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.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Brexit: Will Students Turn the Tide?

I expect we can all remember 23 and 24 June 2016, the day of the EU Referendum and the morning after. I stayed up all night to watch the results come in, though I knew, when Sunderland and Newcastle declared early on that Remain had probably lost the vote and I might as well go to bed. I finally succumbed at breakfast time next morning, so slept through the breaking news that David Cameron had resigned.
Now, nearly two years later, the memories feel as vivid as ever, and I can get just as despondent about it if I dwell on it too much - which isn't a good idea because life goes on. But it's clear that the deep divisions the campaign opened up have not healed, and show no sign of healing in the foreseeable future. Our country is a lot more febrile than it was a few years ago. Racism and xenophobia are more evident than before, we are told. Public discourse has coarsened. Political tempers are frayed, stirred up by the nationalist right wing tabloid press. The Government is as hopelessly divided as ever with no prospect of a Brexit that will win consent either in Parliament or among the public. The state we're in is not good by any standards. 
But it's the day before the Referendum that I'm also remembering today. A student, then a first year undergraduate at a nearby university, came out to spend a day in the country. He and I went for a walk in the sunshine and talked about what might happen next day. It was, I recall, the first time he had participated in a national public vote. Typically he was taking it very seriously, and spoke with real insight - and some anxiety - about the consequences of the Referendum for the nation and for his generation in particular should the vote take the UK out of the European Union. I felt heartened that this good, young man cared so much about it and was speaking with a wisdom beyond his years about the choice that faced us all next day. If he cared in that way, there was every reason to think that thousands of others did too.
Which is why, when I saw a headline in today's Observer, Students plan summer of defiance in push for 'people's vote' on Brexit, I recalled that conversation. Under the headline is a summery image of Kent University with the tower of Canterbury Cathedral just visible on the horizon. "The UK's European University" it styles itself. Then this. "These are anxious times for this generation of students. Many fear that, however well they may do academically, life after university will be much more difficult for them than it was for their parents. They worry about the burden of debt after graduation, house prices that seem impossibly high and beyond their reach, and fierce competition for decent jobs.
"On this campus, though, there is one over-arching concern about their futures that sharpens the sense of generational unfairness: Brexit" (my italics). One national student activist is quoted. “It’s wrong to think students only care about student-specific issues like Erasmus [the exchange programme]. They care passionately about staying in the customs union and retaining freedom of movement, they understand the rights and protections that the EU affords us all and will do anything to defend that. That’s why young people voted to remain and it’s why we should get a say on the terms of the final deal.”
It isn't always easy to mobilise students. But the general election showed that in constituencies with large student populations, they were becoming a force to be reckoned with the real power to influence results. And while not all students are Remainers, it seems that the vast majority of them are. To those who were 16 or 17 two years ago, it still rankles that they were not given a voice at the Referendum, unlike their Scottish peers in the independence Referendum of 2014 (a decision by David Cameron's government that still baffles many of us). And now that they (over a million of them) have reached voting age, they are clearer than ever that it was the "silver generation" (mine) who had largely made this decision to deprive them of the European citizenship they had been born with. “We are the people who are going to live with the consequences of this for the rest of our lives – and our children – and this is why we’re so passionate about it. This is going to massively damage our futures.”
I don't think we always realise what it feels like to the young, when matters are sufficiently momentous, to have your future decided upon by their elders. They are right to point out that it is they, not we, who will inherit this legacy of isolationism. "We are Europeans" proclaim their T-shirts. To them, it's unthinkable to imagine otherwise. So now, two years later, with the UK's future relationship with the EU still unclear and the long term consequences of Brexit scarcely understood, it's clear that students are in no mood just to put up and shut up. I think they mostly "get" the argument that the Referendum result can't simply be ridden roughshod over, as if it hadn't happened. But they don't see a wafer-thin majority as an unchallengeable mandate, the mystical "will of the people" to quote elected members including the Prime Minister who imagine that the Referendum has given the last word on the subject to the British people.
So the students are organising. Once the exams are over, we can expect lobbying, protests and demonstrations. And a change of gear in the public debate about Brexit. For once students become involved in a big way, we shall find that the issues they care about are not just trade, immigration and security, not just, in that tired, self-interested phrase we heard so much in the Referendum, "what's best for Britain". They care about social justice, human rights, peace-making, the environment, culture, research and the arts. They care about the welfare of other nations, not simply our own. What a difference their contribution could make. I say, bring it on as soon as possible.
The Observer article predicts that this could happen on a scale that may take our elected representatives by surprise. What are the students looking for? It's very simple. They want to have their say on the final Brexit deal whenever it's been agreed - if it ever is. The letter-writing has already begun and student unions in a number of universities have signed a letter to parliamentarians. It's quite possible that this could add considerable momentum to the rising tide of opinion that wants to see both parliamentarians and the general public involved in the final decision about Brexit once the negotiations are concluded. And one of the options on the voting paper must be that the UK decides not to leave the European Union after all, but to remain a full member, however sorely that would try the patience of our longsuffering EU friends in Brussels.
I wonder if my generation may one day thank the young of our country for saving us from the disaster that Brexit would have been. The public is now much better informed than it was two years ago about what Brexit could mean, and the risks incurred by embracing harder or softer versions of it. I don't want to ascribe messianic motives to our students. But maybe, just maybe, their intervention could make all the difference.

