About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

When Fear Goes Viral: Responding to Coronavirus

Coronavirus is so-called because the virus resembles a corona, a crown or garland. Or maybe a wreath, a word with haunting connotations of mortality. In the image it looks like a thing of beauty. But it would be wise not to get too close. 

As we all know by now, the Chinese city of Wuhan is the epicentre of this virus, its Ground Zero. Today, the ophthalmologist who tried to warn of the virus and its likely consequences has died of it. Dr Li Wenliang was reprimanded by the police in late December for “rumour-mongering” and raising alarm needlessly. He was a prophet not honoured in his own country. He acted courageously. But by the time he was listened to it was too late. Since then the Chinese authorities have taken drastic action. But the spread of the virus across the world now seems unstoppable.

What its effects may be is anyone’s guess. The World Health Organisation doesn’t know the precise reason the virus originally jumped from animal or bird species to humans, nor does it understand in detail how it is transmitted between humans. There is as yet no vaccine to prevent infections nor antibiotics to treat patients who develop bacterial pneumonia. Scientists worldwide are throwing all their efforts into addressing these known unknowns (and some unknown ones), but it takes time. 

Memories of the SARS outbreak (“Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome”) in 2003 have been rekindled - that was a coronavirus too. The question was, and still is, why does a virus that usually does nothing worse than inconvenience us by giving us a common cold dramatically turn malign and start killing people? A century ago the world was getting over the catastrophic Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed more people than the Great War had done. In 2003, worldwide panic over the outbreak of SARS proved short-lived. But it taught the world how new diseases could threaten to have devastating impacts in highly mobile, interconnected societies. And how nothing short of global collaboration would be needed to combat them.

The metaphor of warfare is never far away when disease knocks on the door. Thomas Abraham, in his book of 2005 Twenty-First Century Plague: the Story of SARS struck a chilling tone. “This was an attack by an unseen invader to which nations had to respond as they would to any other attack - by mobilising the resources to repel the invader. For many countries it became clear that the real threat to security would come not from invading armies but from unknown microbes.” 

Perhaps nothing instils atavistic dread as much as disease. The rider of the white horse of the Apocalypse (the first of the so-called Four Horsemen in Revelation 6) wears a corona or crown. While his identity - is he a symbol of good or evil? - is disputed by interpreters, popular culture imagines him as the bringer of sickness and plague, a cataclysmic expression of divine judgment on a corrupt world along with famine, war and bloodshed, images of universal terror and destruction. 

These are powerful metaphors that continue to haunt the imagination, even in an age that understands the processes by which diseases are transmitted. If we thought that modernity had done away with archaic ways of responding to infection or the threat of it, consider what has happened in Newcastle this week. The Chinese community there is reporting episodes of discrimination and hate crime because of the virus. One woman, a student, posted on social media that she had been spat on while walking back to her dormitory. Others have spoken of abusive comments and people covering their faces when walking past them in the street. One owner of a Chinese take-away, who has never been to China, said he had heard of people being beaten up and bullied, and is frightened of coughing in public in case he is thought to carry the virus. The knowledge that two of the three cases so far diagnosed in the UK are being treated in Newcastle is no doubt fuelling the panic. 

We’re right to be appalled. But we need to understand what’s going on when fear goes viral. Prejudice and hatred are fed by “othering” people who are perceived to be different. And when it’s examined, othering often turns out to be driven by fear. I say “often” but I have a hunch that it’s probably always the case at the unconscious level. The leper in the Bible is a familiar image of how the feared were banished to ghettos on the margins of society where rigorously enforced isolation, permanent quarantine, put them beyond reach of the community and the risk to it of contamination. Those words leper and ghetto still carry powerful resonances as figures of speech. And when the collective psyche projects on to (in this case) Chinese people because of our terror of infection, we are reaching back into very primitive states of mind indeed.

In one of the greatest twentieth century novels, Albert Camus charts the impact of an epidemic. The Plague (La Peste) is a profound exploration of how the contagion of fear spreads through a society and paralyses it; how panicky self-interest, the survival instinct dominates all else, how preachers try to make sense of the catastrophe that is happening. This epidemic set in a North African town was fictional, but it stood for an important truth. Writing in Vichy France during the 2nd World War, Camus meant it as a metaphor of enemy invasion and occupation, and how a terrorised society reacts. But we can see in it a metaphor of another occupying power that holds sway over humanity: the effect of fear on ordinary people's lives, the corruption of motives by self-concern, putting ourselves first, protecting ourselves from harm at all costs. In an important way, it is fear that spreads a spiritual plague, not because it’s unnatural or wrong to be afraid, but because of how we respond when it takes hold of us. Camus seems to be saying that while the sickness is a terrible thing, it’s not the worst kind of disease we can be afflicted by.

I say “us” deliberately. Like viruses, fear doesn’t discriminate. We are all at risk of being infected by both of them. There’s plenty of good advice telling us what to do in the face of this virus. A lot of it is common sense. Managing fear is more tricky because of its visceral character: how do you get a handle on what we’re most afraid of and why? Getting risk in perspective is one way of telling ourselves not to get things out of proportion. We are right to be afraid of a global pandemic, and if this particular virus is not going to cause it, the next one could: epidemiologists tell us it’s not a question of whether but of when. But we are right to be afraid of lots of other hazards too, that are the price of being alive in a universe of risk and that are almost all beyond our power to control. 

