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, 29 June 2016

Brexit: An Open Letter to the Archbishops of the Church of England

Dear Archbishops

I am writing to you as the Presidents of the General Synod to ask that an emergency motion on the outcome of last week's Referendum should be placed on the agenda of the forthcoming meeting in July.

It's now clear that our nation has suffered its biggest cataclysm since the last War. Its causes are complex and it's too early to understand them fully. However, we can now see that the future looks deeply uncertain politically, economically and in terms of the UK's place in the world of tomorrow.

It has, I admit, worried me greatly that our national church has not spoken as an institution about the Referendum. We have all known that the vote was coming since the general election of 2015. It would have been possible to schedule a General Synod debate in February 2016 even though the Referendum date was not yet known when the agenda was being planned. I find it extraordinary that in the face of a national decision wth such momentous ethical and social justice aspects to it (and I would add, theological too), the Synod and the House of Bishops have been collectively silent. It feels to me like a failure of spiritual leadership towards the people of England.

I did not anticipate that the Church of England would take a position on the European Union (though that is in marked contrast to the other national church in these islands, the Church of Scotland). Nor do I expect this now. However, at a time when England is so divided between London and the provinces, when the future of the Union here in Britain is at real risk, and when the entire continent of Europe is facing unprecedented turmoil, it seems to me all the more essential to allow a proper debate to help our nation find wisdom and stability as we move into an unmapped landscape.

The Church of England has always had a strongly international outlook. The Anglican Communion has of course required us to be an outward-facing church. But so have our flourishing relations with the churches in Europe, both east and west. I know how much these relationships mean to both of you. I am also grateful that that you both spoke personally about the Referendum during the campaign, along with other bishops, and this will have been helpful to many, not only within the churches. 

However, not to grasp the opportunity posed by the imminent York Synod would, I think, baffle a great many people who, if not all committed Christians, are our friends and fellow-travellers. I realise that a great deal of synodical time is already committed to the shared conversations about human sexuality. I entirely support this as essential too. But you can imagine the headlines following the Synod's failure to debate this matter that is preoccupying the nation's mind: "Church of England shuns Brexit crisis debate in favour of sex!"  That would not play well publicly.

As the founder of "Christians for Europe" and in a long series of blogs, I have not apologised for bringing a Christian perspective on the EU Referendum and making the case for Remain. But I am not asking the Synod to rerun the arguments on either side. What matters now is to chart a course for the future. The voice of the church needs to be heard as we try to set our bearings in this crisis. The General Synod can and must help us do that.  So I urge you to allow a debate to take place that may make an important contribution in this process.

With best wishes and prayers,

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit: how to go positively into exile

It's permitted to be sad this week, and more than a little angry. Post-referendum, we are still in the aftermath of a colossal political, cultural, social and - yes - spiritual convulsion. Raw emotions will subside in time and give way to a forensic analysis of where the UK now finds itself, not to mention the European Union and the rest of the world. But it's far too early to be cool-headed just yet, at least for me.

Yesterday my wife and I went to evening prayer in the tiny "old church" on the remote hillside above the village. It was a gloomy afternoon: a steady rain had set in, and the dark dripping avenue of yew trees we walked along seemed to echo my despondent spirits. The church has no electricity so we sang the hymns by candlelight. One of them was "God moves in a mysterious way / his wonders to perform." Yes, I thought, that's not in dispute. But would I rise to the massive act of faith that could see how "behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face"? Time would tell.

We recited the Psalm set for the service, Psalm 60. O God, you have rejected us, broken our defences; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel. That feels right, I thought. It's not that a song of national defeat is transferable to post-Brexit Britain. I'm not making facile connections here. Rather, it's the mood that the Psalm caught so exactly: bewilderment, pain, despair, loss of bearings, how to understand the "mysterious way" in which God moves.

I thought of other laments in the Psalter. The most famous is Psalm 137. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept / when we remembered you, O Zion. It's one of the angriest Psalms in the book, fuelled by the violent emotions that follow any severe trauma or dislocation. The people are in exile, far away from their own country. They have lost their temple, their king and their land. They are at risk of losing their very identity, their soul. 

Their big question is, How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? How will they learn to recognise God both in the events that have brought them to this unwished-for exile, and in the place itself? What happens to faith and hope when they are driven out of a landscape that is familiar into a "strange land" where everything looks different and has to be negotiated afresh? 

