Thursday, 23 February 2017

In Memoriam: Bob Jeffery, Priest, Mentor, Friend

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**You can read a formal obituary here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The General Synod and Same Sex Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 30 January 2017

Theresa May and Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Bishops' Report on Same-Sex Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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


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


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Reunion: in memory of the Holocaust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 January 2017

Peterborough Cathedral: thoughts on the visitation report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Walking Into 2017

Today means getting back to work after the holiday. Even in retirement time has its ebbs and flows, is shaped and configured by the seasons. After Christmas and new year, ordinary time is here again (not liturgically I know - but it feels that way). A new term has begun and the caravanserai of school buses snakes past the house with youngsters from across Northumberland. My wife returns to her day-job with people to see. And I have some thinking to do.

It's a beautiful day: crisp, clear and sunny. The sky has that exquisite duck-egg hue you get in the north in winter and which it's almost impossible to capture accurately in a photo (I've tried). I need to walk, not so much to slough off Yuletide excess (there's a bit of that) as to limber up, get body and mind into shape for whatever awaits this new year. Walking is good mental and spiritual exercise as well as good for the body. It has a way of sorting things, putting them into their proper places. Pascal said: "just carry on walking, and everything will be all right".

I've said I have some thinking to do. So I find some classical music, plug in my earphones and head off up the hill. Who else finds that BBC Radio 3 is among the best of all walking companions? So enjoyable. So civilised. So stimulating. And most of the time, so harmonious in ways that in the open air suggest nature and art echoing each other in praise of creation's eternal harmonies. Every walk out of the village takes you up a hillside. When you live in a steep-sided valley, walks bring their rewards early on. Quiet narrow lanes criss-cross the hills with only the occasional tractor or post van to disturb the tranquility. The holly trees are thick with berries. Snowdrops are tentatively pushing through the hard ground. Mossy drystone walls glow green and silver-grey in the morning light.

I climb clear of the village outlier, an intriguing group of Northumbrian bastle houses gathered round a green in a place that clearly has a long defensive history in this land of border reivers. Here is where I set about getting my mind round the project I need to think about. It focuses on the three sets of addresses I have agreed to give in 2017. Why on earth did I take on so much in one year, my wife has asked me, as if to say, will you never learn? I respond, feebly, that favours are being called in here, and promises about how I would have so much more time to give in retirement. I hardly convince myself, let alone her. But on the other hand, I am honoured to be asked to do important things like these. I am glad still to be useful in my superannuation. And I shall enjoy the mental and spiritual stimulus of preparing for these assignments because I know how much I shall learn in the course of it.

The first is to preach through Holy Week in an English cathedral. I have always thought that the public proclamation of the cross is the year's most awesome undertaking, and I won't deny that even after all these years of preaching I am still daunted by it. The second is to lead the summer ordination retreat for deacons and priests in another diocese. This will feel private and intimate by comparison, but it is no less awesome to be ministering to men and women who are experiencing one the biggest turning-points they will ever have known in their lives. And the third assignment is to conduct the annual week's retreat for a community of monastics. It will be the first time I have lived and prayed with this particular religious community and the first time I have led a conducted retreat for monastics (as opposed to lay people or secular clergy). So this too will bring its sense of both privilege and challenge.

I figure that if I can have identified the central themes of each of these in good time, it will help me find some coherence in the considerable amount of preparation that lies ahead during the first half of this year. Recognising what I should offer in each place and how I should set about it is of course itself an act of spiritual discernment. Prayer comes into things, and so does conversation with those responsible for arranging these events. The last thing any preacher or retreat conductor wants to do is to speak into the vacuum of not knowing his or her audience, what their needs and expectations are, and why they have asked this particular person (me) to address them. At this early stage, my own thoughts and instincts are inchoate: morsels of bread cast on to the waters. But the process has to start somewhere. And I have wanted to take the first steps on my January Northumberland hillside.

I find (think? feel? believe? so many perhapses and maybes) that I am sensing a direction, a shape. As the lane twists round the little old church where centuries ago St Cuthbert's body once lay, I detect faint outlines of a discernible picture on each of the three blank canvasses. Below me, the village is laid out in the valley like a patterned hearthrug. I take in the majestic Tyne that has given our valley its shape and much of its history, and which flows swiftly across the tableau from right to left. I pick out the two bridges that span the river, the one old and narrow where the medieval bridge used to be, the other built more recently to carry traffic. I glimpse the parish church with its distinctive pagoda tower where we worship each week and where I join the Vicar for daily prayers. At the station a Newcastle-bound Sprinter has stopped to collect passengers. Wisps of smoke from a score of hearths (one of them mine) hang over the village in the stillness. The sun continues to shine. I am feeling warmed by my exercise.

