About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Our Brexit Turmoil: how will we look back on the Church's reponse?

I blogged yesterday about the Church of England's initiative to get the nation talking about Brexit next weekend. A cup of tea and a candid conversation could help heal division - that was the thrust of it. (Next Friday was due to be Brexit Day of course. It now looks as though it won't be - but we'll have to wait for Brussels' reply to Mrs May's letter asking for a short deferment to be sure.)

It was inevitable that the C of E's gentle encouragement to get us talking would be parodied. In my blog I gave it two cheers on the grounds that anything was better than nothing in the circumstances, and a lot of littles could add up to something big. This is precisely why truth and reconciliation processes have been remarkably successful: my daughter, an Africanist, has facilitated Indaba sessions ("conferences") and testifies to the life-changing effects of purposeful conversation. There is a lot to be said for discussing divisive issues such as Brexit in safe places of trust and candour.

But it needs preparation and proper facilitation to be of real value. To launch an idea like this at ten days' notice does seem not only hasty and misguided, but tepid, as if the project doesn't take itself altogether seriously. One person tweeted a response to my blog: You’re a good man and this is a gracious response, which I admire. But I’m afraid I can’t but think this CofE initiative is beyond parody. The gospel reduced to tea, platitudes and Patience Strong. Sorry. Another said: Very generous of you to offer two cheers for this idea; not sure I could raise even that. It seems very parochial and half-hearted. Still, given that if Brexit does go ahead we'll be setting the clock back to the 1950s, perhaps it's culturally appropriate.

Which brings me to the heart of what I want to say. It's St Cuthbert's Day. It's also the spring equinox. If ever a day should put a new spring (pun intended) in our step, it's today. So maybe I'm allowed to nurture a wish (or if you prefer, a prayer, a longing, a hope, a dream). It's this: that on a day when it's finally clear that Brexit has become a national, not to say European, emergency, the UK churches should put muscle into contributing positively to the debate about what kind of outcome we look for in this tortuous process, and what kind of a people we aspire to be.

It's understandable that our churches have not wanted to take sides in the Brexit debate. Like Parliament, the churches are as divided as the nation is. The other established church in these islands, the Church of Scotland, has been a conspicuous exception in long championing EU membership, as I've pointed out. It’s always made it clear however that its members personally hold a variety of views and no one is asked to endorse its public position. But I don't think I'm alone in having become dissatisfied with the studied impartiality which my own Church of England has observed at an official level. There comes a time when it is Laodicean not to make a choice - even if we must also underline strongly that Anglicans don’t all see things the same way. Diversity of view on this as on many other issues is affirmed in a broad church like ours.

So what ought we to be doing as Christian communities? To my mind, our churches should be drawing on our rich theological and spiritual resources of prophecy and wisdom to put the Brexit controversy into a larger context than nationhood alone. We should offer interpretation that begins not with the "Britain first" mentality but by asking, What might be good for our continent? What might support its poorest and most vulnerable people, including our own? What might make for reconciliation and peacemaking in our world and for the conservation and care of our environment? What might Britain with its wealth of experience bring to the family of nations? And even, What might God's perspective be on all these questions?

What will the starting point be? It's clear enough in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. When it comes to human life, the Bible summons us to love our neighbours as ourselves. There's no ambiguity about this. So it can only mean that the flourishing of other people should be as prominent in our concerns as our own, and by extension, the welfare of communities, not just individuals. Here's the insight that should challenge these years of self-interested rhetoric about promoting our own wealth by "taking back control".

I've always believed that "better together" expresses an ideal of society at its most wholesome. Collaboration, partnership, common purpose achieved not by coercion but by consent - no nation could survive without them, no church, no community of any kind. That's why our consent to align ourselves with the European Union and play a leading part in its life has served all our nations well in our lifetimes. But now we face the threat of fragmentation wherever we look, not least due to extremist politics that are openly contemptuous of the civilised values most of our post-war generation have grown up with in Europe.

If our churches are not one hundred percent clear about the importance of loving our neighbour, who else is going to be? I'm saying that we now need urgently to speak up for these values before it is too late. That's a matter that goes well beyond Brexit. But Brexit is itself a symptom of disintegration, the loss of belief in values that once held us together, the falling apart of an association of peoples who were all the stronger because they pooled their sovereignty and pledged to work together for the common good. I find this intellectual and spiritual collapse, which is what I largely think it is, extraordinarily sad.

These things were important to those who launched the European project in the aftermath of war. They were not all people of explicit faith, but they were deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching about how human beings flourish when they invest in healthy relationships, strong communities and a just, inclusive and equitable society. It took courage to think in that way and perseverance to put its ideals in practice. It was immensely far-sighted. I think it could be argued that it came to fruition - however slowly and fitfully - because of an understanding of humanity based not on economic or political expediency (though that comes into it) but on humane theological values of justice, peace, truth and charity, which in turn derive from the wisdom and goodness of the Creator.

Who is speaking nowadays about this founding vision? Some faith leaders aren't afraid to do this as individual men and women. They deserve our gratitude and encouragement because it is often controversial and sometimes costly. But what about our churches as public institutions? Where's the voice of urgency, the spirited engagement in what will affect the future of us all? That's where I'm left feeling despondent. Evenhandedness can be a good thing, not least when you can see different sides of a complex question. But now is a time when choices must be made. That’s when voices need to be heard that are prophetic, hopeful and wise. So much hangs on decisions made in the coming days and weeks that will irrevocably affect our lives and those of our children and grandchildren for decades to come.

Yesterday I quoted Archbishop Justin Welby. Launching the Church of England's initiative this week, he said: "A century from now the Church will be remembered for how it responded at this crucial moment in the life of our nation and country". He is right of course. We stand at a moment in history that most generations don't get to experience. At such times, destinies are forged. This brings both the privilege and responsibility of the nation’s institutions to speak publicly in ways that capture the significance of our times and interpret them with wisdom and prophetic insight.

