented the worlds of politics, education, the unions, health, and business and commerce. I don't suppose many of us learned much that was new. But it was the conviction with which they spoke that impressed and even moved me. They were clear that our country had made a disastrous mistake. They were clear that the electorate had been misled and lied to. They were clear that the values of Europeanism were still alive and well across our nation. They were clear that it wasn't too late to row back from our decision. They were clear that the UK still had a future in the EU provided enough people believed in it with conviction.

In their different ways, the speakers underlined a simple message. "We want our country back. We want our continent back too. Being in the EU isn't only about the economy. It's about the values we share. We stand up not only for ourselves but for the next generation. We love Europe. We are Europeans. We shall fight for a second referendum on the negotiated Brexit deal with the option Remain in the EU on the ballot paper."

At the end, Professor A. C. Grayling spoke, one of the most intelligent and ardent champions of Britain's membership of the EU. In a long series of writings and tweets he has mercilessly exposed Brexit for what it is, the non-sense of "this crazy, absurd, damaging project". We must lobby our MPs, he told us. Too many Remainer parliamentarians are going along with Brexit because, as the cry has it, "the people have spoken". This needs challenging by rigorous argument. And maybe our elected representatives who, presumably, haven't stopped believing that EU membership is a good thing need a little encouragement to stand up for that belief. (It's a pity that there were no North East MPs among the speakers - had they been invited and refused, I wonder?) And as for the electorate as a whole, we should raise the morale of despondent Remainers while continuing to challenge those who voted to leave. In other words, the debate is far from concluded. It's more urgent than ever. We need to keep it alive.

It wasn't lost on me that we were gathered at the foot of  a monument that celebrates the great Charles Earl Grey. His fame rests, not on the scented tea named after him but his achievement as a courageous, pioneering, forward-looking politician. He was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, and it was under his government that slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire. More than that, he was the principal advocate of the Great Reform Act of 1832 that did so much to ensure the proper representation of the people in Parliament. His memory as a champion of democracy is treasured in his native North East. It's dangerous to claim the great men and women of the past as supporters of present-day causes, but I couldn't help thinking that he would have approved of our act of witness by his monument.

But the name of Grey sounds a warning note too. Someone responded to one of my tweets by pointing out that it was Earl Grey's descendant Sir Edward Grey who famously said in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, that the lights were "going out all over Europe". A few yards away from the monument, a small but noisy group of counter-protesters, some wearing Trump masks, were displaying a large banner that read: "Refugees Not Welcome. We Are Full". A sign that the lights could well go out across Europe if we are not vigilant for democracy, decency and peace-making, for justice, inclusion and equality, all the values that the European vision at its noblest represents. At a time when we do not know what will become of the West in the era of an unpredictable US president, and when Alt-Right movements are springing up across our own continent, we would be wise to be vigilant. And keep our European alliances in good repair.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

In Memoriam: Bob Jeffery, Priest, Mentor, Friend

There are just a few people in our adult lifetimes who have had a direct and profound influence on us. I think of five who, when I was still plausibly a young man, helped form me as a Christian, a priest and a human being. The part they played in shaping my mind, my spirituality and my ministry has been immense. The debt I owe them all is incalculable. Only one of them is still alive.

The four others were all priests. The last of these great souls died just before Christmas, Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery.** To us, he was simply "Bob". Our paths crossed quite by chance if there is such a thing. In 1974, I completed my theological training and got married. We moved back to Oxford where I was beginning postgraduate research. Looking for a place to live, we stumbled across a little detached house in Headington not far from the Oxford by-pass. The rent was absurdly low. It belonged to an academic (a theologian as it happened) who lived abroad and was looking for suitable tenants to keep the house warm for her. So Lyndworth Close became our first married home.

The bishop had decided that my getting married and being ordained in the same summer was too much. So we looked for a church to attend. By great good fortune, the incumbent of our parish church in Old Headington was one Bob Jeffery. So we started going there, and never looked back. I was ordained beneath the Norman chancel arch of that church the following year and served as a non-stipendiary curate in the Cowley Deanery of which Bob was the Rural Dean.


I said we never looked back. (Maybe I'd better revert to the first person singular and let my wife speak for herself if she wants to.)  Our time at St Andrew's Headington was a bigger watershed than it may sound. For the previous decade I had been immersed in the conservative evangelicalism of my school and college Christian Union. I owe a great deal to that experience, thanks to which I came to a consciously articulated Christian faith. I trained at an evangelical theological college. I assumed that I would minister for life in that Reformed tradition, never dreaming that I could inhabit any other way of being Christian.

Bob opened up that "other way". He did not set out to influence me or change me. He was a genuine liberal catholic (as he described himself then - we would call him an affirming catholic nowadays), with an outlook that was generous enough to believe in giving people space to develop and grow in their God-given way. The liturgy was very different from what I was used to. St Andrew's had an Anglo-Catholic history so the ceremonial seemed colourful and "advanced" by my austere protestant criteria. But to Bob, the human face of the church service was no less important than the liturgy. He believed that the church should present an intelligent, properly informed Christianity that belonged to the contemporary world. His sermons were always theological but in no way academic: his gospel exemplified an applied, pastoral wisdom. It mattered to him that the church should speak into human life in all its complexity and face outwards in mission and the pursuit of justice in society.  

It did not take long to feel at home there. Bob and Ruth made us welcome in their grand old vicarage. There was never any pretence at formality: Bob famously didn't care much about his appearance, and if he had, his four lively fun-loving young children would soon have pricked any bubble of self-importance. Indeed, I never knew anyone who was less self-important or concerned about looking the part and conforming to expectations. He was comfortable in his own skin. That by itself taught me a great deal.

I had so much to learn about ministry, about life, about myself. Bob and the parish were great tutors. I think he was somewhat bemused by my conservative theology, and we had endless conversations about what it meant to take the Bible seriously. "I'm a radical biblical man" he said to me early on, by which he meant that for him the scriptures were as central as they were to any evangelical, but it all depended on how we read and interpreted the text. Gradually, I became weaned off biblical inerrancy and the conservative theology I'd inhabited for a decade. Bob told me not to worry about ceremonial and eucharistic vestments: they were adiaphora he said, not of ultimate importance. If I preferred not to wear them, that was ok by him. Needless to say, because I did not feel under pressure, it was no time at all before I asked him to show me how to wear the alb, stole and chasuble and how to lay them out in the sacristy.