We baby boomers will not be around for many more decades. But millennials have the rest of this century to look forward to - or fear. It's their future that's at stake. St Benedict says in his Rule that "the Lord often reveals what is better to the young". We need to listen to them.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Syria Air Strikes: why I am queasy

I'm queasy about last night's air strikes against Syria conducted by the USA, France and the UK. The more I think about it, and the more I read today's media comment, the more unsure I become about the legality and the moral rightness, let alone the wisdom, of this hastily conceived act.

Let's start with what it was for. "Mission accomplished!" tweeted President Trump this morning. But what exactly was the mission, and how can he be so sure that it's been accomplished? Everyone agrees that chemical warfare is horrendous and that no effort should be spared to eliminate chemical weapons. It seems beyond doubt that Syrian forces have used them against their own citizens more than once. The chorus of condemnation is unanimous, rightly.

But how have the air strikes dealt with this fact on the ground? If it can be evidenced that they have eliminated all possibility that Syria can go on manufacturing chemical weapons, I suppose that would amount to "mission accomplished" - in a sense. But previous strikes against Syria made similar claims that events subsequently proved wrong. And last night's raids can't rule out the possibility that Syria could obtain chemical weapons from elsewhere - North Korea, for example. So what difference have the air strikes actually made? Were they meant as a punishment? A warning? I wish I knew.

One thing is clear. The risks that were incurred last night were truly in the red zone, and it is too soon to say whether they have been mitigated. The possibility that raids on Syria could result in "collateral damage", that is, the death and injury of human beings, was high and we don't yet know for certain that this has been avoided. Had any of those people been Russians, then retaliation was almost certain. From there, events would escalate in a matter of days, even hours. A proxy war between major powers being waged in Syria could easily morph into a serious regional conflict. This is how world wars begin. We have to ask what kind of risk calculus informed last night's strikes.

In the light of all this, it is all the more puzzling that the Prime Minister did not bring her decision to collaborate in the air-strikes to Parliament. No doubt the memory of her predecessor's failure to secure parliamentary support for a similar action weighed heavily on her mind. Yet in her position, I would sleep more easily in my bed if I had gone to the place where I know my evidence would be carefully sifted and my argument rigorously tested. I would thereby both acknowledge the sovereignty of Parliament (always a good thing to do), and also gain reassurance (if the vote went my way) by having secured its ownership of what could easily turn out to be a life-or-death decision. Parliament reconvenes on Monday. It would not have been asking too much to delay action by a mere 48 hours.

No-one disputes that it is the responsibility of the executive to take decisions in emergencies. But I doubt whether this was one of them. (I'm not saying that what has happened in Syria is not truly dreadful. But sadly, a few days are not likely to make much difference in these intractable circumstances.)  Moreover, I think (but legal experts will need to clarify this) that the Royal Prerogative empowering the Prime Minister to act in an emergency is restricted to matters of the utmost gravity that pose a direct security threat to the United Kingdom. I doubt that this can be conceived that way. And when the executive appears to act prematurely when it would have been possible to take a longer, more considered view, I begin to worry that the powers that safeguard our democratic processes have been subverted. Because of this, I can't readily endorse last night's strikes against Syria as being "in my name". I'd be happy to be persuaded, but I am not persuaded yet.

There's another thing that concerns me, and that is the rhetoric that's being used about chemical weapons. I said at the outset that we all agree that chemical warfare is horrendous. But if we have learned anything from Syria in recent years, it is that the regime's deployment of conventional weapons against its own people is not less horrendous. The cruel and cynical way in which so many thousands of innocent people have been relentlessly killed and maimed in Syria through conventional attacks is one of the ugliest horror stories of our times.

To protest righteously against chemical weapons without also recognising the attrition caused by conventional weapons is morally dubious. It has the effect of normalising conventional warfare as somehow acceptable, or at least, less unacceptable, than chemical warfare. And when we consider that the UK is willingly exporting huge numbers of conventional weapons capable of causing immense injury and loss of life, we have to ask whether our own moral purity as a nation is beyond reproach. By the standards of nineteenth century weaponry, the hideously destructive armaments of our own day - land mines, fuel bombs and barrel bombs for example - are anything but conventional.

And even if we regard conventional weapons as a necessary evil, our own standpoint as a nation taking action against the use of chemical weapons is still morally questionable in the light of our own possession of nuclear arms with the implied threat of their actual use. As a nuclear power, the UK holds weapons that are no less questionable according to traditional moral values than the chemical and biological weapons we rightly condemn. I'm saying that the way we critique the weaponry of other nations needs to stand up to examination in the light of our own. As it is, I doubt whether our conscience as a nation can be entirely clear.

