About Me

My photo
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.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Referendum: in defence of campaigning with conviction

In the 1980s the broadcaster Bernard Levin wrote a booked called Enthusiasms. It gave him an excuse to write about all the things he loved in life: music, landscapes, food, cities, books, friends... In it he writes: "To be passionate in a cause provokes widespread embarrassment...[which is] to set off the squealing and tittering of those whose motto is 'surtout, Messieurs, point de zèle'."

In today's Guardian*, Jackie Ashley laments the lack of passion on the part of those campaigning to keep the UK in the European Union. She accuses them (us) of being lacklustre, taking our cue from a Prime Minister who has famously said that he doesn't "love Brussels". "The repetition of the very vague 'safer in' message isn't cutting through. It's too bland; frankly too boring." 

She is not wholly correct, but right enough. The Remain message has largely fallen into the trap set for it at the Brussels summit (how long ago that seems). The renegotiation of the UK's membership was hailed as a game-changing triumph, but of course its scope was pretty narrow. All along the message of the UK's special status was: "what's best for Britain, what's best for you the voter". That was an invitation to pander to self-interest. And those have largely been the rules of engagement in this campaign: will we be better or worse off as a result of Brexit? will our global trading position, our employment prospects, the security of our borders be disadvantaged one way of the other? The discourse has been largely utilitarian and pragmatic. What's been lacking is real conviction that the EU project could be a Good Thing with ideals that are worth believing in for their own sake. 

This very English (rather than Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish) way of thinking is not altogether unworthy: self-interest is natural enough, and best of all when it is enlightened and not merely self-serving. The PM's issues are important and aren't to be dismissed as of no consequence. We all know that there is a lot wrong with the EU. But a utilitarian politics can lack vision and ambition. Laodicean luke-warmness doesn't touch the imagination or fire the soul; it doesn't stimulate our aspiration to help build a better world. It doesn't have anything to say about the huge challenges that face the human race such as climate change, terrorism, peace-making and the global economy. It doesn't raise questions about governance and democratic participation. And it risks falling at the first hurdle for people of faith which is: how shall we build a more compassionate and socially just world where we ask "who is my neighbour?" - or, as Jesus turns it round in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, "to whom am I required to be a good neighbour?"

Well, I am one of those who wants to campaign for Remain with conviction and, yes, enthusiasm. It's partly a political and cultural conviction that I have. For as long as I've been alive, I've felt European in my bones. I owe a lot of it to my German-born mother and grandmother who had both suffered under the Nazis, and instilled in me a mistrust of thinking merely nationally about my identity. They taught me to love Bach and Rembrandt and Voltaire and Dante as much as Virgil and Shakespeare because they all belonged to my birthright. They encouraged me to learn foreign languages. They helped me travel and see the world. So now, when I am in continental Europe, I feel virtually as at home as I do in my native country. Because that's what it is to me, my native country. I'm proud that my passport has European Union emblazoned on the floppy Burgundy cover. I don't want my European identity to be stolen from me against my will.

But the other side of my conviction about the EU is related to my Christian faith. Religious belief is not just a matter of cognitive assent. The heart matters as much as the head. I am a Christian because I have been touched by something that is bigger than I am, that has transformative, life-changing power. Therefore, what flows out of my Christianity - its intellectual, ethical, social and political consequences - is also a matter of conviction. I believe we should do the right thing, or the best thing, out of loyalty to our faith. And in the case of the EU, that means for me the appeal to our nation to participate for the sake of the common good, take a lead in a community of peoples whose aim is the betterment of life for its members. This includes solidarity with the disempowered, voiceless and needy. It includes our resolve to be part of a family whose achievements in peace-seeking, reconciliation and environmental change have given real hope that together some inroads against these challenges can be made. And it has to be together. To revert to pragmatism, there's no room in today's world for nations to go it alone when the threats we face cross every national frontier. We can't afford to be without the EU and other alliances that will help safeguard us all. 

Our movement "Christians for Europe" believes that the tag #StrongerIn reflects not a depressing preoccupation with self-preservation so much as what the EU as a family of peoples can become, and the contribution our nation can make to the EU. It's heartening to be told by our EU partners that our country is the second most influential member of the Union after Germany. We shouldn't underestimate what our membership means to them, and the possibly catastrophic effects a #Brexit might lead to across the continent, maybe its eventual dissolution. The ill-feeling and resentment would last for decades. But Britain is famed for its fairness, its neighbourliness, its care of those who most need help, its kindness, its breadth of outlook, its tolerance and generosity of spirit. And its perseverance in not walking out on commitments when things get tough. These are virtues we can be proud of because they can and do make a real difference to our friends with whom we share our common European home. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Britain that has nurtured these qualities is an historically Christian nation.

What are the rewards for the UK if we vote #Remain, as I hope we do? I won't rehearse the material or cultural benefits, though I think they are real enough. No, for me, as an IN-thusiast, the best reward will be to think that we are committed to being a leading player in a unique family of nations. It will be the recognition that we have as much to give as to receive. It will be the reassurance that we the British people have once again understood what is required of us as respected players on the world stage. It will be a sense of gratitude that once again, we have found it in ourselves to love our neighbour.

That's my fervent prayer. Hence my determination to do what I can to support #Remain. Yeats sounds a warning note in his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are filled with passionate intensity." As to the first, we must raise our game and learn from the best Brexiteers how conviction should play a part in what we are doing. As to the second, we must eschew sloganising, vacuous rhetoric and demonising those who differ from us, and try to cultivate, not passionate intensity but an intelligence and wisdom that is both passionate yet courteous. We need good information and reliable evidence. We need rigorous argument. But let them be undergirded by conviction. Let's not be afraid to campaign not just in prose but in poetry. Brexit doesn't have all the best tunes. We don't have to commit the mortal sin of being boring.

Alors mes amis. Bon courage! Et beaucoup de zèle svp! 


