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.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Which Side Is God On? Praying for the Referendum

I suppose it was inevitable that the Daily Mail wouldn't like it. "First the pro-EU campaign drafts in President Obama... Now GOD wants you to vote against Brexit in the referendum." (Shouting capitals are original.) Whoever the subeditor was who wrote that headline, he or she should be disciplined for it.

It concerns the Church of England's new prayer for the referendum, issued yesterday. Before I say any more, here is the text.

God of truth, give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum with honesty and openness. Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion and discernment to those who vote, that our nation may prosper and that with all the peoples of Europe we may work for peace and the common good; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

I think you will agree that it is scrupulously careful to avoid taking sides. It isn't claiming, as prayers sometimes do especially in times of conflict, that God would really rather prefer one outcome more than the other. It isn't even hinting at that. What it asks for is a debate based on integrity and the willingness to think honestly, openly and carefully. It looks for a generous attitude in this process. This presumably means being generous towards people who differ from us, not impugning their integrity or their intelligence. But in a larger sense, "generosity" also means having in our minds the welfare of everyone involved in this decision, "all the peoples of Europe" as well as our own nation, summed up by the words "peace and the common good".

What's going on when we pray in this kind of way? I think the key word is "discernment". It's a word with a long history in the Jewish and Christian vocabulary. Discernment is what is needed when prophets give you different advice, says the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Jeremiah there's a classic case of this when the Jewish people are taken into exile in Babylon. Most of the prophets are confident that it will all end very soon because God will never allow his temple to be destroyed - a bit like those who predicted in 1914 that the Great War would be over by Christmas. But Jeremiah, in a famous run-in with one of his opponents (chapter 28), foretells that the Babylonians are here to stay. Exile will be long and difficult. The Jewish community had better adjust and learn what this new situation will call for. How could you know who was right?

Discernment, then, is about testing the evidence, examining the logic, weighing things up, coming to a judgment not on the basis of dogmatic formulae but rather the wisdom borne of the experience of how God is at work in human life. It was a gift much prized by the desert monks early in the Christian era as they developed the arts of spiritual guidance. You will never be a wise soul-friend to other people, they said, without the capacity for deep insight into the complexities of human existence. But it's also a matter not only of what is being tested but who. In other words, who are the mentors we have come to trust? What's their history of being credible and wise? What is their case based on? What kind of company do they keep? In all these ways, the community of faith in both Old and New Testaments tries to distinguish between the conflicting voices that are all claiming to know the truth.

So I'm puzzled that a Tory MP, Peter Bone, sees this prayer as a sign of some sinister hidden agenda. He is quoted as saying it is "outrageous" to suggest that the Almighty would disapprove of Leave supporters. "It is extraordinary that they are doing a prayer. Project Fear has really stepped it up now.... As a churchgoer I am not going to be praying about this." Not going to be praying? As if God isn't interested in our nation's future or the peoples of Europe and the welfare of all human beings? On the contrary. "To prayers! To prayers!" cry the mariners at the opening of The Tempest. As indeed they should, and we should.

In the spirit of the prayer let's be "generous" and say simply that neither Mr Bone nor the Daily Mail seem to have had a good day. As pretty well all people of faith agree, it's not a question of whether it's right or wrong to pray about the big political issues of the day. It's more a question of how. The Church of England has been wise not to use the text of a prayer to lead its members into forming an opinion in a particular way and, in effect, instruct them how to vote. Liturgy should be inclusive, not divisive. We should be able to pray together for the discernment we all need, not only on 23 June but now as the debate is hotting up.

But let me offer an important aside. This is not to say that the Church shouldn't take a view about this or any other matter of public concern. Bishop David Hamid, a suffragan bishop in Europe, is quoted in today's Guardian: "The C of E is a national church and has to serve all people of the nation regardless of their political orientation. The church has to be seen as neutral." The premise is right but not, I think, the conclusion. It's perfectly possible to state a position without binding members to follow it either in the way they vote or the way they pray. The Church of Scotland has done precisely that in affirming that it believes the UK should remain in the EU, a position it has held for many years. Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, the Primus of Scotland, the Archbishop of Wales and other Christian leaders have all publicly spoken in support. But I doubt that any of them are praying that God will triumphantly vindicate Remainers, or confound the politics and frustrate the knavish tricks of those wicked Brexiters (an allusion to a little-sung second verse of the National Anthem in case you wondered).