This seemed to me to be a good metaphor of Brexit. There's a sense in which we are bound for an exile. Some welcome it, others don't. But it's a plain fact that it is going to be a strange land for all of us. Even Leavers have acknowledged that there is so much they "don't know". It's clear that there are few landmarks and no obvious plan, no historical precedents for our nation to follow. We are on our own. We can expect to be disorientated. We shall have to set our compass bearings as best we can. And given the hurt we have caused our friends and allies in the European Union, we have no right to expect that it will be an amicable departure, though we must hope and pray that it will be. 

The man who more than anyone else taught the faith community how to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land" was the prophet Jeremiah. He too was crushed by the way events had turned out for his people. He saw the disaster of exile coming and said so, much to the displeasure of his audience. If ever a prophet suffered in himself the conflicted experience of the people he was warning, it was Jeremiah. In the light of the past few days, I can understand that.

But he said something very important. It goes like this. There is no point in railing against it. Exile is going to be a fact. We are where we are. So understand that this will be your new reality for the foreseeable future.  It will be hard and painful at first. But if you can make the best of it, invest in it, trust that God has not after all abandoned you but has come with you into this far-away, hostile environment, you will find that life can begin again. In one of the bravest utterances in the Hebrew Bible he pleads: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29.7). It's an extraordinary - and wonderful - thing to say.

So here's my thinking as another week begins. We are at the start of a journey that will take us into exile - for leaving the EU is precisely what this is in a political and economic sense at the very least. Our place in the world is going to be very different from what it was. Brexiters (those at any rate who haven't had second thoughts about their vote) are telling us that it will be all right. Remainers are fearing the worst. Who knows what this strange land will be like? We are not going to find out this week, this month or any time soon. It's going to take years for the landscape so fractured by this earthquake and aftershocks still to come to rearrange itself and settle down. 

But we should not be swayed by either the optimists nor the pessimists. The best will probably not happen, but neither may all our worst fears be realised. And even if many of them are, and as a nation we come to regret our decision as foolish and mistaken, we mustn't be overwhelmed by negativity or despair. What matters is to maintain our faith in Providence as it works itself out in the present. We must do our equivalent of building and planting good things in the land of exile, as Jeremiah not only urged his hearers to do but did himself. Above all we must keep faith with our country and with Europe by saying our prayers. As I blogged on that bitter Friday morning, we must not lose heart.

Church leaders have called for reconciliation and healing after the vote. Our churches both in the UK and in continental Europe will have a part to play in this. But it can't be hurried if it's to be deep and lasting and reach into communities that have experienced deep and bitter division. Nor must we rush into it for the sake of quick closures or the ever-alluring demands of niceness. When there is a deep wound, healing takes time, and surgery may be needed first. But the last words from the cross can help draw us all into the everlasting movement of God's wise and loving purpose for the world. There have been times when we have cried with the psalmist and with Jesus himself, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? But might we begin to pray in a different, more trustful voice: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit? If we can, it could sow the seeds of hope for our future. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

On Saying Farewell to the EU: the morning after

Here is the blog I've written for the "Christians for Europe" website in the light of the Referendum result.


This is the day we hoped and prayed would never dawn. 

But it has. The UK has voted to leave the European Union. After months of debate, the voters have decided. And even it's by a narrow margin, so narrow that less than half of the eligible adult population are behind a Brexit, that's the outcome. To say we are disappointed doesn't begin to express it. But a vote is a vote. We respect it.

There will be much to reflect on in the days ahead. There will be post-mortems. Why didn't we Remainers succeed in making our case for EU membership? Why did the nation fall for the self-interested inward-looking arguments of the Leave campaign? Why did our national politics become so divisive? 

And more important, there will be big questions about the uncertain future that now lies ahead. What will become of the EU after this outcome? Will the UK's Union hold together or will Scotland go its own way? How do we reconfigure our trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world? We suddenly find ourselves in a strange Brexit-land where there are no landmarks and no map. The next few months and years could be turbulent not only for the UK but for Europe and the world.

How should we as pro-EU people of faith respond?

During the campaign, "Christians for Europe" has tried to help frame the referendum as a matter not simply of pragmatic politics ("what's best for Britain") but also of social ethics and a theology of society. We've emphasised the central tenets of our faith: loving our neighbour, standing in solidarity with the disadvantaged, seeking the common good, promoting life together rather than apart. We've wanted to argue that the European project is based on a fundamentally Christian vision of nationhood and common life.

