Monday, 13 August 2018

On Reading "The Diary of a Country Priest"

I've just finished reading this remarkable book. I've been deeply struck by it. I imagined I'd read it before, decades ago, but I now don't think I can have done.

For instance, I'd long imagined it was the real diary of a real country priest living in nineteenth century France. In fact it's a novel by the twentieth century writer Georges Bernanos who died seventy years ago this year. Its imagined depiction of parish life in the north of France between the wars won him the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française. In 1950 it was named one of the twelve best novels in French published between 1900 and 1950.

I guess the reason it's so famous is the sheer vividness with which the author enters into the life of an impoverished catholic priest. You would have to have been a fervent believer to have written it. Not so much for the passages of theological and philosophical speculation about, say, heaven and hell, or social hierarchy in the countryside, or the nature of sin, but for the light Bernanos shines on the everyday dealings of a priest with his parishioners, his parish and his fellow clergy. And for the inspired guesswork (or maybe I mean detective work?) with which he tries to get inside the mind and soul of a character you speculate he has become intensely fond of. Does the novel represent a vocation Bernanos might once have had? 

What I love about the book is its sense of parish. Early on, the country priest muses on the importance of loving your parish. Just three months today since my appointment to this parish. This morning I prayed hard for my parish, my poor parish, my first and perhaps my last. My parish! The words can't even be spoken without a kind of soaring love....I know that my parish is a reality, that we belong to each other for all eternity; it is not a mere administrative fiction but a living cell of the everlasting church. But if only the good God would open my eyes and unseal my ears so that I might behold the face of my parish and hear its voice....The look in its eyes would be the eyes of all Christianity, of all parishes - perhaps of the poor human race itself.

I found that an arresting passage, given our current preoccupations about the future of the parish system in the Church of England. The words seem chosen carefully. Bernanos could have said congregation or the faithful or the baptised. And maybe he's making all sorts of assumptions about his parish population (what Anglicans used to call "the charitable assumption" that presumes faith and principled motive on the part of those who seek the offices of the church). But I don't think he elides parish and the faithful. There's such a strong sense of sacred geography in the Diary, what Andrew Rumsey in his fine recent study Parish - an Anglican Theology of Place recognises as deeply embedded in our native traditions of public ministry.

Reading it, I was frequently reminded of a book I read in the 1980s while I was a parish priest in a rural market town. It's by Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase to Silence. A priest formed in the gritty realities of urban ministry, his remarkable books, all written in retirement, were the fruit of a rich lifelong experience of “parish” in just such worlds that Bernanos’ curé inhabited. It's not too much to say that Staircase turned round my entire attitude to parish ministry with the idea of which - I freely acknowledge - I was struggling at the time. His book is a study of another Frenchman and older contemporary of Bernanos, the poet and man of letters Charles Péguy. A chapter I recall being much influenced by was one entitled Mes Vieilles Paroisses Francaises. I need to read it again (was it there that I read about how, on a French parish festival, Péguy playfully imagined that Joan of Arc or Theresa of Lisieux had only just left the party a moment ago?). Péguy was writing about the corn fields of the Beauce across which you see the distant spires of Chartres Cathedral - but his spirit pervades Bernanos' world too. New bishops and incumbents could not do better than read all these books (Bernanos, Rumsey and Ecclestone) and ponder them at a time when the Church of England is putting every egg in the basket of growing congregations through project-based evangelism and at risk of starving traditional parochial ministry of sorely-needed funds in the process.

Back to the Diary. The central section focuses on a long and difficult pastoral encounter the priest has with an influential female parishioner. You feel for him as he tries to uncover the truth of her complex life, the courage it takes to "speak truth to power" in circumstances such as this. Most of us in public ministry have been there at one time or another. In the end, after what feels like a Herculean feat of theological and spiritual candour, he gets to an unexpected place of resolution. Here's how the diarist records the outcome. "Be at peace" I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. Oh miracle - thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever, was given back to her by God and  - who can tell - perhaps in my name! Poor as I am, an insignificant little priest, looking upon this woman only yesterday so far my superior in age, birth, fortune, intellect, I still knew - yes I knew - what fatherhood means.

That remarkable passage, almost worthy of Dostoyesvsky, shows, I think, profound insight into the paradoxes of public ministry. But how many of us clergy are capable of scrutinising our ministry and ourselves with that degree of honesty? How many of us have sufficient self-knowledge even to understand the questions with which we need to interrogate ourselves? Bernanos writes elsewhere in the book, When writing of oneself one should show no mercy. Yet why at the first attempt to discover one's own truth does all inner strength seem to melt away in floods of self-pity and tenderness and rising tears? Diarists and bloggers, beware of being too kind to ourselves! Not to agonise in front of others necessarily, but to "tell all the truth", as far as we ever can, at least in private before God and ourselves. And even in a more public register, we need surely to be constant seekers after truth, even if we often have to "tell it slant".

I've often spoken to at ordinands' retreats on the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness in any public role. I've found Bernanos to be a powerful impetus to try to practise better what I have been preaching for so long. Perhaps it's about the recovery of the joy and openness of our childhood, the kind of rapturous vision captured in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations. Bernanos says: God has entrusted the Church to keep [the soul of childhood] alive, to safeguard our candour and freshness... Joy is the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share... What would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is?” There have been times in my own ministry as a priest when I've needed to try to recapture what relentless public exposure had corroded. Bernanos understood that.

One last passage from the Diary. It concerns the prayer and spirituality, a matter of recurring concern in the book as we would expect. Again, the author writes with a keen sense of how paradoxical the spiritual life so often is. The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare speak so frivolously of prayer? A Carthusian, a Trappist will work for years to make of himself a man of prayer, and then any fool who comes along sets himself up as judge of this lifelong effort. If it were really what they suppose, a kind of chatter, the dialogue of a madman with his shadow, or even less—a vain and superstitious sort of petition to be given the good things of this world, how could innumerable people find until their dying day, I won't even say such great 'comfort'—since they put no faith in the solace of the senses—but sheer, robust, vigorous, abundant joy in prayer? Oh, of course—suggestion, say the scientists. Certainly they can never have known old monks, wise, shrewd, unerring in judgement, and yet aglow with passionate insight, so very tender in their humanity. What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!
If you haven't read the book, you won't know how it ends. No spoilers from me! But Bernanos gives us a profoundly moving and satisfying conclusion to the Diary. I won't say that it's a tidy ending - you wouldn't expect it to be from an author who understands better than many both the "mess" of the parish (his phrase, not mine) and the complexity of human life, not least his own. How could any ending be tidy? Having not long retired from a lifetime of public ministry as a priest, I know how untidy my laying aside that role was at the time, and even more in my subsequent memory of it. This is only one of many insights in The Diary of a Country Priest that I recognise from my own experience of ministry, that I dare to say we all recognise if we are sufficiently curious about God, humanity and our own selves to frame the questions he asks so bravely and follow them wherever they lead, however uncomfortable that may be. 

In the end, after a lot of pain and hardship, the Diary ends on a note of thankfulness. Tout est grâce is the conclusion, "everything is grace". That's the spirit that pervades the entire book. Despite everything, Bernanos' struggling, pain-ridden priest has emerged victorious. Which I think makes this marvellous book an inspiration for today's ministers, especially those travelling through dark times. "What will survive of us is love" says Philip Larkin in a famous poem. It could be the epigraph of this book. For everything is grace, and grace is everything.  

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

"The best things just happen to you."