The Church of England is well-practised at this. It has taken an unambiguous view about the ordination of women but has been at pains for decades not to exclude those who differ. However, in the prayers issued before the relevant votes in General Synod, you will not find that sides were taken. You will find the same language of wisdom and discernment which is the proper register for prayer. So be reassured. We can safely pray together in the run-up to the referendum. Whatever our beliefs about the EU, we can all ask for the same thing with a sincere heart and true faith: that we may be wise and generous in our discernment and hold in our hearts the common good of all our peoples in this nation, Europe and the entire world.

God has given us human beings the capacity to think and make judgments. He has put a conscience within us. We have the tools to nurture intelligence and act out of wisdom. So it's a badly formed question to ask as one Twitter post did today, "Whose side is God on?" It's our call as a nation. We are asked to make a decision in June that will shape the history of our nation and continent for generations to come. It's an awesome responsibility. God will not cast a vote. He trusts us to act out of generosity, for sake of the common good as the prayer asks. That's why we need to pray for discernment within our larger prayer that God's kingdom may come and his will "be done on earth as in heaven".

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Christian Vision for Europe: learning from the past

As background for the EU referendum, I've been reading about the vision for the reconstruction of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.
What's striking is the prominent role of Christian thinkers in the debate. On the European mainland, politicians like Robert Schuman laid out plans advocating a new order in which it would be impossible for European nations to engage in the destructive warfare that had had such a calamitous effect not only for Europe but the entire world. As a courageous fighter in the French resistance, he had seen this at first hand. What is less well-known nowadays is his deep religious faith, informed by his detailed knowledge of, among other Christian philosophers, St Thomas Aquinas. It was Catholic social teaching that motivated his vision for a more peaceable Europe, particularly its emphasis on the quest for justice and the common good. In this he was not alone.
The Schuman Declaration was published on 9 May 1950, less than a month after I was born. (That date is now kept as Europe Day, and I hope we shall see the EU flag flying on public buildings then.) The plan advocated as a starting point a single economic market that would bring together Europe's vast coal and steel industries. Common economic goals, would, he believed, would not only greatly reduce the risks of conflict but would lead to other shared endeavours that would transform the economic, social and political face of the continent not least in reconciling its nations and healing centuries-old divisions.

Schumann believed that individual nation states were not best placed to judge what was in the interests of the common good. A nation's priorities would inevitably always be the welfare of its own citizens. There is nothing wrong with self-interest if it is enlightened: Aquinas followed Augustine in discussing very carefully what it meant to command, as Judaism and Christianity do, that we should love our neighbours "as ourselves". But Schuman, along with other Christian democrats, believed that a much larger vision of life together was needed for the safety and flourishing of the continent. Only a supra-national enterprise in which the reconciled peoples of Europe collaborated closely could ever deliver this.

UK church leaders and politicians watched these developments closely. Prominent among the Church of England bishops was George Bell who welcomed Schuman's visionary plan. In a debate in the House of Lords, Bell expressed the hope that Britain would bring to the new Europe the distinctive gifts it had to offer: its long experience of stable democratic government, its global "reach" as a people whose empire extended across the world, and its warm friendship with the United States. Andrew Chandler quotes him in his new biography of Bell: The preservation of national sovereignty as its own end was, he said, "not itself a Christian principle. The partial fusion of sovereignty is in accordance with Christian principles if it is in pursuit of noble ends and justice and peace".  

Those words seem strikingly modern. The idea of "pooled sovereignty" as a way of exercising a nation's power and influence has been much discussed during the EU campaign. During the recent visit of US President Barack Obama we have heard a great deal about Anglo-American friendship, prized by almost everyone on both sides of the debate. But what motivated Bell and those who thought like him was a Christian vision of society, a dream inspired by the gospel for the future of the human race. They were not simply concerned with pragmatic politics.

I am sure he owed this to his close contacts with prophetic German Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller during the terrible years of Nazi rule. He saw a national church fatally embroiled in national self-interest, blindly colluding with tyranny and persecution. What he learned from Bonheoffer and Niemöller was that Christianity is bigger than any nation state. If it is to be true to its Lord, its scope must never be less than humanity itself, for it was the world to which, out of love, God sent his Son. And therefore (he said, aware that he was speaking as a bishop of the Church "of England") the very idea of a "national" church was in an important theological way, a contradiction. Unless a national church saw itself as a vital member of the world church, and led its people to think of their nationality as subsumed under their Christian and human identity, it would deny the universality of the gospel.