All this still stands. So even if, to our immense sadness, the UK will soon be walking away from the EU, it mustn't stop us from being good Europeans who will continue to work closely with the peoples of our continent who are our natural allies and friends. We must go on taking a global view of our place in the world and not draw in our horizons as if we were some insignificant offshore island. We must continue to work away at trying to create a more wholesome politics of respect and compassion both internationally and in our own country.

In that spirit we shall go on seeking the welfare of the human family and playing our part as good citizens of our nation and our world. That will involve the healing of the divisions that opened up during the Referendum campaign, and we are committed to this too in both word and action. And it goes without saying: we must now, more than ever, say our prayers. 

The Christian gospel of Jesus's death and resurrection makes us people of hope. We do not lose heart.


Perhaps I can end on a more personal note. If I say that I am heartbroken, I don't want you to think that I'm dramatising. But as this "day after" dawns, it's hard for me to see any good in it. So much of my own story is intertwined with the story of continental Europe - if you've been reading this blog regularly, you'll understand how. So it feels as if part of my identity is being stripped away, all that is symbolised by the words "European Union" displayed in the cover of my passport. I've been immensely proud of my EU citizenship. I've regarded it as a privilege to think of myself in that way. To face the fact that I am going to lose a fundamental aspect of myself feels terrible. It's as if a light is going out.

When it was clear that Leave were on their way to winning, Paddy Ashdown tweeted: "God help our country". I share his sense of desperation. Or is it desolation? Or devastation? All those words seem to fit. At a stroke, we find ourselves in exile. It feels like a lonely place to be.

But I know, of course, that it is not the end of the world, however bad it seems. What I wrote at the end of the official blog is the most important sentence of all. It's a quote from St Paul's second Corinthian letter where, having catalogued the ordeals and suffering he has had to face for the sake of the gospel, he speaks of his indomitable hope in the God of resurrection. "We do not lose heart."

I need to say those words to myself over and over again. It will take time to come to terms with what we have done as a nation. There are "fightings within and fears without". We undoubtedly face times of great difficulty. It may be that the UK may come to rue the day. But Paddy Ashdown has given me the clue about facing the future. "God help our country" is the best prayer we can say right now. For praying is all I can think of doing at this moment. 

God will not abandon us, for all that we have done something extraordinarily foolish. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. We must trust him. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Day Before the Vote: how to prepare

Tomorrow is the last day of the referendum campaign. What's the significance of the "day before"?

The temptation will be to engage in a frantic bout of last-minute canvassing, arguing, blogging and generally engorging ourselves in a social media frenzy. As someone who passionately believes that the EU is good for Britain and Britain for the EU, I'm as desperate to win the contest as every other Remainer. When the race is neck-and-neck, that final sprint to the finishing-line can make all the difference.

But I'm wondering whether to be "desperate" is quite right. If this has been a real debate in which we have been listening well and paying attention to one another (fond hope!), our campaign needs to end in a considered way. To crash into the buffers at the stroke of midnight is not how to conclude a serious process of laying bare what really matters in the decision we must make the next day.

At "Christians for Europe" we've tried to model a reflective approach to the referendum. We haven't always got it right but we have not wanted to disparage anyone, impugn their motives or shout. We've wanted to respect people who differ from us in good faith, even if disagreement has sometimes been sharp, like Paul and Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles. If we have given offence, we are sorry. "Good disagreement" is becoming something of a mantra in faith circles, but it's precisely what we believe about how at our best we should be listening and talking to one another.

But we don't at all apologise for stating clearly what we believe, which is that Christianity requires us to have regard for the neighbour, the stranger and the needy. Our faith urges us to live together in community rather than apart. Its social theology highlights the imperatives of solidarity and the common good. This is why we believe it points us in the direction of playing a leading role within the EU, not turning our back on our friends and allies. We believe that God cares about our nation, our continent and our world. We believe that by being a leading member of the EU, our nation will have a democratic, peaceful "reach" that transcends the boundaries of Europe. We believe that it's in the interests of peace, justice and the integrity of creation that we remain and don't leave. That's an ethical, theological and spiritual position to take. It's much more than mere pragmatism.

If you follow this blog, you'll know that I've been trying to nuance that set of affirmations in a number of different ways since late last year. There's nothing more I can add at this late stage. Except, to come back to where I started: what tomorrow could mean for us. Bear with me. 