I am keenly aware of Edmund Burke's great dictum that evil happens when good men stand by and do nothing. I am not a pacifist and believe that nations are right to intervene strategically if there is a good prospect of a better outcome than there would have been if they had held back. I am old fashioned enough to believe that the concept of a just war still has validity. But the tragedy of Syria since the war erupted is precisely the consequence of western nations having done little or nothing to make a difference that would last. So it will not do for the USA, France and Britain to indulge in an episodic fit of moral outrage and decide in haste to take precipitate action that risks making the situation many times worse.

The UN Secretary General says chillingly that the cold war is back with a vengeance. I fear he is right. If so, the last thing that is needed is precipitate, reckless grandstanding with missiles. Instead, we need to take pause and consider the consequences of what we do. This, among other things, is what a proper parliamentary process would have provided. To see the end from the beginning is a central aspect not only of Realpolitik but of human wisdom. If ever our leaders needed that gift, it is now.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Child Sexual Abuse - what does the church do about shame?

It's been very painful to follow the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) hearings which have scrutinised the Church of England, and in particular the Diocese of Chichester. The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday: "I have learnt to be ashamed again of the Church. You can't read the transcripts, you can't read the evidence statements without being moved, at least, you shouldn't be able to...You can apologise and apologise to survivors, and I would want to put on record again - I don't know how to express it adequately - how appalled I am and ashamed I am of the church for what it did."

He speaks for all of us who care about people, especially children, the young and all those who are vulnerable to the abuse of power by people who hold positions of leadership and responsibility. We have failed those who trusted us. We need to take on ourselves the shame of our institution, feel it as ours, carry it as our own burden. Justin Welby is right that our church must not only learn from the past but institutionally repent, change its mind, rigorously examine our practices, abandon the collusive, deferential patterns of behaviour that our church has perfected so well and that both disguise and perpetuate abuse.

Many who know far more than I do about sexual abuse in the church have provided first-rate commentary on the IICSA hearings. I've valued the contributions of Linda Woodhead (via her Facebook page) and Stephen Parsons (Surviving Church) in particular. They empathise with the survivors whose voices we have heard, and whose entire lives have been terribly damaged by their abusers. But they are also shrewd observers of the church as an institution and grasp the systemic brokenness that has vitiated, sometimes fatally, so much of its ministry. I can't add to what they are saying about the hearings and their likely consequences. But I can speak about my personal experience of handling abuse in the church as a leader.

I have had four experiences of being shamed in the way the Archbishop describes. Three were to do with actual incidents of abuse with which I had to deal at the time; the fourth concerned historical abuse that had taken place several decades before my time but which came to light during my incumbency. Although two of the four quickly got into the public domain, and in all four cases the statutory agencies and safeguarding teams were fully involved, I don't think it's appropriate to write about them here, even if I were to anonymise the places and people concerned. It's their legacy that concerns me as I look back on them: their effect on the cathedrals I served at the time, their effect on me personally as a Christian leader.

What I learned is what the Archbishop was describing at the hearing. It's that shame has both a collective and a personal aspect. When the church as an institution has to say sorry for awful wrongs committed by those who were its trusted officers, there's an unsaid implication that we are both sorry and ashamed. You can't admit to grave offence unless you're prepared to go on and say: we did this, or, we allowed it to happen or, it happened on our watch, and in each case, it is to our shame. We now hear the word sorry said by institutions in a way we didn't always in the past. We hear about guilt and wrongdoing. But I'm not sure we have heard enough of shame.

It took me by surprise to feel ashamed during these incidents. But it was particularly strong when my colleagues and I were dealing with historic abuse. I felt something like this. This cathedral is such a good, wholesome place where I see people caring for one another and flourishing in their own human lives and Christian discipleship. How could something so terrible, so damaging happen among us? How could our innocent, vulnerable children become victims to a perpetrator of abuse who was not only trusted but admired in his day? How could this happen and we did not know about it? How could we not have noticed that something was amiss? Those were the questions I kept asking myself in the night watches. It wasn't about them, those who were the cathedral's leaders four or five decades ago. It was about us now, today. The first-person pronouns testified to the power memory has to bind us into a community that transcends time. It was impossible to separate myself from the past, to distinguish then from now. We were all implicated. The tenses of historical shame were not past but present.