I don't think we have fully understood that yet in the Church of England. But I reckon that if George Bell and William Temple were alive today, they would urge the church to take a robustly positive view of our membership of the EU and not regard it as a matter of indifference. They would speak out against nationalism in all its forms. They would see off the specious doctrine of British exceptionalism. They would surely say, for the sake of justice and the welfare of Europe as well as the UK, let’s give ourselves unreservedly to the life of the continent we’re part of. They would say these things with charity. But they would not hold back when it came to conviction. It would matter to them what side of history the Church of England decided to be on.

So here's my wish and my prayer on this first day of spring. Wouldn't it be marvellous if our churches  embraced the idea of a forward-looking nation, one that grasped hold of a future in which we pledged commitment to our neighbouring peoples and nations and affirmed the friendships and  alliances that have served us so well in Europe? Cuthbert saw the world as a place where everything - including human life - was connected, held together in the love of God. I passionately believe that the European Project is consistent with that life-affirming vision. Why wouldn’t the Church want to say amen?

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Tea, Anyone? Earl Grey and Brexit

So the Church of England has called for local churches to host tea parties over the weekend of 30 March to encourage open discussion about Brexit. People of different persuasions should "get together and chat over a cup of tea and pray for our country and our future". Suggested discussion questions include: "What effect has Brexit had in your family relationships, friendships etc and if you disagreed, has it been possible to disagree well?" and: "What are the three main things we have in common that we can build on for a better future as a community and as a nation?" Online resources are offered both to facilitate exploration and to aid reflection and prayer.

Archbishop Justin Welby is quoted: "A century from now the Church will be remembered for how it responded at this crucial moment in the life of our nation and country. Will we be those who worked to defuse tension and hostility? Will we be those who called for civility and respect in how we speak about, and treat, each other? Will we be those who never stopped praying with urgency and hope for our country, our communities and our political leaders - and for a way forward that allows every person, family and community to flourish?" 

It would be easy to smile at this homely initiative given how deeply entrenched the divisions in our nation have become. How typical of the good old Church of England to play it so safe, to lend itself to caricature, to be so lacking in ambition! We might think that something a lot stronger than tea and sympathy is needed to make any real difference to the nation's mood. And some clergy responses on social media are irritated that this suggestion comes a mere ten days before this supposed Brexit weekend, when plans for Lent and Mothering Sunday have long been laid. (Maybe add simnel cake to the teatime menu?)

However, I wanted to give the initiative a couple of cheers for at least demonstrating that the Church of England is engaging with the Brexit turmoil. I've been arguing on this blog for a long time that the Brexit crisis ought to be far more prominent on the agenda of the C of E: the future welfare of England, the UK and our relationships with the European Union are properly the concern of a national church. The voice of our sister Church of Scotland has been a lot more audible in its contribution to the debate about Brexit and the EU. So I asked last autumn how we might mark Brexit in church when the time came. (One person sent me a fine draft liturgy in response which showed how it might be done in a non-partisan, ecumenical and inclusive way. But as far as I know, no national vigil or act of worship is proposed.)

Then in January when the Prime Minister's proposed deal first fell in Parliament, I asked for a Church of England statement to be issued to help people of faith make sense of what was going on. The General Synod debate the following month on the state of the nation enabled important things to be said, and that was welcome. Bishops have since spoken in the House of Lords. But I'm still looking for my Church to have more to say publicly about a crisis that is fracturing communities and driving people apart. Is it timidity that's behind this reticence?  

In that last blog, I offered a draft text of a statement that might meet the need. I tried to frame it so that Church of England people could sign up to it, whatever their views about Brexit. It ended like this:

What can the Church of England offer at this critical time? First, as our neighbours in the Church of Scotland have already said, we can try to model respect and courtesy in the way we ourselves as church members handle issues that deeply divide people. Archbishop Justin Welby has coined the phrase “good disagreement”. Our national conversation about Brexit has become violent and abusive at times. We must resist this, and instead embody what it means to treat one another as humans who are created in God’s image, whatever our political or religious convictions. We make our plea to all politicians and those in public leadership roles to take great care in the ways they express themselves. And this of course extends to all of us, not least in our use of social media. 

Secondly, we can promise to say our prayers. This isn’t about finding answers to our political dilemmas so much as holding the nation in our hearts and offering our present cares and concerns to the God who, we believe, cares as much about continents and nations as he does about individuals. And even if prayer is not everyone’s instinctive response at such times as these, perhaps there are more people than we imagine who find comfort in the knowledge that prayer is being offered in the cathedrals and churches right across our land on behalf of us all.

Thirdly, if there are concrete ways in which the Church of England can act as bridge-builders or reconcilers at this time of uncertainty, or beyond, we stand ready to contribute in any way we can. In this, we believe we speak for Christian leaders of every tradition and in every part of the kingdom. And for all people of goodwill, whatever their faith, politics, culture or origin. Together, we can find possibility and hope even in the most troubled of times. We pray so.

Maybe Brexit tea-parties could be a way of putting these suggestions into effect? We mustn't "despise the day of small things", the prophet says. A lot of littles could add up to a great deal. Who knows?

However, I need to add an important criticism of the Church of England's announcement, apart from how late in the day it comes.

My problem with it is that it's so inward-looking. It mentions our families, our communities, our nation and our leaders. But I don't see any reference to the European family of peoples and their flourishing, any sense that Brexit is at risk of damaging long-cherished friendships and alliances across our continent. I don't see any acknowledgment of what we as the people of Britain have been able to contribute to the EU, nor the ways in which we have been able to act together to champion the poor and the voiceless, human and social inclusion, leading in environmental concern and helping to foster peace, justice and reconciliation in Europe. Christianity urges us to think in a catholic, that is, universal, way about community. As part of a worldwide company of Christian peoples, surely the C of E should be modelling the ability to think beyond its own national and ecclesial boundaries. Why was this opportunity missed when it comes to the issues we might explore at tea-time?