The day before the referendum, 22 June, is Saint Alban's Day. He is celebrated as the first British martyr who, when Christianity was under severe persecution, was executed for sheltering a Christian priest. The pagan Alban had been so impressed by the devotion of his guest that he converted and became a Christian himself. When the Romans came to search his house, he changed into the priest's clothes and presented himself to the soldiers. His punishment was to suffer what would have been due to the priest. Bede tells of this, Britain's "proto-martyrdom" in words that indicate how moved he was to have heard about it. 

Britain (as distinct from its member nations) doesn't have a patron saint. Alban is the obvious candidate. He embodies everything that is noblest in human nature when it is redeemed by grace and love. His hospitality to and care for someone who needed sanctuary is a powerful metaphor of one central issue in this campaign. Every Christian, every decent human being, must be alarmed at the xenophobic, not to say racist undertones of the more extreme Brexiters' discourse. The Hebrew Bible commands us unambiguously never to forget "the stranger who is in your midst". Jo Cox lived and died campaigning for some of the most needy people on the planet. Justin Welby was completely right to condemn UKIP's hateful, hate-filled poster with its sinister echoes of the 1930s. Alban shows us the more excellent way of love. What better patron saint for the British people to be proud of?

And he took this way of loving to the very end. St John says this is precisely how Jesus "loved his own". He laid down his life for a friend, just as Jesus did. If ever one human being modelled what a whole nation could be like, it is Alban. To give up your life for others is how the gospel says we must all live. What I've disliked more than anything else in this campaign has been the self-serving rhetoric of so many of our political leaders. "What's best for Britain, what's best for you the electorate" can only be part of the story, and not even the most important part. The headline ought to have been: how can this great nation of ours that in two world wars "laid down its life" for its European friends and allies suffering under the iron fist of fascism, do the same again in 2016? What's good for Europe, for the wider human family? I've no hesitation in saying that the UK has an outstanding contribution to make to global politics and the mending of a broken humanity. I unhesitatingly say that we're best placed to do this inside the EU. Alban can be our model of Britain-in-Europe.

So how shall we spend St Alban's Day? By learning from his example, I say, and trying to imitate it. In this final blog before the vote, I'm asking that we find time tomorrow to reflect on the values our faith teaches us and ask how they translate into our decision. Put it this way. The X on your ballot paper stands for two things. The first is the title of "Christ" himself (from the initial Greek letter of the word Christos, χ). The second is that it represents the cross on which he gave his life, the inspiration that led Alban to make the supreme sacrifice that he did. Your simple X on your voting slip is filled with a profound and eloquent symbolism. 

What would this Christ want us as a nation to do at this cross-roads (pun intended) in our history? I'm not falling into the trap of imagining I know where he would cast his vote - if he had been unlucky enough to have to make a choice. But the faith I follow bears his name and it leads me to believe that what I must do is to try to imitate him in his living and dying. That means I simply cannot vote only with my own interests in mind, but must think first and foremost of the millions of others in our country, our continent and our world who are very much less privileged than I am. That's what St Alban's Day unambiguously teaches me.

Here's a suggestion. Why not stop campaigning at noon tomorrow, and spend the rest of the day reflecting on the values that matter most profoundly to us? A great decision needs vigils of prayer, not just good debate; so that when we come to vote, it becomes an act of prayerful, courageous love that springs directly out of our heart and soul and mind and strength. If it calls us to lay down our lives or our self-centeredness, so be it. That's the cost of discipleship, isn't it? Alban our native British saint can inspire us to make the generous, unselfish choice. 

In this spirit, "Christians for Europe" will stop posting at 12 noon tomorrow. After that, we could get on with the day job, cook a nice dinner, go for a walk, play football, read a novel, watch a movie... anything to give our over-stimulated brains a rest for a while. Maybe even take a nap - therd could be a long night ahead. 

Oh, and it goes without saying: reflect quietly, think carefully and say our prayers. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Everyone's death diminishes us, but tragedy changes things

What can I say in the aftermath of Jo Cox's shocking murder? What language can we borrow when an MP is assassinated doing what she loved - serving her constituents and seeking the welfare of her  Yorkshire community and the community of suffering people across the world? There's a real sense in which she "laid down her life for her friends". She died because she was an elected member of Parliament. Her death was an act of witness to the values she cherished. A vocation to public office carries risks. She gave herself to her role and paid a terrible price. 