Theological and psychoanalytic studies make a clear distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is a forensic reality with an objective character, even if it has to do with thoughts I've entertained as well as words I've uttered and deeds I've committed. Saying sorry for something I'm guilty about, what we call repentance, can often deal with the objective nature of guilt: it can be remitted, put away by appropriate words and acts. But shame is different. It has more to do with what I am or have become, and the effect this has on my sense of self. Because so much of shame is experienced subjectively, it is much harder to address than guilt (and that's hard enough by itself!). By saying sorry, I may be able to lighten the burden of my guilt. But it may not touch my shame. Looking back over my lifetime, I can vividly bring to mind things which I am no less ashamed of today than I was fifty or sixty years ago. I said sorry for them, and believed I was forgiven and reconciled at the time. Guilt doesn't come into it any more, except when I have a hunch that someone I once wronged may still be hurting. But shame has taken root in my psyche. That's its power. I may not be haunted by it to the extent I once was. But it never fully goes away.

I've spoken about corporate shame in relation to sexual abuse. Where is that shame actually felt? I've come to the view that it is the duty of leadership to bear shame, its vocation if you like. When you lead an institution, you are its visible representative, the walking embodiment of its goals and values. When your institution fails, whether spectacularly in some public arena or in more hidden ways, you feel it deeply yourself. That's nothing to do with being personally responsible for what has gone wrong (if it's your fault, it's easy - you know what you have to do about it). I'm talking about when the institution fails around you, either because of the sins others have committed, or because secrets were kept and the truth was not told, or because vital knowledge wasn't acted upon by being disclosed and named, or because of the collusions and cover-ups that happen when an institution tries (as it always does) to protect itself. In all these ways, it is the human beings who were not only the victims of the original abuse but have now become the victims of the institution too. That also is a form of abuse and an occasion for corporate shame.

I think this is what we were seeing Justin Welby express at the IICSA hearing when, it was reported, he seemed "close to tears". He was, to quote the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53, "bearing the sins of many". And as I said earlier, this does seem to belong to the vocation of leadership. To me, the Archbishop's demeanour felt real in a way some others' had not. This is where the seeds of metanoia lie, that "change of mind" that is the seed of true penitence and healing. Perhaps this was a moment of real hope, amid the grimness of what we had heard. If the church could cultivate the gift of tears, not for the sake of public perception but because we feel for survivors, because we are ashamed of our past wrongs, because we want things to be different in the future, that can only be good. The desert fathers spoke of tears as a kind of baptism. That's what we need right now.

If we've learned anything in the past three weeks, it's that the Church of England must change. This belongs to its metanoia. It will be evidence that our tears are serious and life-changing. We must acknowledge that by not addressing abuse properly, we not only fail our victims, but we fail also to be accountable for living according to truth rather than falsehood. Our shame as an institution, and the way it is felt by our leaders, can drive us to recognise that we need to do things differently from now on, perhaps radically so.

One obvious way to demonstrate metanoia would be voluntarily to submit to independent, external oversight of the church's safeguarding procedures. I am surprised that the Archbishop didn't offer it at the hearing, because it's highly likely to be one of the Commission's clear recommendations. It would be so much better to volunteer it now than for it to be required later on. I don't say that it would deal with our institutional shame, so keenly felt by Justin Welby. Shame casts a very long shadow, and perhaps that's no bad thing. But I think it would help restore the church's credibility at a time when levels of trust have sunk so low. Can the General Synod not press for that to happen as soon as possible?

Here is a sonnet by Malcolm Guite that I shall be quoting in my Holy Week addresses next week. It speaks with uncanny insight into the predicament I've been reflecting on in this blog. I am making it my prayer for the church this week.

When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,
So many pastors hopelessly astray,
The weak so often preyed on by the strong,
So many bruised and broken on the way,
The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,
The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,
The lambs we left to face all we have feared
Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.

Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,
One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost
Out in the darkness and the icy dew,
And no one knows how long this night will last.
Restore us; call us back to you by name,
And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.

**Update: This Guardian leading article on the IICSA hearings was published on Friday 23 March 2018.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Lent with St John's Gospel

I'm working on a series of Holy Week addresses that I'm giving at Chester Cathedral. Once again I'm immersed in the Gospel of St John. Not specifically the Passion story this time (I preached through it a few years ago, which is how my book The Eight Words of Jesus originated). This year I decided I would offer addresses on the seven "I am" sayings in the Fourth Gospel. In the order in which they occur, they are: the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Door, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, the Vine, and the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Believe it or not, I have never preached specifically on any of these great sayings, though I've often alluded to them in sermons on St John - you can hardly avoid it when they illuminate so much of his gospel. (Actually, that's not quite true. I did once write a sermon on the Way, the Truth and the Life,  but had to abandon it when some big event in the parish supervened and I needed to preach in a different way.) So this has been a voyage of discovery for me. It's been inspiring and stimulating to research the Greek text of St John with the commentaries, something retirement gives me time to do (even if it also brings the despondent reminder of no longer possessing key books I'd have been glad to consult because they were left behind in Durham when downsizing my library).

