About Me

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

Thursday, 17 January 2019

After the Vote: a Church of England Statement?

After the Commons vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday, the Church of Scotland was quick to issue a statement.

I’ve been tracking the Church of England’s media feed since the vote, thinking that at a time of national crisis, Britain’s other national church would be bound to say something that could help people of faith - maybe others - try to reflect on the position our nation is now in. I’ve been surprised, and I have to say disappointed, that so far, there has been no official comment.

So in the absence of any statement, and conscious that it’s hard to improve on the Church of Scotland’s wise words, here’s my own attempt. The Church of England is welcome to adopt it without attribution if it wishes. And while my personal view of Brexit is well-known to readers of this blog, I’ve genuinely tried to make this comment as inclusive as possible.

The Church of England is dismayed that following this week’s vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons, our nation now finds itself in an impasse. And this just ten short weeks before the date we are due to leave the European Union. We cannot exaggerate the dangers this poses to the United Kingdom. 

Our Church is privileged to serve one of its four nations, and this means that we care deeply about the welfare of England, its destiny, and its contribution to the flourishing of the United Kingdom, Europe and the world. Because of that, we would like to offer a comment on the position our nation is now in.

Our Church is probably no more united on Brexit than the population as a whole. This is one of many matters where the Church of England needs to live courteously with difference. But we believe, as we think most parliamentarians and most of the British public believe, that to leave the EU without any deal in place would be profoundly damaging to the UK. And we are afraid that it is the poorest and most dependent of our society who would be damaged the most. Our present paralysis is therefore a cause of great concern.

We say this out of concern not only for our future trading relationships with the EU, but also for the many other ways in which our collaboration with the European Union will continue to be of immense importance to this nation. We mean our shared concern for human rights, justice, employment practice, the alleviation of poverty, security, peacemaking and the conservation of the environment. We also mean our participation in scientific, medical, cultural and educational programmes that have benefitted all the EU nations and which we believe most people would want to see continue in some form. The UK has shown leadership in all these areas, and we would not want to see these opportunities vanish on 29 March. 

We are also deeply aware of the predicament Brexit poses to our friends from overseas EU nations who have made their home in the UK, and for British people living in those EU27 nations. A “no-deal” Brexit would have a severe impact on them and on their livelihoods. We owe it to them to make sure that they have security about their future, and this lends urgency to the task of negotiating an acceptable divorce settlement and future relationships as nations. 

We urge our Parliamentarians to put the nation’s welfare above party loyalties by finding every possible way of working together to find a way forward that can win consensus. This is not a time for taking up doctrinaire positions. It is not only vital that Parliament rediscovers a sense of common purpose. It is now very urgent indeed that we emerge from this current paralysis.

It has often been said that leaving the European Union does not mean leaving the continent of Europe. So we urge all the peoples of Britain to continue to be good friends, neighbours and allies to the nations of our continent, in whatever ways our future relationships are configured. This is unknown at present. But despite so much uncertainty, we urge our leaders at least to have regard for the many values the European family of nations has in common. 

What can the Church of England offer at this critical time? 

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

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

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

UPDATE. As I was publishing this, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York released a short statement supporting the call to prayer issued by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI).

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Brexit: a Book, a Film and a Shocking Event

It's back to Brexit for long-suffering parliamentarians. So back to Brexit for happy bloggers too.

Let me start with three quotations. Maybe you recognise them.

Their campaign began 20 years ago. The slow drip of hate, hate, hate. This is who we are now.

It’s about the soul of our country. I’m worried that we won’t be able to heal.... You can’t close the box once it’s been opened.

We all know there's a lot of anger in this country at the moment and to get what you want you've got to keep that anger burning. But people show their anger in different ways. Some of them grumble into their tea and huff and puff over the Daily Telegraph and vote for Brexit and that's fine. But some of them go out into the street one morning with a flak jacket full of knives and stab their local MP to death, and that's not so good is it? And the more the papers stoke up the anger by using words like "treason" and "mutiny" and "enemy of the people", the more likely it gets that something like that will happen again.

The first two are from James Graham's TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War which was broadcast on Channel Four last night. The third is from Jonathan Coe's latest novel Middle England, published last autumn. It's been interesting to watch the one and read the other in these first few days of what promises to be a febrile year.

In one way, the novel and the drama are trying to do the same thing: lift the lid on Brexit-Britain and uncover the dynamics of a referendum decision that now seems, thirty months later, to be more baffling than ever, more complex than most of us thought at the time. The TV play did this by focusing on the leadership of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings (aka Benedict Cumberbatch) in particular. The novel, by contrast, explores the lead-up to the referendum and its aftermath through the perspective of characters ("ordinary people"?) who are linked by kindred or affinity (some of whom you will recognise from Coe's earlier novels). So far, so synchronous.

Synchronous too, and appallingly (because this was real life, not the imagined world of fiction), Anna Soubry MP was verbally assaulted yesterday in front of the Houses of Parliament. Staunch Remainer as she is, she had given a TV interview about Brexit on College Green. Some protesters - not many, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in foul-mouthed ferocity - yelled abuse at her. Words quoted in the reports were Fascist! Nazi! There may have been more. Still on air, she asked, her voice audibly shaking, "What has happened to our country?" The book and the film go some way to answering that, as the quotes above suggest.

In her review of the film in today's Guardian Lucy Mangan colourfully pans the drama, not so much because it was simplistically black-and-white (angels versus demons), but because it didn't explore any of the main issues in depth. (And it was, to be honest, somewhat pedestrian, but maybe this was to avoid providing watching litigators with extra work.) The effect of this was to add to the chaos at precisely the time in our national life when we should look to the arts to shine a light on our confusion. But whatever its shortcomings, I have to say that the script earned two cheers for accurately spotlighting the bitter divisions that have been let loose in our country. It couldn't have wished for a better commentary than those grim events in Parliament Square on the very same day. It's completely right to fear for the soul of our country and to wonder if these wounds can be healed, in our lifetimes at any rate.

Jonathan Coe's book is a lot more satisfying. He too uncovers the "sound and fury" (alas, unlike Shakespeare's, not "signifying nothing"). But he does it through the slow burn of the long read that allows you time to reflect on the picture he's painting. This is not a campaigning novel but a serious exercise in plot, character and motive. Take Helena, She belongs to my own silver-haired generation who, if the demographic analyses are right, tipped the referendum into voting Leave. She is elegant, thoughtful, caring - but as you get to know her you discover a low-level hostility towards those who are different from her, an "othering" of people from different cultures and traditions. No spoilers - I won't reveal how this comes to a climax near the end, but it's shocking when it does. And you realise that she is your neighbour in the street where you live, the acquaintance who invites you in for coffee, the woman you kneel next to in church, a friend or relative, even, who takes you by surprise because you never thought that racism formed even the tiniest part of their character.