Without, I think, being aware of it, he taught me about "the beauty of holiness" and the genius of the English Church in exemplifying it. He suggested I might like to have a copy of Percy Dearmer's The Parson's Handbook, the classic manual of liturgical practice as seventeenth century Anglicanism had construed it. When I was ordained priest, he gave me Wagner's Parsifal in a boxed set of five LPs with an image of a beautiful medieval chalice on the front. That chalice crystallised for me the realisation that I had embraced sacramentalism and was becoming catholic in my outlook. Something had shifted inside me, irrevocably.

Books were a frequent topic of conversation. Bob would throw literature at me across his study, enthusing about this or that writer. Thanks to him, I started to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Gregor-Smith and Jürgen Moltmann (though he wasn't sure whether Moltmann would endure). He put me on to the French post-Reformation spiritual writers: Jean Pierre de Caussade was his favourite ("why have so few clergy ever heard of him?" he grumbled, pretending not to know that I was one of them). He told me to meditate on his Self Abandonment to Divine Providence on my retreat before being ordained priest. He insisted that I read Roland Allen's book Missionary Methods - St Paul's or Ours? "You want to know how to preach?" he asked one day (surely a slanted comment on my pulpit performance to date). "Read the sermons of Austin Farrer." I did, and tried to learn how to be profound and concise at the same time.

Stephen Platten, who went on become Bishop of Wakefield, came to Headington as curate during the same year as me. The three of us met each week for a staff meeting and got on famously. There was a lot of laughter. Bob seemed to know, or know about, everyone in the C of E and would regale us with the latest ecclesiastical gossip. "Lots of problems there" he would declare about clergy who, shall we say, had got into difficulty. But soon the meeting turned to theology, ethics, biblical interpretation or whatever else had struck any of us during the preceding week. After about two hours of energetic discussion and the consumption of much coffee, he would rein us in and tell us it was time to turn our minds to  the parish.

And here his thoroughgoing pastoral-theological outlook came to the fore. He took trouble to get to know the parish well - and by "parish" he meant not only or even primarily the worshipping congregation but the entire geography for which, as a C of E incumbent, he had the cure of souls. He taught me that the occasional offices - baptisms, weddings and funerals - were not a distraction from the parish priest's role but lay at the heart of it, how these pastoral encounters were crucially important to people at the key moments of their lives. He taught me to get to know the institutions of the parish such as the schools, hospitals and businesses. He taught me to be conscientious about visiting people in their homes, but always with a clear purpose in mind. He taught me to cultivate what he called "scarcity value" - to be visible without being spending too long in any one place. When I became an incumbent a few years later, and after that a cathedral priest, I realised how much I owed to Bob's way of doing things.

Bob's kindness continued after we left Oxford. He had a gift for friendship that was lifelong. He came to all my own "rites of passage", the celebrations each new phase of my ministry as a parish priest, cathedral canon and then as dean, first in Sheffield and then Durham. He said he would always be on the end of a phone if I needed help or advice, and it was hugely reassuring to know that he was there. He was especially pleased that I was appointed to Durham because he had been ordained in the Cathedral himself and had served as a curate in a densely urban parish in Sunderland. "All the best clergy have served in the North East" he said when we went to Alnwick in 1982. In 2011, he asked if he could celebrate the golden jubilee of his ordination as a priest in Durham Cathedral. Typically, he did not want to take a leading part in the liturgy. He asked Stephen to preside and me to preach. It was a beautiful occasion, full of warmth, friendship and good memories. The only sadness was that Ruth was not there to celebrate with us. She had died suddenly some years earlier, and we all knew what a loss she was to Bob, to their children and to all of us who knew her.

And now, Bob has gone to join her. We saw him last year when I was invited to go back to St Andrew's to preach. He was ill, and he knew that it was serious. But even in his discomfort he was his usual self: warm, wry, lively, intellectually alert, bemused at the latest church goings on, worried about the worsening state of the world and how faith was struggling to speak wisely into it. He talked about what he called the "end game" - his own. He told us he had planned his funeral at Christ Church Oxford where he had been Sub Dean. Later on, there would be a memorial service in Worcester Cathedral where he had been Dean. He wanted me to preach at it. I was moved to be asked. It hasn't taken place yet. I know that this will be one of those sermons that calls for the very best of me. I am wondering how I can do justice to Bob. Perhaps when you owe the kind of debt to someone you loved as I do, the words will come naturally.

One of Bob's lasting legacies is his recently published translation of Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (the Penguin Classics edition). He had always loved this work and been influenced by it, though in his understated way he never spoke very much about his own spirituality, at least not to me. I guess that what we look for in our mentors and guides are those we can not only admire but imitate. And perhaps the people who have helped us most are those who have practised a lifetime of imitation themselves. I mean of course, the imitation of Christ who is their and our divine Exemplar and - why not put it like this? - our best and truest Mentor. I think Bob's translation of The Imitation tells us what mattered most to him in his long and productive life. 

I write as one of many who are more thankful than we can say to have known him. May he rest in peace.

**You can read a formal obituary here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The General Synod and Same Sex Relationships

The day after the Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships came out, I wrote a blog about it. Many others have done the same, and there is now a useful collection of resources on the Thinking Anglicans website. I hope members of the General Synod will study them as they prepare for the "take note" debate on Wednesday.

Yesterday, I listened to Bishops Stephen Cottrell and Peter Selby on Radio 4 talking about the report "This is not the report I would have written" said Stephen Cottrell. "We want to hear what is really going on in the House of Bishops" said Peter Selby (I'm quoting both from memory but you can check by going to the Sunday Programme on the BBC Radio iPlayer). This followed the letter from fourteen retired bishops, of whom Peter Selby is one, expressing serious concerns about the report and what the Synod is being asked to do with it.

A Take Note debate is supposed to be a neutral discussion that paves the way for the matter in hand to be worked up more rigorously for formal debate and decision later on. So what the Synod is being asked to do is to pursue the exploration of marriage and same sex relationships along the general lines indicated in the Bishops' report. Often, Take Note debates don't need to be voted on since the Synod is not committing itself to any particular action, simply to go on talking. The report says that "it is worth recalling that voting to ‘take note’ of a report such as this does not ... commit Synod members to the acceptance of any matter contained within it."

