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.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

In Memoriam: Bob Jeffery, Priest, Mentor, Friend

There are just a few people in our adult lifetimes who have had a direct and profound influence on us. I think of five who, when I was still plausibly a young man, helped form me as a Christian, a priest and a human being. The part they played in shaping my mind, my spirituality and my ministry has been immense. The debt I owe them all is incalculable. Only one of them is still alive.

The four others were all priests. The last of these great souls died just before Christmas, Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery.** To us, he was simply "Bob". Our paths crossed quite by chance if there is such a thing. In 1974, I completed my theological training and got married. We moved back to Oxford where I was beginning postgraduate research. Looking for a place to live, we stumbled across a little detached house in Headington not far from the Oxford by-pass. The rent was absurdly low. It belonged to an academic (a theologian as it happened) who lived abroad and was looking for suitable tenants to keep the house warm for her. So Lyndworth Close became our first married home.

The bishop had decided that my getting married and being ordained in the same summer was too much. So we looked for a church to attend. By great good fortune, the incumbent of our parish church in Old Headington was one Bob Jeffery. So we started going there, and never looked back. I was ordained beneath the Norman chancel arch of that church the following year and served as a non-stipendiary curate in the Cowley Deanery of which Bob was the Rural Dean.

I said we never looked back. (Maybe I'd better revert to the first person singular and let my wife speak for herself if she wants to.)  Our time at St Andrew's Headington was a bigger watershed than it may sound. For the previous decade I had been immersed in the conservative evangelicalism of my school and college Christian Union. I owe a great deal to that experience, thanks to which I came to a consciously articulated Christian faith. I trained at an evangelical theological college. I assumed that I would minister for life in that Reformed tradition, never dreaming that I could inhabit any other way of being Christian.

Bob opened up that "other way". He did not set out to influence me or change me. He was a genuine liberal catholic (as he described himself then - we would call him an affirming catholic nowadays), with an outlook that was generous enough to believe in giving people space to develop and grow in their God-given way. The liturgy was very different from what I was used to. St Andrew's had an Anglo-Catholic history so the ceremonial seemed colourful and "advanced" by my austere protestant criteria. But to Bob, the human face of the church service was no less important than the liturgy. He believed that the church should present an intelligent, properly informed Christianity that belonged to the contemporary world. His sermons were always theological but in no way academic: his gospel exemplified an applied, pastoral wisdom. It mattered to him that the church should speak into human life in all its complexity and face outwards in mission and the pursuit of justice in society.  

It did not take long to feel at home there. Bob and Ruth made us welcome in their grand old vicarage. There was never any pretence at formality: Bob famously didn't care much about his appearance, and if he had, his four lively fun-loving young children would soon have pricked any bubble of self-importance. Indeed, I never knew anyone who was less self-important or concerned about looking the part and conforming to expectations. He was comfortable in his own skin. That by itself taught me a great deal.

I had so much to learn about ministry, about life, about myself. Bob and the parish were great tutors. I think he was somewhat bemused by my conservative theology, and we had endless conversations about what it meant to take the Bible seriously. "I'm a radical biblical man" he said to me early on, by which he meant that for him the scriptures were as central as they were to any evangelical, but it all depended on how we read and interpreted the text. Gradually, I became weaned off biblical inerrancy and the conservative theology I'd inhabited for a decade. Bob told me not to worry about ceremonial and eucharistic vestments: they were adiaphora he said, not of ultimate importance. If I preferred not to wear them, that was ok by him. Needless to say, because I did not feel under pressure, it was no time at all before I asked him to show me how to wear the alb, stole and chasuble and how to lay them out in the sacristy.

Without, I think, being aware of it, he taught me about "the beauty of holiness" and the genius of the English Church in exemplifying it. He suggested I might like to have a copy of Percy Dearmer's The Parson's Handbook, the classic manual of liturgical practice as seventeenth century Anglicanism had construed it. When I was ordained priest, he gave me Wagner's Parsifal in a boxed set of five LPs with an image of a beautiful medieval chalice on the front. That chalice crystallised for me the realisation that I had embraced sacramentalism and was becoming catholic in my outlook. Something had shifted inside me, irrevocably.

Books were a frequent topic of conversation. Bob would throw literature at me across his study, enthusing about this or that writer. Thanks to him, I started to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Gregor-Smith and JΓΌrgen Moltmann (though he wasn't sure whether Moltmann would endure). He put me on to the French post-Reformation spiritual writers: Jean Pierre de Caussade was his favourite ("why have so few clergy ever heard of him?" he grumbled, pretending not to know that I was one of them). He told me to meditate on his Self Abandonment to Divine Providence on my retreat before being ordained priest. He insisted that I read Roland Allen's book Missionary Methods - St Paul's or Ours? "You want to know how to preach?" he asked one day (surely a slanted comment on my pulpit performance to date). "Read the sermons of Austin Farrer." I did, and tried to learn how to be profound and concise at the same time.

