- 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, 31 December 2015
Thursday, 24 December 2015
Sunday, 20 December 2015
Sunday, 13 December 2015
Saturday, 5 December 2015
Monday, 23 November 2015
It's an intriguing debate. You'd expect this kind of thing in France where the Republic has a fiercely defended doctrine of laïcité which means that public space is strictly neutral when it comes to religion. Hence the annual rows about whether the Christmas crib can be displayed in the foyer of public buildings like the Mairie. We see it in this country too, though not yet with the same shrillness. Watch whether your town hall carries a sign wishing you a 'Happy Christmas' or 'Seasons Greetings' (with or without an apostrophe). See if your kids are allowed to perform in a school nativity play that focuses on an infant called Jesus.
People go to the cinema to be entertained, not offended - that's the gist. But there's a lot of cinema advertising that very much offends me. Far from being value-free, it's heavily freighted with all the bogus assumptions of consumerism. It tells me what I need, shapes my hungers, tempts me to spend money I don't have. It persuades me to buy into a set of values that is alien to my core beliefs. From fast cars and seductive fragrances to chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, the advert says: you must have this and have it now! Your humanity will be diminished if you don't! Here's where fulfilment and purpose lie! All deeply theological and filled with unconscious commentary on the human condition and the nature of desire. And DCM's policy statement about refusing to show anything 'connected to personal beliefs' is just naive. All advertising is about personal values and attitudes - it's precisely 'beliefs' that advertisers want to influence as they try to persuade us to buy their product!
But in an age of toleration (which I'm so grateful to have been born into), I do not have the right not to be offended. Nobody does. As a Christian, would I be upset if a cinema ad showed the Islamic call to prayer and devout Muslims streaming into the mosque? Or Jewish people at the Western Wall praying uttering the Shema? Or Hindus on pilgrimage to their sacred river? Of course not. I'd be glad to think that humane spiritual values were being promoted and the lives of other faith communities affirmed. What about atheists and their ads on London buses, 'There probably isn't a God, so get on and enjoy your life'? No problem. Let the argument happen, I say. It can only do us good to listen carefully to others, exercise free speech without fear, disagree passionately if we want to, and even take the risk of changing our minds. When Richard Dawkins says he's relaxed about the Lord's Prayer advert because people are big enough to cope with it, he's saying something important.
But even if I don't have the right not to be offended, it's proper to place boundaries on what is allowable in public discourse. Here's what DCM is possibly arguing. Western democracies struggle with this, and it's far from clear what crosses the line of acceptability and what doesn't. Threats to public or personal safety are the easier cases. Religion and politics are more difficult. The temptation is to draw the line too far in and exclude content that is not only harmless in itself but offers stimulus to thought and discussion. The effect is to infantilise us by being over-protective and parental. No-one is arguing that radical Islamist propaganda or promoting the political programmes of far right extremists should be showed on our cinema or TV screens. But who is going to place the C of E's gentle Lord's Prayer video in the category of the deviant and dangerous, to be suppressed at all costs? Does DCM not rate the intelligence of the viewing public very highly?
It's dug itself into a hole here. No doubt DCM is trying to be even-handed and respond consistently to endless requests to promote this or that ideology or creed. And of course it's free to show or not show whatever it wants. But it hasn't done the calibration carefully enough. Maybe the religious landscape is too mysterious to navigate. Then their leaders need advisors who can help them become more literate when it comes to faith. But make no mistake. By not showing the Lord's Prayer, they are making a clear statement about the beliefs and values that they do wish to promote. And because they are in control of what we see, that removes from us the audience the chance to make up our own minds.
(I'm tempted here to add something about the profoundly theological character of cinema. Film is a rich resource for theology and spiritual reflection. In particular, Star Wars has given rise to a large and fascinating literature about human destiny and redemption. The big cinema chains have never fought shy of showing films about religion. Cinema is a space where there is deep and passionate engagement with religion both explicitly and in more analogical and metaphorical ways. So DCM is out of step with its own medium.)
To me, being infantilised is a lot worse than being offended. And in hard cases, I'd rather take the risk of including rather than excluding. I know that precedents haunt all decision-makers. But DCM is being needlessly risk-averse. So I hope it will have the courage to change its mind about this innocent little film. To treat us as grown-ups won't be the end of civilisation as we know it.
