About Me

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

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Europa - an Archetypal Victim to Inspire the EU

This week a pro-Brexit group was reported as posting a video suggesting that the EU is guilty of "raping" its citizens. It shows a woman fleeing from a man with the caption "Rapin". The EU flag is prominent. This was roundly accused of being offensive by Remain supporters on the grounds that it made light of sexual violence.

I tweeted on Christians for Europe: "@Vote_Leave may not know their classical myths but they are good at making up their own." This prompted a furious riposte: "What about @StrongerIn's lies, deceit, distortion, hypocrisy and insidious rhetoric of #ProjectFear?" We shall miss all this sound and fury after 23 June. Or then again, maybe we won't.

What was I on about, alleging that Brexiters don't know their classical literature? It goes back to the ancient Greek myth of Europa. Have you ever wondered how Europe got its name? The story takes various forms as most myths do. The commonest version depicted in classical and renaissance art tells how Zeus noticed the beautiful Phoenician maiden Europa in the fields with her father's herds. The god changed himself into a white bull and concealed himself among the cattle. Europa was gathering flowers when she noticed the handsome bull and started caressing it. So gentle was he that she clambered up on to his back. Zeus seized the moment and darted off with her into the sea. With her on his back, he swam to Crete where she became a queen.

My point on Twitter was simple: that in mythology, far from being the (female) perpetrator of rape, Europa was herself a victim of precisely the crime Brexit was accusing her of! In the classical tradition, she is more sinned against than sinning. It's only a myth, of course. But that "only" shouldn't mislead us into thinking too lightly about its potency. Story has a power that lies deeper than facile notions of whether or not "it really happened".

So why should Europe have a founding myth that speaks about victimhood? And why should the European Union adopt the image of Europa as one of the badges of its identity on coins, stamps and banknotes? (So its iconography is a lot more than a big football league.)

I don't know that there's an easy historical answer to the question, how did "Europa" grow from its local Greek origins to becoming, by Charlemagne's time, a significant slice of a continent. But we can play with the symbolic significance of the name as we think about the EU and Britain's place in it.

I rather like the idea that the story of a victim and her ordeal should lie at the heart of our identity as a continent. The story itself is brutal and ugly. Rape always is, always, without exception. There is no defence or special pleading that can make it otherwise. The Brexit video was a shocking lapse in taste in a campaign that has not been distinguished for its sweet reasonableness and depth of serious argument. But in Christian thought, God takes the side of the victim. Those who suffer because of the abuse of power are under his special protection. This is precisely what God himself has experienced in the passion and death of his Son Jesus.

So if we take this central aspect of Europe's founding myth seriously, we ought to find ourselves looking out for all the poor Europas of our own day: the victims of all forms of tyranny, enslavement, poverty and indeed sexual violence committed against the weak and vulnerable. You could say that Europa was the original trafficked slave who was seized against her will and made to dance to the tune of a violent, depraved master. That she was transported across the wine-dark seas of the Eastern Mediterranean only adds to the contemporary resonances. Wherever we see desperate migrants, refugees and asylum seekers looking for a place to call home, we see echoes of the Europa myth. We see images of Christ suffering in all who bear the mark of pain.

In terms of our continent and next month's referendum, what does the story say about the European Union today?

It's not hard to mythologise the threats that will continue to face the EU, whether we are part of it or not. I think there are two powers that threaten to overwhelm the Union in the future and which could all too easily "abduct" Europa and carry her off to strange, alien places or even destroy her altogether. The two words are separated by just one letter. I mean rationalism and nationalism. By rationalism I'm not thinking of the capacity for rigorous analysis, argument and thought, one of Europe's great legacies to the world through the Enlightenment. It's the deadening effect of being closed off to the spiritual inheritance of our continent that I have in mind. It was a sad day when, despite the pleas of faith communities including the Holy Father himself, the preamble to the Maastricht treaty consciously omitted any mention of the part religion has played in shaping Europe. It ignores the vast contribution made by Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the values and ideals of the EU. It's an ominous sign that the EU could be taken over by the kind of doctrinaire secularism that is opaque to the redemptive dimension of a religious vision and a lived faith.

