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!
 

Thursday, 27 July 2017

After the Act - 50 Years On

Today marks a big anniversary. On this day in 1967, homosexual activity between consenting male adults in private was no longer criminal. This Act of Parliament is rightly regarded as having made history. It marked a watershed of modern times.

My times, I can say, because I remember it well. If you were an adolescent of seventeen, this highly public debate about sex and sexuality couldn't fail to be of absorbing interest. I hadn't long come out as a Christian, and without understanding much of the theology (or much of human nature, for that matter), I remember being obscurely relieved that Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, supported decriminalisation.

As we all know, 1967 did not, to strike a Churchillian note, mark the end of a campaign, or even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it was the end of the beginning. Progress, especially in the last quarter of a century, has gained momentum. It has seen the equalisation of the age of consent, the inauguration of civil partnerships, the acceptance that gay couples should be eligible to foster and adopt children, and most recently, legislation to allow same-sex marriage. All the major political parties have strenuously supported equality legislation. Our understanding of homosexuality is vastly more sophisticated than it was fifty years ago. Gay culture has moved into the mainstream and enriched us all. These are all achievements to celebrate today.

But as we know, or ought to know, full equality for our LGBTQ+ friends has yet to be won. This is not only or primarily about legislation. It's as much about changing attitudes, winning hearts and minds as politicians used to say.  And this is the hard part. The extent of discrimination against gay people is deeply worrying. You want to hear gay people tell you about it? Try watching the excellent BBC3 series of documentaries Queer Britain (warning - not always comfortable viewing). You'll learn about religious prejudice against gay people, the bullying many young gay people experience at school, the mental health problems many face, the staggering proportion who are homeless because they have been thrown out of their homes - you wouldn't be human if you didn't feel for these victims who simply want to be allowed to love in the way that feels natural and right.

The first programme in the series was entitled, "Does God Hate Queers?" And that brings me to what I want to say most of all on this fiftieth anniversary. It is that we people of faith must, absolutely must, purge ourselves of words and actions - yes, and thoughts too - that discriminate against gay people, and assert or imply that religion is against them. And I mean the policies and practices of our faith institutions, not simply our behaviours as individual men and women. 

When it comes to legislation, which is what today is celebrating, the glaring statutory anomaly is the Church of England's continued inability to permit same sex marriages to be solemnised and blessed in church. The website of our national church says, somewhat disingenuously, that the C of E is not allowed by law to conduct equal marriages. But this exemption was specifically asked for by the Church! Parliament agreed to it, no doubt to help expedite the passage of the equal marriage measure through its houses. But politicians are increasingly unhappy about this exceptionalism as we've heard in some public utterances on the subject in the past few weeks. And it's clear from the two most recent meetings of the General Synod that the mood of the governing body of the Church is not very happy with the status quo either.

I've argued in a series of blogs (for example, here) for the Church's full acceptance of same sex marriage. And make no mistake. However tolerant and generous the Church's discourse about gay people, it's actions not words that count. Of this, equal marriage is now the acid test of equality. To accept it, not grudgingly but willingly and joyously, would make all the difference. Not to do so perpetuates the message that this is an institution that continues officially to practise discrimination. That can't be interpreted away (though some try very hard). This untenable position we are now in as the national church in England is a tragedy for its standing and reputation in the nation, especially among the young. To them especially, its stance feels archaic and cruel and wrong.

The Episcopal Church in Scotland has charted the way towards celebrating equal marriages in church. Here in Northumberland we live just south of the Scottish border, a few tiny minutes of latitude. But they make all the difference! In the English Middle March, I'm more than ever aware of our two churches' varying polity on this point. Actually, I'm not pessimistic about the Church of England's change of heart in the longer term. I'm as sure as I can be that in a decade or so, maybe less, the English Church will have followed where Scotland has led. Our church has a strong sense of justice and fairness, and it will assuredly act on these God-given instincts. It always has in the past, even if, as with slavery, contraception, the remarriage of divorced people and the ordination of women, the wheels have ground slowly. And equal marriage is, after all, only the law of the land! It's a good law. We should be heartily glad to catch up with it and embrace it.

But given the pace of change we have seen in our society in the last two decades, I believe we have to demonstrate far more of a sense of urgency. The Bishops intend to bring back to the General Synod a teaching document in sex and sexuality in due course. It's right that time is taken to do our theology and ethics rigorously and reflectively. But it's hard to imagine what stones remain unturned when it comes to same-sex relationships and Christianity. We have examined the scriptures exhaustively, we have reflected carefully on the tradition and on our human experience. We have done our best to understand the science. But we can agonise too much, I think. We can be too afraid to be decisive and take the long view. We can put off acting courageously, doing the right thing, by engaging in the displacement activity of endless process. "How long, O Lord?" On this auspicious day, I'd love to think that the Church of England could cross this rubicon and proudly (adverb intended) celebrate the wonderful part gay people play not only in our church but in our society.

Today, 27th July, happens to be my forty-third wedding anniversary. I've every reason to be profoundly thankful for the gift of marriage that has so enriched every aspect of my life. (I hope my wife would say the same, but it's for her to speak for herself.)  So my plea for equal marriage in the Church comes out of my own experience as a married man. Marriage is good for us. It should be open to everybody. So on this day of celebration, I urge us all in the Church of England to say yes to equal marriage. Please. With gladness and hope in our hearts. And soon.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Silence That Sings

I am on a silent retreat this week. That is to say, I am conducting a retreat for a religious community. So the experience is not quite the same as when you opt to go on a retreat for your own spiritual refreshment and renewal, or just because you need some peaceful time away. When you are giving addresses each day, and seeing retreatants who have asked for a conversation or want to make their confession, you are not there for yourself but for others. There is work to be done. 

Nevertheless, this week is a gift. Even though it's less than a month since I got back from leading an ordination retreat, it's still a welcome and a precious time. At the heart of the religious life is daily prayer, the eucharist together with the four offices of morning, midday, evening and night prayer. This community's beautifully reordered church, its architecture and furnishings noble but restrained, speak of spiritual values we should emulate. In its clear light, you feel that this church is a place of truth where we come to transact the business of God and of ourselves as we are before before him. There's no hiding from God here. You feel that you are seen, and known. That can be uncomfortable, painful even. But you also sense that this place of truth is also a place of humane companionship where pilgrims share bread and walk together before God. And a place of love where you are held in the embrace of a community that lives out the love of God himself.