We've been companions for half a century, the Fourth Gospel and I. I blogged about the St John Passion a few years ago and said something about the part it played, together with the music of J.S. Bach, in my coming to conscious faith. In that blog, I wrote about the last word from the cross in the gospel, "It is finished" and how significant that single Greek word tetelestai is for the author. The cry of accomplishment, triumph even, because Jesus has completed the work God gave him to do, strikes an entirely different tone from the last words in the other gospels. There, it's much more a case of abandonment and desolation ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" in Matthew and Mark), or resigned trustfulness ("Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" in Luke). In John, Jesus is not the tragic victim who is "done to" by others. He is the sovereign Lord who lays down his own life as an act of the will. It makes all the difference to the way we hear the story.

My challenge this Holy Week is to show how the "I am" sayings point towards the cross - and towards the resurrection as well, for in John, the cross-and-resurrection is a single hyphenated event as Jesus "goes to the Father" as John puts it. The ancient liturgies of Easter celebrated the cross and resurrection, not as two separate moments in Jesus' career, but as a unified redemptive event, the Pascha, the Lord's Passover. As it happens, at Chester they were keen that my addresses should remind congregants that Holy Week represents the last phase of our Lenten commitment to prepare for the celebration of Easter. That seemed to fit well into the way St John handles and interprets the "I am" sayings.

To do this properly, we need to look carefully at each saying's background in the Hebrew Bible. Take for example the saying "I am the bread of life" (John 6.51). This was the obvious text to assign to Maundy Thursday evening and the liturgy of the Last Supper. Here is John's key eucharistic text ("Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them"), this in a gospel that unlike the others does not record Jesus breaking the bread and sharing the cup in the upper room. That's already a substantial sermon in its own right. But I couldn't do it justice without noticing how Jesus' feeding of the crowd that introduces this saying is intended to remind them of how God fed their ancestors in the wilderness with manna from heaven. Much is made of this in the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd that forms the substance of this chapter. Once we grasp the significance of Jesus' saying "I am the bread of life" at Passover time (John 6.4) when that wilderness journey was remembered in a ceremony of the breaking of bread, we realise how profound the symbolism is.

In a way I find miraculous, this is how the text of the Fourth Gospel works from start to finish. It is the most densely textured of the four gospels, with layer upon layer of symbolism, key words and phrases (including the "I am" sayings), and references to the Hebrew Bible not only through direct quotation but by allusions that trigger associations in the mind of the reader. These are a bit like Wagnerian Leitmotiven - musical themes that associate to particular characters, objects, events or destinies. Their role is subliminally to enable listeners to navigate a long and complex story by reminding them of the past, foreshadowing the future or setting the appropriate mood. In St John, certain words function as archetypes that are present throughout the text: explicitly here, implicitly there, for example light, life, love, glory, work, end (as in purpose), ascent (being "lifted up"), way, king, water, bread, wine and so on.

And I am is one of those. As I shall try to explain during Holy Week (no easy task!), those words derive from the story of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.1-15). As he takes off his shoes (for this is holy ground) and gazes into the fire that burns without being consumed, he hears God addressing him. The voice discloses God's name: "I AM WHO I AM....Thus shall you say to the Israelite, I AM has sent me to you." This is the origin of the divine name in Hebrew, YHWH, or in its debased English form, Jehovah. What does it mean? That God can only be spoken about or described in terms of himself. For he is the essence of what it means to exist, to be alive. The theologian Paul Tillich spoke about "the ground of being". So when Jesus takes the emphatic Greek words ego eimi on his lips, "I am", John takes him to be identifying directly with the God worshipped by the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus does this explicitly in a passage that records an argument with the community's leaders who accused him of blasphemy. He makes the extraordinary claim, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8.58). No wonder they tried to stone him there and then!

Enough for now. In this blog, I only really wanted to point to the infinite richness of this wonderful Fourth Gospel. I'm looking forward to being in Chester Cathedral for Holy Week and preaching through the "I am" sayings as a small act of gratitude for what has felt like a lifetime of friendship with St John. I'll publish the addresses as I give them (at http://northernambo.blogspot.com) and put the links on social media.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

At Sycamore Gap

Yesterday, with two dozen others, I stood beneath one of the most famous trees in England. We spent the best part of a breezy hour at Sycamore Gap, a location on Hadrian's Wall that is instantly recognisable from a thousand photos such as this one. Like the Angel of the North, it has become one of the emblems of North East England.

We had trudged there from The Sill, the Northumberland National Park's new visitor centre on the Military Road not far from two of England's best Roman sites, Housesteads and Vindolanda. (I say trudged because the thaw had left the path exceedingly boggy; indeed, one poor woman measured her length in the mud and had to be pulled out by three of us who were with her.) Above us, the rugged whin sill carried the Roman Wall on its long march eastward from the Solway to the Tyne. Across the valley, the high fells of the North Pennines still bore snowy evidence of the recent blizzards. Closer at hand, frogspawn proliferated in an unpromising muddy puddle. A herd of Hereford cattle, presided over by a noble bull, gazed dolefully at us as we passed among them.