The other threat, nationalism, is easier to see all round us in the populist politics of 2016. Patriotism and nationalism are not at all the same thing. I've constantly argued that it is a fully patriotic choice for this and every other nation to pool sovereignty in the interests of promoting the common good. It is good for nations and peoples, good for the continent and good for the human race. We should love our patria, our homeland. We owe it our loyalty. But it's not the only loyalty we have. What isn't good is to collapse our belonging down to the nation state as if that were an end in itself. This is the mantra of far-right movements across the continent not least in Greece, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and France. It should worry us that vast numbers of people are giving up on the idea, so fundamental to the Christian founding fathers of the European Project, that we are "better together". To me, the slogan "we want our country back" is deeply sinister. It's an omen of a fragmented future that goes against everything I believe about what it means to be human and to live together and flourish in community.

The antidote to both nationalism and rationalism could be to think more carefully about the Europa myth. If she is the archetypal victim, then her story can perhaps empower us to resist the intellectual, political, cultural and spiritual tyrannies that threaten to carry us off and enslave us today. It begins, I think, with our own consciousness of who and what we are, and the dignity with which we are invested as creatures made in the image of God whose service, as the Anglican collect says, is "perfect freedom". One etymology of the name Europa is that it means "having an open face". This is why I believe our future lies in the European Union, because we want the UK to be a nation that is outward-turned, generous and inclusive in a Europe that has an "open face" to the world, and especially to its victims.

To vote to remain in the EU could be an unafraid act of joyful liberation, the very opposite of the gloomy worries that plague Brexiters. It could confidently proclaim that there is a better vision of humanity than any we have yet found. The Europa myth could inspire us to reimagine it.

Friday, 20 May 2016

A Sixth Form Debate about the Referendum

This week I went to an academy in our part of the world. They were holding a sixth form debate about the EU Referendum and asked me to put the case for Remain. Arguing for Brexit was a businessman from a place I know well. We had lunch together before the event and found we had a lot in common, not least a love of France. I don't think he would mind my saying that he struck me very much as a Europhile like me. Lesson number one: in this as in most things, there is much more that unites us than divides. He was certainly one of the nicest Brexiters I've met. And although we didn't agree about the EU, it was what they call a "good disagreement".

The school has a fine campus with state-of-the-art modern buildings. Some of the students had just begun A-levels that day which was a pity as they were historians and I'd have liked to have heard what they had to say. The room we were in was bedecked with national flags from all the EU countries which gave it a festive air. A member of staff chaired it in the best tradition of BBC's Question Time. She was scrupulously fair with her stopwatch at the ready.

I began by saying it was a pity that 16 and 17 year olds wouldn't be allowed to vote as their peers had been able to do in the Scottish independence referendum. I expected loud cheers at that, but it just got a respectful silence. Maybe this young audience was a bit shy. Or listening carefully, which they did all afternoon.

If you read my blog regularly, you'll know my "pitch". I asked the audience not to be beguiled by self-interest, the "what's best for Britain" line. It mattered, I told them, but only if our self-interest was enlightened. I begged them to try to see the decision from a global perspective: what's best for Europe, what's best for the human race, especially its most needy members and communities, what's best for the planet in terms of tackling climate change. I urged them to think as Europeans, not grudgingly but out of a conviction that the UK can play a leading role in the EU by helping to reform it and make sure it remains outward-looking in its concerns.

My opposite number spoke for Brexit and, I have to say, did it with humour, courtesy and tact. Then there were questions from the audience. We knew what these were going to be in advance but it was clear that the students had been well prepared for the event in learning about and discussing the EU for much of the summer term. There was one I especially liked about the EU's role in the post-war reconstruction of Europe and was this still relevant today? (No prizes for guessing my answer.) We talked about what it means to hold both a European and a British identity (to which I added English, North-Eastern, Londoner, Haydonian etc.).