I loved the book. And I valued moments of the drama like those I quoted when it seemed to rise above the generally worthy and recognise something significant. Both avoided making facile connections such as: if David Cameron had not launched the referendum, Jo Cox would still be alive today. What's likely to be true is that he was foolish enough to give in to the self-destructive Rule Britannia anti-EU myth that has been perpetrated among right-wing Tories for a generation and that aided and abetted by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, has poisoned attitudes across much of the party not to say its voters. In other words, Uncivil War is right to recognise that this visceral hatred has been dripping for a couple of decades, as Margaret Thatcher and John Major knew well. The referendum was not the cause of it. But it was the occasion for it to find open expression where hatreds are now expressed not only at the smartphone keyboard but at knifepoint. Cameron cannot evade responsibility for not reading the signs of the times. For a politician that's a sin of the first order.

How do you close the box once it's been opened? In Hesiod's myth of Pandora, she foolishly opened her box (a big clay storage jar, actually) and released all the evils we know in the world - famine, disaster, poverty, sickness and death. She shut it just in time to hold in the last of its contents which was hope. Someone read my tweet about all this today and replied: All shall be well.... Even if it is not well, and it certainly doesn't feel well at present. Yes, I thought, that is theologically and spiritually accurate.

I don't know what shape hope can have for our nation at present. I can't any more sing that naively optimistic hymn God is working his purpose out in the light of events. God is not going to rescue us from our folly. We have already seen what glory, grace and truth look like in the face of the Child whose coming we have celebrated at Christmas. But precisely because of him and his love for our chaotic world, hoping against hope is what we must do, like faithful Abraham. And pray for the wisdom that will teach us how to think and act for the best in our time.

And we shall hope. If not for ourselves, then for our children's children who, we fervently pray, inherit a better world than the one we are bequeathing them.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Farewell Facebook. Sort Of.

There's something faintly narcissistic about discussing social media on social media. But I guess we all do it if only to try to understand why, if it has, social media has become such a pervasive part of our lives.

Six years ago when I was still finding my feet in this strange new world I wrote a blog about Twitter. A week is a long time in social media, let alone six years. But I don't think I'd change anything much, other than acknowledge that the character limit is now 280, not 140 as it used to be in the (good) old days. I tried out these Twelve Principles of Responsible Tweeting on a conference I once addressed on the subject of wisdom and pastoral care. They went down well.

At about the same time as a Durham University colleague told me I'd enjoy Twitter (how right she was), my children persuaded me to reactivate my Facebook (henceforth FB) account so that we could all keep in touch, resuscitate old friendships, share holiday snaps and discuss what we'd had for breakfast. Always compliant, I did as they asked. I enjoyed interacting with people I hadn't seen for years as well as making new friends (whatever we think online "friendship" means). I learned a lot from links people posted to broadcasting, newspapers and journals, enjoyed their photos and was often inspired by their blogs.

But I never cared for FB in quite the way I took to Twitter. Twitter was elegant, disciplined and smart. I loved its minimalism - not so minimalist now. FB sprawled without limit (and by heaven don't some people take advantage of that). Twitter was amazingly simple to use, FB labyrinthine in the complexity of its settings (some of which I don't get to this day). But what irritated me most, and still does, is the gossipy world view it often endorses. The endless fripperies, the studied triviality that was once mercifully confined to the privacy of personal relationships are now on view for all the world (well, all our friendship worlds) to see.

It's not that lightening up isn't a very good thing. We should cultivate humour, laughter, lightness of touch, a sense of the absurd. We all need to do it, myself included - ask my family! But somehow, FB seems to inflate it. And that's true at the opposite end of the spectrum as well, where serious commentary (of which there's a great deal on FB - don't misunderstand me) often descends into rudeness, vitriol and rage. The more words I have, the more I can indulge myself in front of the ever-willing audience with which I share my echo-chamber. In that respect, Twitter's tightness imposes some controls. Yes I know that 280 characters, precisely because of that limit, can curtail nuance, inhibit subtlety, make words sound sharper-edged than they are meant to be, offend where no offence was intended. And if you want to abuse someone, Twitter is ideal for it. It will get you noticed. No medium is perfect. But perhaps I've said enough to explain why I've not found FB comparable to Twitter which, most of the time, has been source of enlightenment, stimulus and pleasure.

Social media holds up a mirror to both our best and our worst selves, and to the shades of grey in between which I suppose account for ninety-five percent of ordinary life. The mirror, if it's telling the truth, won't make us look any better than we really are, or worse for that matter. But the question is, precisely what "truth" are we talking about when we gaze dispassionately at the image of ourselves that we portray on social media? I find that an intriguing question to which I don't really know the answer. Some of us want to promote the image of the clown or humourist, others the sage with profound wisdom to impart. Some aspire to be the angry prophet, some the witty flaneur. There's the friend who cultivates triviality in order to subvert (or just take their mind off) the serious stuff out there in the real world or in cyberspace. And there's always the one who wants to be the cleverest person in the room. God forbid any of us might crave that reputation.

To some extent, these caricatures tell both truth and lies. We're all of us tempted to construct false selves online, create the public or semi-public persona we want others to see, may even want to see ourselves. When we draft our social media profile and select images to go with it, what governs those decisions? Some devote a good deal of time to thinking about it, others take a devil-may-care attitude. I suppose personality type has a lot to do with it, as well as the roles we have in our work or public life, and how social media can enhance or detract from them. And all this assumes that we do lhave regard for truthfulness and integrity online so that what you see is, to a greater or lesser extent, what you you get. I assume that everyone who reads this blog believes that this ought to matter to us. But even if it does, it’s easy to deceive ourselves about what the gap between how others see us and what we truly are. That’s no different from everyday life of course. But on social media, as some have found to their cost, that gap can be fatally magnified.

I have to admit that FB is not altogether the life-enhancing medium I thought it might be. But I won't have it said that social media is intrinsically destructive or bad. It's morally neutral, like the invention of the printing-press or telephone, radio and television, all of which were said at the time successfully to corrupt minds and hearts, especially those of the young. Like any communications medium, the internet is only a tool - a hugely powerful one, but a tool for all that. What any tool does is simply to broaden the scope of our capacity for good or evil. As I've said, it's as good or as bad as we are. So the important question to ask always is, how can we make it better for others and ourselves, put wholesome, positive, wise messages out there to help combat so much that's negative and deleterious and bad?

All of which I've written as a way of telling FB friends that I've decided to change the way I use this platform. Hitherto I've posted a lot of stuff about theology, culture, social affairs and politics on my timeline as well as link to some of the best writing on those or other topics that I've come across in my reading. But I've come to think that maybe FB isn't the best medium for doing this, at least not for me. Someone told me, in the nicest possible way but quite firmly, to lighten up on other people's timelines (and there I was, thinking I'd made a helpful contribution to the discussion a friend had begun in a new year's post). Maybe they were trying to tell me that FB isn't the right tool for this sort of thing, or more likely, that I just wasn't using it properly. However, the effect was to make me feel as though I'd lobbed a hand-grenade into the kindergarten playground. Over-sensitive? Maybe. Even probably. But it had the intended effect of making me think about my use of social media.