We need an historical perspective if we are to debate our EU membership intelligently. As has famously been said, if we ignore the lessons of the past we shall find ourselves committing them all over again. It's especially important that we Christians who engage in the debate understand where we have come from. I'm not sure that the churches are saying nearly enough about the clear Christian motivation of the EU's founding fathers. Indeed, I'm not sure that the churches are saying nearly enough about this entire debate. And that would have greatly puzzled the church leaders of the 1940s and 1950s.
History, like patriotism, is not enough. We need to frame the debate in contemporary terms, not those of a past age. The dilemmas that face the European Union today are different from those of half a century ago, and vastly more complex. But that's why those who speak for religious faith should be more vocal, not less. It's true that bishops and church leaders are not experts in global politics, the economy, trade, security, governance and many of the other matters that are defining the debate. But that was true in 1950 too. Religion should speak about what it knows, and tread tentatively where it lacks technical knowledge. But Christianity knows a great deal about aspiring to a nobler vision of human community, about social justice, solidarity with the poor and needy, seeking the common good, and above all, about being a society that transcends all human limitations and frontiers. It knows about those things because it has lived them for two thousand years.
This is why the church today must heed the lessons of the past, and summon up the courage not only to think itself into a universal frame of mind but to speak about it. Perhaps the church needs to reboot its imagination so that like those visionary Christian prophets of the postwar era, it speaks compellingly once again into the politics of the day in pursuit of a reconciled human family. Its distinctive contribution to the EU referendum could be to remind us of the universal Christian principles that lay behind the founding of the European project. Their propounders, the parents of the European Union, are no longer with us. But "they being dead, yet speak".

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Taking Leave of Barset

"What are you doing, now that you're retired?" I'm often asked. Answering that question is a work in progress. It's a big step to take on that R-word. I sometimes answer jokily, "trying to save the UK from leaving the European Union - and when not doing that, watching daytime TV".

I hope no one takes me too seriously. I have a few projects and hope that time will show that they were not just "dreams - ideal dreams". One is to read through the novels of Anthony Trollope. Not all of them, but at least the greatest, starting with the Barsetshire and Pallliser chronicles. Today I reached the end of the Barsetshire set. Having lived in that fictional county each night for the past six months, it was poignant to turn over the final page of the immensely long Last Chronicle of Barset and read the author's touching farewell to a place that has become an essential part of the literary landscape of England, and of my own landscape of the mind.

Clergy have always loved these books: they are a disconcertingly accurate mirror in which we see reflected back to us all that is worst and all that is best in the lives and attitudes of the ordained. Many great novelists have written about the clergy, but none have ever equalled the devotion - some would say obsession - with which Trollope dissects and exposes their characters, their roles and relationships, their inner strengths and contradictions. He knew the Church of England of the 19th century well. Reform was in the air. Then as now, the Church found itself torn between an intellectual recognition of the need for change, and a strong emotional attachment to the old ways that would soon pass into history. 

The Last Chronicle draws together threads from all the earlier books - The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage and The Small House at Allington. We meet almost all our favourite clerical characters once more (the exception being Mr Slope, the Bishop's marvellously drawn and utterly odious chaplain in Barchester Towers). Mr Harding, the sweet-tempered lovable Warden whose death in old age is related in one of the most moving chapters of the Last Chronicle. Theophilus Grantly the energetic, irascible but, you always feel, ultimately admirable Archdeacon (a role model for more than a few senior clergy I have known). Francis Arabin the Dean, not depicted as colourfully as the others but another of Trollope's good, wise and learned clergy (all things that a dean of course must be). Mark Robarts the incumbent of Framley who gets into trouble as a result of his ambition and social climbing amidst the wrong "set", yet is redeemed by the excellent women in his life. And Bishop Proudie whose arrival as one of the new breed of reforming prelates forms the central storyline in Barchester Towers; weak, vacillating, manipulated, unrespected, Trollope nevertheless dares to hope at the end of the chronicles that as a humbled man, better things may be expected of him in the future. 

But the most memorable of them all is Josiah Crawley, the unfortunate Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock. Trollope's portrait of him, sustained at such length in the Last Chronicle, to my mind makes this novel into a masterpiece of characterisation. The story itself is absurdly simply. Crawley, one  of the desperately poor rural clergy, is accused of stealing a £20 cheque. He hasn't the faintest idea how it came to be in his possession. The magistrates refer him to the assizes, and the Bishop sets about depriving him of the living. That's about it. Only after several hundred pages is the truth disclosed. If you haven't read the book, I am not going to give in to the cheap pleasure of a spoiler.