Thursday, 24 March 2016

Holy Week 2016: a reflection on pain and mercy

It's a strange Holy Week, this first one in retirement. How I miss the great liturgies and profound music of Durham Cathedral. By contrast, this year feels like "Holy Week lite": no services to preside at, no sermons to write. Here in the village the liturgy is simpler and sparser though the pattern is the same. The Vicar is introducing an early morning Easter Vigil and eucharist up at the Old Church, not quite at dawn though with the clocks going forward it will feel like it. So we shall have kept the Sacred Triduum "properly", and that's good.

What's different this year is that I have a lot of time to think and reflect, to read, pray and gather wool. (And write, I hear you sigh, but no-one's forcing you to read this....) But it's not idleness, at least it doesn't feel like it. It's "work" too - spiritual work. Let me try and say where my thoughts have been leading me.

First, there's how much this week means to me, how it lies at the very centre of my Christian faith. I've written many times before about this but it's reassuring in an odd way to find that even though I am living as a lay person under the ministry of others, it hasn't in the least taken away the profound sense that without faith in Jesus' cross and resurrection, Christianity is nothing. I come back constantly to one of the greatest verses in the whole Bible, St Paul in Galatians (2.20-21): "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." You could feed off that magnificent affirmation for a lifetime. 

There are the familiar personal rituals of this season, chiefly to listen to both the Bach Passions at least once each during Holy Week. Like Galatians, they are inexhaustibly rich, so full of pain and pathos, yet charged with an exquisite confidence in tender mercy and undying love. This morning Angela Tilby spoke on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day about the final bar of the St Matthew Passion where Bach lingers on a dissonant passing note before resolving it into the last chord of this monumental work. There is a whole theology in that bar, she said. She is right: all of this week comes down to a painful dissonance and its ultimate resolution. Today I listened to the St John, a work I've written about in previous blogs. The same is true there, except that the conclusion is less tentative, less inclined to linger on the pain, more confident, even rapturous - precisely the difference between the two evangelists that Bach, one of the greatest theologians of the western church, understood so well.

But to go back to that dissonance: this has been a shocking Holy Week as we know. The atrocity in Brussels has left in its wake so many wrecked human lives: deaths, terrible injuries, trauma, loss and bewilderment. How self-professed adherents of a noble world faith, Islam, could carry out such destructiveness in God's name is just beyond comprehension. Elie Wiesel once said of the Nazi Holocaust, maybe even God himself doesn't understand it, let alone we humans. How to speak of such events with integrity without resorting to clichés and conventional expressions of sympathy, is hard. Like Job's friends, we would be better to remain silent like the mourners standing alongside one another in the Place de la Bourse. I think there must be silence in heaven in the face of such suffering and grief. What is there for God to say?

For me as a person of faith, this is where Holy Week comes in. The Passion Narrative echoes so many of the themes we are so familiar with. Fear, betrayal, cowardice, political compromise, the power of the mob, the oppression of the innocent are all sharply-etched on the page and in the music. Most of all the suffering of the victim.  In the St Matthew Passion he is not the obedient martyr of St Luke nor the victorious king of St John. In Matthew (and Mark) he is the lonely, agonised victim who cries out in agony "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" How true to experience. And like so many who are plunged inexplicably into terrible suffering, he gets no reply. He is alone in this long and terrible darkness. Hearing Bach this week, it couldn't fail to echo Brussels and Srebrenica and Istanbul, Syria and Iraq, the continuing refugee crisis and so many other horrors past and present we have heard about in recent days. That question comes back: what is there for God to say? What is there for us to say?

But faith wants to respond: God has not been silent, even though we didn't realise it at once. He is speaking out of the very heart of suffering to all the world, especially to those whom events have led directly into the reality of crucifixion. The broken Man of Golgotha is that Word of truth, mercy and the love that loves, as St John says, "to the end". Here's how one of the best modern hymns puts it.

And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow's iron rod,
Then they find that self-same aching
Deep within the heart of God.

It's the good news that is old and familiar and well-tried, but forever fresh and new in its capacity to bring strength and courage to face the days ahead. Once again it's St Paul's "faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me". This Holy Week I wonder like everybody else what ordeals the coming days and weeks will bring for our world and for each of us. But what we need to do is to hold the passion and resurrection in our hearts as the truth to live and die by. These "days of awe" from Maundy Thursday to Easter will strengthen us as we tell the story that lies at the very foundation of our faith. And point to the eventual resolution of all our sorrow and dissonance, and give us back our hope.

Andy Walton, writing in Christianity Today, quotes Coptic Bishop Angaelos whose church members have encountered fierce suffering in recent years in Egypt: "The darkness we encounter daily makes us not only realise the value of the Light, but pursue and hold onto It as our only hope and strength." His faith is a true inspiration. In that spirit I wish you a holy festival, and when it comes, a happy light-filled Easter, and "even at the grave", joyful alleluias.

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Rule of St Benedict and the EU Referendum

It's three years to the day since Justin Welby was enthroned as Archbishop,of Canterbury. I was privileged to be at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March 2013 with my colleagues from Durham where he had been our Bishop. That same week also saw the inauguration of Pope Francis' ministry in Rome. 

To mark both these momentous occasions, the Financial Times published an intriguing article by Tim Smedley, "Church Leaders Bring Fresh Insight". It asked how senior executives in secular organisations could learn from the experience of Christian leaders such as bishops down the centuries. This isn't a blog about leadership so I won't say more about it here. But I was struck by its conclusion. The author quoted some advice for business leaders from Stephen Bampfylde, founder of the well-known firm of head-hunters Saxton Bampfylde: “Arguably the best management and leadership book ever written is The Rule of St Benedict. Every chairman and chief executive should keep a copy on their desk and re-read the chapter on the character of the Abbot every week.”

Maybe there are European Union and UK government leaders who heed that advice. St Benedict is the Patron of Europe, so for all I know, civil servants in Brussels have a cupboard full of copies of his Rule ready to give to EU executives who ask for it. So I want to ask whether Benedict's Rule has anything to say to us about referendum on 23 June when we make a huge decision about whether to say in the European Union or leave it. It's a good day to be asking this, since 21 March marks the anniversary of his death.

