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.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The Berlin Wall 30 years on

In old(er) age I find myself looking back on the times I’ve lived through and how they’ve shaped me over the seven decades I’ve been alive. I was born in 1950, the precise midpoint of the twentieth century. What have been the most significant events of world history that I can say have touched me personally in some way?

Any list is provisional of course. We can’t easily judge what events will prove defining in the grand scheme of things when we are too close to them. Even a lifetime can be too short to make sound historical judgements. There’s too much foreground; things don’t stay in place long enough to see them as part of the bigger picture. We need distance and perspective, and even then the relative significance of historical events and the meanings they carry can be hotly contested by historians. But I believe there are key “moments” in our own lifetimes that have already gathered the flow of history around them and acquired a kind of symbolic, even mythic, status.

So I’m speaking about my subjective experience of world events, those I remember as having a powerful effect on me in the first half of my life. My current seven candidates are these. (I wonder what yours are?) I’ve already blogged on two of them.

1962 The Cuba missile crisis;
1963 The assassination of President Kennedy;
1968 The student riots in France;
1969 The first moon landing;
1973 The accession of the UK to the European Communities;
1975 The end of the Vietnam War;
1989 The fall of the Berlin Wall.

On Saturday we shall commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the last of these. So let me reflect briefly on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I paid my first visit to Berlin that very year, 1989. But I was too early to be part of history. It was June. That summer the Kirchentag, the great two-yearly gathering of German Protestant Christians, took place in Berlin. It was an amazing event. I stayed with a family in Dahlem in the then Western Sector. There was a bewildering variety of activities to take part in: lectures, seminars, music, film, theatre, art... and a lot of theological and political debate, not only in churches and lecture halls but on street corners and in pubs and clubs. Here in the UK we don’t have anything quite like this festival of culture and faith that draws tens of thousands of people, not least the young, from across the country for five days of intense engagement and festive enjoyment. I was struck by how much talk I overheard about “our common European home”, particularly of course the aspiration to unite Germany. It was exhilarating. But that summer talk of peace and reconciliation in Germany still felt like a beautiful dream, nothing more.

To gain some respite from all this heady stuff, I needed time to wander round the city, drink in the atmosphere of this extraordinary place. In particular, I wanted to visit the East. I recall a journey on the U-Bahn that took me from one part of West Berlin to another that entailed crossing under areas of the eastern sector and passing through long-abandoned ghost stations. From inside deep cuttings I could look up at the grim tower blocks of the East shielded by intimidating rolls of barbed wire laid above the rail tracks. By contrast, crossing Checkpoint Charlie on foot in either direction did not seem as big a deal as I’d expected, not for a westerner with a British passport. Even crossing back into the West didn’t entail a long wait or a search. It was a very different matter for East Berliners, that was clear. Security around the Berlin Wall did not suggest any lessening of tension at that fault line between the two Germanys, the two Europes and the two worlds of East and West.

Back at Coventry Cathedral where I worked at the time, we continued to pray for peace and reconciliation across Germany. We often thought of the German cities with which Coventry had special relationships, whose great churches had been bombed by the Allies just as Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe raid of 14 November 1940. I’d visited three of them: Lübeck which was (just) inside the Bundesrepublik, Dresden, then in the GDR and Berlin which straddled both. There, I’d attended Kirchentag events in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfürstendamm, whose spire, the so-called “Hollow Tooth”, damaged by Allied bombing in 1943, served as a much-loved war memorial in much the same way as Coventry Cathedral.

So you can imagine the feverish excitement on 9 November 1989 when the news broke that something remarkable was happening around, and on top of, the Berlin Wall. We were glued to our televisions, in our case a large old black-and-white (read on to discover why this detail is relevant). It was soon clear that not only had the Wall been breached but that the East Berlin security forces were doing nothing about it, watching, a few even smiling, while people took pick-axes to the fabric of the Wall and surged across newly opened gaps. That officialdom stood by and did nothing to stop this outbreak of unthinkable lawlessness is one of the abiding memories of that day. You’ll remember it well enough or will have seen the footage scores of times.

Having been in the city so recently, and given my Anglo-German parentage, I found it immensely powerful to watch these scenes, and extraordinarily moving too. All the more so because we were expecting to commemorate the anniversary of the dreadful “Night of Shattered Glass”, the Kristallnacht of 9 November 1938 that constituted the first concerted, violent Nazi assault on Germany’s Jewish community. Instead, we found ourselves celebrating this magnificent dawn of a new future for Berlin, and Germany, and Europe. If ever I watched an event that seemed to be an image of the kingdom of God, it was this breaking down of walls, this elimination of the barriers of division, this reaching across to fellow men, women and children in peace and friendship and hope.

It felt like one of the greatest moments of my life. It still does. I was back in Germany the following year, in Bavaria this time at a conference of young adults. The joyous hope-filled energy at that week’s gathering in the mountains was palpable. And participants were in no doubt that all of them were pledged to play their part as Christians in the reconstruction and renewal of a united Germany. And not just Germany. “Our common European Home” was back on the agenda in a revitalised way. And the handful of British Christians who were there were enthusiastically embraced as colleagues and friends in that great project. “The Cold War is over. We are all Berliners. We are all Germans. We are all Europeans” we agreed, in the spirit of John F Kennedy’s happy phrase when he came to the Wall on his unforgettable visit in 1963.

In a Wordsworthian way, it felt good to be alive and see this day. Indeed, I needed to do more than merely see it. I needed to bear witness to it because of the story that would undoubtedly reverberate across coming generations. We could not have foreseen how difficult this project of reunification would prove, what stresses and strains it would place on this new Germany that was rising from the ashes. We did not imagine how hard it would be to eradicate the division between the privileged West and the more deprived East, nor the rise of far-right populist politics in cities and towns of the GDR (and not only there). We believed that the European ideal would quickly vanquish old enmities and bring about a Europe that was democratic, prosperous and free. We thought we could glimpse “the end of history” and the emergence of a new world order of peace among nations.

How naïve, you may say, this “first fine careless rapture”. And yet across Europe, people of Christian faith, other faiths and of no explicit faith but immense good will continue to collaborate for the peace and flourishing of Europe and beyond it, the whole human family. My own Europeanism has always been an important part of my self-awareness - how could it not, given my parentage? But as I look back, I now see what an impetus the events of 1989 gave me to commit to my identity more consciously. Hence my profound disappointment and sadness at the prospect of Brexit, not to mention the challenges the European Project is facing in many other parts of our continent.

But on Saturday, we should celebrate all that the fall of the Berlin Wall promised, and the real achievements that have been wrought across a reunited Germany. On this thirtieth anniversary, it’s worth pausing to be grateful for what happened in November 1989 that raised the hopes of millions of people all over the world that oppressive regimes do not have absolute control over human lives. For if the events of that month seemed like an image of the kingdom of God, then we should go on praying “thy kingdom come” with the heartfelt conviction that lasting change can happen and the lives of nations, societies and people be permanently transformed for good. That’s a prayer to make our own during the commemorations that will take place on this weekend of Remembrance Sunday.

What about that black-and-white TV, you ask? It wasn’t long before the East German Embassy in London was closed. It had state-of-the-art TVs to give away. One of them found its way into our home. Not only was it a colour set, but it even had a zapper (aka remote). For our four children, not to mention their parents, Christmas came early that year!