And I still dare to hope that the Church of England will make some official public statement in the light of what the coming days may bring. We need to demonstrate that we are up to our role as interpreter of the theological and spiritual meanings of the events in which we are caught up. I realise how difficult this is when our churches are as divided over Brexit as the nation is. My draft text suggested how it might be done. Colleagues in the Mission and Public Affairs Department are skilled at drafting texts that go beyond the recognition of difference and the importance of being courteous to one another by speaking wisdom into our concerns and encouraging deep reflection on where we are and how we got here. With care, we can add good and wholesome insights to the discourse. That's our vocation as a national church. And we need to reframe the conversation so that we understand it in the context, not just of England and the UK, but of continental Europe too, and ultimately, the worldwide human family.

So tea parties could be good if they lead to wise, deep, courteous engagement locally. I hope it isn't a case of too little too late. Whatever comes of it however, we still can't walk away from our public responsibility as a Church. It would be inconceivable (wouldn't it?) for there not to be a public statement from the Archbishops on 29 March, whether that turns out to be Brexit Day or not. Dream on, you may say.

Well, I'm still daring to hope because of Justin Welby's prophetic words I've already quoted. "A century from now the Church will be remembered for how it responded at this crucial moment in the life of our nation and country." Indeed.  

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Quarantine: a meditation on the first Sunday of Lent.

I experienced the desert, once, for about an hour.  It was at Masada, that huge rock that rises 800 feet sheer above the western shore of the Dead Sea.  In AD 66 it was held by Jewish insurgents for more than four years in a last defiant stand against the Roman Empire.  After a long siege the Romans breached it, and nearly a thousand Jews killed themselves in a suicide pact leaving behind just a handful of women and children.  They destroyed everything except their stockpiles of food, to let the Romans know that the siege had not starved them into submission.  

I was one of the leaders of a diocesan pilgrimage.  We had travelled down from Jerusalem to Jericho, past Qumran of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the oasis of En Gedi.  At Masada there are cable cars to whisk pilgrims to the top.  But my mind was full our experience the day before when we had been to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.  It had moved me deeply, for members of my mother’s family had died at Auschwitz.  So here at Masadathis site of an earlier holocaust, I wanted to do more than just enjoy the view.  I wanted to make some small gesture at this extraordinary place.  

Two of us set out to walk to the top.  Our Israeli guide looked at us as though we were deranged.  In temperatures of more than 40 degrees, he declared that he took no responsibility for our safety.  Even Josephus, writing about the siege in his Jewish War, saysyou take your life in your hands on this rock.  We could see the steep path called the snake winding upwards.  We thought: a few hundred feet, half the height of the Simonside Hills where Northumberland people hop up after Sunday lunch; there are benches on the way up; we have water, sun hats, creams.  Five minutes in, we knew what we had taken on.  The sky was like brass, the air motionless.  The heat pressed down on us as if to pin us to the baked skeleton of the planet.  Nothing lived here.  Our colleagues waved cheerfully from their cable car.  We walked at a distance from each otherthis was not a place to talk. I could think of only water, shelter and rest.  We stopped often.  

So this was the desert: terrible in its beauty, godforsakencapable of driving you madnot a little fearful.  We staggered to the top, and suddenly there was concrete to walk on, ice-creams and souvenirs on sale, and a man collecting tickets: a moment of true bathos.  Soon it was back to our busesa salty photo-call in the Dead Sea, and drinks and salads to die for in an air-conditioned spa.  For an hour, we had ceased to be tourists and participated in the desert, experienced its grasp, its fierce demand.  We had taken a tentative step into a place of truth – an hour’s isolation from the reassuring skein of civilisation.  An hour does not give God much time.  Yet I did glimpse unforgettably, I thinkhow the very godforsakenness of the desert is its gift, how it strips the spirit bare of pretence and illusion, creates room for the shriving and purgation of the human heart the Bible calls ‘truth in the inward parts’.  

Jim Crace, in his strange, compelling novel Quarantine, imagines some first century travellers going into the Judean wilderness to pray and fast for forty days in order to save their souls.  Among the hot stones and scrub they encounter a mad sadistic merchant, a satan whose evil grip over their lives is complete.  But there is another character in the story, a distant figure living alone in a cave.   Hcomes from the fertile lands of Galilee so they call him Gally.  His real name is Jesus, and it is said that he can work miracles, heal people.  Hhas his own quarantine to keep in this wilderness, for he has work to do, heart-work.  He’d put his trust in god, as young men do. He would encounter god or die, that was the nose and tail of it.  That’s why he’d come.  To talk directly to his god.  To let his god provide the water and the food.  Or let the devil do its work.’  The novel has Jesus as a minor character, an effect that is startling.  But in fact all the characters in the book are minor compared to the one you remember when you have forgotten the rest.  I mean of course the desert itself.  

So it is in the Bible.  Here the desert is friend, there it is adversary, but always a major presence in the story.  Always there is the memory of how Israel was born in the desert, how they entered into marriage there with Yahweh; how they were tested, faltered and fell.  But Yahweh will rerun this desert history, says the Old Testament.  There will be a new exodus journey, a new deliverance. Here, in the wilderness, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and a redeemed community brought to birth.  All this is recalled and relived, in St Luke’s temptation story.  Jesus goes out into the wilderness to face the same ordeals that defeated the Hebrewsthe same fundamental questions of Israel’s lifewho and where is God, what is the bread he must live by, where does his loyalty belong, what is his vocation and destiny?  

This is heart-work.  It needs quarantine from the carpenter’s shopeven from the bodies and minds that cry for healing, the teaching of truth, and Sabbath rest by Galilee.   We sing ‘Forty days and forty nights’, surely one of the most successful marriages of dreary words and dreary music in the hymn book; and hardly grasp what even an hour in this terrible quarantine is like.  In the gospels, it foreshadows the cross, a first passion and death that is the consequence of the baptism Jesus has just undergone.  But like the cross, it is presented not as defeat but victory.  Here is the true Israelite, not like the Hebrews, who triumphs in the wilderness and emerges ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’ to proclaim the word and works of God.  The desert sets the stage for the reign of justice, truth and peace.  It prepares the way of the Lord. 