Perhaps modernity over-protects us in the first world from feeling the fragility of our existence too keenly. If so, the coronavirus can help make us more aware, not least of the fears most of the human race carry with them all the time. It can give us a better sense of our solidarity with those who suffer because we know that it could be us too. To think of ourselves as “citizens of the world” is to understand our primary identity as being human beings in all the “joy and woe” that, says William Blake, we were made for, “woven fine” in the tapestry of life. Is this how we learn to build solidarities of compassion and care, tenderness and love that transfigure fear by giving us the courage and dignity to look adversity squarely in the face and resolve that our inmost selves, our souls if you like, will not be brought down by it? 

The power of love is the greatest force for good the world knows. My faith tells me that my capacity to love, feeble though it often is, reflects the image of a God whose nature and whose name is Love. Which is why the words of so many biblical messengers across the centuries, “do not be afraid!”, carry such conviction. Dealing with fear is fundamentally a spiritual task. I don’t underestimate how difficult it can be. We don’t know what the coming months will bring. But whatever ordeals lie ahead for us and for people in other parts of the world, it’s immensely heartening to remind ourselves that we are not alone. 

Meanwhile, the people of China are in our thoughts and prayers, together with all whose lives have been directly affected  by the coronavirus. In Albert Schweitzer’s words, we belong to the community of all who bear the marks of pain. This is our privilege now, and always will be.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Thoughts on Brexit Day

This is one of the hardest days of my life. 

Brexit Day feels like a kind of dying. Born as I was of mixed parentage, to a native German mother married to a British father, I belong as much to continental Europe as I do to England. I am equally at home on both sides of the English Channel, the North Sea and the Irish Sea. From my earliest memories, Europe formed me, shaped me, made me aware. When this country chose to join the European Community in 1973, I had a sense of homecoming. I believed I saw the hand of God in this.

So to walk away from the European Union as a member state is a source of real grief. It’s not simply turning our back on one of the greatest projects of peace and reconciliation the world has ever seen. It’s not only giving up the economic, research and cultural benefits our belonging has brought us, the security and influence that come from pooling our sovereignty. Nor is it merely (!) collaborating in the pursuit of justice and human rights, and taking action together to address the climate emergency. Though all these things matter very much to all who care about the future of our world.

No, for me it’s very much a sentient, intangible, and I need to say, spiritual, matter. It’s to do with my personal history as well as our national history. My father was a Londoner, an Anglican by origin, while my mother an assimilated Jewess from the Rhineland who fled the Nazis and found refuge in this country. You’ll see why the idea of a Common European Home, a family of peoples and nations bound together for the sake of the common good, exerts such a powerful hold on my imagination. That Brexit should be happening in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day makes our departure feel especially poignant. 


But what of today?

Brexit is perhaps the biggest rite of passage our nation is experiencing in our lifetimes, at least for those of us born since the last war. Which makes it a rite of passage for all of us who are citizens of the UK, and all who are citizens of EU27 countries who are living among us. (And, let’s not forget, for millions of people across the EU who care about Britain, love us British, and wanted us to stay.) 

Anthropologists warn us that we take risks when we cross thresholds. They are liminal places where landscapes shift, and roles and relationships change. At times of transition we can become disorientated. Questions are put to us about our direction of travel, emotions are heightened. We can find ourselves sad at the thought of what we are leaving behind, afraid of what lies ahead, perplexed, angry, longing to have reached the other side and find our feet on solid ground again. Every crossing over is a kind of bereavement - like my recent retirement or my mother’s death soon afterwards. We are never the same on the other side. 

This goes a long way towards explaining why our national psyche has felt so turbulent recently, why feelings of people on both sides of the Brexit debate have run high. We are still in this liminal phase. It’s too early to say how our international relations, domestic politics, trading arrangements and societal networks will settle down after this convulsion. And for some, their personal relationships too. Whatever we are destined to become, Britain will not be the same after Brexit. None of us will.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know why I believe Brexit could damage Britain irreparably. What will be lost could well, probably will, outweigh the gains. So I admit I’m despondent about how our country is going to fare during the rest of my lifetime. Yet we should have the best aspirations for our country that we can. I argued in a recent blog that Brexit could be good for us if it taught us to take a more realistic view of ourselves as a nation. I said we need to lay aside exceptionalism as if we were “special”, and learn to understand our place in the world as no longer a great imperial superpower but as an ordinary, middle-ranking country like scores of others. There’s no question of putting the “Great” back into Britain. Of all the unlovely slogans associated with Brexit, that self-aggrandising myth of pride is the most poisonous. I believe we badly need to learn the grace of humility. And that, of course, is a profoundly spiritual task. 


And with humility goes the desire “not to be served but to serve” and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We don’t have any choice about this if we are serious about Christianity. How we look after the neediest people in our midst, be they of our race and faith and nationality or some other, is the acid test of our faith. How we care about peoples beyond our own shores is the plumb line against which our humanity is to be measured. To me, the EU was - still is - one of the noblest projects ever devised on our continent to put the virtues of love of neighbour and service of the other into practice in our relationships as nations. It grieves me more than I can say that Britain has chosen to walk away from these covenants of mutual self-giving. 

So it’s all the more important that after Brexit, we resist the temptation of isolation and throw ourselves all the more energetically into being a good neighbour to all the nations alongside which we live on this increasingly fraught, congested planet. Are we capable of this? Do we have a strong enough collective desire for it, the spiritual, moral will? Or will self-interest win out in the end? I really don’t know. I’m fearful if I’m honest. Nothing I’ve heard in the last three years is reassuring me that Britain will be a better, kinder, more principled country after Brexit than it was before. 