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Half-Term at Haydon: Isaac comes to stay

In other news, our 6 year old grandson Isaac has spent half-term with his grandparents here in Haydon Bridge. You’ll forgive me for laying aside the serious stuff I usually blog about. He has gone home today and we are missing him. The house is suddenly very quiet again.

It was an important week for him and for us. These were his first ever nights away from his parents. Would he lose his nerve about it at the last minute? Would he be overcome with homesickness while he was here? Would he cope with Halloween without his friends and neighbours to trick or treat? Would he sleep and eat properly? How would we fill the time? These were grown-up anxieties of course, not his. But they made us realise how out of practice we were at caring full-time for a youngster. It was as much a rite of passage for us as for him.

When I went to Leeds to pick him up, I knew I needn’t have worried. He was up for this great adventure. We spent most of the train journey talking about railways. He has obsessed about railways ever since he was a toddler. We looked at images of Mallard and Flying Scotsman in his steam loco magazine. We looked out for “Opa’s Train” on the East Coast Main Line (i.e. the Class 91 electric loco 91114 named Durham Cathedral which has my name on the cab door). He was quiet for a bit while he ate his sandwiches. I wondered what he was thinking about? The memory of saying goodbye to his parents and little sister perhaps? Or the prospect of being special for the week, having the undivided attention of his Nana and Opa?

We’ve had a great week. There was Shaun of the Sheep - Farmageddon at the Forum Cinema. The Tullie House Museum in Carlisle provided interactive Roman history and railwayana. We visited no fewer than three soft play centres - at Carlisle, Haltwhistle and Hexham. Isaac is confident and good at socialising, so he quickly finds friends to play with at these places. And it’s reading time for us adults. He came to the Oxfam book shop where I volunteer and enjoyed the novel sight of my struggling with the till to process his purchases (which included DVDs chosen for his sister and cousin: I was touched by his kindness, even if he looked expectantly at us to find the cash).

What else? We watched You Tube movies of Thomas and Friends and of sophisticated trains created out of Lego - another favourite activity of his). I read him Ronald Dahl’s Witches at bedtime, suitable literature for Halloween week (a funny, intriguing book - but a bit on the misogynistic side, I thought). He has a wicked sense of humour. Irony is going to be his forte one day, I think. He dressed up for Halloween, put a pumpkin in the window and enjoyed the comings and goings on the street. The level crossing in sight of our house was a reliable source of pleasure (thank you, Northern Rail and the RealTime Trains app). He was out of bed by dawn each morning, but we set him up with croissants and juice, and he was fine. We asked him for feedback on the week (quality of accommodation, meals, entertainment etc., with the options “good”, “very good” and “fantastic”). We did all right on the whole.

One of the nicest moments was at a soft play. A young parent came up to us and said, “That’s such a lovely polite boy you have there. You don’t often see behaviour like that these days.” This took us by surprise, not because it isn’t true (it is) but because it was unsolicited. That’s a big tribute to his own parents, of course, our daughter and her husband. And it made me realise how respectful Isaac was being during his time with us. He is no goody two-shoes, thank God, but he does say please and thank you, and at 6 o’clock in the morning bothers to knock on the bedroom door with “I’m sorry to wake you up but...”. Winsome. Endearing. Delightful.

We are lucky enough to be enjoying a retirement in which we have time to give our three colourful, talented, much-loved grandchildren Gabriel, Maddy and Isaac. As most grandparents discover, this is somewhat different from the memory of caring for our own children when they were at that age. The responsibility is bounded for one thing: there comes a time when you have to give your grandchildren back to their parents, and this affects the quality of the time we spend with them. Then there’s the fact that grandparents are at an altogether different life-stage from where we were when our children were young.

Then (and I’m aware this is a middle-class-professional’s perception), family time was heavily contested by the demands of the day job. My children are candid about how difficult I found it to be truly present to them when they were growing up. I wish I had been better at it. I really do. Grandchildren are not given to us as a second chance to make a better job of it - they are human beings in their own right who are growing up in a world in many respects very different from the one in which we tried to be good enough parents thirty or forty years ago. Our children have to bear the consequences of the mistakes we made in our parenting, and we have to live with the memory. The miracle is that mostly, they survive and flourish, despite as well as because of us. And that they seem able to forgive us.

But grandchildren do offer us the opportunity to reprise what should have been among the best experiences of our lives if we have been entrusted with the gift of children. For now, with the wisdom of years, we can try to give back something of what we have so abundantly received, and continue to receive, from those who love us. This came home to me not so much when we were enjoying outings or engaging in projects but in the quotidian uneventfulness of ordinary time: moments when we were content simply to be together whether it was at mealtimes, walking along to the village shops or reading to him at bedtime. Gone was that feeling I remembered so well that there was always something else I ought to be doing: a list of admin jobs to be tackled, a meeting to get to, parishioners to visit, sermons to write.

“What are days for?” asks Philip Larkin in his enigmatic poem. “They are to be happy in. Where we live but days?” It would be easy to project on to our grandchildren a kind of prelapsarian innocence and happiness that in adulthood we realise is lost to us. Was it ever like that? Even the best childhood is not without its shadows and its pain. Maybe our grandchildren can help us reconnect with our own childhood, not the rhapsodic dreamlike fantasy but the more ambivalent reality where the troubles of growing up are as keenly felt as the joy of being alive?

Our grandchildren are not there to heal our memories. But to be truly present to them, cherish them for the human beings they already are, love them as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, learn how to listen and laugh and cry with them - all this is profoundly healing. It would be wrong to indulge the purple prose. It’s fatally easy to sentimentalise when writing about children. So I won’t pretend we haven’t worked hard this half-term, that there weren’t challenges we had to face. But I think I’ve glimpsed in a new way how life is pure gift. Growing old and becoming grandparents has a lot to commend it. “I love you so much” Isaac whispered when the time came to say goodbye. Heart speaking to heart when the words ran out.

It meant a lot that his parents entrusted him to us for these days away. God willing there will be many more weeks like this one for Isaac, and in time, for Maddy and Gabe. Meanwhile, we shall get used to the quiet once again. And look forward to catching up on our sleep.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Ten Commandments for Brexit

I saw a tweet today from a finance company. "Ready for Brexit? Our ten-point checklist will help you get prepared. Act now to get the financial guidance you need. #LetsTalkBusiness." I retweeted it with a comment of my own. "Ready for Brexit? Nope. Are emotional and spiritual guidance on offer too?" No answer as yet. I wait in hope.

But while I wait, I'm thinking how important it is to cross this threshold with self-awareness and insight. Readers of my blog will know that I'm a Remain ultra. I believe that voting for Brexit was a terrible mistake for the nation to make. I think it is bound to have all kinds of consequences, mostly unforeseen, for the United Kingdom, not least the union of our four peoples. I can't see that any Brexit deal will benefit Britain as much as our present EU membership does. (And I write in North East England, destined to suffer the worst impact of any part of the UK in terms of its economy, manufacturing industry and employment.)

Nevertheless, I am realistic enough to recognise that Brexit is bound to happen with or without a deal whether it's in a week's time, a month's time or some time in the future. And while a big part of me will only be dragged kicking and screaming out of the European Union, a voice within tells me to get ready to leave as gracefully as I can. Not necessarily going gently into that not-so-good night, but at least trying to recognise that generosity is needed. It’s going to be hard. I'm addressing this blog to myself to begin with, and then to fellow Remainers who like me feel the pain of Brexit and yet want to go on living as good citizens, making the best of what seems like a thoroughly bad job.

