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.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Believing or Beleaving? On being an In-thusiast for the EU

A week is a long time in a political campaign. It was only last Saturday that David Cameron stepped off the plane (so to speak) waving his hard-won EU summit agreement in front of a waiting nation.

So with the starting fun now fired, how is the debate about the European Union taking shape? It's too early to tell, of course. But already it's becoming clear that battle lines are being drawn up along familiar fronts. Will Britain be better or worse off staying in the EU or leaving? Will the pound and the FTSE strengthen or weaken if we leave? Will Brexit encourage large and transnational organisations to decouple from the UK or not? Will our overseas trading relationships be helped or hindered? Will we be better or worse placed to face international crises? Will our country be more at risk from terror attacks in or out? Do the EU's governance shortcomings in its democratic transparency and accountability pose a fatal risk to the UK's sovereignty or not? And so on. Of the making of many arguments there is no end.

I am learning a lot by following news feeds and commentary about the referendum from all over the world and from many different perspectives. When it comes to the themes I've just listed, I am no expert. It all depends on whom you listen to, I suppose, or whom you listened to last, and of course whom you trust. I've said before that serious listening comes into things right now. It's important, when we don't know (or even when we think we do) that we pay attention and don't come to premature conclusions about arguments that have a long way to run. 

However, the rules of engagement have been set in utilitarian, pragmatic terms that largely focus on the matters I've mentioned. These are all important but on their own they limit the discourse of the debate. The functional tone was set by the PM when he went into the summit. 'I'm going in to demand, and to get, what's best for Britain' - or words to that effect. Was I the only one who felt depressed, even dismayed, by that kind of talk? It sounded self-serving to me, lacking inspiration, falling short of the big idea. David Cameron famously said that he is not in love with Brussels. But what if we began at a different starting-point altogether, one that took us back to why the European Union was created in the first place, and why it might still be worth belonging to?

I've argued in my blogs that a Judaeo-Christian perspective on politics, public life and social ethics begins with the great commandments of the Torah, especially the second: to love your neighbour as yourself. This, to me, is the fundamental reason for believing in the EU as a family of peoples who, without sacrificing their own national identity and integrity, covenant together for the sake of one another's wellbeing and flourishing, what Catholic social theology calls 'the common good'. So we need to celebrate the signal achievements of the EU in safeguarding the peace of Europe since the War, bringing a degree of prosperity to its peoples undreamed of before, and beginning to get collective purchase on global threats that no nation can tackle on its own, such as terrorism and climate change. Whatever its failures to live up to its high ideals (and they are many), the vision, the purpose and the achievements still matter. And not to be talking up a noble ideal seems to me to lack real belief in the European project, the conviction that it could still be a force for immense good in the world and that Britain should be taking a leading role at the very heart of it.

You may say: this is the passion of the Europhile preacher speaking to emotions and soul rather than the hard-headed realist addressing the mind. Well, I am a preacher by trade and believe in the power of good rhetoric to change both minds and hearts. Heart speaks to heart and my heart is unequivocally in this. And believe me, it's precisely this 'heart-work' that we need to do: for if we believe that the EU matters to an entire continent and indeed to the world, then it should certainly matter to us as one of its member states and to each of us as UK citizens. But a lot of what I've read and heard from our leaders seems to be along the lines of: the best that can be said for the EU is that because our membership is the status quo, and because we are persuaded that we'll be no worse off by leaving it, we may as well stay and make the best of it we can. Some of the campaigning seems to be striking that rather grudging note as if to say, we'd really rather not be bothered with all this but since we are where we are, let's try to sound convincing. 

When it comes to passion, Brexit Beleavers may well be more prepared to own up to it than we who are EU-Believers. After all, it's so un-British to talk up the EU - isn't it? (Though it's also true that the spirit in the pro-EU organisations out on the streets is becoming energised and excited by the campaign, and that's how it should be. If we aren't afraid of speaking to the heart, there's a chance that people in the UK could become as engaged in the referendum debate as the Scots were over the independence vote in 2014. Indeed the two issues are not so very different as I'll try to argue in a future blog.)

So I want to urge us as Christians for the EU to speak up as those who are proud to belong to a body with such an enlightened view of how human beings can grow together. Because as Ben Ryan has said in his recent Theos report A Soul For The Union, the challenge is far bigger than securing assent to some abstract organisational idea called the EU. We need to become Europeans, and persuade others across our continent and in the UK to think of themselves as having that sense of both identity and belonging. It's similar to the difference between assenting to Christianity and being Christians, or as we might say, 'believing that' as distinct from 'believing in'. If Latin cuts more ice than English, it's fiducia that we need, not just fides. 

That's my pitch: that it's belief in that we badly need to foster in this campaign. Not naïvely, not uncritically, not without asking the hard questions of governance structures and processes that everyone acknowledges need reforming and renewing. (If only the PM had focused on those things at the summit!) But let's reawaken the vision of the EU's founding fathers and mothers. Let's rekindle their first fine (though not careless) rapture. And yes, let's be passionate about what we believe - in politics as much as religious faith, and urge our leaders to be as excited as we are by our future in the EU with all the possibilities that lie open before us. 

You can follow Christians for the EU on Twitter @Xians4EU, and on our FaceBook page. 

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Bible and the European Union

I've been challenged to outline how I would defend Britain's membership of the European Union from a biblical viewpoint.

The first thing to say is that you can't read a modern institution like the EU out of the pages of scripture. So it's futile simply to quote texts as if to say, argument won. (I also doubt whether you can argue for the modern nation state like that either, but maybe that's another story.) It's a case of tracing the direction in which the Bible leads our thinking and our prayer. So while I don't at all believe that the EU is a sign of the kingdom of God, Jesus' teaching about the kingdom will certainly have something to say about how we order our lives, not only as individuals but as communities, societies and peoples. 