Jo's sister has told us that when they were children, "all Jo wanted was for everyone to be happy". She made this her life's work. People who knew her have written tributes that it's been extraordinarily moving to read. Most of us never met her, yet it seems oddly natural to be calling her by her Christian name. We feel as if she was somehow our own elected representative, even our friend. We wish we had known her and seen for ourselves the spirit of this remarkable woman: her passion for justice; her longing to make the world a more peaceful, happier place; her fiery love for humanity especially its weak and voiceless members in distant lands and on her own doorstep. If we had problems, we could imagine taking them to her surgery and she would have listened, understood. She would have cared and helped. And what fun we'd have had with her as her guest at the kitchen table with her family, sharing bowls of pasta and salad washed down with good wine, stimulating conversation, political anecdote and I'm sure uproarious laughter.

Why do we feel this way? Not because we want to write hagiography, though it's easy to canonise people we admire, especially when their lives are dramatically cut short. We're especially prone to hagiography when they died precisely on account of their vocation to a noble task. Something of that sort did shine out of Jo's life. But if I've read her correctly, she'd have been horrified at the idea of anyone rhapsodising in stained glass window language about her. I think she'd have been baffled by the degree of worldwide attention that's been given to her death. She'd have said: this isn't about me. Think about the people I care about and do everything you can for them. 

And that's the point. Anyone less prone than Jo to status-anxiety or self-importance it's hard to imagine. She was one of the world's spontaneously generous people. What we are drawn to in people like her is not - or not only - their heroic qualities, the achievements that mark them out as extraordinary. It's that these very qualities were allied to her sheer human ordinariness, indeed, seemed to flow directly out of it. It's unbearably poignant to learn about her devotion to her husband Brendan and their children, her happy temperament and love of life, her gift for home-making, hospitality and friendship. For most of us who live in intimacy with someone else, vocation is famously the third partner in bed with us. Not so with Jo. She seemed to practise a kind of stabilitas that was immensely life-affirming.

I need to tread carefully here. John Donne's time-honoured words tell us that "every man's death diminishes me". If we didn't know this before, we know it now. When death is "wrong", whether it's murder, accident, premature illness or armed conflict, it affects us. When it suddenly ambushes a man or woman who in some way stands for us, it is symbolically happening to us too. When that person is young and at the top of their game, has everything to live for, and is living such an exemplary, courageous and fulfilled life, it diminishes us more than ever. Who among us with any shred of human feeling has not wept for the senseless waste and cruelty of Jo's being taken from us? Even as I write, I am feeling it all afresh. Why ever did God allow this? Can God himself even answer that question?

The temptation for most of us in the shock of grief is to be angry, bitter and vengeful. What a wonderful example is being set by Jo's widowed Brendan in his loss. He speaks about honouring Jo by carrying on doing what she would have wanted and gave her life to, trying to roll back the tides of hatred that threaten to engulf our world. Inspired by this remarkable couple, I want to say that this senseless act of violence is very much not just a terrible waste, though in the rawness of our emotional response right now, that is precisely what it is. But we know from our own experience of the death of those we love that their memory goes on touching our lives. They live on in us and we are better people because of them. 

Jo's death has released a huge outpouring of admiration, gratitude and affection. This includes people who energetically disagreed with her views on such big issues as refugees, the EU, poverty, sanctions, immigration or human rights. But death transcends our differences. It's the great leveller that strips away pretence and illusion so that we have to focus on what we have left: our common humanity. Wealth, privilege, status and power count for nothing in the face of death, only what has been of lasting value in our lives. It is necessary that death should "diminish" us if only because it pulls us back to what really matters: that we should live not for ourselves but for the others who have a claim on us. Her death shows us the unselfconscious beauty of this way of being a human being. And the best thing about Jo seems to have been her native simplicity. It all seemed as natural as a bloom emerging to full flower. I imagine it wasn't: achievements like hers are always hard-won over a lifetime. Nevertheless it's precious gift to be able to live in the way she did. We honour it and admire her all the more because of it. 