Monday, 16 November 2015
Friday, 13 November 2015
I like the idea that peoples and nations can have a vocation. I imagine that this is a way of saying two things. The first is that the existence of nations and peoples is not a matter of chance but is somehow meant. A theologian will want to say that it belongs to the process of creation, and as the Abrahamic faiths present it, this is not random but intentional. In its mythic account of human origins, the Book of Genesis traces the existence of the known world's peoples back to the beginnings of humanity itself. I read this as saying that the concepts of order and pattern that 'creation' represents are continued into history as the human family organises itself into differently shaped communities in particular places.
So if peoples and nations exist not through accident but artistry, then purpose and destiny become interesting dimensions to ponder. They aren't different in principle from questions of personal destiny ('why am I here?') and collective destiny ('why are we all here?' 'What is the human race for?'). Some may say that these questions are ultimately unanswerable because they are not well formed in the fist place. Nevertheless, we find ourselves asking them which perhaps says something about their validity. So if theology can pose these other questions about humanity as a whole and myself as part of it, I think we can ask the same question of a nation or a people.
There are risks. Here in Britain, our forebears talked about the colonisation and empire as 'civilising' or 'Christianising' the world. Triumphalist lyrics like Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are poetic ways of celebrating (or misunderstanding) the idea of a national vocation. The emergence of nation states in post medieval Europe was bound to give rise to this kind of sentiment: it was natural for each nation to give a reason for its very existence by talking or singing it up. National anthems across the world express vocational ideals and aspirations (Britain's is an interesting exception to this rule because it is not really about nationhood, rather its focus is the person of the Sovereign).
But I think we can still talk more modestly about a 'national vocation'. Maybe that's a way of talking about a nation's soul. For instance, when we allude to England as the 'mother of parliaments' we mean that our democratic constitution and parliamentary processes model a politics that can be, and has been, offered as a gift for others to emulate and adapt according to their own vocation and way of being. This 800th anniversary year has linked our politics and judicial system to the first sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. I was struck at Runnymede by how much of the discourse around the Great Charter was couched in terms of England's 'gift to the world', especially among American commentators.
The EU referendum is making us ask questions about Britain and our place in Europe. But much of the campaigning talk both for and against membership goes beyond the pragmatic implications of staying in or leaving. There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) vocational subtext about what the United Kingdom really is in itself, what it means to be true to its historic identity, and how it can best realise its potential. But we can't explore those questions without also asking what the European Union is for, how its member states contribute to the achieving of its purpose, and whether we want to be part of its vocation or not. Is it primarily about economic co-operation and the single market? Or is it about politics, peace-keeping and policy-making across nations?
The EU's treaties and founding documents set out its core values. They are: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. They speak of the aspiration to be 'an ever growing union of peoples'. They celebrate the (relative) freedom from conflict of this historically war-torn continent since the middle of the twentieth century. They celebrate European heritage and culture as a gift to the world. (I wish they mentioned religion too, because of the absolutely central role Christianity, Judaism and Islam have played in the shaping of the continent since Roman times. I may try and say something about this in relation to the 'soul' of Europe one day.)
So what is the vocation of Europe? Here's my suggestion. It's to model how independent nations can freely and democratically associate in a union that puts the common good before narrow self-interest, and offers to the world both a model of collaboration and common purpose, and contributes to the global quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. This is what I see our common European home standing for. As I argued in my last blog, Britain has everything to give to this noble task, all that makes it such a good place to live in, all that makes us love it. This is why for many partner nations, a European Union without Britain is unthinkable.
So I'm baffled by the hostility to the EU that I see all around, not just in this country but across the continent. Call me naïve (I'm sure many will) but the European project, this experiment that has done so much for our continent, is where I see national and global vocations begin to converge, and that has to point to a kinder, better, more peaceable and more just world. It's not a case of sacrificing our precious national identity. Rather, it's precisely by cherishing it that we, with every other EU nation, bring our distinctive gifts to the fashioning of a whole that is greater (and yes, more glorious) than the sum of its parts.
It's a call for us to be grateful for what we prize, and share it generously. It's also a call for us to be open to receive what other nations have to give. This mutuality is what true God-given community is all about. It's what 'family' means. Why would the UK not want to be part of this humane and visionary enterprise?