Where to begin? Let me go first to the very foundations of Jewish faith that Christians all affirm. When Jesus is asked in the gospels which commandment is the greatest, his answer is to quote the Jewish Torah. The first is to love God with all our heart. The second is to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22: 37-40). It's this love of neighbour that seems to me to lie at the heart of the founding vision of the EU. It's a family of peoples who are pledged to seek one another's welfare and pursue the common good. We must remember that the love command in the Torah especially emphasises the poor, the needy and the marginalised (Leviticus 19.18). To me, any human association that follows these ideals deserves to be supported. It's the exact opposite of the kind of rhetoric we hear in the noise of the current EU referendum debate: "think what's best for the UK, what's best for you!" The kingdom of God requires us to be outward-facing, generous, inclusive and compassionate. That's why I believe that despite its flaws, the EU is still a great institution.

Following the noble idea that peoples should be pledged to seek one another's welfare, I turn to another fundamental biblical concept, that of the covenant. We've heard a lot in recent days about treaties and whether or not they are legally binding. That partly misses the biblical insight that covenanted relationships belong to the very heart of human life. Marriage, business contracts, articles of association are all covenantal in character. But what makes them work is that they are based on promise and trust. When God makes a covenant with Israel (Exodus 19-24), he promises that they will be his people and he their God. Christian faith takes the new covenant in Jeremiah and applies it to the relationship Jesus has with his church, his body. In turn, he commands, the members of his body are to "love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15.12). In the Upper Room in St John, that new covenant relationship is expressed in mutual service symbolised by the washing of feet. His vision of a "society of friends" takes us straight back to loving our neighbour. As a formal, treaty-based association of nations joined together in covenant, the EU, like the federation we call the United Kingdom, is precisely an instance of living together in friendship and mutual service. You might even call it love.

Let's pursue this further in the New Testament. There, the church is portrayed as a "household of faith" that is at one in its witness to the grace of God and its common life. The work of Christ has been to "create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace" (Ephesians 2.15). Of this new humanity, the church is called to be a foretaste and sign. All my instincts tell me that it is always better to follow the path that brings human beings together and reconciles them rather than fragments and divides. For in this "single new humanity", St Paul famously says, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). I know he is speaking of the church here. But if the church is a symbol of what will one day become true of the whole human family, how can we not see this covenanted, collaborative vision as worth pursuing in our ordinary human life as well as in the church? It is never good for a man or a woman to be alone, says Genesis. But that's what lies behind the emotional appeal of Brexit just as it lay behind the idea of an independent Scotland. It's why I want to stand up for both unions, the UK and the EU, as beneficent human structures of reconciliation, friendship and human flourishing, ideas that are so big in the New Testament as I've tried to show. 

These are simply some thoughts to start with. You'll see how I'm trying to argue this on the basis of an intelligent and holistic reading of scripture. What we need to do is to discern the broad streams of Torah instruction, prophetic utterance, wisdom insight, gospel proclamation and apostolic reflection that have shaped our faith. At their heart, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures testify to God's everlasting love for the human race, and the obedient response of faith that looks to order human life for the good of all. I see the Bible pointing unambiguously towards life together, rather than life apart. The EU is an instance of this. It does not carry any divine mandate, and it is far from perfect. But it exists because good people, largely inspired by a Christian vision of the world, wanted to galvanise the peoples of Europe to work together in pursuit of values that are so prominent in the Bible: reconciliation, peace, freedom, social justice, solidarity with the poor and needy, and seeking the common good. To this we must today add our care of the environment. We can't make as big a difference to these things on our own. Together, so much is possible.

I believe this was the biblical case for the UK to join the EU in the first place. To me, it still stands. It's only a start. So I'll no doubt have more to say on this in the coming months.... 

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The EU: a view from Hadrian's Wall

I am lucky enough to live close to Hadrian's Wall, on the south side where the land drops sharply down into the valley of the Tyne. From my front door I often walk up the steep hill above the village to enjoy amazing views. To the south across the valley, the North Pennines rear up massively, their whale-backs dominating the horizon. To the north, the view is closed off by the ridge of volcanic rocks called the Whin Sill whose jagged edges serrate the sky. It carries the Roman wall that strides across the lands of Cumbria and Northumberland connecting east coast and west at this narrow neck of England. In front of that you can glimpse a road that runs parallel to the wall a mile or two to the south. This is the Stanegate, a Roman Road built earlier than the wall to link the strategic sites of Corbridge, Vindolanda and Carlisle.

Yesterday I took time out from EU-scanning the media to enjoy some fresh air. It's fascinating to read so much stimulating stuff, but after a while your head does begin to spin. Alone in this beautiful landscape washed by winter sunshine, I found myself musing as you often do on a walk, gathering wool as I say (hence the name of this blog). Here's where my thoughts were leading me.

I found myself thinking about what it means to live on a frontier. Northumberland has always been border country, long fought-over by Scots and English. We live in what used to be called for many centuries England's Middle March that sits between the English East March and the West. These were matched by the three Marches on the Scottish side. They were patrolled by wardens who sought to impose a degree of order in these often lawless territories where border reivers would sweep down the valleys to pillage and plunder at will. Not far away in the West March is an area that was officially known as the Debateable Lands. That name says it all. From the middle ages to the eighteenth century, you were careful whom you chose as your friends.