So here's my answer to the question in my tweet. A ten-point checklist to help us get prepared emotionally, morally, spiritually. Ten Commandments for Brexit, if you like. #LetsTalkWisdom.

1 Understand the pain of loss.
Emotional intelligence is important here. For many of us, Brexit is a loss of identity and belonging the like of which we probably haven't experienced in our nation's life before. If you're like me you'll feel this loss in a surprisingly personal way. This is about me as well as us. So we should expect to experience the normal symptoms of bereavement such as denial, bewilderment, emptiness, anger, bargaining, depression - and maybe only much later, acceptance and resolution. The effects of Brexit on mental health have already been noted by some psychotherapists. We simply need to notice what we are going through, and be honest about it, at least with ourselves.

2 Don't feed anger and bitterness. Try to be positive.
Yes, we were lied to in the referendum campaign. This hasn't stopped since then. Inevitably we feel that the Brexit result, so finely balanced, was based on a false prospectus fed by the right-wing media. But there's nothing to be gained by nursing hurt feelings, still less by badmouthing those who misled the nation or colluded with them. We need to find healing in our nation if we are to have a future worth living for. Being positive can begin by celebrating the years we enjoyed EU membership and all the benefits it brought. Yes, we are sad beyond words to be leaving. We heartily wish we weren't. We are angry about it and are right to be. But we can resolve not to indulge in vengeful self-pity. Even in hard times, we can cultivate thankfulness. Let the power of grateful memory shed light on the way we navigate our path through this dark time of loss and grief.

3 Treat Brexiters with courtesy.
Loving my neighbour as myself is one of the two great precepts of the Torah, reiterated by Jesus in the gospels. We need to work hard at our relationships with Brexiters, and with former Remainers who have gone along with, even supported, the government's attempts to "get Brexit done". However much we may have been abused by Brexit campaigners, however easy it might have been to give back in kind, we should not compromise on respect and courtesy towards those with whom we profoundly disagree. Perhaps there are individuals to whom we need to say that we're sorry, and with whom we should try to be reconciled. It's beneath our self-respect to treat others with contempt and nurse our hatred. In a divided nation, dignity (= "worth") has been at stake during these past three years. Let's cultivate peace and friendship where we can. Let’s try to help one another speak our truth with gracefulness. And if Brexit unravels, let’s not crow "I told you so!"

4 Remain European in heart and mind.
Let's use language accurately. We are leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe. It matters that we go on thinking of ourselves as Europeans, and that this should continue to be a core part of our identity as British people. To be fair to Brexiters, this is a point many of them have been at pains to underline. Whatever our nation's political alignments in the future, nothing can rob us of being geographically, intellectually, culturally and spiritually at the heart of our continent. "No man is an island entire of itself." We are "part of the main". We need to affirm this ever more strongly after Brexit. Travel in Europe if you can; if not, travel in your mind and heart. We are Europeans, and always shall be.

5 Befriend EU nationals living and working in Britain.
There's a particular need right now to embrace the so-called "Three Million" from EU countries who are living among us in this country. Many of them continue to suffer great anxiety about their future, whether their application for residence in Britain will be granted, what their prospects for employment are. (And let's remember that British people resident in overseas EU countries are just as worried about the uncertainties they face, including the elderly who can't afford to move back to the UK but face big questions about their pensions and health care.) This of course is only part of our hospitality to and care for all who live among us who come from other parts of the world. We must use our imaginations and offer help and support where we can.

6 Keep the conversation about Europe alive.
Remainers are often told to take Brexit on the chin and move on. But it's wishful thinking to imagine that the debate about the EU will end on Brexit Day. On the contrary. Negotiating our future relationship with the EU, and reaching trade deals will take many years. This will guarantee that the EU will remain on the national agenda and in its consciousness for a long time to come. And I'm certain that our children's generation, frustrated beyond measure by the actions of their Brexiter parents in denying them the future they had taken for granted until 2016, will one day reopen the question of EU membership. This may happen sooner than we think. We should encourage them. We should support pro-European politicians and policies. Democracy is a conversation that never stops. There's nothing once-for-all about Brexit.

7 Challenge fake news about the European Union.
The rhetoric of the far right will continue to trumpet "taking back control" and play down the intangible benefits of EU membership such as promoting human rights and the rights of working people, sharing in the project of peace-building across the continent, collaborating in our response to the climate emergency, working together on programmes to tackle crime, slavery, trafficking, sexual exploitation and maintaining security. As good Europeans we must go on championing the EU's efforts to build a better world not just for its twenty-seven nations but for all human beings. That means challenging the lies and half-truths that will continue to bolster those who try to demonstrate how Brexit has been the salvation of Britain. The case for the EU still needs to be made, even if, for now, we shall have to help make it as fellow-travellers rather than citizen-members.

8 Play your part to make sure that Britain remains an outward-looking country.
The referendum mantra, "what's best for Britain" was an invitation to indulge the worst of self-serving attitudes. To love our neighbour means to look for the welfare of others as well as ourselves, or as the Golden Rule says, to do for them what we would want them to do for us. In the reciprocity of mutual service and self-giving lies our flourishing. What's best for us turns out to be what's best for others too. The nations of the United Kingdom, the European Union and the Commonwealth understand this mutuality and attempt to live by it, even if the reality falls short of the aspiration. Given the environmental and geopolitical threats we face, our race only has a future if we cultivate the love of neighbour among the world's peoples. To become insular, as we risk doing because of Brexit, would be to walk away from the global responsibility our nation has historically understood to belong to its vocation. EU membership was a test of our capacity to look beyond our borders to the welfare of other peoples and, ultimately, to the flourishing of the human family. It would be the death of this humane, fair-minded, civilised country if we abandoned that large and generous vision for the world and looked only to the interests of our own people.

9 Don't be nostalgic. Live in the present.
We can't know what life will be like once we've crossed the Brexit threshold. In these days of the so-called end-game, it may feel like going into a kind of exile. Nostalgia is literally, aching for home. Exiles wouldn't be human if they didn't experience it. But when Jeremiah tried to help his people make a good exile far from their homeland, he told them to invest in their present, not the past. "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce...Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29.1-7). This should be our attitude for the years we shall live on Brexit Island, be they many or few. Investing in the present opens us to its possibilities. We learn to live, not out of regret for the past but attentive to the here and now. We are always the better for doing that.

10 Don't lose heart. And say your prayers.
I think this is the most important principle of them all. Brexit may have driven us to the brink of desperation, but we refuse to give up hope. What God means by this cataclysm that has overtaken our nation only he knows. It's beyond our understanding. But we mustn't succumb to despair. So we say our prayers for the family of humanity, for our European friends and neighbours, for our nation and for ourselves. We are not expecting God to save us from ourselves and the consequences of our decisions. But prayer affirms that God has not abandoned his world. To pray is to stand in hope and solidarity with the world in all its suffering and to ask what its healing and flourishing would mean. And then to commit ourselves to whatever actions arise from our having glimpsed our human condition from a larger and deeper perspective. Contributing towards a better, more wholesome politics in our nation is one way. "What matters for prayer is what we do next." That's how to keep the flame of hope burning and not lose heart.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

John Henry Newman: a personal debt


Tomorrow, John Henry Newman is to be canonised in a ceremony at the Vatican. He will be the first English man or woman to be pronounced a saint since the seventeenth century. So this is an event of major significance to Christians in this country as well as worldwide.