Worshipping here has a stabilising, calming effect. The ancient plainchant of the psalms and canticles have a spiritual clarity that matches the quality of light. Words are spoken very slowly, softly and deliberately so as to reverence the sacred truths we are taking upon our lips. The daily prayers give the day focus, shape, direction and structure. Life feels intentional: there is a quiet prayerful purposefulness in the way the community goes about its business. There is something graceful about this life lived together that imbues ordinary things with meaning. No one is in a hurry. Walking purposefully becomes a religious act in itself. You begin to understand how in the religious life, space and time, activity and stillness become suffused with the spirituality of the conventual church and all that happens there: eucharist, prayer, scripture, psalmody, silence. (Because of the importance of the psalms in the community's daily prayer, I am offering reflections on the psalms of the day and trying to show how the whole of human life is contained within these marvellous texts. I'm also suggesting how they can help us to pray more authentically.  You can read my addresses here. I am adding them each day as I give them.)

It's the silence of places like these that we secular Christians tend to seek when we go on retreat. For some people this is more difficult than for others. As an introvert, I'm fortunate not to find this a problem myself. I've always valued silence and solitude, perhaps to a fault - who can say? In any case, retirement is necessarily a lot more silent than life used to be when time overflowed with activities, meetings, conversations and all the business that goes into an ordinary working day. That has taken some getting used to, though it is most welcome (for now).

But silence of the kind I'm finding here is more than just the absence of noise or music or conversation or digital stimuli. It's a rule of life, a discipline that's chosen, whether permanently or simply for a while, to help us quieten our spirits, practise stillness, become more aware, learn how to listen, discern God's presence in our midst. It's this that religious communities strive so hard to maintain and protect. At first it can seem odd to live in this way, especially at meal times when common courtesy and our innate sociability suggest that conversing amicably is the natural accompaniment to eating and drinking. So it is, most of the time. But silence is far from living in some private world of your own. On the contrary, it gives you the chance to meet and get to know others in surprising ways even if you never exchange so much as a single word outside the liturgy. When you pray with people and sit at table with them day by day, strangers become friends. Don't ask me how it happens. I'm just saying that it does. 

This kind of silence, inhabited by a community of prayer, can feel highly charged. A retreat can be an intense experience, especially when it takes place at a time of personal change or transition. My retreat before being ordained priest was like that. It was an important place to explore my hopes and expectations of ordained life, offer my vocation and my gratitude for it, try to be realistic about the failures and the flaws in my life of which I was acutely conscious at that momentous threshold. I was all alone (always the introvert!) on that retreat in a Benedictine house where the silence, and the holy warmth of the community, and the beauty and generosity of its liturgy made me so welcome. For me, then, it was a vital place of truth. 1976 was a blazingly hot summer. Perhaps that has helped the memory to glow. I sat in the gardens on the parched grass and read Jean-Pierre de Caussade on The Sacament of the Present Moment, and George Herbert's A Priest to the Temple together with many of his poems. But it's the quality of the silence that I most remember. I realise forty years later how thirsty I was for it.  I've been on many retreats since. But that experience stands out as life-giving in a special way.

The Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem about silence that inspired the title of one of Thomas Merton's best known books. It begins:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Silence can sing when we have ears (whorlèd or not) to hear. There is a music we become aware of when we elect for silence, attune the senses and start listening. You never know what kind of music it will be. But as the desert fathers used to say, you "go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything". It's a matter of being open to the Spirit of God, that's all. Like William Blake hearing angels singing in his garden, and seeing heaven in a grain of sand.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Defer! (Or not...)

Defer, defer,
To the noble Lord, to the noble Lord,
To the Lord High Executioner!
 
He (the LHE) is, as everybody knows, a personage of noble rank and title... whose functions are particularly vital! We love Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado for its wit as much as its music. And we are not many minutes into the opera before it's clear that it's intended as a priceless parody of power and its abuses. You don't have to have your head physically chopped off to be "executed" by those whose power has intoxicated them. There are victims of power in every kind of institution. And this includes the church. (On which, you will find a lot of thought-provoking reading on my friend Stephen Parsons' blog Surviving Church.)
 
Dame Moira Gibb has recently published her report An Abuse of Faith on how the Church of England (mis)handled the reports of the shocking abuses perpetrated by Bishop Peter Ball. It is a dreadful story that has brought shame on the whole church. Many have commented on the report as a whole. I simply want to highlight a couple of paragraphs that leaped out of the text as I read it, and which I think we need to take seriously as a church.
 
We have seen that Ball was:
- older than those he abused; 
- in a position to identify and exploit troubled boys and young men; 
- able to rely on and exploit connections with famous and powerful people.

But, most significant of all, he was a bishop. In the structures of the Church, a bishop has a crucial and central role, underpinned by an essential autonomy. Even a retired bishop could draw on a particular spiritual authority over those he might seek to exploit.

We were struck during this review by a manifest culture of deference both to authority figures in the Church, particularly bishops, and to individuals with distinctive religious reputations – or both. This deference had two negative consequences.  Firstly it discouraged people from “speaking truth to power”. Then, on the few occasions where people did speak out and were rebuffed by a bishop – the summit of the hierarchy – there was nowhere else to go. That reinforced the barriers to stepping up in the first place.
(5.6.2-3, my emphasis)
 
This "manifest culture of deference": why is it so dangerous?
 
I once gave a lecture to theological students on wisdom in ordained ministry. (I was invited to speak to them because I had written a book Wisdom and Ministry based on addresses I gave at an ordination retreat not long before.) I warned against deference. I said that not only was it not good for those on the receiving end of it, but that it was even worse for those who were giving it. When I'd finished, there was quite a lot of discussion about this point, beginning with one poor student who had to ask what the word itself meant.
 
I explained that as normally used nowadays, it doesn't simply mean respect or regard or even reverence but carries the more negative connotation of submissiveness and servility. In both good and bad senses, it is clearly a "power" word. But the question here is not so much how power is being exercised but how it is being received and responded to. Deference, in the literature about leadership and authority, means a dysfunctional response to power, whether that power is being exercised in a good or bad way.
 
It's easy to see why deference is bad for the person receiving it. It's a kind of flattery that can distend the ego and distort good judgment. If I am given deference, even if I understand that it belongs to the office I hold, not to me personally, I can be tempted to think that I am beyond criticism. It can feed my hubristic instinct that I tend to be more right than wrong. Again, I can find myself wanting to bestow favours on someone who defers to me. That would make it a kind of bribe which, as the Book of Proverbs says, is like throwing dust into the eyes so as to compromise their vision. Of course, at its least worst, deference is meant as a courtesy. But in an environment where courtesy is (rightly) valued, I can be tempted to take deference too literally, not realising that the pedestal on which I am standing is not at all a safe place but could topple at any moment if I am not careful. "Let those who think they stand take care in case they fall" says St Paul.
 