But long before all this, the Roman wall stood as an unforgettable symbol of a boundary. Bede, lover of most things Roman, knew about it, living as he did close to the military base of Arbeia whose impressive remains you can see laid out in the middle of South Shields. Why Hadrian's Wall was built in the first place isn't altogether clear (and the same goes for its Scottish cousin the Antonine Wall). But defence was certainly one reason, for the fortified milecastles proclaim only too clearly that in the early centuries of the Christian era, this was contested land. But both walls probably had a symbolic function, to delineate the north-western boundary of the Roman Empire. When the Antonine Wall was abandoned, Hadrian's was reinforced as if to say, here now is the settled border. To the south you are within the Pax Romana. To the north, its jurisdiction ceased, even if Romans often had military, social or trading reasons to venture frequently beyond it.

As I pondered on my walk, I thought about the symbolism of a boundary. What it does to its hinterland on either side is to impart a sense of liminality. You are on a threshold in these places. You straddle different worlds. Sometimes you are clearly pulled one way or the other, but often borderlands carry a sense of uncertainty where you have to stop and think about your belonging, even your very identity. That's why historically, liminal places are always marked out so that you pay attention to this fundamental activity of crossing-over: walls, watersheds, bridges, entrances and exits, even your own front door. These are sometimes happy places, sometimes uncomfortable and even painful, depending on what the threshold means. They can speak of welcome and homecoming. Or they can speak of alienation and exile, even death.

Walking on for a couple of miles, the Whin Sill was my constant northward companion, glowing green and gold in the clear clean light. How close to the 'edge' we are, I thought, the edge of an ancient civilisation that once embraced the whole of what we now call Europe. It felt oddly reassuring to think that Britannia was a province of Rome, part of a world that cherished learning, philosophy, law, politics, culture, sport, so much of what in medieval and Renaissance times would go into the shaping of our continent and our country. From this vantage point, it was as if I could look south across lands that shared the same values, the same sense of belonging: Britain, Gaul, Germany, Spain, Italy towards the Mediterranean that was Europe's cradle. And from this northern border, even this became more clearly just a part of an even longer story that also originated around the Mediterranean shores that I could, so to speak, see far off: the Greek and Hellenistic worlds, the Persian, and still more ancient, the Semitic that gave birth to the Judaeo-Christian-Moslem matrix that has been so influential in creating the Europe that we know.

Why I am I telling you this? Because a boundary has a way of imparting depth to a landscape of the mind. It stops you foreshortening the view because it draws attention to the extent and character of that prospect before you and your own place within it. Standing at the 'top' of Europe on this remote northern border was helping me to see the continent in its wholeness. And it underlined the importance of my sense of connection to it, my European belonging and identity in geography, culture and time. Nowadays the European Union doesn't notice this particular border, extending as it does (and how good this is) into Scotland and across the sea to Ireland. But I'm speaking symbolically here. (And just in case you're wondering, I am definitely not likening the EU to the Roman Empire or medieval Christendom. It's the symbolism I'm talking about.) I suddenly thought, how could these English lands that I love, for centuries tied umbilically to the 'Continent', become severed from our common European homeland which I also love, which I know and feel I belong to? It was an awful prospect.

I remembered something that G. K. Chesterton said about situations we think of as utterly incongruous. His example was William Gladstone smoking a cigar in the presence of Queen Victoria. It's not that it would be impossible. It could happen in theory. But it would be incredible. That's what I suddenly thought about the UK if it were severed from the EU. Brexit could so easily happen. But if it did, it would go against our history, our best interests, all our common sense. And that would make it incredible, absurd. Which is why I am supporting the case for our country to stay in the EU and not make this leap in the dark that any intelligent risk analysis must show threatens to do irreparable damage to our flourishing as a nation. Self-interest obviously comes into it, though a Christian case for the EU will want this to be enlightened self-interest.

But better still, with a stronger claim to be 'Christian' in its values, is to recognise how 'civilisation' is about the welfare of others as well as ourselves. Despite its weaknesses, the EU can be a force for good in building a more just and peaceable world. It's unthinkable that the United Kingdom, with its long history of aspiration, fairness, kindness, shrewdness, creativity, toleration and native wisdom would not want to play a leading part in this project. It's not just what the EU can do for us. It's what we can do for it, and through it, for the human race and the planet itself. At this ancient border, gazing back across the memory of a common civilisation, I realised just how insular it is, how self-serving, only to think only about what's good for us. And how un-British and un-English to think that way!

So I'm praying that the worst won't happen. For the next four months, the whole of the UK will become 'debateable lands' once again as the battle of ideas about the EU is fought out. Maybe what's at stake is nothing less than the identity or soul of Britain, even the soul of Europe itself. And that's about my own soul, my own identity too. I care about all these things. If I'm right, it will be worth investing time, effort and prayer at this unique time in our history. Indeed, I'd say it was vital.

If you'd like to, please join a (very) broad church of Christian support for our membership of the EU by following on Twitter: @Xians4EU or logging on to our Face Book page. I've written on this subject in a number of previous blogs on this site.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

17 Weeks 5 Days

That's how long we have before the EU referendum announced today.

My last blog was about the Twitter feed I've just set up to support a Christian case for remaining in the European Union, @Xians4EU. Under that banner, I've tried to pull together useful observations, commentary and reflection on the EU debate that I hope helps frame a Christian perspective, with some human interest now and then, and from time to time a dose of much needed humour and irony.

So what's to be said about the outcome of the EU summit from that Christian perspective? It's far too early to say definitively, and we have yet to see the small print. But here's my outline sketch.