And I mean Christians in an ecumenical sense, not just Catholics. For Newman was the most famous (some said notorious) Catholic convert of the nineteenth century. He was brought up as an Anglican with evangelical tendencies. But his studies of the Christian fathers and the medieval church led him progressively to contemplate a vision of the church that was larger in its embrace and more profound in its theological and spiritual reach than the protestantism in which he had been reared. As one of the leading Tractarians of the Oxford Movement launched in 1833, he preached and wrote energetically in defence of the Church of England as an organic part of the ancient catholic church, for the time being divided but always yearning for ultimate union.

That theological position proved unsustainable for Newman. Always a man of conscience and integrity, he came to realise that the logic of his developing convictions was pointing him away from Anglicanism and towards Roman Catholicism. He crossed the threshold in October 1845. It’s not correct to say that “the rest is history”. His was a questing, searching pilgrim soul, so beautifully and accurately described in his famous hymn Lead, kindly Light. Perhaps he was always too much of an Anglican to regard his conversion as any kind of terminus. Books like The Development of Doctrine articulated his belief that revelation, illumination, “faith seeking understanding” as Anselm said, never stops. “To live is to change” said Newman, “and to live long is to have changed much”. Even a cardinal of the Catholic Church!

On the eve of his canonisation, I want to recall the influence of John Henry Newman on my own formation as a Christian and a priest. In my teenage and student years, I was a fervent evangelical of the most conservative kind. I embraced Calvinism to a degree that was thought extreme even by Christian Union mentors. As an ordinand I inevitably chose to train at what was then regarded as the most reformed and protestant of all the Anglican evangelical theological colleges. (It amuses me now that some colleagues conjecture that I must have studied at Westcott House or Cuddesdon! Let the reader understand.)

In those days, nearly five decades ago, if you had a degree in theology, your training for ministry could be improvised around the Bishops’ modest academic requirements alongside gaining practical experience in pastoral ministry. My tutor sat down with me and asked what I thought I needed to do by way of study during my final year before ordination. I replied that my theology degree had given me a rigorous grounding in the Bible and the Fathers. But my knowledge of church history more or less stopped at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Perhaps I needed to dip my toe into modernity? My tutor’s response was immediate. “Your experience of church has been limited to protestantism. But there’s a bigger world out there. Have you ever read John Henry Newman’s Apologia?

It’s one of those questions I’ll always be grateful for. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua was published in 1864. It is his “defence of his own life” in response to Charles Kingsley’s attack on him for lacking honour and integrity in abandoning his Anglicanism. It’s one of the classics of spiritual autobiography of the Victorian or any other age. I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop and paid, I think, 20 pence for it. I don’t want to dramatise things, but it’s not too much to say that it changed my life.

As I began to read, I found I was struggling somewhat. Not with Newman’s limpid writing (he was an acknowledged master of English prose). It was his intellectual and spiritual thought-world. I almost said sound-world, an interesting comment on the almost aural effect of reading him. It was so different from, even alien to, what I was used to. This was a different kind of journey, or at least a differently described quest for holiness from what was familiar to me. We didn’t use the tiresome language of comfort-zones (being out of) in those innocent days, but this was where I was finding myself. Thank God for discomfort!

What changed everything were three insights in particular. The first was the realisation that Christian belief and the church's experience walk hand in hand. What we call “the tradition” isn’t a fixed immutable body of biblical texts or formal dogma so much as a living memory of how the church has reflected on its faith across the centuries. This is what Newman had come to call “the development of doctrine”. It echoed a saying of one of the Scottish Covenanters that I’d come to love: “God has more light and truth to shine out from his holy word”. I glimpsed how the formulation of Christian thought - any thought - was a dynamic process. Tradition means that which is “ handed on”. Newman’s reverence for tradition as a process recognised how each generation cherishes what it has received in order to pass it on to the next. It shouldn’t have been a startling discovery (not if I’d been paying attention to St Paul in 1 Corinthians).  But for me, a light had been switched on.

The second insight from the Apologia was about the place of conscience. For Newman, conscience was crucial in the forming of Christian mind and character. The externals of belief could never stand on their own, disconnected from their inner reception and embrace by the believer’s conscience. That’s about integrity and honour, "truth in the inward parts" as the Prayer Book version of Psalm 51 puts it, the very qualities Kingsley had accused Newman of lacking. And quite suddenly I realised that this was a personal dilemma for me too. It dawned on me that my evangelicalism was not going to survive this Tractarian scrutiny unchanged. And that would mean a serious renegotiation of my faith and my relationship with what I was coming to speak about as my own tradition. Again, I won’t dramatise by speaking of a “Here I stand” moment. But this profoundly disturbing yet liberating discovery of the role of conscience did, I think, prove life-changing.

Newman’s final gift to me was the spirituality with which his writing was imbued. Quite simply, I found it irresistible. Possibly for aesthetic reasons that bear closer  examination (how easy it is to be seduced by Newman!) I was becoming catholic not only in my thinking but also in my praying and feeling. I found myself increasingly at odds with evangelical worship, especially its relentless stream of words, its extraverted busyness and its lack of feeling for the numinous. I can see that this probably sounds like a caricature, but it’s what I was experiencing at the time. No doubt personality type, temperament, comes into liturgy and spirituality. If so, I owe to Newman the instinct to take it more seriously. Eventually I came to serve as a curate in what we would now call an affirming catholic parish where they wore eucharistic vestments, swung the censer from time to time, preached a socially inclusive intelligent Christianity and reserved the sacrament. How much I learned there! It set the direction of my entire ministry.

So it seemed fitting to include a hymn by Newman in our marriage service, “Praise to the Holiest in the height”. A year later my wife sang Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the local choral society and I heard that great work for the first time. Newman’s poem, from which the hymn is drawn, is not without its flaws. But somehow that performance in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre set the seal on a personal journey I knew would be lifelong.

Decades later I found myself in the company of - well, I won’t name him because he is a well-known church leader. Without any preamble, as if he’d been saving up for this moment, he looked me in the eye: “Michael, back in the seventies we were looking to you as a future leader of evangelicals in the Church of England. It all looked so promising. What happened to you?” It was hardly the question I’d been expecting as we sat over a cup of tea enjoying Belgian biscuits. But I didn’t hesitate with my answer. “I read John Henry Newman” I replied. “That’s all.” “Ah. I see now” he said and smiled. And changed the subject.

After all these years, how better to acknowledge the debt than to echo Newman’s own praise to his Creator and Redeemer, the Holiest in the height: “in all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways!”

** There are many Newmans. Like all great men and women, he encounters us in different ways. Here's another blog about him on the Laudable Practice website. It's a somewhat different take on him, but well worth reading. This week's edition of The Tablet also has a number of thought-provoking articles.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Northumbrians: a personal take on a new book

On 5 May 1973 my wife and I became engaged. That was the day Sunderland won the Cup Final. My wife's parents were ardent Black Cat supporters. We figured that if Sunderland were to win, her father would say yes to anything, and if they lost he'd be past caring. 

Reader, I married her. And married into her North East family. Her father was from Consett, her mother from Wearside. They hadn't lived in the North East since the war. When I arrived on the scene, they had retired to the Yorkshire Dales. But the region was in their blood. My initiation into North East culture included being presented to the family matriarch who lived in Sunderland and of whom everyone seemed in awe, and an evening drinking in a well-known watering hole just down the road where the only females to be seen were serving behind the bar. (Brown ale, you ask? I'm not saying. It would be a cliché too far.)