I wish I could be hopeful. But today fills me with anxiety and foreboding. It has sapped what belief I had that our nation, inspired by our history, our instinct for law, justice and common sense, our traditions of courage, fairness and hospitality, could through a great act of the imagination rise above our self-serving agenda and look beyond ourselves in some new, life-changing way. This protracted debate could have been an opportunity for us to engage seriously with questions of identity, nationhood and our collective self-understanding as a people facing a choice between alternative destinies. Instead of which we locked ourselves into the strident rhetoric endlessly rehearsed during the referendum campaign, “What’s best for Britain? Take back control! Britain first!” When what we should have been asking is, “What does Britain have to give so that we may all work together for the good of our continent and our world?”

In fact, “what’s best for Britain” is whatever will make for our truest flourishing as the nations and peoples of the United Kingdom. And flourishing means a lot more than the economy, trade and the cost of living. I’m depressed on this 31st day of January that we never succeeded in putting at the heart of the Brexit agenda, who are we as a nation? What does it mean to be a Good Britain, if not a Great Britain? How can we become a more humane society? How can we be a better neighbour to the nations of our continent and beyond? How can we collaborate more effectively in facing the perils confronting our world?  These questions are not only the agenda of practical politics. They belong to the collective human soul. And therefore, they are questions of ultimate concern. What’s best for Britain is what matters most to God.


I ask myself more personal questions too, today.

I began by saying that Brexit felt like a kind of dying, a severing of what I’d experienced as a positive, benign, life-affirming relationship. When politicians speak of our divorce from the EU, they are invoking a powerful metaphor. There are good divorces and painful ones, divorces of velvet and of barbed wire. We must hope that ours will be one of the kinder ones. But I every divorce involves hurt, the recognition that a relationship of loyalty, good will and trust has died or is in the process of doing so. That’s how I’m experiencing it right now. Don’t tell me I might feel differently tomorrow or in a month or two when the dust has settled. Today is all I have to go on. The dust makes it hard to see. 

The image that’s been in my mind ever since the referendum result has been that of exile. I’m well aware that for many, Brexit feels like the opposite of that, a homecoming, a resurrection even. Again, I can only reach into my heart and speak of what I find there. Desolation may seem a dramatic word. But it accurately describes what its literal meaning expresses, which is the sense of being alone, solus. Mystical theologians played on the way that word sounds as though it belonged to the vocabulary of the solum or soil. You could say that desolation is the forlorn experience of being severed from your native soil, just as consolation is to be reconnected, joined back, to it. When the Jewish exiles by the waters of Babylon cried out, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137), their lament was called out of the bleakest desolation, disconnection and disorientation they had ever known as they reimagined their existence on unknown soil.

I’m not saying that most of us will experience an exile as painful as that, though for UK citizens living in the EU and EU27 citizens living in the UK, the consequences of Brexit may well be bitter indeed. But for me at any rate, today does invoke an echo of that Psalm as I find myself amputated against my will from so much that I loved and valued. The Hebrews were severed from all that had given their lives shape and meaning - their land, their temple, their institutions, their monarchy, their homes. Without these givens, they had to renegotiate life on a new set of terms. It’s clear from the prophets that it was a bewildering experience. After today I shall have to renegotiate life without the constants of my European Union citizenship. And especially the sentient environment that has been part of life simply because of my being a citizen of an EU member state. It’s hard to describe when it’s as pervasive as the air I breathe. But maybe you recognise that sense of connection to my own continent through the hard-won bonds of peace and friendship and everything else this time of gifts has brought.


I said earlier that I wish I could be hopeful. Abraham, the scriptures tell me, “hoped against hope”. The exiles would indeed learn to find hope again, one day. But it took time. The psalm of lament would be their bitter cry for many days to come. They would need to learn the hard way not to trust voices that made easy speeches about an imminent brighter future against the evidence of history and the instincts of their own spirits. It’s too soon for me to speak of hope today. I need to be as present as I can to this disappointment, this journey of exile, try to find what meaning in it that I can. I won’t pretend it’s going to be easy. As I’ve said, this is one of the hardest days of my life.

But I want as a Christian citizen to do what I can to serve the common good. I may be at odds with what Britain has become as a result of Brexit, but it is still the country of my birth and upbringing. I owe it my love and loyalty. I want to do what’s in my power to help heal our divided nation and recover a sense of common purpose. Yet in just the same way I shall never stop thinking of myself as a European, a citizen of the continent that has so shaped my personal history and my understanding of what it means to be me. I owe love and loyalty to Europe too. Not least because by lifting my sights beyond my own nation’s shores, the EU taught me how to take the first steps towards becoming a citizen of the world, a child of God’s worldwide human family. 

I’m done raging against this “dying of the light”. So I ask myself, is some transformation possible? Could this exile that I do not want to contemplate, this parting of friends, become a grace-filled pilgrimage in time? Who knows? Only by setting out will I begin to glimpse what this journey could become. I dare not call it hope just now. But if I can’t find hope at this moment, can I perhaps hope to have hope again one day? For the nation I mean, and for the world, as well as for myself? On Sunday, the First Sunday after Brexit, the church celebrates Candlemas. We light candles to honour the Holy Child who came into the world as a light for all the nations, who makes us glad because God is among us. This Kindly Light will teach me to walk this unfamiliar landscape and travel safely across it.

“Hope to have hope.” I can live with that for now. One step enough for me. 

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Haunted by the Holocaust, Haunted by Hope

This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. Holocaust Memorial Day is always a solemn occasion to make us stop and think. This year, perhaps, especially.