It's harder to see why deference is bad for the person giving it. But look at it from the perspective of the person deferred-to and it becomes clear that its effect is to pull both parties into dangerous and destructive collusions. For example, if my deference makes it difficult or impossible for me to criticise or challenge the person I've put on the pedestal, then I've given away the power that properly belongs to me as a separate person with my own integrity and conscience. At best I am disabled. Worse, I may be infantilised. Worst of all, I may have sold myself to another. With this can come a loss of dignity which will be damaging to my self-respect.
 
Deference is a risk wherever there are unequal power relationships. This means it's a hazard most of the time, for so many relationships are not equal (nor should they be). In our adult relationships, we can think of teachers and students, bosses and workers, doctors and patients, landlords and tenants, financial advisors and clients, the elderly and their carers, and of course clergy and people. We trust people with authority and expertise to know what they are doing. This is the healthy way of acknowledging who and what they are with a duty of care towards us. But an unhealthy deference magnifies and then distorts the power that exists in the relationship. This was precisely what enabled Peter Ball to practise such appalling abuses. Priests and bishops are in high-trust relationships where it is natural to assume that the person in authority is acting responsibly and justly. But if deference means that questions, suspicions or doubts are not allowed to be expressed, then abuses of power can masquerade as responsible care rather than being seen for the ugly reality they really are.
 
Here's a memory of a little incident from a long time ago. I was at a lecture given by a bishop (now dead) on the subject of authority in the church. It touched on the abuse of power but didn't explore why power gets abused. So I put my hand up and asked if he thought there was a problem of deference in the Church of England and whether this could lead to distortions in how authority and power are understood by senior clergy. He eyeballed me, laughed and asked me in turn, "Do you have an authority problem of your own then, Michael?" That was all I got. I smiled (a trifle too deferentially?) and left it at that. But I wondered why he did not want to engage with my question which was a genuine attempt to understand my own propensity both to give deference and to receive it.
 
"Speaking truth to power", the phrase quoted by Dame Moira Gibb in her report, is never easy. But it is especially hard to interrogate power that is held within the church itself. When you swear an oath of canonical obedience, it is not always straightforward to suggest to a bishop - however carefully and courteously - that he or she might perhaps look again at some decision, revisit some process, reappraise some judgment about a person, or that he or she may simply have made a mistake. The Oath of Canonical Obedience is both a legal avowal and a spiritual promise on the part of licensed ministers to our bishops.  Perhaps it could benefit from being examined to make sure that its language does not inculcate deference but is properly understood in the setting of how institutions are governed, led and managed in the twenty-first century. I hope that bishops would welcome this.
 
In case anyone thinks this post is subversive or even seditious, let me say what I do believe needs to feature in healthy relationships with those who have authority over us in the church. My five virtues are: respect, honour, responsibility, loyalty, and accountability. These are all vitally important attitudes. Without them, no institution could exist for long, let alone be stable and flourish. All of them, I believe, ennoble not only those who receive them but also those who give them. What's good about these words is that they can all be prefixed by the words critical or in conscience. This means that they are given out of an intelligent appraisal and judgment that recognises the claim to authority as reasonable, conscionable, good and right. I don't think you can have "critical deference".
 
When we are under lawful authority and where power is properly exercised, accountability and loyalty are never absolute. They are always subject to other, higher authorities to which we owe allegiance, whether it is the law of the land, the law of conscience or the law of God. This is recognised in the Oath of Canonical Obedience by the phrase "in all things lawful and honest". So "critically" is in no way to limit or compromise these accountability words, simply to draw attention to the necessity of behaving as intelligent people who understand what it means to be employed by or hold office in an institution. If you like, it's about cultivating adult-adult relationships rather than reverting to immature parent-child ones, to draw on the insights of transactional analysis. And as Dame Moira implies, it's a vital aspect of safeguarding the young and vulnerable because in a culture of deference, the risks they face at the hands of potential or actual abusers who abuse positions of power are very great indeed.
 
In the cathedrals I've worked in, no-one now swears obedience to the Dean. But I'm aware, having held a senior church post for two decades, how dangerously collusive deference is. As a Dean, you preside over a Chapter that oversees numerous employees and volunteers, works to a considerable budget, holds property assets, is a significant public presence to its diocese, city and region, and all this in great buildings which hold real spiritual power. I tried to encourage colleagues and worshippers to question, critique or challenge anything in my actions or behaviours that concerned them or with which they disagreed. Some did, some didn't. Those who did were often right, though not always. But I regard it as a mark of grown-up relationships that we should try to work collaboratively. Maybe it's becoming more possible in the 360 degree world we now live in. It needs to be, because every diocese, cathedral or church has no choice but to be an organisation of consent where respect has to be earned and can't be taken for granted. What's good in that is that deference won't sit easily within a ministry that is genuinely collaborative.
 
Tomorrow the General Synod is due to discuss the vesture of clergy. One member wants to see bishops throw away their mitres because, he says, they encourage deference. He cites the same section of Moira Gibb's report that I've quoted. I very much doubt whether wearing, or not wearing, mitres will make any difference to the culture of our church. It's going to be a lot harder than that!

But to see what a less deferential church might look like in practice, watch Sean Bean as the parish priest in the recent BBC TV series Broken. To some he is "Father", to others "Michael". He is a flawed man, but precisely because of that, becomes a wounded healer for other people because he breaks through the default deference some (even now) have for a priest. And his parishioners love him. "You marvellous priest" they tell him one by one as they come up to receive communion from him at the end of the drama. Why do they tell him this? It must be because like Jesus, he is among them as one who serves. Tout simple. It's most moving. We should learn from him. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 7: Alwinton and the Coquet

This series is taking us round some of the less well-known places in the North East. We already live in the best part of England – no-one who reads Haydon News will argue with that. My hope is that I can whet your appetite to discover parts of it you may not have ventured to before.

Some of my favourite North Eastern places are densely urban, others are deeply rural. This month we’re back in the countryside. It’s about as remote and beautiful as England gets.

You don’t detour into Alwinton off some nearby main road. You have to want to go there. It’s situated near the top of the Coquet Valley where the river emerges from the high country of the Cheviot Hills. It’s not quite a cul-de-sac but almost. Beyond the village there is nothing but the still silent fells (silent, that is, if they are not firing on the military ranges and if there is no shoot going on). It is also very dark up here at night. Alwinton car park is a destination in its own right because it is one of England’s Dark Sky Discovery Sites (like Kielder on the North Tyne) where you have an unrivalled opportunity to see the aurora or the brighter planets, or simply gaze in wonder at the Milky Way. 

