Thursday, 31 December 2015

At the End of the Year

New Year's Eve marks a threshold for everyone who feels the flow of time. For me, saying farewell to 2015 means the end of an entire era of my life. For this is my final day on the Church of England payroll as a stipendiary priest. Tomorrow I throw myself on the mercy of the Pensions Board. In twenty four hours' time I shall be indisputably, officially, legally retired.

Readers of the Decanal Woolgatherer blog will know that I left Durham Cathedral at the end of September. Since then I have been on sabbatical leave while officially remaining the Dean. The idea was to spend three months in reflection and prayer. I wanted to look back over my forty years of active ministry to draw threads together and find meanings. I wanted to prepare for a very different future, try to think about how to be 'retired'. I wanted to be present to what everyone agrees is a big life-change, perhaps the biggest since setting out on the journey of adulthood, getting married and starting work. 

Well, reality is not always what we expect or hope for. Woody Allen famously quipped: 'How do you make God laugh? Tell him your future plans'. We knew it would take time to settle into a new home and feel we belonged to the Northumberland village where we have come to live. In these far northern lands, the shepherds talk about sheep being 'hefted' on to their hill, that is, berthed in and bonded with their native soil. Maybe offcomers like us who have been blown in from somewhere else can never expect to be fully hefted. There will always be something of the exile in a quondam Londoner like me, even one who is lucky enough to have landed in a beautiful village like ours with a great sense of community.

But as some of you know, recent events have had their own way of contributing to our 'hefting' a lot more speedily than we had predicted. Barely two months into our new home and life, at the beginning of Advent Storm Desmond hit. The house (appropriately named after a collier ship that capsized in the North Sea) began taking in water. Lots of it. We can tell a long story about the drowning of our newly installed biomass boiler in the cellar: I blogged about the floods at the time. Suffice it to say that this village has been marvellously kind and supportive. We have made new friends and got to know our neighbours. This drama helped us more than anything else could have done to 'arrive' in the village and feel part of it. Already, we can't imagine living anywhere else. It's good to be able to say that.

I had decided to keep a journal for the six months before leaving Durham and the six months afterwards. It's been an important way of logging this experience of transition. When you retire, you lay aside a role you've inhabited for years, maybe (as in my case) your entire working life. For me, coming to the end of my service at the Cathedral has been to say goodbye not only to my dozen Durham years but to forty years of stipendiary ministry as a priest. As a family we've learned a bit about leave-taking as we've moved from one place to another in that time. It doesn't get any easier, however practised you are. There's always the painful business of having to say farewells to people you have come to love, leaving a community where you've been contented and fulfilled (if you're lucky enough), packing up your possessions and walking away from your physical home and the environment where you have flourished, felt at ease and been happy. 

Every priest knows that this is the deal. And every retiring priest has known that it was going to happen again, but this time in a uniquely final way. We clergy are well looked after by the Church in retirement. Yet there is still the unnerving sense that somehow, this is it. We are on our own now, responsible for our futures, responsible for the lives we choose to live, and responsible for this house we live in, not the tied accommodation we have enjoyed all these years but our very own property in which we have invested our savings. This sense of being on our own has hit home quite sharply, thanks to December's events. When the cellar floods, the power goes off and the water runs cold, there is no Clerk of Works or Parsonage Board to sort it out for you. But I guess it's good for us. Maybe retirement is the last but one event in the process of growing up (the last step of all being death?).

But we're also on our own in the more profound sense that there are far fewer external demands to control our decisions and priorities. So we are discovering how retirement is about a new experience of time spent together, sitting alongside each other in our local church at the Sunday service, learning how to pray together again. It's a bit how it was when we were first married, before I was ordained. Sabbatical time even had an odd whiff of honeymoon about it to begin with, though the flood rather exploded that perspective. But whatever our circumstances, there are no rules in retirement. We have to reinvent ourselves, develop new rhythms and disciplines, a new spirituality to shape the third age and help us to grow old gracefully. This is what I've tried to think and write honestly about in my journal.

In 2016 reality will kick in. I'm not under any illusions about the challenges it could bring. But part of my reason for asking for sabbatical time before officially retiring was to ask myself some key questions about the future. What are my personal priorities going to be? How am I going to try to be useful to the church and the wider community in Northumberland, maybe beyond? What will it mean, and how will it feel after all these years now to find myself a 'retired priest'? What is expected or asked of me in that capacity? What projects and pursuits might I take up in the next few years, whether in a public way through taking up volunteering roles, or more personally in writing, photography, music-making, walking, reading, travel and other enjoyments where I have longed for more time and have new discoveries to make? 

When the midnight hour strikes tonight, we shall be on Haydon's old bridge over the Tyne (troubled water in recent weeks) enjoying the annual village firework display and party. It's a highly symbolic place at which to mark a threshold in time, a crossing-over, as a commentator on this blog points out. We shall all in different ways be thinking about those many for whom 2015 has brought endless trouble, disaster and pain, including people we know who will be relieved to see the back of the past year. But we shall also remind ourselves, I hope, of all that is lovely and good in life, all that has enriched the past year for us, particularly in the people who love us. And in my own case, these past forty privileged years that come to an end in the coming hours.

And if the world is looking pretty desperate as we link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, faith gives us every reason not to lose heart. We can cross tonight's threshold with a song in our hearts that's not simply wishful thinking. I'm looking forward to 2016 and discovering the doors it will open and the possibilities that lie beyond their portals. Whatever you are hoping for or afraid of in the coming twelve months, whatever the changes and chances you face, I want to wish you as personally as I can a good new year. I pray that it will be a time of gifts for those in our world who most need them. I pray that for all of us, as Pope Francis is reminding us, it will be a true Year of Mercy. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Times Past and Times Future: a blog on Christmas Eve

It's a rich and complex day, Christmas Eve. It's when longing and fulfilment meet, hope merges with reality, BC turns into AD as the poet U. A. Fanthorpe puts it, and when the cattle kneel at the manger in the imagination of Thomas Hardy. 

At three o'clock when the solo treble begins 'Once in Royal David's City' and launches the Kings College 9 Lessons and Carols, we can at last - if we are ready - let go of the weeks of preparation and be glad as Christmas comes once more. How could it not melt the hardest of hearts to embrace this yearly marvel and go in heart and mind with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass?

Last year on this day, when I was still Dean, I was leading the bidding prayer at Durham Cathedral's carol service. That beautiful liturgy, so finely wrought in words and music, was always a highlight of the year for all of us. In that vast crowd, no more than one or two other people knew that for me it would be for the last time. I can write about it now, though I couldn't then. When we got to the point in the prayer where it says that we remember 'those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light', I knew I would need to take care. 

Here's why. My father died on Christmas Eve so the memory of those with whom we've celebrated Christmas in the past and who are no longer with us was always going to be poignant. But for the first time it struck me that one day, I myself would be included in that phrase. Somehow, this final bidding prayer assumed a profound symbolism. Next year, I thought, the Acting Dean will be standing here and reading instead of me. I shall be in some other place, if not yet in a greater light (I presumed). It was a moment of realisation that was both sweet and bitter: one life was about to end, and another begin. I had to hold on to the pulpit if I was to get through that sentence safely. I did. But only just.

This Christmas Eve at the same time of day we have been with our grandchildren at the parish Christingle service. It was informal and homespun. There was a happy family buzz in the church, a good crowd of excited and excitable children who had brought their parents, not all of them used to being in church, with telling demeanours that were variously charmed, bemused, even a trifle tired as if overwhelmed by the effort involved in a family Christmas. Some no doubt welcomed, as we grandparents did, the chance of some structured time on a demanding day for families with youngsters. 

We sang carols including 'Little Donkey', a song that instantly took me back to when my own children were small and took part in Christingles in our parish of Alnwick. Now one of them was the adult singing next to me, a mother herself whose own children were in turn carrying on this Christmas Eve tradition. The symbolism of the Christingle was explained to us. The air was fragrant with organgey scents. We stood in a big circle round the church with our candles lit. Isaac held my hand as we sang 'Away in a Manger'. (The last time I'd sung it was on Haydon's Bridge on the day after the flood. I blogged about it at the time. Another recent and poignant memory to add to the intricate emotional texture of this day.) 