To a young Londoner it was all very strange, even exotic. I'd only visited the North East once before, as a schoolboy applying to Durham University to read maths. I've never forgotten the November afternoon I got out of the train at Durham station. It was bleak and grey, the kind of day the North East does so well. Above the rooftops huddled below I took in the apparition of the Castle and Cathedral not, it seemed as the light began to fade, anchored to the bedrock of their acropolis but floating ethereally above. I walked through the darkening streets up to the Castle where I was to spend the night before my interview. I wondered how I had come to be so far from home. Did it cross my mind that one day this would be my home? Not for a moment. I didn't go to Durham University in the end. But the seed of my fascination with northernness had been sown.

A decade later, we were living in rural north Northumberland. That repeated north I found to be both romantic and unsettling. I'd become Vicar of Alnwick. It was my first incumbency. I came to love the place and its people, and to cherish the memory of the ancient Christianity that flourished in Saxon times thanks to the Northumbrian saints like Oswald and Aidan, Cuthbert and Hild. But I won't deny that living and working in a northern country market town posed challenges to a young vicar brought up in the metropolitan suburbs of north London. Was this because any small town was inevitably a more self-contained world? The empty landscapes were sublimely beautiful, but their silence and remoteness could feel unnerving at times. Or was the discomfort due to its northernness, a culture shock that would wear off in time? (It took three decades, I was told, even to begin to belong up here near the Scottish border.)

We went away, but the pull of Northumbria was in my blood. In time we found our way back like returning exiles. "It's marvellous to be back in the North East" I heard myself say at my installation as Dean in Durham Cathedral. I wrote many blogs during my thirteen years in Durham, so I won't say more here. Except to recall one conversation I had with a college principal during my first year as Dean. "Michael" he said, "you'll never understand this Cathedral or the North East until you've been to your first Miners' Gala". So it proved. I began to feel (not just observe) something of the bonds of loyalty and solidarity felt among the North East's mining communities, forged by the shared perils of mining, the common experience of disaster, the loss of livelihood and dignity when the pits closed and the frustration that their people had been all but forgotten about in London where power lay and decisions were taken. I also learned how old wounds ran deep, such as the bitter memories of the miners' strike of 1984 that so divided workers and their families.

Finally (to bring the story up to date) we retired four years ago back to rural Northumberland. We live in what was once a pit manager's house, named after a Tyneside collier ship that went down in the 1880s. It’s right by the railway, Britain’s earliest east-west route that was open when Queen Victoria came to the throne. The River South Tyne tumbles down from the North Pennines a hundred yards away. How very North Eastern. St Cuthbert was here too, once upon a time: the medieval church up on the hill is dedicated to him. It was probably built to commemorate one of the halts made by his community as they travelled the North in the ninth century with the remains of their saints and the Lindisfarne Gospels looking for a permanent resting-place. But an even more ancient story is told here by the Roman Wall as it strides through our parish on the crest of the Whin Sill. There's nothing like the presence of antiquity to put things (like Brexit) into perspective, especially when you find you have what looks plausibly like a substantial Roman stone mortared into your garden wall. Who are we and where have we come from, it seems to ask as I gaze out at it out from the kitchen window. I want to reciprocate with the same question. If only stones could talk!

********
These memories have been stirred by reading Dan Jackson's enjoyable new book The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People - A New History. (Point of order: do you hyphenate North East or not? When I published my own book on the Christian heritage of the region, Landscapes of Faith, my publisher decided that we wouldn't. So out of habit, I don't. The cover of Northumbrians hyphenates but Dan Jackson's text doesn't. Read what you like into that.)
I've loved this book. Perhaps I've read it too quickly because it is so readable. Its take on the North East is refreshingly different from so much other writing on the region. For all that it's called A New History, it doesn't follow any kind of timeline. Nor does it linger especially on landscape, architecture, literature and art as ends in themselves, rather, for what they tell us about the people whose land this is. For the book is a study of people and communities: at work and leisure, in war and peace, in learning and politics, public life and industry, and not least, in the ordinary days where life is lived in home and countryside, city, town and village.
Dan Jackson can write about these things so well, not only because he is a good historian but, much more importantly, because he is a native Northumbrian himself. He writes as a local from inside the experience of North Easternness - you can smell it in his prose and sense that he knows what he's talking about. He is ready to share his own experience of what it is like to grow up and live in the region - inhabit it, I mean, in a way no incomer like me ever can. So this is a very personal book. It's clear that he loves the North East and is proud to be a Northumbrian. But he doesn't rhapsodise as some literature is prone to do. He knows it too well, is too alive to its paradoxes, struggles and real pain, not least due to the steep decline in heavy industry that once made it the power-house of the nation. The book is all the better for having been written from the perspective of a critical friend.
If I had to recommend a book to someone moving to the North East for the first time to help them orientate themselves in a strange but beguiling land, this would be it. I could have done with it forty years ago. I might suggest that they begin by reading the first and last chapters. The opening chapter sets the scene and explores what and who we mean by the idea of "Northumbrian". The closing chapter ponders what the North East is becoming in the twenty-first century, what we should celebrate in the region, and what could be different and better. You'd expect me to say that I was particularly interested in the discussion about why our region voted so decisively for Brexit in 2016 (and before that, against the setting-up of a regional assembly in 2004). What's so helpful here is to begin to understand how the wider context of North East history, politics and culture have all played a part in shaping its assumptions.
For me, blown into the North East as a migrant from the south (and not properly "English" at that, having a German parent), Dan Jackson raises important questions about place, identity and belonging. I suppose I am one of Theresa May's "citizens of everywhere" who has called lots of places "home". She disparagingly went on to say that this made us "citizens of nowhere". But that's a non sequitur. It's true that part of me would love to apply the epithet Northumbrian to myself. I've lived and worked in the North East, retired here and God willing, expect to die here. So I envy Dan Jackson his authentic Northumbrian identity and the sense of place and belonging that come with it. But I know that it can never quite be mine, any more than I can still call myself a Londoner, except as identifying my place of origin. His book has helped me to see that.
My own relationship with the North East is more complex, perhaps because it's also coloured by an ever more insistent awareness that I am not simply British but European. But I can say that there is no other part of England where I would rather find myself at this late stage of life. There's nowhere alse that the bonds of affection and adoptive loyalty have ever run so deep. Which is why I've found so much to treasure in this book.

Friday, 27 September 2019

On Books, Waves and Not Getting Angry with Rascals

“I have taken so kindly to idleness that I can’t tear myself away from it. So either I amuse myself with books, of which I have a good stock here at Antium, or I count the waves - the weather is unsuitable for mackerel fishing... And my sole form of political activity is to hate the rascals, and even that I do without anger.”

This is Cicero in 59BCE. He had retired from his year as consul with more time to read, write and ponder. If only we had his Secret History, published posthumously because of its fierce denunciations of his enemies. This famous book is lost to us. It would have had much to say about the turbulent times he was living through as his cherished Roman Republic entered its death-throes. The waves he watched were not only those that lapped the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. There were political waves aplenty to watch, and despair at, and try not to get angry with the rascals who were making them.

Remind me of anyone?

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Sunday my wife and I said goodbye to Durham Cathedral. I had been Dean there for nearly thirteen years. The historic Deanery was home to us for a lot longer than anywhere else we had lived as a couple and a family. It was a poignant day as I wrote at the time. But we soon settled into our new home in the Tyne Valley, and to the gentler rhythms of retirement in the countryside. I’ve blogged from the “front line” of retirement from time to time herehere, and recently (particularly significant for me, this one), here.