It was the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said that. I came across it while reading an intriguing book** by the child psychotherapist Adam Phillips. He is writing about how a lot of learning happens, not as a result of formal schooling but through hints and nudges. He means the things that "just happen" to us, inconsequential in themselves but for the fact that we remember them and find ourselves returning to them in our thoughts and reflections, even find that our lives were changed because of them.
He quotes a fellow philosopher who recalls a walk Wittgenstein and he were on. Wittgenstein "had seen a play, a third-rate, poor play, when he was twenty-two. One detail in that play had made a powerful impression on him.  It was a trifle. But here some peasant, some-ne'er-do well says in the play: 'Nothing can hurt me.' That remark went through him and now he remembers it. It started things you can't tell. The most important things just happen to you."
I stopped reading to think about that. Is it true, I asked myself? The most important things Wittgenstein says, not just happy conjunctions of events that please us but things that really matter, or as we might say, things of ultimate concern. Bishop Ian Ramsey of Durham, a philosopher of religion who was much influenced by Wittgenstein, spoke about disclosure experiences, "when the penny drops". Carl Gustav Jung would never use the language of coincidences. For him, the fact that we notice them at all, pay attention even fleetingly to how events have come together in a particular way, confers significance on them, gives them meaning. There are no coincidences. If they are important and matter to us, there are only synchronicities.
Personal experience has to be the test of Wittgenstein's dictum. What does my own memory tell me about this? How have the things that "just happen" been significant, touched my life in some way? Looking back over six years of blogging, I find I've mentioned some of them. For example: my love of maths that led me to read it at university; the part music has played in my life for as long as I can remember; the books in childhood that influenced me; my lifelong commitment to the continent of Europe that comes out of my having a British father and a German-Jewish mother; memories of Christmas past; and much more recently, the birth of my first grandson. In that last blog, I wrote about how I would always remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that news. Most of us can tell similar stories about how certain events impinged on us: when our team won the Cup Final, say, or when we heard the news that someone close to us had died. Maybe that's one criterion by which we measure the importance that certain events hold for us, that in an instant, our lives as they were then seem captured as in a photograph.
But none of those can be described strictly speaking as "chance". They belong to contexts that up to a point were already shaped by upbringing or environment. What about the events that at the time seemed to "happen" out of the blue, unforeseen, unforeseeable, yet never forgotten? I've had to think about that today, but here are three I've come up with.
The first is a very archaic memory indeed, probably my earliest, but it's as clear as anything I can recall. We were in Germany where my mother needed to travel regularly to sort out her family's affairs after the war. My parents had found lodgings under the eaves in a back street of Düsseldorf, my mother's home town. My mother told me once that I could not have been more than just over two years old when we stayed there. What I remember was seeing the outline of a church tower and spire out of the window not far away. It was black, dramatically silhouetted against the sky. That evening, something awoke me. It was the sound of church bells being rung in that tower - not change-ringing as in England, but that random tolling of great heavy bells against one other that every European traveller has heard on a Sunday morning.

To me that sound seemed to penetrate my being from top to bottom. This primitive sound that seemed to batter my heart was deeply frightening, even dread-ful, yet somehow, in a way I didn't yet have words for, enticing as well. It felt as if it mattered. Was it my first encounter with that mysterium tremens et fascinans which is how some writers have characterised religion? That it was my earliest conscious religious experience I now don't doubt though I couldn't have described it in that way for many years. And while it was one of the most important experiences of my life, it did "just happen". It still colours the way I think about the Divine, that as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God". It taught me even at that tender age that religion is a serious business, not a plaything or a hobby.
The second event was altogether happier. I was in my early twenties, arriving at theological college to begin training for ordained ministry. This was a few days before term was due to start. My longsuffering parish priest in London had kindly agreed to transport my books and me to the college in his Mini-Traveller and help me settle into my room. We arrived and parked the car. No-one was around except for a young man of about my age who was busy painting a side door at the foot of a staircase that led up into the building. With the warmest of smiles he explained that he too had arrived early and was busy making himself useful. By the end of the afternoon I was established in a room next to his. Why is that day etched on my memory? Because the person concerned quickly became my closest friend and has remained so for the best part of half a century. We still talk about that day we met for the first time when our friendship was born: a time of gifts if ever there was one. The only detail that maddeningly escapes me is the colour of the paint on that door. I must ask him.
My third reminiscence is about my love of photography. By now I was in my fifties. My youngest daughter had asked for a camera for Christmas, so we had bought her a digital compact. I had no interest in photography at that stage (so much so that on a pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine a few years before, I was the only person not to bring a camera. When asked why not, I pompously replied that for me, images were best encapsulated in words, so I was keeping a journal instead.) I thought nothing more about my daughter's camera until she told us that she didn't want a digital after all, so would I buy it off her so that she could get a traditional film camera instead? I agreed. It lay around unused for a while. But then I got to thinking, I've paid good money for that instrument. Maybe it's time I started using it. Living as I did in Durham's world heritage site with one of the world's greatest buildings a few yards away across the garden, I began to realise what opportunities for photography were all around me. The rest as they say is history. I can't now imagine a life without photography, just as I can't imagine one without music. And if I'm asked where I learned what I've been able to grasp as a photographer, I always say: Durham Cathedral was my teacher.
I think I can say that all three of these stories are about what "just happened". None could have been foreseen or planned for. And all three have been amongst the most important experiences of my life. There are many more, not all of which it would be right to blog about. What matters is the spiritual exercise of asking the question in the first place. An earlier generation of spiritual guides like the great eighteenth century French priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade spoke about how we must reflect often on divine Providence, discerning how God comes to us in "the sacrament of the present moment". That's the theme of one of the best English hymns from the same century, William Cowper's God moves in a mysterious way. Maybe I'll blog about that one day. For now, enough to affirm that whether in light or in shadow, our experiences can convey gifts that transcend the circumstances themselves and, even if we don't know it at the time, prove with hindsight to have transformed us in some way.
Yes, "the best things just happen to you." But we must practise how to pay attention and notice them. Who knows what has passed unnoticed in front of us a thousand times a day with the potential to give us something wonderful, undreamed of, and we missed it? That's the question I find myself asking late in life. It's not about regrets but nurturing a thirst to be more alive, being as fully present to the gift that I am alive at all as it's possible to be. I am a slow learner, but I can now add Ludwig Wittgenstein (and Adam Phillips) to the lengthening list of wise teachers to whom to be grateful. 
PS The friend I wrote about above has just read this, and sent me some lines from Mary Oliver:
Let me
keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
**Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery, London (Faber), 1998, p70. 

Monday, 23 July 2018

Vicky's Book

I've just finished reading Vicky Beeching's memoir Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame.

It's a remarkable book, and an important one. Vicky is known across the conservative evangelical world as a song-writer and performer. Her songs have been sung in mega-churches in the Bible belt of the USA where she lived and worked for several years. After much personal struggle she accepted her sexuality and came out as a gay woman. She immediately incurred the wrath of the constituency she had served faithfully for so long. It entailed not only a spiritual and emotional crisis but an economic one too, for evangelical Christian music was not only her love but her livelihood.

This book is Vicky's story and her apologia. It will have taken real courage to write, just as it took real courage to come out in the first place. I guess that the journey of coming out almost always entails greater or lesser ordeals, or at least the threat of them. So much depends on how your family, friends and community view same-sex relationships. When you are immersed in the environment of conservative religion, still more when you are a public figure in that world, the hazards are infinitely greater. Here's one response on Vicky's Twitter account today that gives a flavour. Vicky you don’t appreciate how vile, debasing and degrading your vision of Jesus is. The gospel is inclusive of those who hear and respond to the call, turning from their selfish, sinful ways, giving up all for Him. The church is meant to be exclusive, keeping out sin and sinners. I don't quote it with any pleasure. You have to wonder what kind of Christianity that Tweeter is following.