Stephen Platten, who went on become Bishop of Wakefield, came to Headington as curate during the same year as me. The three of us met each week for a staff meeting and got on famously. There was a lot of laughter. Bob seemed to know, or know about, everyone in the C of E and would regale us with the latest ecclesiastical gossip. "Lots of problems there" he would declare about clergy who, shall we say, had got into difficulty. But soon the meeting turned to theology, ethics, biblical interpretation or whatever else had struck any of us during the preceding week. After about two hours of energetic discussion and the consumption of much coffee, he would rein us in and tell us it was time to turn our minds to  the parish.

And here his thoroughgoing pastoral-theological outlook came to the fore. He took trouble to get to know the parish well - and by "parish" he meant not only or even primarily the worshipping congregation but the entire geography for which, as a C of E incumbent, he had the cure of souls. He taught me that the occasional offices - baptisms, weddings and funerals - were not a distraction from the parish priest's role but lay at the heart of it, how these pastoral encounters were crucially important to people at the key moments of their lives. He taught me to get to know the institutions of the parish such as the schools, hospitals and businesses. He taught me to be conscientious about visiting people in their homes, but always with a clear purpose in mind. He taught me to cultivate what he called "scarcity value" - to be visible without being spending too long in any one place. When I became an incumbent a few years later, and after that a cathedral priest, I realised how much I owed to Bob's way of doing things.

Bob's kindness continued after we left Oxford. He had a gift for friendship that was lifelong. He came to all my own "rites of passage", the celebrations each new phase of my ministry as a parish priest, cathedral canon and then as dean, first in Sheffield and then Durham. He said he would always be on the end of a phone if I needed help or advice, and it was hugely reassuring to know that he was there. He was especially pleased that I was appointed to Durham because he had been ordained in the Cathedral himself and had served as a curate in a densely urban parish in Sunderland. "All the best clergy have served in the North East" he said when we went to Alnwick in 1982. In 2011, he asked if he could celebrate the golden jubilee of his ordination as a priest in Durham Cathedral. Typically, he did not want to take a leading part in the liturgy. He asked Stephen to preside and me to preach. It was a beautiful occasion, full of warmth, friendship and good memories. The only sadness was that Ruth was not there to celebrate with us. She had died suddenly some years earlier, and we all knew what a loss she was to Bob, to their children and to all of us who knew her.

And now, Bob has gone to join her. We saw him last year when I was invited to go back to St Andrew's to preach. He was ill, and he knew that it was serious. But even in his discomfort he was his usual self: warm, wry, lively, intellectually alert, bemused at the latest church goings on, worried about the worsening state of the world and how faith was struggling to speak wisely into it. He talked about what he called the "end game" - his own. He told us he had planned his funeral at Christ Church Oxford where he had been Sub Dean. Later on, there would be a memorial service in Worcester Cathedral where he had been Dean. He wanted me to preach at it. I was moved to be asked. It hasn't taken place yet. I know that this will be one of those sermons that calls for the very best of me. I am wondering how I can do justice to Bob. Perhaps when you owe the kind of debt to someone you loved as I do, the words will come naturally.

One of Bob's lasting legacies is his recently published translation of Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (the Penguin Classics edition). He had always loved this work and been influenced by it, though in his understated way he never spoke very much about his own spirituality, at least not to me. I guess that what we look for in our mentors and guides are those we can not only admire but imitate. And perhaps the people who have helped us most are those who have practised a lifetime of imitation themselves. I mean of course, the imitation of Christ who is their and our divine Exemplar and - why not put it like this? - our best and truest Mentor. I think Bob's translation of The Imitation tells us what mattered most to him in his long and productive life. 

I write as one of many who are more thankful than we can say to have known him. May he rest in peace.

**You can read a formal obituary here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The General Synod and Same Sex Relationships

The day after the Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships came out, I wrote a blog about it. Many others have done the same, and there is now a useful collection of resources on the Thinking Anglicans website. I hope members of the General Synod will study them as they prepare for the "take note" debate on Wednesday.

Yesterday, I listened to Bishops Stephen Cottrell and Peter Selby on Radio 4 talking about the report "This is not the report I would have written" said Stephen Cottrell. "We want to hear what is really going on in the House of Bishops" said Peter Selby (I'm quoting both from memory but you can check by going to the Sunday Programme on the BBC Radio iPlayer). This followed the letter from fourteen retired bishops, of whom Peter Selby is one, expressing serious concerns about the report and what the Synod is being asked to do with it.