But once a year, Alwinton shakes off its sleepiness and plays host to thousands of people who come every October to the Border Shepherds’ Show. If you are only politely interested in sheep but curious about country life, come anyway. The famous border walking sticks are a sight to behold. I once went to a service in the village church where the churchwardens (there seemed a lot of them for such a tiny place) proudly carried carved sticks in place of the traditional staves, giving the service a delightful and authentic Northumbrian rustic village charm.  

Talking of the church, it is worth a visit. It stands apart from the centre of the village, prominently sited on a bluff on the hillside as if to defend the place from raiders. Maybe it was built there deliberately – in this frontier landscape not many centuries ago, you always had to be on the lookout for invading Scots and for reivers rushing down the valleys on both sides of the border.  

The church is dedicated to St Michael. As befits an archangel, you often find him as the patron of churches in elevated positions. As you get near it, you realise how it’s as if the church has been dug right out of the hill. If you walk up the steep churchyard to get above the church roofline, you’ll appreciate this unique setting, and you’ll enjoy a beautiful view of the Upper Coquet and the Cheviot Hills. Inside the church, you will find the highest chancel steps you ever saw. Clambering up them to take communion at the (literally) high altar must be no joke for the elderly or infirm. But it is undeniably splendid, like a medieval stairway pilgrims would once have ascended on their knees as an act of contrition.    
 
The Cheviots are the most remote and least disturbed hills in England. (I thought about awarding that compliment to the North Pennines as well, but although they are just as tranquil and beautiful, they have known far more industry – lead mining mainly – during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this shows everywhere in the landscape.) From Alwinton you can walk along the border ridge with Scotland on one side and England on the other. The summits of Windy Gyle, and Hedgehope supply amazing views across Northumberland to the coast, and north to the Eildon Hills in Scotland – but this kind of expedition is only to be undertaken in fine weather and dry conditions unless you are a serious fell walker. Even on a fine day in summer, you’ll rarely meet anyone else. The only sounds to be heard will be the breeze rustling the long grasses, and the curlews that are the symbol of the Northumberland National Park. 

Coquetdale is one of Northumberland’s most beautiful valleys. When you drive back down from Alwinton, stop off at Holystone and take the short walk to Lady’s Well. There was a small Augustinian priory of canonesses here, and they looked after this exquisite site until the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. It was associated with missionary preachers who were said to have baptised their converts in the pool, among them St Ninian and St Paulinus (the latter is depicted in an eighteenth century statue there). In the pool you’ll find a white stone cross that photographers love because of the reflections it casts in the dark waters. 

And when it’s time for tea, you can stop off in Rothbury, a charming village (which feels more like a small market town) that is a pleasure to wander around. You may want to visit the church with its wondrous Saxon font, or the house and gardens at Cragside (National Trust), or the shoe shop where I once bought an excellent pair of black shoes that were extraordinarily reluctant to wear out. The proprietor of the antique shop has good conversation, and you may find an art or craft display in the village hall. And the National Park has a visitor centre there too.  

At Rothbury you are on the Corn Road (see my article about Wallington a couple of months ago) which will take you either to Alnwick and the seaside, or back home to Tynedale.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Brexit: a Year after the Referendum

The first anniversary of a bereavement is a time of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the fact that the date has come round again can reopen the sharp pain of loss. On the other hand, it can also help us continue to let go of the past as we come to terms with the life we must now live.

Tomorrow, it will be one year since we voted to leave the European Union. Here's what I wrote in a blog the next day.

If I say that I am heartbroken, I don't want you to think that I'm dramatising. But as this "day after" dawns, it's hard for me to see any good in it. So much of my own story is intertwined with the story of continental Europe - if you've been reading this blog regularly, you'll understand how. So it feels as if part of my identity is being stripped away, all that is symbolised by the words "European Union" displayed in the cover of my passport. I've been immensely proud of my EU citizenship. I've regarded it as a privilege to think of myself in that way. To face the fact that I am going to lose a fundamental aspect of myself feels terrible. It's as if a light is going out.

When it was clear that Leave were on their way to winning, Paddy Ashdown tweeted: "God help our country". I share his sense of desperation. Or is it desolation? Or devastation? All those words seem to fit. At a stroke, we find ourselves in exile. It feels like a lonely place to be.

But I know, of course, that it is not the end of the world, however bad it seems. What I wrote at the end of the official (Christians for Europe) blog is the most important sentence of all. It's a quote from St Paul's second Corinthian letter where, having catalogued the ordeals and suffering he has had to face for the sake of the gospel, he speaks of his indomitable hope in the God of resurrection. "We do not lose heart."

I need to say those words to myself over and over again. It will take time to come to terms with what we have done as a nation. There are "fightings within and fears without". We undoubtedly face times of great difficulty. It may be that the UK may come to rue the day. But Paddy Ashdown has given me the clue about facing the future. "God help our country" is the best prayer we can say right now. For praying is all I can think of doing at this moment. 

What does it feel like a year on?

I wish I could say that we are in an altogether better place. I wish I could say that although I disagreed strongly with the Brexit vote, at least we have been able to unite around the result and face our future outside the EU with confidence. I wish I could say that our government has done its very best to recognise that nearly half of those who voted in the Referendum chose "Remain" and reach out to them. I wish I could say that as the negotiations began, our country had made early and binding undertakings to EU citizens from abroad who are resident in the UK. There is so much else I wish I could say today.

Instead, our nation seems more confused than ever about what it really wants. Who would have thought, on 23 June 2016, that within twelve months a new prime minister would be in office, and that we would have held another general election? Who could have predicted, even a few weeks ago, that its outcome would be a hung parliament with all its weaknesses and ambiguities? The word disarray doesn't feel too strong to describe the state we're in.

However, let's try to accentuate the positive. It's true that one reading of the election result is that as a nation we are more divided than ever. But there's another way of seeing it. It's that the British people has perhaps spoken with a wisdom that was not wholly conscious. I think we are saying: we want to see a more consensual style of politics in the UK. We want to see political parties talk to one another across their differences. In particular, we do not want the doctrinaire "hard" Brexit that Theresa May's rhetoric and negotiating position was leading us towards. The UK, I believe, wants to step back from this cliff-edge and find a way of leaving the Union that preserves as much as possible of what was good about our EU membership. This is now the mandate with which the electorate has charged the Prime Minister. And it's clear that Parliament is in no mood to make life easy for her. The fiendish complexities of Brexit legislation make for a formidable mountain to climb. The Government will be sorely tested at every step. That will be good for the outcome. It's too important for there not to be extensive and thorough scrutiny that a hung parliament now makes inevitable.