Bear with me while I give some background.

Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks early in the 6th century. He was living in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire. All around him he saw the relics of a once-great civilisation that had brought order and shape to his world. Amid the ruins of antiquity, he asked the question: how could human beings recreate structures that would make for stability, flourishing and wisdom? He found his answer in the monasteries that had been established centuries before in the deserts of Egypt. His lasting contribution to civilisation was to organise monastic life by writing a rule that would govern how his monks would live together in community.

I introduced the word "stability" just now. In the fragmented, disordered world of Benedict's time, stability was an ideal to long for and work towards. Benedict placed this goal at the very heart of his vision of a shared common life by requiring his monks to take a vow of stability (along with two others: obedience and conversion of life). In his Rule, it has a clear meaning, which is that monks were not to wander around from one monastery to the next but had to commit to the community in which they were admitted. In contrast to those who were forever roaming round the countryside looking for the perfect community to join, Benedict's monks had to learn that commitment to a single place and its community was an irreplaceable aspect of learning. He believed that the monastery had to be a "school for the Lord's service" where monks learned by living in a community where they studied, worked and prayed together. It was in the struggles and complexities of relationships, where brothers and sisters discovered how to serve God and one another, that true disciples were formed.

What does stability have to say to us today? And why am I writing about it in connection with the UK's membership of the European Union?

Our world is a profoundly uncertain place. No doubt it always has been, but in my own lifetime this period we are living through feels more unstable than any before. In that respect it's not unlike Benedict's time when he knew he was living through the dissolving of so much that had once been clear, certain and trustworthy. So his vow of stability was not simply a way of modelling a kind of God-given safety in an unsafe world, but stood for the resolve to honour commitments, attachments and loyalties. It entailed living with the consequence of decisions and not running away from undertakings once made. It meant living with mistakes and learning from them, always trying to see how to make the best in every given situation, how even misfortune could be rescued and redeemed. It took seriously the idea of promise and covenant. 

You'll see where I'm going with stability. I imagine that you're reading this blog because you're interested in how Christianity brings wisdom to the big life choices we have to make, and in particular, how it might inform our choice about whether or not to stay within the EU. The Rule of St Benedict would, I believe, say to us: your instinct ought to be to stay within the commitments and undertakings you have made, and not run away from them when the going gets tough. Benedict never says that a community will be a perfect place (and might have added, if you find one, don't join it because you'll only spoil it!). Communities are made up of flawed, broken human beings. There is always work to do to make even the best of communities better. 

But this is precisely the possibility that opens up when people covenant together in pursuit of a "steadfast high intent" and live, as it were, by a common discipline or rule. I am a convinced unionist (small "u") who believes that we are always healthier and stronger when our lives are bound together rather than lived in isolation. It's why I was so relieved when Scotland voted to remain within the United Kingdom. And it's why I hope and pray that the United Kingdom votes to stay within the European Union. The logic is exactly the same. Yes, Benedict accepts that there has be some surrender of autonomy, a pooling of sovereignty if you like, if we are to express these ideals of stability and community. He speaks frequently of listening carefully, being subject to one another in the relationships that we commit to, making decisions together that all can own and honour. It's extraordinarily demanding. But he also says that the rewards of stability are immense if only we will stay in the place where God has called us. When we do this, we discover how we flourish and grow into a fuller, richer humanity than perhaps we ever thought possible. 

As I've so often said in these blogs, the EU is far from perfect. There is a lot wrong with it that needs to be reformed. Among its faults are some that Benedict would instantly recognise: failures of transparency and collegiality, misuse of authority and power, exalting the institution and its processes at the expense of the person. Benedict would say exactly the same about his monasteries. But the Rule says: don't get out. Stay in and help make this community one where we can flourish together and (a Christian says) discern God at work. Stability doesn't mean no change. It means changing from the inside, challenging, reforming and renewing within the relationships of collaboration and trust we have carefully, and at real cost to ourselves, invested in and built up. 

Benedict has a warning for his monks. He asks them to examine themselves and understand the motives and intentions that brought them to the point of taking vows. If it was right to decide to enter the community in the first place, he says, then consider very carefully how it can possibly be right to go back on that decision now. To break faith is about the most serious sin we can commit. That's stability. A powerful message for our times, if we have ears to hear. 

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Syrian Refugees and the EU Referendum

Two things have prompted me to write this blog. The first is a series of portraits in today's Guardian by photographer Muhammed Muheisen. They show faces of Syrian refugee children in a makeshift tent camp in the north of Jordan. You never saw such hopelessness written into human eyes. Such faces can no doubt be seen by the thousand in the desperate communities of refugees that are huddled in the eastern borderlands of Europe. 

Human faces are always beautiful, even when disfigured, scarred physically or emotionally by tragedy. The pathos of these portraits somehow added to their beauty. My response to them was complex, hard to put into words. First, a terrible sadness for these forlorn kids. I guessed that these children had done with weeping; probably they were utterly cried-out. For me looking on helplessly, there was not much I could do except try to put myself in their world and say my prayers. 

I've thought about how the photographer has given back to these children their identity. They have names. They have unique faces; each one tells a story. They share their personal thoughts about their homeland in the brief captions. We usually speak about "migrants", "refugees" and "asylum seekers" as collectives. They soon become a crowd - or worse: witness the language of "swarms" used not long ago by someone who should have known better. These are abstractions. The images tell us that they faces belong to persons who are made in the image of God. And if their eyes are filled with blank despair, maybe even God despairs too? That's what I found myself wondering.

The other prompt came in some words I saw quoted in the same paper. A Greek migration officer was commenting on the EU summit that has been trying to address this humanitarian crisis. "My big hope is that Europe will decide to behave like Europeans" he said. There is a common acceptance that Europe's failure so far to respond adequately has been "an insult to our values and civilisation" - this from the EU's top immigration official who was struggling to find the words.