I was born a mere five years later. My father was a Londoner and my mother was from Düsseldorf in the German Rhineland, the second child of assimilated middle-class Jewish parents. She had been sent to England as a teenager in 1937 when the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany had become clear. She became a nurse and married my father after the war. The year I was born, her mother, my grandmother, followed her and settled in this country. She and my grandfather had fled for safety to the Netherlands after the outbreak of war. With the German occupation they were hidden underground and looked after by a pair of Dutch Christian women. My grandfather died shortly after liberation, but my grandmother, "Omummy", lived to a great age, it was said till she was 95 though no-one was quite sure.

In my early childhood we spoke German at home as well as English. I'm told my German had a pronounced Rhineland-Westphalia accent, for Omummy was from Cologne. She sang Schubert Lieder to me, and I began to pick out some of his simpler songs on the piano. Heidenröslein was one of them - a sweet little setting of a Goethe poem about unrequited love, how a beautiful flower, a rose, draws the blood of her admiring lover. Erlkönig was another, beyond my capacity of course to make sense of the furious piano part except the hammering octaves that picture a father's desperate ride as he tries to save his child from a delirious encounter with the dreaded "Elf-King". Goethe again.

That Romantic fusion of love, pain and death. I knew it in music before I understood that it was part of my own family history. Sensibly, my parents did not trouble us young children with the traumas of the recent past. My eyes began to be opened when I went to school in 1955. At first, when my mother came to collect me at the school gate, we would speak easily in both German and English. But soon, very soon indeed, I sensed that it wouldn’t do in postwar London to speak German in public. I don’t think anything was ever said, but I distinctly felt as children do, an atmosphere, odd looks, a coolness in the air. I dropped speaking German like a stone. And although I always understood it when my mother and grandmother were talking to each other, I only ever responded in English. Later on I was seduced by classical culture and Romance languages, and heartily wished that my pedigree had been part-French rather than part-German.

It was Christianity that first awoke the sense that my family origins mattered. As a chorister I would sing the Psalms and hear the scriptures read and preached about. As a teenager in the school Christian Union, I immersed myself in the Bible, learned to love it, and found myself amazed that for so long I had been ignorant of this semitic world in which Hebrew monotheism had been forged and in which Christianity had burst upon the world and taken shape. And into which I myself had been born! This story was mine! That moment of recognition came with the force of a real and life-changing disclosure. My Jewish identity (a legal fact in Rabbinic law, since my mother was Jewish) had become not just a matter of historical origin but of lived experience that made a difference to who and what I was as a person.

I began to read about the rise of the Nazis, the growth of antisemitism, the death camps. It was shocking to learn that members of my grandmother’s family, my family, had been deported to Auschwitz. It dawned on me that my grandmother and mother were extremely lucky to be alive, for given the survival rate of Jewish people brought up in Hitler’s Germany, they would have been expected to perish. Were it not for my grandparents’ foresight and the welcome given to German-Jewish refugees by the British government, I would not be here myself. Later I began to understand the ordeals of Holocaust survivors, not only during the Nazi era but since. And my own conflicts and struggles as a “second generation” survivor. As with all forms of cruelty and abuse, the effects are lifelong. You are always a survivor, even in the best and happiest of times.


Which is why Holocaust Memorial Day is a time when I want to revisit the past and try to understand. “Never again” is a fine aspiration, and an important one. But post-war history shows that even the so-called civilised world is far from owning it. The United Nations Convention of 1948 defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such”. Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur are just a few of the names that haunt us from well-remembered decades when we saw the images on TV and in our newspapers and were powerless to do anything other than support victims in the aftermath of massacres of innocents. 

I used the phrase haunt us deliberately. I’m aware that as I grow older, I am more and more haunted by the genocide that is imprinted on my own family memory. It’s not my direct experience, thank God. But it feels as though it has become part of my personal take on things. It has given me a world view that is inevitably coloured by dark memories that function “as if” they were my own. I’m struggling to put this into words, to describe why its legacy in me is a profound pessimism about the ability, to say nothing of the collective will of humanity to save itself from instincts and drives that, unchecked, will inevitably destroy us. I recently read a vivid account of a field surgeon who had worked in theatres of conflict such as the Congo and Syria. The capacity in human beings to be cruel seems beyond belief. But it is real and it is terrifying. You only have to look at the images of photographer Don McCullin to see that. It doesn’t take much to inculcate a sense of both helplessness and hopelessness.

So haunted as I am, do I contemplate Holocaust Memorial Day with despair? It would be easy to be gloomy about this year’s seventy-fifth anniversary falling just four days before Brexit Day. The European Union stands as a project fundamentally designed after the last war to safeguard peace in a continent that had been bitterly fought over for centuries. “Never again!” What sense does it make in an increasingly fraught global environment to walk away from such a collaboration of nations and peoples? That remains my question, and I shall always believe, I think, that this is the biggest historical mistake my country has made in my entire lifetime.

Nevertheless, I must not give in to despair. By God’s grace I will not give in to it. Keeping hope alive seems to me to be one of the greatest gifts we human beings can offer one another as so many stories from the death camps testify. People often say to us God-botherers, “You’re so lucky to have faith. I wish I did”. The implication is that we expect God somehow to intervene, deliver us from times of trial, make things all right again. I tried to explain in my last blog why I don’t believe that any more. Religion can’t resort to magical thinking. Faith must “come of age”. There is no deus ex machina to rescue us from war, genocide, natural disaster or the climate emergency.