Thursday, 12 November 2015
Let me come clean. I believe that our future as a nation has to lie in the European Union. I admit that my own personal history comes into it, and with it, a strong emotional pull towards 'the continent'. My mother's side of the family comes from Germany. Being Jewish, they suffered terribly in the Nazi holocaust. Some perished; others were fortunate enough to survive in hiding or flee to this country for safety. My mother was one of those. I've blogged about it before.
That's no argument of course. But personal identity comes into things. I had to fill in a questionnaire the other day to register with the GP in our new home. How did I describe myself, it asked? The only applicable box said 'White British'. No denying that it's what I am. So I ticked it. But it's not all I wanted to say about myself. So I added: '/European'. My Twitter profile says that I am 'a European at home in North East England.' That's closer to who I am. I belong to the North East. I belong to England. I belong to the United Kingdom. I belong to Europe. But even that isn't all. I belong to a particular family now living in a particular village. At the other end of the scale I belong to the entire world and to the family of humanity. I love all these circles of belonging and want to be loyal to them all. I want to be a citizen, and participate in the life, of each of them. Our many identities matter, from the least to the greatest.
You don't need me to rehearse the arguments for Britain's membership of the EU. When it comes to the economy, trade, politics, higher education, science, security, social care and culture, scores of people who know what is what are doing this expertly and persuasively. That's not to say that the EU is a perfect organisation. The PM is right about the needs for reform and reducing the burden of bureaucracy. Yet despite its shortcomings, the evidence is that our participation in the EU has benefitted us enormously. And, it's important to say, it has benefitted the EU too. No wonder the family of European nations, let alone America and China, view the possibility of Brexit with alarm. So should we.
Does the 'idea of Europe' have a theological and spiritual aspect? I believe it has. For one thing, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam and every other world faith, transcends the nation state. Religion says: our 'belonging' is vastly bigger than just our national identity. To think in purely national terms about humanity is severely to limit our vision. So communities of peoples like the EU point to a future that is collaborative, where acting together can effect positive change that puts a nation's self-interest in the larger context of the common good, as catholic social thought has made increasingly clear. The UK is itself evidence that as peoples we are always 'better together' than apart. To develop partnerships and synergies is, I think, a collective expression of the biblical principle that 'it is not good for man to be alone'.
In the intensively connected world of the 21st century, no nation state can function as if it were autonomous. National jurisdictions are subject to a vast number of external pressures, some benign, some not. Financial markets, transnational enterprise and digital information all flow freely around the globe: national boundaries just do not feature. Climate change, human trafficking and global terrorism pay no regard to them: addressing them will be done together or not at all. This is where Europe, along with other big alliances, helps to act as the glue to bind peoples together. We need more of this sense of being part of many families of nations, not less. To aspire to be 'an ever closer union of peoples' is a noble vision about the future of the human race itself. In it may lie the survival of humanity. For me, the burden or proof lies with those who would leave the EU, not those of us who want to stay in and deepen our ties with the continent of which we are historically a part.
I could say much more and perhaps will in future blogs about Europe. But even if you don't agree with my stance thus far, I hope you will be able to assent to what follows. The PM has said that the referendum in 2016 or 2017 could be the most important decision we British will ever make in our lifetimes. What should be the role of the churches in this?
First, the churches should help set the agenda for the debate. John F Kennedy might have said that the Christian way to frame the question is to ask not what our continent can do for us so much as what we can do for it. This altruistic note runs wholly counter to the way the leadership are trying to motivate us one way or the other. I find this deeply worrying. In the nation's life, just as in personal life, it's always true that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive'. Social theology can help frame the debate so that the vision of the common good is not lost, especially when it comes to peace and justice in the world, our response to the voiceless and the poor, and how we address the degrading of the environment and its effect on our climate. What will merely sustain us in our lifestyles or confirm our island presumptions ought not to be at the top of the agenda. It's not for the churches to tell us how to vote. But by offering intelligent and wise commentary on the issues, and helping to interpret their theological and spiritual significance, they can help us vote in a better informed way. And, what matters most, to vote as citizens of God's kingdom and not merely citizens of this earthly kingdom of the UK.
Second, the churches should help set the tone of the debate. By that I mean that they should demonstrate the importance of courtesy, of rigorous intelligent argument, and most of all perhaps, of listening attentively to things we may passionately dissent from. All this goes into making sure that differences of view will be, in a favourite phrase of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 'good disagreement'. The churches in Scotland played this role in the run-up to and aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It was appreciated. But they were only able to do this because they had participated publicly in the debate themselves, and modelled how to do it in an adult and considered way. I hope that all the churches in Britain will emulate their example.