"Behave like Europeans". It's a bitter sarcasm on the virtues we have prized on our continent, among them care, pity (in the best sense of that word), compassion and charity. You could sum these up in the word "humane". One of the founding values of the EU is "solidarity" which means our capacity to see ourselves as part of the human family in its entirety, especially its poor, voiceless, needy and suffering members. This is why Europe's agonised and so far unsuccessful attempts to agree a concerted response to the refugees who arrive on our shores feels so shameful to us who care about being "Europeans". That honoured identity isn't simply a privilege. It comes with a cost, the outward-turned generosity that is necessary if others in our community are to flourish as we do. 

I've constantly pressed in these EU-blogs the absolute priority we must give to loving our neighbour. It's basic to the Judaeo-Christian tradition whose social teaching so inspired the founders of the European project. If ever we were called to do this in practical ways, it's now. I would place a copy of these photographs on the desk of every member of the European Council, the Commission and the Parliament and insist that they contemplated them at the start of every working day. An image speaks more than a thousand words. These tragic faces plead with us not just to feel something but to do something. And that means everyone in affluent Europe. None of us is exempt from making whatever personal response we can even if it can't be more than giving to charities who are supporting refugees. 

As Christian Aid has said pointedly, the European Union has to act together if there is to be any strategic way forward. Now we learn that at the leaders' summit, the EU and Turkey have reached agreement, a "landmark deal". I hope this is good news, but we shall have to wait for the small print to make sure that it is a real breakthrough (and a legal and adequate one), and not simply another cobbled-together compromise. There's been much criticism of the basic idea underlying the proposal, exchanging genuine refugees for those whose asylum applications are turned down and who will be sent back. But even if this is ethical and workable, there still needs to be a bigger plan such as David Miliband has proposed, the opening up of legal routes to bring refugees into Europe without endangering lives through a dangerous sea-voyage and unscrupulous people traffickers. 

Meanwhile, we in Britain who are shortly to vote in the EU referendum are bound to be asking how the migrant crisis will affect both the debate and the outcome. It would be deplorable if a humanitarian catastrophe were used for point-scoring for or against. But at the same time it wold be just as deplorable if our EU debates just sailed on oblivious to this disaster happening on our continent. Not many contributions I've seen on either side have had much to say about the refugees in relation to the referendum. Maybe that's a respectful silence when faced with holy ground. More likely it reflects how difficult it is to know what to say about it. That's forgivable. What would be much worse would be a silence that suggested a shoulder-shrugging attitude that it's not a British problem. After all, didn't the PM remind the summit that the UK has "special status" in the EU? - a statement I have to say I am profoundly uncomfortable with as I've said elsewhere.

My worry is that the terms set for the referendum debate are so circumscribed by "what's good for Britain, what's best for us" that the plight of the needy has been banished out of sight. If so, we should loudly insist that it's brought back into our conversation. A campaign based on self-interest only would be a campaign without a conscience. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been vocal in drawing attention to the refugees, and in this he is in tune with all the churches. I should like to see the referendum debate focus much more on what kind of society we believe the EU could be, and what values we ourselves hold to in the UK. Here's where the migrant crisis is an acid test of our capacity to be human. The referendum is not about abstract issues. It's about people and communities: we who are so privileged, and the many who are not. 

A final thought. Suppose the electorate concluded that the EU's failure to bring its peoples together to act humanely towards its refugees was a conclusive argument for Brexit. Well, I would understand and respect that because it would have been informed in a principled way. It would be a much stronger argument than the (to me) xenophobic fear of "migrant invasion" that tabloid reportage talks up. Similarly, I would find it hard to sympathise with those whose case for Remain is based solely on what's in our own national or personal interests. That wouldn't demonstrate the conscience and compassion we must have when human beings are suffering in our midst. It would fly in the face of what I believe are the best reasons for staying in. I happen to think that when we act together we are in a stronger position to make a difference to desperate human lives. Time will tell if I'm right.

I hope voters are listening out for indicators that humanitarian care is featuring in the way we talk about the referendum and are preparing to vote. We should take the images of those Syrian children with us in our memories when we go into the ballot-box. We must not forget them. If we do, they may never forgive us. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

In Praise of π

It was always going to be irresistible. When my daughter told me that today was a unique Pi Day 2016 (14 March, 3.14.16) I knew I would want to blog about it. Indeed, given the part mathematics has played in my life, I'm surprised I haven't blogged on it before.

I owe a lot to π. Not so much to the number itself, for all its irrational, transcendental qualities (those are technical mathematical terms by the way, not just the blogger's purple prose). But to what it symbolises and represents in the world of thought, in the structure of the universe, and not least in my own life.

For autobiography comes into things today. I can remember that even at a tender age I used to long to make sense of the arcane mathematical symbols that littered the books I pulled off the school library shelves: all those xs and ys and Σ signs and long swirly Ss which I can't do on this keyboard but which I later learned to know as symbols of integration, and dy/dx, and e and most of all, because it seemed to crop up everywhere, π. 

I think I fell in love with maths when I finally got to understand what π stood for. Calculating a circle's circumference and area was where it all began of course. But as I went on to do A level maths, it seemed to me miraculous that this innocent Greek letter could work so hard. It featured in places where I least expected it such as working out the period of a pendulum or the movements of the planets or how the hours of daylight change as we travel through the year. And more and more surprises the deeper I went.

I went on to read maths at university. There I began to penetrate the mysteries of algebra, analysis, geometry, topology, number theory and formal logic. (From this some readers will deduce that my inclinations were very much on the 'pure' side of mathematics. I was never much good at 'applied' maths or statistics, though of course π makes plenty of appearances in those areas too.) I loved what I was studying. I loved mathematics for itself, its elegance and beauty, its endless capacity to model worlds we know about and worlds we can never know. I loved it because it seemed to draw me into the deep structures of the universe itself. Was it an art or a science? I used to wonder. I still do. Maybe it doesn't matter. 

And I loved maths for how it was teaching me to think. There are various theories of what mathematics is in itself. Philosophers differ, for instance, about whether it has some 'eternal' (God-given?) existence outside ourselves, whether it is a product of the human mind and its patterns of thought, or whether it is an elaborate game played according to set rules or axioms that govern how we handle signs and formulae on the screen or page. But all agree that logic lies at the foundation of mathematics. And I was finding that my own habits of thinking and speaking, arguing and debating were being profoundly moulded by a desire at least to try to be rigorous. 