Cicero’s self-deprecating take on retirement (amid the demands of his legal practice and speech-making) rings bells for me. We have a good stock of books here at Haydon Bridge, and I’ve fulfilled a lifelong ambition to work in a bookshop (as a volunteer every Wednesday afternoon in the local Oxfam bookshop). I can’t tell you how marvellous it is to indulge a love of reading without feeling guilty.

I could write a whole blog - perhaps I shall one day - about some of the books I’ve enjoyed in the past four years - biography, railways, art, religion, poetry, politics, literature, classical history, music, the life and landscapes of North East England - and whatever else looks interesting. Retirement has demonstrated what I always thought was true of me, that I am a born dilettante. I take comfort from the Italian origin of that word, which means someone who “takes delight”, just as amateur literally means “a lover” (of activities).

“Counting the waves”: well, we don’t have many of those here in upstream Haydon Bridge, though the South Tyne creates an impressive standing wave as it sweeps over the weir below the eponymous old bridge. When the river is in spate, there are always plenty of us on the bridge contemplating this wave (and hoping that the Tyne knows its place and doesn’t invade our cellars, as Storm Desmond drove it to do just three months after we had retired here).

And contemplation comes into things in retirement. Cicero evidently enjoyed his mackerel fishing, perhaps because it made for enjoyable hours in the open air, and encouraged a reflective outlook on life, something that Izaak Walton was to write winsomely about in his classic book The Compleat Angler. For me, not an angler, there are the pleasures of walking in the Northumberland Hills, pottering round the Roman sites along Hadrian’s Wall, and other delights on offer in the beautiful environment of the Tyne Valley.

The ancient philosophers wrote about the dichotomy between the active and contemplative aspects of healthy human living. The spiritual tradition found emblems of these two sides of life in the gospel figures of Mary and Martha: Martha, busy caring for the home and managing its hospitality, frustrated at Mary whom she resented sitting and listening to Jesus when there were jobs to do. If we are lucky enough to have worked, the chances are that we have invested heavily in the active life. But retirement, with its invitation to lay activity aside at least to an extent, offers the opportunity to develop a more reflective outlook, nurture our contemplative side. I would go as far as to say that a healthy retirement requires us to do this, and learn how to quieten our spirits by being present and attentive to the moment. After all, what is contemplation but purposeful idleness? This seems to me to be the kind of spirituality we should cultivate in older age.

This is the clue to Cicero’s final point about observing politics, hating rascals but not getting angry. I hadn’t expected retirement to be so dominated by national politics and the antics of rascals. Within three months of retiring, the EU Referendum was called. I found myself writing, speaking and blogging about it, spending many waking hours reading news reports and commentary, immersing myself in it as a matter of very personal concern. (You’ll find all my blogs on this website - just trawl through the content dating from 2016 onwards.) Why was I lying awake worrying about it? Because as a child of Anglo-German parentage, Europeanism was instilled in me at a very early age. I could not bear the thought that the UK might leave the European Union, this project inaugurated by people of vision who wanted to secure peace in our continent for the sake of future generations. I still can’t.

I confess that all my life, I’ve never felt so angry about British politics as I have done in these years of retirement. “Rascals” is a benign word to describe the kind of deceit and chicanery we’ve witnessed from hard Brexiters since the campaign was launched. And yes, a propensity for hatred comes into things if you are a man or woman who believes in something passionately and wants to safeguard it against those who would wilfully dismantle it. I’m not defending myself by pointing to those Psalms where the author puts into words his visceral hatred towards those whom he talks about as his, and God’s, enemies. Yes, it can soon collapse into an ugly self-righteousness. I can be prone to that. But I simply want to notice that anger and hatred are present in the experience of the people of God. It’s not edited out of their prayer.

Dealing with anger is a spiritual issue. I really do not want to be angry in my spirit as I grow old. In Psalm 37, the Psalmist advises: “fret not thyself because of the ungodly”. The secret is, I think, the contemplative spirit Cicero exhibits. Stoic teaching (which he admired) and the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible are at one here. A quiet eye inculcates a quiet spirit - not without feelings and passions, but not ruled by them, especially the negative ones. “They who are run away with by their lust or anger have quoted the command over themselves” writes Cicero in a piece called “On Grief of Mind”. A contemplative take on politics, even the politics of madness - this is what I’m trying to cultivate. This means channelling anger towards rascals into positive action, discovering how hatred can be transcended, if not by love, then at least by what R. S. Thomas called in one of his poems, “willed gentleness”. And try to respect and to disagree well, even when we differ so profoundly.

How am I getting on? Fitfully, I think. Brexit is a big test of my Christianity. But wisdom, with its insights into who and what I am, and why human behaviour (including mine) is so wayward and liable to corruption, comes to the rescue. Contemplation brings a larger perspective. And this bigger picture is an essential spiritual aspect of ageing if our lives are not to be narrowed as we face our mortality. Today’s anniversary is an opportunity to pause and take stock.

So books, waves and not getting angry are all part of the same picture. Perhaps it’s time I took up fishing?

Monday, 16 September 2019

Called to the Priesthood, Called to be Lay

In one sense, there’s nothing provocative about that title. When we are ordained deacon, priest or bishop, we don’t cease to be members of the laos, the community of the baptised, the holy common people of God. I’ve been a lay person all my Christian life. That’s been fundamental to my vocation as a priest. The priesthood has been how my obedience to the call of my baptism has been shaped for nearly half a century.

Discerning our vocation is something we all need to do as people of faith. Often it’s far from straightforward. If only there could be Damascene moments that clearly pointed to the destined path ahead! But as we know, life is not usually like that. It can take years to recognise and respond to the call of God to take some particular direction in life. That call may at first have been no more than a whisper amid the babble of voices that competed for our attention. It almost certainly took a lot of listening, and prayer, and the accompaniment of wise, experienced friends before we were ready to say yes, even tentatively.

In my own case, it was about seven years from beginning to explore the possibility of ordination to standing before a bishop on my ordination day. How tentative those words are sounding now that I look back on the experience 44 years later! Beginningexplorepossibility. But I like words like those. They are provisional and don’t claim more than they should. Before we can rise up with confident wings like eagles, or run and not be weary, we need to learn to walk and not faint, to borrow an image from the Book of Isaiah (40.31). We need to discover how to feel our way more slowly, in God’s time and at his pace.

I think retirement is like this because it entails reimagining life in a wholly new way. You have to ask the question, what does God want me to become, and to do, here, now, in this stage of life we’re learning to call the third age? I’ve blogged on this before here, and here, and here. It’s a work in progress as I keep saying. Each time I write about it, there is something new to say about how “inhabiting” retirement is working out in the lived experience of it. And just as the journey of entering stipendiary ministry to begin with took years, so leaving it is also a journey of years, not months or days. Even if it looked as though you were working one Sunday and on the Monday morning you woke up and lo! you had retired!

I blogged a while ago about exploring vocation in the third age. I’ve since become much clearer about this. I’ve reached a (possibly startling?) conclusion that’s implied by the title of this blog even if it’s the less obvious reading. It is this: that just as I was once called to the priesthood and gladly gave my working life to fulfilling that vocation in the best way I knew how, I now discern an equally insistent call to live as a lay person once again. 

What do I mean by that?