What's so powerful in this portrait is how chronic poverty breaks the spirit or threatens to. Trollope was clearly troubled by the vast inequalities of wealth and privilege among the clergy of his day and the Last Chronicle can be read as a loud protest against clerical poverty. Crawley is a learned man, a student friend of the Dean who has fallen on hard times. He has his scriptures and his beloved classical texts to sustain him (he teaches his daughter to read Greek tragedy, and claims that his Hebrew is a lot better than the Dean's). He is a conscientious parish priest - and with it, eccentric, angular and dogged. But it's his anger at the injustice of his destiny that is so well drawn. The accusation of theft is itself the theft of the last thing he has left to cherish - his own integrity. It acts as a lens that focuses his lifelong resentment which, turned inwards, gives birth to a profound depression that is on the verge of tipping him into a pit of despair. Like Job, he cries out to heaven to be vindicated. But the sky is deaf to his pleas.

Here's where Trollope shows how well he understands the complexity of the human psyche. Maybe his own father inspired the character. What I've realised is that we shouldn't underestimate Trollope as a tragic writer. His prose flows so effortlessly that you're tempted to read too quickly, stay on the glittering surface rather than linger to plumb the depths he reveals within the soul. Yet there is a truly tragic dimension to these novels that reaches its apogee in the Last Chronicle. Who will ever forget Crawley's bitter refusal to accept his old friend the Dean's outstretched hand of kindness? Or his cruelty to his wife and children in their parsonage-hovel while nevertheless loving them with complete devotion? Or the terrible miles of his long winter journey on foot to the Cathedral Close for a fateful encounter with the Bishop in his palace, an event that almost destroys them both? 

Where to stop? This blog mustn't emulate The Last Chronicle of Barset in its length. But how can I have written even a few words about these wonderful Barsetshire novels without so much as mentioning Mrs Proudie? She would never have forgiven me.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Christians for Europe

Yesterday was the first official day of the EU referendum campaign. To mark the occasion, we launched our new website "Christians for Europe". Our aim is to put a Christian case for the United Kingdom to remain within the European Union. You can find us at https://christiansforeurope.org/.

Regular visitors to this blog will recognise a family likeness. Our new site is a descendant of the original campaign Twitter feed @Xians4EU and its Facebook sibling. They have both attracted a lot of interest and support. They have linked followers to news and comment, articles, resources and blogs about the referendum. They have offered their own "take" on developments and interacted with others contributing on social media. We have been noticed by the church media and invited to comment.

However, we have recognised that we need a more permanent presence in cyberspace. Hence this new website. It's a forum where we can post news, comment and opinion about the referendum, invite response and discussion, link to other sites that are relevant to our aims. What we hope is that Christians for Europe will be a place of lively, intelligent debate informed by the insights of faith. We are convinced that Christianity "speaks truth to power". We believe that it has vital wisdom to contribute to our discussions about what kind of nation we aspire to be, and what it means to be the United Kingdom in both a European and a global setting. Whatever we believe about the EU, we must all recognise that in our contemporary world, isolation from the human family is simply not conceivable.

In particular, we believe that Christian theology points us in the direction of integration, not fragmentation. We believe the gospel looks forward to "a single new humanity" in which the human race is reconciled and at peace with itself. All inter-governmental agencies that promote deeper, more wholesome international relations are to be welcomed. The EU is not a perfect expression of this aspiration but we do believe that it represents the best attempt yet to create a lasting neighbourliness in our continent. That can only be good for our world.

We are not utopian about this. The EU is no more an expression of the kingdom of God than any other human institution. It is flawed, and recent challenges from the weakness of the Euro to the refugee crisis have painfully exposed its shortcomings. Those who look for greater transparency in its processes have a point. 

Nevertheless, we are convinced that far from walking away from a project intended to put freedom, humanity and social justice at the heart of our nations' lives, we should embrace the opportunities the EU gives to make a real and lasting contribution not only to the European family of nations but to the world. It is purely self-interest to say "yes" to the benefits of membership. But it becomes enlightened self-interest as we also say "yes" to all that we have to give to the EU as committed leading European players. And as Christians, when we say "yes", we want to say it with confidence, conviction and hope.