So I've reached a decision about FaceBook. It's not to suspend my account - at least, not yet (as for closing it down permanently, how to do that has baffled some of the world's greatest minds). But I've decided to use FB purely for social interaction rather than the political, social and theological debates I've been engaging in for the past few years. I'm going to restrict that kind of content to Twitter, and keep FB for what I guess it was meant to do all along, enjoying the fun-stuff with family and friends and sharing more personal joys and sorrows as appropriate. And, I hope, continuing to enlarge the circle of human relationships, some deep, some more casual, that social media is good at promoting. So I've changed all my privacy settings from public to friends only and drastically reduced what anyone can see of my life online.

In some ways it's felt bleak to do this. But it's not the parting of friends, just a new year rearrangement of the digital homes we are inhabiting. I know many of us will go on meeting up on Twitter where lively debates about everything under the sun will continue. And let me emphasise that I'm speaking only for myself and my experience. We each have to come to our own conclusions. But there's no denying that I'll miss many of you in all sorts of ways when it comes to the often controversial discussions we've had and all that I've learned from you.

I'll give it a few weeks to see how it works out. With the public exposure about its policies and practices that it's had in recent weeks, FaceBook's own hour may be coming, though it's too soon to tell if we're on board a sinking ship. It's entirely possible that events conspire to make all of us question the wisdom of continuing to associate ourselves with FB and be manipulated, as we seem to be, by the vast amounts of information it holds about us, and by the inscrutable algorithms that govern what happens to it (and to us).

When Sherlock Holmes was heading for his last encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, a meeting he believed could only end in the deaths of them both, he told Dr Watson that he did not think he had ever used his powers of detection other than for the welfare of humanity. I’ll make the more modest claim that on FB, I’m not aware that I’ve ever intended to harm or diminish anyone else, however much we may have disagreed or been passionate about the causes we believe in. That of course is no defence if I’ve hurt anyone or damaged their reputation. But as I say a sort of farewell, I can at least say that I’m sorry. That feels important just now.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Quirinius Lives: the Home Office Says “Register!”

Someone in high places wasn't paying attention when their Home Office video was launched on the Third Day of Christmas. It was early in the morning of the 27 December, the first tweet out of the Home Office after wishing everyone a happy Christmas. If you haven't heard, this is the video that tells citizens from the 27 overseas EU countries who want to go on living in the UK after Brexit how to set about applying. "EU citizens and their families will need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to continue living in the UK after 31 December 2020" it says. It takes 55 seconds to watch.

It's deeply ironic that this video should have been released during the twelve days of Christmas. Only a few days earlier, more than half the nation must have heard St Luke's account of the birth of Jesus read at thousands of nativity plays, crib blessings, Christingles and carol services. In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. In the ancient world you had to fit in with the requirements of a process-driven bureaucracy. Plus ca change. So Joseph and Mary have to make the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, she nine months pregnant. They get there only to find there is no room at the inn. You know how the story continues.

So around 3.2 million people will need to register before 2021. That's a lot more form-filling than even dreary Quirinius could have dreamed of. Who doesn't love a good registration? What better excuse for a public holiday? Better still if you can anticipate government coffers swelling with unbudgeted income from it, for many of our EU27 friends will have to pay for the privilege of registering. I don't know if this was entirely clear to them before.

Predictably the video has been greeted with responses ranging from eye-rolling boredom (what did you expect from the Home Office?) through mockery and sarcasm to outright fury. Most striking has been the outrage of many people from EU27 countries who have lived in Britain for decades and thought this was their home. The Guardian quotes one: "You absolute s***! I've lived here 35 years, got a stamp in my passport for indefinite leave to remain in 1985 and now you want me to apply to stay in my own home." This from a Danish citizen who lives in the UK. And this which came up on my own Twitter feed: "Wow. This is making me feel so welcome, after 28 years of life here, making friends, paying taxes, bringing up two wonderful British citizens. Thank you so much for this slap in the face, UK Home Office. Absolutely sickening".

But I've also been struck by the responses of British citizens. "Seeing the impact of this policy on people I know and work with is a wake up call. I feel angry and ashamed" writes one. "I too am ashamed. I feel that I don’t belong here. We are not a civilised nation and the government does not represent anything I believe in" writes another. And this: "Making those who share a citizenship with us register as if they were aliens is quite shocking. Now we describe a few hundred refugees arriving at Dover as a national crisis and debate whether or not we should be rescuing them".

That last remark gets to the heart of the matter. The point about registration, which will not have been lost on Mary and Joseph, is that you are made to feel that your homeland isn't your own any more. It's been taken over by others, occupied by people who think they can control you by insisting that you comply with their requirements. My Jewish mother and her family knew all about this in Germany in the 1930s under the Nazis, and the creeping subjugation of the Jewish community by what might have seemed at first to be harmless bureaucratic processes of "registration". In Roman-occupied Judea, registration was a device to keep a potentially restless population in its place. (Never mind that there's some historical difficulty about Luke's account of this event - what we do know about Quirinius is that he was appointed as Imperial legate early in the first century precisely to oversee an exercise of this kind, even though the dates don't fit Luke's chronology. The nativity story still makes a powerful point about the two kinds of authority that are always at work in the world and confronting each other - human and divine, or we might say, the politics of God and the politics of human beings. Or maybe justification by faith or registration.)

I tweeted about this yesterday: "Like the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It reminded the Holy Family that they lived in an occupied land. Precisely how Brexit Britain now is for all true Europeans, whether from the UK or an EU27country". That didn't please one of my followers who wanted to know in what sense the UK today is like first century Roman-occupied Judea. Who is doing the occupying he asked? "Our worst selves" I replied. We are doing this to ourselves and one another. Somewhere, out of the shadow side of our nation has come this self-destructive instinct to "take back control" in ways that distance us, even cut us off from the neighbour we are commanded to love. For reasons I don't pretend to understand, we have come to a time in our history when demons of suspicion, resentment and hostility are being unleashed in our “othering” of those who only wish us well. In terms of our collective national psyche, a spirit is abroad that threatens a healthy sense of our identity, who we are and who we aspire to be as good human beings. This is the occupying power. And it seems to have us in its thrall.

This may seem strong language. Perhaps I'm more coloured than I should be by my family's experience of the 1930s. But how could I not be? But for Britain's welcome to Jewish refugees at that time, my mother would not have survived the Holocaust and I wouldn't be here now. I can feel viscerally the effect of becoming like an exile in my own country, ill at ease, sorry, ashamed. This is not the kind, just, generous, fair-minded nation I thought I lived in. At least, not in this respect. I think many of the Windrush generation will say the same. It's not easy to sing the Lord's song in this strange land.