Simply, that my way of serving God in the world and in the church will no longer be as an ordained man in public ministry. I no longer see myself called to preside at the eucharist, conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals, preach sermons, give lectures or lead retreats and quiet days. I’ve loved doing all these things and regard them as among the most privileged kinds of ministry anyone could undertake. I’ve also been immensely fortunate in living and working as a priest in beautiful environments surrounded by wonderful communities and colleagues. As I look back on my career as a curate, a theological educator, a parish priest, a cathedral canon and as a dean in two dioceses, I realise how much I have to be thankful for.

But now in retirement, the time has come to lay all this aside. I need to hand on the baton to the next generation of clergy (in whom, I’m glad to say, I have complete confidence). This decision doesn’t reflect any regret or negativity on my part. I may sometimes be grumpy with the Church of England that I serve (who isn’t?), but there is no falling out, no crisis, no parting of friends. I feel wholly positive, even excited, about renegotiating life on a new set of terms. It will open up opportunities for discovering, I hope, a different quality of life in which there will being more time for  family and friendship as well as volunteering, travel and recreation, and, I hope, productive writing. And of course to understand and make my own the spirituality of growing old. I shall continue to serve on the church committees I’m currently a member of. I intend to go on seeing clergy and ordinands for mentoring and spiritual accompaniment for as long as they want me to.  I shall go  on trying to  support the parish and diocese in whatever way I can.

I suggested in my last blog that this was the way things seemed to be leading. But I admit to being deeply influenced by watching the TV documentary about the mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker a few months ago. I wrote about this at the time. She made the courageous decision in her 50s to say farewell to her career in opera, and a few years later, to lay aside her recital and recording activity as well. She was at the height of her powers, and was being followed by an adoring public. In her book Full Circle, she chronicled her final year on the operatic stage and offered insights into what it was like to know that so much of her music-making was for the last time. Of retirement she said that it wasn’t about leaving a life behind so much as engaging with it more fully, in a more wholesome way. There was work to be done at that stage of life that she did not want to neglect. Human work. Heart work. The work of love. I warmed greatly to that way of putting it.

The fact that I turn seventy next Easter has concentrated the mind. I am no Janet Baker (if only!) but the human and spiritual issues feel similar: the need to change direction, the need to pay attention to matters I’ve neglected thus far. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, says the preacher in Ecclesiastes. My time to fall silent in public ministry is coming. I won’t pretend it’s not hard, at times, to contemplate it. But it’s what my discernment  process late in life has brought me to recognise should happen.

I admit that I’m haunted by the ontology. Once a priest, always a priest. That character (as it’s called in catholic theology) is indelible. So what does it mean to lay aside the practice of priesthood, hold the order but not exercise it? I don’t know, yet. But I do know that there would inevitably come a time when old age or illness or disability would mean facing this question in any case. In my seventieth year, stamina is not what it once was. Hundreds of clergy are forced by circumstance to lay aside the exercise of their priesthood, and most do it with grace and dignity. If my discernment leads me to take this step in a more intentional way, anticipate the endgame so to speak, it’s no different in principle. And as I’ve said, living out a lay vocation in the service of God and neighbour is not pretence or play-acting. It’s what I already am and have always been.

I wrote to the Bishop of Newcastle, the Diocese in which I was once an incumbent and where we live in retirement, to outline my thinking. I hold her permission to officiate (PTO) so she had a right to know. She asked to see me so that I could explain more fully. It was a good meeting, not least because it helped to have to put inchoate thoughts into words in the presence of a kind and  sympathetic - but shrewd - listener. “It feels a bit all or nothing” she remarked. Maybe. But when you arrive at a crossroads, for whatever reason, you have to make a choice. So we reached a settlement. The deal was that I would not send her back my PTO. Not yet, anyway. “You never know” she said. True. I might need to come out of retirement to help in an emergency at the vicarage across the road. I might be asked to preside at a family rite of passage. I’ve promised to preach at the funerals of a former churchwarden and of my closest friend if they die before me. I suppose a clean ending would have pandered to my tidy mind. But instinct tells me that the Bishop was right.

Nevertheless, I am now entering the home stretch of what I’m calling my formal public ministry. I have preaching commitments during the coming months that I need to honour, including during Holy Week next year. These engagements will be all the more precious because they will be among the last I undertake. And then?

Greatly daring, I wrote to the incumbent of the church where I became a chorister at the age of eleven. In that place, the whole Christian journey began for me. What I owe it is incalculable. So I wondered whether I might recognise the part that church and its people and music had played in my life and say thank you. It’s not that I want to make an event out of preaching “for the last time”. Simply that I would love to share something of my Christian and vocational story with the community where the seed was first planted all those years ago. He has been generous enough to welcome that idea. So some time next year, aged three score years and ten, I’ll have the chance to acknowledge the debt. And in my inmost self, say farewell to a ministry that has meant everything to me. And always will.

————-

Here’s a link to a recent feature in the Church Times that’s relevant to this blog.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Memories of the Proms: on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

For me it’s still summertime. That’s nothing to do with the weather, even if meteorologists’ autumn began on 1 September. Nor is it to do with the nights drawing in - astronomers’ autumn arrives with the equinox in three weeks’ time. No, I define summer by the Proms. For as long as there are nightly concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, broadcast on Radio 3, as far as I’m concerned it’s summer. The last night of the Proms this year is on 14 September. So my autumn begins the next day. 

I started going to the Promenade Concerts when I was a teenager living in London. I’d learned to love live music through the Robert Mayer Children’s Concerts that used to take place on Saturday mornings at the Festival Hall in the 1950s and 60s. The programmes included a good deal of twentieth century music that was new to this young audience. An electrifying performance of Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture stands out in my memory, I can also remember being awed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who must have been in the last year of his life, coming on to the stage to be applauded after a performance of one of his works - maybe his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis or The Lark Ascending.

My memories of the Proms are many. At the Albert Hall I heard for the first time so much of the music that’s stayed with me all my life. It was an irreplaceable introduction to the canon of the greatest baroque, classical and romantic orchestral works, and the choral repertoire too, for my piano teacher sang with the BBC Choral Society and used to distribute free Proms tickets to her lucky  pupils. 

Not all my Proms memories are musical. As I look back to the 1960s, it’s a heady concoction of teenage recollections that come into my mind. There was the frisson of taking girls to the concerts (will I ever hear Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony without the mental image of...well, it would be indiscreet to say any more). Then there was my coming to a conscious Christian faith during those years, which gave the sacred music I heard at the Proms particular significance: Haydn’s Creation, for example, and Bach’s Mass in B MinorAnd one evening, queuing with my friends outside the Albert Hall, suffering an attack of tachycardia and wondering if my wildly beating heart would ever return to normal, or whether I was destined to die on a pavement in South Kensington. If only I could remember what music was performed that evening. I wonder why I’ve forgotten.

There’s one piece of music that I overwhelmingly associate with the Proms, and which I used to  return to year after year. This was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Choral. In those days, this mighty work was always performed on the penultimate night of the season, the final Friday evening. Some of the other music I heard at the Proms I’d already got to know through listening to my parents’ LP collection at home. But the Ninth was not to be found there. Of the Beethoven symphonies, they had only the Third (Eroica) and the Eighth, whose opening theme had been adopted by them as their personal “call sign”. All the others I discovered in the Royal Albert Hall. Including the immortal Ninth.