I wish that after I graduated with a (not very distinguished) maths degree, I'd kept up my love of the subject. I never did apart from reading popular books on the subject from time to time - which I still do. However by then my vocation to be a priest was beginning to change the way I was thinking about my future. So I turned to theology and took a second degree in what used to be called 'the queen of sciences'. I loved that too. (Perhaps I'm lucky enough to be one of those insatiably curious people who can love almost anything that is interesting enough.) And I realised, when I started to write my first faltering essays, that I owed a huge amount to my mathematical studies. 

When you study theology, you realise how easy it is to be careless about your assumptions and ways of working. Not all the textbooks were models of clear, disciplined, rigorous argument, I used to feel. As I said, maths taught me something of how to think. And as I now see, thought is so basic to who and what we are as human beings. There's much more to be said about Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum, 'I think, therefore I am'. There's more to human life than simply thinking. But he was on to something pretty important. And I reckon I started to glimpse it when I was studying maths as a schoolboy and a student. In that respect, π changed my life, if you'll allow the figure of speech. 

My daughter is about to marry a high school maths teacher. He loves what he does, both the subject itself, and the art of teaching it and exciting young people in their journey of mathematical discovery. I was fortunate to have teachers who lit up mathematics for me too. It's true: you never forget a good teacher. The shortage of good maths teachers in our schools today is worrying. Mathematical literacy (which is more than simply numeracy) is one of the basic foundations of education. As Einstein put it, the point of education is not to impart facts but to teach us how to think. There's no better discipline than maths for helping us to do that. Maybe Pi Day is a chance not only to celebrate mathematics and mathematicians, but also to think about how we are going to train up the next generation of children for whom π will be as alluring as it once was for me.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Britain, the End of Empire and the EU

I enjoyed a free day in London today. It's my home city but it's only when you move away that you really appreciate all it has to offer. And so much has changed since I left London in 1968 to go to university, never to live there again.

Inevitably my mind is full of the EU referendum at the moment. So I welcomed the prospect of a few hours away from the cyber-campaign I'm involved in through "Christians for the EU". But it's fascinating how you make connections all the time. I hadn't planned them - honest! "They just growed."  I began the day at Tate Britain to see an exhibition that's on at the moment called Artist and Empire. After that, I took a boat down the Thames from Millbank to Greenwich to visit the Royal Naval Hospital. Finally I went to the National Maritime Museum. 

First, the exhibition. If you're British, it's bound to be uncomfortable and challenging to revisit your history like this. I have a son in law who lectures in post-colonial history and he has helped me to look at Britain's past as a former world power in new ways. As I gazed at maps and works of art celebrating the big events of empire, I remembered an occasion years ago when I found I was being questioned in the same way. That was when I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston (which by the way every UK citizen who visits New England should do if they can). The discomfort was increased by the presence of "stolen art" in the exhibition: indigenous artefacts that were chosen precisely to underline the point that the erstwhile trophies of empire once so cherished are nowadays subject to huge debate about who they truly belong to and where they should be held. 

Most of this was a world away from Europe. Europeans featured in the exhibition mainly as fellow-colonialists, all part of this huge, now discredited project, of exerting power across the globe and exporting "western" values to every continent on earth. But Europeans also featured strongly as enemies of the British, especially the French and Spanish. In three different places along the Thames today, I've seen pictures of the death of General James Wolfe who seized Québec from the French in 1759. The exhibition showed how European wars have been acted out all over the world from Tudor times to the 20th century, a vast displacement activity in which millions of people were dragged to their deaths in conflicts that were never their own. 

The demanding but necessary process of bringing an end to empire inevitably puts questions to the United Kingdom of today. What kind of nation are we now, and what are our values as a people? That's the point of an exhibition that has been carefully curated to explore what imperial history means in a post-colonial environment. And all the time I was finding myself framing my own questions about this history, not only as a British citizen but as a European as well. So from an EU point of view, what might we say about the UK's contemporary geopolitical setting and its global role in the 21st century? 

My first and obvious thought was: how hard it is for a world player like imperial Britain to lose an empire and to accept that it has dropped down to being just a middle-ranking power among many others. It calls for real national humility to do this with dignity. It requires an act of grace not to harbour nostalgic longings for an age when so much of the world map was coloured pink, and when Britannia ruled the waves. As I disembarked at Greenwich, I could see up the Blackwall Reach to the original site of the East India Docks. At the exhibition, and again at the Maritime Museum I saw and learned much about the East India Company that became an immensely powerful colonial institution. The grandeur of Wren's Royal Naval Hospital is an eloquent symbol of a navy the like of which the world had never seen and would never see again. The converted warehouses that line the Pool of London, now smart apartments and expensive shops and eating houses, are the visible footprints of a trading power that reached to the ends of the earth. 

The bustling Thames, London's great artery of military and economic power, is a good place to reflect on a proud past. What's left of it all now? you ask yourself. Yet even if the UK is no longer a global power, it still has great global influence. The English language is one example of its reach all over the world. Our financial institutions are another. In the arts, culture, sports and in the academy the UK is a world class player. We can be justly proud of the achievements of the British people down the centuries and today. 

But let's remember that even in global politics we continue to count as heavyweights. Not on our own. That is never going to be possible again, nor should we harbour such ambitions for ourselves. Through our pooled sovereignty in the EU, we are still a force to be reckoned with alongside our continental partners. What's more, other EU nations look to us to take a lead in safeguarding the hard-won peace of Europe. This is one of the reasons why they do not want us to leave. In a world as febrile as ours is now, we can't afford to sit loose to our security. Alliances like the European Union, bound together by treaty, matter more and more today. It may be scaremongering to speculate that the only world leader who would welcome Brexit is Vladimir Putin who could - it's conjectured - take advantage of an EU weakened by the UK's departure. Who can say? I'm not an expert so I'm simply echoing strategists who have written about the new threats Brexit could pose at a time when the Cold War may no longer just be a matter for the history books. 