It's still Christmas. We are still celebrating the wonderful events that followed Quirinius' (or whoever's) registration. Incarnation, God's coming among us as a vulnerable holy human Child is wisdom's answer to the follies of mortals. The Infant of Bethlehem brings hope to our world and promises to deliver us from this occupation we are experiencing by our worst selves. I was heartened by a positive reply to my despondent Quirinius tweet. "I too sometimes feel that it isn’t my country any longer. Then I speak to one or more of the many wonderful people I know, and I am reminded that recovery is both possible and necessary."

We look into one another's faces and glimpse reflected there what we see when we look into the face of God’s Incarnate Son. What we see is nothing less than grace and truth. So my prayer is that we shall all be guided by divine grace and truth into better days in the new year that is dawning. And that grace and truth may free us from all that demeans human life by teaching us to look on our neighbours not as strangers but as friends whom we love with something like the love with which God loves each of us.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

On Not Feeling God: thoughts on a saying of Sister Wendy Beckett

Sister Wendy Beckett has died. She was a remarkable woman. Her obituary in the Guardian paid tribute to her insight into great art and her ability to excite and inspire a television audience. Perhaps no one was more surprised than she was that a catholic nun could become such a TV success.

The obituarist ends with a striking reference to her understanding of religious experience. Her views on God were challenging. When asked once what she felt about God, she replied, sharply: “I don’t think anyone can feel God. Those who believe in him most are most aware of his non-feelability, as it were. God is such a total mystery. My heart sinks when the word God is bandied around glibly.”

I put that quote out on social media and was surprised how much interest it aroused. A lot of people endorsed it and recirculated it. Clearly Sister Wendy spoke for them in some important way. And the more I thought about it, the more I sensed that she was articulating my own thoughts too. I can’t speak for anyone else. But let me try to think aloud about why her words seem not only accurate but important.

I’m one of those people who is easily moved to tears, whether it’s a film I’m watching, a poem I’m reading or a piece of music I’m listening to. And yes, by singing carols at Christmas and gazing into the crib. I’m grateful for the capacity to feel and to be moved: I understand what the desert fathers meant when they spoke about “the gift of tears”. 

And yet, I don’t altogether trust my emotional responses. I don’t mean the fact of them, rather, what they mean. Just because I feel a lump in the throat during the final scene of my favourite film Brief Encounter, it doesn’t follow that my response is especially deep or life-changing. It could be sentimental or nostalgic, none the worse for that perhaps but not to be invested with profound significance. Feelings and moods are very transient. We shouldn’t assign more meaning to them than they deserve. The actor Simon Callow once said, “the important thing is not to feel deeply but to feel accurately”. 

In particular, I’m wary of assigning divine significance to my emotions. Of course, God is as present in my emotional life as he is to every other aspect of my being: he is in my thoughts, my memories, my actions, my instincts and my emotions. He is as much in my heart as in my head, as much in my feeling as in my thinking and doing. How could it be otherwise if God truly is the ground of all our being? 

But I’m increasingly reticent about claiming to experience “the divine” in some direct, extraordinary way. It’s true that numinous places can move me profoundly, places that seem to speak of the Mysterium Tremens et Fascinans, as Rudolph Otto described it in his famous book The Idea of the Holy. In the past few months I’ve been touched in that way by the Ancient Greek site at Delphi, by praying quietly in Hexham Abbey one morning, by listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, hearing my wife read a poem by R.S. Thomas, and by singing “Away in a Manger” with my grandchildren at the Christingle Service. These have all been, for me, religious experiences. Each has been a gift in its own way. You will I’m sure be able to speak in a similar way about the experiences that you will want to describe as “religious”. 

But far from leading me to claim that I’m somehow “feeling the presence of God”, I think I want to acknowledge how much more mysterious God seems to be precisely on account of these experiences and others like them. If God is, as theologians say, immanent within our world of experience, then I’d be wrong to privilege one kind of experience as somehow more religious than any other. The real test of how authentic my faith is has to be how far I’m able to speak about God as present within my ordinary, everyday experience, and especially  within those experiences that are difficult or baffling or painful. For if I can’t give some account of where God is to be found in the shadow side of my life, then it’s questionable whether I’ve come to understand God as embracing the whole of who I am, the dark, the light and all the greyscale in between. To “feel after God and find him” is indeed the goal of human existence as St Paul said on the Areopagus (Acts 17). But for me, that’s a rather different thing from “feeling him” directly. 

As a Christian, I was shaped in my teenage years by evangelicalism. I owe it a tremendous amount and am glad to acknowledge that debt. But as I look back, I realise that it was too definite about God’s presence and how a born-again soul should expect to experience it, too black-and-white about the endless complexities of human life. I’m learning - and I think this is wisdom - that trusting my experience is important, and that the essence of a healthy spirituality is to be able to reflect on it in wholesome ways. But I’m also learning that when we are in the presence, as we always are, of the profoundest mystery of life, which is what God ultimately is, then my experience is only an indicator of my personal response at the time, not some clue to the riddle of the universe. I might once have claimed such a thing in the face of goodness, truth or beauty. But I’m more reticent now. Practising “reserve” feels important.

Someone asked me today what I made of the Incarnation and whether beholding God’s grace and truth in the face of the Word made flesh didn’t open a door to “feeling God” in our own  sensory experience. I replied: For me, what I *feel* when beholding God’s grace & truth in the Incarnation is adoration, gladness, contrition & love. That’s a more reliable (& humble) statement than anything I could say about “feeling God”, though it’s incontestably true to say we believe he is fully present. That may seem a trifle tentative. But I think it’s important only to speak of what we know. The thing about Mystery is that it’s essentially unknowable in its fullness. Which is why, when Moses found himself in its presence at the burning bush, he could only be silent and adore. Could it be that learn this best from art, poetry and literature with their capacity to help us grasp symbolism and metaphor, “tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson said in one of her poems? 

Which is why Wendy Beckett speaks for me. And yes, my heart sinks too when the word God is bandied about glibly as I’m afraid it so often is by people who should know better. I’m ill at ease with the kind of talk that pretends to know what God is doing in the world and in the church when my experience tells me that the truth is altogether more mysterious, and more wonderful, than I can ever glimpse. This God who “plants his footsteps on the sea and rides upon the storm” is not one who is susceptible to being described or understood by my feeble sense. As C.S. Lewis put it, Aslan is not a tame lion. 

What I must learn to do is trust him for his grace. That means walking by faith, not by sight and not by feeling. Religion is a journey “towards the unknown region” in Walt Whitman’s phrase. Let’s not tame it by speaking too glibly about our experience of God, and thereby rob it of all that makes it infinitely beautiful, adventuresome and life-giving. Let’s give ourselves to this Mystery in which we live and move and have our being, and to the life of contemplation and action to which Love Incarnate calls us.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Something The Queen Said: Thoughts on Christmas Faith and Life

As I listened to The Queen on Christmas Day, a couple of sentences stood out for me. The Christmas story retains its appeal since it doesn’t provide theoretical explanations for the puzzles of life. Instead it’s about the birth of a child and the hope that birth two thousand years ago brought to the world.