But I do believe that faith has the capacity to inspire and energise us to bring about personal transformation that makes a difference in the places in which we live and struggle and suffer, the worlds where we find ourselves to be desperate and afraid. At least, this is what I found when I turned to Christianity as a teenager and recognised myself as a child of Abraham. As I approach my eighth decade, that faith continues to sustain me. It binds me to people in every place who stand for truth against the lie. It affirms my solidarity with those across the world who care about justice, reconciliation and the healing of memories. It strengthens my will to stand alongside victims, not least in my own community who have found themselves at the receiving end of racism, sexual abuse, homophobic attacks and other hate crimes. And of course the antisemitism whose revival holds real and sinister echoes of Europe in the 1930s and the horrors it led to.

When you grow old, you’re increasingly aware that your journey is leading you towards an unknown region. Like Abraham, indeed, in all his perplexity, in all that he did not, could not, know. In him, says Genesis, all the world will find blessing. Does blessing happen as we begin to shed self-interest, travel more lightly, learn to look beyond ourselves? Is that how tragedy begins to purify our vision and despair is turned round? Is that how hope begins to be born? Is that how our longing for a better future for humanity begins to be shaped and to lead to action that could change the world?

I won’t answer these questions in my lifetime. But the story of Abraham and yes!, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz point the way, offer a glimpse of what is life-affirming and good, reassure me that there is no shadow so dark that it cannot be penetrated by Light and Love. These are the gifts of the Christ Child that we celebrate in this season of Epiphany. They are life-giving, joyous and empowering. And that means I'm not only haunted by the Holocaust. I'm just as haunted by hope. Because it will not let me go.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Grown Up Faith in a World Come of Age

This new year marks the golden jubilee of my coming of age. How so, you ask? I was one of a batch of baby-boomers who at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 1970 became legal adults. I was nineteen and three quarters. For this was the date when the age of legal majority was lowered from twenty one to eighteen. We saved the partying till I reached twenty one. But this fiftieth anniversary gives me pause for thought. Becoming a legal adult is one thing. Growing into moral and spiritual adulthood is quite another. It's a life task, I believe, always a work in progress. I doubt if any of us can say of ourselves that in every possible respect, we have altogether grown up however old we may be biologically.

I shall reach seventy in April. It feels like another coming-of-age threshold, this arrival of the decade in which I shall have to learn to grow old - gracefully, I'd like to think - and face the indisputable fact of my mortality. Quite possibly it will be my last full decade of human life (if I'm spared that long). Yes, I know that Thomas Ken and Jeremy Taylor tell us always to live each day as if it were our last. But somehow it's feeling all the more real as I approach the biblical three score years and ten.

The same month will also mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's execution by the Nazis on 9 April. It was just a month before the end of the war in Europe. Bonhoeffer doesn't need any introduction from me. He was - is - one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. His return home in 1939 from the safety of the USA to face the dangers of life under the Third Reich was a decision to live in solidarity with his church in its protest against tyranny. The question with which he wrestles in those extraordinary letters from Tegel Prison, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" represents a theology that was finely wrought in the place where all the best thinking is done, at the edge of human experience. It was to be an unfinished symphony. But how rich are the movements he bequeathed us!

One of Bonhoeffer's most fertile ideas was that of "a world come of age". It was a phrase much bandied about in the 1960s along with "religionless Christianity" and "the Man for others". I remember as a chorister half-listening (on good days) to sermons about Honest to God and hearing the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer linked to John Robinson, Paul Tillich and what was coming to be called "secular theology". Looking back, I can't help admiring the heroism of that project, its intellectual and spiritual courage in questioning inherited language and ideas. What Bonhoeffer himself would have made of it is an intriguing question.

What is coming of age? Entering my majority 50 years ago wasn't the same as acquiring particular rights closed to me earlier in life such as voting, driving a car, drinking alcohol and so on. Some of these coincided with attaining adulthood but many didn't. What it meant was that my parents no longer held legal responsibility for me. I was now responsible for myself. Which in a moral and spiritual sense means becoming aware of who and what I am, recognising the truth about myself, taking responsibility for what I think and say and do. And if my adulthood reflects attaining any kind of personal maturity, it means grasping how responsibility is never self-serving, but is part of a collaborative, communitarian project that extends to all others in the world where I learn that human existence means "life together".

I think this is what Bonhoeffer is getting at when he links humanity's "coming of age" with shedding infantile notions of dependency. Like St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, becoming an adult means "putting an end to childish ways" in which others hold responsibility for us. So faith that has come of age honours the proper autonomy and self-determination that belongs to adulthood. Bonhoeffer said that this means living etsi deus non daretur, no longer resorting to the divine as the answer to every unsolved problem or dilemma. This is much more than merely invoking a "god of the gaps" to explain what we don't yet know intellectually. It means learning what's altogether more exacting spiritually, that in the modern world God is no longer a presumption, a given part of our daily experience of cause and effect. In such a world, I have to learn to think for myself, take responsibility for my values, decisions and behaviours, and make the most intelligent response I can to the challenges of living authentically as an adult of my own century.

There is a paradox here that Bonhoeffer loved to point out. It's the answer to those who were tempted to see him as a liberal protestant with a strongly agnostic, not to say humanistic, streak. He said that it was precisely as humanity learned to live in this way that startling insights about God began to be revealed. "Before God and with God we live without God." It’s an arresting rhetorical saying that it’s tempting to regard as metaphorical. But I think Bonhoeffer was putting words to a genuine spiritual experience of simultaneous absence and presence. The naked exposure that feels like abandonment means not the renunciation of faith but entering into its most profound meaning at the very place where the truth about God and humanity is finally disclosed: at Golgotha, where God is crucified in the Jesus who cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” In another memorable saying, Bonhoeffer suggests that "God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross".