The desert fathers, those extraordinary men who turned their back on the world in order to offer their lives to God, understood that the desert offers the best education on earth for holiness.  A younger brother recently arrived in the desert went to see an elder and asked him for teaching. The old man sent him away and said: ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’.  The desert will be your teacher, and it’s all you need - that’s what he meant.  Go and face it: the hunger, the thirst, the silence, the loneliness, the desolation, the mountain madness and whatever cravings the wilderness throws at you.  Face the demons that come up from the depths of your soul, however frightening they are.  You will learn.  You will grow.  You will find the kingdom forming within you.  You will seek.  You will find.  You will see God.  

Quarantine is for our protection.  It guards our health by focusing on the issues of diseasecontagion and wellness.  The forty days of Lent are a spiritual quarantine, an opportunity to attend to our spiritual wellbeing, allow the diseases of the human spirit to work their way safely out of our system.  The desert as an image of quarantine recalls us to the foundations of Christian living: dying to ourselvesturning away from sin to follow Christ, the cost of discipleship. It nurtures in us a hunger to be more serious.  

But the desert is also a place of promise and grace.  It holds the seeds of renewal and joy.  Here arid lives are watered and our desire for God is reawakened. St Augustine said that it was through longing that our hearts are made deep. Here’s to a Lent when we find ourselves longing to live in a more profound way, filled with a new desire for God. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The Buried Life: an Ash Wednesday meditation

In our garden, once, stood a weeping-willow. (I'm sorry I don't have an image of it.) In spring and summer, it was the most beautiful of trees, its long, delicate fronds sweeping down to the grass in a graceful canopy. Our children used to wave its branches at the Palm Sunday procession.  Each morning we would waken to bird-song from its crown. One day, however, the neighbours asked for more light (a very theological kind of request). So our tree was cut right back to the trunk. It stood there gaunt and skeletal against the sky, a parody of its former self. The birds found somewhere else to sing. Our garden fell silent.

But, my neighbours keep on assuring me, the tree had its own hidden life. In a month or so, when it is spring, they said, we shall see it. The secret sap, rising now in full flow, would bear its fruit, they said. The birds would yet again sing on its topmost branches. Like Thomas Hardy at Christmas, I spent the early part of that year “hoping it might be so”. And they were right. By midsummer, the tree had miraculously grown back, if not quite to what it had been before, then at least greened over once more. Back came the birds. And the arguments over our neighbours’ right to light began all over again.

The secret life is what the Ash Wednesday gospel** is about.  It is not trumpets and the acclaim of others that herald our almsgiving, our prayer, our fasting, says Jesus: if those rewards go on mattering to you any more (and how hard it is to outgrow them!), then they are yours for the asking.  No: only one thing matters, what God sees in secret: those inward stirrings of our heart towards God, the sap rising deep within our souls. When we feel that impulse within, we know that nothing matters but that we were made for God, restless till we find our rest in him. We know our truth for which we would live and die. We know we are alive.

It's amazing to me how uncurious people can be about their inner lives, how uncurious I can be.  “People travel to wonder at the mountains, the sea, the stars, and pass by themselves without wonderment” said Augustine.  I sense that it is when I am least attentive to my own inwardness that I become less than I should be, less than human.  Perhaps it is at precisely those times that poison seeps into the organism, mingling with the sap, diluting its healing, life-giving qualities, stunting my growth.  I am thinking of how, insidiously, even over a short lifetime, habits, addic­tions, destructive attitudes infiltrate and take root, become part of us, and everything feeds them, good as well as evil, beauty, music, books, even friendship, even religion itself.  We can become obsessed with the things Jesus warns us about: what he calls our rewards. We need never know what is happening to us until it is too late. That is the really frightening thing.

Lent is, therefore, an annual gift to those who take the secret life seriously - which means all of us, for what is religion if it is not attending to our own inwardness?  Lent is a time for reckoning with our own discontent - that blissful unease of spirit that throws us into God because there is nowhere else for us to go.  It is a time to encounter God in a new way, hear him stand at the door and knock, face up to what is demanded of us if we would attain to the dignity of being human beings. 

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife, 

There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life,
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course.

Matthew Arnold is right. We need to check our course constantly, I understand that. But Lent offers me the chance of an annual review of our life’s journey, and how true our bearings are to that original course God set us on in baptism. To fast from distraction, from all the voices that compete for our attention, to become, as Buddhists say, “single pointed”, intentional about why we human beings are here on this good earth is deeply important from time to time. It’s what Jesus means by having “purity of heart”.

It’s a simple enough ceremony, to receive the ashes on our foreheads as a sign of turning back to God in memory of our baptism and in anticipation of Easter. But how profoundly this movement from dust to fire sums up the meaning of our mortal existence in the light of the paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection!

Maybe this Lent could be a time when I say yes to God with a new awareness of divine love stirring within. This would be to allow the sap to rise and our buried life’s flow to begin again and reach the surface. It would be to find that we are doing Love’s work in the world. For at its heart, Lent is always a work of love.

**Matthew 6.1-18

Monday, 4 March 2019

Crumbs That Fall from a London Table

This is a seaside town in North East England that I'm rather fond of. It’s medieval in origin but nowadays this former pit village is one of the most deprived communities in England. I could share hundreds of images like this from across our region, places like North and South Tyneside, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough, and even - you may be surprised by this - parts of Northumberland and County Durham.

Today, we've learned that Mrs May is allocating £1.6 billion "to boost struggling towns and communities in England after Brexit". The "left-behind" they are being called, the civic equivalent of "just about managing" which is usually code for "not managing at all". This fund is made up of £1 billion shared out on the basis of perceived needs, and £600 million that local communities can bid for. More than half of it will come to the Midlands and the North of England. It will be targeted on "coastal and market towns, and de-industrialised communities".

It sounds like a lot of money, even when it's spread over six years. It isn't. Not at all. It's no more than a tiny drop in a vast ocean of need. Of this total, the North East is allocated £105 million, so £17 million a year. Anna Turley, MP for Redcar and Cleveland, says that her local authority alone has had £90 million taken from its budget by austerity cuts. One estimate of the cost of offsetting the impact of austerity across England is calculated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) at £19 billion per year alone. And that doesn't include the impact of Brexit!