Thursday, 5 November 2015
The lawyers will go on debating this, but at first sight, I don't think we can argue with the secular tribunal's reading of the Church's position. The Church has ruled on the definition of marriage. Right or wrong, it's hard to dispute that to go against the rules is to breach the clergy vow of canonical obedience. We may think it's plain inconsistent, not to say unjust, to allow the clergy to enter into civil partnerships (which, let's not forget, many bishops fiercely resisted when they came in) but balk at marriage to their same-sex partners. But there it is.
It's the rules themselves that need questioning. The Church has ruled many things in the past that have imposed a discipline on its members, especially on the clergy as its public officers. But later, as situations have changed, it has changed its mind too, either by rewriting the rules or quietly forgetting they were there in the first place. I've written about this before, so this isn't new. But here are some instances we shouldn't forget.
Take contraception. In the early twentieth century, birth control was as contentious a matter at Lambeth Conferences as homosexuality has been in recent decades. Bishops argued fiercely that to tamper with the beginnings of human life flew in the face of the Bible and Christian tradition; and contraception accessible to all would be bound to encourage immorality. But I guess not many C of E couples today refer to these official statements when deciding on contraception. And theology has successfully integrated it into an entirely biblical view of creation and procreation so that it's been a matter of principle and not just pragmatism.
Then there's a more recent change of mind: the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Traditionalists regard this as problematic both in principle and because it puts at risk wider ecumenical relationships. I won't rehearse the arguments on both sides. What I want to point out is that the Church has listened hard and changed its mind about the ethics and theology of how gender equality is reflected in the leadership of the Christian community. We can blame a secular 'society' for putting pressure on the Church, but such pressure may be precisely the prophetic voice that calls for and initiates change that is both right and just.
Most relevant to Jeremy's case is the remarriage of divorcees in church. I am old enough to have taken part in many a synodical debate about this. It's a sharp question: how can a promise of lifelong fidelity be dissolved by being overwritten by a subsequent identical vow? Didn't Jesus teach unambiguously that 'whoever divorces...and marries another commits adultery'? Nevertheless, the Church has found a way of acknowledging the 'fact on the ground': that marriages break up and couples look to the Church to sanctify a new start. Here too theology has looked again at its reading of scripture and tradition. It's a daring step because it clearly re-construes what we mean by the vows of marriage. But as the proponents of this change of discipline argued at the time, it didn't follow that the Christian understanding of marriage had itself been compromised.
In each case, the direction of travel has been from exclusion to inclusion. It hasn't meant a change in Church doctrine, rather the way in which it is lived out. We don't have to look very far in the New Testament to see that this was the question that exercised the mind of the early church and bitterly divided its communities. As soon as the gospel began to travel outside the Jewish world, it raised a sharp question. When gentiles felt the force of religion and wanted to become Christians, did they need to become Jewish first and be circumcised in order to be received into the church? The clear answer was no. But it took time to 'discern' it, and there was much fierce debate and painful falling-out on the way. We find it hard to imagine today what a profound change of mind and heart it involved.
So I have come to believe (not without struggle) that the Church of England should recognise and honour equal marriage. Fundamentally, what matters is that equal marriage (that is to say marriage) embraces the promise of lifelong fidelity. (The state still needs to spell out its understanding of loyalty and faithfulness in same-sex relationships, but the principle is there.) Christianity promotes covenanted unions because they confer shape and discipline on our otherwise wayward human sexuality. And like the remarriage of divorcees, this 'enlarging' of marriage is precisely not a change of understanding but a matter of inviting a previously excluded group to come inside, take on its undertakings and enjoy its benefits. If I have to choose between being more inclusive or less, I shall take a risk and go for the more. It's what I see Jesus doing in the face of bitter opposition. I what I see the early church demonstrating in its welcome to gentile believers.
This week, the new Church of England website on marriage has gone live. It's geat timing for us as my daughter and her fiancé are planning a church wedding next year. In many ways it's exemplary: warm, inviting, and helpful. But if you are a gay Christian man or woman in a committed relationship, how does this read to you? The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer. At any time you are welcome to come and pray with us, or ask us to pray for you. Yes, the law is the law. But the website doesn't explain that the Church of England wanted it that way. How I wish we could say something different!