But the Bishops express a clear aspiration for this week's consideration of their report. "The House nevertheless hopes that through the group discussions and the Take Note debate, the General Synod as a whole may be able to: (1) understand the approach being advocated by the House of Bishops and some of the reasoning behind it; (2) comment on that approach, while recognising that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church; and (3) contribute to consideration of key elements of it.

If I were a member of the General Synod, what would I do? (Thankfully, my Synod days are over, but I'm trying to feel for those who are still bearing the burden and the heat of their day in governance.)

My instinct would be to listen as carefully as possible to the debate. I would find that hard, because as I've already blogged, I have such grave misgivings about the report that I wonder how my mind could be changed. But that's the whole point of a debate. The purpose of rhetoric (which preachers practise every week in the pulpit, though they may not think of it in this way) is to persuade your listeners to your way of thinking, to open minds and hearts to new perspectives. It's a fundamental principle of democracy that we believe in this way of doing business. I should expect minds to be changed, including my own. It's perfectly possible to go into a debate with a burning conviction about the truth and justice of your cause, but still be attentive to those who see things differently. So when the Bishops ask us to "understand" their approach, we must do them the justice of listening carefully. It's a matter of Christian courtesy.

But what if the Synod decided after all not to "take note"? Would it be a disaster? I don't think so. Here's why.

First, it would require the House of Bishops to revisit their thinking about gay relationships in the church in a more searching way than the report does. This would certainly be hard and challenging. But I believe that far from damaging the credibility of the Church of England's leadership, it could actually affirm it by enabling the Bishops to say, in effect, "look, we didn't get this quite right. We acted out of good motives and had the best interests of the church at heart, but we now see that our approach hasn't commanded assent. So we are glad to be sent back to the drawing board and look at it again." Leaders are respected when they are big enough and wise enough to think it possible that they were mistaken.

Secondly, it would allow Bishops like Stephen Cottrell who say that this is not the report they would have written to elaborate their dissent more openly and tell us what they really think about how the church welcomes and affirms LGBT people, both laity and clergy. Indeed, I hope that this may happen in the Synod debate anyway. As I said in my blog, it was heartening that the report did not claim that the Bishops spoke with a single voice. I asked whether there might be a minority report from Bishops who took a different view because we need to overhear the debate that is going on among the church's senior leadership, and contribute to it as Peter Selby said. These are highly complex theological and ethical, not to say emotive, matters. To open up the episcopal debate would, I think, offer perspectives that would help those of us who are disquieted to put the report into context.

Thirdly, it would affirm the role of the General Synod in the Church of England. There's a phrase in the Bishops' report, quoted above, that concerns me. They invite the Synod to comment on their approach while recognising that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church. Up to a point. But only up to a point. For you can't separate doctrine from praxis. And this report is very much about the praxis of church discipline: do we or don't we permit non-celibate gay people to be ordained? Do we or don't we celebrate same-sex marriage or bless such marriages and civil partnerships in church? The answers we give these questions express a theology. Lex orandi, lex credendi. And it is precisely Synod's job as the CofE's governing body and legislature to determine these legal questions that embody its doctrine of marriage and sexuality. So if the Synod pushed back and did not take note of the report, it would remind the Church of England where its governance belongs.

And isn't it good when the Synod does theology-through-governance and respects the sensus fidelium that belongs not just to Bishops but to all the baptised whom the Synod represents? But this kind of theological discernment always comes down to good listening, not just to speeches but to the voice of conscience. Especially to that still small voice. To do this well is to undertake serious spiritual work. So (without a trace of envy), I wish the members of Synod good listening this week. And the promise of my prayers.

Friday, 10 February 2017

A Syrian Ready to Perish: a plea to the Prime Minister

I've tweeted an open letter to the Prime Minister in 138 characters. Here it is:

@ I beg you, as a Christian, remember the . Please reinstate our promise to care for 3000 child refugees.

I don't need to explain the background. This week the Government quietly announced that it was closing the "Dubs Amendment" Scheme under which the UK had undertaken to welcome lone child refugees from camps on the European mainland. Lord Dubs had suggested a figure of around three thousand refugees. The UK has to date received 350.

If anyone thought that with headlines about Brexit and President Trump, it was a week to bury bad news, they were mistaken. There has been an outcry from people of every political persuasion (or almost every - perhaps someone will tell me if UKIP has associated itself with this chorus of protest). At one level, there is something very un-British about going back on your word - which is what we all assumed it to be. In particular, refugee children who are hiding where the Calais Jungle used to be had their hopes raised and then cruelly dashed. It was heartbreaking to read about some of them in The Guardian recently.

My tweet appealed to Mrs May on two grounds: her memory and her religious principles.

Remember the Kindertransport is an invitation to recall how Britain responded the last time there was a refugee crisis in Europe on this scale. This was in the late 1930s when the scale of Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and central Europe was at last recognised for what it was. Lord Dubs was himself rescued as a six-year old Jewish boy in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1939 he boarded one of the famous "Winton Trains" which, thanks to the late Nicholas Winton, brought Czech refugees from almost certain death to safety and a new life in Britain. Thanks to the Kindertransport, ten thousand Jewish children were saved from the death camps and came here to the UK. They had their lives and futures given back to them. It is forever to Britain's credit that our country offered asylum to these youngsters.

I've blogged before about my own family's history, how my Jewish mother, then a teenager in northern Germany, was rescued from the Nazis in 1937 and made her home here in Britain. So I owe everything to this country's act of generosity to people who were desperate. If it were not for that, I wouldn't be here. I am sure the Prime Minister is as proud of that courageous decision as I am thankful for it. In the light of it, three thousand of the world's most helpless, vulnerable children does not seem a lot to ask of a nation that is so privileged. So I am begging Mrs May to reverse this week's announcement, and for the sake of being true to a history of British compassion in the face of need, do the right thing.

What is that "right thing"? This is where Mrs May's religious principles come in. As is well known, she is a committed Christian woman who attends her local church whenever she can. (I'm not going to invoke her upbringing as a daughter of the vicarage - it's her living faith I'm interested in today.) So I've appealed to her "as a Christian". Because the Judaeo-Christian scriptures are full of injunctions to care for the people who most need help - the destitute, the desperate, the economically dependent such as orphans and widows, and most strikingly, those whom the texts call the strangers who are in our midst. Add to that Jesus' impossible requirement that we should love our enemy and we see how exacting it is to live out of this faith tradition.