When I was a cathedral dean in both Sheffield and Durham, I used to meet regularly with CEOs and other senior leaders of Sheffield Council and then Durham County Council. In retirement, I've got to know the chief executive of another big urban North Eastern local authority. I have to say I am full of admiration for the way in which these councils are run. My Sheffield days were pre-austerity, but in Durham, I would listen to colleagues tell me of their dire forebodings about the future impact of austerity cuts. I was told that it would take years to recover from this attrition, and even when I retired in 2015, we were a long way from being able to say that the end was even in sight. When you consider that the amount of money on offer today amounts to less than two percent of local authority spending in England, you'll see how derisory it really is.

As we know, the majority of these communities, places like Sunderland and Hartlepool, voted decisively for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. In many of them, elected members feel honour-bound to respect that outcome even if they don't personally agree with it. But Mrs May needs their votes if she is going to get her negotiated Brexit deal across the line before B-Day on 29 March. Without them, the risk that the UK will crash out of the EU looks perilously high, well and truly in the red-for-danger zone.

It's hard not to suspect that the parliamentary votes she needs have something to do it. It's crude to speak about "buying votes". But the timing of the announcement looks remarkably like that when local authorities have for years been beseeching the Conservative Party to restore their funding status quo ante. This isn't because they are profligate as some people in the south seem to assume. They simply want to get on with the jobs we elect them to do, which is to deliver local services at a level that does not severely penalise their neediest and most deprived communities. The proliferation of food banks across the country is an apt commentary on the state we're in. It's always the poorest who suffer most. Watch I Daniel Blake.

Again, let's put this £1.6 billion in perspective. Mrs May famously allocated £1 billion to Northern Ireland in return for her "confidence and supply" agreement with the DUP. That money (which I don't at all deny is desperately needed there) is going towards the welfare and support of a population of 1.8 million. Compare that with today's promise of £1.6 billion to help communities across England with a combined population of - well, I don't know exactly but it must be in the region of twenty times the NI figure. (Perhaps someone can give us a more precise estimate and I'll include it in a revision of this blog.)

Put like that, you can see why people outside London and the South East can see straight through today's announcement. It goes nowhere near making a difference to the attrition central government has relentlessly imposed on local authority spending during austerity, let alone mitigating the impacts of Brexit which will be especially hard on the North East. You may have heard the CEO of the North East Chambers of Commerce speak robustly on Saturday's Radio 4 Today programme about the effects of Brexit on trade and employment in North East England, facing as we do our biggest export market in the EU across the North Sea. This was before today's annoncement was made. His point was the planning blight that is already making itself felt across the region because of endless uncertainty about where this nation will find itself in less than a month's time. A paltry £105 million for the North East just rubs salt into these already festering wounds.

I thought of the gospel story of the Syrophoenician woman when I heard this news today. In St Mark's Gospel (7.24ff.) she came to Jesus in desperate need, and at first, it looked as though he was going to refuse to help this non-Jew towards whom, perhaps, his first thought was that he had no special obligation. But she reminded him that even the little dogs ate the children's crumbs that fell from the table. Well, I suppose we must be grateful for these crumbs of comfort that are being spilled our way from the banqueting tables of affluent London. But knowing what I do about the North East and its needs, I have to say it's shameful. I despair of this hard-edged Conservatism that is such a denial of the compassionate, one-nation version of it that I grew up to respect. It mocks the dignity of what the Hebrew Bible calls "the people of the land". It's heartless. It's cruel.

Yes. I'm sorry to say it, but despair is the right word to use. It's the right word because it is simply unreal to think that it can make any lasting difference. Put a couple of zeros on the end of this promised amount and we’d sit and up and think, yes, that could be truly transformative. That would make inroads into poverty, social care, education, transport infrastructure, libraries, culture and recreation. Best of all it would empower local communities to grasp hold of and reshape their futures. That would bring about change.

You have to ask whether our leaders "get" what is going on in the regions of England that are less than a three hour train journey from the capital. London feels a hundred times further away from the North East than it did even before. And I say that as a Londoner. Three degrees of latitude overturns all ideas about what is kindly, compassionate and fair. Is this the nation we have allowed ourselves to become? Has affluent England stopped caring about the rest of us? However can this have happened in our green and pleasant land?

MPs of the North East, don't be taken in!

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Ordination of Women as Priests - 25 Years On

This is one of a handful of photos that mean more to me than I can say.

It was taken at Coventry Cathedral on 11 May 1994. You will probably guess the occasion: the ordination of the first female priests in the Diocese of Coventry. And what a celebration it was! I've regularly attended glorious liturgy in no fewer than four cathedrals. But I knew on that day that this was a ceremony that would not just live on bathed in a kind of generalised afterglow. I knew that it would be unforgettable in its detail as well. Such as singing "Be still for the Spirit of the Lord is moving in this place" and, for once, truly recognising that she was.

When you are a cathedral precentor, as I was then, you train yourself to know the liturgy in all its particulars, to become familiar with the soul of it, inhabit it from the inside. Even when you have written the rite yourself, as you do on many a special occasion, you still have to learn the grain of it, intuit how it is going to "feel" in the particular liturgical space it's devised for, how the community that gathers together to celebrate is likely to respond to the words and actions, the silences and the music that you have so carefully devised for it.

We all knew that this ordination of women would be a once-for-all event, unrepeatable as a history-making act of worship. For many months I worked on the service with a small planning group of women who were due to be ordained, together with Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward and Director of Ordinands Canon, now Bishop, Mark Bryant. That 
preparation process was a remarkable experience in itself, both for the joy of looking forward to a great event in the life of the church and of the ordinands and their families, and for the deep sensitivity that was felt towards those who could not accept the validity of their ordination and for whom this ordination day would be one not of joy but of pain. 