Afterwards I took him to the Nativity by the chancel screen where he pottered contentedly among the ox and the ass, the sheep and the shepherds, the rocks and the straw and the seasonal foliage. He did not notice that the Holy Child had not arrived yet, still less was he troubled by the incompleteness of the tableau. I explained that the Bambino would be placed in the crib at midnight mass, but I doubt that he took that liturgical detail in. I thought of Christmas Eves past, of the exquisite pain of waiting and wondering, of childhood magic and all the associations the day brings so vividly to mind. 

And I found myself thinking something else. Now that I'm getting old and am retired and am a grandparent, this is one less Christmas that I shall be on this earth to enjoy. This afternoon, Isaac stood at the crib for the first time, at least as a child who was partly conscious of where he was. Who knows when we shall stand at the crib for the final time before we reach, God willing, that 'other shore and greater light' of the bidding prayer? That's not a morbid thought to me. It's simply about the flow of time and how our histories are gathered up and redeemed in God's great purposes of love. St Paul says that through Jesus' resurrection 'this mortal will put on immortality'. It's what incarnation promises.

Enjoy Christmas Eve in the hours that are still left. And when today becomes tomorrow, a very happy Christmas to everyone.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Advent Jottings: fear, tenderness and hope

It's been a strange Advent for us here in Haydon Bridge. Our first Advent in retirement was always going to be a bit different after 40 years of ministry. Factor in the birth of a grandchild and a deluge that flooded our home within a few days and the season has become something of a drama.

Our village and personal crises have made me think in fresh ways about what Advent means. A 'crisis', literally, is a 'judgment'. Along with death, hell and heaven, judgment is one of Advent's great words, the second of the traditional four last things. It's easy to think of it as meaning that challenges and ordeals are sent as a judgment upon us. Well, maybe they are. I don't mean in the simplistic sense that they are somehow deserved: Storm Desmond and the floods it caused are not about punishment or retribution. Absolutely not, any more than Job's ordeals or Jesus's suffering were the result of any wrong they had committed. 

But any crisis that hurts is a judgment on us in that it puts us under scrutiny, at least to ourselves and before God. It questions our attitude to life, our resilience, the strength of our hope. How will we respond? With self-pity and self-absorption: 'why has this happened to me?' Or with patience and perseverance: 'life is tough, and yes, unfair, but we are going to remain expectant and endure to the end by the grace of God'? The sheer volume of kindness and generosity the floods have released in this village have to me been wonderful signs of this gift of expectancy and endurance. They may not always have been linked to explicit faith in God's purpose. But they have been there. 

These clues about 'crisis' and how we respond to it belong to the heart of Advent. This season tests our belief in the grace of God and the ultimate goodness of things by offering to us the possibility of hope. I have often said in a lifetime of preaching that hope is the gift Christianity brings to an often despairing world. If we can only stay with the season long enough, it has a way of lifting our sights and stretching our horizons from the dismal prospect of endless human calamity to the larger vision of God's eternal heart of love. It does this, not by escaping the reality of crisis (as Christmas commercials want us to do) but by setting it within the big story of God's wise and loving purposes. 

This is where the birth of our granddaughter has been a glimpse of light in dark times. Madeleine was born in the first week of Advent and a few days later we had gone to meet her for the first time. That was the day before the flood. I always think that a newborn child recreates the image of the holy family. She was lying peacefully in her mother's arms, her exquisite face conveying a quality I can only describe as a kind of radiance. Her father and brother Isaac were proud and happy, and so were her grandparents. (Sorry about the descent into cliché: it would need a Thomas Traherne to do it justice.) 

Her memory was an important stabilising presence in the difficult days of flood that followed. But in conversation with my wife, and with our parish priest, I now see how it has helped illuminate Advent and Christmas, at least for me. In the middle of 'crisis', beset by fear and anxiety, this 'little tiny child' has been able to evoke tenderness and love. Her birth has been quietly redemptive. It has spoken of a present and a future that are full of the kind of trustful hope that puts human dread in its proper place. In the end, nothing could matter more than this miracle happening in human hearts and lives, our capacity to love and be loved and to glimpse in a baby's face something of that fourth and last Advent word, 'heaven'.

For me, the flood and the baby have seamlessly linked Advent to Christmas. It's not a case of lurching from the last things to the nativity, from crisis to consolation at the winter solstice. Rather, it's about seeing each in the light of the other. In asking us to prepare spiritually for Christmas, Advent, with its desire and longing is telling us about how love lies at the very centre of our destiny which is the focus of the last things. At Christmas we behold this holy Child as the ground of our being who moves the sun and the stars, the Alpha and the Omega, 'immensity contracted in a span'. He is the centre of all our hungers and hopes, and not only ours but the world's. 

Perhaps we wouldn't have recognised these hungers and hopes for what they are but for this precious birth. His coming, in answer to our Advent cry Veni Immanuel brings to our race the good news that we are loved. And it also evokes from us our own capacity to feel pity for a helpless infant, and because of that, to be tender towards God and love him in return. Is this why he had to come to us as a vulnerable baby? Pity, tenderness and love have a way of lighting up how we are with our fellow human beings, as our village has shown so abundantly in recent days. In humanity's capacity to be tender, in our ability to feel and to care lies the world's future. And in our human crisis, in the all too familiar world of cruelty and pain into which Jesus was born, that's the best discovery we could make. 

Happy Christmas (when it comes)!


Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Floods: what I am learning

Famously, the flood is an age-old image of change. It's (forgive the allusion) a watershed; there is life before and life after. Whether it's the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Book of Genesis, The Mill on the Floss or The Nine Taylors, there is a sense of an ending, an antediluvian era that is swept away. What follows the flood will not be the same as it was before. This will be true for us, I think, here in Haydon Bridge where we have come to retire. Its waters, breaking their bounds so promiscuously in this riverine community, have touched us actually and symbolically. How could we not be changed as a result, at least in some ways?

I recall blogging about the terrible floods on the Somerset Levels two years ago. Then, I was a sympathetic bystander living hundreds of miles away, trying to enter into an experience that was not mine. Now it has become our own. I never expected that two months after moving into our home in Northumberland, we would be so suddenly ambushed by the colossal (and frightening) quantities of water that swept down from the North Pennines and inundated our village and other communities in the Tyne Valley. This was not quite how we had envisaged these first weeks of retirement in the run-up to Christmas. 'How do you make God laugh? You tell him of your future plans' quipped Woody Allen. That's become true for us in the past days. Our lives have been wrenched into directions we had not anticipated. 

Not that it was anything like as bad for us as it's been for others. If you read last week's blog, you'll know that the water in the cellar crept up the steps almost to ground level, but not quite. Others have seen their homes flooded for the second time in a decade. We went to visit one of them, a church member who lives on the other side of the bridge. Her house had the river rushing through it to dado height. She and her husband will not be back in it for six months. The roar of a dozen dehumidifiers were a noisy comment on the extent of their inundation. Over in Cumbria, as you know, it is worse still. Our hearts ache for the people we see on TV or read about in the papers.

There's an irony about Burswell House being flooded. It's probably named after a collier ship called the Burswell that was built on Tyneside. It went down in the North Sea in the 1880s. Our house was built the following decade, and was lived in by the pit manager at the nearby Bardon Mill colliery. After the ship had gone to its watery grave, its name was memorialised, either because the pit had a connection with it, or the manager had a personal link to someone on board. Burswell House has shipped a lot of water below, but she is still afloat, and her crew have lived to tell the tale. But there's another irony too, in that these dramas have been happening while the climate change talks have been taking place in Paris. Our biomass boiler and its supply of wood pellets, drowned by the flood, was our little commitment to living more ethically for the sake of the environment. Now it's the environment itself that has dramatically seen it off. But inspired by Paris, we hope to install another biomass, this time in a location where it is well above the water table.

It's easy, when you are hit by disaster, to let it fill your head and suppress everything else that matters, perhaps matters much more in the grand scheme of things. I am trying to stay present to what is happening in our world, to the lives and concerns of this community, and to our own family. On the day the storm rushed down on us, we were in Leeds meeting our new granddaughter for the first time. She is a perfect little baby and is bringing tidings of joy to her parents who have loved her into life, to Isaac her elder brother and to all of us who celebrate her coming. The memory of her beautiful, delicate, peaceful face has calmed and sustained me during this past week. 