I mention these details because our promenade was the centrepiece of an event focusing on the church's ministry in the countryside. Branded as a "contextual practice workshop on landscape and faith", it was designed as the first in a series of study days on the rural strand of the Diocese of Newcastle's strategy. (I did wonder whether the title of my book Landscapes of Faith had been plagiarised. If so, it was in a good cause.) Our speakers shared insights into the aims of the National Park, its geology, land forms, flora and fauna, the effect of human activity on the natural environment, the rural economy, and the role of memory and storytelling in giving depth to the texture of centuries of human interaction with the landscape.


Beneath the sycamore tree, the conversation continued more informally. We noted that here by the Wall, we were standing at the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire, a place marked by its historic character as a threshold between different domains "inside" and "beyond". This led to a discussion about the relationship between built and natural heritage, how we conserve both and promote them for the public to enjoy and learn from. We explored how the Park managed the tension between tourism and conservation. As we talked, a few stalwart walkers passed by. Most people walking Hadrian's Wall Path pause at Sycamore Gap for a break. With our group populating that cherished spot, its members wearing the intentional look of being there On Business, a few ramblers were curious and wanted to overhear.

I spoke up and - greatly daring - asked if I could theologise for a moment. This was permitted but one of the organisers (our parish priest as it happens) was looking at his watch. Well yes, I can talk for Tynedale, I suppose. I made two points. The first was that we were standing in our benefice (now known as "Parishes by the Wall"). As we looked south across the Tyne, we should notice (I said) that running through our parishes were no fewer than three key institutions in our county: a national park (Northumberland), a world heritage site (the Roman Wall) and an area of outstanding natural beauty (the North Pennines). Was such a confluence unique? Well, if not, then almost.


My second point was to link this landscape to the northern saints. For we were standing in the Tyne Gap corridor through which Cuthbert would assuredly have walked on his journeys between Hexham and Lindisfarne (of which he was successively bishop), and Carlisle where Bede tells us he used to preach. Ancient churches dedicated to St Cuthbert such as at Carlisle itself, Upper Denton (probably), Beltingham, Old Haydon and other places plausibly preserve the memory of the travels of the Community of St Cuthbert as they wandered across the north of England in search of a permanent home for the Lindisfarne bishopric, the saint's relics and the Lindisfarne Gospel book. Indeed, cultural geographers of the north speak about how those sacred journeys helped create the very "idea of north". I suggested that we were looking out at a landscape of faith where meanings were inherent not only from prehistoric and Roman times, but from the Saxon and later medieval periods as well.

Back at The Sill, we drew together some of the many threads of the morning. We asked one another how we might discern God in these landscapes, where we found meaning in them, and what kind of faith was formed among them. I kept coming back to the Wall and the tree in their liminal setting. I conjectured that perhaps this tough landscape suggested a spirituality of solitariness, like the Irish hermits or the desert fathers. Their craving for eremitical solitariness (like the sycamore itself) was not at the expense of living in relationship, or their belonging to monastic communities. But the askesis of aloneness, its discipline, called for spiritual qualities of a distinctive kind. We know that Cuthbert craved this kind of life, which is why he created his own hermitage on the remote island of the Inner Farne where he was to die.

Maybe local church life and mission in these upland valleys needs to ponder how it reflects these and other insights suggested by the landscapes in which they are set. The suburban model of the gathered Sunday congregation won't easily translate into this tough Northumbrian environment. Parish, meaning the entire population who "live around" (as the word paroikia literally means) is everything in these places. You catch it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas who himself knew "the solace of fierce landscapes" intimately, and immortalised the rocky "skull beneath the skin" in his work. I wonder whether northern theologians and church leaders shouldn't join forces with the artists, the storytellers,  the poets, the local historians and the social geographers who have taken the trouble to get to know and love these places with passion. Such an engagement with this wild northern terroir could be extraordinarily fruitful. Could that be an idea for future workshops on ministry and mission in the remote countryside of the far north of England?


Thursday, 22 February 2018

Billy Graham - A Personal Reminiscence

I was one of those who went forward at a Billy Graham Crusade. It was the early summer of 1966, at the Earl's Court Arena. He preached there for a month. Close on a million people must have heard him. I was one of about forty thousand who responded to the "altar call" (though I don't think that phrase was being used any more in the 1960s).

There. I've come out and admitted it. I won't say it changed my life. I'd consciously become a Christian earlier that year, thanks to friends in the school's Christian Union. Before that I'd been a chorister. I hadn't been brought up in a church going family. My parents told me on my first day as a chorister not to bring any of "that religion" back home with me. It was for the music that they were encouraging me, that alone. So they were not best pleased when I announced my conversion, though they did come to my baptism and confirmation a few months later.

So yes, 1966 was an annus mirabilis, a year of joyful wonder, no doubt about that. And Billy Graham was part of it. I went with friends to hear him several times. I didn't care for the musical style of Cliff Barrows and George Beverley Shea - I'd have preferred O worship the King and There's a wideness in God's mercy to Blessed assurance and To God be the glory (still do). But I remember admiring the sheer professionalism with which these vast events were managed. I also recall being impressed by the diversity of people sitting on the platform - Anglican bishops, civic leaders, some black faces I didn't recognise. All in all, it was great theatre. You couldn't but be impressed.