A Take Note debate is supposed to be a neutral discussion that paves the way for the matter in hand to be worked up more rigorously for formal debate and decision later on. So what the Synod is being asked to do is to pursue the exploration of marriage and same sex relationships along the general lines indicated in the Bishops' report. Often, Take Note debates don't need to be voted on since the Synod is not committing itself to any particular action, simply to go on talking. The report says that "it is worth recalling that voting to ‘take note’ of a report such as this does not ... commit Synod members to the acceptance of any matter contained within it."

But the Bishops express a clear aspiration for this week's consideration of their report. "The House nevertheless hopes that through the group discussions and the Take Note debate, the General Synod as a whole may be able to: (1) understand the approach being advocated by the House of Bishops and some of the reasoning behind it; (2) comment on that approach, while recognising that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church; and (3) contribute to consideration of key elements of it.

If I were a member of the General Synod, what would I do? (Thankfully, my Synod days are over, but I'm trying to feel for those who are still bearing the burden and the heat of their day in governance.)

My instinct would be to listen as carefully as possible to the debate. I would find that hard, because as I've already blogged, I have such grave misgivings about the report that I wonder how my mind could be changed. But that's the whole point of a debate. The purpose of rhetoric (which preachers practise every week in the pulpit, though they may not think of it in this way) is to persuade your listeners to your way of thinking, to open minds and hearts to new perspectives. It's a fundamental principle of democracy that we believe in this way of doing business. I should expect minds to be changed, including my own. It's perfectly possible to go into a debate with a burning conviction about the truth and justice of your cause, but still be attentive to those who see things differently. So when the Bishops ask us to "understand" their approach, we must do them the justice of listening carefully. It's a matter of Christian courtesy.

But what if the Synod decided after all not to "take note"? Would it be a disaster? I don't think so. Here's why.

First, it would require the House of Bishops to revisit their thinking about gay relationships in the church in a more searching way than the report does. This would certainly be hard and challenging. But I believe that far from damaging the credibility of the Church of England's leadership, it could actually affirm it by enabling the Bishops to say, in effect, "look, we didn't get this quite right. We acted out of good motives and had the best interests of the church at heart, but we now see that our approach hasn't commanded assent. So we are glad to be sent back to the drawing board and look at it again." Leaders are respected when they are big enough and wise enough to think it possible that they were mistaken.

Secondly, it would allow Bishops like Stephen Cottrell who say that this is not the report they would have written to elaborate their dissent more openly and tell us what they really think about how the church welcomes and affirms LGBT people, both laity and clergy. Indeed, I hope that this may happen in the Synod debate anyway. As I said in my blog, it was heartening that the report did not claim that the Bishops spoke with a single voice. I asked whether there might be a minority report from Bishops who took a different view because we need to overhear the debate that is going on among the church's senior leadership, and contribute to it as Peter Selby said. These are highly complex theological and ethical, not to say emotive, matters. To open up the episcopal debate would, I think, offer perspectives that would help those of us who are disquieted to put the report into context.

Thirdly, it would affirm the role of the General Synod in the Church of England. There's a phrase in the Bishops' report, quoted above, that concerns me. They invite the Synod to comment on their approach while recognising that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church. Up to a point. But only up to a point. For you can't separate doctrine from praxis. And this report is very much about the praxis of church discipline: do we or don't we permit non-celibate gay people to be ordained? Do we or don't we celebrate same-sex marriage or bless such marriages and civil partnerships in church? The answers we give these questions express a theology. Lex orandi, lex credendi. And it is precisely Synod's job as the CofE's governing body and legislature to determine these legal questions that embody its doctrine of marriage and sexuality. So if the Synod pushed back and did not take note of the report, it would remind the Church of England where its governance belongs.

And isn't it good when the Synod does theology-through-governance and respects the sensus fidelium that belongs not just to Bishops but to all the baptised whom the Synod represents? But this kind of theological discernment always comes down to good listening, not just to speeches but to the voice of conscience. Especially to that still small voice. To do this well is to undertake serious spiritual work. So (without a trace of envy), I wish the members of Synod good listening this week. And the promise of my prayers.

Friday, 10 February 2017

A Syrian Ready to Perish: a plea to the Prime Minister

I've tweeted an open letter to the Prime Minister in 138 characters. Here it is:

@ I beg you, as a Christian, remember the . Please reinstate our promise to care for 3000 child refugees.

I don't need to explain the background. This week the Government quietly announced that it was closing the "Dubs Amendment" Scheme under which the UK had undertaken to welcome lone child refugees from camps on the European mainland. Lord Dubs had suggested a figure of around three thousand refugees. The UK has to date received 350.

If anyone thought that with headlines about Brexit and President Trump, it was a week to bury bad news, they were mistaken. There has been an outcry from people of every political persuasion (or almost every - perhaps someone will tell me if UKIP has associated itself with this chorus of protest). At one level, there is something very un-British about going back on your word - which is what we all assumed it to be. In particular, refugee children who are hiding where the Calais Jungle used to be had their hopes raised and then cruelly dashed. It was heartbreaking to read about some of them in The Guardian recently.