One of the implications of this way of reading the cross is that at Golgotha, religion itself is put to death, for it belongs to the old self that needs to die if the new self is to be born. Bonhoeffer’s "religionless Christianity" doesn't mean in any way denying faith, but letting go of the childish dependency that flees to the bolt-hole of religious practice as an escape from living in the real world. Only this can put true faith back in the centre where it belongs. For "religion-as-refuge" can never do the work that only an adult response to God can do. What this entails can only be learned by taking in all that the cross symbolises: how God reaches out to embrace and love humanity unconditionally, how he invites us into a relationship of gratitude and trust and mutual self-giving. We could call this "faith seeking understanding" in Anselm's great phrase.

I want to learn late in life what grown-up faith means. I won't deny that it's tough to figure it out in an environment where I try in vain, or so it seems, to trace shapes and patterns amid the baffling complexity of events, whether it's the twists and turns of history or the ever shifting light-and-shadow of my own path through life.


Which brings me back to the times we find ourselves living in as 2020 dawns. The year has not begun well. On this feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the light that radiates from the Holy Infant whom the magi travelled from distant lands to worship.  But while Christmas songs of peace and good will were still echoing in our ears, the US President ordered the assassination of an Iranian general who was visiting Iraq. And at once we are plunged into uncertainty, worry and fear on account of consequences we cannot even guess at. We are destined to watch a relentless game of tit-for-tat being played out by powerfully armed nations with the suffering of innocent people almost inevitable. Far from having come of age with the emotional intelligence that goes with it, humanity is regressing into infantile patterns of behaviour that pose frightening possibilities for destructiveness. If there are world leaders with influence who are capable of behaving as adults, now is the time we need them.

How do we have faith, how do we say our prayers in such grave times? Bonhoeffer, prisoner of the Nazis, who lived through even darker events than we do, knew there was no point in praying to some deus ex machina that would intervene and rescue him. He knew that the only meaning to be found in his own suffering and death, one more victim out of so many, would have to come from within. It would flow out of what he had learned by contemplating the crucified Jesus and seeing in the cross the universal victim of man's inhumanity to man. At Golgotha we know that there is a solidarity in prayer shaped by the cross as a sign not only of victimhood but supremely, of love. And this solidarity brings the strength to go on loving in the midst of suffering and to bear witness to its transforming power. The capacity to love in every circumstance, to love my neighbour and love my enemy, to love as an act of the will because it is required of me as a matter of Christian obedience, this is the ultimate test of how far I have come of age.

In this year that we celebrate the seventy fifth anniversary of VE Day, we should remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr of the twentieth century. Martyria means "witness". We need to do what he did, discover how best to live today as adult Christian citizens not only of our own country but of the world. And to embrace our vocation to be citizens not of past ages, however nostalgically we are tempted to feel about them, but of our own century with all its contradictions, possibilities and pain. And how to bear witness in our time to the grace and truth we have seen in the glory of God's incarnate Word this Christmas.

Friday, 27 December 2019

A Letter about Europe

Dear Frans Timmermans,

Thank you for your letter about Brexit that was published in the Guardian on Boxing Day. I was touched to read it. It’s as if you’d bothered to write to me personally with a generous, kind Christmas message. I’m sure a great many other British people were heartened too. And I don’t simply mean Remainers like me. I imagine fair-minded Brexiters will also have appreciated your affection for our country, your sorrow at this parting of friends, your hope that despite everything we continue to be good colleagues, partners and, yes, family members of this continent of Europe that is our common home.

But I’m only speaking for myself in what follows. As this year draws to a close, I am more than ever aware of my deep personal relationship with continental Europe: of my debt of gratitude for the ways our continent has formed and shaped me, and therefore of an intense sadness at the loosening of the ties that bind us together as Europeans. You’ve told us about your own past that has given you your love for Britain and the British. Let me tell you a little about mine.

The day your letter appeared in the Guardian, 26 December, was my grandmother’s birthday. Omummy, as we called her, would have been 125 or thereabouts - she never admitted to her age, only that she had been born in the early years of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reign. For she was German, born in Cologne, brought up in an assimilated middle class Jewish family in that Rhineland city. She married a fellow liberal Jewish man from downstream Düsseldorf, where he owned a factory that produced quality leather goods. They bought a large nineteenth century house in the Goethestraße and brought up their two children there, my uncle Karl and my mother Dorothea.

I needn’t tell you what befell my family when the Nazis came to power. My mother and uncle were sent to England as teenagers and made their lives here. My grandparents fled to the Netherlands - your own country - and when the Germans occupied it, were hidden underground in Edam by two devout evangelical sisters who looked after them for three long years. Amazingly, they survived. My grandfather died soon afterwards, but my grandmother eventually came to Britain where she lived to a great age. My mother married an Englishman, and my sister and I were born in London where we were brought up.

So in my childhood, three countries featured strongly in my growing awareness of who and what I was - Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. My mother was fluent in all three languages. We spoke a lot of German at home. My grandmother would sit me on her knee at the piano and play Bach, Beethoven and Schubert to me. Leather bound volumes of Goethe and Schiller lined the top shelves of the living room bookcase (as they now line mine). We often visited Germany and the Netherlands, and later on, France and Spain. We didn’t need to discuss “being European”. It was taken for granted that this was what we were. It belonged to our family’s DNA. It was part of our identity.

When the UK joined the European Union in 1973, I don’t recall great family celebrations. It was simply the obvious thing to do to go with the flow of history. Not only for Britain’s economic benefit but (and you’ll understand why this was so important for my family) to guarantee peace across the continent so that my generation wouldn’t have to face the grim ordeals my parents’ and their parents’ generations had undergone.