If it's going to be so hard to achieve, can we believe Brexit will really happen? Who knows. But I'm clear about one thing. The British people should be allowed a say on whether or not we approve the Brexit terms when they are finally negotiated. I'm not at all enamoured of referenda, because we elect MPs to make national decisions on our behalf. But as we look back to the decision of 2016, it's now become obvious that the vote did not express any view about the kind of Brexit that would best serve the nation, whether "hard", "soft" or "crashing out", whether in or out of the Single Market and the Customs Union and so on. The Government has simply made facile assumptions about what it thought we meant, and acted on them. That is now not going to be as easy to do. It seems to me that the only safe way of ensuring that the nation is behind whatever Brexit is negotiated is to put it to the electorate once again.

And if the electorate changes its mind? Well, that is its right. After all, the 2016 Referendum itself represented a change of mind following the UK's decisive endorsement of EEC membership in 1975. The sovereignty of Parliament implies that it may, if it wishes, consult the electorate and, if so advised, change its own mind on decisions reached previously. No decision is absolute: the 2016 Referendum result is not irrevocable. If the nation wishes to reverse it, we can. And this summer's election result may just suggest that the tide is turning and we are beginning to see sense.

Last year's prayer is still valid. I pray it often. I hope we all do. "God save our country." But it's not just our nation we must pray for. As I argued in last year's blogs, it's absolutely not simply a case of "what's best for Britain". We must pray for the welfare of Europe too, and of the whole family of humanity. These global concerns were always meant to be at the heart of our EU membership. We should never have narrowed our vision and become known across the Union for our grudging, foot-dragging ways. We Remainers should have talked up the importance of being an outward-facing people far more than we did in 2016 as a way of countering the self-concern of so much of the Brexit campaign and its meretricious red bus.

But there's still time to think again. That's part of moving on. Lament comes into things. But so does hope. As I wrote last year, we do not lose heart.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

My letter to Tim Farron

Dear Tim

Thank you for your personal message to LibDem party members explaining that you have decided to stand down as leader. I know you will not have taken this enormous step without a great deal of thought and prayer.

The first thing I want to say is that you are in my own prayers now. I respect your candour as a politician, as a Christian and as a decent human being. Thank you for your leadership of the party in these tumultuous times.

I too am a Christian and a liberal (big L and small), living, as it happens, not far away from you. I love the far north of England as you do, not least for its sense of spiritual place, its soils infused with the long memory of our northern saints like Aidan and Cuthbert. I don't say that it's easier to be a Christian here than in the hectic Westminster village where, like Athens in the Acts of the Apostles, people are forever in search of something new to gossip about. Maybe up here we breathe a little more easily and are not always having to defend ourselves or our faith against the kind of opprobrium you have had to endure.

It's not for me to comment on your decision. I know you will have taken it with integrity, and from the tone of your letter, not without much inward struggle. But I am genuinely sorry about it all the same. I think you were under a degree of media scrutiny that was pitiless and intrusive in its invasion of your privacy. "We do not make windows on to men's souls" said Elizabeth I famously, but this is precisely what the media have tried to do with you, despite the fact that during the campaign you have not wavered an inch from LibDem policy in relation to same sex relations, equal marriage or anything else. The Prime Minister is also publicly known to be a Christian of conviction, but we don't find the media spotlight focusing relentlessly on her own personal opinions as a woman of faith.

You and I may come from different wings of the church, but this is not a factor as far as I am concerned. I am a Christian who believes with all my heart that the logic of gospel faith drives us to an inclusive vision of the world in which we give our LGBT friends the same rights as everyone else, just as we do people of colour, women and those with disability. I may wish that everyone else saw it that way, but I realise that this isn't the case. So we learn as Christians to practise what Justin Welby calls "good disagreement". I know that you have made your convictions about gay marriage clear in both what you have said, and how you have voted. That should have been the end of the matter. But even if you had taken the opposite view, I would have respected it. I can see that it might have been a struggle to reconcile personal faith with aspects of official party policy, but how you or I do this is no-one's business but our own. In any case, as you've said, a true liberal allows others to have different convictions from our own.

But illiberal media commentators don't seem to want to allow you that privilege (even though on this issue you haven't asked for it!). So if your recent relations with the media are behind your decision to resign, then I am doubly sorry. It is yet another victory for a media that is too often a disgrace to a progressive (I want to say enlightened) secular society that should be proud to sign up to liberal values. It does in theory - but not always in practice.

Of course, you may have been subject to a lot of other pressures that have added to your discomfort in the role of leader. Life in politics must be extraordinarily stressful. But if your resignation is a straw in the wind, and it is going to become harder than ever for a convinced man or woman of faith (any faith) to contribute as a political leader, then I am deeply worried about what this says about our country. We need Christians to be committed to leadership in public life in every sector of a secular society. I know you believe this ex animo because you have given us an example of how to inhabit such a role as a man of Christian principle. So I believe you would not have resigned unless the pressures had become intolerable. That's what is so troubling about your announcement - not because of what it says about you, but because of what it says about the rest of us!

You end by referring to Isaac Watts' great hymn of the cross: Love so amazing, so divine / demands my life, my soul, my all.  I was moved by that confession of faith on your part. And yes, we must not compromise our holding on to that central article of our faith. What could possibly matter more? It's why I have been a priest for more than forty years. And when conscience directs us in the light of the cross to act in a particular way, we dare not disobey.

So I want you to know that I entirely respect your decision, even if it also saddens me. You will be a loss to the party as its leader, and as a man who has brought your Christian gifts and insights to the high table at which our political leaders sit.

Let me wish you well for the future in a spirit of Christian friendship and in thankfulness for all that you have brought to British politics during your tenure as leader.

Best wishes,
Yours sincerely,
Michael

Saturday, 10 June 2017

If I were Theresa May... Seven Things to Think About

Never will a prime minister have been on the receiving end of so much advice. It's enough to make you feel sorry for her. Nevertheless, here's one more offering for the smorgasbord as she tries to pick up the pieces after the election.

Who am I to say anything? I'm a lay person when it comes to politics. I realise that comment is easy and comment is free; it's much harder to do the job. Despite her mistakes, despite the fact that she brought this election fiasco on herself, I feel for Mrs May. She cuts an isolated and lonely figure, tragic in the proper meaning of that word because her nemesis is the consequence of her own flawed vision.