Where does this ethic of universal compassion come from? It's derived from the nature of God himself. A noble passage one of the books of the Torah tells us that "the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves strangers, providing them with food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10.17-18). So while Israel is the particular people of the covenant that is given the teaching we call Torah, Yahweh's concern and care are nothing short of universal. This is the essence of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a perversion of them to narrow the scope of God's mercy in any way.

But the Torah's appeal to care for the "stranger" is not grounded only in the character of Yahweh. The appeal is also to Israel's own history. "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" the passage in Deuteronomy goes on to say. In other words, if you won't show kindness out of imitation of the God you worship, at least show it for the sake of being true to your own memory of having been aliens yourselves. "A Syrian ready to perish was my father" is how the King James version of the Bible translates a saying later on in the same book (Deuteronomy 26.5), "a wandering Aramean" says the contemporary translation. Imagine it - the people of God were born of a Syrian parent! We can't escape the resonances for our own time when we read those words.  Mrs May must have heard them in church hundreds of times.

These two appeals to memory and to religious faith are combined in another book of the Torah: "You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19.34). It's extraordinary to see how in the Hebrew Bible, showing compassion is not, or not only, a matter of duty. It springs out of love. Indeed, to care for the refugee or resident alien is "just" a special case of the universal command found in the same chapter of Leviticus, that we must "love your neighbour as yourself". People sometimes imagine that when Jesus commanded this in the Sermon on the Mount, he was announcing some dramatic new insight into what God requires of us. It's true he filled out these words in ways that no doubt arrested his hearers. But the words themselves come directly from the Hebrew Scriptures. It's an inescapable requirement of our faith. We may wish the Bible didn't make it quite so explicit. But I'm afraid it does.

Who am I to remind Mrs May of all this? I'm sure she knows it better than any of us. Hence my appeal to her Christianity as well as her memory. But the comma in my tweet is meant to be a trifle ambiguous. I beg you, as a Christian, remember the . In other words, I who am doing the begging am a Christian too. It's the Christian faith we hold in common and rejoice to affirm together that ought to make this conversation possible. But in a crisis, my Christianity is under scrutiny just as yours is.  How we respond to the most vulnerable people in the world tests us all in demanding ways. Part of that scrutiny is to shine a light on our biblical interpretation and social theology. The Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders have recognised this by registering their dismay at the Government's decision to resile from the Dubs Amendment. 

I tweeted yesterday that to turn back on our promise would be unBritish, unEuropean, inhumane and unChristian. So in the name of this nation's history, and in the name of the compassion that the great world faiths inspire us to show, I reiterate my plea to Mrs May. Please will you show principled leadership and reconsider? Please will you reinstate this country's commitment to do what it promised? Please will you enable our nation to act with big-heartedness and integrity and do what we can to help at a time of such great need? And maybe save Syrians, among others, "ready to perish"?

Monday, 30 January 2017

Theresa May and Brexit

The Prime Minister has set out her Brexit stall. In her speech she sounded persuasive, far-sighted and upbeat as she spoke about how we would leave the European Union. It brought some clarity and this is to be welcomed.

We can’t accuse Theresa May of lacking vision. She asks the right question, what kind of country do we want to be? Her answer deploys a panoply of noble ideals: “stronger, fairer, more united, more outward-looking”, “secure, prosperous, tolerant, a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead”. 

No-one will dissent from these aspirations. We all want the best for our country. But why does it need Brexit to bring it about? Misgivings set in as early as the fourth sentence of the speech. The British people, she says, “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world”. It takes considerable effort to recall where “embracing the world” featured in the Leave campaign. What we remember are attacks on immigration and the populist cry “give us our country back!” It’s hard to spin Brexit as internationalism.

Mrs May wants Britain to be “a great, global, trading nation that is respected around the world”. Those words capture her fundamentally nostalgic ambition for Britain. She draws on a memory coloured by the way Victorian politicians and industrialists spoke about Britain’s role in the world, fuelled by the vast economic opportunities empire had opened up. A post-colonial, not to say Christian, perspective should make us ask whether this kind of grandiose rhetoric belongs in the 21st century or whether a humbler register wouldn’t help make the friends we are going to need in the next few years. 

The Prime Minister acknowledges that the UK must be “the best friend and neighbour to our European partners” as well as reaching out to the wider world. Indeed. But wasn’t this already being achieved by a Britain within the EU? From a Christian point of view, a people’s true greatness lies not in asserting its own independent identity but in its moral and spiritual character. To the founding fathers of the European project, catholic social teaching shaped the idea of a just, peaceable and collaborative partnership of nations in which sovereignty was pooled for the common good. It was as much about giving as receiving, serving as being served, in short loving your neighbour.
 
The historian Nicholas Boyle has argued that it’s the loss of a global imperial role that is partly responsible for Britain’s ambivalence about the EU. He believes that the UK, specifically the English, have got too used to exercising hegemony over others. Being “ordinary” is alien to us because we haven’t had much practice at it. So it’s not surprising that Britain has insisted on its exceptionalism as a “special case” within the EU. If post-imperial Britain had been content to play a more modest role in world affairs like most other nations, we might well have been more convinced Europeans. 

As it is, the rhetoric of Brexit has mostly been driven by self-interest, in David Cameron’s oft-repeated phrase, “what’s best for Britain”. And Mrs May can’t shake it off, for all her commitment to being a good friend to the EU and wanting to see it flourish. Perhaps this is inevitable when trade, the economy, immigration and security dominate the agenda. I am not saying that Mrs May does not care about human rights, social justice, reconciliation, peace-making or the environment. But a Christian response to her statement about Brexit is bound to ask why they are not much more prominent. 

For many in the finance and business sectors, the biggest stumbling block in the Prime Minister’s speech is her resolve that Britain will leave the Single Market. They are right to be worried about the hard, isolationist Brexit this betokens, given the undertakings made by leading Brexiters that this was not a necessary consequence of leaving the EU. It isn’t the only aspect of Brexit where 48% of those who voted are tempted to call “foul” and wonder where they are going to belong in Mrs May’s new Britain. 

Religion is as concerned about the integrity of decision-making as the decision itself. This is at stake in Parliament’s role in the Brexit process. Mrs May has announced that the deal as finally negotiated will be brought before Parliament. But government sources have now disclosed that even if elected members reject it, Brexit will still go ahead. Given the emphasis Leavers laid on UK Parliamentary sovereignty during the referendum, where does that leave our democratic institutions?  