Do the economic benefits of EU membership outweigh the costs, we were asked. Thankfully no-one mentioned the discredited £350M per week figure that many Brexit people are still touting despite having been told not to (it even appears on the Electoral Commission's information leaflet about the vote to which both the official campaigns were given the opportunity of contributing). We discussed the nature of risk-taking in connection with In or Out, and (interesting, this) how it compared to religious faith and the place of doubt. We explored democracy in the EU and agreed that reforms were needed to make it more transparent and accountable (although, I added, reforms are needed in the UK too and we should be careful before we throw stones).

It was a pity we didn't have time for more. But the school day ends when it ends and not even the EU was going to deflect the students from the school gate. So a vote was taken. And here was a surprise. After discounting a handful of spoiled papers (by A-level students? surely not, you cry!), it came to just over 50% in favour of Remain, and 43% for Brexit. So that was that. It was a majority, but not a convincing one. It would have been interesting to have taken one before the debate to see if anyone's mind had been changed.

I've thought about that vote. It reflects uncannily accurately the opinion polls across the country which predict a "yes", but not by a wide margin. And here's where I take pause. We are told on all sides that young people are overwhelmingly in favour of our membership of the EU. That wasn't true on Wednesday. So is it connected to the demographic of that part of the world? Or just down to the feebleness of my attempts to persuade whether by impeccable logic or dazzling rhetoric? Someone criticised the school on Twitter for "brainwashing" the young. I replied: you just try brainwashing politically astute sixth formers who in any case heard both sides of the argument. I took from the afternoon that they were not yet really convinced. So there is a lot of work we pro-EU campaigners have to do in the next few weeks.

One last point. As well as being told that the young are in favour of Remain (perhaps because they've never known life without it), we are also told that the challenge will be to get them out to vote. There are still hundreds of thousands eligible youngsters, many of them students who have not yet got their names on to the electoral register. This ought to worry us greatly. Time is running out. So I begged these 6th formers not to let their older siblings and peers off the hook. Their parents too. Our democratic rights are hard-won. To use them well by voting is the first lesson of citizenship. If they heard nothing else, I hope that message went home.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

40 Days and 40 Nights: ordeal or opportunity?

 We've now passed a small milestone on the EU referendum countdown. It's just 40 days and 40  nights till we cast our vote in the biggest political decision any of us are likely to make in our lifetime. Will they be an ordeal, or an opportunity?

It's a number rich in symbolism for Jewish and Christian believers. Let's start with the Hebrew Bible. 40 days and nights was the length of time Moses spent on the mountain when God made a binding covenant with his people. It was a period of preparation, of seeking wisdom and deepening understanding, days of awe when an unknown future awaited and faith was sorely tested.

I've likened this country's relationship to the European Union to the biblical covenant, for strictly speaking, that's what a treaty is - a solemn, binding relationship in which undertakings are made and promises given. It's always important to prepare properly for covenant making and covenant renewing. These days before the vote are an opportunity to do just that: take time to prepare thoroughly for the decision we make. It takes time, patience and often a lot of struggle to do this well. Moses knew that. But we may have to learn it in a fresh way this year. To leap into a momentous decision without taking the trouble to understand what it may mean would be irresponsible. 

40 days was also the length of time Jesus spent in the wilderness at the outset of his work. The first three gospels all agree that it was a vitally formative time for him as he embarked on his ministry: to seek solitude in a fierce landscape, lay himself open to testing and ordeal, get to know himself in a new way, probe the mysterious purpose of the God he knew as Father, and emerge strengthened to encounter whatever lay before him. We commemorate these 40 days in the season known as Lent. Popularly, it's a time to "give things up" in memory of Jesus' desert ordeal. Fasting is certainly a central aspect of Christian spirituality, even if it's not nowadays practised as it used to be. But at its heart, Lent means preparing for Easter and celebrating the Lord's Passover. 