So the first thing I want to do is to salute Vicky's bravery in writing so candidly. She has been subject to shedloads of abuse on social media and in hostile reviews that no-one should have to put up with. This book has been written out of a great deal of personal anguish and pain. Those who don't see human sexuality as Vicky now does need at least to respect the integrity out of which she writes and the personal cost to her of doing so. When we hear another person's story, what we do not do is to rush to judgment as some are doing. Rather, we learn to listen empathically, try to understand what has motivated her, even ask the question, could it be that we need to think again about our assumptions and maybe see things differently?

This is where a narrative approach to personal life can be so illuminating. In the book, we overhear Vicky negotiating the spiritual and theological dimensions of her emerging identity as a gay woman. As a Christian formed within evangelicalism, her integrity necessarily demanded that she take the scriptures with the utmost seriousness, as well as examining her conscience before God. For me, the truth-seeking aspects of her book are among the most moving. In the spiritual tradition, conversio is never a once-for-all decision. It's a lifelong habit of "turning round", re-orientating ourselves to the light and grace of God, always seeking "truth in the inward parts" of ourselves. At its best, this is what the journey of personal discovery and awareness, "coming out" if you like, should mean. Vicky exemplifies this beautifully.

It's not that she makes a strikingly original contribution to the church's understanding of homophile relationships. She doesn't set out to, though as a theologian in her own right, Vicky comments on some of the more contentious biblical texts that are quoted in the debate about homosexuality. She also offers analogies from history that show how the church has at times radically re-evaluated its traditional stances when it comes to, for example, the inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles, the place of the earth in the solar system, slavery, and the role of women in the church's leadership. But the major contribution she makes is to invite us as readers to venture inside Vicky's personal spirituality and thought world. That's a cherished place where we need to tread carefully and respectfully as we consider how to respond. For we are accompanying her on what is possibly the most fraught journey any of us ever have to undertake, that of not only searching for and discovering who we are, but learning how to speak about it before others.

This is what makes Vicky's book more than mere memoir. I want to describe it as a necessary act of witness. That word means pointing to the fundamental truth that belongs to the story we tell. I used the phrase truth-seeking earlier. Witness is about truth-telling. It always has a public aspect to it, the assumption being that where truth is at stake, we bear witness before other people to what we have seen and heard. The lived experience is the thing. No doubt Vicky will have "borne witness" to her Christian faith hundreds of times at the evangelistic events she has taken part in. That's a privileged but often costly thing to do, for it involves declaring who we really are. Now she has had to learn what for her has proved an even more costly way of bearing witness that entails disclosing another, hitherto concealed, dimension of her persona. I come back to her integrity and bravery once again, in being willing to tell us: "this is who I am under God".

But Vicky is doing more than bearing witness to the importance of personal integrity in human life. The book is a plea to all Christians, especially conservative evangelicals, to revisit their attitudes to LGBTQ+ people. The visceral hatred exemplified in some of the interactions quoted by Vicky ought to have no place in any community of faith that wants to live according to New Testament principles. Differences there will always be, "good disagreement" as we are learning to call it. But always with respect, courtesy and above all, charity. We ought to have learned the hard way by now that discrimination is always a sin against the image of God in humanity. The book bears witness to necessity of honouring that truth in the church. We all subscribe to it. But as Vicky makes painfully clear, living out that aspiration is another matter entirely.

What do I take from the book? Two things especially. The first is how damaging it can be for LGBTQ+ people to suppress their identity for fear of what others will think of them. It's entirely understandable, and Vicky's story explains why. But the damage can be extremely hard to put right and can take a lifetime. She writes about the experience of shame in relation to affection and intimacy. The sexual dimension of this is something I understand well from my own formation as a teenager within conservative evangelicalism. But in Vicky's case her denial of her sexuality was also associated with distressing mental and physical illness that required specialist intervention. It's shocking that even in the so-called enlightened societies of the west, there are still suicides among the young due to the shame they feel about their sexuality or the public disapproval they experience. Vicky's book will help young Christian readers conflicted by their own sexuality not only to befriend it but to discover how the vision of radical inclusion as "beautiful, restorative, and life-giving" is truly transformational.

The second thing I take from the book is how urgent it now is for the churches to affirm same-sex relationships publicly and embrace equal marriage. Some have already done so, but not yet the Church of England. I last blogged about this in early 2017. It's not just a question of how we as a church welcome and embrace our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and celebrate their covenanted relationships. It's about how we become a genuinely inclusive church that recognises and honours the God-given humanity of every person. I believe that the C of E will in time recognise and celebrate equal marriage among its laity and clergy, just as it came round to accepting contraception and the remarriage of divorced people in the twentieth century. I hope that this time, however, we do better than merely "come round to accepting" same-sex relationships. I hope that we shall want to affirm them generously and gladly. My hunch is that there is now a majority among the active membership of the C of E who want to press for change. Let's hope it happens in our own lifetimes.

Thank you Vicky for your courage and candour in writing, and for the rich gift of your personal and spiritual experience. Thank you for a book that has helped me see things more clearly. You are part of the movement for change in our church. May it happen quickly.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

This Heatwave: what is it telling us?

Up here in Northumberland, we can't really speak about a heatwave, not in the way Londoners can. Cooled by the North Sea, we don't get highs much above 25 degrees. Often enough, while the rest of the nation swelters under blue skies, ours are obscured by the sea fret or haar driven inland by cool easterly winds.
But the continuing dryness is another matter. (Let's not call it a drought as it isn't officially that just yet.) On Friday we had some rain, welcome relief to gardeners and farmers alike. The lawn turned miraculously green again. But this morning the river gauge in the South Tyne has dropped back to 22 centimetres, only just above where it has stood for much of this month. As you can see from the photo, the river is now easily fordable in the village. Locals are saying that they can't recall when it was so low for so long. Normally a vigorous upland river, the Tyne is a shadow of its normal self.