And there is much else that is thoroughly good on our very doorstep. I'm learning that there is no better way of arriving in a new community than to engineer a big crisis. I said something about this in my last blog. People in our street, in the village, in the church community have been marvellous. We have been staying with generous neighbours two doors away, invited out for meals, been offered help, put in touch with those with specialist skills of many kinds. I spoke on local radio about this. I highlighted the role of the fire crews who have been on duty round the clock since the weekend. No tribute is adequate to do justice to their role in this and every other community affected. After this, the idea that our local fire station could be axed because of County Council cuts is, if you'll forgive another turn of phrase, dead in the water. For the good of West Tynedale, it's essential that we keep it. 

The significance of all this happening in Advent has not been lost on me as I have lain awake pondering it in recent nights. Traditionally in this season, we reflect on death, judgment, hell and heaven and try to regain the long view of things, God's view, in the light of the end towards which the cosmos is travelling. All four of these awesome realities have been present in my thoughts this Advent in ways more vivid than I've known before; present if not in my direct experience, then through the symbolism of what we have lived through. It's essential, when trouble strikes, to maintain a larger perspective. Local19th century Haydon Bridge artist John Martin, the famous painter of huge apocalyptic canvasses such as 'Sodom and Gomorrah' and 'The Great Day of His Wrath' would have risen to the occasion and helped us. His signature was the towering storm cloud and flash of lightning. His are paintings with a religious message that asks, as Advent asks, what is truly permanent in life? What is of enduring value? What survives the storm and deluge, actual or metaphorical? What ultimately matters? 

So our personal Advent and run-up to Christmas has included a flood and the birth of a baby, symbols of judgment and redemption, calamity and hope. Writ large, this is the daily experience of a world that is both beautiful and tragic. So there is plenty of scope for a rich spirituality of the season that comes directly out of our shared lived experience. Meanwhile, 'postmen go from house to house'. Trains rumble over the level crossing. Children saunter past the study window on their way to school. The church clock chimes the hours five minutes late. The dramas of life get played out and the season of Advent unfurls; yet ordinary time goes on. It's the way of things. God's way.




Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Rain it Raineth Every Day

'Hey ho, the wind and the rain' said Shakespeare in a jolly mood. But no one is jolly in Haydon Bridge today, nor up and down the Tyne Valley. And over in Cumbria and southern Scotland it is worse still. We are living under red flood warnings which means there is a real threat to life.  All night, and all day, the rain has beat down ferociously on this part of the country on the back of a westerly gale. Storm Desmond is truly vicious. 

These old houses let in the water all over the place, and I suppose we should have been prepared for that. But what I was not prepared for was to find water in the cellar, creeping silent and sinister up the steps into the house. This morning there were 4 or 5 inches. Now it is nearer 2 feet. I have been in shorts for much of the day doing what I can to salvage things below. Not that I can do anything about the deep freeze and the biomass boiler. I've taken some photographs standing in freezing water up to my thighs. Not out of my love of photography, not even to record in the house log book. It's for insurance purposes. There will be a lot of claims from the North of England and Scotland next week, I fear. 

Even though this is a serious situation, these domestic concerns are but a little local difficulty compared with what I've seen nearer the river, and learned about from across the watershed in the North West. On the eponymous Bridge of Haydon, a large crowd of onlookers stood in the teeth of the gale to watch the river. Most, I suspect, were not directly affected - the people whose houses line the Tyne in Ratcliffe Road are too busy dealing with a real emergency. The river was (is still) rushing under the elegant arches of the bridge with a fury villagers say they have never seen. It's frightening to be so close to violent water, grasp the risks it poses not just to property but to human lives. Philip Larkin paid tribute to the Tyne at the bottom of Monica's garden by the bridge. He said it was 'muscled with currents', but I doubt she or he ever saw the river like this. 

If you have never lived near a river, as I hadn't before now, you don't appreciate how its quotidian rises and falls affect the mood of a community. There is an excellent village Face Book group where people have been sharing their experiences, asking for help, offering it, and not least, passing on the latest Environment Agency river gauge levels (there is a Twitter feed I now visit obsessively that charts the level at which the South Tyne is flowing, and plots the readings on a graph). Today, our callers have included a neighbour (if there's anything we can do, you only have to ask), the Vicar (ditto), our builder (why is the water coming in at all?), our electrician (is it safe to leave the power on while the water goes on rising?), and our heating consultant (obviously the boiler is off, but will it recover from this emergency?). There is so much good will in this village, so many generous offers of help. I reckon every village can tell the same story in adversity, and we have found it to be true in good times too. 

Meanwhile, we now have a pump in the cellar which is doing its best against long odds. Later in the night the deluge will stop, we're told. 'The rains came down and the floods came up', as the old chorus says. It is referring to Jesus' words about building your house on the rock, not on sand. There is a rock that can withstand even this assault. It is the native goodness and kindness of a village community. We are glad to be living in Haydon Bridge....with all its river's moods and vicissitudes. 

My wife is away helping to look after our 4 day old granddaughter who is, for now, innocent of these things. How blissful for her. As for me, I shall stay up all night if need be, so that I can judge whether I need to take further action like moving the furniture upstairs if the water continues to rise. I shall feel a lot less fearful when the rain stops, even though the risk of flooding will not be over just yet. I shall drink a lot of black coffee, be on call in case I am needed in the village, and wait to see what the morning brings. There isn't much else I can do. Except say my prayers. 

Sunday Morning
Last night the water rose 4 feet to the height of the power sockets in the cellar and was clearly going to get a lot higher. I had no option but to turn off the electricity and abandon Burswell House. Kind neighbours took me in. Meanwhile the street outside was flooding badly. We sandbagged our front doors as best we could. The fire service was out all night keeping the water from our houses. By 5am it began to recede. This morning, to my intense relief, the water in the cellar had reached its maximum, two steps from the top, inches below the point where it would have invaded the ground floor. The fire service are pumping out the cellar as I write. The volume of water is hard to believe. They have been magnificent. The police have toured the area checking that we are ok. Everyone is out to help each another. 

Many people in the village have stories to tell of how an unprecedented Advent flood has shaken this community. They will be echoed by many more up and down the Pennine valleys, in Lancashire, the Lake District, West Cumberland, and the Scottish Borders. There will be a lot of work to do to help one another clear up, try to understand why this disaster happened, and what we need to learn from it. But the important thing this morning is that we are all safe, and glad to see the sunshine once more. Life can begin again. 

Thanks to all of you who have offered prayers, sent thoughts and written kind supportive messages on social media. They mean more than we can say, believe me. 

Sunday Night
No rain has fallen today. The blue sky has felt like a miracle. Fire officers have been at Burswell House all day with pumps, flood-related conversation & endless good humour. I can't praise them enough for the committed way they have risen to yesterday's crisis across the village. If ever I took the Fire Service for granted, I shall never do so again. We must secure the future of the Haydon Bridge Fire Station for the benefit of the whole of West Tynedale.

At dusk we gather on the bridge for the annual ceremony of the lighting of the Christmas Trees. There is a large crowd of children and adults gathered above the river that showed its fury yesterday and wielded such destructive power. It's early to be singing 'O little town of Bethlehem' and 'Away in a manger', but I don't think I have ever found these carols more moving, speaking of divine Love to one another and to the dark chaotic forces directly beneath our feet. Later, outside the church, the Vicar pays tribute to the Fire Service for which a boisterous three cheers are shouted. In his prayer he remembers the victims of the floods. Homely togetherness to lift the spirits. Village religion at its best.

Our neighbours offer us wonderful hospitality again, a Sunday roast and a warm bed for the night. I am learning how kindness fosters not only real community but true friendship. To my surprise, despite everything, or rather because of it, it has been a good day. 




Monday, 23 November 2015

Religion at the Cinema

So the Church of England is not allowed to show the #JustPray video of the Lord's Prayer as a cinema ad. The evergreen popularity of Star Wars would have guaranteed that it would be seen by huge numbers of all ages. The days before Christmas seemed an ideal time. But at the eleventh hour Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the company that manages advertising in the big cinema chains has said no. It would go against the policy of not accepting ads 'connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion'. It might offend people. (Did DCM make it clear at the planning stage that this was its policy? I think we should know.)

It's an intriguing debate. You'd expect this kind of thing in France where the Republic has a fiercely defended doctrine of laïcité which means that public space is strictly neutral when it comes to religion. Hence the annual rows about whether the Christmas crib can be displayed in the foyer of public buildings like the Mairie. We see it in this country too, though not yet with the same shrillness. Watch whether your town hall carries a sign wishing you a 'Happy Christmas' or 'Seasons Greetings' (with or without an apostrophe). See if your kids are allowed to perform in a school nativity play that focuses on an infant called Jesus.