So here's what I have come away from today thinking. Our imperial past ought to have given us the capacity to think geopolitically about our future. When you've been a world power, you've seen the planet in a different way. Yes, you've exerted power in it, practised domination over it, subdued it, exploited it, stolen from it, all the evils we rightly condemn in the colonial project. The galleries that focus on the Atlantic slave trade at the National Maritime Museum are a sobering reminder of an ineradicable and shameful era. And even where Britain brought culture, language, a legal system, industrialisation and religion, these were far from being unambiguous benefits as historians always point out. History should drive us to our knees - not in gratitude but repentance. 

However, the legacy of empire ought to be that we don't lose sight of the big picture. The Thames is lined with the evidence of Britain's ability to think and imagine beyond its own shoreline. And that is sorely needed now, more than ever. For me, the European Union is one instance of how, today, a modern nation state like ours finds its proper place in a family of peoples who are committed to seeking one another's welfare, what theologians call the common good. To leave the EU would not only expose Europe and ourselves to threats we can't altogether foresee, whether in world trade or security.  It would represent a collapse in our vision of Britain, a narrowing of our horizons, a betrayal of everything that once enabled our islands to play such a disproportionately large role in world affairs. It's a cliché to say that it would probably lead to the cul-de-sac we call Little England. But I fear it would. 

Christianity says that greatness happens as we put others before ourselves and become not masters but servants, becoming one of "the least". That calls for humility, the virtue I drew attention to earlier. I think a good story can be told in this way: that at the end of empire, UK has had to learn how make the transition from domination to something like humility and service. I believe that despite its difficulties, we've done it with grace and integrity, and without loss in of what makes us British. The EU gives us a place to belong where we can not only flourish and be at ease with ourselves, but learn as a nation what it means not to be served but to serve. In that way we can yet make a lasting contribution to humanity. 

You can follow Christians for the EU on FaceBook or on Twitter @Xians4EU

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

So How Would Brexit Affect You?

I've tried in these blogs about the EU referendum to turn the question round, as I believe Christians should. What matters isn't just 'what's in it for us, what's in it for me?' but "what's in it for everyone else in the EU and what do we bring to the Union as our contribution to this family of nations?" It's a corporate implication of the second great commandment of the Torah quoted by Jesus: "love your neighbour as yourself".

But we wouldn't be human if we didn't wonder what our personal lives would be like if Brexit became a fact on 24 June. I won't pretend that it wouldn't be a personal nightmare to wake up and learn that this country had decided to walk away from the European Union. It would be a case of joining the hapless sailors at the start of The Tempest and crying "To prayers! To prayers!" But by then it would be too late to do much about it. 

I can't say how this "tempest" would affect the nation or me personally as far as the economy is concerned. Nobody can, though it doesn't stop a lot of people trying. But there is one thing that would change for me pretty decisively. And that is, that I would lose my European citizenship. I would no longer carry a passport that proclaimed "European Union" as well as "United Kingdom". I would no longer be able to pass through the green EU channel at customs. I wouldn't be able to carry an EHIC health card across Europe. There would be other losses too, real as well a symbolic.

But the loss of citizenship is a really big issue for me. To be an EU citizen has been part of my identity for most of my lifetime. It's a prized part of who I am, born of a German Jewish mother whose own parents were sheltered in Holland during the Nazi era, married to a woman with Irish heritage, owning a property in France. I feel completely at ease in continental Europe. It's my homeland, this dust whom Europe "bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam" (if you'll forgive a rather shameless borrowing of Rupert Brooke's famous poem). It's where I am connected and have always belonged. 

So what happens when, if, my precious European citizenship and the identity it confers is shorn from me? Can it be retrieved in any way other than a landscape of the mind, a land of lost content, a place of yesterday rather than today and tomorrow?

I hope and pray that it doesn't come to this. Because half in my mind is the idea that anything to do with my citizenship is a basic human right which should never involuntarily be removed. So here's my question.

Might it be possible for us dismembered, forcibly exiled Europhiles to be reattached to the EU in some other way? I'm thinking: might other EU member states make provision for British people who do not want to be deprived of their European citizenship? I'm thinking of a special kind of dual citizenship we might call UK Plus whereby we could elect also to become honorary citizens of Germany, France, Ireland (Scotland one day?), any member state that valued its own links with British people and didn't want to sever ties any more than many of us do. And might the European Parliament pass some enabling legislation to make this possible? 

As a European at home in North East England, I don't want to emigrate. I don't want to say farewell to these islands that I love, where my family and friends are, where so much of my life has been lived and where I have been fortunate enough to be happy. Britain has been good to my family and to me. But so has Europe. I don't want, I really do not want to be cast adrift from the mainland, collapse into a complacent island mentality that imagines that it can pretend to a nostalgically imagined, and in the end futile, self-sufficiency. I don't want my grandchildren to grow up on such an island and with such a defensive attitude to the wider world. And it's their future we should be thinking about, not just our own. My children and grandchildren were born as Europeans. It's their birthright. It mustn't be stolen from them.  

I've not seen this question discussed anywhere though I have today written to a national daily paper about it. But I very much want to lay down a marker that once given, it is not acceptable to be deprived of our hard-won citizenship. I shall accept that Brexit is the will of the British, if it turns out that way. The people will have spoken. But minorities have rights too. Their voices need to heard. And I very much doubt that there aren't others who will echo these thoughts and can perhaps suggest where they might be taken for discussion. 

You can follow Christians for EU on FaceBook and on Twitter @Xians4EU. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Retirement: report from the Third Age front line.

I'll take a short break from writing blogs about the EU. This is the sixth month of my new life in retirement. When I started blogging under this new Woolgathering brand, I promised (threatened) updates from the front line of the Third Age from time to time. So here goes.