In an article in today's Observer, Robin McKie cites examples from around the Northern Hemisphere of how the ferocious heat being experienced across the world is having alarming consequences. Wildfires, crop damage and human mortality are already having devastating effects. A couple of weeks ago I stood on a nearby Northumberland vantage point and watched smoke rising in the distance. Stray ordnance from the MOD ranges had set fire to the moor and while contained by fire-fighters, it was to burn for many more days yet.
Why is this happening? The immediate cause appears to be a weak jet-stream which results in the stagnation of calm high pressure areas that generate hot sunny conditions. That phenomenon in turn needs explaining of course. One abnormally dry summer does not by itself "prove" global warming. McKie is careful not to draw easy conclusions about climate change. The earth's weather systems are extraordinarily complex and are not perfectly understood. But he quotes a climate change scientist as agreeing that "it is hard not to believe that climate change has to be playing a part in what is going on round the globe at present".
This is all wearyingly familiar stuff. The consensus among climate scientists is overwhelming that our planet faces damaging and irreversible change if we don't hold the global temperature rise this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. International agreements to limit carbon emissions have been hard-won, but are still not enough to reverse the trend. It's questionable whether the 2 degree threshold can hold without a step-change in the collective will to achieve it. It's evidently not at the top of all political leaders' agenda. Much easier to address short-term challenges than to think beyond the lifetimes of their own generation. They will most likely all be dead before the worst effects of global warming begin to kick in. Après moi le déluge.
Or rather, après moi la canicule, to invoke that colourful French word for the kind of scorching "dog-day" heatwave we had in 2003 when thousands of people died across Europe. The question is, how do we turn these apocalyptic but distant worries into concerns of the immediate present where there is some chance that they could spur us on to devise better futures that would save the planet?
George Monbiot has been telling us for ages that one key to it (not the only one, of course) would be drastically to reduce our dependence on meat and dairy products. "While some kinds of meat and dairy production are more damaging than others, all are more harmful to the living world than growing plant protein. It shows that animal farming takes up 83% of the world’s agricultural land, but delivers only 18% of our calories. A plant-based diet cuts the use of land by 76% and halves the greenhouse gases and other pollution that are caused by food production." I find his arguments persuasive. It's not a question (I think - though some might disagree) of becoming vegetarian or vegan by conviction. I don't happen to be vegetarian, though I do eat a lot of vegetarian food because I find it enjoyable and healthy. No, I believe it's simply a matter of rebalancing our diet in the interests of the planet, its peoples and the living creatures for whom it is home. If we all took his advice, even in small ways, what a difference it would make.
It puzzles me that when I stay in hotels, I see notices in bathrooms about re-using towels for the sake of the environment. But I've yet to see signs about turning off the lights when we go out, or using public transport instead of our cars, still less about not choosing meat from the restaurant menu! It seems to be a symptom of our selective attitudes to environmental sustainability. I'm no better than the next person - let anyone without sin cast the first stone.
But I am saying that we need leadership here. Climate change ought to be at the top of every party agenda, not just that of the Greens. Strong, committed political leadership, not simply through word but (especially) by example is seriously needed and would do a lot to prise us out of our lack of urgency. And if Monbiot is right, shouldn't our churches also be debating not only how to reduce our carbon footprints but the ethics of excessive meat and dairy consumption in pursuit of more sustainable ways of living? Shouldn't the changes Brexit will make to agricultural subsidies be an opportunity for a public conversation about what we look for from the farming community on whom we depend for so much? The campaigns against CFCs, plastics and fossil fuels have shown how, when we act together, a multitude of small choices can add up to a critical mass of decisive action that leads to change. The key is greater awareness. Churches and other voluntary communities, alongside statutory agencies and the private sector, can make a big difference if they choose to. 
For us in the UK, this long hot summer is something to enjoy. But ask the farmers and they will tell you a different story. Take a look at your rivers and reservoirs. Read the international pages of your newspaper to see how serious the situation is becoming in other parts of the world. Listen to the climate scientists. Pay attention to your own conscience. We must not fail our grandchildren and their children by failing to read the signs of the times. 

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Not a Good Week

It's easy to love your country when things are going well. Later today there will be an outburst of patriotic pride in either France or Croatia. What if England had won the World Cup? How Mrs May must have longed for some good news to mitigate the effects of her septimana horribilis. Anything to make us proud to be British once again.

I admit I'm struggling with my patriotic duty right now. Not with the concept, for I'm clear that we ought to love our country not because it's better than anyone else's, but because it's ours, it's where we live and belong. (Just as we ought to love our county or city, our village, neighbourhood or town - belonging ro our own "place" should engender a sense of gratitude and pride and concern for its welfare. In classical thought, this attitude was called pietas, the recognition of what we owe to the dust that bore us, shaped us and made us aware, to echo Rupert Brooke's great poem "The Soldier".)

No, it's not the idea of patriotism that worries me, but how hard it is to put it into practice at times. I'm thinking of occasions when you have to say, patriotic love is not because of but in spite of - in spite of the follies being committed in our name, in spite of the disregard for moderation and common sense that is being shown, despite the cavalier attitude being taken by our leaders to the future welfare of the nation.

Yes, it's back to Brexit of course, and how the current government is (not) managing it. This past week has thrown our national dilemma into sharp relief. First came the Chequers agreement that at first looked like a welcome step back from a hard Brexit or from a fatal crashing out of the EU altogether. For a few hours, the cabinet centre held. But not for long. Two big resignations later and it's clear that "things fall apart". The administration is all at sea (just as the UK will be, shorn of its European moorings). Even magical thinking can't save the Tory party from polarising and possibly breaking its back on the shoals of Brexit.

Then, when things could hardly get worse, President Donald Trump landed on our shores. It was an ill-fated invitation if ever there was one, hardly calculated to raise the Prime Minister's standing in the world and enhance her dignity. His insulting Sun interview disparaging her leadership and rubbishing her approach to Brexit was beyond belief. When I read it, I felt for Mrs May on the point of welcoming a visiting head of state and going the second mile in showing the courtesies due to the so-called leader of the free world. But I have to say that she brought it on herself. Her rush to invite him in the first place was already something to wonder at. The sight of her dressed like a woman from The Handmaid's Tale holding Mr Trump's hand was a toe-curling sign of submission to a domineering, capricious and cruel man. These are images we shan't quickly forget. It felt pitiful and demeaning. And no emollient words later on about the "higher than special" relationship could make up for it.

It's clear that Mr Trump despises not only NATO and the European Union, but the whole consensus on which western politics has been constructed since the last war. Never mind our damaged pride - we must live with that (and that may be good for us - being humbled often is). Far more important is what we have learned in the past few days. It's that this is a profoundly dangerous moment for the liberal democracies of our world (and that includes the USA). Mr Trump's fickle behaviour on his European tour - saying one thing to The Sun, then doing a U-turn hours later, shows that he is not a man we can safely trust. Is it a case of agreeing with the last person you spoke to? If so, his lack of stability and reliability is deeply worrying. If you don't know where you are with your closest ally, can he be said to be an ally any longer? Today the EU is lumped together with China and Russia as a "foe" of America. A leader in today's Observer asks: “Hooking our national fortunes to this caricature of a president & any benevolence he may or may not choose to show Britain” - is this what we really want?

This visit that has so humiliated our country has had the effect of throwing Brexit into sharp relief. We can now see it for what it is in the full light of day. The truth is that by "taking back control", we shall be getting far, far more than we bargained for. We shall be on our own in an ocean of indifference to our fate. The EU will not feel it owes us any favours after what the UK has put it through both before and after the referendum. The USA has demonstrated that these islands of ours are of little consequence as it seeks to "put America first". We shall no longer have the global reach and influence we once had when we pooled our sovereignty with our friends and allies in the European Union. We get the worst of all possible worlds. The much scorned Project Fear was right all along.

What our nation is on the point of throwing away beggars belief. I never had the UK down as reckless in its actions. But recklessness is the word that comes to mind now when it comes to Britain's standing in the world and how others see us. And not the least of it comes down to many of those elected members who warned all along that Brexit would expose us to dangers we needed to heed. Among these is the Prime Minister who voted Remain in 2016. If she and her fellow Remainer MPs thought then that it was in the best interests of the nation to stay in the EU, their conviction cannot overnight have been negated by a popular vote. Or if it has been, what do representative government let alone integrity and principle matter any more? To the questions we asked during the referendum campaign - What is prudent? What makes for our flourishing? What holds out the best promise of peace and justice and environmental care in our continent and beyond? - the answers given then by Remainer MPs cannot have changed just because a narrow majority claimed to express "the will of the people". (Don't let's get started on the gross folly of allowing huge constitutional change on the flimsy basis of a simple majority vote. In my view, David Cameron has more to answer for in his leadership of the nation than any PM since Anthony Eden.)

This is why my patriotic love of country is under strain at the moment, why it's in spite of rather than because of. I love Britain for many reasons, among which three stand out. First, its instinct for fairness and toleration, its temperamental stability and its innate common-sense. Second, its traditions of generosity, hospitality and welcome to incomers and refugees (but for which, as I've often said, I wouldn't be here today, my mother being an asylum seeker who found sanctuary in Britain during the Nazi era). And third, its outward-facing openness to peoples beyond its borders, its belief in maintaining strong connections across the world through supra-national bodies like the Commonwealth and the EU. All these virtues are under threat at present. In their place our great nation is turning into an inward-looking, self-interested, isolationist, bad-tempered archipelago feuding with itself while all the while losing its way when it comes to finding its place in the modern world and exercising lasting global influence.