He was a master of rhetorical technique. Where had he learned it, I wonder - from the study of classical Greek and Roman rhetors, or from American politicians or the great preachers of previous ages? Maybe he was one of those natively gifted people who come to realise they have power to sway human minds and hearts. He knew how to work a crowd. And he knew exactly how to speak in such a way that you would think it was directly and personally meant for you. To achieve that calls for charism of a high order.

But most of all, I was drawn to the man. It wasn't so much the content of his addresses (none of which I can now remember), but the way he gave them, the kind of human he came across as being. (I wonder if this is true of all of us preachers most of the time?) What struck me more than anything was the sense he conveyed of a profound personal integrity. He seemed to have no "side". It was hard to suspect hidden agendas or imagine ulterior motives, though the cynics tried hard enough. He believed every word of his own message, and as far as we the audience could tell, lived by it. All the obituaries I have read confirm the impression that he was a genuinely humble man who "loved his Lord", as Donald Coggan would have said, who never regretted giving his life to the gospel.

I think, looking back, that it was his essential goodness that impelled me to go forward that evening. I craved innocent, unselfconscious goodness (and still do), that singleness of mind and purpose that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls "purity of heart". I was already aware as a teenager that I fell well short of it myself. I wanted, so to speak, to nail my colours to that mast. It was an aspiration. Perhaps I knew in some obscure way that this would be a life task, that conversio is never a once-for-all decision, but a lifelong turning away from what is destructive or corrupting or evil towards all that is good and true and beautiful. "Think on these things" says St Paul. I believe Billy Graham was one of those rare people for whom this was a daily habit.

I met him once, briefly. This was in May or June 1984 when he came to the original Sunderland FC ground at Roker Park to preach to the North East. Nearly twenty years older than when I'd last seen him, he had not lost his good looks. I'd been sent to report the event for a newspaper. By then I'd moved away from conservative evangelicalism into a more catholic and sacramental spirituality. So I perhaps went to Sunderland prepared to be critical. The stadium was only half full: maybe it was the keen wind blowing off the North Sea that night, or maybe the people of County Durham and Northumberland were just worn down by the miners' strike that had begun a few months earlier.

I went to the press conference. You could tell that Billy Graham understood how to engage with, if not a hostile, then a suspicious media. (The press mostly don't care much for religion until a significant exemplar of it dies - today's obituaries strike a very different, and far more positive, tone from the press commentary of thirty years ago.) He was courteous, direct and shrewd in his answers. He wouldn't get drawn into debates about American politics, what he thought about Viet Nam, Watergate and so on. I asked him a question, possibly about race relations in US; or was it about Nicaragua? I don't think it was the miners, though that would have been interesting. I was probably trying to be clever. But he played a straight bat, and you couldn't quarrel with that. He looked me directly in the eye as he spoke. His gaze was piercing, questioning, placing me under scrutiny. I thought: here is a man who deserves to be taken seriously.

So why didn't the Billy Graham brand of evangelicalism "stick"? I was asked a similar question by George Carey once, when he was Archbishop and came to preach at Sheffield Cathedral. "You were on course to be an evangelical leader, Michael. What went wrong?" I said I didn't accept the premise that anything went wrong. But it would take a long series of blogs to explain. Maybe I don't entirely understand it myself, though as I get older and look back on my life, things gradually fall into place, even if gathering the fragments is always a work in progress.

I suppose that as the prophets said to Elisha, "the place where we live is too small for us". I don't mean this unkindly. We all move home many times in our lives, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. I have good evangelical friends whom I honour for their faithfulness to Christ and their loyal witness to the gospel. But I found the evangelicalism of those days too talkative, too busy, too extraverted. There was not enough silence in it, not enough space to contemplate, not enough imagination or playfulness, not enough awareness of the place of beauty in religion. And it didn't seem to reach into the complexities of the human heart (well, mine, anyway). No doubt a lot of it comes down to temperament. But I have to say that I became increasingly at odds intellectually with the way conservative evangelicalism did theology.

But I want to think (and pray) that I haven't lost what has been most precious in my evangelical formation: a love of the scriptures and a belief that they must be central to Christian life and thought; a conviction that personal relationship with God is the essence of all religion if it is to mean anything; and not least, a spirituality that is ardently focused on Jesus' cross and passion. As a student (at Trinity College Bristol!) my tutors told me to read the radical New Testament critics and John Henry Newman's Apologia. Oh, and to try to grasp the principles of liturgical prayer. I realised how much bigger the Christian world was than I'd imagined. That's it, really. The rest is history.

