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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.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Having Your Cake and Eating It: Advent thoughts

I'm trying hard not to be grumpy this Advent.

It's not the usual clergy preoccupation with Christmas trees, carolling and commercialism before November is even out. It doesn't become us to be pressing the dislike button too much. I used to be quite fierce about keeping a rigorously blue (or violet) Advent until Christmas Eve. Indeed, I still want to honour Advent in its entirety as a matter of personal spiritual discipline: this is a wonderful liturgical season. But my internalised Pharisee doesn't take much awakening at this time of year. So I'm learning to be more relaxed about it. In the grand scheme of things there are bigger worries to preoccupy us.

And it's these bigger things that are making me grumpy. More accurately, the bigger things in which I'm directly implicated and have to take some responsibility for. 2016 has been particularly prolific in this respect.

Take this morning's news for instance. A Government aide has been photographed in Downing Street making very free with her spiral-bound notebook. "Who is Julia? What is she?" Schubert might have sung. A quick photographer with a long lense captures her scribblings for all to see. "What's the model? Have your cake and eat it." And then: "French likely to be the most difficult." (What is it with these people who are caught more often than they should be with their literary pants down in one of the world's most scrutinised streets? You have to wonder if they are under instruction to reveal tantalising glimpses of what's going on behind closed doors.)

Yes, I'm tempted to be exceedingly grumpy about this. My parents taught me about having my cake and eating it early on in life. How it used to irritate me when they trotted out this proverb!  They said it meant trying to achieve the impossible, and always for selfish ends. As I've learned from the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/1HbHN6q), in Germany you would say that you can't dance at two weddings at once, and in Russia that you can't sit on two chairs at the same time. 

If ever a phrase captured the spirit of the Brexiters' referendum campaign it is this. It seems that we Remainers were right when we said that the mantra "Give us our country back" was utterly and unscrupulously self-regarding. In a series of blogs earlier this year, I asked (possibly a trifle grumpily) where, in the Brexit campaign, we could find real concern for the welfare of other nations, for social justice, for the project of creating a more peaceable world, for the pursuit of the common good. (The answer is that there were a few Brexit voices that called for a more just world order such as Giles Fraser's, but they were all but drowned in the shrill chorus that echoed David Cameron's negotiating stance at the Brussels summit in February: "what matters is what's best for Britain". Not the EU, not Europe, not our allies, not the poor and neglected, not a world facing irreversible climate change, not the human family as a whole. Just us here in Britain.)

It's going back to an old question to ask where this leaves the Hebrew and Christian commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus did not say that we should have our cake and eat it. He taught us that if someone demands the cloak on our back, we must give them our shirt as well; if we are asked to travel a mile with a person who needs our help, we must go the next mile too. He taught us that in the kingdom of God, it is open-handedness and generosity that count, because that is how God is towards us. I hesitate to invoke the word surely because somehow that suggests a rhetorical cover-up for a weak argument. But surely the gospel's logic is that the love-command applies to every level of human life, corporate, national and global as well as personal. Doesn't it? 

Advent refocuses our gaze on what belongs to God's kingdom. It lifts our spirits because we believe that God has a destiny for the human race that transcends our best efforts to serve our own ends - efforts that will usually end badly. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, as an Advent gesture, our leaders started talking seriously about the role our nation could play in constructing a world characterised by generosity rather than self-interest? I may be na├»ve but I believe - or want to believe - that the British people are far better than the dreadful slogans so many found themselves mouthing during the Referendum. Who would not hear the knock on the door and gladly open it to someone who needed us? Who would give their child a stone when they asked for a fish? 

So have we seen an ugly truth in a spiral-bound notebook? Is having your cake and eating it now the official ethic of a virtuous Christian nation? Is it the political version of the acquisitive "must-have" slogans that fill our TV screens in Advent? Or is it just a piece of nonsense we shouldn't pay too much attention to? After all, it's just another way of saying that you can't do the impossible and square the circle. (Maybe "Julia" is even deconstructing rather cleverly the illogic of her Brexit lords and masters by making sure we notice the non-sense of their position - wanting the benefits of the Single Market but not the free movement of people that inevitably goes with it?) 

What's the antidote to feeling grumpy about all this? I think it's to focus on the Advent hope and on the more excellent way of love that the gospel invites us to walk in. It's to practise thankfulness as the fundamental Christian virtue, because it is the only possible response we can make to the generous Love that calls us to say yes to it. Having your cake and eating it just sounds feeble and pathetic when you set it alongside the Advent themes of ultimate destiny: death, judgment, hell and heaven. 

There. I'm done with it. Away with grumpiness. It has no place in this season of expectancy and joy. 


  1. Do you have any specific advice about how to focus on Advent hope at this time when so many are despairing? I note you have suggest practising thankfulness, something I never find easy when feeling grumpy. Perhaps we also need to be honest about the reasons for grumpiness? Acknowledge the darkness of despair as the place when God's joy may break in?

  2. Great Post, Michael, thank you. My mother used to say, "Stop looking to see if someone has more beans on your plate than you have"! She meant, even we three greedy children could see actually counting the orange beans to check if it was fair was silly. But people do check if they think it isn't fair, or if they are hungry. When people know there is a shortage of housing, small wonder if they worry whether their son or daughter will ever get a house if we take people in from elsewhere. If your son or daughter doesn't have a job, the stories of preferential treatment for "immigrants" have real bite. Of course, they may not be true, and people do not distinguish between economic migrants, refugees, and even illegal immigrants, and those are important distinctions. But even I want to know why there are 2m unemployed, and 2m foreign nationals working in this country! I know the answer, in part. Many of the foreign nationals are doctors, and many of the unemployed are redundant steel workers, or 16 year olds with no qualifications. But that isn't obvious to many.
    But just to cheer you up. I took the bus today. I was the last to arrive, but we all had a long wait as the bus was late. When it came, it stopped opposite me. I know what it's like round here. Queues straggle around, but everyone knows who's first, so I stood back. Everyone gave me a smile of thanks as they passed, all the young people looked a little anxious about putting themselves forward, and then gratefully quickened their step. Except for one handsome young man of about 16, who obviously must have arrived just before me. When it came to his turn, he smiled and beckoned me forward to go before him. Now wasn't that nice? People can be awful, and we can also be wonderful.