People go to the cinema to be entertained, not offended - that's the gist. But there's a lot of cinema advertising that very much offends me. Far from being value-free, it's heavily freighted with all the bogus assumptions of consumerism. It tells me what I need, shapes my hungers, tempts me to spend money I don't have. It persuades me to buy into a set of values that is alien to my core beliefs. From fast cars and seductive fragrances to chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, the advert says: you must have this and have it now! Your humanity will be diminished if you don't! Here's where fulfilment and purpose lie! All deeply theological and filled with unconscious commentary on the human condition and the nature of desire. And DCM's policy statement about refusing to show anything 'connected to personal beliefs' is just naive. All advertising is about personal values and attitudes - it's precisely 'beliefs' that advertisers want to influence as they try to persuade us to buy their product!

But in an age of toleration (which I'm so grateful to have been born into), I do not have the right not to be offended. Nobody does. As a Christian, would I be upset if a cinema ad showed the Islamic call to prayer and devout Muslims streaming into the mosque? Or Jewish people at the Western Wall praying uttering the Shema? Or Hindus on pilgrimage to their sacred river? Of course not. I'd be glad to think that humane spiritual values were being promoted and the lives of other faith communities affirmed. What about atheists and their ads on London buses, 'There probably isn't a God, so get on and enjoy your life'? No problem. Let the argument happen, I say. It can only do us good to listen carefully to others, exercise free speech without fear, disagree passionately if we want to, and even take the risk of changing our minds. When Richard Dawkins says he's relaxed about the Lord's Prayer advert because people are big enough to cope with it, he's saying something important.

But even if I don't have the right not to be offended, it's proper to place boundaries on what is allowable in public discourse. Here's what DCM is possibly arguing. Western democracies struggle with this, and it's far from clear what crosses the line of acceptability and what doesn't. Threats to public or personal safety are the easier cases. Religion and politics are more difficult. The temptation is to draw the line too far in and exclude content that is not only harmless in itself but offers stimulus to thought and discussion. The effect is to infantilise us by being over-protective and parental. No-one is arguing that radical Islamist propaganda or promoting the political programmes of far right extremists should be showed on our cinema or TV screens. But who is going to place the C of E's gentle Lord's Prayer video in the category of the deviant and dangerous, to be suppressed at all costs? Does DCM not rate the intelligence of the viewing public very highly?

It's dug itself into a hole here. No doubt DCM is trying to be even-handed and respond consistently to endless requests to promote this or that ideology or creed. And of course it's free to show or not show whatever it wants. But it hasn't done the calibration carefully enough. Maybe the religious landscape is too mysterious to navigate. Then their leaders need advisors who can help them become more literate when it comes to faith. But make no mistake. By not showing the Lord's Prayer, they are making a clear statement about the beliefs and values that they do wish to promote. And because they are in control of what we see, that removes from us the audience the chance to make up our own minds.

(I'm tempted here to add something about the profoundly theological character of cinema. Film is a rich resource for theology and spiritual reflection. In particular, Star Wars has given rise to a large and fascinating literature about human destiny and redemption. The big cinema chains have never fought shy of showing films about religion. Cinema is a space where there is deep and passionate engagement with religion both explicitly and in more analogical and metaphorical ways. So DCM is out of step with its own medium.) 

To me, being infantilised is a lot worse than being offended. And in hard cases, I'd rather take the risk of including rather than excluding. I know that precedents haunt all decision-makers. But DCM is being needlessly risk-averse. So I hope it will have the courage to change its mind about this innocent little film. To treat us as grown-ups won't be the end of civilisation as we know it.

Monday, 16 November 2015

After Paris

Terror in Paris is not more of an atrocity than it is in Beirut, Baghdad, Bali or anywhere else in the world. It's simply that it's so near home, so familiar. The massacre of innocents is awful because everyone's death 'diminishes me' as John Donne famously said. It diminishes us all. When anyone is a victim of another person's cruelty, the human family is that bit more broken. At times like this, all we can do to begin with is to be silent, shed our tears for the dead, remember, say our prayers, and if we are in a position to, comfort those who mourn. And allow ourselves to feel what we feel: sadness, compassion, bewilderment, and surely a fierce burning anger.

But after the shock the time comes again to speak, pick up threads, search for words that will help. If nothing else, our attempts to order our thoughts and articulate them may help to stabilise us somewhat. It's important to try to grasp what is ultimately without any sense, or begin to. On this third day of national mourning in France, I'm trying in a piecemeal way to absorb the images from Paris, so many of them beyond words, unbearably poignant. I want to learn from the news coverage and pay attention to the best informed commentary and interpretation that has been offered since Friday night.

Here, for what it's worth, is where I have got to.

1. I believe we need to be emotionally honest about these terrible events. It's no use pretending that I am not profoundly shaken by them, or that I am not afraid of what may follow. Afraid of yet more outrages against innocence, against all that is precious in human life. Afraid for our world, for our European home, for France, and for London my home city where many of my family and friends live and work. And yes, afraid for myself, wondering if it is safe to walk the streets of our cities, travel by bus or train, go to the cinema or the concert hall.... I fervently believe that life must go on, but I don't quite buy the defiant 'as normal' that usually follows that phrase. There is no 'normal' in the aftermath of terror. It is more a case of 'face the fear and do it anyway'. But unacknowledged fear feeds off itself and through its tyranny paralyses us. This is what terrorists want. We need to recognise that we are frightened if we are to keep calm and carry on, if we are to reawaken hope.

2. There are, I think, theological and spiritual consequences of any atrocity that we need to face without unflinching. However simplistic the dogmas promoted by the radicalised religion of these young jihadists, we can't allow our religious response to it to be shaped on their black-and-white terms. Suffering is always a big challenge to religious faith, and we wouldn't be true to the nature of faith if Paris didn't pose deep questions to us about where God is in all this. It's not a problem for jihadists who shout Allahu Akbar as they slaughter their victims; but it is very much a problem for the adherents of mainstream Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The scriptures give us plentiful texts to help us reflect on this baffling fact of human life such as Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms of lament and the Passion Narratives. Perhaps the godforsakenness of Jesus on the cross ('My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?') is the place to start. A questioning faith that acknowledges our bafflement and has room for our doubt and our outrage will help us a lot more than the tired formulae and futile easy speeches that rehearse utterly discredited answers. 

3. Among the pieces I have read since Friday have been some that persuade me that I need to understand radicalised Islam far better than I do. (Indeed, I need to understand Islam itself far better, especially the millennenarian Caliphate aspirations of radical Sunnis.)  What is it that motivates the jihadists of Daesh? What do they want to achieve? The rhetoric of 'death-cult', 'holy war', 'nihilism' and 'psychopathy' is understandable, but it doesn't explain what we're facing. If we are going to tackle Daesh, we need to know our enemy and I'm not persuaded that enough of us do know our foe accurately. I'm particularly worried that western leaders, schooled in liberal secularism, don't have the necessary background to understand the dynamics of degraded religion and its motivation to destructiveness. The strategy has to rest on a proper intellectual consensus, something that has been lacking ever since 9/11 shocked us into facing up to how our world order had changed and we found ourselves precipitated into the ill-conceived 'war on terror'. (I recommend a penetrating and chilling piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, 'What ISIS Really Wants' which you can find online at www.theatlantic.com.) 

4. This hardly needs saying, at least to people who are likely to read this blog, but I'll say it anyway if only to remind myself how important it is. We absolutely must not hurry to throw blame around in the aftermath of an act of terror. If we are white Christian Europeans, I'm particularly thinking of those with different ethnicities and faith allegiances from ours. Some of the less responsible media are already linking the jihadists with Syrian refugees recently arrived in Europe. 'It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism' Barack Obama has said. Friday's massacres in Paris are bound to fan the flames of hysterical anti-immigrant feeling on the far right (I have real anxiety about the imminent regional elections in France where we have already seen worrying signs of a sharp shift of opinion towards the 'Front National'). If ever there was a time when we needed to care for the stranger in our midst and to love our neighbour as ourselves it is now. As for our own fellow citizens, our Muslim brothers and sisters are feeling especially vulnerable in these times. We must reach out to them in friendship and stand with them to affirm the shared values of our two Abrahamic faiths. 