Mrs May’s speech includes a ringing endorsement of the United Kingdom. “It is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead.” This for Remainers is precisely the argument for the European Union and Britain’s membership of it. Not for the only time, the logic of her argument leads in completely the opposite direction to the one she takes. Does that sentence, so telling, unmask the emperor’s new clothes?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Bishops' Report on Same-Sex Relationships

What can I say about the House of Bishops' long awaited report published yesterday, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations?

I share the sense of disappointment expressed by many (not only gay Christians) who have taken to social media in the past hours. We had dared to hope that the bishops would be more courageous, less risk averse. After the careful shared conversations about human sexuality across the country, after all the emphasis on listening to the experience of gay people, we had glimpsed the possibility of genuine progress in the theological and ethical understanding of same-sex relationships. We had looked for a new liturgical and pastoral practice that would recognise our LGBT friends and colleagues as beloved sisters and brothers. We had longed to celebrate their full participation as clergy and laity in the life of the church.

We hoped for these things, not as a matter of expediency or political correctness, but because we believed they were right in principle. That's to say, right as a matter of good biblical interpretation, good theology, good science, good morality and good pastoral awareness, not to mention a sense of history, an awareness of culture and a longing for justice. I've argued the case for committed, covenanted same-sex relationships in a number of blogs here, here, here and here. I don't know that I have much to add. 

So why blog yet again on this subject? With feelings running high and the prospect of a febrile debate in the General Synod next month, I don't want to raise the temperature. But here are some thoughts on where we are as a national church just now.

It's clear that the bishops were not agreed about what line the statement should take. Whatever reservations we have about the report, it's refreshing to see this recognised. (It's tempting to infer that the debate may have been sharp at times: the online text of the report I have in front of me speaks of "the conclusion of the Shard Conversations" (para 26).) So because there was a spectrum of views in the House of Bishops, their approach is described as "provisional". 

Nevertheless there is nothing provisional in the principal recommendation for the way forward. This is that there should be "no change to ecclesiastical law or the C of E's existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships". The status quo is unambiguously retained. So many hopes dashed at a stroke. Is it worth reading any further? Well yes, out of fairness to the bishops who ask that their report is read as an entirety. So even if it's with a heavy heart, let's proceed. 

The Bishops want to commission new work in four areas: (a) establishing "a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support" for LGBT people; (b) producing "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships"; (c) giving clear "guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision  for same sex couples" and (d) providing new guidance "about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle". These are the themes they particularly draw to the attention of the General Synod when it debates the report in February. I want to comment on them in reverse order, for reasons that will become clear.

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(a) Questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle (paras 44-55)
This may seem a small point compared to the first three, but it isn't. It betrays an attitude in the church that should seriously worry us. I mean the prurience that needs to scrutinise the mores and sexual habits of the church's office-holders. It's true, as the bishops argue, that the clergy by virtue of their public role are "exemplary disciples". The ordinal does indeed spell this out. But there is a very Anglican reticence about probing too deeply into personal lives, in Elizabeth I's great phrase, "making windows on to men's souls". In any other profession such scrutiny would be both unacceptable and illegal. It makes no difference that this will now be applied to all ministers, not just gay clergy. When I was ordained, my bishop and I spoke candidly during the retreat. But while he stressed how essential it was for a priest to live in a morally responsible way, there was nothing like this. If I were contemplating ordination today, I'm not sure I'd want to go through with it if it meant this degree of intrusion into matters that belonged to the bedroom. 

There is a real risk, I think, to the affection, warmth and trust that ought to exist between bishops and their clergy. Trust especially. In a grown up community, especially a Christian one, there should be a presumption that office holders are behaving responsibly and ethically until there is evidence to the contrary. Trust creates confidence; suspicion erodes it. No-one should be subject to this embarrassing process. Statutory safeguarding checks are all that should be necessary if we want to build up humane, spiritual capital in our relationships within the church. The last thing we should be doing is sowing the seeds of suspicion or defensiveness that micro-management and excessive scrutiny always lead to.

(b) Guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples (paras 36-43) 
At present clergy "may pray informally with same-sex couples" but there is no authorised or commended form of worship to follow a civil partnership or marriage. In practice, what clergy may offer such couples is far from clear. It is similar to the position thirty years ago with regard to prayer following civil marriages where a partner had been divorced. At that stage the church was not clear, in the light of its teaching that marriage is a permanent relationship, what it believed about the remarriage of divorced people. It then seemed odd to imply through a public act of liturgical prayer that the relationship was, after all, one that God could at least live with. But faith can be paradoxical at times. The law of the church was later revised to permit the solemnisation of such marriages in church (though not all clergy are willing to preside at them). 

The position with regard to same-sex relationships is precisely the same and the bishops recognise this. But this time they are not proposing services that are authorised or commended. This implies a high degree of ambivalence. Certainly, guidance is essential if the clergy are not to find themselves breaking the law. But since the traditional teaching of the church is that both remarriage after divorce and same-sex relationships are disallowed, why are the bishops so much more wary this time than they were before?
 There seems to me to be a clear precedent in issuing public prayers that can be used with those who ask for them while the church takes the time it needs to work out a new moral framework for its pastoral practice. As we know, liturgy and prayer inform how we think and believe and what we do. I'd say this was important not just in our ministry to LGBT people but also to help the church itself reflect on its own spiritual and liturgical practice.

(c) New teaching document on marriage and relationships (paras 34-35)
No-one is going to question the need for this. The bishops set out a list of issues to be covered, including "the significance of community and relationships of all kinds in human flourishing", the role of single people, a theological exploration of friendship, and the meaning of marriage in society, family and the church. But then we hit a clear constraint. The penultimate entry in the list is to "reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life". 

In an agenda of exploration and enquiry, this statement is disappointing. It begs the very question that has given rise to this report in the first place, and that is crying out for theologians, ethicists and church leaders to give attention to. The final item is "to explore the distinction that has opened up between the state's conception of 'equal marriage' and the Church's doctrine of Holy Matrimony". Might the document be open to the discovery that as a covenanted relationship between two persons before God, the state's conception and the church's doctrine might turn out to be the same? 