In old age, Her Majesty has been increasingly clear with us all about the central place Christianity occupies in her life. It’s heartening to hear her speak about the power her Christian faith has had throughout her long life to motivate, inspire and give meaning. 

But this statement I’ve highlighted goes beyond personal testimony to offer a really important insight about how religious faith does and doesn’t function in human life. The temptation is to look to faith to explain things, probe the complex mysteries of existence, come up with answers to all that baffles and bewilders us in our human experience. 

Once upon a time we spoke of a “God of the gaps”, the deity whose existence provided accounts of phenomena that had so far eluded human explanation. Literal readings of the Bible provided ready resources for explaining the nature of the cosmos, the origins of life, the phenomenon of humanity, and the fact of suffering and pain. For many people, they still do, as we can see in the conservative evangelical right of North America for whom the scriptures provide the infallible answer to every question posed by science, ethics and faith.

The urge to explain extended to the arguments for the existence of God himself. I was taught philosophy at Oxford by Anthony Kenny who later became Master of Balliol which was my college. Kenny had trained and practised as a catholic priest but left the priesthood on account of his questioning the intellectual basis of dogmatic religion. His lectures on the arguments for the existence of God comprehensively dismantled one by one the philosophical bases of the classical “Five Ways”. Yet he was careful to say that this didn’t mean that God did not exist. You could no more prove his non-existence than his existence. Whatever affirmation you made about God essentially came down to faith, not logic or evidence. To speak of “explanation”, you could say, was to commit a “category mistake”. Rational explanation and religious faith belong to different “language games”.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting to know the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. I’ve taught it to theology students and preached it to Sunday morning congregations. Above all, I’ve found that it’s immeasurably enriched my personal understanding of faith and the human condition. I’ve learned how agnostic books like Job and Ecclesiastes are when it comes to explaining the riddles of the world and of my own self. Whereas conventional religion likes binaries and causal explanations: right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark, reward and punishment, these writings probe deeper beneath the surface of things. They seem to discern that complexity will not be reduced to a simplistic “yes” or “no”. On the contrary. It takes faith to live with the reality of suffering (Job) or with a sense of ennui or meaninglessness (Ecclesiastes). These texts do not offer “solutions”, “theoretical explanations for the puzzles of life” to quote Her Majesty. It’s faith, not rational thought, that enables us to live with these great unanswered questions. “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” says Job.

Theologians calls the exploration of faith in the light of the problems of suffering and meaning theodicy. Theodicy can’t offer watertight explanations, and doesn’t try - at least, not any more. What it does is to explore ways in which faith can be understood and presented intelligently in precisely the kind of world we all know we live in, full of paradox and contradiction. This is necessary because for many, it’s questions of suffering and meaning that are a major obstacle to belief. “How can a God of love exist in a world that is so cruel and pain-ridden?” We aren’t being true to our own faith if we don’t feel the force of this question. Theodicy can help sensitise our faith to such questioning, help us articulate it in ways that place suffering and questions about meaning at the centre where they belong, rather than at the margins. 

Christmas gives us a glimpse of this way of believing. We hear afresh the story of the Holy Child of Bethlehem, we sing carols of love and praise, we gaze with wonder into his crib and are perhaps surprised to find ourselves profoundly moved by this image of a birth that brings such a joy and such a hope. This is to say that the the instinct of Christmas faith is contemplative. We look as if through an open door into a world that for a brief moment grants a vision of what life could become. We find ourselves gazing on a transformed world and a transfigured life. “Peace on earth, good will to all people!” we sing in tune with the angels. If only it were true! we say longingly to ourselves. 

The Christmas story itself embraces this longing for a world healed of its wrongs. “No room at the inn” speaks of exclusion and hardship. The flight into Egypt presents the Holy Family as exiles seeking asylum in a strange land. Herod’s massacre of the innocent children depicts the suffering of innocent victims in the most terrible way possible. “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood”, indeed. Theodicy is at the very heart of our Christmas story and the carols we love to sing.

And yet contemplative faith intuits that the greatest mystery in the universe is not suffering but love. It’s love that defies all explanation, other than that this is simply how God is in himself. This is what we understand in a life-changing way is the deepest truth of Christmas. St Francis understood this, which is why he set up the first Christmas Crib and invited people to bring to it their heart’s love. Christmas becomes real for each of us as we give ourselves to this rapturous vision, and it becomes real for our world, by anticipation, as we each live out the hope that is set before us in ways that make a difference to the lives of others, whether it’s in politics, peace-making or the pursuit of social justice. As the medieval spiritual guides understood so well, holy contemplation always leads to good action. And that’s what changes things. 

The traditional Gospel reading on Christmas Day says it all. “And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). We beheld. This is what the Incarnation invites us to do: to look, to see, to behold. For as we gaze into the face of the Love that makes its dwelling among us, as we are drawn into the grace and truth we see there, we instinctively understand that here is the source of all that is life-changing. Those sterile causal explanations we once hankered after don’t belong here, have no relevance to this vision of God. The Queen was right about that. What matters is leaning to become contemplatively wise, discovering how this way of life becomes a source of inspiration and strength as we try to do God’s work in the world.

When religious faith comes of age and renounces its need to explain, turns instead to contemplation, and then acts on what it has glimpsed, it achieves a state of wisdom which is both life-changing and brings hope to the world.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Mary: an Advent Meditation

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.

I had to study that poem at school. It was my first introduction to any great twentieth century poet. I've never forgotten it. Auden takes Breughel's painting The Fall of Icarus as an example: the ploughman carries on ploughing, and the ship that has somewhere to get to sails calmly on; and all this while a boy falls catastrophically out of the sky. Disaster strikes: someone you love dies, or you are diagnosed as being terminally ill, or your marriage breaks up, or you lose your job. And you wonder how, just outside your universe that is disintegrating, another, ordinary world just carries on uncaring, oblivious.

But about ecstasy the artists and poets are never wrong either, and it is the same truth. You are in the seventh heaven, surprised by joy: you fall in love, or find a new friendship, or have a child, or meet God. And not far away, the rest of the human race is not aware of you, still less cares about what for you is making creation sing. It is as if in both agony and ecstasy, time is attenuated, given a new quality, seems to stand still. Einstein's theory of relativity talks about dilation when space-time is distorted close to the speed of light. It takes on a new quality. But everybody else's "ordinary" time just carries on as it always has. In a sense, it's as if we are living in different worlds until the ecstasy subsides or the agony begins to be healed, and the extraordinary merges with the ordinary once more.