All of which is beyond sad. For the first time in my life, I don't feel at home in this country as it is fast becoming. I am an exile in my own land, out of sympathy with the prevailing mores that turn their back on the alliances that make for our health and strength and greatness as a nation. Make no mistake: Brexit will enfeeble us, rob us of our influence, weaken our ability to make a difference in the world. From what I've seen and heard, there are a fair number of us who feel the same way, maybe over half the electorate now. Which is why the British public must be allowed a vote on the final Brexit deal that is agreed, including the option to remain within the EU. The best we can hope for is that we recover quickly from this fit of craziness that has overtaken us. If not, I fear for my children and grandchildren and the country we shall have bequeathed to them when we are gone.

No, it has not been the best of weeks. But nil desperandum. It looked pretty bleak in 1940. God can help us find our true selves again, and deliver us from the threats that ambush us. Onwards and upwards as they say. Never lose heart. Kyrie eleison.

**I have another blog exploring patriotism in relation to Brexit: follow this link.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The NHS: in gratitude on its 70th birthday

Today is the 70th birthday of the National Health Service. Services and celebrations are happening across the nation. We are right to honour this great institution and be profoundly thankful for it.

I'm not one of those with a dramatic life-and-death story to tell about the NHS. I've not troubled my GPs overmuch in my lifetime. Most of my ailments have been small beer compared to what many others have had to face: childhood infections and abrasions, adolescent allergies, the odd broken limb, hypertension, mild atrial fibrillation, psoriasis. I've undergone a vasectomy, a prostate op and keyhole surgery for hernias. I have NHS hearing aids. Too much information? I suspect that for a man coming to the end of his seventh decade, it's pretty standard fare.

The Archers, the NHS and I are almost exact contemporaries. After the war, my mother became a nurse at the old Charing Cross Hospital in central London where I was born. Neither she nor my father were people of faith, but they did instil in me from a very early age a kind of hushed reverence for the NHS. (The Archers had to wait a few more years.) Our GP in north London was an elderly German-Jewish exile called Dr Landstein. I recall him quite clearly from the mid-1950s: kindly, compassionate, wise. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He enjoyed home visits and chats with my mother who like him had also survived the Holocaust. It felt like a family bereavement when he retired. I remember his successor too, Dr Giwelb. He was younger, less priestlike, more professionalised, more "modern", but he too was among the gods of my childhood pantheon (where they were flanked by Miss Bull, my primary school headmistress, and Owen Brannigan who lived three doors away on our street). Between them, they shaped my expectations of healthcare for a lifetime. And they have been abundantly fulfilled in adulthood. I'm thinking especially of two marvellous GPs had in Sheffield and Durham. Perhaps they know who they are.

When I was a parish priest, I was also the official chaplain to the town's infirmary, paid by the NHS. I learned a lot about healthcare in those years, not least when I was involved in the in-service training of doctors, nurses, administrators and support staff. I was proud to be a tiny part of that exemplary hospital, proud to have a role in an institution that was so valued in the community. If I ever entertained doubts about the virtue of universal healthcare (I'm not sure that I did), my experience in that place of truth and love quickly dispelled them.

So I understand why Polly Toynbee writes as she does about the NHS as a kind of surrogate religion. It's simply there, like the good old C of E, a benign institution that we're glad exists to bless our nation and provide for it at times of need, even if we rarely have to trouble it ourselves. For my generation and for everyone younger, it has hatched us, patched us up and dispatched us. We've felt safe and cared for. We've never known anything else. We can't quite understand why the whole world doesn't emulate the NHS, why the United States, for instance, has struggled so hard to provide even the rudimentary ObamaCare for the most needy that is now being unravelled by Donald Trump.

But we know for ourselves how politicised health care has become. No government has dared to tamper with the idea of universal healthcare free at the point of use. It would be a certain vote-loser. And yet the sustainability of the NHS is under threat in a way that would have been inconceivable even a quarter of a century ago. Conservative administrations have been reluctant for decades to say openly that excellence in healthcare requires that we all put our hands in our pockets to pay for it through our taxes. Only now is there a belated acknowledgment of this in the Prime Minister's £20 billion funding commitment. It's a welcome start. But it's nowhere near enough if the NHS is to be stabilised. It's now an urgent case of playing catch-up. Years of chronic underfunding must be put right if the founding vision of the NHS is to be honoured in our day. To achieve this, our leaders have to believe in it. Back to the NHS as a quasi-religion that needs vision and faith if it's to serve us well and flourish.

I recently read Adam Kay's book This is Going to Hurt. He was a junior hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics. He loved his work and showed every sign of going on to a promising career as a consultant. But the pressures on him as a healthcare professional became intense - not because of any failure of his, but because of "the system": impossible working hours, lack of resources, an absence of proper rigorous supervision, the ever-increasing likelihood of making a life-threatening mistake. So he resigned his position and is now a writer. His book is candid about his experience. It is by turns very funny and extremely alarming. We've known for years what GPs and junior hospital doctors have to contend with. But when you read something as personal and vivid as this, you begin to worry. You wonder how on earth the NHS can carry on as a viable institution, let alone have a future.

Like so many other things - the environment, arms sales, ethical trade, reform of our financial structures, the benefits system, Brexit, it comes down to the political will. Do we really want a future in which the founding vision of the NHS continues to play a central part in the welfare of our people? If so, are we willing to pay for it? Our politicians must come clean. And while we're on the subject, that applies to social care for the elderly too. We baby-boomers are getting old. Demographic projections show how our demands on the NHS will put it under ever-increasing strain until our generation has died out. Before that, we are going to need social care that is beyond the means of many people to afford. For those who are "just about managing" or not managing at all, the prospect of ageing is bleak and even terrifying. After a lifetime of looking after others, who will look after them?

Today we celebrate the vision and courage of those pioneers of 70 years ago who believed that the nation should look after its people from cradle to grave. That's not about setting up unhealthy dependencies so much as creating structures of mutual giving and receiving so that those who need care have access to it and need not fear that it will be denied them. It's old-fashioned to speak of "the idea of a Christian society". Yet I profoundly believe in this ideal of a public caring institution which is for all people, and from which no-one is excluded. It's a practical expression of the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. On this NHS birthday, and out of gratitude for all that it represents, I believe we must renew our heartfelt political commitment to it so that our children and grandchildren may benefit as we have done.

But a birthday is for celebrating and being thankful. The NHS is not a perfect institution but I want to say, unhesitatingly, that it is a great one So this is a day to be glad and set our hopes high. As the Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted today, "The NHS is an expression of our deepest shared values. Whatever its challenges, it’s about us living out our concern for solidarity and the common good. It reflects God’s concern for every person without exception. Today let's pray, give thanks and recommit our support. The NHS can be proud of its first seven decades." Indeed.  Floreat!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Great Exhibition of the North

The Great Exhibition of the North opens on 22 June in Newcastle-Gateshead. It lasts until 9 September. It's a "summer-long celebration of the North of England's pioneering spirit and the impact of our inventors, artists and designers", says the exhibition website. "It's a chance to show how our innovative spirit has shaped the world and is building the economy of tomorrow." To mark the launch of the Exhibition I've put together a selection of some of my favourite images of the North East that I've taken down the years.