(d) Establishing a Fresh Tone and Culture (paras 29-33)
It's good that the church's welcome to and support for those in same-sex relationships is placed first. The bishops recognise the importance of asking how LGBT people experience the church. I don't doubt the sincerity of everyone (well, almost everyone) who says that they want the C of E to be a generous, inclusive place, whatever they believe about same-sex relationships. The problem is, as the bishops acknowledge, that acceptance and welcome can sit uneasily alongside judgmental attitudes which, if not expressed, are still present. 

I wanted to invert the order of these four themes because that way round shows that despite their best intentions, the bishops fall right into this trap. Whatever they say about the goodness of LGBT relationships, there is always a big "but", stated or implied. When you read their priorities starting at the other end, it's hard to see how the text reads as anything other than this "but" in the cautious attitude it takes towards LGBT people. Questions about lifestyle, guidelines for the clergy, a new teaching document all imply that gay people are a problem that needs to be solved rather than adult responsible men and women who are flourishing in relationships they are asking the church both to affirm and celebrate. Of course we all look for "a fresh tone and culture", but only complete acceptance and mutuality in the church will achieve this. This is precisely what is missing in this document. It's not surprising that so many LGBT friends and colleagues are angry. 

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The bishops have an important section devoted to theological method (paras 56-66). To reflect on this would double the length of this blog so it must be for another time. It treads a wary path between two approaches. On the one hand, they want to affirm the fidelity and mutuality of stable same-sex relationships and recognise how the changing social context brings fresh insights. On the other hand, they are clear about the need to uphold the traditional teaching of the church, not least because the unity of the church must always matter to Christian people (and bishops are meant to be the guardians of unity). They recognise the legitimacy of diversity in Anglicanism, and also its ethos of "reserve", not imagining that there can full and certain knowledge of anything this side of the grave. I would have said that these two aspects of our church's self-understanding offer precisely the mandate the bishops are looking for to proceed in a more confident, less hesitant way. 

We have been here before, many times: contraception, remarriage after divorce and the ordination of women were all once regarded as unthinkable departures from the church's teaching. They were all debated vigorously, often with great heat and sometimes with bitterness. But each time, the church's teaching proved to be larger than we had imagined, capable of including within it the new dimensions each development brought. In particular, marriage did not cease to be marriage because the divorced were permitted to remarry. 

The same has been proved true now that the state permits people of the same gender to marry. Far from subverting marriage, it affirms it! History tells me that I can be confident that there will come a time when LGBT relationships are fully accepted, integrated, honoured and celebrated in the sacramental and pastoral life of the church. Then, the great institution of marriage will at last be truly "equal" without discriminating between straight and gay people. I may not live to see it (though I hope I do). But the momentum is unstoppable. And I see in it nothing less than the act of God's Spirit. I'd like to see beyond the timidity of the bishops' report to what I suspect many of them also acknowledge and even welcome. 

One final thing. Since the bishops have told us that they were not all agreed about the position they adopted, may we have a minority report from those who dissented? The bishops have already found that there is nothing to fear from open, candid debate. Why not let it happen publicly? I am sure that the whole church will respect them all the more. Next month's Synod will be a good place to start. 


Meanwhile, as the church goes on talking to itself about sex, the world stops listening and starts burning. 


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Reunion: in memory of the Holocaust

This Friday, 27 January, is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. We now observe it as Holocaust Memorial Day.

I've read scores of books about the Nazi era. It's inevitable when it's part of my own story, for my mother and her parents were Holocaust survivors. (I've preached and blogged about this frequently - those links are just two among many). But there is one book that means as much to me as all the rest put together. It's a slim volume by Fred Uhlman called Reunion. I'm writing about it now in case what I say interests you enough to get hold of it in time to read it this week.

"He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. More than a quarter of a century has passed since then...(but) I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair." It's an arresting opening. The boy in question is the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfels. He arrives as a new boy in Hans's class at high school (Gymnasium) and at once attracts attention for his fine looks and noble bearing. They become firm friends. Here is the companion Hans has yearned all his life to meet, for whom he might lay down his life.

Who doesn't remember the high ideals, the pain both sharp and sweet, the heartfelt longings of adolescent friendship? Uhlman captures them to perfection in the span of a few lines (for this book is little more than a short story, a novella that's nowhere near full novel length). So much is implied rather than said: the author is a master of understatement. He depicts how this friendship crosses the boundaries of class, for Hans comes from the home of ordinary Stuttgart townspeople who can only dream about what goes on behind the elaborate wrought-iron gates of Konradin's grand house.

There is another difference that their friendship transcends. Hans is a Jew, Konradin a pure-born Aryan. As Hitler's iron fist tightens on Germany, trouble brews for the boys. It becomes clear that Konradin's mother has no time for Jews. "She's jealous of you" he explains "because you, a Jew, have made a friend of her son. She thinks that my being seen with you is a blot on the Hohenfels escutcheon. She believes you are in the service of world Jewry, which is only another word for Bolshevism: 'My poor boy, don't you see that you are already in their hands?'" After that, says Hans, "we both knew that things would never be the same again and that it was the beginning of the end of our friendship and of our childhood".

I don's want to write too much about the rest of the book: if ever a story must not be ruined by spoilers, this is it. Suffice it to say that the tone darkens as Hans begins to feel the awful effects of anti-Semitic persecution at school. Meanwhile the friend he so much needs at this bleak time has gone. Hans' parents decided to send him to America until the storms have passed. Just before he leaves he receives an important letter from Konradin. It is the last contact they have. But it is not the end of the story. And I freely confess that although I've read this book countless times, whenever I get to the final page, I find it unbearably moving. If there were an anthology called Stories That Make Grown Men Cry this would be my choice.

Books can be mirrors that are held up to our own souls and stories. My mother was herself at school in Germany at the time the novella is set, not in Stuttgart but in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf. At her funeral last summer, every tribute spoke of her childhood and adolescence as a Jewish girl in the Third Reich and the circumstances in which she left Germany. The most painful story was of the celebration of the her eleventh birthday in September 1933. She had invited all her school friends to her party at home. Not one of them turned up for they were all Aryans. I can scarcely imagine what she must have lived through that afternoon.