And of course, we must go on expressing our complete solidarity with the victims themselves, with the people of France, and with all who suffer at the hands of the wicked. I'm touched by the worldwide displays of the Tricolore on public buildings and FaceBook profiles. To see my own Durham Cathedral lit up in this way was especially moving for me. It may be a small enough gesture, but a little is better than nothing. The blue, white and red of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité originated in the days of Enlightenment and Revolution. But at heart they are Christian and humane aspirations the vast majority of us hold dear in our democracies. They are hard won. We must defend them and pray for our enemies who hate us and all who stand for these noble values. 

But we need to do it intelligently. Faith needs to seek understanding. It's how to be wise at times like this that I'm reflecting on in the aftermath of such sickening awfulness and pain. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is right. If we want to change the world, prayer is where it begins.

Friday, 13 November 2015

What is the Vocation of Britain in Europe?

It sounds like a grand rhetorical gesture to ask this kind of question. What prompts it is a recent piece by Angela Tilby on the EU referendum in the Church Times. She asks whether the UK has a 'vocation' to belong to the EU, given its historic religious, cultural and political roots in continental Europe.

I like the idea that peoples and nations can have a vocation. I imagine that this is a way of saying two things. The first is that the existence of nations and peoples is not a matter of chance but is somehow meant. A theologian will want to say that it belongs to the process of creation, and as the Abrahamic faiths present it, this is not random but intentional. In its mythic account of human origins, the Book of Genesis traces the existence of the known world's peoples back to the beginnings of humanity itself. I read this as saying that the concepts of order and pattern that 'creation' represents are continued into history as the human family organises itself into differently shaped communities in particular places.

So if peoples and nations exist not through accident but artistry, then purpose and destiny become interesting dimensions to ponder. They aren't different in principle from questions of personal destiny ('why am I here?') and collective destiny ('why are we all here?' 'What is the human race for?'). Some may say that these questions are ultimately unanswerable because they are not well formed in the fist place. Nevertheless, we find ourselves asking them which perhaps says something about their validity. So if theology can pose these other questions about humanity as a whole and myself as part of it, I think we can ask the same question of a nation or a people.

There are risks. Here in Britain, our forebears talked about the colonisation and empire as 'civilising' or 'Christianising' the world. Triumphalist lyrics like Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are poetic ways of celebrating (or misunderstanding) the idea of a national vocation. The emergence of nation states in post medieval Europe was bound to give rise to this kind of sentiment: it was natural for each nation to give a reason for its very existence by talking or singing it up. National anthems across the world express vocational ideals and aspirations (Britain's is an interesting exception to this rule because it is not really about nationhood, rather its focus is the person of the Sovereign).

But I think we can still talk more modestly about a 'national vocation'. Maybe that's a way of talking about a nation's soul. For instance, when we allude to England as the 'mother of parliaments' we mean that our democratic constitution and parliamentary processes model a politics that can be, and has been, offered as a gift for others to emulate and adapt according to their own vocation and way of being. This 800th anniversary year has linked our politics and judicial system to the first sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. I was struck at Runnymede by how much of the discourse around the Great Charter was couched in terms of England's 'gift to the world', especially among American commentators.

The EU referendum is making us ask questions about Britain and our place in Europe. But much of the campaigning talk both for and against membership goes beyond the pragmatic implications of staying in or leaving. There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) vocational subtext about what the United Kingdom really is in itself, what it means to be true to its historic identity, and how it can best realise its potential. But we can't explore those questions without also asking what the European Union is for, how its member states contribute to the achieving of its purpose, and whether we want to be part of its vocation or not. Is it primarily about economic co-operation and the single market? Or is it about politics, peace-keeping and policy-making across nations?

The EU's treaties and founding documents set out its core values. They are: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. They speak of the aspiration to be 'an ever growing union of peoples'. They celebrate the (relative) freedom from conflict of this historically war-torn continent since the middle of the twentieth century. They celebrate European heritage and culture as a gift to the world. (I wish they mentioned religion too, because of the absolutely central role Christianity, Judaism and Islam have played in the shaping of the continent since Roman times. I may try and say something about this in relation to the 'soul' of Europe one day.)

So what is the vocation of Europe? Here's my suggestion. It's to model how independent nations can freely and democratically associate in a union that puts the common good before narrow self-interest, and offers to the world both a model of collaboration and common purpose, and contributes to the global quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. This is what I see our common European home standing for. As I argued in my last blog, Britain has everything to give to this noble task, all that makes it such a good place to live in, all that makes us love it. This is why for many partner nations, a European Union without Britain is unthinkable.

So I'm baffled by the hostility to  the EU that I see all around, not just in this country but across the continent. Call me naïve (I'm sure many will) but the European project, this experiment that has done so much for our continent, is where I see national and global vocations begin to converge, and that has to point to a kinder, better, more peaceable and more just world. It's not a case of sacrificing our precious national identity. Rather, it's precisely by cherishing it that we, with every other EU nation, bring our distinctive gifts to the fashioning of a whole that is greater (and yes, more glorious) than the sum of its parts.

It's a call for us to be grateful for what we prize, and share it generously. It's also a call for us to be open to receive what other nations have to give. This mutuality is what true God-given community is all about. It's what 'family' means. Why would the UK not want to be part of this humane and visionary enterprise?

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Churches and the EU Referendum

So now we know what the Prime Minister wants from Europe. His letter to the European Council contains no great surprises. But it left me feeling despondent. Our continent is facing a huge crisis as thousands of migrants arrive helpless on our southern shores. There is no consensus about how best to respond to them. For one nation to thrust its wish list into the foreground at a time like this seems self-serving and not at all in the best tradition of British-ness. I'm sorry - and a little ashamed if I'm honest.

Let me come clean. I believe that our future as a nation has to lie in the European Union. I admit that my own personal history comes into it, and with it, a strong emotional pull towards 'the continent'. My mother's side of the family comes from Germany. Being Jewish, they suffered terribly in the Nazi holocaust. Some perished; others were fortunate enough to survive in hiding or flee to this country for safety. My mother was one of those. I've blogged about it before.

That's no argument of course. But personal identity comes into things. I had to fill in a questionnaire the other day to register with the GP in our new home. How did I describe myself, it asked? The only applicable box said 'White British'. No denying that it's what I am. So I ticked it. But it's not all I wanted to say about myself. So I added: '/European'. My Twitter profile says that I am 'a European at home in North East England.' That's closer to who I am. I belong to the North East. I belong to England. I belong to the United Kingdom. I belong to Europe. But even that isn't all. I belong to a particular family now living in a particular village. At the other end of the scale I belong to the entire world and to the family of humanity. I love all these circles of belonging and want to be loyal to them all. I want to be a citizen, and participate in the life, of each of them. Our many identities matter, from the least to the greatest.

You don't need me to rehearse the arguments for Britain's membership of the EU. When it comes to the economy, trade, politics, higher education, science, security, social care and culture, scores of people who know what is what are doing this expertly and persuasively. That's not to say that the EU is a perfect organisation. The PM is right about the needs for reform and reducing the burden of bureaucracy. Yet despite its shortcomings, the evidence is that our participation in the EU has benefitted us enormously. And, it's important to say, it has benefitted the EU too. No wonder the family of European nations, let alone America and China, view the possibility of Brexit with alarm. So should we.

Does the 'idea of Europe' have a theological and spiritual aspect? I believe it has. For one thing, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam and every other world faith, transcends the nation state. Religion says: our 'belonging' is vastly bigger than just our national identity. To think in purely national terms about humanity is severely to limit our vision. So communities of peoples like the EU point to a future that is collaborative, where acting together can effect positive change that puts a nation's self-interest in the larger context of the common good, as catholic social thought has made increasingly clear. The UK is itself evidence that as peoples we are always 'better together' than apart. To develop partnerships and synergies is, I think, a collective expression of the biblical principle that 'it is not good for man to be alone'.

In the intensively connected world of the 21st century, no nation state can function as if it were autonomous. National jurisdictions are subject to a vast number of external pressures, some benign, some not. Financial markets, transnational enterprise and digital information all flow freely around the globe: national boundaries just do not feature. Climate change, human trafficking and global terrorism pay no regard to them: addressing them will be done together or not at all. This is where Europe, along with other big alliances, helps to act as the glue to bind peoples together. We need more of this sense of being part of many families of nations, not less. To aspire to be 'an ever closer union of peoples' is a noble vision about the future of the human race itself. In it may lie the survival of humanity. For me, the burden or proof lies with those who would leave the EU, not those of us who want to stay in and deepen our ties with the continent of which we are historically a part.