In the summer of referendum year 2016, my (widowed) mother lay dying in a north London hospital. Many of the nurses who cared for her so well were from EU countries. We talked about the coming vote. “We won’t do anything so stupid as to leave the EU, will we?” she asked me several times. “I so hope not” I replied. “I think the British have more sense than that.” I was wrong. I could tell how painful the Brexit vote was for her. We didn’t speak much about it. She died three weeks later. I’m glad she did not live to see it become a reality as we shall do at the end of January.

Why am I telling you all this? Because you were kind enough to reassure us that you wouldn’t stop seeing Britain as part of the European family of peoples. I can’t tell you how important it was to read those words. For me, with my personal history, being European is a fundamental part of my identity. I can no more contemplate losing my EU passport than I can ceasing to hold a UK one. It’s not simply that to me, all the arguments point to Britain continuing to be a member state - economic, political, historical, cultural, environmental. There’s a sentient dimension too. It’s a matter of the emotions. To me, the EU circle of yellow stars on their deep blue field evokes just as as much a sense of loyalty, belonging and gratitude as the Union Flag does. I recognise myself in these symbols. My past, present and future are bound up in them. They are signs of the family I belong to.

Or were. It’s hard not to feel profoundly dislocated by the Brexit vote and its aftermath. I won’t deny that the last day of January will be difficult. I’m trying to learn how to live with the inevitability of no longer being a European citizen for a while*. There’s no point in being bitter about it or going on rehearsing the reasons why to many of us, Brexit is such a terrible prospect. We thought we’d made the case for remaining, but it turned out that we lost that argument. Perhaps none of us recognised until it was too late that this was always about much more than merely rational argument. What I’ve explained about my family history perhaps tells you why. For it really feels like an imminent amputation. I reckon Brexiters find that an absurdly overblown image. I find it just as baffling that some people can be so matter of fact about it.

But your generous letter shows us that even after Brexit, we British can, indeed should, go on thinking of ourselves as Europeans. And to be fair to some of my Brexiter friends, this is something they have been saying too. It’s reassuring that on the European mainland, you and many others regard us in this way. Thank you. It means a great deal. I feel profoundly sad that it’s come to this parting of friends. But in case no-one else thinks of saying it, thank you for all the ways in which our decades of EU membership have enriched this country since the 1970s.

So happy new year! And here’s to our continued friendship and collaboration with the other nations of our European homeland in the decade that lies ahead.

With best wishes

*PS Just to clarify: I’m not entertaining hopes that the UK will rejoin the EU in my lifetime. There are lost causes that even I am learning to accept. I simply mean that I intend to apply for dual German citizenship on the grounds of my mother having been stripped of her German nationality and rendered stateless through her exile by the Nazis. I’m not making any assumptions, but I’ve now been sent the application forms by the German Embassy. They have been extremely helpful in my contacts with them so far.

Friday, 13 December 2019

The Election - thoughts at Grey’s Monument

This is a bit longer than usual. You’ll understand.

For the first time for decades, I didn't stay up all night to watch the election results. By the small hours of the night the outcome was as clear as the day. Perhaps I should have been on my knees during the watches (I blogged about praying for the election last time). Instead, I went to bed. And slept quite well in the circumstances. I woke early and for an instant thought I heard someone say "behold, it was a dream". But it wasn't. It was the morning of 24 June 2016 all over again.

What do I say about this election result, I asked myself as dawn broke. Today is St Lucy’s Day, 13 December. It used to be the shortest, darkest day of the year in the unreformed Julian Calendar of John Donne’s times, inspiring his famous Nocturnal about “the year’s midnight”. How apt! Was Boris Johnson teasing us when he chose this particular date? He is, after all, a lover of classical antiquity.

But Lucy was the Roman girl-martyr who brought light into dark places, hence her lovely name. The play on darkness obscuring light and light penetrating darkness fascinated Donne. Light and dark come into things in elections, I thought to myself. Altruism dragged down by naked self-interest, narrow tribal loyalties pierced in our best moments by an awakened conscience and a deeper feeling for humanity - there’s a real dark-and-light chiaroscuro in our thoughts, emotions, speeches and behaviour at election times. It’s what we should expect at liminal times like these, but the strength of my own feelings never fails to take me by surprise.

Here’s what I posted on social media from my bed. 

So the UK is going into exile. I must accept Brexit & live with it. It will be bitter for me personally & I think, taking a long view, for the nation collectively. The biggest mistake made by Labour & the LibDems? Agreeing to a General Election at all. That decision was a disastrous misreading of the signs of the times. And of the capacity of both party leaders to win trust on the nation’s doorsteps. Good people of all faiths & political views must now come together for the sake of the planet, for the sake of peace & for the sake of the poor. We must keep hope alive.

I chose those words carefully. And felt better for writing them. Yes, it will be bitter, I thought, not just because of Brexit, but for all the other reasons so many of us feared a landslide like today’s, especially on account of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our nation. Yet there’s a difference between feeling what we feel and acting out those feelings. I’ve consistently campaigned in this blog on the foundation that the clear command is to love our neighbour, and indeed, our enemy. Perhaps today poses precisely that challenge, not to harbour resentments and hatreds towards those for whom this has been a day to rejoice while some of us feel like strangers in a landscape we barely recognise as our political and cultural home.