It would be another four long years before she came to Britain and was welcomed in this country as a refugee. She was one of the very fortunate. And although in later life she would often say that the past is the past and there is no point in dwelling on it, I think she would also understand Hans saying towards the end as he looks back as an adult, "my wounds have not healed, and to be reminded of Germany is to have salt rubbed into them". But it was rather wonderful that the head teacher of her primary school in Düsseldorf came across her name while researching past pupils including Jews who had fled Germany during the Nazi era. They struck up a regular correspondence and sent each other photographs. This meant a lot to her. They became friends. It was a kind of reunion. When she died, the children signed a lovely condolence card they had made. This kind act deeply touched my sister and me.

Holocaust Memorial Day is, I believe, all the more needed today than ever. While the Nazi Holocaust was, in Arthur Koestler's words, "the ugliest tragedy in man's history", we know that cruelty, persecution and ethnic cleansing continue to be visited on innocent human beings in many places in our own time. The Third Reich is an awful warning of what can happen when a people begin to see themselves as a Volk who are stronger or better or more worthy than everyone else, and whose myths and fantasies fuel the evil notion of supremacy. The ascendancy of the far right and its specious but persuasive nationalist rhetoric is a sinister omen for those who lived through the decade before the last war. It re-awakens spectres they thought they had long left behind.

When my mother was in hospital during her last illness, the EU referendum campaign was in full spate. "We're not going to walk away from it, are we?" she asked. "We created the Union so that Europe would never again have to go through what we went through all those years ago." I replied that I didn't know, but I thought that the British were too sensible to vote Leave and pull up the drawbridge. How wrong I was. And now, the threatened "hard Brexit" and the cry "America first" are feeding this isolationist environment in which the beautiful idea that you can be a "citizen of the world" as well as loving your own country is being poisoned. In such an environment, divisions can be more readily sown and hatreds can be fostered.

Of course I am not saying that we are on the verge of a new holocaust. God forbid. I'm simply pleading with people of good will to be vigilant in ways we have not been before. This is what Holocaust Memorial Day is for. The beauty of Uhlman's novella is that with an exquisite lightness of touch, you are made to feel the sheer terror of the Nazi Holocaust and how it destroyed millions of lives because so many people sleep-walked unknowingly into catastrophe. This marvellous book helps us never to forget. If we are people who pray, it will drive us to our knees.
I hope you will read it.

Biographical note: Fred Uhlman (1901-1985) acknowledges that Hans is of course himself, though he had left school before the Third Reich, and he did not have a friend like Konradin. He became an anti-Nazi lawyer who fled Germany in 1933, and after time spent in France and Spain ended up in Britain in 1936. He lived in Hampstead so it's possible that he and I passed in the street when I was at school there. He wrote Reunion in 1960. It was published in 1971 which is when I think I first read it, but it was only when it was reissued in 1977 that it got the critical acclaim it deserved. He became a painter whose work is still displayed in some galleries.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Peterborough Cathedral: thoughts on the visitation report

The Bishop of Peterborough has recently conducted a visitation of his Cathedral. His charge is now published. It makes interesting reading.
 
Some may be wondering what a Cathedral visitation actually is. The answer is that it is a legal process whereby the Bishop as the "Visitor" of his or her Cathedral engages in a formal review or audit of aspects of the Cathedral's mission and life. Articles of inquiry addressed to the Chapter set out the scope of the visitation. Written answers will be followed up by interviews and meetings. The Bishop's areas of concern frequently reflect challenges that the Cathedral may have faced, for example in financial management, compliance or governance. But a visitation does not need to be a response to real or perceived problems. A newly-arrived Bishop has the opportunity to conduct a visitation in order to familiarise him- or herself with the Cathedral's aims and plans, its life and ministry, the fundamental question being how it could best support the Bishop's mission in the diocese and how Bishop and Cathedral could fruitfully collaborate for the good of the whole church. 
 
Visitations are often news. The report of the recent visitation at Exeter Cathedral, for example, criticised the Dean in ways that led some of us to ask whether such directly personal comments belonged to an institutional report in the public domain. At Peterborough, the Dean's sermon at his farewell service hinted that his resignation was not simply a matter of personal choice but had been wished on him. The visitation report clarifies that the Cathedral has faced severe cash-flow problems for which financial support by the Church Commissioners has been sought. Make what connection you will. In the circumstances, you can understand why the Bishop wished to conduct a visitation. And if the problems are as set out in the report, then many of the Bishop's directions and recommendations about governance, decision-making, staffing and financial management make sense. 

I can't comment on Peterborough Cathedral specifically. I don't know it well enough, though as a fellow Dean I have always admired Charles Taylor's leadership as a senior priest who understands the mission of cathedrals. I am sorry to see him go. It will be for Peterborough people (not only in the Cathedral) to respond to the detailed provisions in the Bishop's charge. No doubt a robust conversation will be had.

But the last six paragraphs of the charge are addressed to the wider church, not only to Peterborough. The Bishop believes that there are lessons to be learned from the Peterborough situation by the Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, the General Synod, and the Deans’ Conference (para 25). That is an invitation to all of us who care about cathedrals to reflect. So here are some thoughts of my own. 

The Bishop accepts that Peterborough Cathedral seems to have complied with the Cathedrals Measure 1999, but the accountability, scrutiny, and safeguards in that Measure were clearly insufficient to prevent the problems that occurred.  The remainder of his charge is effectively a critique of the legal framework under which Cathedrals operate and a plea that they should be reconsidered. Here is where every Bishop, every Dean (including the superannuated like me!), every Chapter and every member of a Cathedral Council and College of Canons will no doubt take a view. 

Paragraph 27 states: the Cathedral Council and the College of Canons, both of which see the Cathedral accounts, do not necessarily have the expertise, and certainly do not have the specialist staff, to allow them to exercise real scrutiny; and they have no powers to mount an effective challenge to the Chapter. They can have great value in terms of advice, goodwill, and networking, but they cannot hold the Chapter accountable. This is an important paragraph because it assigns to the current governance structure for cathedrals a built-in weakness that is incapable of ensuring the proper accountability of the Chapter.

I want to comment on this. Without going into the long and complex history of how Cathedrals were governed before 1999 (a different story for the different types of cathedral), we can say that one of the clear aims of the Measure was to make sure that Chapters as the executive bodies of Cathedrals charged with holding their strategy and leading their mission would no longer be laws unto themselves but would be properly accountable. So Cathedral Councils were brought into being to represent the wider church and community and hold the Chapter's accountability. Thus the Chapter was obliged to report regularly to the Council, and in particular, the annual budget and annual report and accounts had to be presented to the Council for scrutiny. 