I want to pay tribute to one of them in particular, Barbara Baisley who was then chaplain at Warwick University and the Dean of Women's Ministry in the Diocese. She and her husband George had both been students of mine at Salisbury (indeed, her brother Robin taught me English at school). I mention Barbara not only because of the skilled way she led those women through the delicate (and for some, highly controversial) process of becoming priests, but because she died a few years afterwards, long before her time. I also remember that a curate in the Diocese at that time by the name of Justin Welby joined the planning group in order to get a feel for how a major liturgical event is planned in a cathedral. I recall that he had his own gentle wisdom to contribute to the process.

All this was twenty-five years ago. It was in March 1994 that the first female priests were ordained in Bristol Cathedral. For those of us who had long wished and prayed for our church to take this step and had campaigned for it, the outcome of the vote in General Synod on 11 November 1992 was also a night to remember. That day, Armistice Day, is also
 the birthday of our youngest daughter who was nine that year. So we deferred the family fireworks that year by a few days, and as soon as Archbishop George Carey had announced the result of the vote, and we had taken it in (and shed a few tears of relief), we went out in the garden to light rockets and sparklers to celebrate what felt like a double birthday. 

As (now Archbishop) Justin Welby said this week, the contribution female priests have made to the life of the Church of England has been immeasurable. Women are now occupying every conceivable role in the church as priests: as chaplains and bishops, area deans and archdeacons, incumbents and cathedral deans. We had our ups and downs in the General Synod I was part of when it came to the question of female bishops. I won't say all that is forgotten - we mustn't airbrush out of history or our present experience the pain of those who dissent from these decisions, nor the fact that many of our sister churches have not taken these steps. My first cousin made the journey from Anglican to Roman Catholic priesthood because of the ordination of women as priests, and that made it a family as well as a church matter. Like #Brexit, you feel things in more pointed ways when they intrude upon your personal relationships. (But he and I have always remained good friends and colleagues in ministry, I'm glad to say.)

While I was taking part in that service 25 years ago, I thought back to my own memories of ordination in 1975 and 76. Ordination services have that effect on us who are deacons and priests, and it's a good thing that we're reminded of our ordination vows from time to time (even in retirement). But I had - I have - a very specific memory of the night before I was ordained deacon. Our Bishop (of Oxford - Kenneth Woollcombe) saw each of us for an hour that day. What he said to me would be imprinted on my memory for a lifetime.

The Bishop had led the campaign in General Synod that year in support of the resolution 
that "there are no theological objections to the ordination of women". He said to me: "Michael, you know what the Synod has resolved this year. From now on, everyone who is ordained as a deacon and thereby becomes an officer of the Church of England understands that this is the publicly stated position of our church. You must not say that the rules were changed during your public ministry. If you can't be content with that, now is the time to step back from receiving holy orders tomorrow." I imagine he said the same to all the ordinands. (But perhaps he thought I might have concerns about male "headship", trained as I was at a conservative evangelical theological college - whose last Principal, Emma Ineson, has just been ordained a bishop!). 

I've often thought back to that interview, and how influential it was, not in coming to a conclusion I'd already embraced, but in having the confidence to speak up for it publicly. It was my first experience of facing the reality of diversity in our church and learning to see it as a gift that enriches and ennobles us all. But I'm also trying to learn what Justin Welby has taught us to see as "good disagreement", how to listen carefully, practise generosity and charity alongside holding deeply to this and other matters of conviction (I'll not mention the B****t word a second time).

The Church of England still has a long way to go before it can claim to be a genuinely diverse institution. In particular, we are a long way from recognising and celebrating committed gay relationships as joyous, God-given and loving, let alone affirming and solemnising same-sex marriage - as we must, I believe, soon. Regular readers of this blog will know that I've tried to stand with my LGBT friends as they find a place of genuine, unreserved acceptance in our church. If I began to discern anywhere how we must all work tirelessly to become a more just, more equal, more caring church, it was at that marvellous ordination service in Coventry in 1994. 

Thank you to the women in the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate with whom it's been, and continues to be, such an inspiration to serve in the public ministry of the church of God. This silver anniversary brings fond memories of past ordained female friends and colleagues "who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light", "those angel faces I have loved long since and lost awhile". And to those ordained women who read these words, congratulations to each one of you. This blog comes with gratitude, admiration, prayers and expectancy for all that is yet to be in the next quarter of a century.


*** I want to add a postscript to this blog in the light of Twitter comments it’s received so far. 

One person reminded us that it is too easy to simply celebrate  without acknowledging the cost born mostly by women. An acknowledgment of the pain caused needs to go alongside a celebration of where we have got to. It is too easy to bypass the former. Another added: true, and it still goes on. Until the Institution recognises how the barriers it has imposed inhibit the full flourishing of women’s ordained ministry the cost will continue unjustly.

I responded: Yes. I can see that for all its good intentions, this [my blog] is a man’s perspective who perhaps wants too much for it all to be well. Or wants it prematurely, before real healing has had time to happen? Or doesn’t see the injustices that are still being perpetrated in our church? I wish I’d written more sensitively in the light of this. I’m aware how much this is also true for LGBT clergy in our church. We say we intend to listen and learn from people’s experience but in practice the Church goes on “othering” those who don’t fit its theological template. The recent disinvitation of bishops’ same-sex spouses to the Lambeth Conference was a case in point (the website has now removed that offending parenthesis). Nevertheless I still want the church to rejoice with and for its women who are deacons, priests and bishops, however long the road ahead that we must continue to travel.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Why I am an Impassioned Moderate

I was struck by some words of  (Lord) Andrew Adonis today. In a speech in the House of Lords, he said: "It is because of Brexit obsessives that we are in this mess. It is time for obsessive moderates like myself to assert ourselves."

I pondered this for a while, then tweeted: *Obsessive moderate* says @Andrew_Adonis of himself today. Endorse the sentiment 100%. It’s what I am too. But *obsessive* sounds false. It suggests compulsion. How about this - “I am an *impassioned* moderate/remainer/social democrat/liberal...”? Yes, that sounds good.