Will I live long enough see the Church of England embrace equal marriage in my lifetime? I don't know, if I'm honest. But I'm seeing enough movement of hearts and minds among Christians to hope so.
Wednesday, 4 November 2015
The late great Denis Healey famously said that her problem was that she just didn't have enough 'hinterland'. He meant by that useful word the dimension of a person's life that lies behind how they are to us, what we see: their historical sense, their cultural awareness, how they reflect on experience and place themselves within narratives that are bigger than themselves and their immediate concerns. This is what lends texture to a person's life, gives it complexity like a fine rich wine. These are things that make us interesting.
However, I think there's more to it than Parris suggests. I think he means that what can 'shrink' under the gaze of the biographer is not the subject him- or herself, but their reputation, their place in history, how we evaluate them. They may be less interesting than we thought. Or that by reading about them, we come to admire them less than we did before, indeed find we don't like them very much. Biography, like psychotherapy, is an act of mapping, truth-seeking and interpretation. It can be a bit like detection. It shouldn't flinch from what it uncovers.
But I want to ask: isn't everyone interesting simply by virtue of being human? St Augustine said he couldn't understand how people gazed with awe at mountains and oceans, at palaces and temples, but passed by the mystery of their own selves without a second thought. That's strikingly prescient of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.
Eleanor Farjeon once said about an indifferent biography that while the assemblage of information was impeccable, the book read as more a compilation of the material than a distillation from it. For the challenge of biography is much more rehearsing a timeline and chronicling the facts. It's to penetrate below the surface, make connections, help us gain insight into how a person has been shaped by history and culture, society and community, the external environment that in viticulture is called by that evocative word terroir. And it's to try to elucidate the motifs and patterns of another human being, what their relationships and personal life tell us about who and what they are. (This is why 'unofficial' biographies tend to be a lot more illuminating than officially sanctioned ones.)
In my book Wisdom and Ministry I offered ideas about how wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible might enrich the practice of public ministry. I included a chapter on life of King David as it's depicted in the Second Book of Samuel and First Book of the Kings. It's one of the greatest narratives in the scriptures, told with extraordinary insight into the dynamics of human nature and relationships. This hidden, highly ambivalent, aspect of David's character colours the whole of his career as monarch. How he (mis)manages the interplay between public role and private person is vividly and marvellously explored The light and shade that make up 'King David' are exposed in a way that makes me think that the author of the 'Court History' is one of the ancient world's very greatest writers with a rare emotional and spiritual intelligence when it comes to reading the human heart.
This brilliantly told story is not biography in the modern sense. Yet the skill of the writer is such that we see on every page the humanity of this flawed man. Like the best biography or the best fiction, this author knows. And therefore we are the wiser too, better able to understand the always-changing tides of human life. We shouldn't run away from complexity as many do, but embrace it as an essential aspect of God's creation (see Psalm 139, 'fearfully and wonderfully made'). This is a really crucial aspect of all Christian ministry, education, the caring professions and - yes - politics.
So biography gives us important clues not just about other people but ourselves too. Even the most ordinary people are endlessly fascinating because we are all fundamentally mysterious and complex. Blake Morrison's memoir about his father, And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a brilliant example of how the commonplace and everyday comes to life in the hands of an accomplished writer who can paint a portrait in words. I found myself thinking 'yes! yes!' as I read it and recognised in this cameo of an ordinary Englishman a man who, like the rest of us, turned out not to be ordinary at all.
I don't know about Charles Moore's book. But I suspect that what fascinates us about Margaret Thatcher is indeed what was 'ordinary' about her. As in everyone, it's partly visible and partly concealed. The biographer has to respect and be reticent before the 'mystery' of the person, for so much remains unknowable even to ourselves. Only God ultimately knows. Nevertheless, in a biography we ask to be shown something of what is discoverable, and in Mrs T's case, this means the woman as well as the politician, and especially how each of her personae informs the other.
But biography needs some distance in time to see things more clearly. It's an art that can't be hurried. It may be too soon for that kind of distillation just yet.