These coming 40 days are calling us to a tough journey. Discipline and hard work come into things if we are serious about doing the "work" I mentioned earlier: pondering the issues surrounding our EU membership, engaging with the debate in a serious way, listening carefully to all sides of the argument and weighing things up. We may feel that at times this aspect of the preparation process is being increasingly submerged by the rising babble of Babel-noise where attentive listening, thoughtful discernment are surely vital to an intelligent well informed decision. Perhaps we all need to be a bit more Lenten in our approach and turn the volume down so that we can contemplate the issues with equanimity, make sound judgments, hear the still small voice of conscience and of God.

Finally, 40 days marks the period of time beginning on Easter Day when Jesus revealed himself to his followers as having been raised from death. It ends with Ascension Day when according to the New Testament story, he was taken from this world no longer to be physically present among humanity. Strictly, Eastertide lasts 50 days rather than 40 because its culmination lies in the gift of the Holy Spirit to humanity, whose advent we celebrate this coming Sunday of Pentecost. But the 40 days of the risen Christ's Easter presence among his disciples is still a significant period. 

So the coming 40 days could be for us all a time of what we might call resurrection. It's a metaphor in this context but it may be a helpful one. It could be an opportunity to "rise" above self concern and obsession about our own fortunes in the referendum debate, and start to think seriously about others and their needs. I've written on this blog about how we should be thinking about the "common good" of all the peoples of continent, not just "what's best for Britain". We need to think globally about the UK's and Europe's place in the world, and what we, in partnership with the nations of the EU can bring to it in terms of peace, justice, security, good international relations and our care for our planet. Through these neighbourly concerns we would find ourselves "rising" above our deadening obsession with self-concern. Resurrection can be an image of transcending our limitations and turning our faces outwards in justice and in love.

I am writing in analogies, of course. 40 days and 40 nights represent a symbolic period. But perhaps this threshold, coming as it does around the time of Pentecost when we seek the wisdom and charity of the Spirit, can give us pause to think about the journey we are making. Will it be a time of thoughtful, disciplined preparation during which we learn and grow? Will it be a time to renounce self-serving arguments in favour of enlightened self-interest that is informed by the Spirit of God and embraces the concerns of others? Will it be a time to "rise" above ourselves and think in a truly outward-facing global way? 

Will these coming days be Sinai, Lent or Easter? How wonderful if they could be all three! 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Celebrate Europe Day!

9 May is Europe Day. It deserves a blog.

It's kept on this day because it marks the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration on 9 May 1950. This was the momentous event that proposed the merging of the French and German coal and steel industries. So it came to be seen as the founding moment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) out of which the European Union evolved. 

Robert Schuman (not to be confused with the composer!) was Prime Minister of France and the first President of the European Parliamentary Assembly. He is regarded by many as the "Father of Europe" for his visionary approach to the reconstruction of the postwar continent. Most important, from our perspective, is the faith of this profoundly Christian statesman. A devout Roman Catholic, his thinking about Europe was deeply influenced by catholic social theology with the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and the quest for the common good right at the heart. I've blogged about the Christian influences on the European project before.

Think about it. Today, 8 May, marks the anniversary of the end of the war in Europe in 1945. We are right to call it VE Day because it marks the liberation of all our peoples from the scourge of Nazi totalitarianism. That includes the liberation of the German people themselves from the terrible years of Nazi occupation - not just the occupation of their land but of the nation's mind and heart and psyche. 

A mere 5 years later, almost to the day, the Schuman Declaration marked the willingness of historic sworn enemies, France and Germany, to begin to collaborate economically. It's an extraordinary achievement. Since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which itself drew on a long history of rivalry in Europe, these two nations had been sworn enemies. To begin to heal memories, grow trust and discover how instead of fighting they might work together for the good of all their people would have been undreamed-of a mere half a decade earlier. 

So I want to promote Europe Day as the natural "day after" VE Day. Victory in Europe would have meant nothing had there not been an entirely new spirit abroad to rebuild the shattered continent that had suffered so awfully. This was thanks to Schuman and others like him who took the Christian vision of reconciliation and peace-seeking with the utmost seriousness. And although the EU is far from being free of severe strains and unresolved tensions, armed conflict has not broken out among its member nations ever since that day. It's a huge achievement we need to talk up and celebrate. 