This produced a swift response from an online Twitter colleague: I think there’s a big difference between you Michael! He really is an obsessive, ranging into dangerous conspiracy theory. I’d never say the same of you! I couldn't possibly comment on that. But yes, I'd like to think I was not a conspiracy theorist. Most misfortunes (though not all) happen as a result of cock-up, chaos and confusion. Even more would I like to think I wasn't obsessed. You'll have to tell me if you think I am.

Lord Adonis wants to contrast two kinds of behaviour, the obsessiveness (as he calls it) of the hard doctrinaire Brexiters, and the need for moderates to be just as fervent for what they believe in too. I think he is right about this. The challenge for remainers is not that we lack conviction, but that we won't emulate the violent and poisonous rhetoric that emanates from some of Brexit's fiercest advocates. We want to focus on issues rather than personalities, challenge dogma with evidence, try to be respectful to those on the other side of this debate, and if we don't concur, at least look for "good disagreement". But that can come over as lacking force in the febrile political environment we are in, so much milk and water at a time when stronger fare is called for.

But I don’t think the phrase obsessive moderate will do. To me obsession means the idea that takes over my mind to the exclusion of all else. It's a pathology that carries more than a hint of morbidity. An obsessive is out of control. You can't negotiate with such a person. He or she will never change their mind or be open to different insights. Obsessives live by what's called cognitive dissonance: tailoring evidence so that it fits their frame of reference, denying what seem to others to be facts on the ground, falsifying any logic that undermines their own axioms. This is the antithesis of what I understand by "moderate". I won't say that I haven't been guilty of it at times when arguing against Brexit. We all get caught up in our own echo-chambers thanks to the algorithms that decide what we see on social media. I’m also aware that “liberals” can sometimes be among the most illiberal of people when their own position is attacked. But I'm trying to be aware enough to keep a cool head, resist obsession and maintain my own judgment, however hard that can be when emotions run high.

Instead, as I said in my tweet, I'd like to go for the phrase impassioned moderate. Or impassioned remainer, or liberal, or democrat, whatever describes the position that refuses extremes and looks instead for a convinced, central, mainstream position whether it's in politics and religion.

I've seen enough of extremes in religion to want nothing to do with them: the fundamentalism whose dogmas refuse to consider the validity of female priests or assisted dying or same-sex marriage, that is so tied to rigidly-construed texts or traditions that it will not countenance the idea that God may disclose new wisdom to us as the ages pass. It’s the readiness to open up contentious questions for exploration that I’m concerned about, not necessarily the conclusions that are arrived at. Extremes in politics function in the same kind of way, whether it's the hard Brexiters of the Tory European Research Group on the right or their equally determined (that's to say entrenched) mirror images on the left. Yesterday's resignation of seven MPs from Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party was an eloquent protest against a politics that will not negotiate or seek consensus at a time when it's imperative that our nation comes together to determine the shape of its future.

Now, to embrace the via media, as Anglicans are famously supposed to do, doesn't mean cultivating blandness, the Victorian childhood ideal of "meek and mild". On the contrary. We who are moderates or liberals need to be all the more fervent in resisting the ideological nonsense that is hurled at us from every side. Political and religious liberalism as it developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were not lacking when it came to passion! The arguments that raged then over contested issues were deeply felt by liberals because so much was at stake: nothing less than the character of nation, society and church. They were battles for the soul of our institutions.

What's the essence of moderation? I think it's a deep suspicion of extremes of every kind, whether of ideas or behaviour. A suspicion too that the easy either-ors we are presented with and told to choose between are likely to mask the quest for a deeper wisdom and truth. Moderation is comfortable with complexity and ambiguity. Words like generosity, openness, tolerance, respect, inclusivity come to mind, to me, intrinsically good words. It's true that they needn't always be virtuous: we know from our own experience that they can mask cowardice or laziness, the reluctance to get involved, the refusal to test and challenge what is likely to be damaging, dangerous or just plain false.

But at their best, I believe that these behaviours are virtuous, ethical and life-giving. As a moderate I want to say: let's turn away from the either-ors that drive us apart from one another, and learn instead the way of both-and. To me, this is not some safe hiding-place from the debates and arguments that cause turbulence, raise emotions and even threaten our stability. On the contrary. I want to contribute to these debates out of my own fervently-held conviction that liberal moderation holds the key to embracing our differences in ways that respect integrity but don't result in damage to our communities and our relationships. I believe that in both religion and politics, the via media, "impassioned moderation", is an intellectually coherent position. And I want to claim that it could prove to be the key to our reconciliation and healing in the increasingly fractured environment in which we find ourselves today. I say this not least because of liberalism’s respect for the separation of powers, the checks and balances that put constraints on the powers of institutions and individuals. These are essential to the spiritual and moral wellbeing of every healthy society and faith community.

Our churches, our society, our national institutions are beset by strongly-held differences that pose real risks to their integrity. The threat of civil unrest should we crash out of the EU with no deal, or hold a people's vote should alarm us. That's not to direct policy, only to point out how serious our situation has become. At the eleventh hour of this tortuous Brexit journey, impassioned moderation has a lot to be said for it. The alternative, a future of political extremism, doesn’t bear thinking about.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Forty Days and Forty Nights - to Brexit

This isn't an early blog about Lent. Easter is late this year, so Ash Wednesday doesn't fall till the 6th March.

No, this is about the time that's left to us before Brexit Day on the 29th March, forty days and forty nights. That's the same length of time as Lent (if you take out the six Sundays of Lent which don't count towards the total as Sundays are always feast days). Less than six weeks. Or put it another way. In 1939, war was declared on the 3rd September. If that were Brexit Day, then by now it would already be 25th July.

That's frighteningly close to an event that is probably Britain's biggest crisis since the last war. By now, whatever your hopes or fears about leaving the European Union, you'd have thought that the shape of our nation's future after the end of March would be looking clear. But not at all. Thanks to Theresa May and her government, the past two and half years since the referendum have resulted in a negotiated deal that has twice been comprehensively voted down in Parliament. It is baffling beyond belief to Leavers and Remainers alike, not to mention our frustrated EU partners, that she persists with this fantasy. One EU negotiator speaking today put the likelihood of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal as around 90%. That would be terrible for trade and business, for police and security co-operation across Europe, for travel, for cultural and environmental collaboration and a whole lot else.