Tuesday, 27 October 2015
Made in 1974, it's an affectionate portrait of the life of the Church of England in Norfolk. There is no county in England richer in beautiful historic churches. Whether they were great or small, urban or rural, famous or obscure, Betjeman loved these buildings. He often wrote about the church's architecture, arts and crafts. Church visitors are indebted to his comprehensive county by county gazetteer of English parish churches. To lovers of our built heritage, he is a hero.
I look back to 1974 as the year I came of age. Late in time, you may say, for someone born in 1950. But in that year I left college, got married and rented a first home. I was ordained less than twelve months later, so it was a year of milestones. Now that I have (just) passed another of life's thresholds, retirement, I'm keenly aware of how significant the rites of passage were that launched my grown-up working life. So this documentary about life as we lived it in the 1970s has recalled things I only half remembered, and reminded me how far we have travelled in the past forty years.
If you'd asked me earlier what church life in that era was like, I'd have said in a lazy way: much like today, only a lot more confident. However Betjeman's film makes it clear that it was, in fact, very different, another country where they do things differently. This is not because of JB's native melancholy, the elegiac register he falls into as he contemplates lost worlds in immaculate poetic prose. The evidence speaks for itself. You watch parish life in full flow. Churches are respectably full. The clergy still have their fair share of 'characters' and eccentrics. Many of them live in large historic vicarages fit for squires. Surpliced choristers sing Prayer Book evensong in remote country parishes. Sunday schools are bulging, even when they meet on a Wednesday. Clergy wear robes de rigeur. Men wear jackets and ties to go to church, and ladies wear hats, at least in comfortably-off Norfolk, as they sing from Hymns Ancient and Modern or, if they are high church, The English Hymnal.
True, there is Series 3 by now, and the Bible is read from the RSV or even New English, and the parish communion is replacing sung matins. The 'bombazine and bonnets of the Sunday morning congregation' is not the flamboyant fashion show it was a generation before. There is a genuine and well-intended attempt to popularise: Youth Praise has made an entrance, as has the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group (who can forget the frantic rush of words to O Jesus I have promised or that heady slide down a seventh at the end of Living Lord, still sung today?). But worship songs are yet to come, as are mission action plans, fresh expressions, messy church, the decline in clergy numbers, female priests and bishops, alternative episcopal oversight and much else.
It's startling to look back and realise that like steam engines (also beloved by JB), the lost world of the C of E in 1974 belongs to my own life time. I guess that's down to my reluctance to accept that I'm getting old enough to have bridged different eras. After all, what I have lived through can't be that distant, can it? So why did I begin this blog by talking about nostalgia? That word, literally, means an aching for the past, but I'm not sure that was quite what I felt as I watched this delightful film. It's more to do with our attachment to our own memories. The older we get, the more important memory becomes. We invest in memory because it is so bound up with our own personal identity. That's where the 'ache' lies, because our memories are always receding from us and that means loss and even sadness.
So, forty years on, what have been the gains and losses in the life of the church? Here are some plusses. (One commentator thinks I'm being too cheery about these but judge for yourself.) In some ways, the church as an institution is probably in better shape even if it is considerably leaner. The tasks of mission are more intelligently contextualised and understood, and embodied in more versatile ways. The commitment to social justice is far more consistent and explicit (and publicly recognised). The role of 'public faith' is more clearly articulated. The leadership is better trained in strategic and policy matters and the church's processes are more transparent and accountable as a result, not least in what it is learning from the terrible failures in safeguarding in the past. Church buildings, in Norfolk among other places, are being opened up to a wide diversity of community uses alongside worship.
What about the minuses? I worry that the C of E is less comprehensive than it used to be, more uniform and less tolerant of diversity. It is perhaps more fractious and defensive. I worry that the founding vision of the cure of souls of 'the parish' is being narrowed to little more than chaplaincy to committed congregations. I worry that serious biblical study and theology are less practised than they should be, not least by a relentlessly busy hierarchy. I worry that because language shapes thought, marketing and management speak are at risk of eroding theological, pastoral, spiritual and mission-orientated ways of thinking and acting. I worry about the unspoken pressure to 'succeed', and the risk this poses to the spiritual, emotional and physical health of clergy. I worry about the decline of an institutional sense of irony. I worry about whether the church really believes it exists to promote a truly Christian wisdom to our world rather than just survive.