This isn't a Princess Diana moment - the collective grief we feel seems more earthed in reality than that. Perhaps Jo's Yorkshire grit is helping us to get things in perspective. It's too early to say whether something in our politics and in the habits of public life may be shifting. Could the discourse of politicians, journalists, campaigners, everyone with influence over others (even preachers!) be touched by her death? Could we become less cynical and compromised, more respectful, compassionate and humane? Could our motives and aspirations be purified a little? Many have posed these questions in the last few days. Tragedy can have the effect of cleansing our vision so that we see and act in new ways. Perhaps Jo's death can help us to be more serious about life, find more fulfilment in our work, put laughter, joy and generosity back into our relationships. The spirit in which we engage in the final days of the EU referendum campaign, so febrile and bad-tempered up to now, may give us a clue about how Jo's death has changed things. 

As a Christian, my faith is founded on another death. That death too was the cruel waste of an even younger life in which so much promise was never to be fulfilled. "Those whom the gods love die young" wrote Herodotus of soldiers who perished in war. "The unfinisheds are among the most beautiful of symphonies" said Viktor Frankl, writing about the millions of victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The extent to which we are diminished by a tragic death is itself a tribute to the value of the life that has been lost. But faith goes on to say: in that death we remember every Good Friday lie the seeds of transfiguration, of resurrection and of eternal life. "Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain" we sing at Easter. 

What might Jo have become with so much yet to bring to us! How might she have brought her own happiness to make a difference to our fractured world? To murder such a good person makes no sense. We feel the heartbreak at the heart of things. But we cherish the memory of a rich and rewarding life that will not lose its capacity to inspire. Perhaps we can dare to hope that some redemption might come to our nation's broken sense of self as a result of this shameful deed and a life that was sacrificed. Faith wants to believe that it's possible. 

But this much we can say for certain. She will keep the flame of hope alive for that better world she fought for so well. She restores our belief in humanity at its very best.  Grief and gratitude walk hand in hand.  Ave atque vale.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Immigration: a view on the ward

We've been in London for a while to be with a close elderly relative who was suddenly taken into hospital. This was not where we had planned to be during June, but it was of course right to be here at this testing time for her and for the family.

But being in London for a couple of weeks has given me the unexpected chance to reconnect with my home city. I've thought of myself as a North-Easterner for many years because it's where we have lived for much of our working life, and it's where we have chosen to make our permanent home. God willing, we hope one day to die there. But I'm a Londoner by origin and you can never take London out of a Londoner. And as Dr Johnson famously said, when you are tired of London, you are tired of life.

I didn't need to be reminded that London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But it's one thing to know it, quite another to experience it from the inside. Maybe it doesn't strike Londoners as worth remarking on any more: they (by which I mean those who live and work here) are simply used to hearing every language under the sun spoken on the bus and tube, in city street and corner shop, in the workplace, school and church and across th garden fence. 

But although I've frequently come back to London throughout my life, I don't think I've been exposed to it in quite this way before. And this cosmopolitan diversity has struck me forcibly this month, not least in the hospital we've been visiting. True there were plenty of immigrants in the 1950s and 60s too - not only people from Commonwealth countries but also Europeans like the German-Jewish war refugees who had settled in north London where I lived. My mother's family belonged to this community, as I've written before, and it was perfectly normal for British children brought up in that milieu to be bilingual. I was lucky enough to be one of them until I stopped speaking German the day I started school. I suppose I must have felt in an obscure way that it didn't do to speak German in public less than a decade after the end of the war. But I soon regretted losing my fluency in that language, one of the things I hope I may put right again in retirement.

What's remarkable is not the prominence of immigrant communities in a great city. Having lived and worked in Coventry and Sheffield for several years, both highly diverse vibrant cities and proud of it, it was strange to find myself in the more monochrome (i.e. "whiter" Anglo-Saxon) environment that I found when we went back to North East England, even if the strongly internationally-minded University of Durham partly made up for it. No, it's the sheer "reach" of geographical, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity that now characterises London. It has become home to every race and culture on the planet, a market place of global possibilities and opportunities. 

And yet, as someone whose provenance this great city is, I still recognise it as "my" place. That's not about loving it - I think part of me fell out of love with the blandness of suburbia's net curtains and privet (though that's changed too now, much for the better) and with the over-stimulation and hectic pace of big-city life. Gridlocked in London traffic on the top deck of a bus that is going nowhere I could lose the will to live. Instead we have opted for the more tranquil lifestyle of the rural north and its warm, genuine communities that have made us so welcome there. Well - no doubt personal temperament comes into things. Millions of people wouldn't live anywhere else but London, and why should they if they love it here? It's one of the world's great cities.