It would have been easy to gaze at the TV news all day. But we decided instead to get out of the house and go into Newcastle to look for Christmas gifts for the family. We walked up from the station along Grainger Street. There, ahead of us, presiding over the city’s Christmas market, was the statue of the 2nd Earl Grey on top of his Monument. I felt a surge of admiration for this man, one of Northumberland’s greatest, who was Prime Minister from 1830-1834. In times as fractious and turbulent as our own (read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, set in the early 1830s - I blogged about her recently), Lord Grey championed and saw enacted the Great Reform Act of 1832 that abolished rotten boroughs and launched the long, fitful journey towards universal suffrage. 

What would this lover of civil and political liberty have made of today, I wondered? I’ll leave experts to comment on an unreformed electoral system that (among other oddities) gives us an outcome in which a Tory landslide of 365 seats can result from the votes of a few hundreds of thousands of voters in swing constituencies while in total, more people across the UK have voted against the Tories than for them. I think the good Earl would say that electoral reform is still a work in progress. There’s no hope of progressing it in the next 5 years, but I believe election results will lack firm credibility and ownership for as long as Parliament fails to address this fundamental problem. 

But wandering among the Christmas shoppers, I didn’t want to dwell on these challenges. Nor did I want to engage in a long post-mortem or play the blame game about the failure of Remainers to get our act together. Later, certainly, we need to think very hard about what went wrong. But not now. What was needed today was to reflect, ponder, and pray about how to manage disappointment and bitterness, and live with a result many of us had feared, yet dared to hope might be averted. Maybe I should have practised disappointment more, like Diogenes famously exploring futility by praying to a lump of rock. All of life, we have to learn to “live with”. It’s a mark of being adult that we make some progress along the path of graceful acceptance when things don’t go our way.

The Grey Monument bears witness to a man who, despite endless frustrations and discouragements, channelled his energies into what would help the nation flourish. In our time, this has to mean rebuilding the sense of being one nation again. As I said to begin with, we owe it to the planet, to world peace, and to the poor who are always with us, to come together with all people of good will to renew ourselves to pursue what is just and right and good. And to keep our hope alive.

Maybe one way in which we do this is by learning to act more out of trust. Or (to paraphrase something Bishop Michael Ramsey once said about prayer), if it’s too soon to start trusting people again after these political storms of the last three years, at least to want to. And if even that’s too much to contemplate, to want to want to. 

Yes, there’s so much that’s wrong with our politics, both the decisions we are making and the way we are making them. We are right to challenge falsehood, mendacity and the casual disregard for careful process when we see them. We are right to be angry for the sake what’s good and true. But we must examine our motives, and make sure we’re not feeding self-righteousness. Nurturing blame and bitterness gets us nowhere. What’s needed is to help a grown-up public conversation to begin again on the basis of our common humanity. We need to make a presumption that our conversation partner wants the best for others, not the worst, that they care for their fellow human beings, for the needs of others, and for the future of the world just as we do. 

Anglicans call this the “charitable assumption”. It undergirds good pastoral practice. Yes, it strains credibility sometimes, when we wonder if others are as honourable as we’d like to think they are, yet I do believe it’s a vital principle of courteous, graceful, good-neighbourly behaviour. It entails, for example, attentive listening in the spirit of “maybe I can learn to see it your way; and is it possible that you could come to see it mine?” That’s not to equivocate about our hard-won principles, only to understand them in the context of the bigger picture which is always more complex than the simple binaries we love so much. As Bishop John Habgood once said, it’s all very well “being prophetic”, as long as you see all sides of a question. Or try to.

I was touched and moved by something my daughter wrote today to our family WhatsApp group. She’s allowed me to share it here. We had been in touch with our children to ask how they were feeling about the election. She replied:

I feel ok - perhaps that it is my role to promote a sense of steady-ness for those around me who are very upset. But you know, I am a super-rational pragmatist. 

I also feel that I too learned a lot from watching the Tory victories through the 80s and early 90s, something about coping with the disappointment, even tho I didn’t understand it. 

I feel relieved that the waiting and dreading and liminal is over. That in itself releases new energies eventually. And on that we do need to be out of this Brexit impasse so that attention can be spend on domestic agenda. So I understand that vote.

And I feel that it is better to know what you don’t understand about your country than not know. Not that we, in our liberal bubbles  know now, but we need to learn. 

And we need to be kind to ourselves and to everyone we meet, especially those whose opinions we don’t understand and especially those who are marginalised. And we need to listen to those people whose opinions we don’t understand and expand our bubbles. 

That’s what I think. But yes. Obviously awful, but we don’t know what this will mean. And we do know that there are a lot of young activists coming up, that the generation emerging is not like the generations before it so things will shift. we need to learn and to listen, to mentor and to work in whatever way we can to generate communities in which people can listen to and learn from those with whom they might fundamentally disagree. And we need to borrow coping strategies from those places for whom this kind of political marginalisation is the norm - who can ONLY rely on the state to frustrate and disempower them, which is still probably most places in the world . 

Perhaps it is denial, but I am still just grateful to have a vote and a state that provides any protection or health care at all. 

So we also need to be grateful. Not least because we are not the people who will be most marginalised by this decision. And maybe that sounds a bit selfish, but we need to try to appreciate what we have, and have a good Christmas together and emotionally nurture and sustain each other.

I will never lose faith in the power of love, of community, of relationship and of the collective. Aluta continua! Weep today. And the work of rebuilding starts again tomorrow.

So well said. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Methodist Church have also found just the right words for today. They have published an Open Letter to the Prime Minister following his return to office. This is church leadership at its best. They speak for me.

More to come (if you can bear it) as we go on trying to understand where we now find ourselves after the election.