Let's begin by accentuating the positive. It's very good news that there's an agreement at all because it wasn't a foregone conclusion. To get the twenty eight member states to sign it off called for a major collective act of the will. It wasn't only the Prime Minister who showed great stamina. Although I was one of many who didn't see the need to put ourselves and everybody else through this torturous exercise, I am greatly relieved that it has produced a result. It would have been unthinkable for David Cameron to come away having to campaign for Britain to leave the EU.

Secondly, let's be grateful that there is apparently so much goodwill towards the UK in Europe. Despite the long wrangling over migrant welfare payments, benefit payments to children of migrant workers, protecting the City of London from Eurozone regulation, national sovereignty and 'ever closer union', it's always been clear that the EU states view Brexit not just with sadness but with real alarm. I had expected that with a gun held at their head by us Brits (as it must have seemed to the others sitting round the table), we would be shown the door. But no. We should notice this fund of respect, and in some cases real affection, for Britain, and not exploit it or hurl it back in the faces of our European partners by voting ourselves OUT when they have (or at least think they have) conceded quite a lot.

Finally, let's recognise the provisions to safeguard what a majority of the electorate says it values in Britain and does not want to sacrifice. Our political integrity and self-determination as a nation is secure. We are not going to be absorbed into some European superstate (which was always a Eurosceptic fantasy, but it didn't half help ramp up their rhetoric). Our difficulties in relation to migrants and their dependants is recognised. Our financial institutions are safe from foreign interference. There have had to be compromises. But that's what happens when grown-ups negotiate about anything. Cameron has come away with more than many of us expected - and maybe more than he expected too.

But I have questions too, and there no doubt be more to come. And here is where I am especially trying to apply a Christian mind and heart.

To start with, I am troubled about a process that has seemed to deflect so much attention on the UK when Europe faces so many crises not of its making: thousands of refugees arriving on our shores, turbulence close to our borders in the Middle East, the challenges facing our financial systems and the Euro in particular. Time to discuss these urgent matters was sorely needed. Thanks to us, our leaders only brushed their outskirts. And it would have been a priceless opportunity to discuss how the EU's cumbersome decision-making processes could become more transparent and democratic, for instance by giving more power to our elected representatives in the European Parliament. Instead, we demanded that the UK should be centre-stage. (And what's to stop every nation now bidding for its own two days in the sun at EU summits now that we have what Le Monde cleverly dubbed 'à la carte Europe'?) That doesn't seem quite true to the Christian gospel.

Following from this, I have an uneasy conscience about the Prime Minister's language about Britain being a 'special case' within the EU. Why should it be? Why is Britain more special than our twenty seven partner nations, more equal than the others? It goes with the rhetoric of 'I'm going to get what's best for Britain out this negotiation and I won't come out with anything less'. Up to a point, Lord Copper. But what about what's best for Europe as a community of peoples, especially its poorer members? Or what's best for the human family for whom the EU can do so much good? A Christian social justice urges us to love our neighbour and never to neglect him or her. Ask not what the Union can do for you. Ask what you can do for it.

When it comes to all the brouhaha about 'ever closer union', I am baffled and, I have to say, worried. In every other community I belong to, whether in church or society, the idea that people and communities should draw closer together is regarded as desirable if not essential. That's how partnership, collaboration, reconciliation, peace and progress happen, precisely why the original six nations got together amid the ashes of World War 2 to build a common European home. To say 'never' smacks of a retreat into isolationism. Yes, the word 'union' no doubt puts the federalist frighteners on to some people. Yet this United Kingdom is precisely an example of how successful such an arrangement can be among four very different peoples, and what is more, with devolved powers and subsidiarities built in to make sure that 'united' doesn't mean 'absorbed'. The EU has never understood 'ever growing union', or as we might say, the convergence of its peoples, other than in the light of subsidiarity, making decisions at the most appropriate (which is often the lowest) level.

We need to recognise the nature of the world we now inhabit, and not live in some imagined past. The nation state is not the absolute autonomous entity it was. Global institutions are more and more in the ascendant. Transnational financial and trading organisations are too big for single nations to deal with on their own. Meanwhile, the world's conflicts are largely not now being fought along old national lines; security has to be understood in far bigger ways. Climate change will not be addressed by nations on their own. We need more, and more effective, partnerships and associations like the EU, not fewer. So I'm not sure that this 'never' to 'ever closer union' isn't shutting the door on an important Christian principle about how society transcends boundaries, establishes covenanted bonds and grows together for the common good.

I suppose this amounts to two cheers for the Prime Minister. Actually, I doubt if the summit will be uppermost in voters' minds when they go to the polls in June. I doubt if we shall be obsessing about benefit brakes and the Euro's effect on the FTSE (even if we should). This yes-no decision feels as though it is about much more than this: nothing less than the fundamental architecture of the European Union and whether or not Britain has a place there. It's about the basic principles of our life together as peoples and nations. A Christian mind about why this matters so profoundly is what "Christians for the EU" is about.

But in 124 days' time, it will all be down to you and me.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Christians for the EU

I have launched a Twitter feed called "Christians for the European Union", @Xians4EU. I'd like to tell you why.

If you read this blog regularly, or its Decanal Woolgathering predecessor, you'll know that I am a European at heart. The heart comes into things as well as the head. I owe a lot of this to my upbringing. My mother is a Jewish refugee who was fortunate enough to flee Nazi Germany and make a new life here in Britain. After the war she married an Englishman whose cultural origins were Anglican. When I was little we spoke both German and English at home. (I was even said to have a discernible Westphalian accent. If only I were as fluent today.)