You'll have noticed that we've rebranded ourselves. We are now "Christians for Europe", not just "4EU" though that remains the Twitter handle. It's a small but significant change. Of course we are "for" the EU in the sense that we want to urge everyone to vote "yes - let's remain". But that could make it sound as though the EU were an end in itself. Which of course it's not. It's being Europeans that matters most - thinking of ourselves as not simply British but belonging to something bigger, the continent to which we have been so closely connected through trade, politics, culture, scholarship and recreation for so many centuries.

And this is where we need to raise the game when it comes to the referendum. If only we could talk not just about the pluses and minuses of the institution we call the European Union, but about what it is all ultimately for, and why being Europeans ought to be something not to be reticent about but to celebrate. That's our hope at least.

Meanwhile, when you'll visit the site, you'll find an impressive line-up of people in public life who are endorsing Christians for Europe: bishops, politicians of all parties, Christian secular leaders from different traditions and walks of life, theologians and others. We are grateful to the LibDem Christian Forum for hosting and managing the site for us. This is part of its contribution to this all-party effort that is bringing people of faith together in support of the UK's continuing membership of the EU. We are excited and hopeful as we embark on this journey through the coming weeks of the referendum campaign. We hope you'll jump aboard!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Dear Prime Minister: an open letter

Dear Prime Minister

I've sympathised with you during this past week. You've been through the kind of ordeal familiar to most leaders where a cloud no more than the size of a man's hand suddenly becomes a mighty storm. You were right to strike a contrite note in your speech. Yes, it would have been so much better if you had been frank with us from the outset. I believe your instincts are for honesty, and it's such a pity that you seem to have been advised otherwise to begin with. Evasiveness is never a good tactic. But it's never too late to say sorry and you did. Thank you.

However, my overriding concern today is not your own political fortunes but the coming EU Referendum. I'm very much afraid that you may have handed the Leave campaign a gift they could never have expected. "This walks straight into every Eurosceptic’s dream. It may be unfair on David Cameron. But it is very, very dangerous” Matthew Parris has written. Because if the public's view of you has changed (and it's only an if - the coming days will tell) and it's not so inclined to trust you about your personal finances, why should they trust you when it comes to the European Union?

I write as a convinced European who believes like you that this country will be far better off within the EU than outside it. And I don't just mean economically or in terms of defence, security and geopolitics. I mean what the UK has to bring to the EU as one of its leading nations committed to the common good as well as our own. It would be nightmare for me, and many like me, to wake up on 24 June to find that we had walked away from the family of peoples to whom we naturally belong.

Here's where I'm afraid you have unwittingly been the goose that has laid Brexit a golden egg. As today's Observer says, "voters may decide to forget the case for the European Union and engage in the altogether more satisfying activity of kicking out David Cameron." I hope that comment proves wrong. This is absolutely not a vote of confidence in you. But electorates have minds of their own. So now of all times, we need you to be a credible leader who can change hearts and minds not only by the persuasiveness of good argument but by your personal qualities of integrity and trustworthiness. It's not that the case for remaining in the EU has changed in any way. But public perception may have shifted in the past week: perception of your leadership, perception of your political judgment.

In a few days, the official EU Referendum campaign will be launched. How will you play this moment of opportunity?

If I may say this, I think your best bet is to go on presenting yourself to the public as the leader who is humble enough to recognise his mistakes. It was genuinely moving to hear you say to your audience that you could have handled things better and that you would learn for the future. That was courageous. It's a cliché to quote "a sadder and a wiser man" but perhaps it applies. And I believe this may help you win your case (sorry - I mean our case!). You can show that EU membership is not a matter of your own political survival or historic legacy but comes out of a real personal conviction, a deeply rooted human wisdom, a patriotism that is proud of and desires the very best for our country, and a Christian conscience that seeks the common good of all our partner nations.

One final note. I think that the more you can show that you are really listening to our Brexit friends and taking their concerns seriously, the better it will be. I think that like me, you deplore the bad tempered, sometimes abusive, register some parties in this debate have fallen into. I'm sure you value courtesy, intelligence and good faith in the way political choices are presented and discussed. Good listening isn't just for crises. It's an attribute of every wise leader. You will help set the tone.