You don't need me to rehearse the litany of probable woes. Indeed, it's already a litany of actual woes. Each day it seems that another business announces that it's relocating its headquarters to the continent. Today Flybmi has gone into administration citing Brexit uncertainty. Here in the North East, the news that Nissan will not now be manufacturing the new X-Trail model at its Sunderland works has come as a heavy blow. The stockpiling of essential supplies including medicines has begun. There is talk of civil disorder, and plans to evacuate the Royal Family. The billions Brexit is already costing the nation are only part of the price we are paying. And our hapless Prime Minister and her cabinet hurl themselves like Gadarene swine towards the cliff edge dragging the nation in their slipstream. No wonder we are the laughing stock of Europe. It's hard not to feel ashamed of the way we have conducted ourselves since the vote.

Standing on this threshold of a Lent-length forty days' journey to Brexit, I ask myself what's to be done? I've nothing new to offer here, but I guess that the more people who try to challenge the Brexit groupthink and speak some sense into this bizarre and dangerous situation, the better.

The first thing is that we must defer Article 50. It is a nonsense to think we can safely depart from the EU at the end of March with no road-map even for the short-term future, no consensus about what our key relationship with the EU is going to look like after Brexit. You don't take off from the runway without knowing where your aircraft is taking you and how you are going to navigate the weather that lies ahead. You don't complete on a property purchase if the survey has thrown up matters that need resolving first. Or in the parables of Jesus, you check that you're building your house on rock, not on sand. You don't embark on a project without first counting the cost. Mrs May’s brinkmanship is making a hostage of this nation’s future. This close to B-Day, we must give ourselves more time. And while we are about it, Parliament must rule out no-deal as an option and get serious about negotiating realistically with the EU.

The second thing is that having deferred Brexit Day, we must go back to the electorate and hold a People's Vote to establish beyond doubt that leaving the European Union is what the nation wants. ,I've no patience for the riposte that says that having voted once on this subject, it would be a betrayal of democracy to do it again. On the contrary. Given the divided nation and Parliament that we are, it would be a betrayal of democracy not to check what the "will of the people" is now, in 2019. Democracy means that it is permitted to change our minds.

This is critically important when we all know so much more about what Brexit would entail than we did in 2016. There was so much that was wrong with the 2016 referendum, not least excluding 16 and 17 year olds from the vote, excluding UK citizens who had lived abroad in EU countries for more than 15 years, and not stipulating that a majority of 60% or two-thirds of votes cast would be needed to effect such a major constitutional change. A People's Vote would allow those mistakes to be corrected. One of the options on the ballot paper would obviously be to remain in the EU as we are, on the current terms. I've no idea whether it would secure a safe majority to reverse the disastrous 2016 vote. But it's important to find out. Democrats have nothing to fear from this. If Brexiters are convinced that the case has been made for leaving the EU, let the public endorse it if that is what it believes. Why are so many people, even MPs who voted Remain in 2016 (like my own elected member) afraid of doing this?

The third thing is that we should use these forty days to try to clear our heads. Groupthink is a dangerous mentality because you can never argue against it, never persuade anyone that there is another side to an issue. Our government has got it into its head that there is only one direction in which to travel, and that is out of the European Union. For all the counter-arguments, all the evidence that this would damage not only the UK economy but also its standing in the world and its networks of influence and collaboration, for all the threats that we face, this government has only one song to sing, which is that "the people have decided" and the referendum outcome is sacrosanct.

I want to ask, respectfully but plainly, what would it take to shift this government's mind, break out of this slanging-match we are in that becomes more hysterical by the day, and instead, get a grown-up conversation going? How dire do the threats have to be before Mrs May notices? What evidence would need to be presented for her to revisit her beloved red lines? What arguments would it take for her at least to contemplate changing her mind? If only she could show a modicum of self-doubt! If only she could think it possible that she was mistaken, could entertain the idea that our nation had misjudged things. If only she could admit that it's allowed to step back and think again. Prudence at a time of crisis is a virtue in leaders. This is just such a time.

If only... if only... Well, in the Bible, forty days and forty nights are often set aside as a period of preparation, self-examination and prayer. Think of Moses and Elijah on the mountain, think of Jesus himself in the desert. That's one of the reasons we observe Lent. Wouldn't it be a good idea for our elected representatives to try to do this in the spirit of a pre-Brexit Lent, to take time to ponder, reflect, and yes, in desperate times - if they can - to pray. And ask themselves if it doesn't make sense to step back from the brink while there is still time.

But what Lent is chiefly for is to prepare for Easter, for the commemoration of Jesus' death and resurrection. Right now, I can certainly see a death lying ahead on the other side of these forty days of Brexit. But no resurrection, I'm afraid, no new life or even the promise of it. Just a no-deal abyss into which we are destined to tumble if we do not come to our senses. It's utterly reprehensible that our leaders have allowed this nation to sleep-walk into disaster. Deferring Article 50 and holding a People's Vote seem to me to be the only way of averting it.

You can tell that I'm writing with some feeling. That's because I'm deeply afraid of the future that is rushing down the slipway towards us next month. In my view we have been badly let down by our leaders. I want to believe that it's not too late to change course. I wish my waters were telling me that it's likely to happen. Do I believe in miracles that can win minds and hearts? I suppose I must at least believe in the power of persuasion, for otherwise, why am I even bothering to write? I don’t believe in praying blindly that some deus ex machina will get us out of a mess for which we only have ourselves to blame.

I just can’t see how this can end well. I’m proud to be European. And I’m proud (on good days - there aren’t many of those just now) to be British. But I confess to sending this blog out into the world with a very heavy heart. If the lights go out at the end of March, my generation won’t see them lit again in our lifetime.