So you'll see why I have always sensed in myself a 'double belonging'. I am unambiguously British, yet also feel firmly anchored to continental Europe. I am an Anglican priest yet am always aware of my Jewish roots. I love the language, life, landscapes and culture of Britain, especially of the part of England where I have lived and worked for many years. But I love just as much being on the European mainland and enjoying all that belongs to it. On my Twitter account I describe myself as 'A European at home in North East England'. I chose those words carefully to try to encapsulate this rich identity to which I owe so much.

The historic, spiritual and cultural links that tie our island into Europe are deeply important to me. Living as I now do in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall, I am surrounded by memories of a rich past in which Britannia belonged to a then worldwide association of peoples bound together by the Pax Romana. Up the hillside as I write this I can see the trees surrounding the little 12th century church of St Cuthbert, a reminder of how medieval Europe was held together by a spiritual and humane vision of life together that was large enough to embrace Jews, Christians and Moslems. At my desk I am surrounded by books from many different European lands that reflect the Enlightenment's commitment to curiosity, study and learning.

Yes, those past eras were also beset by conflict. The succeeding centuries have seen Europe continue to be torn apart by the armies of its warring peoples. In the mere lifespan of my grandparents, these divisions have been catastrophic as they twice erupted into global conflict. And we cannot say that this European addiction to bloodshed came to an end after World War 2 as Bosnia and the Ukraine demonstrate only too painfully. But at least we have seen Europe take real strides in healing many of these old wounds. The noble post war vision of a family of nations that would work together for their mutual flourishing played a large part in this.

Which brings us to the European Union as we now know it. There is a lot wrong with the EU, as Brexit enthusiasts never tire of pointing out. I'm not going to deny that better democratic participation and greater transparency are needed in the way it conducts its business. (Though by the way, there's quite a lot wrong with the Union we call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland come to that, as the widening cracks in our society, the dismantling of public services and the failure of equitable processes for caring for the most needy in our society show only too clearly.) Yes, the EU has not distinguished itself by its response to the migration crisis, nor the Bosnian and Ukrainian crises before it. It's easy to point to its failures.

However, in the debate leading up to the EU referendum which may now be only be a few months away, it's vitally important that we focus on the big themes that undergird the vision and the idea of a European Union. We should celebrate its real achievements since the mid twentieth century, just as at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, we needed to talk up the success story that is the United Kingdom.

So we need to keep the EU's founding vision alive, and this is what I am missing in almost all the pronouncements made by advocates on both sides of this argument. It's a pity that the rhetoric of both 'inners' and 'outers' is so fixated on what's best for Britain financially, and what will happen to the UK's industry, employment and economic position. I'm not saying that these things don't matter hugely. But we need to enlarge the debate by reminding one another not only what constitutes the geo-political entity called 'Europe' but, much more important, what makes us Europeans. And this is to do with the politics of an entire continent, with peace-making and keeping, social justice, human rights, the free movement of peoples, the welfare of working people, our concern for the environment and our care for the poor and needy. And much else.

A recent report** by the Christian theological think-tank Theos has highlighted the part Christianity played in laying the foundations of contemporary Europe. It is well worth reading. Entitled A Soul for the Union, it emphasises that our continent must not forget its religious and cultural roots. The essay points out how deeply indebted the EU's founding vision was to Catholic social theology. Drawing on this tradition, it underlines the importance of morality, social and political ethics, all the human, cultural and spiritual dimensions it calls the 'soul' of Europe. To quote Bonhoeffer (my insight, not the report's), the EU is fundamentally about 'life together'. For living in community is a foundational aspect of discipleship.

And this is why I've launched @Xians4EU. It's decidedly not about harking back nostalgically to a now lost 'Christendom'. We should never try to recreate the past: if we do, we shall only reproduce its mistakes on an even more grandiose scale. Modern Europe is a secular alliance of diverse peoples living in a world that is utterly different from previous ages. We need to affirm and celebrate this religious and cultural diversity that characterises the twenty first century. But in Europe, we can see how its very diversity draws on a long history already embraced in late antiquity, the middle ages and the Renaissance and Reformation eras as is clear from its vast debt to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The influences of good religion pervade its culture and its institutions. As do the insights that flowed into Europe thanks to the Enlightenment, not least its intellectual curiosity and its emphasis on toleration (a movement that Christianity, its parent faith, should embrace positively rather than shun - but that's another story).

I admit that I was inspired (some might say goaded) into setting up @Xians4EU by coming across a similar Twitter feed called @Xtians4Britain. It is a campaigning Christian site that is energetically advocating Brexit. It has a significant following with distinguished patrons. I asked myself why the explicitly Christian voice should be limited to EU unbelievers, for I've long believed that a convincing case for the EU and Britain's active participation in it can be made from Christian principles. Indeed, more than that: I believe that the Christian emphases we find in, say, the Sermon on the Mount point us in the direction of growing together as human societies. I'm thinking of values like mutuality, participation, citizenship, collaboration, service, social justice, compassion, reconciliation, and most of all, turning away from self-concern and self-sufficiency towards a more generous and inclusive vision of being human. To go back to Bonhoeffer, there is a 'cost of discipleship': membership of every community worth joining has its demands as well as its rewards. It's my belief as a Christian that the EU is just such a community.

To envision a community of peoples committed to these values is, I think, the ultimately persuasive argument for the EU. I'm not utopian about this. It's a project whose success is as yet very partial. Much remains untried and untested; there is much that is broken and in need of mending. Self-interest keeps breaking in and compromising what we aspire to. (I'm very much afraid that this self-serving propensity is precisely what is driving the UK's agenda in renegotiating its membership of the EU: not so much what is good for all our peoples, but only what Britain itself can get out of it.) But that shouldn't excuse us from trying to create a living social and political reality that models the best of which we are capable. Indeed, the EU is only one of a number of networks and associations that we should be aiming to build up for the sake of the human race. I doubt if our world will survive many more generations unless it increasingly moves in this direction and we learn to live and work together in a far more intentional way.