Maybe recent events have done you a favour though it may be hard to see it that way just yet. They may have forced you to show a side of yourself to the public that we had not seen before - listening, honest, penitent, wanting to learn and do things differently. And maybe all with a bit more feeling, humaneness if you like. Many of us have warmed to that and - whatever our personal political convictions - genuinely wanted to wish you well. These qualities can help you sound an even more convincing note in the coming weeks before the Referendum. I very much hope so for the sake of the nation and for Europe as a whole.

I hope you won't mind my writing in this personal way. This comes with my prayers.

With best wishes

Saturday, 9 April 2016

"Where Do You Come From?" Thoughts on belonging and identity

"A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood."

George Eliot in Daniel Deronda is talking about childhood, how our earliest "sense of place" helps form our instinct that we belong to the soil we live on, and that we should love it and let it teach us about the great world into which we have been born as its citizens. 

I was brought up in suburban north London. I may have caught the occasional glimpse of Eliot's world when riding my bicycle in Highgate Woods or roaming Hampstead Heath on my way back from school. But it was hard to love the net curtains, manicured privet hedges and creosoted fences of suburbia. To me they all came to symbolise the addiction to privacy that's a peculiarly English trait. We knew few of our neighbours by name and socialised with fewer still though they were kind, decent people. We all kept ourselves to ourselves. We liked it that way. I had a good upbringing there. But it didn't help me to understand the idea of community.

So where do I say I'm "from"? This question has exercised me for some time. My usual answer is "North East England". I've lived here for longer than anywhere else in my life. I've come to love the strong sense of identity here in this region, and the wonderful people we have lived amongst, both in County Durham and Northumberland. I feel I belong here in a way that's more true than any of the many places we've been glad to call "home" up and down the country. When we first came to work in Northumberland in the 1980s, I found a lived understanding of "community" that was new to me. The Cheviot farmers talk about sheep being "hefted" on to their hill, bound to it as their own place. That's how I've come to feel about the North East. I've "gone native" as they say.

But that's only a part of my answer. In the expanding concentric circles of my belonging, my being European has always been important too. I've blogged about this before, how my mother's family were German-Jewish war refugees whom this country took in before it was too late. In my childhood we found ourselves on the periphery of a community of German emigrés in north London, all of them a lot better off than we were. Perhaps the fact that my mother had married "out" (i.e. an Englishman) meant that we weren't altogether kosher. But at social gatherings, we all flipped easily from English to German and back again. Families compared notes about their German homelands: Bavaria, Swabia and my mother's native Westphalia. As children we went to Germany a number of times to sort out my mother's family affairs. I felt at home there, and still do. And that goes for all the other countries in our continent that I've visited, from Ireland via Spain, France and Austria to the Czech Rebgpublic, Slovakia and Hungary.

On my Twitter profile, it says that I am "a European at home in North East England". I thought carefully about how to phrase that. "North East" says that locality is important, George Eliot's sense of a native soil in a particular place. "European" says that our larger networks and associations are important too, our ability to think beyond national boundaries (and not to stop until we think of ourselves as "citizens of the world" which is what George Eliot goes on to speak about). What about "England"? 

I admit that I don't often speak about being "English" (except in France where "je suis Anglais" is the usual answer to "where are you from?"). I'm a British national as it says on my passport. And my sense of nationhood is profoundly important. I don't give it absolute value ("my country right or wrong") and I always want to nuance it by saying that both my smaller and my larger circles of belonging matter just as much. However, I guess that if you are at all moved by Rupert Brooke's poem "The Soldier" and can read it, not as Great War jingoism nor as cloying nostalgic sentimentalism but for what it is, a simple, affecting love poem to his country, you're a patriot at heart. "A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam" is precisely what George Eliot is talking about. For Brooke, it had become "a sweet habit of the blood" to think and - just as important - to feel like this. I think I'm beginning to grasp this as I inhabit the later decades of my life when asking who I have been is vital to understanding who I am now

The EU referendum is making us think about these questions, where and how and why we belong. Some people seem to think that the EU is all about creating a superstate that will do away with local, regional and national identities and the human dimensions we associate with homeland and home. But the exact opposite is the case. The European Union has been a staunch defender of regionalism and localism and funds have followed that conviction. We've seen how in our own islands, membership of the United Kingdom has promoted a growth in Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish identities, and the same is true across continental Europe. These are welcome developments. They express the important idea of "subsidiarity" whereby things are not undertaken centrally that are better done nationally or locally. That's usually associated with decision-making. But implicit in it is the more basic concept of belonging. That's why it's to the good when we associate to all the communities we live in - small, large and intermediate. They help us learn that ultimately, our family is nothing less than the whole human race. 