"Angels whisper to you when you go for a walk" someone said. I regain my front door sensing I have been whispered to. I wish I could say that the big problems facing humanity could be resolved by an invigorating winter walk. We take off our walking boots and everything is manifestly not all right - yet. But I suspect everything has a way of looking a little different when we go for a walk. Is this what Pascal meant - that the sheer act of striding out has a way of getting us mentally and spiritually engaged, making us participants rather than bystanders? I think I've glimpsed that this morning. I have certainly been given a lot to think about.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Christmas Letter to my Grandchildren

Dear Isaac, dear Madeleine, dear Gabriel,

You won't understand this letter for a long time to come. But I wanted to write it for you on Christmas Eve as we gather once more to celebrate together. You have brought your parents and grandparents such joy. As Christmas comes, we feel that happiness in a special way. Thank you.

Christmas is a time for children, they say. And so it is. Children of every age from nought to a hundred. As we celebrate the Birth Day of the Holy Child, how could our thoughts not turn to children everywhere? The light that shines out of the manger at Bethlehem lights up every human child. So the first thing to say is, Happy Christmas. And even if two out of the three of you are still too little to understand all this Christmas excitement, you are always right at the heart of our family celebrations. To have you in our midst at Christmas reminds us of the Holy Family, and the tenderness that touches us very deeply when young and old truly love one another. 

One of the Christmas carols you'll sing one day says: "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight". It's about Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. And more than ever this year, I think, we shall bring our hopes and fears to the Christmas crib where he lies, this little tiny Child who brings light into our world. Your parents have sometimes talked about the kind of world they have brought you into, how broken it is, how uncertain, how full of violence and hatred and fear. And yet they still chose to do this thing, take forward in you the next generation of the human family. Just like Mary. Even she could not love you more than your parents do. And for as long as we and they are alive, we shall do everything we possibly can to make sure that you grow up safely and are kept from harm. 

You will have to learn fear soon enough. We all do - it's part of being alive. But not too early, not before you are ready. Our hearts go out to children whose earliest memories are of being afraid, because they are born in places of terrible conflict, or go hungry, or have no secure home, or because other people whom they trusted to look after them turned out to be cruel and abusive instead. All three of you belong to loving families. You are lucky to live in a country that compared to many others is free and safe, where your life will be cherished and respected and honoured. 

At Christmas we long for our hopes to be realised - our hopes for a kinder, more peaceful world, our hopes for a society in which everyone is treated fairly, our hopes that we might live not out of fear but out of love. When we gaze at the light that shines out of the crib and the holy intimacy between Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus, we believe it could happen, we find ourselves imagining that it's not impossible that it might come true at last. And that's one of the gifts that children like you can bring to us grown ups. You can help us to be happy and to hope again, stop us from being cynical about life, show us to how Incarnation is always happening because God is always at work in the world that he loves so much. "O Holy Child of Bethlehem.....be born in us today."

As a child I used to think that Christmas Eve was the most magical day of the year. There was so much to look forward to, so much that would be revealed the next day. I was thinking mainly of unwrapping presents and enjoying lots of nice food and drink - in our family, we didn't go to church though we sang carols at school and took part in nativity plays so I had some inkling about this great Birth Day we were honouring. Whatever Christmas was about, I believed it had to matter. I used to imagine that there could be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Christmas tree in the window, all lit up with fairy lights for passers by outside to enjoy as much as us. I think it was on Christmas Eve as the sun began to sink in the western sky that I became aware at a very early age of how hope and expectancy can be very powerful forces for good in our lives. Indeed, maybe to have something to look forward to is what keeps us alive at all. What if every day of the year could be like Christmas Eve? 

On this Christmas Eve, our thoughts turn not just to tomorrow but all that lies beyond. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." We think back to Christmasses past because having hope means being able to see how our lives have been shaped and formed from one year to the next. Two years ago there was only one of you. Last year there were two and this year there are three. How wonderful that is! Who knows what you will become as you grow up and find your own place in the world? 

But what I hope and pray for you all is that in your own way, each of you will make a difference in this world. It's hard to say this without sounding a bit grandiose, but I really do pray that you will come to stand up for what is right and true, come to love the good, the beautiful and the just. I pray that you will become people of integrity and honour. I pray that you will flourish in whatever you do, and that you will be happy and fulfilled. On days like this, I wish I could live for two hundred years so that I could walk with you on your life paths and know what will become of you. 

Such longings and dreams to have for little children! For now, you are innocent of all these big words. But I wouldn't be your real Opa if I didn't have those hopes and prayers for you. At the Christmas crib, all our longings are gathered up in this Child who is the everlasting sign of Love for us, for all who came before us and all who will come after us. So I write this out of my deepest love for you, and in thankfulness for the joy you bring to our family. Happy Christmas to all three of you, my beloved grandchildren. God bless you always.

With love
Opa

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Spirituality of Solstice: Wintry Thoughts from the North

It's the winter solstice. Here in Northumberland, on Latitude 55 degrees north, the sun rises a full half hour later than it does in London. Today at the destined time of 8.32am, it was barely light. Squally rain was tipping out of a gunmetal sky as I waited at the church door for morning prayer. Arduously, the day succeeded in climbing clear of the long night, but at what effort. For a while the sun emerged, its horizontal light irradiating the valley to magical effect. (Which is why photographers love winter - the light is so much more magical than the glare of high summer.) Then the rain returned once more. By turns it's been bright and it's been sombre. And each has its different kind of northern beauty.