I'm sure everyone at this end of England welcomes this opportunity to put the North back on the map. Having worked in the northern Province of the Church of England for exactly two-thirds of my working life in public ministry, I've seen how the large parts of the North can fall into despondency at the decline of its traditional industries, its economic challenges and how far away it can feel from the centres of decision-making in London. For example, the North East receives only one tenth of London's share of the nation's investment in public transport infrastructure. During the Great Exhibition, we shall continue to watch Pacer trains rumble in and out of Newcastle Central Station and squeal round the curves on the Gateshead loop across the river. Our southern guests might be intrigued to see these archaic trains still running up here, a phenomenon to make them wonder whether the Northern Powerhouse is reality or fantasy.

I believe it can and must be a reality. We should be glad that throughout the summer, the North of England will be girding up its loins to accentuate the positive. It will present itself to the nation and the world as a forward-looking place of enterprise, originality and innovation where people love living and working in its resilient, lively and colourful communities. When we consider how the North has influenced, changed and enriched the world's industry, enterprise, heritage and arts, it is out of all proportion to the narrow geography on which we sit here in England. Its achievements are truly astonishing - and let me emphasise the tense - it's not that these achievements were once astonishing, it's that they still are today. Newcastle and Gateshead will demonstrate this in abundance this year in all kinds of ways. It's good news that heralds a great summer of celebration.

However (there was bound to be a but), I hope this ambitious vision of a Great Exhibition of the North is big enough. Let me explain.

First, I hope that words like "innovation" and "enterprise" are understood as referring to a history that long predates the twentieth and twenty first centuries, indeed the industrial revolution whose cradle this part of England largely was. For instance, the Roman Wall that runs right across the far north of what we now call England was in its time (and still would be today, Mr Trump) a huge project that called for topographical, engineering and construction skills of the highest order. Antiquity has left its visible mark on our northern landscapes in a way that is unique on this island. I hope many of our visitors find their way into Tynedale to admire the Wall and thereby set modernity into a larger context. Every generation has made its contribution and left its imprint on our landscapes, towns and cities. It's good that history puts us in our place.

Secondly, Northumbria's "Golden Age" of Christian civilisation in the seventh and eighth centuries is an essential part of the North's heritage. You can't really "get" the North's rich character and identity if you airbrush out of its legacy the profound Christian influences that shaped it and gave it the strong sense of place that endures today. Spirituality comes into things. In 2013, when I was Dean at Durham Cathedral, we welcomed back to the city the Lindisfarne Gospels for the first residency of what is hoped to be a regular cycle of visits to the peninsula where that "Great North Book" once lived. That summer, we all learned a great deal about how precious this Christian inheritance from Saxon times still is, and how it has the power to inspire and motivate people of faith even to this day. Will all this feature in this summer's activities? I hope so. Once again, I hope our guests will find their way to Lindisfarne, the "cradle of English Christianity", or if that's too far from Tyneside, venture inside our cathedrals at Newcastle and Durham, or Bede's churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, or Wilfrid's at Hexham Abbey. They are full of design innovation, full of spiritual enterprise. All this belongs to the North's spiritual and cultural capital.

Thirdly, I hope that the many poor and marginalised communities of the North will feel that this Exhibition is for them too. The North East has some of the most needy and deprived communities in the country, many of them within a stone's throw of the beautifully developed Tyneside waterfront. Parts of Tyneside and Wearside, as well as South East Northumberland and East Durham, are severely challenged in terms of economic growth, public services, housing, education, community facilities and, less tangibly but no less importantly, in their sense of collective wellbeing, confidence and hope.

These places of poverty and need, where people are "just about managing" or not managing at all, are often hidden from public sight and attention. These are the worlds of the TV series Broken, and films like I Daniel Blake, Billy Eliot, Purely Belter, Brassed Off and The Full Monty - all set in the North of England. I am sure that the Great Exhibition is intended to be a genuinely popular event, a ten week celebration for all the people of the North. Tyneside knows how to party like nowhere else in the country! The question is, how to take the Great Exhibition out into these communities and create events that affirm the local and the particular, that say loudly and clearly: this is for us all?

You can't do everything of course. But unless there's a strong sense of inclusion, even the best of intentions can have the effect of reinforcing the perception, no the experience, of disadvantaged people that they are on the edge of developments that are not really for them. I want to believe that this summer's events could be a wonderful way of invigorating and empowering fragile communities by offering visions of a better future. What will count is how the Great Exhibition of the North is followed up, what its long-term legacy turns out to be. It could be hugely positive. But it needs to be more than midsummer feel-good if it's to make a real and lasting difference to human lives.

Let me conclude on a personal note. I first came to live and work in the North more than half my lifetime ago when I became the vicar of a Northumberland market town in my early thirties. It was challenging to find myself in a culture so different from the one I'd been brought up in, that of suburban north London. But how enriching it was! It shaped me in ways beyond my imagining at the time. And when I went south again for a few years, I couldn't shake off my newly acquired feeling for "North". And didn't want to. I took groups annually up to Holy Island to introduce them to Northern Christianity. In due course, I returned - first to Sheffield for eight years, and then to Durham for nearly thirteen.

Now my wife and I live in retirement in rural Northumberland once more. I wouldn't live anywhere else now. I shall always be a Londoner, of course, and recognise that however much I want to "go native", we are always children of our origins. But the North has been extraordinarily good to me. Which is why I'm delighted that the Great Exhibition of the North will display the best of the North to people who may never have ventured into these (to them) far-distant lands. In today's Guardian a travel feature suggests some of the best places in the North East to enjoy a day out during the Exhibition. When I read it, I felt proud and glad to have lived and worked in this great region, and still to be a part of it. I've come to care deeply for it in all its variety. I want to champion it if I can. Hence my tribute in photographs. Hence this blog.

Come and see us. Discover the riches of the North. Bring your friends and make new ones. Experience living in a different way. Celebrate. Share our life for a while. Be inspired!

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Seascapes: a retreat for those being ordained.

In a fortnight's time I shall be conducting a retreat for those who are being ordained deacon this summer in my home Diocese of Newcastle. They will be ordained in Newcastle Cathedral on Saturday 30 June. That's the day after the anniversary of my own ordination as a deacon in 1975. I shall give the sermon at that service. It goes without saying that I am looking forward to it. It's always a privilege to be with ordinands as they cross this crucial threshold and take up their new roles in public ministry.

The retreat will be at Alnmouth Friary on the Northumberland coast, just down the road from Alnwick where I was Vicar in the 1980s. I got to know it well at that time. Before my institution as incumbent, I spent a few days on retreat there. I made regular visits to speak with one of the senior Brothers who was a wise, kindly spiritual director. Every Friday my curate (who belonged to the Franciscan Third Order) and I would attend the midday office and eucharist there and then stay on for lunch with the Brothers. The Friary was, and still is, a real foyer, a place of warmth and hospitality.

"Thin" places where we spend times of spiritual significance often provide their own symbols and metaphors to help us reflect on whatever experience we are undergoing. I vividly remember my own priest's ordination retreat during the hot summer of 1976. I stayed with a Benedictine community, and apart from prayer times, meals and sleep (when it came), spent the entire time sitting under a lime tree in the beautiful grounds. The grass was already parched in the fierce heat, but not under that tree. There I read a lot, wrote a little, pondered much and stumbled around in my personal prayers. The community left that sunny patch of England many years ago now. I have no idea whether the tree is still there. But its shelter during those three days has remained an important grace-filled memory. It's felt like a symbol of God's care and protection, especially when the realities of public ministry kicked in as they always do eventually, and sometimes it felt hard and (here's where the metaphor of shelter is important) exposed. Like Jonah and his gourd, perhaps?