This isn't quite making a "patriotic case" for remaining in the EU. But I hope that at the very least, it begins to show how a patriotic love of our country and a grateful attachment to our locality are not only compatible with our membership of the EU but positively encouraged by it. 

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The EU Referendum: why we shouldn't walk away from our promises

Earlier this week, on her wedding day, I walked my daughter up the aisle of the church where I had been Vicar in the 1980s. It was a proud and moving thing to do. She was beautiful in her wedding dress. Well, what bride's father wouldn't say that? It was a lovely service, solemn but joyous. The words and music all felt exactly right. Our hearts reached out to this young couple, so tender and so happy together.

I wasn't (for once) thinking about the European Union that day. But afterwards, I thought about what the preacher had said in his fine homily. He spoke about the marriage vow, and how a few words said in public change everything. I've quoted the philosopher J. L. Austin before in a blog. He wrote a famous book called How To Do Things With Words. He took the marriage vow as an example of a "performative utterance", words that change things, make a significant difference. When the bridal couple process out of church at the end of the marriage ceremony, they have taken on a different status from what they had when they came in. They now have new privileges, duties, responsibilities. It's their promises that effected that change.

What's that got to do with the EU referendum? 

Simply this, that as members of the European Union, we have signed treaties that bind us to this family of peoples. We have given undertakings and made promises to our fellow EU nations. Like marriage, a treaty is a kind of covenant. It commits us to fidelity, to being true to our word. We British take pride in behaving honourably and being trustworthy. It isn't only Englishmen (and women) whose word is their bond. I'd like to think that our neighbours in Europe thought they could safely trust us to honour our undertakings. I'd like to imagine that to them, whatever shortcomings the British may exhibit, unreliability and bad faith were not among them.

Thanks to the referendum, we are now considering walking away from commitments we have freely entered into. I find this deeply disappointing. It's not that any treaty is irrevocable, or that situations may not change so drastically that old undertakings need renegotiating. But to me, the very possibility of Brexit feels like the threat of a divorce. It would be the un-saying of promises that were made in good faith, in an environment of trust that pledged our nations to work together for the common good and our mutual flourishing. It would be the unraveling of the bonds of friendship and loyalty that held our peoples together. It would be, I think, to break our word which our neighbours had come to trust, and on which they thought they could rely. 

Am I making too much about "honour"? Christian wisdom would say not. In the Bible, the vow or promise is sacred, born witness to not only by human beings but by God himself. Covenant-breaking is one of the worst of sins you could commit: maybe this lies behind the gospels' condemnation of Judas for betraying - handing over - Jesus to be crucified. "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no" he teaches: "anything more than this comes from evil". Theologically, pledging our word is to imitate the God who in Jesus, pledges his living Word to humanity and in him utters his final Yes to the world he loves. Honour is a central idea in all religious faiths. A word once given is solemn and binding. 

Like any marriage, our relationship with the EU has had its ups and downs. It has been tested beyond what was originally anticipated. When a marriage is under pressure, it's tempting for one or both partners to walk away. Many do. But marital therapists tell us that to begin with at least, staying in the relationship and facing its difficulties openly and honestly in the hope of achieving a better life together is better than the easy option of escaping. It's not a perfect analogy, but the point is that our relationship with Europe is not an abstract connection with some faceless entity, "the EU", that we're talking about. It's a "marriage" to twenty seven other nations. It is they we would be disappointing and letting down, people to whom we have obligations of neighbourliness and friendship, particularly the most needy among them. 

There isn't anything about this in the Government leaflet on the referendum that will drop on to our doormats in a few days' time. That focuses mainly on whether we are better off in or out, with a postscript on how the EU can achieve things (such as security and climate change) that no nation can do on its own. I don't have any quarrel with its contents. But it doesn't go far enough, doesn't probe the very reasons we belong to the European Union at all, and doesn't ask us whether we think it matters to honour our treaty commitments or not. 

But surely it does matter that we commit to our undertakings and keep our promises. In one of the Psalms (15), the virtuous man or woman is someone who, having made a promise to a neighbour, does not go back on that word, even though it was troublesome and inconvenient. As individuals we want to be trustworthy and thought of us reliable. Fidelity is a value almost everyone shares. So we ought to uphold it as a nation too. And not turn our backs on the very many people of other European nations who are begging us not to walk away.