So I write in a spirit of constructiveness as one (retired) leader to another. My experience tells me that we ought to be worried at the moment. These volatile days call for highly skilled leadership. How leaders behave under pressure reveals their strengths and weaknesses. Especially the latter. And I don't know that Mrs May has got it right in the last couple of days, indeed, the last couple of months.

But more important than any leadership experience I have, I write as a citizen of this country. I have cast my vote and that gives me an interest in what happens next. (If you chose not to vote, that suggests you don't care too much about your own future or the nation's. Dare I suggest that in that case you forfeit your right to comment on the outcome of this election?) The surprise result has consequences for us all. There needs to be an honest conversation among the electorate to try to understand what has happened. To talk to one another is part of being good citizens. It's what democracy means, not just voting but participating. Gaining insight will take time, and this is only the day after. Nevertheless, here goes.

First, Mrs May needs to say sorry. I don't mean to her own party, her MPs who lost their seats, those who supported them in their constituencies, her own cabinet colleagues and staff. She has done this (not as swiftly as they would have liked). But what she has not done or even hinted at doing is to apologise to the nation. She has put us through a bruising election that we did not need nor ask for. It has cost a lot of money, and more importantly, a vast amount of precious time that should have gone into dealing with the crises we face such as the terror attacks and Brexit.

It's hard not to feel used (or abused?) by a gamble which, even if it had paid off, would always have been a kind of large-scale displacement activity. We can conjecture about her reasons, though she was clear what they were when she announced it. Whatever she intended. it took our eyes off the balls that were, still are, flying through the air above our heads. But it hasn't paid off. The opposite in fact. That needs to faced up to and apologised for. By her. In person.

If only she had begun by apologising when she spoke to the nation yesterday outside No 10. It would have shown something of the humility we like to see in our leaders. Contrition in public life is a sign of wisdom. It shows we know the limits of our powers and recognise our capacity to get things wrong. Is it too late now? My experience tells me that it's never too late, though apologising always comes with more conviction when it's done as soon as possible. In her shoes, I'd try apologising rather than defending myself when I did the next round of media interviews. I'd say to myself that in this catastrophe, there wasn't much to be lost.

And it would be the right thing to do. "I beseech you, think it possible in the bowels of Christ that you may be mistaken." I've always cherished that advice from Oliver Comwell to parliamentarians. I don't trust leaders who are without any shred of self-doubt. So I was nervous yesterday when the PM spoke no fewer than three times about "certainty". It didn't sound well on a day when we looked for a little more humility and tentativeness in the light of events.

Secondly, the PM needs to be more candid with the nation. It is striking that since the election result, she has stuck rigidly to a message about having "more seats and more votes" than any other party. This is true but it's not the point. She told us when she launched the election that she looked for a bigger majority to strengthen her mandate in negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union. She has signally failed to achieve this. And that has damaged, not enhanced, our position in those negotiations that will shape our country's history for decades.

Nicola Sturgeon got it right when she said how disappointed she was at the loss of SNP seats, even if it was still the largest party in Scotland. She promised she would consider and reflect in the light of the election. Mrs May needs to do that too, and demonstrate more transparency. She must make it clear that she is not just reading from a script but is thinking hard about recent events. This includes the part she herself has played in calling this election and how she has performed during the campaign. There are tough lessons to be learned for her personally. Some are saying that her credibility has been shot to pieces by the gamble she has taken. Maybe. But I do know that she won't be credible if she doesn't show signs of having pondered deeply. Being a "reflective practitioner" is an inescapable aspect of good leadership. We need to know that she understands this.

Thirdly, Mrs May needs to find a different style of working. The rhetoric from the Downing Street lectern last night made it sound like it's business as usual. It's absolutely not! British politics has changed during this election. It's become clear that voters want to be treated like grown-ups. They want to take part in conversation, not be lectured to de haut en bas from a script that "may" not be departed from. The "Maybot" epithet is unkind (even if it's very funny). But like all good caricature, it contains more than a grain of truth. Mrs May's refusal to take part in broadcast debates with other leaders was a clue to this aspect of her character. It hasn't played well. Maybe she has been too quick to listen to the advisors who seem to have had enormous influence over her. Perhaps she needs to discover a new "self" in her leadership role, humanise her persona where she can.

If I were leading a minority government in the aftermath of this unforced error, I would want to reach out to the leaders I had failed to engage with during the campaign. I don't mean her natural allies like the DUP. I mean everyone who shared my belief in doing our best for our nation. I would want to sit down with opposition leaders and ask, How can we work together when our nation faces so many big, even life-threatening, challenges? Without sacrificing principle, are there ways in which we can give and take for the sake of the common good? I think the non-hawkish majority of the electorate likes it when people of different opinions start working together. It's how we find that very often, what unites us is far greater than what divides. I'm not naive about this. It's difficult and takes effort and much patience. Yet this is just such a time at least to try out a collaborative approach to the nation's challenges. Her emotional intelligence ought to be telling her that.

Fourthly, the Prime Minister needs to pay attention to the messages of the election result. There's a lot of "noise" around in these febrile times when we are trying to make sense of an unexpected and perhaps confusing vote. But here's what clear. Our nation is divided, perhaps more than ever it was before the EU referendum. The polarisation of opinion between left and right, young and old, cities and countryside, among the UK's nations and regions, has been much commented on. Another aspect of good leadership is that it is responsive to change. There is a multitude of issues debated during the campaign where the election result calls for a rethink in policy and presentation. I don't simply mean Brexit. I'm thinking of the future of the NHS, education, local authority funding, austerity, welfare and national security. Being responsive as a leader means taking the evidence seriously. If I were the PM I'd want to listen again to some of the best media campaign debates, re-read some of media commentary, try to map the landscape I was travelling in and try to discern the best way to traverse it.

Fifthly, Mrs May needs to look again at Brexit. Why specifically? Because this was her stated reason for calling the election in the first place. It's very odd how Brexit did not feature very much in a campaign whose focus this was meant to be. We were told she was looking for a result that would strengthen her position in Brussels when the negotiations began. Fair enough. Yet we did not learn anything we didn't already know about her negotiating stance. And now that we are on the brink of them, all the evidence suggests that despite everything, she is going into them with her well-known hard Brexit position unchanged.