What metaphor could the Friary offer this year's candidates as they think and pray about their ordination and the lifetime of public ministry that lies ahead? It's not for me to do more than make suggestions - they must do their own search look for whatever images and symbols are there to recognise them. But an obvious one is the sea itself. What everyone loves at the Friary is the chapel which looks out on the beach at Alnmouth. At high tide you see mostly sea. At low tide, there is a broad expanse of beach, beautiful glowing sands like the ones we remember from childhood seaside holidays. Sometimes I've almost wanted to cry out in that chapel like the ancient Greeks on their long march home, ecstatic on their first sight of it: "The sea! The sea!"

The sea is the chapel altar's backdrop, its reredos if you like. Inevitably, it is always changing and this is its glory. The rhythms of the tides, the changes of weather, the alterations in the light with the ebbs and flows of the seasons - all these add their own dimension to the spirituality of the chapel where we shall gather for the daily prayers of the community and for the eucharist. Your eye is constantly drawn to what's happening out there in this magnificent seascape. It could so easily be a distraction from prayer and meditation. And I'll admit it sometimes is, the magic of what takes place when the sea meets the land. When Cuthbert created his hermitage on the Inner Farne twenty miles up the coast, he built the walls of his cell high enough to cut out the views of rock and sea - for this very reason maybe, so that he could focus more intently on God?

That's the via negativa at work, understanding the spiritual path in terms of what God is not. On the other hand, and more accessibly for most of us, we can train ourselves to try to discern where God is in what we see around us, or at least find in the world of our experience images of what God could be like. I don't mean only blue skies or glowing sunsets or cute animals or fine landscapes and seascapes, though these are all gifts of God. I mean taking in what surrounds us in all its vicissitudes: dark as well as light, storm as well as stillness, rough seas as well as calm, monochrome as well as a vibrant colour. (I've found photography to be a great teacher here in helping me not simply to see but to notice, try to see into, feel for what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls the inscape - but that's for another blog.) For me the vista is a vision of the real world as if viewed through the lens of the eucharist, glimpsed as God sees it. It draws us back into its beating heart because we are learning to see not simply with our eyes but in our souls. That makes it a living icon, written by God himself.

Here, the Friary chapel can help us integrate what we see and touch and experience with how we pray. For if the reredos, this east seaward window is not to be a distraction, then it must provide us with spiritual food for thought to inform our prayer, whether corporate or personal, and our celebration of the eucharist. All of us will find our life-experience mirrored in that window from time to time, in the ever-changing conditions of land, sea and sky. Sometimes the alterations can be so subtle that we hardly notice them, like the tide creeping in over the sand on a calm day. At other times there will be dramatic changes whose suddenness takes us by surprise, as when a storm breaks unexpectedly, or a sunburst emerges out of a sullen lead-grey sky.

And if the window is a symbol of life, it is also a symbol of the tides of ordained ministry. The seascape is always changing. Sometimes those changes seem charged with promise, at other times laden with threat. As men and women in the public ministry of the church, our calling is to enter into human life in all its variety, and in God's name help people to make sense of it, even glimpse where God might be in it all. It calls for solidarity in both storm and sunshine, troubled seas and still, perilous journeys into the unknown as well as calm sea and prosperous voyage. Our new deacons have no idea of where their ministries will take them even in a few days' time, still less in the years of their lifetimes. How can they? How could I, sitting under that lime tree more than forty years ago?

But what we can and must do is offer the path ahead to God. "Lead kindly light" were words often in my thoughts as I stood in that chapel as a parish priest and pondered on my ministry in the parish a few miles inland; and even, in a highly symbolic way, "for those in peril on the sea" when things felt rough. There's a poem by William Blake, one of England's great "see-ers", that I shall quote in one of my addresses:

Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,

Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.

Those words are embroidered on a sampler the parish gave us when we said farewell. It still hangs in the room where we spend most of our daylight hours at home. They remind me of that window at the Friary and the years of stipendiary ordained ministry I have now laid down. And now, it's time for a new generation of clergy to pick up the baton in turn. I can promise them that Blake speaks the truth, not only of human life and discipleship, but of ministry too. And it's all there, in that window and in what they will recognise as they gaze into it and say their prayers and offer their lives as God's deacons.

It goes without saying that my prayers will be with them too. And with all those who are being ordained in the coming weeks in churches and cathedrals across the country.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

That Sermon

When was a sermon last discussed so avidly?

Bishop Michael Curry is known as a passionate preacher, but his preaching must have startled some of those present in St George's Chapel today. For some people, any sermon is by definition an ordeal that has to be endured when you go to church. In my book, the number one sin of preaching is to be boring. No-one could accuse today's preacher of that.

#RoyalWedding has been trending on social media all day, but I didn't expect the sermon to feature so prominently in the discussion. Many - very many - seasoned listeners to sermons loved it. There were clergy who admitted that they wished they could preach like that. "The best sermon I ever heard" someone said. But there were criticisms too. Some thought the opening was arresting, but that it lost its way half way through. Others wondered if the rhetorical manner was a bit full-on for the Windsor environment and this royal occasion ("fine for America, just not very C of E"). A few (not many) asked if it had more style than substance, whether it was sufficiently personal to the bride and groom for a wedding sermon; and whether it may have gone on a bit too long. But whatever our response, the sermon - or rather the preacher himself - carried a deep symbolism. As someone tweeted, "British establishment embraced black culture today and royalty married into it. This was passionate preaching with civil rights roots. What's not to like?"

It's easy to come to quick conclusions about what we see and hear. Who would have wanted to be in Michael Curry's shoes with the whole world looking on? I admit to feeling uncomfortable about the analysis this sermon has been subjected to so swiftly - on the very day when the nation is rejoicing with a young couple who have pledged to walk together in marriage. For it was a beautiful event. And yes, the Church of England does these things supremely well. There was so much in the service that was moving and humane, not least how Harry and Meghan have the capacity to help us be more in touch with our own humanity and the love we have to bring. That was among the gifts of the service. I think we need to take time to absorb what we have witnessed today and reflect for a while before we rush to judgment about the content. And that includes the sermon.

For I'm not yet quite sure about my own response to it. Oddly, it feels a bit complicated, as if it's I who have been put under scrutiny rather than the Bishop. Sermons can have that effect sometimes. As I watched, I wondered if I'd been preaching for too long in cathedral environments like St George's (yes, it's a royal chapel, not a cathedral, but you know what I mean). Maybe I'm too used to my own quieter register to feel at home with Bishop Curry's personal, extraverted, apparently more spontaneous, style. Perhaps it reminds me of the fervent evangelical preaching I grew up with in adolescence and once longed to emulate. If so, it's good to be questioned by today's sermon, challenged about what kind of a preacher I am, how directly I connect with the audience, whether anything I've said has lodged in the memory afterwards, whether any word of mine has ever touched lives let alone changed them.

Although Michael Curry's style is not mine, I have to say that I admire a sermon that seems to have spoken to so many people. He illustrates the power of good rhetoric to persuade hearers - persuade them that what he has to say is worth listening to, must be taken seriously and reckoned with. Here is a preacher who doesn't tickle his audience's fancy, doesn't work the crowd as an entertainer. He's serious about it as a man of conviction whose truth-seeking invites us to become truth-seekers too. I don't know how many times he used the word "love" in his sermon, but this wasn't repetition for mere effect. You felt in your bones that here was a man who utterly believed in it, believed in its power to change the world.