And if nothing else, @Xians4EU can highlight the need to pray for our leaders and for ourselves during the run-up to the referendum. I hope it can help draw attention to the need to think Christianly about society as well as the church so that we keep the debate focused on what matters most, not just for the UK, not just for the EU, but for all humanity. In terms of the history we are making in the months to come, it's how we play out this drama on the world stage that will ultimately judge us. I want to be able to say, as a Christian, as a British citizen and as a convinced European, that I am proud of how my nation responded.

**The Theos report can be read online at http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2016/01/21/a-soul-for-the-union.
You can scroll down to my previous blogs on this site: The Churches and the EU Referendum, and What is the Vocation of Britain in Europe?

Friday, 12 February 2016

Gravity Waves and God

On the second day of Lent, a scientific announcement made it into the TV news headlines, right to the top. It has to be quite something to dislodge the junior hospital doctors, the EU referendum, the state of the financial markets and Syria. It was of course the discovery of gravity waves.

I'm sure I don't need to explain to the readers of this blog what gravity waves are and do. The question their existence answers is very simple: how is the force of gravity transmitted through space, the force that makes Newton's apple fall to the ground and Kepler's planets to stay in their elliptical orbits round the sun. Einstein had predicted them, but it has taken a century to spot these elusive carriers of cosmic information. It was the collision of two black holes and the colossal energies it released with the consequent distortions of space-time for gravity waves to leave a trace.

No wonder the scientific community is excited. I share it, insofar as I understand these things. I suppose I am a superannuated scientist in that I read maths for my first degree, though it's debateable whether mathematics is a science or an art. I've always enjoyed reading that genre known as 'popular science' to help me wander round the foothills of scientific enquiry and be able at least to ask sensible questions when talking to scientists. When I was studying A-level physics in the 1960s, I learned about conjectured 'grand unified theories' of the universe (GUTs we called them). One of the clues, I remember, was going to be the proven existence of gravity waves. At that stage no-one had heard of 'dark matter'. So presumably we are one step closer than we were to mapping the GUT-instinct of the cosmos. (Sorry.)

I was fascinated in the reaction on social media. It ranged from the excited to the baffled. There was a lot of exhilarated chatter: 'wow! this sounds amazing even if I haven't a clue what it means'. And there was some sighing with disbelief that such things were occupying valuable news time: 'what's all the fuss about?' grumbled one tweeter 'when it cost a fortune, makes no difference to anyone & most people don't understand it anyway'. Or words to that effect.

So here's my take on why all the fuss is worth it.

First, we should celebrate curiosity. It's a fundamental aspect of being human, this instinct to probe and explore and discover. It's inconceivable that humanity might one day give up on pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. When I was a child I had a big and much-cherished book about how the continents were progressively discovered. Each chapter was introduced by a coloured map entitled 'The Unfolding of the Clouds' (or was it unfurling?). The known world as it was down the centuries was mapped in colour with dark grey clouds lapping the edges. By the end of the book, the clouds were gone, banished by the sunshine of knowledge. A classic case of imperial optimism striding out to conquer ignorance? Maybe.

But it left a lasting image. Even aged eight or nine, I could see that it was a metaphor of other kinds of progress: understanding the past, overcoming disease, devising technologies to better the human condition. In the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon is remembered as a man who was curious about the animal and plant life that surrounded him. It was associated with his legendary wisdom. I think that remains true of good science, wherever we find it. And to me, one aspect of scientific curiosity is the very capacity we discover in ourselves to articulate such extraordinary concepts. It's as if we are helping the universe to come to a kind of consciousness through our very ability to understand and articulate its mechanisms.

Secondly, discoveries like this enhance the sense that we live in an amazing universe that is 'fearfully and wonderfully made' as the psalm describes the human person. Every so often, there are breakthroughs that make us stop and think about who and what we are, maybe glimpse aspects of our life that we are normally too much in a hurry to notice. The first man into space was one such moment, the first moon landing another ('one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'). For a moment, we saw ourselves in a new way. In some ways these are as significant as the taming of fire and the discovery of the wheel, and a lot later on, depth psychology, relativity, vaccination, anaesthesia, the splitting of the atom and antibiotics. The human genome may be another parallel. The invention of the internet is another likely candidate, as is the promise (threat) of artificial intelligence. Crossing these thresholds changes the nature of human consciousness. Or it should.

But how? Once upon a time, scientific and technological research might be justified in terms of the mandate given to humanity at creation in Genesis: 'be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.' Back to that imperial (not to say imperious) domination of things. But I'd like to think that each threshold we cross as a human race ought to make us more reverent before creation, more humble towards it. Mother Julian of Norwich spoke about 'courtesy' in our relations with the natural world. The more complex the cosmos reveals itself to be, the more we should regard it in this way. That too is an aspect of wisdom, to be able to contemplate the created order and recognise our place in the grand scheme of things. The cosmos was here when we arrived, and it will still be here when we have gone. How many other sentient beings has it seen come and go in 14 billion years?

Of course so much depends how science and technological advance is put to use. I am not so naïve as to imagine that it will inevitably do us good. Science can have a dark shadow as we know from its being harnessed to destructive ends such as the capacity to make nuclear and biological weapons, engage in genetic manipulation, allow digital pornography to enter every home. Nor do I imagine that being exposed to the wonder of the universe makes a person religious (though avowed atheists like Brian Cox do convey an almost mystic sense of ecstatic awe in the face of the beauty of the cosmos and the physical laws that govern it).