I don't think this will do. The message from the election seems to be: we as a nation are not disputing the referendum result. But we do not want a hard Brexit. If we did, we would have voted massively to strengthen the PM's position as she asked us to. In particular, everyone who defected from UKIP would have tumbled into Mrs May's arms and not voted Labour in the numbers they did. So we badly need a far more open, nuanced, approach to Brexit. She needs to go into the negotiations willing to have an adult conversation with the EU, not just set out her stall and lay down the gauntlet. She needs to treat the EU27 nations as our best allies and close friends, not as adversaries. And first on her to-do list must be to offer unconditional permanent residence to citizens from other EU countries who are already living in the UK and who are desperately worried about their future.

Sixthly, she must not resign any time soon. This bit Mrs May seems to have got right. What we need now is indeed a version of the stability she has talked so often about. It won't be "strong and stable" but even in her fragility, there can be a measure of continuity. Another Tory leadership election would not help. Even less another general election, at least for a while. Yes, I doubt that Theresa May has a long-term future as a prime minister, maybe not more than a few months. But more elections, with all the uncertainty they produce, can only distract further from the Brexit negotiations and all the other crises our nation is facing. (In any case, I doubt that my ageing constitution can face many more long and anxious nights in front of the TV.)

To me, David Cameron piled error upon error by resigning on the day after the referendum when he had promised to carry on, whatever the result. I think that was an terrible mistake, an unforgivable failure of leadership. Yes, it's tempting to throw in the towel when things don't go according to plan. Which of us hasn't thought in that way when times are tough and so many seem to be against you? But the day after is not the time to make far-reaching decisions. All credit to the PM for putting nation above personal interest, at least in this respect.

Lastly, Mrs May should re-read what she said on the day she took office. When I was a dean, I looked from time to time at the sermon I preached at my inauguration service. Did I really say that, I would ask myself? It was important to be reminded of those first fine (I don't say careless) raptures. I suggest Mrs May does the same. She started out well. She spoke about helping those most in need of what a good administration can do. She wanted to support the "just about managing". Many of us felt included to an extent we hadn't foreseen. It was probably her best moment. We had high hopes.

How long ago it now seems! Mrs May has made so many mistakes in her incumbency that it's hard to imagine that her standing can ever recover. It probably can't: history will make up its mind about that. But maybe she can repair her reputation a little by going back to the values she laid out in her personal manifesto. If she cares about how we remember her, it may be as simple as refreshing her memory to help her re-set her approach to public office.

There's a lot more to say about the 2017 election and how it will reshape our politics. But that's for another time. Meanwhile, we say our prayers and keep the conversation going.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 6: Shildon

All right, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those clergy – and there are a lot of us - who love trains. When I was a youngster growing up in London, my grandmother would spend hours on platform 1 at King’s Cross while I watched Gresley Pacifics like Mallard glide out of the station at the head of premier express trains. They were bound for exotic places like Durham, Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh. How the idea of the “far north” fascinated me! It would be many years before I would get to know these places. Then, they furnished me with a kind of fantasy-land that I could imagine lying in the mysterious beyond, on the other side of the tunnels north of King's Cross.

But now, here we are, living in retirement in Northumberland right next to a railway line. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a main line. The Newcastle to Carlisle route is both beautiful and of real historical interest, being the oldest cross-country line in Britain opened in 1837. For as locals all know, the North East pioneered the building of railways. Wagonways had been used in the coal and mineral industry since the seventeenth century. It was only a matter of time when passengers began to be transported on the iron roads that spread across the countryside.

The Stockton and Darlington line was opened in 1825. It soon colonised the valleys of West Durham. Its original western terminus was Shildon, near Bishop Auckland. There was already a colliery here. But this little town became a byword for the railway industry when the S&D, soon to be taken over by the North Eastern Railway, established the Shildon Wagon Works. Some of the world’s earliest steam engines were built here. And although the works closed in 1984, Shildon continues to be a focus of railway heritage as home to Locomotion, part of the National Rail Museum whose mother house is at York.

You don’t have to know about trains or railway history to enjoy this fascinating museum. And while we grown-ups of a certain age can become dewy-eyed with nostalgia for long-lost locomotives and carriages that remind us of our youth, children love it too for the beauty (as I see it) of these grand dinosaurs that are so different from anything they have experienced on a modern railway. My last visit was for the great gathering of the six surviving A4 Gresley “Pacifics” including the holder of the world steam speed record, 60022 Mallard.

But Shildon, the “Cradle of the Railways”, isn’t only a celebration of the old and venerable. The collection contains, for example, the prototypes of the renowned Deltic diesel locomotive that used to hurry up and down the East Coast Main Line in my student days, and the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train or APT that was going to be the future of British Railways.

The train shed with its splendid collection of rolling stock and railwayana is only part of the museum. The site is half a mile long and sits alongside the still functioning branch-line from Darlington to Bishop Auckland. As you walk the path and admire the preserved nineteenth century railway buildings along it, Northern’s unloved Pacer trains squeal and growl their way up and down the line adding a suitably authentic touch to the environment. The buildings seem quintessentially County Durham: unshowy, workmanlike, honest, whether it is the goods shed, the coal drop or the original railway workshops.

At the end of the trail – or the start if you are doing it the right way round, there is a building that houses the legendary steam locomotive Sans Pareil. It was built in 1829 by the railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth whose cottage you can also see by the railway. The locomotive was entered in the “Rainhill Trials”, a competition to find the best locomotive to run trains on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket won – but Sans Pareil was perhaps the more romantic engine (or maybe that’s because of its name which means “without equal”). Either way, the North East left an indelible mark on Britain’s railway history – and indeed the world’s.

To complement a visit to Shildon, the Beamish Museum near Stanley in the north of the county is a must. But while you are in this part of County Durham, you may want to visit Auckland Castle, the historic home of the Bishops of Durham with its marvellous paintings of the Sons of Jacob by Zurbarán. The palace is now undergoing extensive refurbishment, and is home to the Kynren spectacle about the history of England that was launched in 2016 and is returning to the grounds this coming summer.

The hidden gem in the Wear Valley is, for me, the little church at Escomb. It is a Saxon building that was already there in the time of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in the late seventh century. It is still in use as a parish church. What would it have to say about the heavy industry that would grow up and flourish around it, only to suffer in our own times a long and painful decline? “To live is to change, and to live long is to change much” said John Henry Newman. The North East, where the railways were born, where ships were built, where steel was made and where coal was once king, knows the truth of this perhaps more than any other part of England.  
 
 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 5

Friday
Our final day on the Rhine. Brilliant sunshine once again. We take the bus to Cologne. We were due to moor there but because a berth wasn't available our ship was forced to remain at Bonn. (We had a letter about this before we sailed. It is a tremendous pity. To have arrived by river and be berthed in this great city, to be able to walk from the ship to the Cathedral and round the old town, all this would have been unforgettable. And convenient.)