Paintings and sculptures of the Annunciation often depict this double world. Inside her house, the Virgin Mary is rapt in contemplation, heaven reflected in her face as she is overwhelmed by the power of the Most High that has come from beyond the farthest star to visit her. On the other side of the window sheep are grazing, people buy and sell in the streets of a town, a farmer gathers his harvest. Something of this is what I see hinted at in Josef Pyrz' sculpture of the Annunciation in Durham Cathedral's Galilee Chapel. Rapture, toughness, acceptance, pain even are written into her face and body in a physical, tactile way. I used to encourage visitors to caress the sculpture to gain a sense of the complex emotional and spiritual power of this marvellous piece.
 
Edwin Muir captures it like this:

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound's perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

Beauty and tragedy are the soil in which contemplatives are made. Mary knew both: beauty her encounter with the angel of the Annunciation; tragedy in the sword that pierced her heart as she gazed on her Son at Golgotha. But it needed more than beauty or tragedy to make her the one we honour as Theotokos the God-bearer. Many people experience beauty and tragedy but are none the wiser for it. Their souls are not enriched, their capacity for contemplation is not deepened. What then was Mary's secret?

I think it was her gift for openness to the new thing that God was doing. Words like sensitivity and awareness come to mind, the gift of realising that the world is, as they say on Lindisfarne, a thin place, and that on the other side of that almost transparent membrane lies another realm, the realm of the spiritual, the heavenly, the transcendent. You see into the life of things, to quote Wordsworth. It is what Moses turned aside to see in the blazing bush and what Elijah heard in the still small voice, and what Mother Julian of Norwich understood in the hazel-nut she held in her hand that, she said, only existed because God loved it. And what the mystics down the centuries teach us is that ordinary life can become transparent, if we learn to see it in a new way, train our faculties of sensitivity and awareness in order to discover the world as a sacrament. After all, that is precisely what we do each Sunday at the eucharist, when we take ordinary things and find them to be divine. Lesser annunciations, you might say, are waiting to happen all around us, waiting to show us the new thing that God wants to do in our lives.  
 
And what about us? God wants us, I think, to become like Mary: each of us a  theotokos, a bearer of God to others. Outside Salisbury Cathedral is a statue of Mary by Elizabeth Frink. It depicts her walking vigorously away from the Cathedral, not because she doesn't like the worship there, but because she is taking the good news to the world. This is the Walking Madonna, the Mary of the Magnificat whose contemplative vision has turned her into a woman of action who is passionate for justice, for a world where wrong is righted, the hungry fed and the downtrodden exalted.

Whatever annunciations we are given, whatever angel we glimpse when time stands still, whether it is tragedy or joyous rapture, agony or ecstasy, there is call to be obeyed. Behold the servant of the Lord: let it be to me according to thy word. So that when the time comes for the angel to depart from us, and we return to our ordinary days, it will be with God conceived, so to speak, within us, so that we can lovingly bear him and bring him forth to a world that longs to be happy and that needs him so much.

Ave Maria, gratia plena
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The Classics Are For All

This was the year I finally got to see this amazing sight. Why has it taken me sixty-eight years to visit mainland Greece and see the Parthenon, Delphi, Olympia, Mycenae and other legendary places whose names are so familiar to anyone who treasures classical antiquity? I wrote a couple of blogs as I tried to reflect on what became for me a real pilgrimage and journey of discovery (you can find my thoughts here and here).

Never one to be without something to read, I'd downloaded the Iliad on my tablet and from time to time turned to it during the trip. It was decades since I had last immersed myself in this epic tale of the Trojan War. I guess you have to have lived for a while if you're going to see beneath the surface of the text and grasp something of what Homer was trying to convey about human life that gives this epic poem universal significance. I'm not saying I've "got it" yet (but Adam Nicholson's book Why Homer Matters was an enjoyable read just before we set out for Athens). But it was undeniably momentous to sit outside Agamemnon's tomb at Mycenae and read from it. I'll never forget it.

In Greece I found myself reminiscing about childhood. One of the earliest Puffin Books I remember reading was Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of the Greek Heroes (which you can now get in a beautiful Folio Society edition). I think I fell in love with the classics then. At the age of nine I began Latin at school. That too felt, for obscure reasons I couldn't have put into words at the time, like a big rite of passage. At the end of an introductory lesson in which our teacher told us why ancient languages still mattered in the nineteen fifties) he said (and I can still remember the exact words): "All this is why pupils at this school study Latin. Tomorrow we'll begin the actual task of learning the language: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. With that he swept out of the room, his MA gown swirling behind him. He knew how to make an exit. It was one of those dramatic moments of my schooldays.

The following year we began Greek. I relished both languages for the elegant architecture of their grammar and syntax. We had large-format text books specially produced by the school: the maroon Latin Book and its blue counterpart Outline of Greek Accidence. I loved the idea that we were studying "accidence" (the part of grammar that deals with the way words are inflected - conjugations, declensions, that sort of thing). "Principal parts" fascinated me (do today's students still learn them by heart, as we did?). Soon we were ready to read and translate simple prose texts: bits of Caesar, Livy, Xenophon. "Unseens" followed, passages of Latin or Greek we hadn't come across before and which we had to have a stab at translating. I still have my first Latin dictionary that my uncle gave me one Christmas. Not long afterwards, I found a copy of the giant "Liddell and Scott" Greek-English Lexicon for 6d in a jumble sale. I still have that too.

The time came for GCE O-levels and set texts for exams in both Latin and Greek. I can't remember what the prose Latin text was, Caesar probably: if I dug around in the attic, I'd probably come across the exam papers themselves that would remind me. But there was no forgetting the poetry text. This was Book V of Virgil's Aeneid that tells of the funeral games Aeneas organises on the anniversary of his father's death. It wasn't easy but with able guidance by someone who loved these texts ("you never forget a good teacher") we persevered. How rewarding it felt to have read one whole book from the pen of Rome's greatest poet!

In Greek, we had a section of Xenophon to study (Thalassa! Thalassa! The sea! The sea! - one of the greatest moments in all history writing). And for poetry, Euripedes' Medea. Looking back, I'm amazed that we were exposed as schoolboys of a tender age to all that cruelty and bloodshed (for Medea murders her own children as an act of revenge against Jason who has abandoned her). We were spared the choruses (really difficult Greek) but even so, the text felt like quite a challenge. I saw a dramatic production of it not long ago (in English), and was startled by the visceral power of this great tragedy. When you read the Greek tragedians, you feel that all of human life is there.

********

Why am I telling you all this? Because I want to convey something of the lifelong effect studying classics at an early age had on me. At a practical level, it meant that I already had ancient languages in my knapsack when I came to study theology and read the New Testament and the Christian fathers in Greek and Latin. But the debt I owe is far more than this. I think the classics gave me three things above all. The first was the start of some understanding of how languages work. We all know how much English owes to classical languages, let alone Romance languages like French which we began to learn once we had some grounding in Latin and Greek. I became fascinated by the history of words and loved discovering how etymologies often cast light on how English words came to carry the meanings they have. I still do.