My generation has been the beneficiary of these six decades of peace. I was born less than a month before the Schuman Declaration. I count myself hugely fortunate to have been spared the upheavals of war experienced by my parents and their parents. We so easily take it for granted. We get into a way of thinking about the EU that is dominated by the economy, security and migration, but that is worryingly short on memory when it comes to why we are part of it in the first place. These two days 8-9 May remind us.

Yes, I'm an idealist about the EU because - despite all its difficulties, I still believe in its founding vision. Not uncritically or na├»vely: it can and does get things wrong. But that's no reason not to persevere with a project that has given this continent so much. Indeed, I think of myself as a European before I am British (and British before I am English). That's partly thanks to my Anglo-German parentage. But I think it's more to do with my Christian faith. As I read it, the gospel impels us towards a greater integration with all the human family. My being European is a vital part of my identity because it's one of the ways in which I see us growing together in committed bonds of peace and collaboration with our fellow human beings. It doesn't stop at the borders of Europe. But it can start there. 

However, I'm also a realist. I suspect that we who are "conviction Europhiles" will always be a minority in the UK. Europe Day is never going to be a public holiday here. I doubt you'll see the EU flag fluttering from many public buildings or draped in the front room windows of Europhile homes. I don't imagine that many school assemblies will make it their theme (I'd love to be proved wrong) or that church bells will ring out in celebration. 

But perhaps there are readers of this blog who may just think the day is worth raising a glass to and say a prayer of thanksgiving and hope. It's a good time to remember the founding purposes on which the European Union was established. So I urge us not to forget peace and human rights, social welfare and education, solidarity with the poor, democracy, the environment, cultural exchange and all the other ways in which the EU has made such a difference not just to the continent but the world. Let's recall that we are in this for the common good. There is indeed a long hard road ahead that we need to travel. But I want the UK to take a lead in this great collaborative venture and not be left on the sidelines.

So let's go on making the case for voting #Remain In the referendum. We know it makes sense for all the best geo-political, world trade, economic and security reasons. We know we are #StrongerIn. But let's not forget our history, where we came from. Let's not forget the founding vision and the Christian faith that inspired it. Let's celebrate Europe Day with real thankfulness and hope. And pray for the EU, its institutions and all its member states, and not least, for the referendum itself. 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Retrospect of an Unimportant Life?

The title isn’t mine. It was Bishop Herbert Hensley Henson who, nearing the end of his life in the 1940s wrote a long three volume autobiography Retrospect of an Unimportant Life. (I added the question mark myself.) He was a predecessor of mine in the Deanery at Durham, being Dean throughout the Great War. He was already getting a name for himself as a doughty controversialist, a reputation he cultivated as Bishop of Hereford and then Bishop of Durham. He preached, wrote, argued and hectored on the issues of the day – prohibition, trades union, divorce law, liturgical revision, disestablishment and National Socialism (to his great credit he was one of the few bishops to see through its blandishments to the awfulness the Third Reich would inevitably become).

His was an eventful life lived out as a dean and bishop on a very public stage. So why did he give his autobiography this curious self-deprecating title? It sounds typically English, an understated - perhaps ironic - way of drawing attention to a career that captured the headlines and made him a household name even if he was not always fondly loved. After all, if you write three bulky volumes about yourself, you’ve got to think that the subject matter warrants it. But it’s not impossible that HHH, as he was known, was being sincere. He always acknowledged his modest working class background, said many times that he was not obviously born to be a prince of the church like his fellow bishops. Perhaps as he neared his end he began to see his career in a larger perspective where every life, however distinguished, is as little or nothing in the grand scheme of things. “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

I would often think of HHH when I used to sit in his, and then my, study in that great medieval Deanery attached to Durham Cathedral. It’s hard not to be overawed by your predecessors especially when not one but two portraits of him hang in that amazing room. In such a place you can easily imagine you are someone, “think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” as St Paul says. These days a dean doesn’t have the leisure to offer as much to the public life of church and society as a century ago for all that I’m sure it remains a key part of the vocation in that office to do so. Decanal life is much (pre-)occupied by the immediate and never-ending concerns of a hungry cathedral, a diocese and a county, especially the first. In that sense, a dean has a less visible role outside Barchester than used to be the case. You could say that in his or her public profile, a dean lives a distinctly unimportant life.