There are many mansions in our Father's house. God not only moves in mysterious ways himself, but moves us in ways that are just as mysterious when we try to make sense of them. I know that on many matters, Billy Graham and I would not have agreed since those heady days of the 1960s. He probably wouldn't have been comfortable in my liberal catholic, inclusive-church world, nor I in his. Except for this. I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have honoured my stumbling attempts to walk my Christian faith journey with integrity, just as I want to honour his. For what matters most is the same, to "turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ" as the Ash Wednesday words put it. Discipleship is as simple as that, purity of heart. Billy Graham helped me to start out on that path. For that, I'm grateful and glad.

Farewell to a great Christian man. RIP.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Lent - 40 Shades of Gratitude

If you follow The Archers you’ll know that Alan the Vicar has put forward a novel idea for the village’s Lenten observance. Let’s give up complaining, he’s proposed, and every time we offend, let’s put a fine in the sin-box and give the proceeds to charity.

I quite like that idea, though it needs a bit of calibration. Does “complaining” only cover what we do publicly, or what we are overheard doing? Does it only cover what we say or write, or should it include what we think as well? Does it only apply to named people or organisations (“The Vicar doesn’t visit enough”; “Bridge Farm yogurts have lost their taste”) or also to the ubiquitous “they” (as in “Why don’t they mend the potholes in our roads?” or “They don’t care that our trains never run on time”)? And when is a negative comment not necessarily a complaint (“Our bins haven’t been emptied this week: that’s going to cause problems, so we’d better phone the Council”)? And are Ambridge folk still allowed to talk about “bad weather” or a “poor wi-fi signal”?

Maybe the casuistry of complaining is too complex. And to rub your nose in negativity doesn’t exactly lift the spirits. That’s the trouble with Lent. It’s not that giving up things isn’t often very good for us - fasting and self-denial are important aspects of a healthy spiritual (and ordinary human) life. But so much depends on our attitude, our motive for undertaking whatever Lenten exercise or discipline we opt for. So I’m much more encouraged by a tweet from one of my favourite Twitter clergy, @sallyhitchener. “This year I'm taking up #GratitudeForLent - 40 days, 40 thank you notes to people to whom I'm grateful, for small or great things. Want to join me?”

I think Sally gets right to the heart of Lent. For a start, she accentuates the positive, always a good antidote to the negativity of complaining. But she isn’t calling for the kind of generalised goodwill clergy are so proficient at while never sacrificing their gift of vagueness. She sets a clear objective that is, as business-speak has it, SMART: Specific, Measurable (she’ll know if she’s achieved it or not), Assignable (clear about whose task this is, in this case hers), Realistic (it can actually be achieved) and Time-related (in this case, 40 days). The Muslim month of Ramadan is characterised by smart objectives for the fast which makes it all the easier to get a handle on (I don’t say easier to observe). I believe a Lenten observance that sets smart goals will be helpful in at least contemplating the journey that lies ahead.

But much more important is the content of Sally’s Lenten resolution. “Gratitude for Lent” - what could be more true to the spirit of Christianity than that? You could say that gratitude is where Christian discipleship begins, as we acknowledge with thankfulness the tender mercy of the God who has loved us in Jesus Christ and called us to be citizens of his kingdom. So to practise gratitude in Lent is to go back to the very foundations of faith. The clue is in the principle of eucharist. That word literally means “Thanksgiving”. So to live eucharistically doesn’t only mean participating in the service of worship at which we celebrate together the great acts of God. At a deeper level, it means cultivating thankfulness as a habit of the heart, training our deepest selves to respond to life in a spirit of gratitude and praise to God our Creator and Redeemer. In Lent, that gratitude is given a paschal shape as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the redemptive event from which our very identity as Christians is derived.

I used the word “training” just now. Training is what the Greek word askesis means. An ascetic is someone who takes their training seriously, reckons that it’s something worth investing in. Yes, the three great disciplines Jesus speaks about in the Sermon on the Mount, prayer, fasting and giving alms, are basic to the classic Christian understanding of askesis. But motivating them all, I think, has to be a sense of thankfulness, the eucharistic acknowledgment that these disciplines are not ends in themselves, but are meant to deepen our engagement with God whose goodness has invited us into the adventure and challenge of discipleship. The ascetic journey is to travel more deeply into God’s heart of love. It both draws on our thankfulness and enhances it as we discover how infinitely indebted we are to the Love that moves the sun and the stars.

So Lent, this annual season of renewal, this springtime of the Christian year, invites us to find new ways of practising the habit of eucharistia. Where do we start? Sally gives us a practical suggestion. Her forty thank you notes will get us thinking about forty ways in which we need to be grateful - to other people, and through them, to God himself. And alongside these forty shades of gratitude, why not pray the General Thanksgiving each day? I don’t know a better way of seeing off our tendency to complaint and negativity. Indeed, I believe we shall discover that thankfulness is truly life-changing because it transfigures our perspective on life. The Thanksgiving Prayer says that we should be grateful above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Which is what we look forward to celebrating at Easter. Here's the General Thanksgiving in its original, magnificent form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.