There are two important aspects to the functioning of the Cathedral Council that the Peterborough report doesn't do justice to. In the first place, the Chair of Council is an independent lay person (i.e. not a member of the Chapter) who is appointed by the Bishop after consultation with the Chapter. So it's really up to Bishops to make sure that they get the Council Chairs they want and need, people who are capable of the careful scrutiny and if necessary, challenge that is the proper job of any body that holds accountability. In the second place, the Bishop him- or herself is a statutory attender at Council meetings. Bishops don't have a vote (because as Visitor this would compromise the Bishop's role), but they are expected to be present and to speak. This is a powerful role for a Bishop to occupy. His or her voice is always influential. If the Council lacks expertise in particular areas, then let the Bishop insist that the best people are appointed to make up the deficit. But all this only works if Bishops are consistently present at and committed to Council meetings. It is not the Chapter's fault if they do not exercise their rights under the Measure. 

So it is not true to say, as the next paragraph (28) suggests, that the Bishop, despite the Cathedral being known as his or her seat and Church, has no powers except the draconian one of Visitation. The Bishop's seat on the Council is precisely positioned where it needs to be in order that he or she can be part of the structure that calls in accountability without having to manage the institution directly. What is more, the Measure requires Bishops and Chapters to liaise regularly about the mission of the cathedral. This can mean their attendance at Chapter meetings from time to time so that the Bishop can overhear the Chapter's business and contribute to it (I wouldn't recommend all the time, though an earlier paragraph in the Peterborough charge seems to look for this). It can mean informal gatherings specifically to discuss how Bishop, Cathedral and Diocese could align their mission and collaborate more effectively. It can mean the circulation of meeting papers and documents, another request the Bishop of Peterborough reasonably makes. In my view it ought also to include regular (and frequent) meetings between Bishop and Dean. In my time as a Dean I have valued these "audiences" enormously. 

There's another point to add. Since the revision of senior church appointments processes, the Bishop is now an ex officio member of the panel that is set up to appoint Deans. He or she has a veto on the appointment, so while the Bishop may not always get "his" or "her" preferred candidate appointed, it is not possible for a Dean to be appointed against the Bishop's wishes. This process ought to ensure that the Bishop always has a Dean with whom he or she can work fruitfully in a relationship where there is from the outset a high degree of trust and a good personal rapport. 

It is true (paragraph 28) that the Chapter is exempt from scrutiny by the Charity Commission. The Church Commissioners, even though they pay for the Dean and two Residentiary Canons, have no standing powers or right to scrutinise. The Diocese, whose mother Church the Cathedral is, and which risks serious reputational loss if the Cathedral has problems, has absolutely no standing in all this. But to draw the consequence that in practice the Chapter is accountable to nobody goes well beyond the factsAs I have said, the Council, whose chair is the Bishop's appointee and on which the Bishop sits, has this responsibility. I'd say that it's up to Bishops and Council Chairs to liaise regularly (as I know some do) to make sure that the structural accountability provided by the Measure is working in practice, and that the right questions get asked of the Chapter. 

In paragraph 29 the Bishop tells us that in this Charge I have made some provisions to bring Peterborough Cathedral, for the time being, under a degree of oversight and scrutiny: to make it accountable to the Bishop and the Diocesan Board of Finance. The Church Commissioners’ conditions for their support include another level of accountability. All these are, I believe, necessary steps for Peterborough Cathedral at the present time – though I hope that they will be seen and felt as a matter of co-working and mutual cooperation within the body of Christ, rather than as the imposition of accountability. No-one will argue with the final sentiment. But I'd want to press that its logic is taken seriously. The fact is that while the Measure is no doubt not a perfect instrument, it goes a long way towards ensuring accountability in just the way the Bishop rightly urges. It's a question of making the existing systems work better. To introduce yet more levels of oversight with all the risks of heavy-handedness and micro-management seems to me to be a mistake. 

What is more, all the ordained members of the Chapter and other Cathedral bodies hold the Bishop's licence which, premised on the oath of canonical obedience, is itself an instrument of accountability and discipline. The Dean is a member of the Bishop's staff, Bishop's Council and Diocesan Synod. In practice, Bishop, Dean, Cathedral and Diocese form a closely-integrated system. But no system is better than the people who inhabit it. And this is the key point. A cathedral, a parish, even a diocese, can get into serious financial, compliance or reputational difficulties if its senior officers take their eye off the ball. The only answer is close collaboration, mutual respect, and accountability between people as well as committees. 

The Bishop concludes (paragraph 30): I urge the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops, to look at whether the current Cathedrals Measure is adequate, and to consider revising it. The Peterborough situation has convinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by Cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church, and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of Cathedrals with their Bishop and Diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually. I am not against revisiting the Measure: it has been in operation for fifteen years and it would no doubt be good to review after the experience of a decade and a half. And I entirely endorse the sentiment that the closer the relationship between Cathedral, Bishop and Diocese, the better for all concerned, and the better for the mission of God. 

But I dispute the conclusion that the degree of independence enjoyed by Cathedrals poses the risks the Bishop identifies. We are regularly told that the mission and outreach of Cathedrals is one of the big success stories of the Church of England; indeed, in their press comment on the Peterborough visitation, the Church Commissioners go out of their way to underline this. Cathedrals they say offer spiritual sanctuary for millions of people each year and are the jewels in the nation's heritage crown. Cathedrals must be doing something right! Whether or not that is related to their freedoms from direct episcopal or diocesan control I leave it to others to judge. 

But as a priest with nearly thirty years' experience of full-time ministry in (three different) Cathedrals, I can I think speak about the good health of these great institutions and the outstanding ministry they exercise towards a public that is otherwise largely untouched by organised religion. The Cathedrals Measure has helped, not hindered this. That isn't to say that Cathedrals can afford to be complacent, nor that there aren't problems that some of them are facing. But radically to tamper with the delicate checks and balances between Cathedrals, Bishops and Dioceses that have evolved over centuries of English church life would in my view be a mistake. I doubt it would guarantee that Cathedrals never faced problems in the future. Ever more centralisation is not usually the way to sustain what is life-giving and flourishing. And I doubt it would do much to strengthen the mission of these altogether wonderful and remarkable places.