But for people of faith, natural science has a religious aspect. The borderlands between knowability and unknowability straddle both science and theology: there is that which is disclosed to us, and that which remains mysterious and hidden whether we are talking about the universe or its Creator. 'Truly thou art a God that hidest thyself' complained the prophet, giving Luther his beloved phrase Deus Absconditus. Yet at the same time, the monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all affirm that God desires to be known as well as remain mysterious, and has revealed himself to humanity in his prophets and in sacred texts. For Christians, the supreme and final revelation is in Jesus, the incarnate Word of the Father in which he utters his decisive Yes to the whole created order for time and for eternity. Ultimately, a theologian believes, the scientific enterprise is a way of honouring that divine Yes.

So to me, gravity waves have a religious as well as a scientific aspect. It's another activity in which faith is always seeking understanding. Which is why this latest penny that's dropped is a moment of recognition in a theological sense. To that act of seeing and knowing and loving God in all his works, the human heart as well as the human head will echo: Amen!

(For an acclaimed physicist's view on science and religion, see Tom McLeish's recent book Faith and Wisdom in Science.)

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Not Busy in Lent

So Lent comes round again. For me, this year's 'forty days and forty nights' will feel very different from any previous Lent I've known. The reason is simple. This is my first Lent in retirement.

When I started visiting France frequently, I used to be surprised at the number of signs pointing to a maison de retraite. 'Retreat house' I thought - every town seemed to have one. Was this the sign of a contemplative people for whom regular time out of the normal routines of daily life was regarded as a priority? Alas, no. I soon discovered that retraite means 'retirement', and only carries the sense of 'retreat' as a secondary meaning. Retirement home, retreat house: not quite the same thing.

But it got me thinking about the relationship between these two linked words 'retreat' and 'retirement'. Both mean a withdrawal from working life, the one temporary, the other permanent. At least, that's the traditional understanding. The implication is: you can live at a different pace, be more present to the gift of being alive, cultivate reflectiveness, draw nearer to God.

However, if we've ever been on a retreat, we know that it entails real work: emotional work, spiritual work, work on the development of our whole human selves. It's not a matter of idle wool gathering. And no-one who retires imagines that laying down your life's 'work' means an existence free of commitments, obligations and tasks. There is work to do, even if it's not the same as quotidian ordinariness. Here, the French can help. It's the sense of oeuvre that I'm thinking about, what we might call life-work, heart-work, and not just travail.

I've been retired long enough (a full four months!) to know that travail doesn't vanish the moment you lay down your paid employment. But I also know that it supplies abundant opportunities for oeuvre, giving time and attention to the kind of work that ultimately matters most if we want to become fully human: our values, our aims and aspirations, our quality of life, our personal relationships, the part we play in society and the local community, our sensitivity to human need, and above all, the formation of our human selves: our emotional health, our spirituality, our prayer. This oeuvre is about what John Keats called 'the vale of soul-making'.

All these things seem to me to be true of Lent as well. We've become used to thinking about Lent as a kind of annual opportunity for retreat. For some, this will mean nurturing silence and contemplation, perhaps by literally going away for a while to spend time in a place of 'retreat'. For others it will bring the gift of opportunities to deepen their understanding of faith and its practice in the contemporary world. There will be many who actively 'take on' rather than 'give up', whether it's undertaking some project that will help the suffering and needy, or making a financial commitment to charity or church, or adopting some discipline of spiritual reading, study, fasting or some other way of deepening faith and life.

All these things can - maybe should - be good projects for retirement as well. In previous Lents, when I have led a demanding life in church leadership as a cathedral dean, I've been impressed and helped by resources developed under the rubric of 'I'm not busy- give up busy-ness for Lent'.** My mantra became 'Do less well'. I would say it to myself to catch the different nuances of that phrase: 'Do less well' meaning 'give up your perfectionism that so often cripples you - be content with what is good enough'. 'Do less - well' meaning 'don't do so much, but concentrate on the quality of what you need to do'.

Now that I'm officially 'not busy' (or supposed to be), these Lenten questions now feel like everyday challenges, and not specific to six weeks in February and March. Retirement is a marvellous opportunity to do what St Benedict advises - living the whole of life as if it were one continuous Lent. He doesn't mean us to be miserable or burdened. I think he wants us to cultivate as a daily habit the art of being as 'present' as possible: present to God, to other people, to ourselves and to life itself. This is the only oeuvre that ultimately matters.

Benedict called daily prayer the opus dei, the work of God. What did he mean by this? God's 'work' in us, or our 'work' for God? The answer is surely, both. If it were only God's work, we would be disengaged, our hearts and wills inactive rather than co-operating with God's grace. It would make us lazy. If it were only our work, it would be a matter merely of human effort and achievement. I suspect that to the Pelagian British, the latter is the far bigger temptation giving birth to the sins either of pride or despair.

I'm trying to learn to see the whole of life as opus dei. Retirement has given me a more space and time to pay belated attention to this, but Lent is a special opportunity for us all to try to focus more on it, whatever life stage we have reached. So I wish you a holy and fulfilling Lent. I hope and pray that we all find it to be the gift it's meant for, a joyous journey in the company of the saints, an adventure of spiritual exploration and discovery in which we find grace, find God, find one another and find ourselves in new and life-changing ways. Go in God.

**See www.notbusy.co.uk

Sunday, 7 February 2016

France, Faith and Laïcité

I always read Giles Fraser's Loose Canon articles in the Guardian with enjoyment. I almost always find myself agreeing with him. He is one of the best Christian minds encouraging us to embrace intelligent religion in our contemporary world. Even if his knockabout style is not yours, it's hard to argue that he hasn't penetrated to the core of whatever matter he is exploring. But when it comes to his latest piece** on France's celebrated (notorious?) doctrine of Laïcité, I think there is more to be said. So I want to try to nuance his article so that we can see Laïcité in a larger context that offers possibilities as well as challenges. 