This year's solstice brings a change to the weather. Gone are the quiet high pressure days of the past week or so. You can tell that meteorologists don't care for calm weather when nothing much happens, however well that suits the rest of us. We have one in the village. He is also a retired priest. He takes daily readings of maximum and minimum temperatures, precipitation levels, cloud cover and wind speed, and issues a monthly bulletin to villagers who are interested. He admits that he likes eventful weather. And have you detected the glint in the eye of TV forecasters now that storm Barbara is on her way, just in time to blow away the festive travel plans of millions of people across the country?

But back to the shortest day. "'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's" wrote John Donne in his famous midwinter elegy (at the time he was writing before the reform of the calendar, the shortest day fell on St Lucy's Day, 13 December). Church of England people will know that in the Book of Common Prayer, the winter solstice day 21 December was observed as St Thomas's Day. Famously the doubting apostle, his themes of knowing and unknowing, certainty, questioning and faith seemed ideally suited to a day when darkness ruled. And though the season turns and the days grow longer again, it is so imperceptible to start with that you wouldn't know it - not for a week or two, anyway.

Painters call this chiaroscuro, the interplay of light-and-dark that masters like Caravaggio excelled at. The accentuation of contrasts often gives a painting or a photograph a strikingly dramatic quality (compare the genre of film noir which has given the cinema some of its greatest achievements in the era of black-and-white). But drama isn't what the technique is fundamentally about. Look at the dark areas of a great painting and you'll see that the darkness has as much vitality as the light with its attention to detail, its subtle treatment of muted colour, its "negative" response to the shapes that are illuminated, and as often as not, activity that is far from obvious that you wouldn't notice if you didn't stop to give your full attention to the canvas.

This gives me a metaphor of religious faith that I particularly prize in midwinter. It seems to me that "doubting" Thomas is the disciple who dares to inhabit chiaroscuro, is not afraid of the difficult or challenging truth that may emerge when you study the darkness carefully. That's true of our own personal darkness or "shadow" in particular. At the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare has Prospero say of Caliban, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine". It's a profound line that can be read at many levels. The misshapen, unlovely Caliban has plotted Prospero's death. And no doubt Prospero partly deserves it - he is no saint in this great play. But he has thrown away his staff and renounced the power of illusion. This recognition scene is the moment of truth-telling. In the same way, if we banish our fantasies and illusions and start telling the truth of our condition, if we recognise and acknowledge - even befriend - the darkness that is "mine", we find we are on the road to recovery, transformation and healing.

Spirits can sink low at the solstice. I'm not so much thinking of the affliction called SAD - seasonal affective disorder - brought on by too little light. It's more the spiritual ennui that can set in when hope is at a low ebb. This year, as 2016 comes to an end, it's easy to lose heart. We wonder what has become of our world, our nation and ourselves when there is so much bitterness, hatred and contempt around, and apparently, so little compassion to act as a life-giving antidote. It doesn't always help to quote too quickly Mother Julian's great saying "all shall be well". That's true, but it may not address the immediate present. In times of struggle and conflict, what counts I think is simply to know that we are not alone. To enter someone else's darkness and be present to them without the need to speak is perhaps the greatest gift we can bring them. In dark times, words, even the best words, can run out. But the touch of compassion - "suffering with" - never loses its capacity to make a difference.

It would take a St John of the Cross to do justice to the spirituality of chiaroscuro. But here's a solstice insight that helps me. On this shortest day, the meteorological outlook is full of stormy threats. And though I say it with a heavy heart, this seems just as true of the outlook for our world in 2017. Yet as we contemplate the future and possibly feel afraid, we also know that from now on the days are getting longer. We don't see it for a while, yet we know that it's true as an astronomical fact. Equally, to stop us taking things for granted at midsummer, we know that as the days grow warmer and holidays beckon, the nights are already drawing in. Winter's lightening-in-darkness, summer's darkening-in-light: this is chiaroscuro. It mirrors the light-and-darkness of our human lives. It helps us recognise the ambivalence of who and what we are. Above all, it stops us rushing headlong towards light when all along, God may be more present to us in the dark.

Henry Vaughan has a great poem, "Night". The last stanza makes the extraordinary claim that "there is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness". Earlier he has painted a picture of faith in this way:
 
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,

Did at midnight speak with the Sun.

I don't pretend to have grasped the paradoxes of this way of believing. But it rings true to my experience. And, I guess from what we know about him, St Thomas's too. So at this winter solstice, I want to acknowledge the truth that lies hidden in the questions and doubts that feel so real and compelling. Sometimes I can't even be sure if it's my own personal despondency that I'm experiencing, or whether it's an empathic aspect of being part of a world in pain that any human being who feels anything knows only too well at times like these.

Into such a world an Infant was born. He came to give us back the lives we had lost. The Holy Child comes to us today as Immanuel, "God-with-us". That's the meaning and the promise Christmas gives to the solstice. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" said the prophet in words we treasure in Advent. For if he is present among the dark wastelands we have made of our world, and if he is alongside us in own darkness, then our hearts can be strangely warmed, and our spirits begin to sing again.