When we left Durham Cathedral in early October, it was in the afterglow of a marvellous farewell. You live off these heart-warming events for a long time: they are always with you. It was hard to leave behind such a uniquely beautiful place with its rich spirituality and wonderfully genuine community. But we landed happily across the hill in the South Tyne Valley. Haydon Bridge has proved to be a great village to retire into and become part of. We soon felt at home in a welcoming community, the parish church across the road and the lovely landscapes of Northumberland that we can walk from our own front door.

When you first retire, it's like being on holiday. You're full of expectations, keenly aware of the gift, as it feels to begin with, of lots of time to call your own. To enjoy your family, fresh air, music, books, photography, yes and social media, and not have to feel guilty about it (even if I'm tempted to) still feels like a decidedly odd feature of this new life. But I have also been aware of how tired I have felt and how long it takes to slough it off. I guess that's not surprising after forty years of working life. Others who've trodden this path before me have said it just needs time.

A colleague who came to see us recently asked if I had any "projects" in retirement. I've thought about this a lot. The almost universal advice at first was: don't make grand plans and big commitments early on. Don't make undertakings you might later want to get out of. Think carefully about what you would like to do in retirement. I've tried to do this. It's helped to keep a journal to soliloquise to and try ideas out on. I began it six months before retiring, and intend to keep it going until six months afterwards. It's a great help as I try to retire in a reflective way, and not find myself jolted roughly from one kind of life into another. Going into retirement is like coming up after a deep underwater dive. If you surface too quickly, you risk getting the bends. That as we know is highly risky.

One of the things that's become clear is that while I certainly want to be useful to the church and wider community, I don't want to spend however many years I am granted before I die simply perpetuating my working life by doing more of the same. I want to explore new involvements and learn new things. I'm especially keen to put something back into North East England, the region that has given so much to us over the years. So I'm having conversations around the place to see what possibilities there might be. We shall see. It's a discernment process, as important as it was when I first explored my vocation to ordained ministry. And at times, as unclear and as puzzling. And certainly a matter for prayer.

All this may sound as though these first few months have been placid and uneventful. Far from it. In December, our second grandchild was born, Madeleine, a sister for Isaac. Two days later we were hit by Storm Desmond. The village suffered badly as the normally benign South Tyne became a ferocious torrent tearing through peoples' homes. Our cellar was flooded to a depth of six feet, writing off the new and expensive biomass boiler we had just installed there. Without power and hot water, we were out of the house for nearly a fortnight. Wonderful neighbours who hardly knew us took us in. The support and kindness we found in the village were deeply moving. I won't pretend it didn't feel like a devastating crisis just when we had settled into our new home and were enjoying living in it. We learned then that there's no better way to arrive in a new community than to lay on a disaster. You make friends extraordinarily quickly!

Life has stabilised since then. The rains have subsided and the cellar is dry again. A new boiler is being constructed in the garage. We have got back to a rhythm of life: going across to church for weekday morning prayer, shopping in Hexham and attending evensong in the Abbey each week, frequent walks on the fell above the village, and a little further afield by Hadrian's Wall, listening to Radio 3 for most of the day other than when it's time for The Archers, meeting up with friends we're lucky enough to have nearby, and a lot of reading. (I've been working through Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels and loving them; currently well into The Small House at Allington with just The Last Chronicle to go. He is a great novelist and so easy to read - on which I feel another blog coming on soon.)

Meanwhile, the EU referendum has become an all-consuming agenda item. If you follow this blog, you'll know that a short time ago I launched "Christians for the EU" with its Twitter handle @Xians4EU. My hope was to stimulate thought and debate about a Christian case for the UK to stay in the European Union, something that I believe in with all my heart. It's taking up a large amount of time, and the official campaign hasn't even begun yet! But I've learned a great deal by the research I've needed to do, and have been glad that our efforts have been noticed by the national media. I couldn't have done this a year ago when I was still in office, not primarily because it might not have been appropriate to, but for the more pressing reason that I would never have found the time.

It all sounds very pleasant, I hear you say, and yes, it is. But there's this nagging question about what my life is now meant to be for. I blogged a few months ago about the dilemma of how to describe myself when people ask what it is I do. I said I didn't want to be an imperfect man (past continuous: 'I used to be a Cathedral dean'), nor an aorist man (past and done with: 'I practised as a priest in the C of E'). Maybe a perfect man (past tense with present consequences: 'I've been an ordained minister in theological education, parish and cathedrals and here's what I've become now').

But best of all, I'd like to be someone living in the present and even the future tense ('this is what I am, and what I hope to become'). I'm reticent about using the R-word because that seems to be haunted by those past tenses. As Kierkegaard said, life has to be lived forwards and understood backwards. Retirement is certainly time to seek understanding, reflect on the past and draw the threads of a life together. But it's now and tomorrow that I need to keep in view if I am to remain truly alive in any sense that matters. What, who, am I in this new stage of my life? That's the question. A writer? Speaker? Photographer? EU campaigner? Priest? Dilettante? Couch potato?

This, I guess, is an aspect of the spirituality of retirement. I said it was work in progress. But I firmly believe it is opus dei, the work of God. Liminal time at a threshold makes for strange days and mysterious ways. But "God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain".

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The EU referendum: should the churches take a view?

This week I put in an appearance on the BBC's Sunday Programme on Radio 4. I was invited, as convenor of "Christians for the EU" to take part in a discussion with my opposite number from "Christians for Britain". I suppose we are both campaigning organisations though I'm not sure I like the label much. What we are both trying to do is to apply a Christian mind and Christian wisdom to the EU referendum. We hold entirely different positions on whether the UK should remain in or leave. But I think the debate is worth having between Christian people who want to make a decision informed by good theology, ethics and practice.

Later that morning, I was surprised to find that a number of people had been listening. (Why weren't they enjoying a lie-in on Sunday like other civilised folk? I quipped.) Some said they agreed with what I'd said, some were clear that they disagreed wholly or in part, while yet others were carefully saying in an Athenian sort of way "we will hear you again about this" (Acts 17.32). But they all seemed to welcome the airing the EU referendum was getting on a religious news programme. Once upon a time some might have said that the church "shouldn't mess with politics". Not now.