My tweet appealed to Mrs May on two grounds: her memory and her religious principles.

Remember the Kindertransport is an invitation to recall how Britain responded the last time there was a refugee crisis in Europe on this scale. This was in the late 1930s when the scale of Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and central Europe was at last recognised for what it was. Lord Dubs was himself rescued as a six-year old Jewish boy in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1939 he boarded one of the famous "Winton Trains" which, thanks to the late Nicholas Winton, brought Czech refugees from almost certain death to safety and a new life in Britain. Thanks to the Kindertransport, ten thousand Jewish children were saved from the death camps and came here to the UK. They had their lives and futures given back to them. It is forever to Britain's credit that our country offered asylum to these youngsters.

I've blogged before about my own family's history, how my Jewish mother, then a teenager in northern Germany, was rescued from the Nazis in 1937 and made her home here in Britain. So I owe everything to this country's act of generosity to people who were desperate. If it were not for that, I wouldn't be here. I am sure the Prime Minister is as proud of that courageous decision as I am thankful for it. In the light of it, three thousand of the world's most helpless, vulnerable children does not seem a lot to ask of a nation that is so privileged. So I am begging Mrs May to reverse this week's announcement, and for the sake of being true to a history of British compassion in the face of need, do the right thing.

What is that "right thing"? This is where Mrs May's religious principles come in. As is well known, she is a committed Christian woman who attends her local church whenever she can. (I'm not going to invoke her upbringing as a daughter of the vicarage - it's her living faith I'm interested in today.) So I've appealed to her "as a Christian". Because the Judaeo-Christian scriptures are full of injunctions to care for the people who most need help - the destitute, the desperate, the economically dependent such as orphans and widows, and most strikingly, those whom the texts call the strangers who are in our midst. Add to that Jesus' impossible requirement that we should love our enemy and we see how exacting it is to live out of this faith tradition.

Where does this ethic of universal compassion come from? It's derived from the nature of God himself. A noble passage one of the books of the Torah tells us that "the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves strangers, providing them with food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10.17-18). So while Israel is the particular people of the covenant that is given the teaching we call Torah, Yahweh's concern and care are nothing short of universal. This is the essence of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a perversion of them to narrow the scope of God's mercy in any way.

But the Torah's appeal to care for the "stranger" is not grounded only in the character of Yahweh. The appeal is also to Israel's own history. "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" the passage in Deuteronomy goes on to say. In other words, if you won't show kindness out of imitation of the God you worship, at least show it for the sake of being true to your own memory of having been aliens yourselves. "A Syrian ready to perish was my father" is how the King James version of the Bible translates a saying later on in the same book (Deuteronomy 26.5), "a wandering Aramean" says the contemporary translation. Imagine it - the people of God were born of a Syrian parent! We can't escape the resonances for our own time when we read those words.  Mrs May must have heard them in church hundreds of times.

These two appeals to memory and to religious faith are combined in another book of the Torah: "You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19.34). It's extraordinary to see how in the Hebrew Bible, showing compassion is not, or not only, a matter of duty. It springs out of love. Indeed, to care for the refugee or resident alien is "just" a special case of the universal command found in the same chapter of Leviticus, that we must "love your neighbour as yourself". People sometimes imagine that when Jesus commanded this in the Sermon on the Mount, he was announcing some dramatic new insight into what God requires of us. It's true he filled out these words in ways that no doubt arrested his hearers. But the words themselves come directly from the Hebrew Scriptures. It's an inescapable requirement of our faith. We may wish the Bible didn't make it quite so explicit. But I'm afraid it does.

Who am I to remind Mrs May of all this? I'm sure she knows it better than any of us. Hence my appeal to her Christianity as well as her memory. But the comma in my tweet is meant to be a trifle ambiguous. I beg you, as a Christian, remember the . In other words, I who am doing the begging am a Christian too. It's the Christian faith we hold in common and rejoice to affirm together that ought to make this conversation possible. But in a crisis, my Christianity is under scrutiny just as yours is.  How we respond to the most vulnerable people in the world tests us all in demanding ways. Part of that scrutiny is to shine a light on our biblical interpretation and social theology. The Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders have recognised this by registering their dismay at the Government's decision to resile from the Dubs Amendment. 

I tweeted yesterday that to turn back on our promise would be unBritish, unEuropean, inhumane and unChristian. So in the name of this nation's history, and in the name of the compassion that the great world faiths inspire us to show, I reiterate my plea to Mrs May. Please will you show principled leadership and reconsider? Please will you reinstate this country's commitment to do what it promised? Please will you enable our nation to act with big-heartedness and integrity and do what we can to help at a time of such great need? And maybe save Syrians, among others, "ready to perish"?