Better minds than mine have charted the immense cultural shifts that have taken place in the time I have been ordained. There is a lot to welcome, even if we may regret at the loss of what seemed like the more innocent, less baffling world of our youth. I guess this is as much about growing up and learning to embrace complexity as it is about the external environment. When we have lived long enough to be bewildered, or to suffer, or to know for ourselves the power of fear, loss and shame, life will never again be easy or straightforward.
I blush to think how little I knew of these things in the 1970s when I climbed up into the pulpit for the first time and cut my teeth as an interpreter of the Christian gospel. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't go back to 1974. Neither, I'm sure, would the Church of England. Living in the present can feel like an ambiguous gift at times, but a gift is precisely what it is. And the more we seize the day, the better able we are to see the past for what it is, and learn to put away those rose-tinted spectacles in order to understand its ambiguities, learn from its failures, but also, in the spirit of eucharistia, to be thankful for all the benefits it has bequeathed to us.
You can find John Betjeman's film on the BBC1 website. You will love it, I promise!
Monday, 19 October 2015
Christ in a Choppie Box* is the result. I decided early on that I was by no means the best judge of quality. The decision as to which sermons deserved to see the light of day in print as opposed to those that were best forgotten needed to be made by someone else. I was very lucky to secure the help of Carol Harrison, a distinguished theologian who, for most of my time in Durham, held a Chair in the Department of Theology and Religion in Durham University. (She is now Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.) She was a regular member of the congregation at the sung eucharist and so heard (suffered under?) many of my offerings at first hand. She trawled through the oeuvre, picked the best and edited them, introducing her anthology with an introduction of great theological insight. I was also honoured that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a colleague and friend from Coventry and Durham days, wrote a warm and generous foreword commending the book.
Who reads books of sermons nowadays? Especially when the front cover carries a 'selfie' of the preacher which looks like an act of shameless self-promotion? Well, I rather enjoy reading other people's sermons as it happens, and I suspect I am not alone. I've learned a lot from the sermons of Austin Farrer, Sydney Evans, Eric James, Martin Smith, John Habgood and Rowan Williams, to name a few who have significantly influenced my own preaching. Not to mention past masters of the art and craft of preaching such as John Donne, F. W. Robertson of Brighton, John Henry Newman, Hensley Henson, Ronald Knox and many others.
The difficulty with a book of sermons is of course that there is all the difference in the world between the 'event' of a proclamation delivered from a pulpit to a live audience, and the written text on the page. Preaching is something performed before it is something written. Every preacher knows that a sermon comes alive when he or she senses that some real encounter is taking place between the word of God and its hearers, a meeting that is potentially life-changing. The script itself has a different kind of existence, just as the musical score is not the same as the performed work that is 'made flesh' in the human voice or the instrument he or she plays. However, the written text is a genre in its own right that can stimulate reflection, aid meditation, kindle the imagination and enlarge the soul. That's what I hope for my Choppie Box.
Carol thought it was important for readers to gain some insight into what I believe about preaching, so she included a lecture I gave to clergy not long after I arrived in Durham on 'The Art of Preaching'. I ended it with my list of 'Ten Deadly Sins of Preaching' which is what I suspect people remembered long after the rest was forgotten. The risk, of course, is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I wish I could guarantee that my sermons avoid those all-too commonly committed offences against the noble vocation of preaching. Only you (if you read the book) can judge. I've also introduced each sermon with a few words indicating the setting in which it was delivered (because 'a text without a context is a pretext').
Most of the sermons were preached in Durham Cathedral, a few elsewhere. But all belong to North East England, the region that has become home and whose Christian history and spirituality have been extraordinarily formative as I have tried to establish my own Christian identity in the second half of life and find my authentic voice as a preacher. Included are a number of sermons on specifically North Eastern themes, some of the key places and people that have shaped this land of saints. And that includes the Cathedral itself, of course, the interpretation of whose mission and reason for existing is the key task of any dean.
The off-beat title has given rise to a lot of amused speculation. I ought to say (for the publisher's sake): read the book and find out for yourself what it means. But let me be kind and explain. Durham Cathedral has a beautiful Christmas Crib carved by an ex-miner who included in it several references to Durham's great mining traditions. In 'pitmatic', the language of the miners, the 'choppie box' was the trough from which the pit ponies fed underground. So it was a genuine manger, and this is how the Crib presents the infant Jesus, lying placidly in his choppie box with a pit pony standing by with the ox and the ass.