The symphony made an extraordinary impression on me. It felt like a miraculous achievement, music that seemed to transcend the ordinary world by speaking from another realm entirely. Even today, I don’t know of any other work that has such an arresting opening as the Ninth. It begins with a shimmering whisper that initiates one of the greatest crescendos in all of music culminating in the dramatic statement of the opening theme. You know, if the performance is up to it (which it always was at the Proms), that this is going to be a uniquely powerful experience. It never failed to move me then. It never fails to move me now.

The final, choral, movement is, of course, Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. In those days, the words and music had not yet acquired the European associations they now have: it was only in 1972 that the Council of Europe, in an inspired decision, adopted it as the anthem of Europe. But you could hardly listen to it without catching the optimistic spirit of Enlightenment internationalism. Alle Menschen werden Brüder wrote Schiller in a text clearly endorsed with enthusiasm by Beethoven in his ecstatic music, “all humanity will be brothers and sisters”. It was a powerful message in the era of the Cold War when we were living with the recent memory of the Cuba Missile Crisis in 1962.

I think I glimpsed on those Friday nights at the Proms the capacity of great music to forge people together in a community that, for a while, can transcend us. Beethoven’s Ninth seemed to epitomise a global vision of peace, freedom and happiness that we could all endorse. In a recent book, the renowned pianist Stephen Hough describes the Proms as “the greatest music festival in the world”. In Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, he says: “the Proms has an important social function. We should not take for granted music’s extraordinary power to unite, that spell of solidarity when over six thousand people are moved as if by one heart.” Yes, I thought as I read those words, I recognise that experience. 

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is still performed every year at the Proms. But sadly, no longer on that last Friday night of the season. That evening always felt to me like a summing up of all the glorious music we had enjoyed over the summer, a final spiritual statement of human aspiration and joy before the more playful fun and games of the last night. When the Ninth made its annual appearance and heralded the end of another Proms season, the Albert Hall seemed like a holy place. Can’t we have that Friday evening ceremony back, please?

No matter if not. The Ninth will always be one of those universal works of art that are emblematic of our human longings and hopes. It touches our souls at the most profound of levels. It holds out a vision of life together as one human family. It inspires us to go on praying and working for a world in which we are at peace with one another. It urges us and encourages us never to give up in the pursuit of that joyful vision. Joy, it says, transforms everything. And joy will have the last word.  

Which is why, when you phone me, what I’ll hear on my mobile is the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy. If I don’t answer straight away, don’t hang up. I’m simply enjoying the music. 

Friday, 30 August 2019

Proroguing Parliament: how “cavalier disregard” endangers democracy

The words have nothing to do with each other, of course. To prorogue is to ask for a deferment (pro + rogare). It has nothing to do with roguery. At least, not etymologically.

And yet Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament feels to many of us to be the action of a rogue. At a stroke it delivers all power to the executive, unchallenged by Parliament. Select committees cannot meet, so ministers are not held to account anywhere for their actions. At a time of national crisis, the elected members who represent us in Parliament are rendered voiceless. All formal debate is stifled at a blow. To silence Parliament at such a time like this is nothing short of a shocking undermining of democracy. 

I’m not going to rehearse the arguments here. I’m not a constitutional historian or an expert on parliamentary process. It may well turn out that to prorogue Parliament is perfectly legal. That is for the lawyers now to determine under judicial review. No doubt The Queen was advised that she could safely accede to the Prime Minister’s request, indeed, that she had no alternative.

But legality is not the real point here. It’s whether the decision to prorogue is ethical, judicious and wise. And whether it’s free of the charge of duplicity, given that a Queen’s Speech does not require proroguing for more than a few days. Members of Mr Johnson’s cabinet are on record as having said during the Conservative leadership contest that they could not support suspending Parliament in order to achieve Brexit by 31 October. No one believes (whatever some may say) that curtailing the Brexit debate in Parliament does not lie at the heart of this otherwise needless decision. 

I don’t think the British public will be fooled by it, at least not for long. Elected members from all opposition parties, always jealous for their parliamentary privileges, are outraged. A growing chorus of voices in the Conservative party itself is expressing alarm and dissent. Others are keeping silent, perhaps embarrassed by a decision that leaves them deeply conflicted. 

My own MP here in Hexham constituency, Guy Opperman, is perhaps one of these. He voted Remain in the referendum, and represents a constituency that also voted Remain by a small majority. But about proroguing Parliament, his Twitter feed has said nothing so far. So I challenged him in a tweet this morning. I asked: “Does @GuyOpperman believe that: 1 it’s the right thing to do because it will deliver #Brexit, ‘do or die’? 2 It’s the wrong thing to do because it subverts parliamentary sovereignty? Or 3 it’s a regrettable act, but necessary to concentrate minds?” 

Perhaps Mr Opperman’s media advisers are telling him to say nothing. Maybe personal integrity and party loyalty pull in opposite directions. No loyal MP goes off-message without considerable provocation. But possibly his silence is conveying precisely the message that his democratic one-nation principles are being placed under considerable strain by his leader’s actions. Who can say? I’m trying to put the best interpretation on his silence, but I’m conjecturing. I’ve written personally to him to express my dismay. I look forward to his reply. He is more than welcome to comment on this blog too. This is not a time to keep quiet about these deeply troubling developments. Elected members are there to engage. Interrogating their words and actions is part of what it means to be a citizen.

Our parliamentary system is the cornerstone of the nation’s governance. It’s why so much was made of the sovereignty of Parliament during the referendum campaign. I did not think that the Brexiters’ rallying cry “take back control!” would mean an assault by the executive on Parliament itself. This should be a matter of the utmost concern to all parliamentarians in both Houses, and to those for whom they speak, either as their directly elected representatives or as those charged with the scrutiny of legislation that affects the people of this nation.

Which brings me to offer one final observation. I think that the prorogation of Parliament puts the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords in a particularly difficult position. They sit in Parliament to share in the guardianship of the nation’s spiritual, moral and political health. They are therefore as much the champions of our democratic freedoms as everyone else in the two Houses. As the spokesmen and women of the Established Church of England, are they not bound to deplore this erosion of parliamentary democracy at a time of crisis in the strongest possible terms? Will they not be compelled to protest against prorogation out of their concern for the wellbeing of the people towards whom they have a duty of care?

A number of bishops published an open letter earlier this week about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. It was a good piece of writing that deserves careful study. It’s unfortunate that it was overshadowed by the simultaneous announcement of the prorogation of Parliament. But uncannily, a paragraph of their text spoke directly into the big news that was breaking that day. They said: “The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term. It is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.”

The bishops could hardly have known how prescient these words would turn out to be. Honour and respect are precisely what are lacking in the Prime Minister’s cynical decision to suspend parliamentary process. Cavalier disregard is precisely how to describe this act of chicanery. 

I’m delighted that the bishops have found their voice after so long (though I’m wondering why not all the Diocesan bishops signed the letter). My question now is, how are they going to make sure that the questions they pose in their letter, especially in the paragraph I’ve quoted, are heard by those who need to pay attention? It seems to me that the bishops have no option but to speak further about honouring and respecting our democratic institutions, and to point out in no uncertain terms how we will not, as a church and as a nation, tolerate cavalier disregard for them. 

The question, as I’ve said, is not whether prorogation is against the letter of the law. Rather, it’s that it is utterly opposed to the spirit of the hard-won legislation that guarantees democracy in our country. We urge the bishops, along with their fellow peers and elected members, not to concede this fundamental point. As good parliamentarians, the bishops must bear witness in the House of Lords. And they must do this at the earliest possible opportunity. 

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Update at 1758 today, 30 August: Guy Opperman MP has now blogged about this.