He is right that the recent cavalier destruction by the French authorities of the church and mosque in the Jungle at Calais was cruel and indefensible, especially when it seems that assurances had been given that they would be spared despite the police plan to create a buffer zone between the camp and the autoroute. But I doubt that when they bulldozed these Christian and Muslim sacred spaces, they had Enlightenment theories of the state's relations with religion buzzing round their heads. They were probably just being thoughtless and rough, oblivious to human consequences, as heavy mobs always are. 

So what is Laïcité? It's the notion, embraced energetically at the French Revolution, that the state should be disinterested when it comes to religion. Public space should be free of religious ideology or values. These belong strictly to faith communities and individual adherents. It's had a chequered history since 1789, but in 1905 it was finally embedded in Article 1 of the French constitution, and this is how it is understood today by the state and its public institutions. 

People read Laïcité differently. For some, it perpetuates revolutionary anticlericalism and is perceived as hostile to any form of organised religion. Its implicit agenda is secularist and atheistic. Others, however, take a more positive view. Literally, the word simply means 'lay-ness', meaning that in respect of religion, the state should properly behave as 'lay', not determining or even pronouncing on, matters that belong to religious bodies. In the best spirit of the Enlightenment, it wants to create a genuinely open space where all expressions of faith (including atheism itself) can be practised, honoured and protected, where no faith is publicly preferred above any other and where no faith finds itself under pressure. It's about the separation of powers.

So maybe we need to differentiate between 'hard' and 'soft' versions of Laïcité. Let's call them versions 1 and 2. The first is the negative form that is root and branch opposed to religion in principle, or (in Giles' colourful words) regards religion as a 'dirty little secret' like the Victorian attitude to sex. It pursues an aggressive programme of marginalising religion to the point where it becomes, in Whitehead's immortal phrase, no more than 'what a man does with his own solitude'. 

The second, soft version, is the positive form that is permissive, more benign, more generous, that promises people of faith freedom from discrimination and that genuinely encourages an environment in which there can be a fruitful conversation between people of different faith traditions or of no faith. Laïcité 2 is about toleration in the best sense of that great word. 

France is only one of a number of countries whose public life is founded on Laïcité. Perhaps the closest parallel is found in the United States. The USA was formed in precisely the same philosophical and political environment as the French Republic. Like modern France, it's a child of the Enlightenment. Here too, the constitution expressly forbids the state's involvement in religion. Yet far from religion being in decline in the USA, it continues to be practised to an extent that fills European believers with envy. What is more, politicians are free to express their personal commitment to faith (which many do, though not always wisely). This is a good example of Laïcité 2: positive, collaborative and humane.

In practice, I think the UK is already moving towards Laïcité 2. That England and Scotland have established churches is making little difference to an increasing disinterest towards religion on the part of public institutions. The fractious debates about same-sex marriage are just one example of how little religious attitudes now influence public policy. (Sometimes, a wearisome political correctness is even driving local authorities and educational institutions into attitudes that owe more than a little to Laïcité 1.) I'm not advocating disestablishment. I'm simply saying that from my experience as an Englishman who knows and loves France, I don't detect that in the sphere of religion a great deal is different. In both the UK and France, churches and faith communities have to find their own way. I don't think this is at all a bad thing if it means that they can shed dependency and come of age.

Indeed, in some ways the UK is more secularised than France. There, Catholic religious festivals are still public holidays. The state, the departments and the communes put vastly more funding into the conservation of historic religious buildings than in the UK, thus enabling worshipping communities to go on using them. There is even a statutory involvement of the President of the Republic in approving appointments to bishoprics. After a century of Laïcité, I dare to hope that there is growing mutual respect, and even co-operation between secular and faith institutions in France that would have been unthinkable in 1789. This is in the spirit of Laïcité 2. Some politicians even speak openly about the contribution Christian history and thought has made in shaping the people of France. 

I am no political philosopher but to me, the idea that 'lay-ness' is the proper vocation of the nation state or a coalition of states like the EU makes sense. Laïcité 2 with its endorsement of the separation of powers (always a healthy thing in institutions) has a lot to be said for it. Churches and faith communities will have space in which to grow and flourish without fear. Different kinds of institutions can become partners rather than foes because their distinctiveness in the public arena is understood. It wouldn't rule out the things we value in the UK: chaplaincies to schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and the armed forces, the solemnisation of marriage, the holding of public religious ceremonies at times of commemoration or celebration. The USA demonstrates how the active engagement of faith with public life is entirely consistent with its officially secular character. 

The fact that France is more cautious in all these areas is no reason why it must always be that way. To be sure, there's still a lot of Laïcité 1 across the English Channel. Islamism, Charlie Hebdo, the Paris massacres and bad-tempered debates about wearing public signs of personal faith have hardened attitudes all round. Muslims in particular, but Jews and Catholics also from time to time, can feel they are on the receiving end of a hostile doctrine. There is no chance that France will give up its cherished Laïcité. But if it could morph into the type 2 version, maybe the whole nation, and not just its faith communities, would feel a whole lot easier with themselves. In our highly diverse societies of many creeds and cultures, that seems to me to be a necessary direction in which to travel.

**Giles' article can be found at http://gu.com/p/4gdyn/sbl. You may also be interested to read a piece in New Republic that's been brought to my attention by a comment on my blog: https://newrepublic.com/article/127179/time-france-abandon-laicite