I hope you enjoy the book, whether you live in North East England or beyond. Let me know what you think via comments on this blog site. Responses to sermons are how every preacher learns. And although I have retired, I very much want to go on learning about the privileged and joyous role we preachers are fortunate enough to inhabit.
*Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England. Sacristy Press 2015, £9.99. You can order the book from the publisher at http://www.sacristy.co.uk/books/theology/michael-sadgrove-sermons. I hope you'll consider supporting Sacristy in this way if you do decide to get it.
Saturday, 17 October 2015
It's a collection of letters by a great French woman of the 17th century, Madame de Sevigne* (1626-1696). (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read them in French: one day, later in retirement, maybe.) Her translator (Penguin Classics edition) describes her as one of the best letter-writers of any age: fluent, vivacious, funny, with a sharp eye for observation and the ability in turns to amuse, inform and even inspire.
She was a Parisian with family roots in Burgundy who had married into a prominent Breton family. Her grandmother was a saint, no less (at least, she was to be canonised in the 18th century, Sainte Jeanne de Chantal, a friend and disciple of St Francis de Sales). She moved easily around the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, knew everybody who was anybody in 'society', and lived through events that came to define the France of the Grand Siècle. So her letters are matchless chronicles of her own times, an invaluable source of information that is also full of entertainment, for she had a wonderful eye for the absurd.
We have one person in particular to thank for many of these amazing letters. This is her daughter Francoise. On her, M de S shed a motherly love that, it has to be said, bordered on the obsessive. (She had a son too, but he didn't get anything like the same concentration of maternal attention.) When Francoise married and moved away to Provence where her husband had been appointed governor, there began a stream of correspondence between the two that ended only with Madame's death. It's these letters that tell us so much about the dramas big and small that fascinated the Marquise. From the affairs of state to the little violations of protocol observed in Parisian salons, not to mention her daughter's marriage and pregnancies, her husband's casual attitude to money, the risks of travel in winter, the servant problem, the merits and (especially) the flaws of last Sunday's sermon, she writes so vividly that you feel you are witnessing events with her.
Letters, like diaries, make for great bed-time reading. They come in bite-sized chunks, and if the writer is any good, they are not simply a compilation of happenings and circumstances but a distillation of them, a way of finding meaning through reflection and writing. This has interested me as much as the content, how the art of writing can be such a powerful tool in the hands of an effective practitioner. At the same time as reading M de S, I've also been enjoying A. L. Kennedy's book On Writing, a collection of her marvellous Guardian blogs on what it's like to be a writer, how she creates a novel, the experience of dealing with publishers, agents and reviewers and so on. In her very different way, Kennedy demonstrates the same kind of flair. It's a precious gift.
These books have made me think about my own enjoyment of writing now that I have more time to give to it. They've made me wonder, like many others, what is happening to letter-writing in the digital age. Maybe as a literary form, the traditional epistolary form is in decline nowadays: some of us have almost lost the ability to hold a pen let alone write intelligibly and legibly with it.
But electronic media open up new ways in which old traditions can be kept alive. Kennedy's weekly pieces are a good example of how blogging can perform some of the same functions as writing letters. When I write my blog, it feels a bit like an 'open letter': anyone can read it, but there are some who respond as if it's a quasi-personal communication. I'm pleased about that. The same goes in shorter form for platforms like Twitter and Facebook where the art of saying a lot in few words can lead to surprisingly interesting, elegant and entertaining interactions. I've no doubt that Madame would be an avid follower of social media if she were alive today.
As, I think, would the New Testament writers. It's worth recalling how much of the New Testament consists of letters: some very personal such as Paul's to Philemon, others for more general circulation like Romans, Ephesians and Hebrews. In these letters we overhear the goings-on in the churches of the 1st century, just as Madame lets us overhear the 17th.
Maybe there's a message not only in the content but the literary form itself: don't be afraid of opportunism in communication. Allow circumstances to inspire and suggest themes for reflection and writing. If something has grabbed your attention, share it. Be spontaneous and see what emerges. In a strange way, social media, far from drawing us away from time-honoured literary forms like letters and diaries, may be taking us straight back to them and helping us both to appreciate them afresh, and to imitate them in renewed and imaginative ways.
*An apology to her memory and to all lovers of the French language: every time I insert acute accents in Blogger, they disappear from sight. Clearly this programme is worryingly Francophobe.