The second insight was how the world of antiquity has been so influential in shaping our own culture, and how classical studies unlocks so much that is referenced in the western canon of art, poetry and literature as well as philosophy, ethics, politics, science and the world of ideas. The Bible is an indispensable part of that too, and it's worrying that today's generation of students don't have the familiarity our forebears had with the texts and concepts that have come down to us from the ancient world. And my third reason for being grateful for a classical education is that it gave me a deep love of literature and poetry that has sustained me for a lifetime. You can't read Virgil or Euripedes and not feel you are in the presence of giants. I can't claim I necessarily felt it quite like that at the time. But in retrospect, I can see how the seeds were sown. And if I've acquired any ability to string words together as a writer and preacher, then I owe a large part of it to the classics.

This week I came across Classics for All on social media. This is a charitable organisation that provides funding and support for the teaching of classics in state primary and secondary schools. They say: classical subjects are a vital foundation for a modern education. We believe every pupil deserves to benefit from the learning, enjoyment and inspiration that classics provides. Their Big Give Christmas Challenge 2018 aimed to raise £45000 to support classics in schools in the Midlands and the North East. They want to bring classics to 72 schools in areas where there is currently little or no provision. My children were all educated in both these parts of England, so I have a definite interest here! I made a donation which was doubled by a generous corporate champion. Later that day, I learned that the target figure had been met. Which is a great achievement.

I'd love to think that young people today can find as much enjoyment as I have done in the classics. Classics teaching today is no doubt very different from what it was when I was at school. I guess it's a lot more interactive and inventive, and a lot of fun. I hope it does for them what it did for me, act as a key to unlocking the world in which we live by helping us to acknowledge our debt to the past. So that when today's students clamber up the Acropolis to marvel at the Parthenon as I did this autumn, they too will find themselves in a landscape that they can read, because it is already familiar, and maybe already loved. And those students in the North East who like me live close to Hadrian's Wall will appreciate their rich classical heritage all the more.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Growing Old Gracefully

This week I'm taking part in a 24 hour event for clergy who are coming up to retirement. So here's another in a series of occasional blogs on retirement "from the front line". This one's about growing old.

And it's trending nowadays. We baby boomers are about to add to the pressure on our struggling health and social care provision. My generation was born just after the last war. We're getting to the age when we're going to need looking-after in the last years, even decades, of our lives. Some have already reached that difficult turning-point in life where we can't go on without the help of others, whether we're wholly or partly dependent on family, friends, neighbours or social welfare.

The trouble is, we are living too long, a lot longer than was imagined in the 1940s and 50s when I was born. And this at a time when healthcare expectations and the strains on our public finances are greater than they have ever been. Many of us retired people in the so-called "third age" enjoy a quality of life that compared to most others across the world is altogether extraordinary. We look at people like Cliff Richard in his seventies and Joan Collins in her eighties, and can't quite believe they aren't still in middle age. (Perhaps they think they are!) Even at this modest age of sixty eight, I occasionally get told off for pretending to be older than I really am, old enough to be retired.

Well, most of us last played that game of pretending when we were kids, trying to get in to watch "A" films at the local cinema. Or worse... I can see you're worried. Let me reassure you. It was nothing salacious, but I was underage, eleven probably, when I went to see Whisky Galore after school one day with a friend. How grown-up it felt! (Who was that friend? I wish I could remember. Another symptom of ageing, that...)

"Be your age" we used to scold our children. But of course that's precisely the point about how ageing tends to be viewed in western society. "You're as old as you feel" we're told; "sixty is the new forty. Welcome to middle age." And while I get impatient with that kind of talk, there's some truth in it. We don't really feel our calendar age. My consciousness of being "me" tells me that I'm fundamentally the same person as I was a lot earlier in life. Inside, I feel I be back at school again, or getting married, or starting my working life, or having children. And a lot else. Use your imagination. It's when bits drop off my body and its parts start to fail or stamina falls off that I'm reminded where I am on this timeline of being, not Adrian Mole aged thirteen and three quarters, but Michael, now fast approaching seventy. It can feel hard at times.

But why should it be hard to admit that? It's a very western problem to see growing old in this nostalgic regretful way. Most other cultures respect the old. The Japanese even have a special "day of the elderly". Yes, we should look back and be thankful for all the good things that have happened to us in youth and middle-age, all that has blessed and enriched us, fulfilled us and made us glad to be alive. Thankful too for the capacity to recognise our mistakes, say sorry and try to put them right, or at least live well with memories that will always be sad or painful or dark. And especially I am trying to be thankful for God's inestimable love, as the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, God's constant presence and care from first breath to last, whether I knew it or not. If being human means lifelong learning, then no experience we've undergone is ever wasted.  Yes, there's a lot that's been lost, and most of all the people who have loved us and have died. But "all in the end is harvest". Loss is real, but the memories of cherished souls still touch my life and continue to make me what I am.

I've just read a rather wonderful book by Lynne Segal, Out of Time: the Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. She writes with insight about the ambiguities of growing old, and how the elderly are perceived in our society, especially by the young. We comfortable baby boomers who "never had it so good" are, she observes, increasingly resented by young and middle-aged people who struggle with unemployment, lack of opportunity, poverty, poor (or no) housing and the near-collapse of proper social welfare. By contrast, as some see it, baby-boomers' self-interest has begotten consumerism with all its ills, caused financial mayhem across the planet and has continued to plunder the world's resources when we should have known better. Add to that (too late for the book) how the young regard the silver-haired generation who have stolen their future from them by voting so decisively for a Brexit they (the young) do not understand or want.

Segal recognises that there's caricature in some of this. When has any generation not scorned or blamed their forebears for the predicaments they find themselves in. And yet... I know as we all do, so many inspirational young people who want to make the world a better place and find common cause with my contemporaries who want the same thing. Self-interest is not, I think, age-specific. I'm always heartened by that saying in the Rule of St Benedict about how we need to listen to the young, for God often tells them things he withholds from those who are older but not necessarily wiser.

The book urges me to be honest and realistic as I answer the question, "how old are you?" And that's about much more than what I'm feeling. Having read it, I now want to respond as truthfully as I can and acknowledge what belongs to the age I am rather than five, ten or twenty years younger. There's dignity in that, especially when it includes facing up to our physical or mental deterioration, our dwindling beauty or attractiveness, our sexual prowess or athletic ability. It isn't always easy to own up to. We can long to recapture those first, fine careless raptures wherever, whatever they were. In one way or another, we can devote all our lives to that attempt to re-set ourselves to some point in the past.