But here’s the rub. Maybe HHH cottoned on to the fact that what made him interesting was not his dazzling public career but what went into making him a man. To me as his successor and, I admit it, a critical fan, what fascinated me was his ordinariness, his unimportance if you like. I wish he had allowed more of this to come to the surface in his Retrospect. You feel there is so much he doesn't tell you, imagines that what you really want to know about is the public persona, the performance on the national stage, the often dramatized account of this controversy or that, sometimes told, it has to be said, with a less than pleasing whiff of self-congratulation. Unimportant? Not really, not as he tells the story.
I’ve now reached the life-stage HHH had got to when he started writing his mammoth account in 1942. I’m not as old as he was (yet), but I am now superannuated after forty years of ordained ministry. Retirement is inevitably a time to draw threads together, “gather the fragments so that nothing is lost”. You find yourself looking back on your life and glimpsing connections that you hadn’t quite seen before. The nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Kierkegaard famously said that “life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards”, a saying much quoted by Jung in his account of psychoanalysis. It’s not quite what Anselm meant when he talked about “faith seeking understanding”, yet as Augustine had found when he wrote his Confessions centuries before, knowing yourself and how you have come to be what you are is an essential aspect of “understanding”.

What I’ve been feeling for during these past months was put sharply in focus for me at church this morning. Another retired priest who like me has recently moved into the village asked me over coffee whether I’d ever written about my spiritual development. He knew something about my personal story and thought it was interesting. (Who wouldn’t be flattered? – for there’s nothing in the world that’s as fascinating as we are to ourselves!) I replied that while there’s plenty of autobiographical allusion in my writing and preaching (for ultimately, all we have to speak about is what we know and have learned and experienced), I have never tried to give it any conscious shape or structure. Indeed, I can’t begin to guess what that would look like, though others may be able to offer clues.  
I’m one of those people who best discovers what I think or believe as I speak or write it. I can have quite vague notions about something until I start writing it down or arguing it out, and then there comes, sometimes quite suddenly, that point of recognition, that eureka moment. That’s it! That’s what I believe! That's how the world is! That's how God may be! That’s perhaps who I am! Which is why I enjoy social media and blogging because like a journal, they hold up a mirror to the self that can be, often is, hidden from sight until the words disclose it.

So I am going to try an experiment and blog my own Retrospect. Not at Hensonian length, and not as a book like his with its somewhat artfully imposed narrative shape. I shall simply blog a few hundred words at a time on some of the key personal and spiritual themes that are significant to me and see what happens. I’m not going to say it’s either important or unimportant, though the story is certainly important to me. However ordinary we are, our lives are unique, unrehearsed dramas in which we get only one chance at being players. As for everyone else, it may be precisely what we have in common as human beings that makes each of us interesting to other people. My “truth”, the Kierkegaardian "truth for which we live and die" will not be the same as yours, but we are all walking the same path of trying to live authentically as men and women in the world – if, that is, awareness, emotional intelligence and wisdom matter to us. That’s the kind of stuff I want to try out in these blogs.
So inspired by HHH, I’ll have a go. How many episodes? I've no idea. Maybe a dozen to see us through a year. You don’t have to read if you don’t want to. But I’d love to think that however we go about it we all want to seek and to find understanding. That's my goal (he says modestly). It’s much more fun - and we learn more - if we travel together in company. It's an unfinished story because tomorrow's experiences will cast new light on the past and present that will make even late autobiographical fragments provisional. It's also in search of a title. Any suggestions?