No, what I mean when I say that I still "recognise" it is that rather to my surprise, the "soul" of London does not seem to me to have changed vastly as a result of the huge transformations that have altered almost every aspect of its visible face. (I realise as I write this that some my not feel the same way.) This is still the UK's proud capital city. There is a familiarity about walking the streets and parks, visiting churches and museums, travelling by public transport. You may not understand what the people around you are saying to one another (and sometimes to you!) or speaking into their mobile phones. But to me at least, far from feeling alienating, it is all just part of the unending and marvellous variety of London life. London has always been that way. Cities should be places for all people to belong to. London is spectacularly successful in this respect.

Back to the hospital ward. My relative is being cared for by an excellent team of NHS professionals for whom nothing is too much trouble. Very few of them are native Brits. Some are from other EU countries, though the majority on her ward at least seem to come from outside Europe. In the febrile atmosphere of the EU referendum campaign, it doesn't do to ask too many personal questions about how many are EU migrant workers, or have permanent residence, or are naturalised UK citizens. In an important way, that isn't the point. What impresses me is how this team of men and women, working so well together, exercising such good care of their patients, are a harmonious microcosm of an incredibly diverse world. 

The other day I spoke to the ward housekeeper who is from Latin America. She has lived in the UK for many years and one of her children was born here. She is a warm, kind woman who loves what she does. She has a strong Latino accent, a wry sense of humour, a bent for philosophy, and well developed political antennae. We spoke about the EU referendum. She hadn't made up her mind which way to vote, though the consequences not only for herself as an immigrant but for the NHS that she cared deeply about were weighing heavily in her thinking. 

I came away thinking: what a gift such a person is to our health service and to our country. Wherever would the NHS be without many thousands of such good people? Where would our local authorities and social services, our schools, businesses and transport be? Immigration is good for a nation. It's a sign of how attractive our country is, and indeed, how flourishing not just economically but in a hundred other ways that help people flourish. We should be proud that so many want to come to the UK. And proud of the success London and other cities have made of creating wholesome international communities that embrace diversity as one of God's gifts to humanity. 

And how much we have to learn from those who make their home among us! They give us the chance to have our horizons stretched, to travel across the globe in mind and imagination to hear other perspectives and gain fresh insights. "If you never travel, you think mother is the only cook" goes a Bantu proverb. What's more, I'm finding that London is a friendlier city than I remember it being half a century ago. Is this thanks to those who have come from other lands to live and work in our country? I wouldn't be surprised.  

The much admired Jo Cox MP, so terribly murdered this week, said in her maiden speech in Parliament last year: "Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."

Of course we can turn our back on them and go on living in the nostalgic fantasy-world we islanders are prone to. But it isn't real life. And to turn our back on our fellow human beings is fundamentally an act of self-hatred. So open your eyes to the teeming life of this great city and see the rainbow world as it really is. This is the London, indeed the Europe of today and tomorrow. Embrace it. Welcome it. Love it. For God's sake, who so loved the world. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

Which Way Will It Go? The Fears of a Remainer

Just over a week to go and I admit it: I am despondent about the Referendum. I wish I could feel more confident that the UK will vote to stay on the path of togetherness, integration and community-mindedness as a leading member of the European Union. I wish I could believe that British people are too sensible to fall for the nostalgic but dangerous illusion that we can go it alone in the modern world. I wish I could believe that if nothing else persuaded us, at least enlightened self-interest would prompt us into voting Remain.

However, I have a real fear of what we shall wake up to on the morning of St John the Baptist's Day. "We are 10 days away from making a terrible mistake" writes Matthew d'Ancona in The Guardian. He is right. We are walking on the edge of a cliff. Just a gentle nudge in the wrong direction will be enough to send us over. It could be thanks to the laughing buffoonery of a blond politician, the fluent syllogisms of a lawyer attired in a robe of high office, or the sweet reasonableness of a quiet man who never raises his voice. Just turn and look at the view, they entice us. Get a little closer so you can peer over the edge and take in how sublime the prospect is. Go on. See for yourself. It's beautiful. It's noble. It's to be desired. It's where your destiny lies. Surely it's worth the leap into the lovely fresh, clean, infinitely spacious air!