In the end, though, it's a futile quest. We are mortal. We know that one day we shall die, even if we pretend (back to that word again) that we can sit out the summons to join in the dance of death. When I laid down my work as a stipendiary priest, I wondered whether retirement might prove to be the last really big rite of passage of my life until either my wife or I myself died - a portentous thought to concentrate the mind. But more gently, ancient wisdom invites us to cultivate the art of living well in the time that we have left, to make old age a true summing-up of all that we've tried to be in life. Paradoxically, as we contemplate death, far from finding it a depressing or sinister thought, we discover that perhaps it's the clue to embracing life in all its fulness and living joyfully in our old age. Read the great seventeenth century classics of spiritual writing, Bishop Jeremy Taylor's Holy Dying and Holy Living if you don't believe me.

Late in life, I'm trying harder to celebrate the miracle that I am "alive, alive-oh" to quote the title of a book by that doughty writer on old age, Diana Athill. I don't mean anything dramatic, simply learning how to be more present to being alive, how to pay more attention. To live contemplatively and thankfully in the present tense is truly transformative. And that's also to recognise the past and future tenses of ageing, how grace has brought me thus far, and how, I trust, it will lead me home.

I realise (how can I not?) that "old age is not for wimps". It takes courage to peer into the possible futures that could await us in this adventure of growing old. Some of them could be bleak indeed. The spiritual question I live with is, how do I keep alive the sense of God, whatever may happen? When it gets hard, I so want still to be able to sing alleluia. But even if courage fails in whatever ordeals may await, I hope I shall always hear that still small voice calling to me deep down, and be able to whisper back: For all that has been, thanks! To all that shall be, Yes!

Sunday, 11 November 2018

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words: Thoughts on an Armistice Photo


For me, this will be the abiding image of this weekend's Armistice centenary commemorations.

Amid so much that has been moving in the ceremonies in France and Belgium, and here in the UK, I keep coming back to this photograph. It was taken at Compi├Ęgne in northern France where the Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in 1918. It has added poignancy because it was on this very spot that Adolph Hitler received the surrender of France in 1940, a highly symbolic location chosen out of revenge for the Treaty of Versailles.

That clasp of hands, the touching embrace that followed: it came across as completely authentic, entirely unstaged. It touched me deeply, and I wasn't alone. Here's what a non-European posted on Twitter. I'm from the Middle East. This picture moves me nearly to tears - curiously, more than I find it moves young Europeans. Do young Europeans even realize what has been achieved? It's nothing less than sacred, because peace is sacred, because human life is sacred.

I ended my last blog by writing that "there is nothing left to say. Except to be thankful". That's still true today. A picture's worth a thousand words. Yet there is more to say, and I want to write it while the events of this extraordinary weekend are still vivid in the memory. Here are three comments I'd like to make.

First, and most important, could we have asked for a more powerful image of reconciliation and friendship than this? France and Germany had fought each other no fewer than three times in the century leading up to the end of the last war. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Great War of 1914-18 had cost both nations dear. France, especially, had suffered unimaginably. Among elderly French people, bitter memories even of the earlier conflict were still alive in the 1960s when I started visiting France. To them, the second world war with its terrible destructiveness was an inevitable aftermath of those earlier wars, a continuation of a story of European conflict that would never come to an end.

Up to the time I was born, exactly half-way through the twentieth century, it was inconceivable that these two great European powers could ever be friends. Do young Europeans even realise what has been achieved? asked my middle-eastern Tweeter. Maybe even older Europeans like me haven't quite taken it in. To anyone with a feeling for modern history, it does seem like a miracle. Not that these two leaders should stand together at such an emblematic site, but that their meeting should be so genuine, their gestures so spontaneous, so deeply felt by them both. These are the kinds of events that define history, and that promise great hope for the future. Isn't this what those who fell in war went to their deaths for?

Secondly, as I tried to argue in my last blog, we need to understand what's made this difference. I don't think that reconciliation just happens, or that time is automatically a great healer. Many - maybe most? - of the conflicts of our time are caused precisely because of old wounds that are opened up afresh, unhealed memories that are allowed to fester. What's different on continental Europe is the intention not to allow historical injuries to blight the lives of succeeding generations. "Parents have eaten sour grapes" as the prophet Ezekiel says (18.2), but that's no reason for their children's teeth for ever to be set on edge.

You know what I'm going to say. It's the European project that has created an environment where relationships can be negotiated afresh. The European Union, as we now have it, has brought peoples together in a purposeful way. It has helped fashion a different kind of narrative and discourse where nation-states stop fracturing the continent and instead start living together in peaceful, collaborative relationships in a common European home. We mustn't forget how hard-won that achievement is. Monsieur Macron said today in Paris that "patriotism and nationalism are opposites", that "nationalism is treason" because it is driven by a nation's self-interest, not the welfare of others. This is what causes wars. How much better to affiliate to families of peoples that will protect us from the nationalisms that tear our world apart. It's not that we shouldn't love our country - only that we shouldn't think of it as somehow better than any other country. I don't hesitate to say that renouncing nationalism is one of the most urgent tasks facing our world today. If we don't succeed, I fear it may end up destroying us.

Remembrance means many things - gratitude, sadness and pride among them. But lament for the past needs to be part of it too, and this means a mental and spiritual toughness that is capable of thinking forward to a future that is different from our broken history. So to me, this Armistice centenary and Brexit are closely linked. The peace of 1918 and the peace of 1945 both point to the crying need for nations to reimagine their "belonging", to think beyond national self-interest to the common flourishing of humanity. During the referendum campaign, we heard endlessly about "what's best for Britain", and not nearly enough about what the UK has to contribute to Europe and the wider world. Europeanism is not the end of a process but a beginning, for if we are incapable of thinking globally, then it's likely that the globe itself doesn't have a future worth working for. Clearly, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron understood the profound political significance of the day. How we remember shapes us in the present and (for good or ill) sets directions for the future. The logic that connects the Armistice with the European project is inescapable. It says: choose a different way, a more excellent way. Cultivate love, reconciliation and all that makes for peace. It's all there in that photograph.

Thirdly, and as a bit of an afterthought, it seems to me that there someone is palpably absent from the photo. It's our Prime Minister. Now, there may be all sorts of good reasons why she couldn't be there just then. Maybe she needed to set off for London to be back in time for the evening's Festival of Remembrance. We would all understand that and support it. Maybe the Macron-Merkel photo was set up as "Europhiles only" and she would have been de trop. Perhaps she was asked and politely declined. Nevertheless, her absence is striking.  At Compi├Ęgne on 11 November 1918, there were not two signatory nations but three: France, Germany and Great Britain. In the light of that, how could the British not have been included in this powerful image of postwar reconciliation?

I don't know the answer. But what I read in the photo is a European future from which Britain is absent. And that distresses me beyond measure. Just think what a three-way embrace would have symbolised, how powerful its message would have been! But Brexit means Brexit. So while it's a wonderful photograph to treasure out of this weekend of commemorations, it's also a forlorn one, at least as far as Europeans in Britain are concerned. We could have been part of this true European entente cordiale, this tender reaching out of hands to those who have become firm friends and allies.

But while they are better together, we have turned away. We are on our own. And that is unbearably sad.