A cynic might say: you never know what's going on under the skin of the powerful rhetorician. It could merely be a great performance. But I've learned as a preacher that performance comes into things a great deal. Sincerity, in preaching as in everything else, is never enough. Never underestimate the importance of performance skills. And judging by what we all saw and heard, I'd say that Michael Curry was a highly practised performer who had learned how to put performance to the service of God. Preaching means taking your listeners on a journey, bringing them from where they were to an entirely new place they may never have dreamed about. That's what good performance always does whether it's music, theatre, liturgy or preaching. Performance is transformative - so long as it isn't mere performance, which it never is in the hands of its great practitioners.

I said I admired the sermon. I need to be candid. I meant that I found myself envying it. Or rather, envying the gifts and confidence of a preacher who could be so much at ease with his audience that he could preach like this in an environment that would intimidate most of us. I realised that this was what I was feeling when I came across a social media comment from a priest who wrote something like, "today's sermon sets a challenge for the rest of us preachers tomorrow morning". Yes, I thought, a lot of us will be feeling that way tonight.

But as I thought about it, I recognised what it was that I was envying. It wasn't Michael Curry's content, style, rhetorical ability, performance skills, any of the things I've mentioned already. It was simply this: that he had found his voice as a preacher. And this more than anything else is what makes the preacher convincing: that he or she is comfortable in their own homiletical skin. Earlier this week I was discussing preaching with the curate whom I mentor regularly. He asked me when I thought I had found my voice. I replied that I was still finding it and would be till I died, but maybe, after a decade or so of ordained ministry I was beginning to discover what was and wasn't authentic in my preaching. Maybe.

When I retired in 2015, I published a book of sermons called Christ in a Choppie Box. (Who reads books of sermons these days? Some people still do, amazingly.) I'd asked a professor of theology in the University who regularly attended the Cathedral to choose what she thought was "the best of me" (as Elgar wrote on the score of his Dream of Gerontius). She decided to include a lecture on preaching that I'd once given at a diocesan conference. This, she said, set out my aims as a preacher, what I thought I was doing every time I entered the pulpit. Re-reading it, I see how the quest all along has been to try to enable the word to be made flesh, incarnate it in the words of the sermon. To find our voice is to come to the point where the preacher is becoming as much the proclamation as the words he or she utters. "The medium is the message" may be a tired cliché but all the same it's a central truth of preaching.

This is what I heard today, a preacher who had found his voice and was embodying his message. So for the rest of us who find ourselves in church and cathedral pulpits from time to time, it's not about becoming more like him, tempting though it is to imitate those we admire. Rather, the challenge is to go on finding our own voice so that when we are in the pulpit, we are as authentically ourselves as it's possible to be. So if you are preaching at Pentecost, don't try to be a Michael Curry. Be yourself, the best version of yourself you can be. And what's true of preaching is true of all Christian ministry. It all comes down to our formation as ministers of God. Becoming the human beings God wants us to be - what could be more important?

Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England is published by Sacristy Press.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

1968: The Year I Came of Age

It's fifty years ago this week that the second French Revolution didn't quite happen. May 1968 is remembered as the month when students brought France to a standstill. Their protests caught on across the nation and beyond. That month felt as though it could be a watershed in the political and social life of Europe.
Those caught up in the événements came to be called soixante-huitards, 1968-ers. Perhaps I can just about lay claim to that title. I was in France in the first half of 1968 between leaving school and going to university. It was a long way from Paris to the orphanage where I was working in southern France. In the rural uplands of the Ardèche, beautiful but impoverished, what went on in the capital felt like another world. It was only when working people started striking in solidarity that it began to feel real. I recall cycling over the main line from Paris to Marseille. With no trains running, the tracks were already rusting over. That's when it hit me that it doesn't take much to bring normal life to a halt.
I was born in 1950, and had my eighteenth birthday in France (a big rite of passage, your first birthday alone in a strange land). I was not quite an adult because the age of legal majority in the UK was only reduced to eighteen on 1 January 1970. Technically I became a grown up at an Adrian Mole kind of age, nineteen and three quarters. Nevertheless, looking back fifty years I see how formative those months in France were, this threshold between childhood and adulthood. It was the first time I had lived away from home. I had left school. I was financially independent (earning the princely sum of ten new francs a week - but with full board and lodging, there was not a lot to spend your money on in this deep countryside). I was speaking a foreign language. I was walking tall. Not yet legally adult, but then not not-adult either.
In that liminal place, I obscurely admired the students at Nanterre who, protesting against being policed by the university authorities, claimed the right to have sex with their partners in their own bedrooms. To me as a devout evangelical Christian, this seemed not so much to be about sex (God forbid!) as taking responsibility for their own lives as grown-up human beings. This was precisely the personal path I was navigating myself. I now know of course, how the events of May 1968 were a confused concatenation of ideals and causes, some ideals more noble than others, some causes lost from the outset. Historians will argue about that for decades. But that they coalesced around a generalised dis-ease with hierarchical rule and authoritarian control is a plausible reading of that spring. The Fifth Republic certainly felt the shock-waves: it was never closer to the brink of collapse than it was in May and June 1968. And maybe postwar France came of age - or thought it did - as a result.
I was a late developer when it came to political awareness. The "never had it so good" days of the late 50s and early 60s didn't encourage radical questioning among most middle-class baby-boomer kids. I'd briefly woken up to the reality of world events in 1962 with the Cuba Missile Crisis. But in my teenage years, my conversion to conservative evangelical Christianity took over my life. Politics took a back seat and never got anywhere near the front of my consciousness. (When I was visiting schools in connection with the EU Referendum campaign two years ago, I was heartened to find how politically engaged so many teenage students are today compared with then.).
But in France in the spring of 1968, politics was impossible to ignore. Which was important at that stage of my personal development. A few months later I went up to Oxford. The spirit of Nanterre was alive and well that first academic year. The Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students (ORSS) famously besieged All Souls College in protest against the privileged academic life symbolised by its emblematic plum pudding. In my college (Balliol), ORSS students daubed the senior common room with revolutionary slogans in red paint to mark a visit by Ted Heath. They marched along Broad Street carrying placards demanding "Prove there are no files!" which provided the agenda for a tutorial on linguistic philosophy I was having with Anthony Kenny at the time.
It was a long time ago. But in important ways that era influenced me. I was not altogether conscious of it at the time - far from it. But more and more as I look back, I realise how formative the late 1960s were when "revolution" was the metaphor being claimed in so many areas of life and endeavour: politics, theology, education, art and culture. It wasn't so much a case of "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" as Wordsworth said of his own revolutionary times. But I couldn't fail to warm to the soixante-huitard mantra, "Be realistic. Ask for the impossible!" with its blend of radical questioning and witty sense of paradox. 1968 in France had its ugly side. But in its best moments it had a lightness of touch as well.
For Philip Larkin, 1963 was the year (when "life was never better than...."). For me it was 1968 that was the watershed in my journey towards adulthood. To be in France and be a back-row witness of what happened there that year gave me insights that have, I think, been profoundly important for the rest of my life. It taught me (or began to) not to accept the status quo but critically to test assumptions, ask questions of people who have (or claim) authority, not be afraid of argument, go back to the sources of established political, intellectual or theological standpoints. It made me into a liberal - even if it has taken a lifetime to understand what thaword means. But I believe I glimpsed, even then, that Christian faith is fundamentally liberal in the sense of being generous, inclusive and exploratory. For it calls us not to be enslaved to entrenched positions but to become questioners of the environment we live in, as Jesus himself abundantly demonstrated. That's the kind of Christianity I've tried to practise as a disciple and as a preacher.
Which is why I'm glad - proud even - to be a Soixante-Huitard. I now recognise how much I was shaped by that liminal year. The fact that we are still talking about what happened fifty years later shows that its historical importance continues to be felt. And if I am typical, then it's not just societies that have been influenced by it, but individuals too.