I could say much more and perhaps will in future blogs about Europe. But even if you don't agree with my stance thus far, I hope you will be able to assent to what follows. The PM has said that the referendum in 2016 or 2017 could be the most important decision we British will ever make in our lifetimes. What should be the role of the churches in this?

First, the churches should help set the agenda for the debate. John F Kennedy might have said that the Christian way to frame the question is to ask not what our continent can do for us so much as what we can do for it. This altruistic note runs wholly counter to the way the leadership are trying to motivate us one way or the other. I find this deeply worrying. In the nation's life, just as in personal life, it's always true that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive'. Social theology can help frame the debate so that the vision of the common good is not lost, especially when it comes to peace and justice in the world, our response to the voiceless and the poor, and how we address the degrading of the environment and its effect on our climate. What will merely sustain us in our lifestyles or confirm our island presumptions ought not to be at the top of the agenda. It's not for the churches to tell us how to vote. But by offering intelligent and wise commentary on the issues, and helping to interpret their theological and spiritual significance, they can help us vote in a better informed way. And, what matters most, to vote as citizens of God's kingdom and not merely citizens of this earthly kingdom of the UK.

Second, the churches should help set the tone of the debate. By that I mean that they should demonstrate the importance of courtesy, of rigorous intelligent argument, and most of all perhaps, of listening attentively to things we may passionately dissent from. All this goes into making sure that differences of view will be, in a favourite phrase of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 'good disagreement'. The churches in Scotland played this role in the run-up to and aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It was appreciated. But they were only able to do this because they had participated publicly in the debate themselves, and modelled how to do it in an adult and considered way. I hope that all the churches in Britain will emulate their example. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Jeremy, the Church of England and Same Sex Marriage

So Jeremy Pemberton has lost round one. An employment tribunal has ruled that the Church of England was not guilty of discrimination when his permission to officiate was revoked by his Acting Bishop. The grounds were his defiance of the prohibition on C of E clergy to marry a partner of the same sex, though celibate civil partnerships are permitted. The Bishop's argument had been that the Church's doctrine was that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. Jeremy is appealing.

The lawyers will go on debating this, but at first sight, I don't think we can argue with the secular tribunal's reading of the Church's position. The Church has ruled on the definition of marriage. Right or wrong, it's hard to dispute that to go against the rules is to breach the clergy vow of canonical obedience. We may think it's plain inconsistent, not to say unjust, to allow the clergy to enter into civil partnerships (which, let's not forget, many bishops fiercely resisted when they came in) but balk at marriage to their same-sex partners. But there it is.

It's the rules themselves that need questioning. The Church has ruled many things in the past that have imposed a discipline on its members, especially on the clergy as its public officers. But later, as situations have changed, it has changed its mind too, either by rewriting the rules or quietly forgetting they were there in the first place. I've written about this before, so this isn't new. But here are some instances we shouldn't forget.

Take contraception. In the early twentieth century, birth control was as contentious a matter at Lambeth Conferences as homosexuality has been in recent decades. Bishops argued fiercely that to tamper with the beginnings of human life flew in the face of the Bible and Christian tradition; and contraception accessible to all would be bound to encourage immorality. But I guess not many C of E couples today refer to these official statements when deciding on contraception. And theology has successfully integrated it into an entirely biblical view of creation and procreation so that it's been a matter of principle and not just pragmatism.

Then there's a more recent change of mind: the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Traditionalists regard this as problematic both in principle and because it puts at risk wider ecumenical relationships. I won't rehearse the arguments on both sides. What I want to point out is that the Church has listened hard and changed its mind about the ethics and theology of how gender equality is reflected in the leadership of the Christian community. We can blame a secular 'society' for putting pressure on the Church, but such pressure may be precisely the prophetic voice that calls for and initiates change that is both right and just.

Most relevant to Jeremy's case is the remarriage of divorcees in church. I am old enough to have taken part in many a synodical debate about this. It's a sharp question: how can a promise of lifelong fidelity be dissolved by being overwritten by a subsequent identical vow? Didn't Jesus teach unambiguously that 'whoever divorces...and marries another commits adultery'? Nevertheless, the Church has found a way of acknowledging the 'fact on the ground': that marriages break up and couples look to the Church to sanctify a new start. Here too theology has looked again at its reading of scripture and tradition. It's a daring step because it clearly re-construes what we mean by the vows of marriage. But as the proponents of this change of discipline argued at the time, it didn't follow that the Christian understanding of marriage had itself been compromised.

In each case, the direction of travel has been from exclusion to inclusion. It hasn't meant a change in Church doctrine, rather the way in which it is lived out. We don't have to look very far in the New Testament to see that this was the question that exercised the mind of the early church and bitterly divided its communities. As soon as the gospel began to travel outside the Jewish world, it raised a sharp question. When gentiles felt the force of religion and wanted to become Christians, did they need to become Jewish first and be circumcised in order to be received into the church? The clear answer was no. But it took time to 'discern' it, and there was much fierce debate and painful falling-out on the way. We find it hard to imagine today what a profound change of mind and heart it involved.

So I have come to believe (not without struggle) that the Church of England should recognise and honour equal marriage. Fundamentally, what matters is that equal marriage (that is to say marriage) embraces the promise of lifelong fidelity. (The state still needs to spell out its understanding of loyalty and faithfulness in same-sex relationships, but the principle is there.) Christianity promotes covenanted unions because they confer shape and discipline on our otherwise wayward human sexuality. And like the remarriage of divorcees, this 'enlarging' of marriage is precisely not a change of understanding but a matter of inviting a previously excluded group to come inside, take on its undertakings and enjoy its benefits. If I have to choose between being more inclusive or less, I shall take a risk and go for the more. It's what I see Jesus doing in the face of bitter opposition. I what I see the early church demonstrating in its welcome to gentile believers.
 
This week, the new Church of England website on marriage has gone live. It's geat timing for us as my daughter and her fiancé are planning a church wedding next year. In many ways it's exemplary: warm, inviting, and helpful. But if you are a gay Christian man or woman in a committed relationship, how does this read to you? The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer. At any time you are welcome to come and pray with us, or ask us to pray for you. Yes, the law is the law. But the website doesn't explain that the Church of England wanted it that way. How I wish we could say something different!
 
I blogged on all this a couple of years ago. I said that 'there is no likelihood of turning back the tide of events. So the Church must learn to live in the light of them.' We can either do that grudgingly, or we can broaden our vision of the Church as a universal community that is for LGBT people as it is for everyone else. Our claim to be generous, hospitable and open is not just a matter of smiling nicely at people. The evidence is in what we say and do when our gay friends ask us to recognise and celebrate their loyalties and loves as we do those of heterosexual couples.
 
It's no comfort to Jeremy Pemberton and many others in his position to know that one day, the Church of England will revisit its theology of marriage and change its mind and its rules. I am not underestimating the difficulty of doing this, nor how it may be received in some partner churches and other faith communities in this country and overseas. We need to heed the Archbishop of Canterbury's call for 'good disagreement' because that's the only way in which discernment can take place. But two thousand years of Christian history beginning with the New Testament show how theology and practice always need to be responsive to changing contexts. It's part of our call to become mature in Christ.

Will I live long enough see the Church of England embrace equal marriage in my lifetime? I don't know, if I'm honest. But I'm seeing enough movement of hearts and minds among Christians to hope so.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

How to Read a Human Life: the art of biography

It's a massive book: two weighty tomes so far, a third one promised. I doubt if I'll read it. But I was intrigued by Matthew Parris's recent review in The Times. 'Charles Moore’s second of three planned volumes on the life of Margaret Thatcher nevertheless becomes close to drowning in its own scholarship. This may not be Mr Moore’s fault. It may be hers. In the end she doesn’t quite float.' He goes on to say that 'there are people who, under the magnifying glass (of biography) shrink' and wonders whether Mrs T may turn out to be one of those. Maybe, he ponders, there just isn't enough of interest to fill three bulky volumes.

The late great Denis Healey famously said that her problem was that she just didn't have enough 'hinterland'. He meant by that useful word the dimension of a person's life that lies behind how they are to us, what we see: their historical sense, their cultural awareness, how they reflect on experience and place themselves within narratives that are bigger than themselves and their immediate concerns. This is what lends texture to a person's life, gives it complexity like a fine rich wine. These are things that make us interesting.