On the radio we were asked what role the church should play in the debate. Here's what we agreed on (I'm expanding a little here, but I'm pretty confident the loyal opposition wouldn't dissent). 1 - That the churches absolutely must not tell anyone how to vote. 2 - That churches should urge their members to think hard about the issues, offer them to God in prayer and reflection, and discuss and debate them with others, whether Christians, people of other faiths, or those with no particular religious commitment. 3 - And that the churches should set up events of all kinds - public fora, study groups, vigils for prayer and meditation - so that lay people and clergy are given all the resources they need when it comes to casting their vote on 23 June.

But what about the churches giving a lead by coming to a view and saying so publicly? Let's be a bit controversial for once.

I keep being told that there is no possibility of the Church of England, which is what I know best, declaring for one side or the other. Its bishops are being hesitant in telling us what they think: some episcopal bloggers believe that "taking sides" on a political matter like this doesn't belong to their public roles as church leaders because it would be construed as directing people what to think. At a time of division, the church should be there as a place of healing and reconciliation, not division and disunity.

Why don't I altogether agree with this line of argument?

By way of answer, let me quote a statement issued by the Church of Scotland in February, just before the referendum date was announced.

The Church of Scotland has called for a positive debate on the EU that considers its role in promoting peace security and international cooperation. The Church recognises that:

1. A referendum will be held and that could be in as little as four months.
2. The Church of Scotland General Assembly has supported remaining in the EU since 1996.
3. In this time of huge international challenge it is crucial to work together across national borders.
4. In deciding how to vote on this momentous decision we should consider issues of peace, security and international cooperation.

Rev Dr Richard Frazer, Vice Convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council said:
"Since last year's General Election, we have known that there will be a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the European Union. There is likely to be a very short timescale to discuss such an important set of issues. It will be a decision which will shape our country, our communities and our lives for generations to come. It is vital that there is now a respectful, engaging, but above all positive debate which will focus on important issues.

"Since its report in 1996 "The European Union – Crisis or opportunity" the Church of Scotland has repeatedly affirmed the work of the European Union in promoting peace, security and reconciliation amongst European nations. As recently as 2014 the General Assembly stated its opinion that 'it is better for Scotland, Britain and Europe for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU.'

"At a time when there is great conflict in the world, when we are faced with millions of desperate people seeking refuge in Europe and where climate change is wreaking havoc, there is a need to work internationally and globally. We need a bigger picture of the world, not a smaller one. The decision on which way to vote in June is one for each individual to reflect on and make with integrity, but it is in working together, across national borders, that real progress will be made."

This statement seems to me to be exemplary in every way. It's clearly not telling its members how to vote but it does offer guidance about the issues involved. In particular, it urges Christians to think beyond their own interests and their own country into a 'bigger picture of the world' and to have regard for social justice, peace, security and international collaboration. Its tone is measured, restrained and eirenical. If someone dissents with its content, there is space to do so without any loss of integrity or standing. And it invites people to engage seriously with the debate as a matter of urgency, whatever their personal convictions. It allows for "good disagreement".

I ask myself: why could not the Church of England make a similar statement? After all, the Kirk is the national church of Scotland and has a vocation to speak for the Scottish people. The Church of England is similarly placed. In the past, it has not been afraid to take a stand in the face of considerable unpopularity in some quarters: Faith In The City and The Church and the Bomb are just two well-known precedents. Where the EU debate is similar is that it is not dividing the nation along party-political lines. If it were, the church would indeed want to promote debate but would wisely not commit to a particular party line - precisely how it plays its part before each election.

Of course the Church of England General Synod has not debated the EU referendum, nor has it come to a common mind about the European Union in the way that the Church of Scotland General Assembly did in 1996. The General Synod doesn't now meet again until after it's all over, so we have lost a golden opportunity (even though we've known since the general election that a referendum would be coming down the slipway). Even the February Synod would not have been too late. But nothing was said as far as I know, apart from a question about how church members would be helped to think about the issues raised by the referendum. (The written answer was along the lines of my third paragraph above. It was fine as far as it went. But I longed for much more, a proper Synod debate at least.)

But there is nothing to stop the C of E's Mission and Public Affairs Committee coming to a view and declaring it: it's already energetically promoting EU discussion and debates in English dioceses and cathedrals (for which, thank you!). The Archbishops' and Bishops' Councils and Diocesan Synods could do the same. There is nothing to stop bishops coming out with their views, whatever they are, in presidential addresses to synods, in papers, blogs, broadcasts, Parliament (if they are in the House of Lords) and social media. I said on the air waves that I hoped preachers would take up these themes in the run-up to June 23rd. (Unless church members regularly visit social media feeds like this one, they may well not hear Christian insight into the referendum anywhere else but in their local church.)

Let me add this. Not to take initiatives like these in relation to this once-for-all decision would look as though the church was not greatly interested. That would not play well in an environment where "public faith" is now rightly the expectation placed on a national church. The C of E is one of the leading Christian voices that speaks for England as its established church out of an extraordinarily rich theological and spiritual wisdom. That's a hugely privileged position to take, but it's also a big responsibility. There is a vast resource of Christian social theology written by Church of England theologians and others which, coupled with an accurate instinct for the Zeitgeist of our people, is uniquely placed to make a vital contribution to the discussion enlightened and enlivened by the gospel's grace and truth.

So here's my plea. Let's take a modest risk here and be brave enough to speak in a prophetic and wise spirit. I'd love it if the national and diocesan Church of England bodies I've mentioned could emulate the Church of Scotland's exemplary lead, not just in what it says but the skilful way it says it. I'd love it if other churches across the UK did the same. Even when views differed, it would still be very good for the quality of the debate. It would be marvellous if it helped mobilise the UK population to be as politically engaged with the EU referendum process as the people of Scotland were before the independence vote in 2014. That would be to perform a really important service for church and nation. Its effects would, I believe, far outlast the outcome of the referendum itself.

You can follow Christians for the EU on Facebook and on Twitter @Xians4EU.