You'll have picked up the allusions to the Garden of Eden and the gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness. My point is that temptation, or "testing" to put it more accurately, rarely comes as a binary choice to do the wrong thing as opposed to what is self-evidently right. In both those biblical narratives, discerning right and wrong, good and evil, better and worse was a matter of considerable subtlety. That bears out our human experience of making choices. It's usually pretty hard, and what is obvious with hindsight is often opaque at the time. We always wish it could be simpler. 

How much more difficult it is when it comes to collective political decisions. How do we really know what's for the good when it comes to putting a cross in one of those two boxes in a few days' time? Richard Dawkins, with whom I don't always agree, said recently that he was appalled to be given the responsibility of making this decision about the EU. He said in effect: I am a professional in my field. I don't expect the public to have the grasp of the immense complexities of biological science. Why should the Government expect me, a lay citizen, to understand the immense complexities of political science? That's what we elect MPs for. How on earth can I cast my vote for or against the EU on the basis of real knowledge and understanding?

Yet that's precisely what most of us think we do know. The lack of self-doubt in the increasingly shrill rhetoric of this campaign is breathtaking. (For all I know, I may have contributed to it myself.) I've tried to listen to and learn from the arguments of serious Brexiters I respect like Giles Fraser, Gisela Stuart and Frank Field. I've been listening to IDS on the radio and he sounds plausible. But I've never seriously wavered in my belief that we should stay in the European Union. It's gone beyond the marshalling of facts and the logic of arguments. It feels more like an article of faith, just as my being British and belonging to the political union we call the United Kingdom does. And yes, my Christian Faith does have a lot to do with it, as well as my personal history and identity. I've written about all these things in a score of earlier blogs on this site. 

But if that's how it feels to me, that's also how it will feel to millions of other people on both sides of the debate. There is a quasi-religious fervour that permeates a lot of the discourse at the moment. I can see that it's dangerous for any of us to be intoxicated by our own arguments, whether we are conviction Europhiles or conviction Brexiters. I want humbly to say that I hope I could be persuaded that I'm wrong. Oliver Cromwell's words often haunt me in this as in other dilemmas I face: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you could be mistaken".  

The social psychology of decision-making comes into things of course. The views we hold have a lot to do with the company we keep. What do our families, friends, work colleagues, organisations we belong to, say about it? Or the newspapers we read, or our social media contacts? So yes, I'm comforted that all the Primates of all four British Anglican provinces have declared for Remain, so that while the churches themselves have maintained a neutral stance, their leaders have made their personal positions clear. The same goes for the vast majority of economists, health professionals, academics, educators, scientists, artists.... The list goes on and on. It could be group-think on a massive scale. But if I have learned to trust these voices in other departments of life, why would I not trust them now? 

That's all very well. I've no doubt at all that the intellectual argument has been won by Remain. The case for EU membership rests on many different premises, all of them by now stress-tested ad nauseam. But they are not winning the Referendum - that's clear too. I'd expected StrongerIn to be well ahead in the opinion polls by now. But that's not happening. If anything, the trend is in the other direction. You'd have thought the electorate would have seen through the falsehoods, discredited numbers, political naïveté, thinly disguised racism (let's kindly call it xenophobia for now) and sheer illogic demonstrated by some of the loudest Brexit campaigners. 

Which says to me: our relationship with the EU is not going to be decided by cogent argument and unassailable facts. It's much more a matter of visceral feeling, of an unacknowledged atavistic national attitude that has long sought the light of day. In the UK's collective unconscious, the "idea" of Europe is not a powerfully motivating factor as it is in some other countries. I'm one of those who thinks of myself as "European" and would gladly say so on formal application forms if it were an option. But I'm in a minority. It's nationhood that is seen as the primary claim on our loyalty. And given Leavers' worries about sovereignty, immigration, security and patrolling our borders, it may just lose us the Referendum.

Nil desperandum! There is still time for the tide to change. The public mood can still shift. But while we hope and pray for the best, we must prepare for the worst. If we Remainers have to face our own Project Fear on the day after the Referendum, let us at least plan to maintain an outward-looking global perspective and help our nation not to lose its historic identity in a narrow and ultimately fatal insularity. Come what may, we shall continue to be good Europeans. We shall help build societies where we are kind to strangers and embrace people who are different from us. We shall do all we can to save our planet for our children's children. We shall go on showing solidarity with the poor and the needy, and seeking the welfare not just of our own selves but of all humanity. 

This is what it means to love our neighbour. It's why we believed in the European Union in the first place. It's why I shall vote Remain with all the conviction I can muster.