However, I think there's more to it than Parris suggests. I think he means that what can 'shrink' under the gaze of the biographer is not the subject him- or herself, but their reputation, their place in history, how we evaluate them. They may be less interesting than we thought. Or that by reading about them, we come to admire them less than we did before, indeed find we don't like them very much. Biography, like psychotherapy, is an act of mapping, truth-seeking and interpretation. It can be a bit like detection. It shouldn't flinch from what it uncovers.

But I want to ask: isn't everyone interesting simply by virtue of being human? St Augustine said he couldn't understand how people gazed with awe at mountains and oceans, at palaces and temples, but passed by the mystery of their own selves without a second thought. That's strikingly prescient of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

     O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
     Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep.

Eleanor Farjeon once said about an indifferent biography that while the assemblage of information was impeccable, the book read as more a compilation of the material than a distillation from it. For the challenge of biography is much more rehearsing a timeline and chronicling the facts. It's to penetrate below the surface, make connections, help us gain insight into how a person has been shaped by history and culture, society and community, the external environment that in viticulture is called by that evocative word terroir. And it's to try to elucidate the motifs and patterns of another human being, what their relationships and personal life tell us about who and what they are. (This is why 'unofficial' biographies tend to be a lot more illuminating than officially sanctioned ones.)

In my book Wisdom and Ministry I offered ideas about how wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible might enrich the practice of public ministry. I included a chapter on life of King David as it's depicted in the Second Book of Samuel and First Book of the Kings. It's one of the greatest narratives in the scriptures, told with extraordinary insight into the dynamics of human nature and relationships. This hidden, highly ambivalent, aspect of David's character colours the whole of his career as monarch. How he (mis)manages the interplay between public role and private person is vividly and marvellously explored The light and shade that make up 'King David' are exposed in a way that makes me think that the author of the 'Court History' is one of the ancient world's very greatest writers with a rare emotional and spiritual intelligence when it comes to reading the human heart.

This brilliantly told story is not biography in the modern sense. Yet the skill of the writer is such that we see on every page the humanity of this flawed man. Like the best biography or the best fiction, this author knows. And therefore we are the wiser too, better able to understand the always-changing tides of human life. We shouldn't run away from complexity as many do, but embrace it as an essential aspect of God's creation (see Psalm 139, 'fearfully and wonderfully made'). This is a really crucial aspect of all Christian ministry, education, the caring professions and - yes - politics. 

So biography gives us important clues not just about other people but ourselves too. Even the most ordinary people are endlessly fascinating because we are all fundamentally mysterious and complex. Blake Morrison's memoir about his father, And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a brilliant example of how the commonplace and everyday comes to life in the hands of an accomplished writer who can paint a portrait in words. I found myself thinking 'yes! yes!' as I read it and recognised in this cameo of an ordinary Englishman a man who, like the rest of us, turned out not to be ordinary at all.

I don't know about Charles Moore's book. But I suspect that what fascinates us about Margaret Thatcher is indeed what was 'ordinary' about her. As in everyone, it's partly visible and partly concealed. The biographer has to respect and be reticent before the 'mystery' of the person, for so much remains unknowable even to ourselves. Only God ultimately knows. Nevertheless, in a biography we ask to be shown something of what is discoverable, and in Mrs T's case, this means the woman as well as the politician, and especially how each of her personae informs the other.

But biography needs some distance in time to see things more clearly. It's an art that can't be hurried. It may be too soon for that kind of distillation just yet.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Betjeman's C of E: an elegy to a lost world

We've enjoyed an hour of nostalgia watching a TV documentary by John Betjeman called A Passion for Churches.

Made in 1974, it's an affectionate portrait of the life of the Church of England in Norfolk. There is no county in England richer in beautiful historic churches. Whether they were great or small, urban or rural, famous or obscure, Betjeman loved these buildings. He often wrote about the church's architecture, arts and crafts. Church visitors are indebted to his comprehensive county by county gazetteer of English parish churches. To lovers of our built heritage, he is a hero.

I look back to 1974 as the year I came of age. Late in time, you may say, for someone born in 1950. But in that year I left college, got married and rented a first home. I was ordained less than twelve months later, so it was a year of milestones. Now that I have (just) passed another of life's thresholds, retirement, I'm keenly aware of how significant the rites of passage were that launched my grown-up working life. So this documentary about life as we lived it in the 1970s has recalled things I only half remembered, and reminded me how far we have travelled in the past forty years.

If you'd asked me earlier what church life in that era was like, I'd have said in a lazy way: much like today, only a lot more confident. However Betjeman's film makes it clear that it was, in fact, very different, another country where they do things differently. This is not because of JB's native melancholy, the elegiac register he falls into as he contemplates lost worlds in immaculate poetic prose. The evidence speaks for itself. You watch parish life in full flow. Churches are respectably full. The clergy still have their fair share of 'characters' and eccentrics. Many of them live in large historic vicarages fit for squires. Surpliced choristers sing Prayer Book evensong in remote country parishes. Sunday schools are bulging, even when they meet on a Wednesday. Clergy wear robes de rigeur. Men wear jackets and ties to go to church, and ladies wear hats, at least in comfortably-off Norfolk, as they sing from Hymns Ancient and Modern or, if they are high church, The English Hymnal.

True, there is Series 3 by now, and the Bible is read from the RSV or even New English, and the parish communion is replacing sung matins. The 'bombazine and bonnets of the Sunday morning congregation' is not the flamboyant fashion show it was a generation before. There is a genuine and well-intended attempt to popularise: Youth Praise has made an entrance, as has the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group (who can forget the frantic rush of words to O Jesus I have promised or that heady slide down a seventh at the end of Living Lord, still sung today?). But worship songs are yet to come, as are mission action plans, fresh expressions, messy church, the decline in clergy numbers, female priests and bishops, alternative episcopal oversight and much else.

It's startling to look back and realise that like steam engines (also beloved by JB), the lost world of the C of E in 1974 belongs to my own life time. I guess that's down to my reluctance to accept that I'm getting old enough to have bridged different eras. After all, what I have lived through can't be that distant, can it? So why did I begin this blog by talking about nostalgia? That word, literally, means an aching for the past, but I'm not sure that was quite what I felt as I watched this delightful film. It's more to do with our attachment to our own memories. The older we get, the more important memory becomes. We invest in memory because it is so bound up with our own personal identity. That's where the 'ache' lies, because our memories are always receding from us and that means loss and even sadness.

So, forty years on, what have been the gains and losses in the life of the church? Here are some plusses. (One commentator thinks I'm being too cheery about these but judge for yourself.) In some ways, the church as an institution is probably in better shape even if it is considerably leaner. The tasks of mission are more intelligently contextualised and understood, and embodied in more versatile ways. The commitment to social justice is far more consistent and explicit (and publicly recognised). The role of 'public faith' is more clearly articulated. The leadership is better trained in strategic and policy matters and the church's processes are more transparent and accountable as a result, not least in what it is learning from the terrible failures in safeguarding in the past. Church buildings, in Norfolk among other places, are being opened up to a wide diversity of community uses alongside worship.

What about the minuses? I worry that the C of E is less comprehensive than it used to be, more uniform and less tolerant of diversity. It is perhaps more fractious and defensive. I worry that the founding vision of the cure of souls of 'the parish' is being narrowed to little more than chaplaincy to committed congregations. I worry that serious biblical study and theology are less practised than they should be, not least by a relentlessly busy hierarchy. I worry that because language shapes thought, marketing and management speak are at risk of eroding theological, pastoral, spiritual and mission-orientated ways of thinking and acting. I worry about the unspoken pressure to 'succeed', and the risk this poses to the spiritual, emotional and physical health of clergy. I worry about the decline of an institutional sense of irony. I worry about whether the church really believes it exists to promote a truly Christian wisdom to our world rather than just survive.

Better minds than mine have charted the immense cultural shifts that have taken place in the time I have been ordained. There is a lot to welcome, even if we may regret at the loss of what seemed like the more innocent, less baffling world of our youth. I guess this is as much about growing up and learning to embrace complexity as it is about the external environment. When we have lived long enough to be bewildered, or to suffer, or to know for ourselves the power of fear, loss and shame, life will never again be easy or straightforward.

I blush to think how little I knew of these things in the 1970s when I climbed up into the pulpit for the first time and cut my teeth as an interpreter of the Christian gospel. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't go back to 1974. Neither, I'm sure, would the Church of England. Living in the present can feel like an ambiguous gift at times, but a gift is precisely what it is. And the more we seize the day, the better able we are to see the past for what it is, and learn to put away those rose-tinted spectacles in order to understand its ambiguities, learn from its failures, but also, in the spirit of eucharistia, to be thankful for all the benefits it has bequeathed to us.