Köln is Omummy's city, my grandmother. She was born here in the 1890s (nobody is quite sure exactly when) and only moved to Düsseldorf when she married my grandfather. I recall that she spoke proudly of her home town, even though by that time it had been flattened by allied bombing. (Memorable quip from a fellow cruiser later on: "Yes, the Cathedral's very fine, but there's not much else to see or do in Cologne: Bomber Harris saw to that!") I think she regarded it as a cut above Düsseldorf (Cologne being a Roman town, a centre of the Holy Roman Empire, the seat of catholic Germany and all that). She may even have thought of it as "trade" though it was precisely a successful upper middle class trade family she had married into (Otto Leyser owned a factory that made leather goods).

The Cathedral is a huge black apparition which, when you have once set eyes on it, you can never forget. It dominates the skyline for miles around, these two enormous spires fingering the sky. Although it suffered in the war, Bomber Harris deliberately spared it, not out of love for medieval gothic architecture but because it was such a useful landmark on the river in guiding his air crews to their destinations. I doubt if the stonework will ever be cleaned up (though the sculptures are being conserved): the blackness of Cologne Cathedral is part of what gives it its emblematic quality. I had not realised that it was only completed in the nineteenth century, after a pause in building operations of a full four hundred years. The medieval crane remained in position on the unfinished north tower throughout those centuries, and there was discontent among citizens when this endearing icon of their cathedral was finally removed when the towers were being finished.

Crowds swirl about inside, but unlike at Strasbourg you can sit quietly in the nave to take in the immensity of this building. It is extraordinary as a masterpiece of soaring gothic. The light streams through the clerestory windows picking out people sitting in nave and imparting to them a transcendent beauty (or maybe I mean binging out the beauty they already have as human beings). Artists have long noticed how human hair acquires a striking delicate translucency when lit by direct light against a dark background.

There is so much to notice and admire: the sculptures on the piers, not only exquisite in their own right, but positioned at exactly the right height to accentuate the scale; the altars; the tombs, the glass, the paintings, the shrines, the stalls in the quire. The shrine to the Magi behind the high altar is a rare treasure. There is an exceptionally beautiful fifteenth century sculpture of the Blessed Virgin on one of the piers that you could spend hours contemplating as you recite the Glorious Mysteries and sing Regina Coeli. Everything here is magnificent, nothing shoddy or second rate. It ranks with the very finest of the gothic cathedrals of northern France. Indeed, modelled as it is on Amiens, you could say that Cologne is an outlier of that great French tradition, as Westminster Abbey is.

Then we visit the treasury. This is one of the most important cathedral treasuries in Europe, like Sens, and it should not be missed. It is built into the Roman and medieval fabric that lies underneath the cathedral, not only its own foundations but the Wall of the Roman city as well. That already makes it a remarkable space in its own right, two entire levels beautifully yielded up by the substrata to create a museum that it would be hard to equal among cathedrals. In it there are vestments, episcopal insignia, sacred vessels, shrines, monstrances, stones, sculptures and manuscripts. I suppose that if you didn't know what all these artefacts were for, you might find it a trifle perplexing, but even so, there is exquisite beauty everywhere and it would be a dull soul who was not inspired by it.

We go back into the Cathedral. Stewards are clearing the nave because a midday prayer service is about to begin. The announcement tells us that we do not need to leave if we wish to join the service. I am sensitive about how people are handled when religion and tourism collide. It is not managed badly here, though it's a pity that a thousand people all leave just when a service is about to begin. I wish we didn't have to be among them. But we have a bus to catch back to the ship. We walk round the outside of this great building. Rounding the east end we come across the railway station with its beautiful wrought iron train shed and the great Victorian girder bridge that carries the railway across the Rhine. This exciting proximity of a great station and a great cathedral, the intersection of the technologies of different eras is hard to parallel anywhere else (though Newcastle is another example, and I suppose St Pancras is also an attempt romantically to imagine medievalism in the context of a railway). I remember that I once changed trains here on my way to Bavaria. I only had an hour and recall how I wished I could have gone inside the Cathedral to have a look. Now I have, and it has made a memorable climax to the cruise.
 
After lunch I walk along the river to Bonn's "Museum Mile". The Museum of the History of Federal Germany where I am first headed is closed. So I go on to the fabulous Museum of Modern Art. Before I even step foot inside the place I know this is going to be a great experience. It is housed in a building of real quality and power designed by Axel Schultes and completed in 1992. It's a beautiful succession of spaces and artfully placed stairways and corridors that create a real sense of unity in diversity. The interplay of light and shade is wonderfully managed as the different rooms flow into one another; and on this sunny day, the effects are especially magical. I just can't stop photographing this building (which is allowed without flash).
 
There are hardly any visitors. Museum staff in uniform stand to attention as soon as I come into a room, and follow me round at a discreet distance. There is no eye contact: in this silent, quasi-sacred space, visitors are regarded as contemplatives who must be left to themselves to experience the museum in our own way. There is something quaint about their studied but watchful politeness, their wish not to get in the way while at the same time being aware of each visitor's every move. Maybe all Museum attendants, like cathedral vergers, are educated in this art, but I've not seen it done to such perfection before. One man looks for all the world like Einstein with his hair cut. I long to photograph him but it would be obtrusive.
 

So I concentrate on the art instead. The top floor is avant garde, much of it interesting and enjoyable, but it isn't where my heart lies. That is on the first floor where there is an impressive survey of Rhineland expressionism, including a large body of paintings by August Macke. He was the leading light of Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) movement, a friend of Kandinsky, Klee and Marc who lived much of his life in Bonn. He was killed at the front in 1914 at the tender age of 27. Such a loss - what might he have produced if he had lived another 50 years?

We enjoy our last supper and start saying farewells. We spend an hour on deck as the sun sinks. A Victorian brick church on the opposite bank glows fiery in the Pentecostal light. The river is ultramarine. Upstream the tall twentieth century buildings belonging to Bonn's era as capital of the German Bundesrepublik throw a reflected light on to the wine dark Rhine. Youngsters throng the promenade enjoying a Friday night out. A breeze stirs and the air is suddenly cool. We are not as young as all these teenagers. It is time for bed.

 
Saturday
Up at dawn and ready to disembark at 7 o'clock. We get to Brussels with over two hours to spare. We check in, go through security and sit down for a coffee and a final chat with some of the people we have got to know on the cruise. Soon our train is rushing towards England. The sun continues to shine.