You can find John Betjeman's film on the BBC1 website. You will love it, I promise!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Christ in a Choppie Box: talking about God in North East England

When I left Durham Cathedral at the end of September, I wanted to offer its community a tangible gift to represent 12 years in that extraordinary and wonderful place. People had been kind enough to say that they had valued my preaching in the Cathedral and across the North East. So I approached our friendly local publisher Sacristy Press to see if they would be interested in producing a book of sermons preached during these past years.

Christ in a Choppie Box* is the result. I decided early on that I was by no means the best judge of quality. The decision as to which sermons deserved to see the light of day in print as opposed to those that were best forgotten needed to be made by someone else. I was very lucky to secure the help of Carol Harrison, a distinguished theologian who, for most of my time in Durham, held a Chair in the Department of Theology and Religion in Durham University. (She is now Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.) She was a regular member of the congregation at the sung eucharist and so heard (suffered under?) many of my offerings at first hand. She trawled through the oeuvre, picked the best and edited them, introducing her anthology with an introduction of great theological insight. I was also honoured that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a colleague and friend from Coventry and Durham days, wrote a warm and generous foreword commending the book.

Who reads books of sermons nowadays? Especially when the front cover carries a 'selfie' of the preacher which looks like an act of shameless self-promotion? Well, I rather enjoy reading other people's sermons as it happens, and I suspect I am not alone. I've learned a lot from the sermons of Austin Farrer, Sydney Evans, Eric James, Martin Smith, John Habgood and Rowan Williams, to name a few who have significantly influenced my own preaching. Not to mention past masters of the art and craft of preaching such as John Donne, F. W. Robertson of Brighton, John Henry Newman, Hensley Henson, Ronald Knox and many others.

The difficulty with a book of sermons is of course that there is all the difference in the world between the 'event' of a proclamation delivered from a pulpit to a live audience, and the written text on the page. Preaching is something performed before it is something written. Every preacher knows that a sermon comes alive when he or she senses that some real encounter is taking place between the word of God and its hearers, a meeting that is potentially life-changing. The script itself has a different kind of existence, just as the musical score is not the same as the performed work that is 'made flesh' in the human voice or the instrument he or she plays. However, the written text is a genre in its own right that can stimulate reflection, aid meditation, kindle the imagination and enlarge the soul. That's what I hope for my Choppie Box.

Carol thought it was important for readers to gain some insight into what I believe about preaching, so she included a lecture I gave to clergy not long after I arrived in Durham on 'The Art of Preaching'. I ended it with my list of 'Ten Deadly Sins of Preaching' which is what I suspect people remembered long after the rest was forgotten. The risk, of course, is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I wish I could guarantee that my sermons avoid those all-too commonly committed offences against the noble vocation of preaching. Only you (if you read the book) can judge. I've also introduced each sermon with a few words indicating the setting in which it was delivered (because 'a text without a context is a pretext').

Most of the sermons were preached in Durham Cathedral, a few elsewhere. But all belong to North East England, the region that has become home and whose Christian history and spirituality have been extraordinarily formative as I have tried to establish my own Christian identity in the second half of life and find my authentic voice as a preacher. Included are a number of sermons on specifically North Eastern themes, some of the key places and people that have shaped this land of saints. And that includes the Cathedral itself, of course, the interpretation of whose mission and reason for existing is the key task of any dean.

The off-beat title has given rise to a lot of amused speculation. I ought to say (for the publisher's sake): read the book and find out for yourself what it means. But let me be kind and explain. Durham Cathedral has a beautiful Christmas Crib carved by an ex-miner who included in it several references to Durham's great mining traditions. In 'pitmatic', the language of the miners, the 'choppie box' was the trough from which the pit ponies fed underground. So it was a genuine manger, and this is how the Crib presents the infant Jesus, lying placidly in his choppie box with a pit pony standing by with the ox and the ass.

I hope you enjoy the book, whether you live in North East England or beyond. Let me know what you think via comments on this blog site. Responses to sermons are how every preacher learns. And although I have retired, I very much want to go on learning about the privileged and joyous role we preachers are fortunate enough to inhabit.

*Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England. Sacristy Press 2015, £9.99. You can order the book from the publisher at http://www.sacristy.co.uk/books/theology/michael-sadgrove-sermons. I hope you'll consider supporting Sacristy in this way if you do decide to get it.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Great Letter Writer: an inspiration for bloggers

On holiday in France this week, I've had time to read a few books that have sat on the 'to be read' pile for ages. One of them got me thinking.
 
It's a collection of letters by a great French woman of the 17th century, Madame de Sevigne* (1626-1696). (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read them in French: one day, later in retirement, maybe.) Her translator (Penguin Classics edition) describes her as one of the best letter-writers of any age: fluent, vivacious, funny, with a sharp eye for observation and the ability in turns to amuse, inform and even inspire.
 
She was a Parisian with family roots in Burgundy who had married into a prominent Breton family. Her grandmother was a saint, no less (at least, she was to be canonised in the 18th century, Sainte Jeanne de Chantal, a friend and disciple of St Francis de Sales). She moved easily around the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, knew everybody who was anybody in 'society', and lived through events that came to define the France of the Grand Siècle. So her letters are matchless chronicles of her own times, an invaluable source of information that is also full of entertainment, for she had a wonderful eye for the absurd.
 
We have one person in particular to thank for many of these amazing letters. This is her daughter Francoise. On her, M de S shed a motherly love that, it has to be said, bordered on the obsessive. (She had a son too, but he didn't get anything like the same concentration of maternal attention.) When Francoise married and moved away to Provence where her husband had been appointed governor, there began a stream of correspondence between the two that ended only with Madame's death. It's these letters that tell us so much about the dramas big and small that fascinated the Marquise. From the affairs of state to the little violations of protocol observed in Parisian salons, not to mention her daughter's marriage and pregnancies, her husband's casual attitude to money, the risks of travel in winter, the servant problem, the merits and (especially) the flaws of last Sunday's sermon, she writes so vividly that you feel you are witnessing events with her.
 
Letters, like diaries, make for great bed-time reading. They come in bite-sized chunks, and if the writer is any good, they are not simply a compilation of happenings and circumstances but a distillation of them, a way of finding meaning through reflection and writing. This has interested me as much as the content, how the art of writing can be such a powerful tool in the hands of an effective practitioner. At the same time as reading M de S, I've also been enjoying A. L. Kennedy's book On Writing, a collection of her marvellous Guardian blogs on what it's like to be a writer, how she creates a novel, the experience of dealing with publishers, agents and reviewers and so on. In her very different way, Kennedy demonstrates the same kind of flair. It's a precious gift. 
 
These books have made me think about my own enjoyment of writing now that I have more time to give to it. They've made me wonder, like many others, what is happening to letter-writing in the digital age. Maybe as a literary form, the traditional epistolary form is in decline nowadays: some of us have almost lost the ability to hold a pen let alone write intelligibly and legibly with it.
 
But electronic media open up new ways in which old traditions can be kept alive. Kennedy's weekly pieces are a good example of how blogging can perform some of the same functions as writing letters. When I write my blog, it feels a bit like an 'open letter': anyone can read it, but there are some who respond as if it's a quasi-personal communication. I'm pleased about that. The same goes in shorter form for platforms like Twitter and Facebook where the art of saying a lot in few words can lead to surprisingly interesting, elegant and entertaining interactions. I've no doubt that Madame would be an avid follower of social media if she were alive today.
 
As, I think, would the New Testament writers. It's worth recalling how much of the New Testament consists of letters: some very personal such as Paul's to Philemon, others for more general circulation like Romans, Ephesians and Hebrews. In these letters we overhear the goings-on in the churches of the 1st century, just as Madame lets us overhear the 17th.
 
Maybe there's a message not only in the content but the literary form itself: don't be afraid of opportunism in communication. Allow circumstances to inspire and suggest themes for reflection and writing. If something has grabbed your attention, share it. Be spontaneous and see what emerges. In a strange way, social media, far from drawing us away from time-honoured literary forms like letters and diaries, may be taking us straight back to them and helping us both to appreciate them afresh, and to imitate them in renewed and imaginative ways.  

*An apology to her memory and to all lovers of the French language: every time I insert acute accents in Blogger, they disappear from sight. Clearly this programme is worryingly Francophobe.